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  • Tom Bennett

Count Up the Almonds

In a Christian context, the question of suffering has always been difficult. How does one reconcile the idea that ‘suffering and death - considered in themselves -have no true meaning or purpose at all’, as David Bentley Hart puts it, with the contention that there is ‘nothing, not even suffering or death, that cannot be providentially turned toward God’s good ends’? Does the latter not mean all suffering will be somehow balanced out or justified in the end?

Ivan’s Dream, Alice Neel, 1938

When David Bentley Hart speaks of suffering and death ‘providentially turned’, he does not completely align himself with Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, who inveighs against a God whose ultimate vision is predicated on the torture of infants. Hart is in fact, rather strangely, endorsing Ivan’s views. Ivan is right to resist any call to rationalise evil or suffering. But that resistance, as Hart argues, is not incompatible with the belief that forces of ill will never thwart the will of God in the end. Where does this leave us? Hart’s argument is a rather neat and intellectually satisfying one. But the shadows of suffering haunt us still. Ivan’s horrific stories, which Dostoevsky lifted from contemporary newspaper articles, would perhaps struggle to make our front pages today, competing for a place with unprecedented acts of destruction and terror across the world. What can we do as a community when faced with a world shot through with suffering? Perhaps it is a category mistake to speak of doing something with a concept devoid of meaning, a nothing. We may, like Hart, render it theologically coherent, but that does not seem enough.


Beyond more concrete efforts to alleviate suffering, like volunteering one’s time to help the less fortunate or donating to charity, there remains the challenge of existing with suffering. At this juncture, Theodor Adorno offers a potentially useful interpretive avenue in Negative Dialectics. In one particularly excoriating passage, reflecting on life for mankind after the Holocaust, Adorno speaks of the way in which ‘our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of experience as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims’. Any attempt to position those deaths within a broader framework of sense or meaning would fall woefully flat. Like Ivan, Adorno rails against any attempt, secular or religious, to justify horrific suffering in relation to the rewarding ends.


But there is some hope. In light of what Adorno refers to as ‘the new imperative’—‘that Auschwitz will not repeat itself’—we are left with a ‘bodily sensation of the moral addendum’. In other words, we can no longer place at ourselves at a remove from the horror; it strikes us at a physical level. In this sense, Adorno is imploring us to feel the wrongness of suffering, not to try and explain it away. As Lear demands of us all: ‘expose thyself to feel what wretches feel’.


The brilliance of Adorno’s thought lies not merely in his ethics, but his delicate approach to the metaphysical. Alongside his call for a bodily proximity to suffering, he insists that we find a means of discussing suffering that neither denies nor affirms the transcendent world beyond. In denying this world beyond, we risk ignoring the suffering around us crying out for change; in affirming such a utopia we render null and void the current efforts being made to effect this change. With the latter, Adorno poses his challenge to thinkers like Hart. Is it tempting to turn a blind eye to present suffering with the knowledge that God rescues and redeems creation from a fallen world? Perhaps. Though it is Adorno himself, not Hart, who argues that ‘no light falls on people and things in which transcendence would not appear’. For all of his concerns, Adorno appears to cling to a radical hope.


As an antidote to Adorno’s reservations about a potential utopia, there is, of course, a rather straightforward, Christian solution. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who dedicated a great portion of his life to both relieving suffering and writing about it, puts it most clearly: ‘in itself suffering is not redemptive –it is only redemptive if it is connected with love’. This is not offered up as an easy way out of dealing with the crisis of our ‘post-Auschwitz’ state, but rather a natural extension of Adorno’s call for greater approximation to those in agony.


Suffering should not be explained or justified. Though if we are to co-exist with it, we must do so in a spirit of divine love. Yet in seeking the right words for such a call to loving proximity, words can quickly turn glib. They can wither into what the poet Paul Celan would call ‘maxims that never reached anyone’s heart’. But it is Celan himself who offers us the best alternative to empty clichés, as he reflects on his relationship with those murdered in the camps.


Count up the almonds,
Count what was bitter,
what kept you wakeful,
Count me in with them all.

This article was originally published in the Easter 2024 issue of the London Catholic Worker newsletter.

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