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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Job, Harry Potter and misery

If there is a God, and He is even close to all-powerful, why is there suffering? (If there is a god who isn't even close to being all-powerful, he, she, or it is not God.)

That's a very good question, and theologians and philosophers have been asking it, and trying to answer, for a long time. But it's pretty clear that none of the answers are fully satisfactory to everybody. This attempt won't be, either. (I have dealt with the topic before, here, and here, among other places.)

C. S. Lewis had two good answers. One of them was in his non-fictional book, The Problem of Pain. Here it is in one sentence: "Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you will find that you have excluded life itself." The other, simpler, better answer is in his splendid novel, Till We Have Faces. The four-sentence answer there is "I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?" To me, a belief in an after-life is also an answer, but I won't say more about that here. I doubt if it's a full answer for almost anyone.

I'm sure that not everyone is satisfied with either of the answers given by Lewis. The question remains, for many.

One of the books of the Bible, Job, is about suffering. God, although sovereign, allowed Satan, the adversary, to take Job's possessions, his children, and his good health. (Satan said that, if he was allowed to do so, Job would lose his faith in God.) Job didn't like all this loss, and complained about what he didn't like for a few chapters. Other people, well-meaning, tried to tell Job that all this was his fault -- he must have done something bad. His wife told him to stop believing in God. Job refused to believe that his troubles were his fault, and he refused to stop believing in the goodness of God. But he still had a question. Why did this happen to me? In the end, God appeared to Job, and, basically, said, "Who are you to question me?" Job said, basically, "I'm sorry, you are right. Forgive me. I'll shut up." Then God restored his possessions, and he had more children. God told those who had questioned Job's righteousness to ask Job to pray for them. Satan doesn't make an appearance, after the very first part, but presumably he was seriously disappointed by Job's reaction. In many ways, the answer given Job is the same as the answer given in The Problem of Pain.

I don't know, for sure, if Job was a real character. He probably was, but I suppose that the book could be a long parable. I don't think it matters, for our purposes. The question remains -- why is there suffering, if there is a powerful and loving God?

I presume that you know enough about the Harry Potter books, by J. K. Rowling, that what I am about to say makes sense. If not, you  should read them, or at least the Wikipedia summary. (Here's one place where I have written about the books previously.)

Is J. K. Rowling a terrible person? After all, she wrote about a character, Harry Potter, who had to undergo a great deal of suffering. His parents died while he was still very small, he had to live with relatives, the Dursley's, who took advantage of him, and restricted him terribly. He went through all sorts of ordeals. Some of his best friends died. He felt that he and his two closest friends had to leave his wizard training at Hogwarts, and wander in the woods for an extended period of time, during which the three of them suffered the misery of disagreeing with one another, and doubting each other's motives. Harry's mentor, Dumbledore, died. Harry himself offered to die to save the good wizards.

Would people read these seven books, and watch the movies based on them, if Harry hadn't had to suffer? I don't think so. A life without conflict, without occasional misery, seems dull and uninteresting. (How much good news do you see on TV, or read in the newspaper, compared to scandals, natural disasters, wars, crimes, stupidity by various politicians, and other awful things? Not very much. The news organizations couldn't sell good news. We wouldn't buy it, or watch or read it.)

Rowling, to write a novel which speaks to us (or at least to some of us) included suffering, of various kinds. True, it wasn't all about suffering. In the end, Harry marries his sweetheart, and has children. He is at least on nodding terms with Draco Malfoy, who was once his bitter enemy. Voldemort and his followers are defeated. But I submit that Rowling, who had almost absolute power over the content of her books, including the plot, was not a bad person because she put many of her characters through terrible suffering. And she didn't put in characters, like Voldemort, who had, except possibly before the books start, no good characteristics, because she was not in control of what she wrote. She was.

Similarly, God is not a bad person, nor impotent, because there is misery in the world.

I know. The Harry Potter books are fiction. My life (I think) is real. So is yours. No analogy is perfect, and this one certainly isn't. But I think it helped me to write this post. Besides, I'm not so sure that the life of characters in a novel, in relationship to the author, doesn't resemble the relationship between our lives and the Creator.

Thanks for reading.


pete d said...

A better analogy might be the dysfunctional father that abuses his children to make life interesting and build character.

Is there suffering in heaven? Are the people in heaven happy?

Martin LaBar said...

Well, maybe, pete. A dysfunctional father is not all-knowing, and (I think) not loving, either.

As I understand it, there is no suffering in heaven, and people are happy, but I have no first-hand knowledge of that, and the Bible says remarkably little about life in heaven, and much of what it does say is in a book that's difficult to interpret. Yes, I take your point.


atlibertytosay said...

Great post …

I might disagree that suffering made the Harry Potter films interesting.

Certainly it made it more interesting according to our "system of storywriting" where it seems that movies and book plots are constantly trying to top one another with pain and horror.

I would say that the world of Harry Potter was interesting to me for several reasons, although I may be atypical …

1) God is hardly mentioned, although they celebrate Christmas and I believe Valentine's.

2) The magic is interesting, floating, time travel, transmutation, etc.

3) The characters are interesting and I'd say their angst over their struggles is the least of interest partly because of poor writing choices just to "not give the reader what they expected". I think this is further exasperated by the acting in the movies.

4) The creatures and twist of uses of mythical creatures is interesting.

5) The boy (Harry Potter) and his wonderment of seeing the new world he's immersed in. I think the films excelled at that in the first two installments.

6) The camaraderie amongst Harry and his friends and even his enemies.

I would argue that there didn't even need to be any real suffering in the series, but then, it wouldn't have spanned 7 books.

I think one interesting aspect to what you point out or may have indirectly pointed out is that often evil and animus people suffer and share in their pain - it usually affects the "good" in us.

We are allowed to suffer to show us that unrighteousness suffers.

Voldemort is the prime example of transferring suffering.

atlibertytosay said...

Also, concerning suffering in heaven …

Did any of the angels or Lucifer suffer at least egotistically?

I would consider jealousy/power/envy = suffering.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, atlibertytosay.

There are a couple of Bible verses in the books. The last one, I believe.

Of course we have no idea as to whether Lucifer and his angels suffered. I would guess so, though.