Putting death in its place

God, Medicine, and Suffering by Stanley Hauerwas. Eerdmans, 1994, 168pp.

I haven’t had much direct experience with death. Only now, in my mid-thirties, have I gained a sense of anything remotely like permanent loss. Nearly two years ago a friend my age passed away from lung cancer. At the time we were both part of a reading group which had just finished a book entitled God, Medicine, and Suffering, written by one of America’s foremost theologians, Stanley Hauerwas.

One of the distinct memories I have from when I learned of my friend’s death was a peculiar emptiness, a sense of loss for which I didn’t have the words, like being out of breath. In retrospect this is both understandable and rather predictable. Like other members of the church I attended, and our mutual friends, I was in a state of shock. In spite of a quite negative prognosis, we had been hopeful. Our shared faith urges us to pray without ceasing, and to hope against hope; it also gives voice to and consoles profound loss and injustice. God-forsakenness, after all, was expressed by Jesus on the cross—though of course it was not the last word.

Innocent suffering seems meaningless. But even our reactions to what seem like primordial events like death are conditioned. Death doesn’t happen in a vacuum, in other words. I can recall my interest when I first read, as an undergraduate, David Cressy’s Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Learning about the beliefs and behaviours of the people of the past fascinated me. Various societies, in the past and today, have different and meaningful ways of putting death in perspective. That doesn’t mean that other societies don’t have analogues for what I experienced two years ago. If you read early modern European letters, diaries, and funeral sermons, it’s clear that they too felt a keen sense of loss, even if their ways of dealing with death were, on the whole, more ritualistic and formal than ours. The liturgies of the living may place death, but I’m not sure they ever fully enclose the empty space it often creates.

In God, Medicine, and Suffering, Stanley Hauerwas suggests that the question Americans typically ask with respect to death centres on the innocent—why do good people suffer and die? In reply he argues that most modern Americans lack the means by which to situate a life in an ongoing story carried by a community which can share in a person’s suffering. In order to address this attitude towards death, Hauerwas begins by asserting that there is no experience of God, of suffering, or of death which is not storied in some way. Death is not simply a brute fact in isolation. It is always already scripted. It is always a question—from which songbook will we sing?

Hauerwas relates the problem of suffering to the history of theodicy. As he rightly notes, theodicy is a fairly recent historical development, emerging in early modern Europe (think Leibniz), just at the moment when atheism (think Spinoza) first became an intellectual, moral, and social possibility. The “problem with the problem of evil,” for Hauerwas, “is that the issue presupposes that the question of God’s existence can be separated from God’s character.” He argues that the question of God’s character can only be attested to by a community which identifies with God’s story. For Christians, of course, that story is found primarily in the reciprocal authority of the Bible and the church.

Many Christians today find the problem of suffering a challenge to their faith. Hauerwas contends that Christians have never had a solution to the problem of evil. “Rather, they have had a community of care that has made it possible for them to absorb the destructive terror of evil that constantly threatens to destroy all human relations.” Part of the challenge for Christians and for many others stems from the success of medicine. The promise advanced medicine offers us is the hope that sickness can ultimately be eliminated. But this merely underlines the fact that illness has become meaningless for us. Hauerwas argues that physicians no longer embrace the Hippocratic dictum to do no harm, but are instead saddled with a duty to cure. Lost in the process is the sense of a meaningful death.

God, Medicine, and Suffering repeatedly insists that there is no such thing as the problem of suffering in general. Suffering and evil always occur within the context of a particular story, in some mediated context. For the Christian church “the question of suffering can only be raised in the context of a God who creates to redeem.” Hauerwas contrasts this with what he takes to be the “liberal narrative,” wherein the autonomy of bodies and selves are paramount. Christians don’t possess the unique means to make suffering meaningful, he acknowledges. The suffering of innocent children, for instance, does not have point—but it can have a place, the church. As God suffers with us, so we can suffer with others.

While I’m quite sympathetic to what Hauerwas is contending for in this book, I do wonder if the options he considers are really so stark, and if the terms of this division aren’t too neat? Is it really a case of the big bad liberal narrative versus a monotonous biblical or Christian script? While this style of presentation is shared by Hauerwas’ long-time philosophical inspiration, Alasdair MacIntyre, Hauerwas also cites Charles Taylor approvingly. Taylor’s analysis doesn’t tackle a grand liberal narrative but instead tries to map out the terrain of modernity in ways that capture its very complex topography. A binary distinction may work for the heuristic purpose of making a case, but I’m doubtful whether or not the Bible and Christian tradition—not to mention modern liberalism—can be accurately distilled into a single message. To me, reflecting on the Bible, the church, and Christian history is like listening to a chorus. Not only are there different voices, not always harmonious, but there are different ways that chorus can fulfill the musical script so as to realize its intention anew—think Glenn Gould playing Bach. I can’t possibly do justice to this suggestion here. But surely there are ways of connecting what seem to be the polyphony of the biblical text and of Christian history—not to mention the multiform church—with what it means to live as a community of faithful Christian witness today. The work of Walter Brueggemann might be an example of one such way of connecting. As in the past, there are now many ways for Christian communities to put death in its place.

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