Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Problem of No Pain

How would you like to grow up without the experience of pain? Think that'd be swell?

Follow the link above to the story I recently read on the CNN website -- about a little boy born with a neurological disease that makes him immune to pain. It's heartbreaking -- imagine your child sucking on his or her thumb, like kids do, and nearly gnawing it off because s/he doesn't realize that's what s/he's doing. Or concussing himself or herself against a wall because s/he just can't feel how hard s/he's slamming into the surface.

Hansen's disease -- one of the conditions thought to be described by the word "leprosy" in the Bible -- is another illness that deadens the sensation of pain. I was told that oftentimes the grotesque mutilations one sees in Hansen's patients have less to do with the disease process itself and more to do with sufferers' inability to feel what's happening to their extremities; they're easily burned and broken.

As I was reading this, I thought not only about my recent revisiting of the Book of Genesis, but also about all the times in my childhood I'd been told that one of the results of the Fall was the entrance of pain and death into the if having nerves responsive to stimuli, and mortal bodies, weren't a part of the picture before. This is nonsense. And it's not a matter of a fundamentalist interpretative method vs. an historical-critical one; it's just not in the text.

The pain-in-childbirth curse leveled by God in the story is also nonsense if taken at face value; of course a human baby with a "big giant head" is going to hurt coming through a narrow birth canal. Carl Sagan had a really interesting take on the metaphorical truth of this story in The Dragons of Eden; that the size of the human head has evolved to its utmost -- any larger and the only way women could accomodate it would be to evolve pelvises so wide that they could no longer walk with ease. And what makes our heads so huge? Our cognitive ability. Which makes us not only reasoning creatures, but morally reasoning creatures. Creatures who evaluate their actions, or non-actions, in terms of good and bad; whose moral deliberations cause guilt and frustration and pain. The few sociopaths among us whose brain pathology prevents them from having this ability are -- dangerous. People we wouldn't want living next door to us or taking care of kids or old folks or making decisions in high places.

All of which is to say -- we need some pain. We need physical pain and we need emotional and moral pain -- as St. Teresa of Avila put it, the ability to be displeasing to ourselves. This is our dilemma living in the world, believing in a God who loves us and wishes us well but also knowing that suffering is part of the equation. Christianity, unlike belief systems that see our enfleshed existence and experience as illusory, as distractions to some greater truth, acknowledges both the reality and the necessity of pain.

But that message can get lost when religious teachers, through their own ignorance or simple unwillingness to deal with big questions on the part of their students, perpetuate the image of Eden as a real place "where everything was beautiful all the time" and we could have innocently cavorted through all eternity if we hadn't have screwed things up. No. The child in the CNN story is living in pain-free Eden that's more like hell; we long to rescue him from it. Sociopaths live in a moral Eden while making the world around them hell.

There's a medieval Christmas carol -- I can't remember which one -- that speaks of the Fall as a happy misfortune because it began the process that led to the Incarnation -- to God With Us. I think this one line in an old song contains more sound theology than much of the blather about the creation story generated by the Church before and since. We're the way we are because we have to be, to be human. We believe that God loves us enough to have chosen to be with us, to walk with us, as one of us, and in doing so hallows and redeems the suffering that we must go through to be human. To me that's a more profound and moving image than the Sunday School comic-book story. Which isn't to say that I expect churches to start feeding five-year-olds Kierkegaard-level musings on the nature of brokenness and redemption. But I would challenge churches to stop treating 25- and 45- and 65-year-olds like five-year-olds, and create church cultures that support and encourage ongoing religious formation for all -- education that isn't afraid of hard questions and doesn't rely on easy answers.


P. Softly said...

I have a thick book with lots of Christmas carols from around the world, so if you could think of the country of origin, that would help in looking it up.

You last point, about how the church treats us shown in the type of info given to us/the type of questions we are allowed to ask is something that has been on my mind lately.

Some of the information, no, propaganda, coming out of certain churches'/preachers' mouths regarding such things as sexuality, creation, evolution, faith vs science, etc. has made me think that their viewpoint is that there is ONE RIGHT WAY TO THINK, which could be TRUE, but that even entertaining contrary thoughts, having quesitons, might doom us to hell.

I feel otherwise. I think that God gave us these minds to think and ponder. I don't think that is a sin.

I was in a discussion in a blog of another Lutheran variety and I was put down for using the phrase "I feel." Akkkk. God gave me this part of my nature as well.

My gut feeling is that if we feed students only part of the picture, later, they will hear other versions and they will not think, "Oh they were protecting me from the folly of misinformation." No, they may well think, "They lied to me."

I think that this applies to info that is slanted left OR right.

bls said...

"Adam Lay y-Bounden":

Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond,
Four thousand winter thoughte he not too long;

And al was for an apple, and apple that he took,
As clerkes finden writen, writen in hire book.

Ne hadde the apple taken been, the apple taken been,
Ne hadde nevere Oure Lady ybeen hevene Queen.

Blessed be the time that apple taken was:
Therfore we mown singen Deo Gratias.

Rainbow Pastor said...

There's another book titled "The Gift Nobody Wants" by Paul Brand, which explores this very topic in detail--what does pain bring us? What would life be like if we didn't feel pain? What does it mean for our spiritual journey? Great book that made me rethink many things.
Pain really is a good thing.

LutheranChik said...

bls: [voice of Lucy Van Pelt] THAT'S IT! Thanks!

RP: I'll have to check that one out.

PS: While I wasn't exactly angry when I went through a Bible course in college, I did feel patronized by the church: "Why didn't you people tell me this before?"

IMHO it seems that confirmation class age, when kids start really flexing their critical thinking muscles and questioning some of the Sunday School platitudes they've absorbed as children, would be a good time to start introducing them to more challenging exegesis and hermeneutics. My pastor talks about how, as a skeptical and questioning high school kid he was about ready to bail out of church, but his pastor gave him a Paul Tillich book that suddenly gave him a whole new perspective on Christianity.

P. Softly said...

Re confirmation: this is why junior high age confirmation is too young. They just are not mature enough for abstract thinking. Even some high school kids aren't, but many are. At least at that age, there is the possibility of applying faith to real life issues.

The confirmation classes I attended, every Sat. morning for TWO YEARS, gave me a very good grounding in the catechism, but that is all. No discussion, no prayer, no Bible reading, not applying anything to daily life. No chit chat. I can't believe we sat there and took this with no disruption.

I know that the kids at our church are more lively. But I also know that they have had experiences that challenge them. In the last year, 5 friends died.

An aside: I used to think of myself as really liking liturgy, almost in a high church sense. But then I moved here, where the pastor, at that time, was kind of sloppy with the liturgy, and that bothered me. But this church has life, friendlyness, Spirit, breath, caring, and service. (It also became more liturgical, but far from high church.) I've visited churches with great liturgy, professional organists, etc. and left with nobody having greeted me, in spite of introducing myself to several people as a visitor. I've left feeling that there was no blood and guts and breath. Like if I croaked right there, the service would proceed around my body.

I know that there really isn't such a dicotomy between liturgical and non liturgical, but if I have to choose sides, I choose the side where there is a connection between the daily life of the community and what happens in front of the altar.