It’s The Book of Job, Charlie Brown!

Thanks to Billy Kangas over at Patheos for bringing my attention to this great strip.

If you think about it, Charlie Brown is always confronting the problem of Job.

He always suffers, and it is almost never his fault. Lucy and the football is probably the most obvious example.

At different points in our lives, however, all of us are Charlie Brown.

(And Lucy – but we may not be as willing to admit that.)

We all have bad things, sometimes really horrible things, happen to us — either through the agency of another person or through the inexplicable course of natural events.

And so we ask the question: “why?”

And usually, we are not referring to efficient causes here but to formal ones, to use Aristotle’s language.

But I’m not going to try to attempt to explain the problem of suffering here, though. It’s been attempted many times and by people far more learned and holy than me:

In order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. (Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris 13)

If you want something like that, though, check out Lewis’ The Problem of Pain for an accessible treatment from a (laymen’s) philosophical perspective, or his A Grief Observed for a much more personal approach.

Or if these do not satisfy you, or if you are rather skeptical about reading Lewis, read “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov.  Although, of course, it would be better for you to read the chapter in context (and therefore the whole book). Yet this chapter is very beautiful and very haunting. It does not really address the question in a “here’s the answer” kind of way, but it confronts the real question head-on, as Dostoevsky always does.

A taste:

“No signs from heaven come to-day / To add to what the heart doth say.”

[…]

Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”

[…]

And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. […] They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? (“The Grand Inquisitor” Chapter Five, The Brothers Karamozov)

Read here, I suppose, Liberation Theology. This was the sort of thing taught at my high school, and this is why I bothered to begin reading Church theology in the first place, to see what she actually had to say in response. Acts of charity seem cheap in comparison to “real” social change, in this view.

The problem the liberation theologians and Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor present, however, is very real. What’s the use of talking about heaven if you don’t address the hells present on earth? Or, put more simply, you must give people ordinary bread before you can offer them the bread of heaven.

Of course, this is what Jesus actually did. You see this especially clearly in the Gospel of John, where He multiplies the loaves and the fishes right before offering the Eucharistic Bread of Life discourse (John 7-6).

But therefore, the temptation to make Jesus some kind of political liberator is really quite understandable. The kingdom, in this interpretation, means bringing justice to the poor and oppressed (which is true, as far as it goes). But this interpretation also pushes the question of heaven aside, because it does not seem very relevant except as an “opiate of the people” or a rather shabby hope of future consolation. This liberation theology a la Guiterrez is yet another effort to explain the “problem of pain” or the question of Job..

But I would venture to say that this is the answer some people give who cannot quite bring themselves to encounter the mystery of Jesus’ own poverty and suffering. They would prefer to see in him some kind of political liberator, an overthrower of Roman or Pharisaical oppression. Such an image is easier to swallow than the Suffering Servant – the One who does not come to end or solve our suffering, but instead to suffer it with us.

The Inquisitor continues his cross-examination of Christ:

 And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all- Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever. Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems. (Ibid)

You see the problem?

Dostoevsky begins to push the question disturbingly far. Not only does Christ not give his people (especially the poor) bread, he also does not give them any explanation for His negligence. Rather, He chooses to leave things “exceptional, vague and enigmatic” — you cannot believe in Him without making some kind of radical, sacrificial choice or reason-bending submission. You must give yourself up.

“With a free heart [man must] decide for himself what is good and what is evil,” yet He has caused us an unbearable burden by “laying upon [us] so many cares and unanswerable problems” that most people, even those who outwardly profess to be Christians, cannot bring themselves to really embrace the offer fully.

Anyway, you should go read Dostoevsky’s chapter, and then go read the whole novel to see how Dostoevsky’s Christian character Alyosha deals with it.

Charlie Brown’s answer to suffering, of course, usually comes in the form of Linus — the resident Peanuts theologian. Yet he, too, is often mocked for his sometimes ridiculously “blind” faith. Witness The Great Pumpkin:

But in his most famous role, in the Christmas episode, Linus explains the mystery far better than usual. Charlie Brown, as usual, is upset. He is suffering. Nobody likes his Christmas tree, and everybody ridicules him for choosing it. Nobody understands the meaning of Christmas–and, as he discovers, he doesn’t quite get it, either.

And so Linus addresses Charlie Brown’s suffering by telling an old story:

 

Job, after hearing the conventional wisdom of his three friends, also hears another, perhaps more reasonable and plausible explanation of suffering, from Elihu (whose name means “He is my God”).  From a theological perspective, Elihu’s answers are pretty darn good.

But they do not satisfy Job — just as they do not satisfy anyone who has really experienced suffering and loss. God seems so far away in our suffering. The strange thing is, for many people, intense suffering does not necessarily cause them to doubt God’s existence, but rather His goodness. Their pain cries out for justice and healing, things they know they cannot experience here. But God does not respond.

Many people think that the biggest obstacle to believing in God is human suffering. Yet, from an intellectual point of view, suffering, even the suffering of the innocent, isn’t really inconsistent with what we know about a loving God. When in the last century, people said things like “after the Holocaust, it is no longer possible to believe in God,” I think their pain and horror witness to the fact that the real problem is not intellectual, but personal.

I can see how, theoretically, the Uncaused Cause may allow unspeakable suffering to occur and still be “good” in some real way. Or that, because of human free will and the corruption of all creation by sin, suffering does (and perhaps must) occur.

What is much harder to see is this: how can my Father, this God of Jesus Christ, who (they say) loves me, stand back at a distance and watch me suffer like this, right now, in this moment? Or how can He just simply watch as thousands of people in the Philippines beg and pray for His help–and then not receive it?

You see, once you have some kind of relationship with God, the problem becomes not theoretical, but personal. Just as one can imagine that a family member may (in theory) seem betray you or ignore you, although perhaps for a good reason–but when it actually happens, you are mystified and ask yourself, “why?”

The only response that really helps at all, I believe, is that God did not exempt Himself from our suffering. He becomes one of us and embraces our pain. Jesus did not offer us a philosophy that explained everything in the universe. Rather He chose to experience everything we experience in this universe–even abandonment by God.

Eventually, of course, Charlie Brown and his friends need to stop talking and just play the rest of the game.

And we, too, after reflecting and questioning and doubting, must eventually go back to the business of living. Because when suffering actually occurs, it looks very different from the inside than from the safe theoretical “outside” of the Grand Inquisitor. Those who actually suffer real horror often know God better than we, in our comfortable armchairs, do– because they are on the cross with Jesus Christ.

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2 Comments

Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Literature, Religion

2 responses to “It’s The Book of Job, Charlie Brown!

  1. I’d rather suffer at the “hands” of God than at the “hands” of evil. If God is the cause of my suffering, then I know that it is for my own good – much like a doctor who sets a broken bone. When Christ was crucified, that was like setting a broken bone – in order to initiate healing. But at the hands of evil, it is just evil – it is not for healing, but for death.

  2. Excellent article! I stumbled upon your blog, specifically this post, while doing some research for my own series I plan on doing analyzing characters from the Peanuts comic strips while looking up the topic of Charlie Brown and the book of Job.

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