Tag Archives: theodicy

Should Tsunamis Bother Me More Than Other Deaths?

My old (at least five years old than I am!) colleague Dan Bouchelle has a thoughtful post on his blog on the topic “Why The Tragedy in Japan Doesn’t Shake My Faith in a Loving God.”  I think it’s fair to say that mine was one of the Facebook posts that prompted Dan to compose this response.  He was the most helpful of my interlocutors on Facebook, and I hope that our interaction proves useful for both of our readers.  You really should read what he has to say.  I’ll wait for you to process his thoughts.  Just click.

Hey, welcome back!  Pretty good stuff, huh?  You could get some book length treatments on the topic of theodicy that would cover the terrain deeper, but for a short-form response to the topic, that’s really about as good as you’re going to get.

I would like to work through his whole post eventually, but I have a busy, busy week ahead and I don’t know when I’ll get to it all.  I do want to tackle the first critical question that he raises, though, which I’ll paraphrase as:

Why do thousands of deaths in one place at one time bother you more than thousands of deaths scattered across the world each day?

Dan:

First, let me give some perspective here. We live in a world where tragedy and death are the daily norm. On this day, like every day, between 150,000 and 160,000 people will die. That is one person every 5 seconds. This doesn’t even count all the victims of tragedies that do not kill the body. There are countless victims of disease, crime, accidents, and abuse every second of every day. Slavery, esp. sexual slavery, is very much alive all around the world. The evil humans will do to each other is mind-numbing if you pay attention. The amount of pain in the world is staggering. Just in the United States alone, one in three women will be victims of sex crimes at some point in their life and one in eight men. Hunger, sickness, you name it, we have it in abundance every day.

So how does this make an argument for a loving God in the face of massive disaster? Well, it doesn’t exactly. But it does say that our problem is not just with the big tragedies but with the daily realities of a broken world. Suffering is the backdrop to all human experience and must be accounted for in every worldview. As hard as it is to face, what happened in Japan did not have much impact on the amount of daily suffering in the world.  If your faith cannot deal with the daily evil in the world, you need not worry about the big disasters. Why do the daily 150,000 plus deaths not create the same concern? Why does the suffering of one displaced family in your city not count as much as any family in Japan today?

I don’t mean to be flip here, but I’m really not sure what this particular line of reasoning accomplishes for the Christian apologist.  It seems to me that there’s one quick and obvious response that takes this off the table: “Huh.  Now that you mention it, that really is pretty terrible.  Not only is the problem as big as I thought, it’s really much bigger, and every day.  Now I have even less reason to believe in a benevolent God.  I appreciate you pointing out to me the fuller scope of suffering in the world.  That’s a lot more evidence for my doubts.”  Really, what do you say to that?

In reality, there is a lot of ongoing pain in the world that, for most of us, becomes a sort of background noise that we become accustomed to.  But there are some things that I do tend to track in an ongoing way: global economic injustice, human trafficking, third-world starvation, what the fat-cat investment bankers on Wall Street did to the rest of us with their risky schemes.  More than most, I think I’m tuned in to the larger, systemic problems.

But even if I weren’t, I think it’s a little dodgy to set rules for what people are allowed to be troubled by, and I think it’s completely legitimate to say that certain enormous tragedies raise questions in a more urgent way, or even raise different questions than the ongoing suffering in the world.

Let me give you an analogy.  Picture  the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which I confess I haven’t read in twenty years, so I could be off on the particulars.  At any rate, picture a farm full of sentient, talking animals of various kinds; except instead of working out political theory, these little piggies and horses are grappling with theology. Here’s their story:

They believe the following:  (1) A loving, benevolent, but unseen farmer with ultimate power created their farm, as well as all others on the world.

(2) His care for them is really far too large for words to express.  He provides their food and their shelter, in his unseen ways.

(3) For deep theological reasons, he allows all animals to choose whether to love and follow him, and he doesn’t interfere with free will.  He also doesn’t interfere with the natural processes of sickness and death, or, for that matter, the work of the butcher and the glue-factory man.  But one day he will make everything right, in a restored cosmos without sausage and without steak.

The animals, with a very few exceptions, are pretty happy with this teaching.  It forms the core of their weekly worship, which takes place on Thursday, for reasons humans can’t figure out.  When the butcher comes, they remind the surviving animals that God loves them, but he won’t stop the butcher.  When a beloved mare passes away in old age, they sing out that their friend is now experiencing at least a taste of the restored cosmos that God wants for them all to have someday.  Keep believing, they say. Hold on.

But one night lightning strikes the barn. Most of the calves and ponies burn to their deaths in the resulting fire, and the ones who remain are badly wounded and in great pain.  The fire spreads to the hen house, where all of the chicks are lost.

