Friday, December 31, 2004

New Year's Wishes

Bill and I wish all of our readers here at Viewpoint a great 2005! We thank you for spending time with us in 2004, and we hope that you include visiting with us on a regular basis among your New Year's resolutions.

God Bless you and your loved ones,

Where Was God?

The death toll is at 120,000 and still rising. It is, as far as we know, the greatest natural disaster ever to befall humanity in a single day. A friend, Steve M., directs us to Andrew Sullivan's blog which has a short piece linking the reader to Martin Kettle at the Guardian and Stephen Bainbridge at Mirror of Justice who raise the inevitable and vexing question: How could a good and all-powerful God allow this incomprehensible tragedy to happen? It's the same question with which Voltaire skewered the believers of his day after an earthquake killed fifty thousand residents of the city of Lisbon in 1755.

Kettle closes his column with these words:

A non-scientific belief system, especially one that is based on any kind of notion of a divine order, has some explaining to do, however. What God sanctions an earthquake? What God protects against it? Why does the quake strike these places and these peoples and not others? What kind of order is it that decrees that a person who went to sleep by the edge of the ocean on Christmas night should wake up the next morning engulfed by the waves, struggling for life?

From at least the time of Aristotle, intelligent people have struggled to make some sense of earthquakes. Earthquakes do not merely kill and destroy. They challenge human beings to explain the world order in which such apparently indiscriminate acts can occur. Europe in the 18th century had the intellectual curiosity and independence to ask and answer such questions. But can we say the same of 21st-century Europe? Or are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?

Mirror of Justice writes this:

The tsunamis that have spawned mind-boggling human suffering across Asia represent perhaps the most difficult challenge to the anthropological presumptions driving the project that we've undertaken on Mirror of Justice. How can we insist on the theologically grounded dignity of the human person when the natural order itself appears to defy such dignity? Nature's challenge is especially poignant during this Christmas season, as the divine concern for humanity promised by the Incarnation seems relatively meaningless given the utter absence of concern embodied in the shifting of the earth's plates deep under the ocean.

Clinging to a belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good deity appears hopeless in the wake of these deadly waves. Invoking human free will offers little help, as the earthquake (unlike all war, much famine, and many diseases) is not causally related to any human act or omission. Chalking it up to the mystery of God is understandably seen as a cop-out. Another common response is to insist that creation fell along with humanity, and this world is obviously not as God desired. But why would God have wired the earth itself to unleash death and destruction once humanity rejected Him? Murder is a human creation; plate tectonics are not. Is not God culpable for earthquakes? And if God is culpable, is not the entire Christian worldview proved to be the illogical relic portrayed by critics?

It seems to me that if we want a moral anthropology rooted in the Incarnation to be taken seriously, we must try to offer an explanation of a world in which tsunamis rip children from their mothers' arms. This is an age-old question, but it must lie at the heart of any effort to engage a culture made skeptical of our "Catholic legal theory" project, at least in part, by pervasive human suffering seemingly caused by the God we embrace.

It would take astonishing chutzpah to think that one can offer a convincing answer to these challenges, and so close to the catastrophe one is loath to even discuss it for fear that it may seem as though the pain and grief hundreds of thousands are experiencing are something abstract and unreal. Even so, the questions are being raised and to refrain from attempting an answer might seem like ducking the issue. So we offer the following, fully aware that no argument, no matter how successful, does anything to console the grieving or to alleviate their pain. Arguments and explanations are for the observers of suffering, not those who are immersed in it.

Nor are we presumptuous enough to think that the answer we suggest resolves all the questions, but we do think that it lies in the direction any theist who seeks an answer to these enormously difficult matters needs to tread.

We start by noting that much evil in the world is the result of human volition, and ever since Augustine the free-will defense of God's goodness has been, if not trouble free, at least serviceable. One problem with it, however, is that it only addresses the problem of moral evil. It does not help us answer those who ask how a good God could allow suffering caused by natural calamities such as storms, accidents, famine, and disease. Or earthquakes. Whatever the reason God may have for permitting moral evil, wouldn't a perfectly good and all-powerful creator have designed a world in which there was no natural evil?

Before going further, we should stipulate that although we hold that God is powerful enough to create universes, we do not hold that His power is unbounded. God's capabilities are constrained by, inter alia, His own nature, and one aspect of that nature is that it is rational and logical. God cannot act irrationally or illogically since to do so would be to put Himself in conflict with Himself. Thus God's power is such that He can do anything that is logically possible to do, i.e. God can do anything that does not entail a contradiction or a logically inconceivable state of affairs. For example, it is not within God's power to create a world in which it would be true to say that God did not create it. Nor is it within God's power today to create a state of affairs in which it would be true to say that the reader of these words never existed.

Perhaps one way to answer the question, then, is to suggest that it may not be possible, even for God, to create a world governed by physical laws in which there is no potential for harm. For example, any world governed by gravity and the law of momentum is going to contain within it the potential for people to fall and suffer injury. Thus the laws of gravity and momentum are not compossible with a world free of the potential for injury. Once God decided to create a world governed by laws, those laws entailed the possibility of harm.

For instance, as Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee explain in their wonderful book Rare Earth, it appears that a planet suitable for life must have plate tectonics, and so, if God is going to create a habitable planet it must have the potential for earthquakes and thus injury and death.

It might be objected, of course, that many theists hold that God creates heaven and that heaven is a world in which there is no natural evil, so it must be possible for a world governed by laws of some kind to exist without there being any human suffering. If God could create heaven, why wouldn't He, if He was perfectly good, create this world like that one?

Perhaps the answer is that God did create this world like that. Maybe the reason that there is no natural evil in heaven is that God's presence suffuses that world, fills every nook and cranny, and acts as a governor, an override, on the laws which might otherwise result in harm to beings which exist there. The skeptic might rejoin that even were he to grant that God's presence in heaven is superordinate to the laws which govern that world, that doesn't help the theist because there's no reason why God couldn't do something similar here in this world as well. Since He obviously doesn't, He must not be perfectly good.

This is, however, exactly what Christian theology says that God did, in fact, do. The account goes something like this: God created a world regulated by the laws of physics and indwelt that world with man, his presence suppressing or negating any harmful effects the expression of those laws may have had. Although the potential for harm existed, there was no disease, suffering, accident, or even death.

At some point, however, man betrayed the idyllic relationship that existed between himself and God. In an act of cosmic infidelity, man chose to use his freedom in a way, the only way, apparently, that God had forbidden in order to assert his autonomy and independence from God.

It was as if a good and faithful husband returned home to discover the love of his life in bed with his worst enemy. If, as "open theists" suggest, God did not foresee this crushing blow coming, it must have broken his heart, metaphorically speaking. Man had made a choice to treat with contempt the wishes of his Creator. He had implicitly demanded that he be completely free to do as he pleased, and God would not force him to do otherwise. Grief-stricken at the rejection He suffered at the hands of His beloved, God withdrew his presence from the world, leaving man, in his self-imposed, self-chosen alienation and estrangement, to fend for himself against the laws and forces which govern the universe.

From time to time that estrangement has terrible consequences. Usually those consequences are drawn out over months or years, like famines or epidemics of influenza or plague. Once in a while, though, they are compressed into relatively brief intervals of time, and it is human to wonder at such moments, where is God? Perhaps God is right at hand, weeping for a world which rejects and excludes Him one moment while blaming Him for not intervening to prevent our suffering the next.

Maybe someone has a better answer. Maybe there is no answer. But this, at least, is our answer.