Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The problem of pain and death for Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis

Here is a speech I gave at my college in which I discuss these two thinkers’ beliefs on the problem of pain and death.

For Lewis, the Christian, the believer in a loving God, the fundamental philosophical problem is how a loving and powerful God can allow pain. This dilemma presupposes something that not every religion admits: and that is that pain is real and it is bad. Some religious traditions hold that pain and suffering are, finally, illusory, unreal. This is not the position of Christianity. In the Passion of the Christ Christianity places front and center the reality that this life is one in which suffering is inevitable and that even God suffers for our sake.

The reality of suffering is also, as Lewis admits, a real problem for the believer. It is not something that can be pushed aside by verbal slight of hand as too many people try to do in our moments of grief. Hurt, pain, and suffering are real problems. Not only in the sense that they must be endured uncomfortably but in the deeper sense that they raise troubling questions about God’s character, His power, and even His existence. Here’s an example. A few years ago I read about several young Amish children playing in a cedar chest. The lid closed, the latch fell, clicked, and locked them in. All the children suffocated. How hard would it be for an omnipotent God to lift that little latch? Why didn’t He? True, we cannot know the answer, but why is our ignorance a comfort? Should it be? Why is God’s inscrutability something which we take refuge in rather than a source of supreme indignation? God cares enough about us, we are taught, that he would make himself human. So why wouldn’t he let us on the secret of our human suffering?

Pain is universal. At its worst it can be chronic, debilitating physically and debilitating mentally, of simply unimaginable intensity and awfulness.

How do Christians like Lewis respond to the problem of pain?

Lewis and other Christians start with the belief that suffering is real but that God shares in our suffering. Jesus found amazing pain in his rejection and in his moment on the cross. This fact does not make our suffering less—pain cannot be talked away—but it does give it a context. Pain does not have the final say in our identity. God knows about our suffering, He has felt it before, and He is not removed from us on account of it.

More, Lewis and other Christians believe that though God does not create evil, he can use it for good. Here we see a basic pattern in Christian thought, one of Creation, Fall, partial restoration for all, and hope of total restoration for some—and maybe all. We were created good by God; our rebellion disordered all of nature. Pain and suffering were two of the chief results of our rebellion.

The partial consolation—the consolation for all humanity--is that from the twin horrors of pain and death come the great joys we find in this life. Love comes in large measure from our intuition that life is precious in part because it is contingent and short. Why are diamonds more valuable than sand? One reason is because they are more scarce. Could we love our loved ones as much if we were to live forever on this earth? If all people were interchangeable? In this world, love and death are forever joined. People are not replaceable. Once lost, great good has exited the world. And from this intuition we recognize the worth and infinite value of our loved ones.

Even pain is not without its consolation. Pain teaches empathy; it draws us closer to one another than if we were only to feel pleasure. Don’t we grow closest to one another during times of grief? Doesn’t our heart stretch the most when we see those we love suffering? We learn virtues of courage and patience from pain. How could we have heroes or any nobility if there were no obstacles to overcome and endure? How could there be any human greatness without pain and suffering? Why do women love to share birthing experiences with one another? It’s because of the pain they endure. They’re heroes because of that pain.

These consolations—the consolation of love and human greatness—are open to all people. To the Christian or the believer, pain also teaches us this fundamental truth about reality: we are not self-sufficient. We are dependent in our well-being upon God. Pain teaches submission to God and through that submission, humility. For the believer, humility is rewarded with the further consolation of Heaven, where all pain is abolished. Pain cannot be talked out of existence, but it can be given a context, and that context for Christians is hope.

Life after death is mysterious. But it is not fundamentally more mysterious than life out of nothingness. Or being out of nothingness.

For Freud, the materialist, the problem is not so much pain and death but life itself. Why is there something rather than nothing? More: Why, even if there is something rather than nothing, is that something so often good? Why is there beauty? Why is so much of life pleasant and lovely? Why do some people stake their entire lives for what they believe is true? Why does dust rise up from the ground, gain consciousness, only to tremble when it contemplates returning to the ground yet again?

Freud speaks of the “painful riddle of death.” But it strikes me that for the materialist, there is no riddle at all. Before Freud was Freud he was a nonentity for billions of years. After his death he shall return to that same nothingness for an eternity. Being nothing did not bother him before his birth. Why should the prospect of it bother him during life? Thinking about history before you are born doesn’t make you anxious. Why not? Freud has no real answer for that riddle.

