Unanswered questions on Japan’s suffering
By Giles Fraser, Saturday 19 March 2011
Sometimes, it is better to do without. Sometimes, want is good for you. These are the familiar messages of Lent. Allowing a particular desire to go unmet may have short-term pain. But the longer-term gain is that we get to examine the structure of our desire and better recognise how it can shape our life and relationships – often tyrannically.
Mostly, this discipline is linked to biologically induced need. But there is an equivalent intellectual discipline: we can restrict our desire to reach for ready-made answers when faced with the distressing unknown. Some people don’t care that there is much about the universe they will never understand. For others this not knowing is experienced as an excruciating lack that cries out to be filled, often like biological hunger itself. And for those of us who feel this way, the danger of filling up desire with cheap and easy explanations is a temptation every bit as powerful as hankering after fags and red wine.
Reactions to the continuing tragedy in Japan are a case in point. Some people just don’t feel the force of the question “why?”, or else speak of dumb nature as if that were the end of the matter. For others, “why?” is a cry that shrieks out from the core of their being and will not be averted by a calm description of the ways of the natural world. For those of us who cry out thus, there is always a temptation to accede to some shallow off-the-peg explanation, to set the world back into its recognisable form, to stabilise things around a familiar symbolic order. And yet to dismiss these feelings as meaningless or mistaken is just another glib and shallow answer.
In the face of great tragedy, we are often desperate to reclaim our mastery over the unknown. Explanation helps us to reduce our anxiety and begin the process of giving tragedy some neat conclusion – so that we can mentally file it as a task completed. And yet, of course, one of the things that we learn from earthquakes and tsunamis is precisely that such mastery is an illusion. To use Lacanian language: it is an eruption of the Real against the neat meaningfulness with which we structure our lives.
Are religious believers especially bad at wanting to buy any old explanation for tragic events so long as they return their familiar symbolic order to its former integrity? Probably, yes. For too often, religion can regard the admission that one does not understand as some sort of lack of faith. And furthermore, it can regard the refusal of poor explanations as a lack of loyalty to the tribe.
Which is why the book of Job is always such a necessary astringent to bad faith. The story is simple. God does some very nasty things to the innocent Job as an experiment to see how he will react. Job’s friends explain away these tragic circumstances as being Job’s own fault, that all suffering is punishment for sin. Job refuses their dodgy explanations and rails against divine injustice – as it were, against the cruelty of the universe. He does not understand why so many horrible things have happened to him, and God’s appearance at the end of the book makes him none the wiser. But his honest and furious lack of understanding is much deeper than the spurious explanations of his friends. As Job demonstrates, it is possible to express faith as a form of trust and not as a reaching after answers. Faith is living by the promise and not by an explanation.