If I judge that a thing is true, I must preserve it. If I attempt to solve a problem, at least I must not by that very solution conjure away one of the terms of the problem. … There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something.
—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
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This piece deals with a different aspect of the theology of sexuality than the rest of this series. In the preceding posts, I’ve been dealing with the doctrinal basis for, and details of, my Side B principles (along with a little background to the discussion in general). But this piece is picking up where my last left off, which was with the question: given the apparently pointless suffering that being Side B can involve, how can God—who is supposed to be love—require it of us? How can we believe in a God who would do this to us?
I consider this a specified form of the problem of pain in general. After all, it’s loneliness and the fear of loneliness that make Side B objectionable, together with the apparent meaninglessness of that loneliness (since God could presumably have either made homosexuality innocent or spared us from enduring it). And loneliness and meaninglessness are, perhaps, two of the greatest sources of pain in all human life. So that I think we may reasonably rephrase How could God do this to us? as, How could God, who is supposed to be perfectly good, make a world full of suffering?
And it isn’t a specially gay problem, obviously. Even forgetting the rest of history, the great-grandchildren of the women and men who saw—or forged—the camps at Dachau and Treblinka and Buchenwald, the thermonuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the prisons of Lubyanka and the Gulag, the carpet-bombing of Dresden, and the Rape of Nanjing, should know something about the terrible gravity of the problem of suffering.
When I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B, which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening. It took from three to fifteen minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. … We had two S.S. doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. These would be marched by one of the doctors, who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit to work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. … Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated.1
Knowing that that happened, and that what Christians mean by God could have stopped it and didn’t, can you believe that He exists? There must be a hundred religions in the world, but the reality of suffering justifies a hundred atheisms. The man who can't see that has a cold black pit where his heart was supposed to go.
Atheism and mysticism are the only two really satisfying answers.2 I’ll explain what I mean by mysticism here a little more in a moment, but I want to emphasize this point: there can be no mere waiving of the problem. We Christians do that too often and too easily—in this country, at least, where (for all our caterwauling) we are so comfortable, both in our persons and in our religion.
Whether the horrible reality of suffering is a fatal flaw in Christianity as such, or a mystery that the human mind is simply too limited to plumb, it is not an arithmetical puzzle with an easy, uncomplicated answer. Pretending so—being a Job’s comforter, explaining to the sufferer that it is secretly his own fault; or a pedantic busybody who just recites doctrine and refuses to acknowledge, still less to care for, the needs and aches of the heart, refusing to practice compassion in any sense of the word; or a religious blatherskite3 spewing pious idiocies about everything happening for a reason and opening doors and all that obnoxious crap—is an outrage and a scandal, and deserves to have its face spat in.4 It is noteworthy that Jesus never, even once, does any of these things. Or, if we insist on taking His remark that This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God in the manner of the third jerk, we may at least observe that He promptly backed that up by raising someone from the dead.
Guercino, The Raising of Lazarus, 1619
When I describe mysticism as one of the two possible responses to the problem of pain, then, I am not for one second proposing to whitewash the world, à la Chesterton’s optimist. The kind of mysticism I mean is the kind which says that God is so powerful that He can take evil—real, hideous evil—and use it to make a lovelier, richer good: a good that, with our inevitably limited perspective, we cannot see from here and now; a good that makes it worth our while to have endured injustice and pain, without pretending that injustice and pain are not important or not real. I mean, there’d be no question of redeeming them if they weren’t ugly.
For the alternatives would seem to be that suffering is too trivial to be worth correcting, a profound insult to all who suffer; or, that evil is finally victorious. Suffering is an unavoidable and indisputable fact. The Christian doctrines of redemption and judgment, the doctrine that what Hoess did can be made an instrument of good, is saying that evil never gets the final word, that it will be truly and really defeated on its home turf, that it has no right to be here and will one day be expelled.
As far as I can tell, the facts are consistent with both the atheist interpretation and the mystical. As I’ve written about a little bit before, I have other grounds for finding the mystical interpretation more satisfying.
Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint John of the Cross, 1655
Yet honestly, even if it came down to which view I prefer, I’d refuse to give evil the satisfaction of triumphing in my head. (I could never decide my views based on what I like better; but I do, in fact, like this one better, and we are talking about the response of the heart here.) The same revolt against suffering that makes me sympathize with many kinds of atheism makes another part of me unwilling to be an atheist, because that would mean letting suffering win. Fuck that. Loneliness and meaninglessness and mass murder and all the rest of it are evil, they’re ugly, they’re horrible, and they are going to lose. I consider that a damn fine world to live in.
This is exactly why Jesus chose to die. I mean, also a whole bunch of other reasons, but this one too. In choosing to be crucified, He was taking on the whole depth of human suffering, drinking the cup to the last drop, because He knew—no, as a man, He believed that His Father was greater than all of that, and could transfigure it all into glory, could see to it that the corrupt reverends, the oppressive officials, and even His own dear and cowardly friends would not have the last word.
Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. … Ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than the blood of Abel. … Now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.5
So the agonies that being Side B can provoke are something that I’ll neither deny nor surrender to. To pretend it doesn’t hurt would be a lie. To let the hurting change what I believe would be a defeat that I can’t countenance. I’m sure other people operate differently; that doesn’t bother me. Every person has his or her own battle to fight. But this one is mine, and this is how I fucking fight.
From Margaret Hodges' version of Saint George and the Dragon, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.
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1From the deposition of Rudolf Hoess at the Nuremberg Trials, quoted by William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, pp. 968-969.
2Unless of course one finds the case for Side A intellectually satisfying. This would not be waiving the problem, but discovering that the problem had been only a sort of optical illusion. I don’t find Side A finally convincing, which is why the problem arises; but, on the one hand, if I did, the problem wouldn’t arise over this, while on the other, it would arise over some other example of human suffering.
3From Old Norse blaðra ‘to speak inarticulately, talk nonsense’ and Anglo-Saxon scite ‘dung’ (whence ‘shit’). Thanks, Wiktionary!
4They don’t let you do that, it turns out.5Hebrews 12.1c-2, 22-24, 26b-27, in the King James because it sounds way more badass.