Freud’s materialism is curious for another reason. He is angry and bitter and nauseated by the injustice of a world that is so cold and indifferent to human suffering. But why should we even care about the suffering of humans? Who cares, if there is no fundamental difference between humans and TinkerToys? Freud apparently is operating under the assumption that the default position of man should be happiness. But why? In a material world, why shouldn’t the default position be suffering? How can Freud sense injustice unless he first has a sense of what is just-- but just how does he derive that conception from all those atoms? In some ways Freud is operating from a quite Christian perspective, from the belief that the world was made good and there really is something wrong with the world. There is nothing wrong with the temperature of the sun or the height of Mt. Everest or the fact that cows have four stomachs. These truths just are. So if we are finally just matter in motion, how can there be injustice?

Freud derides religion as childish, but he too is driven by hope, specifically by the hope of happiness. This is the hope of psychoanalysis. But why should he have this hope? All around him he sees misery. He himself was prone to depression. Why the hope unless he believes that the world was designed in a fundamental way for our happiness? Why is he bitter? One cannot be bitter without expectations of something better. Why does he expect more? Certainly his materialism cannot account for this.

In short, Lewis struggles with the problem of pain and death and Freud suffers from the problem of life and goodness. I am heavily biased toward Lewis’s position, for two reasons.

First: Lewis can provide a story for both life and death, of goodness and suffering, of the creation, the fall, the restoration. We may not find that story compelling but at least he has a story to offer. Freud has no adequate explanation for either the existence of being or of human life or why human beings so often expect the world to be favorably inclined toward them. This leads to a second point: Lewis can explain himself—his yearning, his search for truth—in a way that Freud cannot. For Freud life itself is meaningless mystery. Freud himself cannot be fully explained by his own materialism. His own self-loathing, his own bitterness, and his own terror of death make no sense from the standpoint of materialism. In contrast, Lewis’s hope for eternity is explained nicely by his view of the world. It might be explained like this. For every universal yearning of mankind there is an objective corollary. Hunger is satisfied by food. Lust by sex. Thirst by drink. Curiosity by knowledge. Loneliness by society. Boredom by activity. Well, isn’t there also a universal yearning for eternal peace and fullness of life? Don’t we all yearn for something beyond what we have? Something that this life cannot satisfy? Why would all our yearnings save this one be satisfied, at least in principle? The Christian makes sense of our restlessness and our yearning by claiming that this world is not our home. Our home is elsewhere.

With respect to pain and death, Lewis says, the choices are these: (1) either there is no God; or (2) God is cruel; or (3) God allows pain because it is necessary. If we accept that there is no god, it is impossible to explain either being or life or ourselves. If God is cruel, then it raises the question why so much goodness exists. The last choice, that God is good but finds our pain to be necessary for our own fulfillment helps explain why we have life, why there is good in this life, and why we hope for better.

Ice angel

I saw this frozen image of an angel formed from the overspill of a fountain near my church. Before I became a Christian, I saw the evidence of God nowhere; everything confirmed His stupefying absence. Immediately after I became a Christian, evidence of God and His design were before my eyes from morn to night. I was once blind but now I could see. I confess that today I am struck simultaneously both by God's presence as well as the intriguingly impressive distance one can go in explaining this world without bringing god into the equation. Isn't it curious that God created a world so open to incredibly diverse and seemingly equally plausible interpretations? If you object in the phrase "equally plausible," then ask yourself why, in fact, well-intended and reasonable minds that seek truth do not approach unanimity on the nature of the world. Try as one may, God's existence is beyond proof. Or disproof. I find that quite revealing about God's sense of humor.

Ice Bear claw

But I suppose one can find bears everywhere as well if one looks hard enough.

Blue Shadow

For who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow? Ecclesiastes 6:12

But what is it?

I once engaged in a spirited debate with a woman at the Chicago Art Institute about whether one of the pieces exhibited,a canvas covered chiefly in black paint with thickly-textured paint strokes, should count as art. She argued that it was not art; I argued that it certainly could be. Her position amounted to this: Art should be about--that is, represent--something, and this painting was about nothing. My argument was that all representative art is itself abstract; no one really believes the painting of the tree is in fact a real tree--the kind you can climb up and pick an apple from its branches. What distinguishes modern "abstract" art from "traditional" art is, ironically, its departure from the past's dependence on abstracting a scene from reality. Modern art is simply what it is: an aesthetic experience. In this sense it is like a symphony-- without representational meaning but still, for some, a profoundly powerful experience.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Silver on green

I would love to do a study of water in the Bible: the waters of baptismal forgiveness; the killing waters of the Flood; the chaotic waters at creation; the water turned into wine; and on and on. Water, symbol of life and death in equal measure.

