One of Evelyn Waugh’s novels gives a moving description of a clergyman who’s lost his faith: he can’t figure out why there is something rather than nothing. If he could only get a sure answer to that question, everything else would fall into place naturally: creation, the Fall, the redemption, the Church of England, and so on–but none of that matters if he can’t figure out why everything began in the first place.
There are times when I am overwhelmed enough by the suffering of the world that the usual apologetics don’t work for me. Like the clergyman, what I need is a very basic reassurance that a good God exists. Once that is resolved, everything else eventually follows.
When I was younger, the traditional proof from creation was enough: there must be an ultimate principle of Goodness from which our consciences, and all that is beautiful in the world, draw their goodness. But, as C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity,
If we used [the created world] as our only clue, then I think we should have to conclude that [God]was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place). (Book I, Chapter 5, p.37)
If we rely solely on the goodness of the world for our proof of God, then atheists can counter with their proof from the evil of the world. And besides, there is a certain point of darkness or depression in which the beauty of the world seems like more of a mockery or a great deceit than a reassurance. I remember one time, during a study abroad semester in Rome, when I was literally surrounded with every kind of beauty–weather, nature, art, architecture–but I still had trouble thinking of a reason to take the next step up the stairs. When your interior world is plunged into darkness, the outside world has nothing to say to you.
Here is my first aid prayer for this situation: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) These are the words the apostles used to explain their faithfulness to Jesus, even when the “hard saying” of the Eucharist caused others to turn away. My wise mother once pointed out that this is sometimes the only response we can manage when God’s will seems completely incomprehensible. We can’t understand it, but what’s the alternative? Would you rather believe in a world where every bit of goodness and beauty was actually meaningless? I wouldn’t.
This doesn’t leave us with a lot of comfort; but it does provide the first step out of desperation. The world and God’s plan for it may still seem bewildering, but now that we know there is “nowhere else to go,” we have the first principle we were looking for and we can start working on everything else.
In part 2, I want to talk about the next step: how Jesus’ love unto death is the key to interpreting all God’s promises of protection, happiness, and peace, even when everything in the world–or in your life–is consumed by suffering.