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Friday, January 22, 2010

The best of all possible worlds - not!

- Dr. Ram Avraham treated a Haitian infant in an Israeli Defense Forces hospital tent near the Port-au-Prince airport.

Still seeing a lot about Haiti: on the secular side, there's info about relief efforts, like the great job done by the field hospital run by Israel's IDF (For Israelis, Mixed Feelings on Aid Effort NYT), and on the religious side, I've seen posts from Eastern Orthodox to Catholic to Anglican on why, given a good God, bad things like earthquakes happen not just to good people but to any people.

Reading about the secular stuff can be disturbing -- some of the stories are harrowing -- but it's when reading the various religious theodicy posts that I've been getting the most uncomfortable. Why? Because so many of them sidestep the problem in the problem of evil.

On thing I read today was The Rev. Dr Giles Fraser's BBC Thought for the Day, Friday 15 January 2010. In it he gives a brief history of theodicy, mentions Leibniz and the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake on All Saint's Day, and then goes on to say .......

Well, I have no answer to the question of how God can allow so many innocent people to die in natural disasters, like the earthquakes of Lisbon or Haiti. And indeed, I can quite understand that many will regard these events as proof positive that religious people are living a foolish dream like the idiotic Dr Pangloss.

And yet, I still believe. For there exists a place in me - deeper than my rational self - that compels me to respond to tragedies like Haiti not with argument but with prayer. On a very basic level, what people find in religion is not so much the answers, but a means of responding to and living with life’s hardest questions. And this is why a tragedy like this doesn’t, on the whole, make believers suddenly wake up to the foolishness of their faith. On the contrary, it mostly tends to deepen our sense of a need for God.

What many believers mean by faith is not that we have a firm foundation in rational justification. Those, like Leibniz, who try to claim this are, I believe, rationalizing something that properly exists on another level. Which is why, at a moment like this, I’d prefer to leave the arguments to others. For me, this is a time quietly to light a candle for the people of Haiti and to offer them up to God in my prayers. May the souls of the departed rest in peace.

I'd bet he's right about one thing -- most believers do not believe in God because it "makes sense" or stop believing because it doesn't. But I cringe at what this seems to say about people who believe in God and are not dumbfounded or outraged at the disconnect between a God who is love and a universe he created where earthquakes crush people. I fear that such people have made a scary deal, one where they trade away the doubt and fear and anger that come with empathy and compassion in the face of tragedy, and get instead peace of mind .... I fear I may be one of those people.

And I think sometimes we believers talk only amongst ourselves so much that we forget what our acceptance of such contradictions seems like to others. Here's an example from Susan Jacoby at On Faith .....


Suffering and the futility of faith

Haiti is not a special case. There is no way to reconcile senseless suffering, whether caused by man or by nature, with belief in an all-powerful, benevolent deity. It's the theodicy problem, and people of faith who try to rationalize the role of suffering in "God's plan" must inevitably fall back on the bromide, "God must have his reasons." Reasons, needless to say, which reason knows nothing of. I listened to an earthquake survivor this morning on the "Today" show, and he concluded that he was rescued from the rubble because "God must have a plan for me." Right. And what about God's plan for the dead and the mutilated? How can anyone cherish these childish, narcissistic notions about a loving god who elects him to survive and others to perish? I am an atheist, so I do not have to torture myself by looking through the Bible or any other supposedly sacred book for an explanation of the inexplicable and a justification of the unjustifiable.

In her brilliant, just-published 36 Arguments for The Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein sums up the self-referential nature of the believer's explanation for suffering: "There are purposes for suffering that we cannot discern...Only a being who has a sense of purpose beyond ours could provide the purpose of all suffering...Only God could have a sense of purpose beyond ours...God exists."

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that "God's plan" is to make better people out of those who survived the earthquake in Haiti. Or the Holocaust. Or whatever tomorrow's tragedy may be. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to have anything to do with such a deity. How loathsome it is to suggest that suffering should exist as a form of self-improvement. Is Alzheimer's disease sent by God to improve the character of caretakers? Or perhaps the "purpose" of this brain-destroying affliction is to force humility on those who were once proud of their mind and talents? The truth is that Alzheimer's, like an earthquake, is no more and no less than a natural catastrophe--albeit of a neurological rather than a geological nature.

Let us not waste our time on holy books that attempt, in vain, to "justify the ways of God to man." God's so-called reasons--even if there were a god--are not worth one child's anguished cry. Human beings have the capacity for both good and evil, and all we can do in the face of indifferent nature or malevolent human design is to choose to behave with compassion or with cruelty. Did I say "all" we can do? To choose compassion is everything. And God has nothing to do with it.


I'm like Giles Fraser ... I don't have an answer to the problem of evil, yet still I don't want to give up on believing in a good God. But some part of me is vastly disturbed by my choice.


Blogger Fran said...

Time is short so I can only say - wow, what a post Crystal. Thank you.

4:25 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Fran - thanks :)

12:25 PM  

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