“The Sparrow” and The Meaning of Suffering

Mary Doria Russell published The Sparrow, a science fiction novel about Earth’s first contact with intelligent life on another planet, and especially the theological implications of that encounter, in 1996. The main character of the book, Emilio Sandoz, is a Jesuit priest and linguist who is secretly harboring a skepticism about God’s existence. With a team of brilliant and widely experienced friends, as dear as family to him, he makes the trip to Rakhat, the alien planet, and interprets the events that transpire there as, basically, message-carriers from God. He is, as the book says more than once, a “soul searching for God,” and endeavors to make sense of what happens on the journey—the causes for amazement, wonder, and gratitude, as well as the incredible heartbreak and soul-crushing tragedies—in terms of his personal faith in a good and loving God.

Emilio’s mind is fixated on these questions: If other intelligent species exist in the universe, how must our understanding of God be modified? If it is God’s will that the people from Earth meet the people from Rakhat, must it also be his will that the mission is essentially a miserable, nightmarish failure? For once you admit that God created the world or directs its events in a meaningful way, then you have to assume that God allows the seemingly meaningless and horrible suffering that transpires—but why? As the author herself says in the book’s afterword, “you realize that God has a lot to answer for.” This is, essentially, the kind of theological problem she investigates through the unfolding of the plot and characters’ lives in The Sparrow: what do we make God answer for?

Without spoiling all of the plot, we can say that Sandoz endures a suffering on Rakhat that few humans will ever know the depths of, or be able to imagine. Russell, who at the time of writing the book, was working out her own faith questions in converting to Judaism, writes a personal Holocaust into Sandoz’ life. And how do you keep faith when you go through that? Why would a good God ever make anyone endure that?

At the end of the book, she leaves Sandoz as an uncertain man. He is not sure of anything anymore—which leaves the reader, perhaps, with as many questions as he has.

However, before leaving our main character, Russell seems to offer a possible solution to the theological problems that may satisfy our curiosity and quell our anxieties. The scene in which this solution is presented also gives the book its title:

‘There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.’

‘So God just leaves?’ John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. ‘Abandons creation? You’re on your own, apes. Good luck!’

‘No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.’

‘Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,’ Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. ‘Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.’

‘But the sparrow still falls,’ Felipe said.

From the point of view of this theology, suffering is meaningful because God is caring about us even as He does not intervene. He is present even when we are in complete despair.

I don’t think that Russell is under the illusion that this is the kind of answer that we want, if we want there to be some kind of “light at the end of the tunnel.” Maybe to her it is telling the “hard Truth,” with emphasis on the hard—that God allows even our deepest despair because intervening in the world he created detracts from the free will of the inhabitants. It is our ability to choose “good” or “bad,” light or darkness, that makes life in this world truly unpredictable and suffused with a kind of meaning that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

On Russell’s view—if hers is the same as the theological statement at the end of the book—then sentient beings really do choose whether they inflict suffering on others, which God allows, but again, God is there watching, knowing, and weeping, even as he allows the sparrow to fall; and they do fall. (Setting the problem of free will aside, here.)

Now, if I may interject my own thoughts here, I agree with Russell on some key points, but I think this theology could be improved, too. From my point of view, the Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—when they talk about a Love ‘underneath’ all of existence, in the form of an all-loving God, are tuning into something real. But then they run into some immediate problems: ‘If Love [God] underies all of this, what is all of this ‘evil’ and suffering about?’ (The Problem of Evil, it’s called.)

I think that Christian and Jewish theology may be improved by integrating the knowledge and experience harvested by the Eastern traditions into its own underestanding of God. For in them, too, you will find the manifestation of “God.”

For example, what did the Buddha say about suffering? That it comes from our attachments which are based in ignorance. If you accept this truth, there’s a kind of empowerment that comes with it, the likes of which you just don’t get in most (but not all) modern Christian understandings. You can create your happiness or misery insofar as you are aware of your ignorance and able to let go of your attachments.

See, the Eastern religions have the advantage of pointing us to real, transcendent experiences through which we behold the nature of reality in our own direct experience and gain insight. It’s extremely direct, whereas in the Christian tradition, by and large, there’s a lot more “guesswork.”

As a meditation teacher once said to me, in practicing meditation, you learn to not attach yourself to experience like you learn to not touch the stove when it’s hot. You put your hand on the stovetop and it burns; then you know not to touch it again.