Development Southern style

I somehow have my doubts in the efficacy of this office in revitalizing my lovely city's downtown. Just out of the picture's frame, there were two or three more papers on the ground.

One hour God

The marquee struck my funny bone. I suppose God is Lord of all creation, and that includes one-hour photoshops. Here's a question: is the sign principally secular, spiritual, or neither?

Nature wins in the end

It's simply extraordinary how quickly nature reclaims as her own any space we leave unattended. An unused road will be overgrown within just a few years. Were the world to be instantly rid of every human being, how long would it take for every trace of human life to be erased to a cursory inspection? NYC may be our best hope for immortal extraterrestrial fame. I suppose God told us to subdue the world before we were swallowed up by it.


Western music is based on a 12-note scale, with emphasis on harmony or chords to make the music sound pleasing and full. Eastern music, best as I can recall, has many more but smaller intervals in its scale, and the intervals between notes are not as "evenly spaced" as they are in the Western scale. It also relies far less on chords; its richness comes from the fullness of the scale itself. I love a good deal of Eastern music, especially Indian music (I'm wild for Tabla), but it always sounds "foreign." I wonder: Were I to listen to nothing but Indian music for the next decade, would Western music have the same, foreign sound as Indian music does presently for me.

The Cabin

Here the light does not add to warmth, as one might think it should, but instead brings out the starkness and coldness of the cabin. I've looked closely for a ghost in this picture; it just seems to beg for one, doesn't it!

Follow the leader

I like how the colors of the ladybugs and brick and paint complement so nicely.

Doctored flower

No picture captures reality. Put differently, every picture captures only a sliver of reality. So why do I feel guilty about enhancing or "punching up" a picture? Is it an insult to God, as if I'm saying His creation is inadequate and I can improve it? Is it because the real talent of a photographer is in the hunt, in finding the beauty as well as capturing it? Is it because we have a "journalistic" view of photography and do not recognize the overwhelming extent to which every picture is, finally, fabricated or a lie?

Black and white flower

The dew drops make all the difference.

Hands on chair

Is black and white inherently more creepy? This picture was just silly in color. Why?

Plastic butterfly on organic flower

Here the plastic butterfly is more "eternal" than the organic flower, but who would say it is more real?

Shadow of hand touching vase

Are the shadow and vase equally real? Scripture says that we should fix our eyes on that which is invisible rather than that which is visible, for that which is visible is fleeting, while that which invisible is eternal. Does Being by its essence entail a trade-off between the eternal and real and invisible, on the one hand, and the palpable yet unreal? Odd, isn't it, that both the Platonic tradition and Christianity seeks being in that which, by every outward appearance, has no being whatsoever. Assuming that Heaven is both real and visible and palpable, why is that which is most real here on earth is the least tangible?

Flame through a crystal vase

The photos one takes cannot help but reflect one's own sensibilities, at least indirectly. I love to find visual patterns in chaos as well as to show how what we believe to be familiar becomes invisible over time. I attempt to recover an object's visibility by showing it from a new angle, by confusing the viewer. In general, I love to show the seriousness of humor and the absurd in the serious. In this picture I attempted to point the viewer toward the mystery of the divine, drawing upon obvious spiritual metaphors of fire and light. I did not succeed as I had hoped, as I virtually never do in my photographs. They inevitably just become what they are, altogether independent of my original intentions yet somehow still reflecting my personality.


C.S. Lewis argues that objects command a kind of natural respect appropriate to their nature. In other words, horses really are more noble than, say, badgers. And yet daily life seems to suggest that what we call beautiful is almost perfectly subjective, a function not of the objects under consideration but of the preferences of the viewer. Is this spider contemptible or genuinely a marvel? I suppose it depends, at least in part, whether it is on the outside of my windowpane or on the rim of my bowl of soup.

fish in shop window

Virtually no one who has seen this picture likes it; it's one of my favorites that I've taken.

my favorite photo cliche

The rainbow: theologically significant; scientifically important topic in the of field of optics.

God-fearing Hummer

I was in Atlanta to visit a friend who was in the hospital (dying, tragically, from a car accident). I saw this Hummer with that license plate ("ILUVGOD") and was instantly captured by an irony that I still feel more far more than I can can actually express.


