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What Do We Do with Suffering?


Suffering is the subjective experience of evil. Not merely a threatening external presence in nature, it is a disturbing challenge that touches us in our primordial foundations and certainties. It cruelly becomes an eroding event from within. Its universality doesn’t respect age, gender, religion or ethnicity. This compels us to try to understand and make some sense of it, knowing in advance that whatever the resulting interpretation, it will always remain a precarious, fragmented and insufficient belief in the unexpected and weary path of life. This unavoidable vulnerability nevertheless – and surprisingly – coexists with a parallel and unquenchable desire for living that universally engraves every human, making them structurally and pre-rationally resilient. Religion and culture don’t create these two universal human conditions, Suffering and Resiliency. They only propose well-intentioned interpretations that we need to continually revise in an open, humble and honest dialogue with ourselves, others, history and God.

An accurate, informed and contemporary reflection on Suffering is proposed by Dr. Richard Rice, from Loma Linda University School of Religion, in his recent book Suffering and the Search for Meaning. Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain (InterVarsity Press 2014). Rice’s first achievement in this book is descriptive. In a systematic and synoptic way he lays out seven major Western reflections on Suffering that he appropriately calls “Theodicies”.  Theodicy is a Greek term that puts together the two words “justify” (dikaioo) and “God” (Theos). Theodicy is the attempt to defend (justify) God in face of Suffering and Evil. Formally this attempt emerged in Europe and lexicographically is associated with the seventeenth century German Philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In Rice’s descriptive rework of the topic the main current theodicies today are:

  1. Perfect Plan Theodicy
  2. Free Will Theodicy
  3. Soul Making Theodicy
  4. Cosmic Conflict Theodicy
  5. Openness of God Theodicy
  6. Finite God Theodicy
  7. Protest Theodicies

In these seven short but accurate theological and philosophical descriptions, entwined with dramatic and everyday human experiences, Rice reviews their underlining their strengths and limits. Whoever wants to have a general overview of today’s main views on Suffering will certainly get an enormous help from this book. But the value doesn’t stop here. I will briefly underline two additional important characteristics: the “ecumenism” of Rice theoretical reflection and the “pragmatism” of his existential approach to Suffering. In other words, Rice describes and builds up what, on one side, we could call “Reflective Theodicies” and on the other side what he himself calls the parallel and complementary “Practical Theodicies” – that is, the personal frameworks everybody needs to accompany the more theoretical ones. Let’s briefly consider these two further contributions.

First, Rice’s description and processing of these “Reflective Theodicies”, is original and creative. Classical Theodicies tend to become structurally monolithic, exclusive and definitive reflections on Suffering. Rice instead understands and treats them as partial, flexible and open interpretations of this human dilemma. And for this very reason he persuades and pushes us to understand them as necessarily inclusive and complementary explanations.  Even when they show, due to their somewhat opposed and contradictory premises and positions, a resistance to interact and be integrated in a final synthesis, we nevertheless are called to make them coexist together in a meaningful ecumenical tension.

Second, Rice doesn’t suggest only the necessary complementarity of the various “Reflective Theodicies”. He is even more inclusive indicating the necessity of developing “practical theodicies” to complete, in a more personal way, with what the “Reflective Theodicies” have just initiated. “Reflective Theodicies” are necessary but insufficient strategies to cope with suffering. But what is a “Practical Theodicy”? While current practical strategies to face Suffering tend to be mainly circumstantial, reaction-based and unilateral, Rice suggests we:

–          build up more consistent practical strategies that include theories of suffering like the ones he describes,

–          add the exposure and dialogue with everyday stories of people who have suffered and survived,

–          include religious and Biblical motives, symbols and narratives which possess the wisdom of describing Suffering as a mystery more than as a problem.

Following Larry D. Bouchard, (“Holding Fragments”) Rice suggests we “juxtapose” these personal theodicies rather than “synthesize” them, adopting what Philosopher Jeffrey Stout calls human (using a French word) “Bricolage”. “A bricoleur is a handyman who makes do with whatever materials he can find and patches things up with this and that”. That is what “Practical Theodicy”, says Rice, is all about.

Now, in this last part of my reflection, I will provide three critical considerations to Rice’s proposal. His analysis is basically a theological-philosophical treatment of Suffering. And as such, even with its flexibility and openness, it doesn’t necessarily represent the best approach to the human dilemma of suffering today. It lacks a larger socio-cultural-medical analysis that would see the limits and paradoxes of a “Theodicy-like” approach. It would also allow him to come nearer to the real historical situation of today. Culturally speaking, for instance, today’s experience of pain and suffering is unique and paradoxical. It can’t be compared to the perception of pain in Biblical, medieval or renaissance times. Technique and drugs have deeply modified our relationship to pain and suffering, putting us in a unique historical condition. It is also paradoxical, because technique and drugs have diminished the perception of pain so dramatically, a perception that was always intense previously.  As Epicurus said, if pain is strong it is also necessarily short and if it’s weak you necessarily can accommodate and coexist with it. This classical formula on pain is no longer applicable. By separating the perception of pain with the real state of the sickened body, technique and drugs have paradoxically increased the general pain. It has become psychologically more intense and chronic while physical pain can simultaneously be dramatically diminished. Therefore I think that a theological-philosophical approach that is not integrated with a larger socio-cultural-medical approach to pain and suffering lacks an important analytical component.

My three critical considerations are the following:

First, Rice’s “Theodicy-like” approach to suffering remains entrapped in a rationalist and reductionist way of thinking, typical of Western current culture, notwithstanding the generous efforts introduced to limit its direct and collateral effects. Using the word “Theodicy” doesn’t help much even in Rice’s updated and more human form. And that suspect word is also introduced in the personal-existential dimension, which goes beyond merely the reflective one. Theodicy is not the unique way of reflecting theoretically on suffering and, on a more practical level, it’s surely a terrible one.

Second, Rice’s “Personal Theodicy” proposal presupposes and structurally retains an individualistic perception of human suffering – typical of Western societies. Here the individual with his/her experience of suffering has priority to a more social or communitarian articulation and understanding. The openness  to “their” or “your” suffering as a way of coping better with it is not, in Rice’s analysis, a primary experience but a secondary one. In the modern or post-modern versions of Western individualism everything starts and ends with “my” experience.

Third, Rice’s “Reflective” and “Practical” Theodicy proposal presupposes a punctual and atomistic way of facing suffering that is also typical of Western societies. You face suffering when it is present and you are obliged to consider it. When it is not there you can and must keep going, chasing your goals and objectives. For non-Western traditions life and death, suffering and joy, health and pain always go together. They are not exceptional but instead rather constant life experiences. This is one of the reasons why these traditions are “slow” societies. For the dynamic Western societies suffering, death and pain need to be separated and hidden from a functioning and functional life. In this perspective suffering can be approached not continually but only punctually – just in certain adequate and programmed moments like sickness or death. This easily becomes a managerial and administrative approach to suffering and pain.

The rationalist, individualist and atomistic trend still perceptible in Rice’s reflection is just the updated religious extension of the general trend of Western culture. Alternative views on suffering that are more symbolic, corporative and holistic have always existed in other Southern cultures. Such perspectives could help Western culture today to enrich and improve their way of coping with suffering. But alternative views of suffering are not only present outside Western societies. They exist also inside, for instance, in the rich symbolic and aesthetic narrative of the American Black community, as immortalized in those precious theological and existential treaties that represent the Gospel and Black Spirituals.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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