Then they cry out: “We understand that you won’t stop the butcher, and we know you won’t stop old age.  We were able to believe that you loved deeply but had to let those things happen.  But it’s hard to believe that you love us and won’t stop lightning.  Lightning has no heart, no soul, no afterlife.  There’s nothing to be lost by crippling its power, and everything to be gained.  Now that we’ve undergone this tragedy, we have to rethink whether it ever made sense to believe in your benevolence at all.  Even the butcher would have put out the fire, if he could have.”

The problem with a tsunami is that it makes some of the standard Christian answers either obsolete or much more of a stretch to believe than under normal circumstances.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to say: “I believed in a benevolent God who seldom intervened, but now I’m being asked to believe that God is powerful, benevolent and never intervenes.  Or worse, if I believe my pals at church, he helps rich Americans get promotions and big houses, but won’t stop a quarter million poor people from dying in one day when the tsunami hits Sumatra.”  I really don’t see how it’s inconsistent to say I can deal with sickness, old age and even murder, but I am having trouble believing in a God who does nothing at all–especially when the Biblical story is that he loves us, provides for us and is always working for our good.  That doesn’t match the reality of the world around us.

It occurs to me that Dan is also going to wind up arguing with the prophets. (Which is fine–I like to do that myself.)  They clearly thought that the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians raised much bigger questions of God than did the common losses of each day.  I don’t recall anyone in the Old Testament saying “The loss of our entire nation shouldn’t trouble you if the ongoing losses of the decade before didn’t.”  No, it was the guys who were presumably closest to God who themselves raised the question.  They wanted to know why God was doing this?  Where is he? Has he deserted us?

In that case, the answer was, essentially, that Judah had rebelled so badly that this was the only way that God could wake them up and bring them back to righteousness.  I don’t think anyone other than Pat Robertson is likely to say that the same reasoning holds in Japan, but I guess it would at least be a shot at a Biblical answer.

For those who would say that tsunamis shouldn’t bother me more than any other kind of loss, I would pose a related question:  Is there any conceivable tragedy so large that it would be legitimate–not just understandable, but theologically, philosophically, intellectually justified–to question whether a benevolent God exists?  Let me give you a worst case scenario.  I mean, literally, the worst case I can think of.  A massive comet slams into the eastern seaboard of the United States.  The impact kills hundreds of thousands instantly.  Massive tsunamis kill millions within minutes.  Debris in the atmosphere clouds the sun, causing a global ice age within months.  Things spiral out of control.  This threatens to become a global extinction event, not just for humans, but for everything alive bigger than a cockroach.

In a cave in Mongolia a man huddles alone with his four-year-old daughter.  They haven’t seen or heard from anyone in months now.  He believes that they are the last ones alive in Mongolia, and possibly on Earth.  And he is dying.  Food is scarce, and what they have he gives to his child.  He is fading fast, and knows that he won’t live more than a few days more, maybe a week.  And when he dies, his daughter will be be utterly alone in the world, destined to starve, too.

Is it justified for him to question whether God both exists and loves humanity?  Is global extinction sufficient reason to question whether there is a God after all?  If not, then I think we are pretty close to discovering that the atheists are right, and there is no evidence that will make the devout rethink their faith.  It’s unfalsifiable, and really not an intellectual position as much as a personal preference.  If global extinction actually would count as a better reason to question God than everyday suffering, then we have to answer the question of scale.  Where is the line between “okay, this still fits the Christian worldview” and “hey, now, wait a minute–I didn’t sign up for this!”  If there is a line somewhere, eventually, no matter how far out–if at some point the bodies stack up high enough that you agree it’s now reasonable to rethink God’s nature and existence based on tragedy–then let’s stop telling people what they should and shouldn’t be troubled by and deal with the other issues. This one doesn’t really get us anywhere.

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Tsunamis and the Irksomeness of Prayer

This is the continuation of a conversation that began with my frustrated (and none-too-gently worded) outburst on Facebook that I’m not going to pray for Japan because the best thing that God could have done is prevent the tragedy to begin with, and if he’s not interested in doing that, I don’t see the point in trying to talk him into helping with the clean-up.  Yes–shocking, I know.  Please feel free to assign me whatever label seems fitting.

One of my friends wrote something in response which prompted me to write a string of sentences too long for Facebook, so I’m posting it here, with everyone’s names omitted or obscured so I don’t implicate innocents in my own heresy.