If there’s something to add to The Sparrow‘s theology, it would be this: that what befalls Sandoz on Rakhat, all the suffering that constitutes his personal Holocaust, is caused by his own ignorance and the ignorance of the sentient beings he encounters. When he loses his friends, there is authentic grief. But he need not have lost his friends in unnatural ways were it not for ignorant acts. And when he is basically tortured, it was because, from a Buddhist point of view, the beings inflicting the suffering were swimming in ignorance and not only doing a great disservice to Sandoz but an even greater disservice to themselves.

When we are in deep states of suffering, we may feel that we want to blame life or blame people or blame God for the misery we have survived, and we may want to take a pessimistic and cynical view of life. If there is someone reading this article who wants to do that, don’t let me stop you.

But when we are open to the idea that we create our own suffering through ignorance, and other beings can inflict great pain and even devastation upon us, but not suffering, then that may be the beginning of the end of suffering. That was what Buddha called Enlightenment: “the end of suffering.” The fight with life is off.

And from this point of view, too, literally all of life becomes learning experience. But you may be thinking… this still doesn’t solve the problem of having suffering in the first place; it just explains how suffering came into existence—through ignorance. Then why does suffering exist, really?

For that question, the best answer I have come across is found in the channeled material of Pamela Kribbe. It speaks to something deep within us:

First, God was entirely GOOD. There was goodness everywhere and all around. In fact because there was nothing else, things were kind of static. His creation lacked aliveness; it lacked the possibility of growth and expansion. You might say it was stuck.

To create change, to create an opportunity for movement and expansion, God had to introduce an Element in his creation that was different from the Goodness that pervaded everything. This was very hard for God, for how can you create something that is not-you? How can Goodness create Badness? It can’t. So, God had to come up with a trick, so to speak. This trick is called ignorance.

Ignorance is the element that opposes Goodness. It creates the illusion of being outside Goodness, of being separated from God. “Not knowing who you are” is the incentive behind change, growth and expansion in your universe. Ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds the need to control, the need to control breeds the struggle for power and there you have all the conditions for “Evil” to flourish. The stage has been set for the battle between Good and Bad.

God needed the dynamics of opposites to get his creation “un-stuck.” It may be very hard for you to comprehend in view of all the suffering caused by ignorance and fear, but God put great value on these energies, since they provided him with a way to go beyond Him/Herself.

God asked you, the ones that belong to the most creative, advanced and courageous part of herself, to take the veil of Ignorance. In order to experience the dynamics of opposites as thoroughly as possible, you were temporarily soaked in forgetfulness about your true nature. You consented to take this plunge into ignorance, but this fact was overlaid by the veil of forgetfulness as well. So now you often curse God for being in the situation you’re in: the hardships, the ignorance – and we understand. In essence though: you are God, God is you.

You may notice in this “theology” that there are strong similarities to Russell’s view. There is a fundamental Goodness or Love that underlies existence, which again is being called “God.” And, like in the Jewish story in The Sparrow, God creates the universe out of love and the novelty of creation–the experience it makes possible.

But here is the great point of divergence: it is God that is having the experience, and not merely watching it or knowing it, as in Russell’s book. The explanation for the universe is the same: Why does it exist? Because it allows for experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be possible! However here, in the channeled material, we have a new answer to the question of suffering. Whereas in The Sparrow the answer to ‘what makes suffering meaningful?’ was that God was watching and present for it, in this view, God is again present but as the experience itself, and suffering comes about through the mechanism of ignorance—i.e., when God forgets itself.

By the way, this is also how Alan Watts explained the Universe. The Universe is God playing “hide and seek” with itself.

Then when we have experiences of suffering we are actually the Divine having an experience of itself through the filter of “ignorance” or “illusion” or “self-forgetting”–call it what you will. We are still serving the greater God that we are One with by having this unprecedented, novel experience that is, in the whole universe, totally unique. We are giving God a learning experience as God.

Then the way out of suffering is just to remember that you are not “a soul searching for God,” as Emilio Sandoz believes himself to be, as if God were something Other than your true nature… but to realize that, in essence, you are God looking for itself, and this world and everything in it is but a temporary appearance in your eternal presence.

To summarize, we have considered two points of view, both theologically oriented. In both views, the universe exists for similar reasons; it exists because it makes new experiences possible, which is another way of saying experience exists for its own sake. In the view presented in The Sparrow, suffering is allowed within the universe by God but made meaningful by virtue of the fact that God is present for, and cares about our suffering. In this  view God is “outside” the world. In the other view, suffering is made meaningful by virtue of being a “learning experience” of complete novelty for God, in which God is both the experiencer and what is being experienced. In this view, contrary to the first view, there is reason to believe that an end to suffering is possible in this life.

So it boils down to the difference between monotheism and pantheism.


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