August 27, 2006

Theodicy and the Skeptic

As those who follow this blog must know, one of my favorite bloggers is a Seattle urologist, who goes by the name of Dr. Bob, and calls his blog The Doctor Is In. Dr. Bob thinks deeply and obviously polishes carefully everything he posts.

Dr. Bob is also a convinced Christian. Those who follow this blog probably also know that I am a skeptic, but a “fellow traveler” of Christianity. That is, I skeptical not only about theology and organized religion as it has often appeared in history, but about a life lived and a society run without convictions that date from way back and are encoded in ritual, in song, and in scripture. It seems to me that if we manage at all it is because we are relying upon the moral capital of forbears who were believers.

Aside from my upbringing my skepticism is founded on three issues. First, applying Occam’s razor, insofar as we have information about the origins and development of the universe, life on earth, or our species, naming a Creator or Intelligent Designer doesn’t increase the explanatory power of any of our theories. If there is such a Designer, He is outside the scientific world of negatable hypotheses.

Second, wherever human knowledge has increased, the traditional scriptural descriptions and explanations of events have been falsified. Thus, scriptural explanations of astronomy, evolution and prehistory have turned out to be inaccurate. Who can believe in the terracentric universe, surmounted by a firmament; a flood in which all species were preserved in a single vessel; or a human family tracing its eponymous ancestors to the extended family of the descendants of Noah?

Third, there is the question of theodicy, or divine justice. As Edward FitzGerald put it in his paraphrase of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with Predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?
In short, there is the difficulty of reconciling the claimed infinite power, infinite justice, and infinite mercy of God.

The most extended Biblical treatment of this question is in the Book of Job. Job, caused to suffer by God on a dare from Satan, ultimately does question God, who in one of the richest poems in the Bible points out to Job that he’s a whole lot smaller than God, and also a lot less wise. The poem, which goes on for quite a while, starts this way in Job 38:
1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,

2 Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

3 Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

4 Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.

5 Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?

6 Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;

7 When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

8 Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?
These passages are great poetry, and if one comes to the issue with a conviction of the existence, power and majesty of God, as did Job, go along way to persuade one that to cavil is beside the point. Today, as St. Paul says, we see through a glass, darkly, but one day, face to face.

If, however, you don’t come to the issue with these convictions, the poetry, although moving in a literary way, does not convince.

Dr. Bob has come up with one of the best-written and thoughtful treatments of this issue that I have seen. Here's an excerpt:
Judaism and Christianity both imply that some such evil may be consequential, the result of punishment or predictable consequences for the malfeasance of man. A more robust theology is less accusatory and thereby more coarsely granular — maintaining that such evil has entered the world because of the fall of man. Under such design our divine divorce has corrupted not only behavior, but our very natures, and all of creation. Yet such theology is of little comfort to those who are the objects of such seemingly random evil; we demand to know of God, “Why?” — and in particular, “Why me?” Yet there is no answer forthcoming, and we are left assuming a God either powerless to stop such evil or unwilling to do so.

Yet the problem of a good God, an omnipotent God, and an evil world of His creation is not entirely insoluble. Much lies in our projection of human frailty onto the nature of the Divine, and the impreciseness of our definitions of good and omnipotent. When we say God is good, we tend to mean that God is “nice” — that he would never do anything to cause us pain or suffering. Yet even in our limited experience, we must acknowledge that pain and suffering, while not inherently good, may be a means to goodness. We choose to have surgery or chemotherapy, though painful and debilitating, that our cancer may be cured. The halls of Alcoholics Anonymous are filled with men and women who, having faced both personal and relational destruction, have used their former liabilities as a gateway to a new, more fulfilling life — one which could not have taken place apart from their harrowing journey through alcoholism. To a misbehaving child, the discipline of a loving father is not perceived as good, but such correction is essential for the development of personal integrity, social integration, and responsibility. Our inability to discern the potential for good in pain and suffering does not by necessity deny its presence; there are many who, when asked, will point to painful, difficult, and unbearable times in life which have brought about profound, often unexpected good in their lives, unforeseeable in the midst of their dark days. There surely is much suffering which defies our capacity to understand, even through we strive with every fiber of our being to find the goodness therein. But the fact that such inexplicable suffering exists, and that answers are often lacking, does not preclude the possibility that God is good, or that such suffering may ultimately lead to something greater and more noble than the pain endured.
Dr. Bob goes on to criticize two tendencies in Christian thinking--the belief that suffering is a punishment for sin, and the belief that if only we have have enough faith and affirmation, prosperity and fulfillment will inevitably be ours.

In the end, of course, Dr. Bob is back to Job.
Christianity has some answers, but it does not fully answer the question:

Our lives have both purpose and a proper time: we live for that purpose, and we die when that purpose is fulfilled. That those who are left behind cannot grasp that purpose — and appropriately suffer profound pain and loss at this separation — does not negate that purpose nor impede its culmination.

We live in a time when our expectations of health, of prosperity, of a pain-free life are increasingly met in the physical realm, while we progressively become sickly, impoverished, and empty in the realm of the spirit. Despite our longer lives, we live in dread of death; despite our greater health, we obsess about our ills; despite our comfortable lives, we ache from an aimlessness and purposelessness which eats at our souls and deadens our spirits. Though we have at our command the means to kill our pain–to a degree never before seen in the history of the world–yet we have bargained away our peace in pursuit of our pleasure. The problem of pain has never been an easy one; in our day, it has not been solved, but rather worsened, by our delusions of perpetual comfort and expectations of a trouble-free life. Until we come to terms with suffering, we will not have comfort; until we embrace our pain, we will never have peace.
Eastern Orthodoxy rejects a purely intellectual approach to these matters, which some of its thinkers regard as the core Western heresy, that infects both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. We are not simply to reason about the goodness of God and the meaning of suffering, we are to live sacramentally. "Theology" is thus not merely a set of categories and arguments, but an experience of theosis, the gradual healing of our selves, wounded by sin, and a gradual approach to God. Although he's not Eastern Orthodox, as far as I know, Dr. Bob is saying that we are not merely to reason our way to a solution, but to experience our way to it. The dead metaphor "comprehend" or "grasp" describes a physical seizure of an object, not a merely mental process.

When I say that I am a skeptic, it is not to say that I am a convinced unbeliever. I do not believe in unbelief.

It is, of course, fair to say that this skeptic has no better answer to the question of why we suffer. The existentialist could say no more than that in an empty universe it falls to us to create our own meanings. The best of these, of course, are echoes of the traditional ones that come from traditional religion, at least in the West, especially from Christianity.

It’s usual to wrap up a post with a wry aside, or a coda that gives the conclusion we want the reader to reach. The truth is, I don’t know the answers. I do know that Dr. Bob’s essay is well worth reading, worth printing out and reading more than once.

UPDATE: Completed sentence and added one to fourth from last paragraph.

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