Your comparison of the church’s explanations for God’s lack of visible activity to the explanations that allow children to maintain belief in a non-existent Santa Claus—which I denounce as heretical and well beyond the bounds of civil discourse, and for which I label you a heathen and miscreant—gets close to what is troubling me.  Everyone’s belief system is internally consistent.  It might have huge gaps, it might be based on error, it might pointedly fail to notice certain phenomena and it might consign a great deal of important questions to the category of unknowable mystery, but it’s internally consistent.  This is true of Republicans and Democrats, Anarchists and Fascists, Hindus and Buddhists and Christians whether fundamentalist, evangelical or liberal.  I once preached for a church that had two members who were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Their beliefs were irrational, but completely consistent.  One dropped by my office on a pleasant Monday, complaining of having been shot by a spy who had taken over the body of one of our elders.  I was willing to go along with the idea that the elder in question was an enemy agent bent on destroying the church—it explained a lot of what I had experienced, too—but it was obvious that my troubled friend had not actually been shot.  When I asked him to show me the wound so I could help him bandage it (because I’m sneaky that way) he told me that it was a new kind of bullet whose wounds closed immediately, leaving no trace.  Completely internally consistent.  There weren’t in cracks in his worldview; or if there were, they didn’t last long before an explanation was devised.  The human mind is remarkably good at resolving inconsistency.  That’s even true for very troubled minds.  Actually, it’s probably especially true for very troubled minds.  Healthy people can temporarily carry inconsistent conclusions around before they find a way to resolve them, but they will resolve them, eventually.

I’m open to persuasion (maybe too open, some would say) and I’d be happy to reassess this conclusion, but it looks to me like what most Christians say about the work of God in the world is exactly what they would say if there were no God at all.  Well, no, he doesn’t intervene to prevent tragedy because (1) he honors our free will, (2) he wants us to learn from our suffering, (3) he works through the church to love and comfort people, (4) the age of miracles has passed.…etc.  Well, no, there’s no obvious sign of his existence because (1) you have to have the eyes of faith to see it, (2) he doesn’t want to coerce anyone’s faith, (3) faith does mean believing in the unseen, after all….etc.  You ask me how I know he lives?  He lives within my heart.  Several times I’ve been in a situation where a young (under 45) person was dealing with a potentially fatal illness or accident, and, inevitably, every possible sign of good news was taken as evidence that God was healing the beloved person.  Most of the time, the patient eventually died, and when he or she did, the new story was that “God has answered our prayers by healing our friend completely, and taking them into the presence of Jesus.”  No one ever seems to notice that just yesterday, death would have been seen as a complete failure on the part of God to give us what we were asking for, which was full, physical, right-here-on-earth healing.  Once death comes, it’s like we all agree to forget what we really wanted, and act like that’s what we had in mind all along.  No one says (even me, although I’m thinking it) “just two days ago, the consensus was that the new test results meant that God was healing our beloved!  Either God was just toying with us, (in which case, he’s a sadist more deserving of rebellion than worship) or we were interpreting ordinary, natural fluctuations as divine intervention without sufficient cause to do so.  We were prayerfully, honorably, reverently wrong.”

Well, it’s a new kind of bullet, you see.  Not one that you’ve heard of before.  This is the kind of bullet that leaves no wound.  This is the kind of healing that looks just like death.  This is the kind of love that looks just like apathy.  This is the kind of intervention that looks just like stillness.

Once you decide to accept the truth of Christianity, you learn to make these little adjustments.  Nothing can disprove the faith, because either we’ve already got an orthodox reason why it looks (to people who don’t have the eyes of faith!)  like God isn’t doing anything or we announce that we don’t need to try to defend or explain God anyway, and it’s ultimately a mystery.

But if you step outside of the internally consistent Christian worldview (of whichever variety) and ask: what about other ways of viewing the world?  If I adopt the mindset of an atheist—just to try it on for a second and see how things look—it turns out that’s it’s internally consistent, too!  It also accounts for everything I see.  It also explains the world.

And, as everyone now knows, I get a little frustrated on occasion (just a teensy bit, mind you) with pious pronouncements in the wake of horrific tragedy.  This week, I’m even frustrated with prayer.  Not yours or D—’s or anyone else’s, but certainly with mine.  I look at the images coming in from Japan and start to try to form some petition to a God that, if he exists, certainly could have stopped it all from happening, and I don’t even know what to say.  His kind of caring is so different and alien from anything that I know as caring that communication seems impossible.  (Yes, I know, we have an answer for that one too–the Holy Spirit will intercede on my behalf, with groanings I can’t hear.)  What I want to pray is for him to undo the whole mess, and maybe give us that unshakeable Earth that the psalmists are always singing about.  But we all know that that isn’t going to happen, so we’re left praying for things that we can’t see either fulfilled or unfulfilled, or things that are sufficiently vague that we can interpret the evidence to fit our desired outcomes—comfort, peace, healing.  If you’re the kind of person who is calmed and made peaceful by prayer anyway (i.e. the polar opposite of me), then your outcome is sure from the start.

I’m more like the pastor that Annie Dillard describes in Holy the Firm except not so obviously full of Jesus.  She writes:

There is one church here, so I go to it. On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia. The members are of mixed denominations; the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world–for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all–in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much.

I’m having my own outburst at the moment, “Lord we bring you these same petitions every week!”  And yet this week looks like last week, and like the one before that, and the one before that, and on and on and on for as far into the past as we can see.

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