How is your faith these days?
This question is the central refrain of the 1999 Stigmata, a kind of counterpart to the infamous expletives spouted by Satan in The Exorcist. Stigmata’s title is misleading; it is not a film about mystical stigmata, but a film about possession. And, like The Exorcist, it’s much more about the compromised faith of its protagonist priest than the precise details of demonic possession.
Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t linger on the ugliness of its supernatural conceit for cinematic effect; it does, but this refrain alerts viewers to the impact of all the gore and filth. My first thought about this line was that being in the presence of the demonic would do wonders for my faith; if Satan exists and has some kind of anti-human mission involving possession and direct challenges to faith, it’s a pretty good indication the obverse is true as well, that God exists and has a pro-human mission. But I was thinking of faith in a very two-dimensional way.
Most of the modern faithless propose a uniform complaint: that God does not exist. This is a straightforward ontological claim, an argument about the truth or falsehood of God’s being. But the notion that God isn’t real is only one avenue through which faith can be weakened, as we have faith in much more, as Christians, than God’s existence. We believe that God is with us, for example, and that God created us; we believe that God is all-powerful, and we believe that God is good.
It’s that latter point that is challenged in the presence of extraordinary evil. When the demonic intelligence facing Gabriel Byrne’s priest in Stigmata inquires about faith, it is presenting itself as a direct refutation not of the existence, but of the goodness of God. How could a good God allow us to be confronted in this way, by something that can overpower us and destroy us, something with no clear purpose other than to do harm, something that exceeds our understanding and resources?
Currently the content of these questions seems on the tip of every tongue. “Hell exists,” Leon Wieseltier writes, “and it is in the town of Makeni in Sierra Leone.” The title of the essay calls the makeshift Ebola clinic it details “God-forsaken.” In the African nations most ravaged by the disease, the judgment seems widespread: An August gathering of over 100 Christian leaders in Liberia produced the pronouncement that Ebola is a heaven-sent plague. Even points of light—like the survival of American Dr. Kent Brantly—have left some wondering why God would rescue one man and allow thousands more to die. Among the lay faithful without platforms to express it, fear and doubt must be even more widespread, and equally painful.
In 397 C.E., Augustine wrote to Profuturus, his friend and fellow bishop. Evidently Profuturus had inquired after his health, to which Augustine replied:
… I am confined to bed. I can neither walk, nor stand, nor sit, because of the pain and swelling of a boil or tumor. But even in such a case, since it is the will of the Lord, what else can I say than that I am well?... Pray for me, that I may not waste my days through want of self-control, and that I may bear my nights with patience: pray that, though I walk in the midst of the shadow of death, the Lord may so be with me that I shall fear no evil.
Elsewhere, in his Confessions, Augustine notes we cannot know the use of every earthly creature in God’s plan for the planet, which could apply to pathogens as well as mosquitoes. And yet bodily suffering remains troubling to faith, which is why Augustine asks for prayers to ensure he does not come to fear evil—that is, to fall under the persuasion of the shadow though the light is all around. Knowing this risk, Augustine reaches in two directions: to God, and to his friend.
There is wisdom in such outreach. Where can we find the goodness of God in circumstances like these, when so many people are suffering and many more are at risk? Of course we pray, but in allowing the fear of disease and death to lead us into hostility and isolation, we lose the opportunity to see the goodness of God in others, where it always resides.
Because Ebola is invisible and foreign, its spread arouses the worst impulses of fear and loathing. While it’s excellent to see coverage of Dallas nurse Nina Pham as more than a potential vector for disease, it’s also notable that deceased patient Thomas Eric Duncan, a black Liberian national, received much less in the way of sympathy, and much more in the way of hostility. As demands to seal the U.S. border—including either a reduction or cessation in aid operations—strengthen in response to the development of cases among Americans, keeping in mind the inherent value and dignity of others seems harder and harder. Those very far from us and very different from us are already at a disadvantage when it comes to the extension of charity, but now more than ever those idle prejudices have the potential to intensify and do extraordinary damage. The shadow of death thrives on fear.
Meanwhile, survivors of the Ebola virus in Liberia are now using their hard-earned immunity to care for and comfort current patients. In the States, the blood of survivor Dr. Kent Brantly is being used to treat Nina Pham. In all of these cases, suffering has opened the way to self-giving, sometimes in the most literal sense. In the goodness of others, we can glimpse the goodness of God. As a community, we have the opportunity to offer our goodness up in the form of our calm and our prayers, our contributions to charities actively helping the sick, and in our responsible stewardship of our own health.
If there were a definitive, immediately satisfying theological answer to the problem of suffering, every person on earth would know it, because we’ve all had occasions on which to demand it. But I don’t have an answer like that, something straightforward and simple that soothes pain and settles fear. Instead I look for the goodness of God in those around me, the heroic and the ordinary; I pray, but I also reach for the goodness of God in people suffering near and far, in everyone, in you.