Last month, in the days leading up to Easter, I was reminded of a comment I once heard Yuval Harari make in an interview.1 He called attention to suffering and its usefulness in discerning what is “real.”
He noted how many things in our lives are helpful abstractions we all use, but aren’t actually “real.” A corporation, for instance, is a useful legal fiction but isn’t “real” in the way a human is. You can’t share a meal with it or converse with it like you can with a friend. Currencies like the dollar or euro aren’t real entities that you can touch or put under a microscope for examination. They’re useful, but not concrete. They’re not “real” in the same sense you and I are.
But sometimes the line between what’s “real” and what’s not can be forgotten or overlooked. So how do you make this distinction between what’s real and what’s a useful abstraction? According to Harari, one way is by using the “test of suffering”:
And there is a very, very simple test to know whether the hero of the story that you’re telling is a real entity or a fictional entity invented by humans and existing only in the imagination. And that is the test of suffering…a human being can suffer…but a nation can’t. If a nation loses a war, it doesn’t suffer. It has no mind. It can’t feel pain or sadness or fear. The soldiers who are fighting for the nation…can suffer a lot of things, but the nations can’t suffer.
I was reminded of this because when it comes to religion, it’s one thing to believe in a deity that is far removed from everything–the Perfect Being, the First Mover, the Prime Cause. But in light of the test of suffering, some could argue, “Isn’t this just another useful abstraction? Is such a being even able to suffer?”
But in Christianity, suffering and the divine aren’t mutually exclusive. Every year, in the celebration of Good Friday, the suffering of Christ is brought into focus. Instead of being an abstraction that is unable to suffer, the Christian message is that God took on flesh and blood in Jesus. He not only had the capacity for suffering but experienced it fully. And although this may not prove anything, if suffering is indeed a way to discern the real from the imaginary, it’s interesting to consider how this relates to the Christian story.