I lost someone I love. There are simply no words to describe how devastating this has been. I am no stranger to the topic of grief in my writings. The one experience that keeps coming back to me during the coronavirus pandemic is the similar feeling of a loss of control. Back then, in the space of a few minutes, through nobody’s fault, I went from on top of my world to the depths of despair. There was nothing I could have done to change it. This pandemic is also forcing a number of challenges upon us—people are losing jobs, taking cuts in pay, enduring delays in needed medical treatments, and (not to mention) facing all those very real stresses that working and learning from home have caused—that are simply beyond our control.
Job, in the Old Testament, likely felt similarly. He was an upright man and had done nothing wrong, and yet all manner of evils fell upon his house. He lost his family, he lost his property, and he lost his health. Traditionally thought to be the oldest book in the Bible, Job speaks to our universal human desire to explain suffering. The ancient Jewish people were not unique in this regard. Many neighboring nations and clans had their own mythologies and rites and rituals for explaining and controlling human suffering—for most of them, it was about appeasing their gods, whose emotions and states were fickle—but the ancient Jews professed a God who remains faithful and just through it all. The Jews had a profound conviction that we cannot control God.
This tension is reflected in Psalm 77. In the first part of the Psalm, the psalmist is clearly in distress. He is lamenting how God has withheld his consolation. The psalmist writes in verse 11, “My sorrow is this, the right hand of the Most High has abandoned us.” Yet in the second part, the psalmist does not become angry with God but rather remembers that God saved the Israelites and bore them from slavery. He exclaims in verse 15, “You are the God who does wonders; among the peoples you have revealed your might.” Remembering this does not make the psalmist’s suffering abate (as far as we can tell), but it is clear that he finds peace in the memory of God’s love. God’s love endures.
I’m holding all this together in my mind as I think about a recent article by the editor-in-chief of Crisis magazine, Michael Warren Davis. In it, he reflects on a great conservative author, Russell Kirk, who discovered the work of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius prior to converting to Catholicism. Davis explains that Kirk never disavowed many of the principles of Stoicism upon his conversion to the faith, and that he saw a great deal of compatibility between the two. In fact, Davis tells us that Kirk regarded himself as a “Christian Stoic.” In light of Kirk’s approach, Davis attempts to outline a Stoic Christian understanding of the relationship between our experience of suffering and our responsibilities toward our inevitable suffering. Davis argues that Christians can learn much from the Stoics on what it means to suffer well:
As Dr. Kirk knew, suffering with courage and grace is the very essence of Stoicism. That’s why Christians have always felt an affinity for the Stoics. They have this intuitive sense that man, though made for the Garden of Eden, is nevertheless doomed to dwell in the Land of Nod.
And yet, the message of Stoicism is largely incomplete. It is one thing to run away from suffering, or to avoid it at all costs. This fear of suffering gives rise to all manner of problems. Pope Benedict XVI knew this, and he described in Spe Salvi how when we seek to run from suffering that we “drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater” (37). On this matter, I believe that Davis and Benedict are in agreement.
Where Davis’s piece falls short, however, is understanding the transformative force of hope. Hope is not merely information about the future, a nice message that can keep us from slipping entirely into despair, “something that keeps the lights on,” we might say. Rather, hope is the very thing that gives our suffering meaning. By the light of faith, we see the Cross’s power to redeem and give life, rather than its power to cut life short. Crucially, hope is an earthly participation in the very heaven that we seek. We are hardly doomed in this world, as Davis would have us believe, but rather we have been saved! Benedict goes on to say,
Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise (37).
Stoicism, however, stops short of making this transformation. It denies the Christian journey of suffering, firmly anchored in the joy of the Resurrection. Pope Francis also rejects the notion of a “cold” Christianity, one where the heart can only endure because it has become hard like rock—dead to the world and to the grace of God. He wrote in Evangelii Gaudium,
Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults. Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others (39).
Some outspoken Christians are seeking to control the outside world, whether it’s by railing against masks or protesting the lockdowns. In contrast to this, there is something refreshing about Davis’s more introspective approach to dealing with the pandemic. However, I believe that what Davis’s Stoicism points to is just another attempt to regain control.
For some reason, Davis sidesteps the importance of hope, that grace of God which has the power to transform our suffering. In fact, he posits Stoicism alongside Christian hope: “What we do lack are Christian hope and Stoic grit.” This can’t be the path forward! The Judeo-Christian experience reveals that seeking control, and this even extends to self-control, can only lead to ruin. The more we try to control suffering (whether our own or someone else’s) and harness our stick-to-itiveness, the more we run up against the reality of our human frailty.
What is needed, at all times, is the grace of God. Grace does not mean resignation or radical providentialism, where we simply relinquish responsibility over our actions and their impact on the world around us. But the truth is that we were never in exclusive control of our own lives to begin with. We find peace by taking full responsibility for our failures while crediting all that is good to the grace of God. This is the Christian way.
Grace is precisely what gives us the courage to continue striving toward that more perfect life, to confront evil where it exists, and to bear suffering in the hope of the Resurrection. Everything we do, feel, and think should be a response to the radical gift of God’s love. A God who, in his plan of salvation, brings all things to completion in himself. In hope, we are called to break out of the narrow constraints of time and “seek the good of others,” as Francis says (EG 39).
I don’t think it is mere coincidence that Pelagius himself was attracted to the Roman Stoics. In both Pelagius’s theology and in Stoicism, there is an emphasis on ethical behavior and the ability of human beings to conquer the will. In both philosophies, these elements essentially constitute the path to virtue. This belief was ultimately condemned as heresy in the Catholic Church, which saw the grace of God as necessary in all aspects of human life. Stoicism, like Pelagianism, is just another belief system that gives undue importance to the ability of people to control what is fundamentally not ours to control—even if we are only seeking to control our own emotional state.
Colleen Carroll Campbell wrote about control in her recent book, The Heart of Perfection (which I reviewed here). Her book may help those who have trouble coping with the loss of control this pandemic has forced upon us. It can also help those who may not realize that loss of control has caused them to feel that their lives have turned upside down. My own experience with grief eventually led me to find great peace in the love of our God who suffered and died for us on the cross, who himself wept and grieved, and who healed people from their afflictions. I found that the joy of the Resurrection penetrates even into the midst of suffering. We cannot afford to impoverish Christianity by missing this life-giving and transformative Gospel message. Stoicism is not the answer.
Francis and Benedict were not the first popes to criticize and Stoicism and Christianity. A reader points out that in his encyclical on the Rosary, Laetitiae Sanctae (1893), Pope Leo XIII also criticized the approach of the Stoic philosophers. He wrote:
“For this reason it has been truly said that “it belongs to the Christian to do and to endure great things,” for he who deserves to be called a Christian must not shrink from following in the footsteps of Christ. But by this patience, We do not mean that empty stoicism in the enduring of pain which was the ideal of some of the philosophers of old, but rather do We mean that patience which is learned from the example of Him, who “having joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. xvi., 2). It is the patience which is obtained by the help of His grace; which shirks not a trial because it is painful, but which accepts it and esteems it as a gain, however hard it may be to undergo” (9).
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