I took this with a timer; it's my scary arm.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Beauty of Rust

A close-up of some farm equipment I took.

Roman Storm

I dropped my daughter off at pre-school, and the sky was just churning and growing darker by the minute. I was certain a tornado was forming, so (naturally) I parked my car and started taking pictures. I read that a funnel was, in fact, sighted twenty miles south of where I took the picture about a half-hour later. The sky was simply beautiful and powerful. The photo only hints at the "texture" of the clouds.

Red Paint

I took this picture in Rome, GA.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

In praise of the great Jack Nicklaus

I have developed a method of ranking the greatest PGA golf careers as determined by majors victories, top-ten places at the majors, total victories, and cuts at the majors. I will share a more detailed look at the methodology at a later date. So impressive was Nicklaus’ career that I thought it would be fun to disaggregate Nicklaus’ career and see how these various “parts” would stack up against the entire careers of others. It turns out that Nicklaus’ career in his thirty’s is the 8th best career of all time (not including the real Nicklaus). Likewise, Nicklaus in his 20’s is the 10th best career, and Nickluas’ career without having won any majors would also be the 8th best.

The strength of my methodology is that it rewards both peak excellence as well as longevity. Basically, what I do is treat every golf “accomplishment” as a ribbon or trophy, then I add up all the hardware for one’s career. Therefore it has a slight bias in favor of longevity over a spectacular but relatively short career, such as that of Johnny Miller’s. Its obvious weakness is that it doesn’t take into account amateur or international performances--note that Bobby Jones doesn’t crack the top twenty. Again, I will share how I achieved the actual numbers at a future time. Here goes:

1) Nicklaus 97.26
2) Sam Sneed 58.84
3) Ben Hogan 53.65
4) Arnold Palmer 53.13
5) Walter Hagen 49.91
6) Tom Watson 48.85
7) Gary Player 47.72
8) Tiger Woods 46.57
9) Nicklaus in his 30’s 44.41
10) Nicklaus had he won no majors 42.26
11) Gene Sarazen 39.06
12) Byron Nelson 36.78
13) Nicklaus before age of 30 36.06
14) Lee Trevino 33.94
15) Billy Casper 33.73
16) Ray Floyd 30.16
17) Cary Middlecoff 25.33
18) Seve Ballesteros 24.55
19) Greg Norman 24.53
20) Hale Irwin 24.09

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Greatest baseball players ever

Here's one listing based to some extent on statistics but to a large degree on common wisdom:

1) The Babe: dominated the game as no one has before or since--an excellent pitcher to boot.
2) Willie Mays: The most complete ballplayer of all time. His stats, excellent as they are, do not capture his contribution to the game.
3) T. Williams: An offensive powerhouse; first all time in OBP, second all time in lifetime OPS.
4) T. Cobb: Fierce competitors whose respect among his peers was rivaled only by Ruth.
5) M. Mantle: Incredible run producer who was an underrated fielder.
6) Hank Aaron: Picture of consistent excellence.
7) Bonds: Hard to like, impossible to ignore.
8) S. Musial: Like Aaron, a near-perfect role model baseball player.
9) Honus Wagner: Incredible defensive skills at shortstop
10) Mike Schmidt: Fabulous defensive player whose offensive skills were never given their full credit because of his batting average.

Here's another listing following a measuring tool I devised which emphasizes OPS. On base average plus slugging average (OPS) measures how often a batter gets on base as well as how many bases, on average, he gets per at bat. It is probably the single best statistic to measure offensive production. What I have done is to look at how players ranked in OPS for every season of their career for their respective leagues. On this scale players received ten points for being in first place in their league in OPS and one point for tenth place. Then I add up the total number of points they "earned" for a career. What is nice about the measure is that it takes into account peak periods as well as longevity. What it obviously does not measure is movement along the base paths (i.e. stealing and base running) and defensive play. Here's how the top players stacked up:

1) Babe Ruth 153
2) Ty Cobb 147
3) Stan Musial 145
4) Hank Aaron 136
5) Rogers Hornsby 129
6) Ted Williams 125
7) Barry Bonds 126
8) Willie Mays 125
9) Tris Speaker 123
10) Mel Ott 123
11) Honus Wagner 120
12) Frank Robinson 114
13) Mickey Mantle 113
14) Mike Schmidt 107
15) Lou Gehrig 106