Thursday, January 16, 2014

Existence as Punishment?

I can certainly understand the attraction of the idea that existence is punishment. In the Christian version this means the Doctrine of Original Sin. Once upon a time we lived in a state of Grace, then without intending to, we sinned and fell from Grace. Because we sinned we became heirs to the infirmities of the flesh. That is the Christian story of how suffering came to be. Our imperfect existence is a consequence of the choice that Adam made for each of us. Or in some versions we were “in” Adam and thereby partook of his rebellion against God.

What is the attraction of believing that existence is punishment? There are several actually. First, the belief that one’s suffering is a punishment for one’s choices means that a sense of control however incompetent remains when life seems out of control. One of the things that feeling guilty does is that it provides a sense of control: one can only be responsible for what one has done. That sometimes a person feels guilty about things obviously outside their power only means an inflated sense of one’s powers of actions. Guilt as incompetent omnipotence.

A second attraction is that it provides a measure of relief to the pain. It is possible and even likely that one no longer feels guilty for one’s guilt. The question of why I suffer finds an answer. The sufferer is no longer at the mercy of events. The question of what one may or may not have done to deserve one’s misery is answered.

Thirdly, it provides the potential of distraction from one’s pain and misery. If my existence and suffering are a punishment, then who is it doing the punishing? What are its mechanics? What can be done about my pain and suffering? Is there also a reward for enduring my punishment with the right attitude? Attention is directed away from the hurt. Hence, the birth pangs of theology.

If existence is not punishment, then does this mean that pain and suffering serve no purpose? The fundamental truth of our lives is that existence is suffering with all else merely distractions from this truth? Is the most that we can hope for is to minimize suffering? Are we left with Buddhism?

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