Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Problem of Pitiless Indifference

Andrew Sullivan directs our attention to the plight of Ruthie Leming, who is right now in a critical stage battling cancer. Leming is the sister of Rod Dreher, a conservative Catholic blogger who writes on issues of faith and politics. This post about praying for her is one of the most painful I have ever read, and insomuch as one is able to relate to a total stranger—which, perhaps even more than its capacity to capture the moment, is the blogging medium’s greatest virtue—the man and his family have my sympathies, for what that’s worth. The post is remarkable not only for its emotional rawness, but for what looks a lot like the strain under which his faith is being put:

All the praying, the begging, the anguishing, the fasting -- and there has been no miracle. She's still very sick indeed. I realized tonight that in my frenzy to call the attention of God to my sister's plight and to convince him to heal her, I've been playing a kind of saints roulette, trying to hit on the right saint to ask prayers of, as if somehow my placing a bet on the right saint's name would make an electric connection with heaven, and divine energy would course right down to my sister's hospital room and save her, bam, just like that.

I know it doesn't work that way. Believe me, I do.

But I don't know what else to say to God, or the saints, on my sister's behalf. I know this isn't like a courtroom, in which I need to come up with the cleverest argument to convince the judge that my sister's life is worth saving. I know that magical thinking is a fallacy. I know that the communion of saints is not like a cocktail party in which I'm the wild-eyed stranger who's walked in off the street and is annoying partygoers by interrupting their conversations to see who can spare the time to come out and help me get my car unstuck from the snowbank on the curb.

But I don't know what else to do. And it's not working.


I don’t want to score cheap points in theological debates that will never be settled. But Sullivan feels fit to take Leming’s daughter’s serenity as evidence of God, and brings up his own faith in sustaining him during his HIV crisis. He has done this before, in an actual debate, and it was largely unconvincing due to it essentially coming down to, “It made me feel good.” Which is fine on an individual basis; I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anybody their means of getting through the unimaginable. But as an argument it’s weak, worse than anecdotal because it only has meaning to the person who experienced it.

It also requires a very narrow vision. For if the child’s smile is a sign of God, what to make of the adult’s anguish? Dreher will not lose his faith. He nearly did years ago, during the Catholic child rape scandal, but he eventually adapted, if I may use such a word, by converting to Orthodox Christianity. Here, too, his faith will likely adapt.

But in the meantime, what to make of the desperation in this post? He’s not na├»ve enough to think praying will make everything better, but he’s obviously expecting something. He knows “magical thinking is a fallacy,” but he is still hoping for a miracle. And I hope he gets one. (I’m using the term miracle loosely, ‘an unexpected turn of great fortune,’ as opposed to the literal ‘impossible-made-possible,’ because that’s what medical ‘miracles’ are.) There’s nothing wrong with hoping, for it is but the expression for a desired outcome, with no assumption that the expression itself will change anything. But the terrible odds are there will be no eleventh-hour recovery.

The Problem of Evil has vexed believers for millennia, but if anything situations like this are more troublesome, because there is no human agent to blame. The secular outlook accepts, harsh as it is, that these matters often come down to the luck of the draw. The faithful will say “the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” But what comfort is it to ‘know’ the pain one is experiencing was entirely preventable by the man in the sky? And that He still refuses to intervene? Dreher’s sister’s response to her spreading cancer, as well as her family’s, and the communities, has been heroic and should not be undervalued. But grace under pressure is not the province of the faithful alone, and it does not resolve the problem of cosmic injustice; if anything, making the most of catastrophe is an argument in favor of humanism more than against. Like the cancer, God has nothing to do with it, which makes the good that has come of this all the more remarkable.

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