A couple from the archive
A reader asked me earlier today why religions so adamantly resist assisted suicide legislation, is it just the idea that God is supposed to decide when we die or what. I said that as far as I knew it was all rather ad hoc (not to say lame) and that what justifications were offered tended to be quite disgusting. I offered the example of Richard Swinburne saying suffering is good because it gives people the opportunity to show compassion, and Jonathan Sacks saying he was glad his father hadn’t had the ability to escape the final stages of his death because that mean he, Jonathan, had the chance to take care of his father. Having brought them up, I wanted to read the exact quotes again, so I spent considerable time and ingenuity tracking them down.
Nine years ago my brothers, my mother and I saw my father go through five major operations in his eighties. It was almost unbearably painful to see one who was once so strong and upright, fight a long, slow, losing battle with death. Yet I can’t begin to imagine what it would have been like if he, or we on his behalf, had been given the choice to bring that last day closer. He was a proud man who hated being a burden to others. How easy it would have been for him to spare us those final tormenting days. I can see him doing it. Yet he would have been so wrong – because, more than anything else, we wanted to be there with him in his suffering giving back some of the care he’d given us when we were young.
Notice that this horrible, arrogant, domineering man doesn’t even ask himself if what his father wanted might be more important than what he Jonathan Sacks wanted. Notice his conviction that what he wanted was more important than what his father may have wanted. Notice that he doesn’t even consider moving from the awareness that his father hated being a burden to the thought that perhaps he should not force him to continue doing what he hated.
I said a few mild words at the time.
Richard Swinburne said his piece around June 2006 [pdf].
Theodicy provides good explanations of why God sometimes — for some or all of the short period of our earthly lives — allows us to suffer pain and disability. Although intrinsically bad states, these difficult times often serve good purposes for the sufferers and for others. My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering. And it provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of suffering.
As I said at the time –
Well why stop there? It also provides pharmaceutical companies with the opportunity to develop pain medications, and nurses with the opportunity to apologize for the fact that the pain can’t be alleviated, and vicars and priests with the opportunity to pray that it will be alleviated, and God with the opportunity to refuse to alleviate it, and the funeral people with the opportunity to dispose of the corpse after the victim has committed suicide. Lots and lots of opportunities. Good. So – we should all act accordingly? We should all rush outside with our carving knives and soldering irons and distribute injuries generously around the neighborhood so that there will be further abundance of such opportunities? Suffering is a good thing because it creates these good opportunities so there should be lots more of it so we should all bend every nerve to create more of it?
Swinburne goes on.
Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each of us shall show patience, sympathy and generosity and, thereby, form a holy character. Some people badly need to be ill for their own sake, and some people badly need to be ill to provide important choices for others. Only in that way can some people be encouraged to make serious choices about the sort of person they are to be. For other people, illness is not so valuable.