Why suffering? This primordial struggle, to grapple for meaning at times when the world seems dark and absurd, is both the perennial quest for an answer to our pain and the subject of this week’s episode of Glee. For believers and philosophers alike, the question of suffering and its related quest for reconciliation with an understanding of a good God is known as theodicy. How would the cast sing about this? Needless to say, it was a very heavy episode of Glee this week.
The plot centered on one student’s struggle with the sudden and serious illness of his father. To make things more interesting, Kurt — who is understandably jaded by formal religion in light of the struggles he has encountered as an out gay high school teenager (a perspective very apropos of recent tragedies) — is a professed atheist.
After confronting his friends praying for his unconscious father in the hospital, Kurt said: “amazingly, needles pierce the skin better than psalms,” as the acupunturist entered the room. He was clearly upset about what he considered the uselessness of prayer, but what the character in the program didn’t take into consideration — and I believe many who find prayer of little value also disregard — is that human beings are more than a mind trapped in a physical body. To use the systematic theological description: we are more than the sum of our parts. We have this intrinsic ‘spiritual’ dimension of our existence. While psalms or other forms of prayer may not ‘pierce the skin’ like a hypodermic needle can, our prayers of joy and lament and suffering can pierce the heart and soul. Prayer can be healing and it can be cathartic. Prayer helps us realize that there is something more than just us, while at the same time reminding us that we are not alone.
Another interesting story line in this episode of Glee centered on the character Finn’s after-school snack: a burnt grilled cheese sandwich whose burnt crust looked sort of like Jesus, earning the bread-and-cheese idol the honorific title, “Grilled Cheesus.” Finn, treating the Grilled Cheesus like it had special powers, prayed to the sandwich for different things, each of which appeared to come true. It wasn’t until the school counselor readily dismissed the snack deity and, with little effort, explained a more rational reason for each of his wishes being granted.
“I liked feeling like I had this direct line to God, now I just feel like everyone else,” said Finn before singing one of my favorite songs, “Losing my Religion” by R.E.M. (1991). What struck me about this line was that Finn (or should I say, the writers) is what it says about a popular conception of what it means to be human. For far too many people, God is something extra, something or someone outside of our reality that we can chose to appropriate or ignore. To a certain extent this is true — we are created with the ability to choose whether or not we want to respond to the gift of God’s self to us in our lives. But, what is so often overlooked, what so frequently breaks my heart, is that many people don’t realize that their very existence is itself a sign that they have the capacity to know God and a certain relationship to God pre-installed.
Theologians like Karl Rahner firmly believed that every human being has the capacity for God. When Finn talked about feeling as though he had a direct line to God and then feeling as if he had lost it, what struck me was the universality of his experience. So many people go through similar — if more serious — experiences in life when they lose faith. Perhaps it’s the explaining-away of certain events or feelings in life that were once attributed to the Divine or perhaps, like Kurt, one’s suffering of marginalization because of one’s identity or the loss of a loved one shatters the previously held notion of who God is and what God is about.
But, contrary to Finn’s assessment of the loss of his religion due to the debunked Grilled Cheesus, we do indeed have a direct line to God. Everybody does. How we (re)discover that connection is the challenge that lies ahead of each of us. It is our responsibility as brothers and sisters to one another to help each other along the way. When our friends, family or even strangers suffer, become disheartened or lose faith – may we serve as an example of someone who lives courageously, faithfully and hopefully as one aware of our very real direct line to God.