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Suffering: Enlightener or deceiver?

Shortly after he announced he had cancer, Christopher Hitchens said that the time may come when he is reported to have had a religious conversion. Don’t believe it, he said. Even if he were to say the words that indicated conversion, they could only come from someone whose mind is so addled by disease or fear that his words could not be trusted. Jeffrey Goldberg reminds us of that this morning, in response to Mark Judge’s speculation that Hitchens may be on the verge of conversion.

I published a semi-long reflection on this on my old Templeton Foundation blog, but that no longer exists. In summary, I wrote about two ways of seeing suffering. In Hitchens’s view, the mind perceives truth (of the spiritual and metaphysical sort) when the body is healthy, and unencumbered by pain, either physical or emotional. Only then, when not under duress, is the mind capable of sorting out truth from falsehood.

In the Christian view, a mind embodied in a healthy body is one that finds it all too easy to deceive itself, especially about its own finitude and frailty. Suffering has a way of forcing the mind to understand that the body will die, and to recognize how much it depends on others — especially God. On this view, suffering, when properly embraced, is a mode of understanding that brings us to the truth — a truth that it’s easier to ignore or to deny when one is in good health.

I think there’s something to both positions, though obviously I take the Christian side of the dispute. If suffering were always a reliable way to get to the truth, we wouldn’t discount confessions made under torture. But I do find it sad, and a philosophical mistake, that Hitchens ruled out at the beginning of this cancer journey the possibility that his suffering might reveal something to him about God, himself, and eternity. That, it seems to me, comes not from a place of courage, but of fear. I could be wrong.

So, what do you think? Is suffering more likely to lead one to metaphysical/spiritual truth, or to lead one to make metaphysical/spiritual error (e.g., converting to a religion out of fear)?

UPDATE: On second thought, whatever else one may say about Hitchens, that he has ever shown cowardice is not one of them. I don’t understand why he is so fierce and even spiteful in his atheism, but a monent’s reflection on his career reminds one that he has shown huge personal courage in his foreign reporting. I wanted to make it clear that I recognize that.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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