Sunday, February 20, 2005

Next Issue: More Theology

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

The Guardian has taken to printing articles by the Vicar of Putney.

Don’t worry: it gets more interesting. Well, slightly more interesting.

Last month he, like every other pundit in the country, wrote a piece about the tsunami disaster. It turns out that a lot of people have spotted that this was a very terrible event, and concluded that therefore God doesn’t exist.

So far as I can tell, it is only the people who already thought that God doesn’t exist who reached this conclusion. If some journalist had managed to track down a Bishop who was also a Christian, and who had looked at the big wave and said “Well, what do you know? Materialism was right all along!” that would have been interesting. It would also have been interesting if you could have found a Dawkinsite who had looked at all the people being compassionate and said “Good God! Human life does have some purpose after all.” But no-one has managed to produce a single such person on either side. Just a lot of morgue-chasing essays by people saying “Hey! You see this big earthquake thing in all the papers. Well, guess what. It proves that I was right all along.” Major international event confirms people's philosophical prejudices, shock.

It is always thus. If a child is murdered, or a terrorist bomb goes off, or an old lady of sixty six has a baby, it is always excuse for people to say “I told you so.” Never for them to say “Gosh. I shall have to revise my whole theory of crime and punishment, or medical ethics”

(Come to think of it, there were a few pundits who said “We support the war on Iraq because of the Weapons of Mass Destruction” who subsequently said “Since there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction, we were wrong to support the war. Sorry.” I wonder if any of the pacifist types would have changed their mind and said “mea culpa” if the bombs had been found?)

The Rev Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney and professor of something or other, approached the tsunami, reasonably enough, as an instance of the general question of divine goodnesses and human suffering. He starts with a painful story about the first time he, as a young clergyman, had to conduct the funeral of a baby and how this almost made him lose his vocation. However, even in the face of this awful event, he somehow carried on believing in God. The article then jump cuts to the “endless under-graduate tutorials” he has attended on the “so-called problem of evil.”

He says

“The essays that are the hardest to stomach are those that seek some clever logical trick to get God off the hook, as if the cries of human suffering could be treated like a fascinating philosophical Rubics cube....Of course, none of them work, and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern in the face of great tragedy is to buy God some dubious alibi”.
He waffles for a bit longer, and then asks us to think about the infant Christ.
“What is terrifying about the Christmas story is that it offers us nothing but the protection of a vulnerable baby, of a God so pathetic that we need to protect Him. The idea of a omnipotent God who can calm the sea and defeat out enemies turns out to be a part of the great fantasy of power that has corrupted the Christian imagination for centuries. Instead, Christians are called to recognize that the essence of the divine being is not power but compassion and love...”
There is quite a lot that can be said about this drivel.

First, Fraser has decided that he is free to be as selective as he wishes about which Biblical stories and Christian doctrines he will believe in. He approves of “the Christmas story”, which is told in different forms, by St Matthew and St Luke; but disapproves of the story about Christ calming the seas, which is told (in very similar forms) by Matthew, Mark and Luke. The four Gospels are full of stories in which Jesus is a figure of power (“what manner of man is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”) If, when Matthew and Luke report stories of Jesus working miracles, they had been "seduced by a fantasy of power" which is not merely irrelevant to Christianity, but actually antithetical to it, why trust them when they talk about the Bethlehem baby? Why trust anything they say about Jesus? Why read the New Testement at all?

(On Christmas Eve, Fraser got very angry, albeit about seventeen hundred years too late, about the emperor Constantine because the Creed of Nicea mentions that Jesus was born of a Virgin, and that he Died, but misses out everything that happens in between. The in-between bit is, apparently, the important bit, because the true message of Christianity is that the adult Jesus preached that we should all be pacifists. Or something. But now he wants us to concentrate on the baby-in-a-manger bit, and ignore all the adult-jesus-does-miracles stuff. )

Second, it is very hard to find anything in his religion which is recognisable as “Christiantiy”. He tells us that Christains “cannot go on speaking about prayer as if it were an alternative way of getting things done” (even though Jesus is reported as having told his disciples that they would get anything they prayed for.). He rejects the idea of devils as risible (even though the gospels report Jesus as functioning as, among other things, an exorcist). And as noted, he rejects the idea of Jesus as a miracle-worker.

One slightly wonders what they do in churches in Putney. If you can't use passages from the Bible which refer to miracles, Satan, or an omnipotent God, and if you don't believe in prayer, then what do you find to do for an hour and a half on Sunday morning?

(Question: Why is the idea of devils so often assumed to be medieval or supersititous, when the idea of God is treated with at least a modicum of respect? Is there anything inherently less sensible about believing in bad supernatural beings than believing in good ones?)

I am reminded of a lecture given by Don Cupitt while I was at York University. A guy I knew from the anarchist club stuck up his hand and said “I agree with nearly everything you are saying, but I don’t understand why you put it in terms of this reactionary Christian bullshit.” I’ve always thought he had a very good point. Fraser gives very cogent reasons for rejecting the religion which has always been referred to as Christianity; having done so, I can’t see why he wants to carry on referring to himself as a Christian.

Third, his doctrine of the incarnation is distinctly wobbly. He says that God “is” a pathetic baby, and that the divine essence “is” compassion and love. I actually don’t know what “is” means, here. Christians say that the God who made the universe was in some way was transformed into a baby. (Subject to a thousand years of hair splitting about what you mean by “God”, “baby” and “transformed”, obviously.) They see this as a paradox. (“Our god contracted to a span/incomprehensibly made man”...another hymn they presumably can’t sing in Putney.) Fraser appears to be saying that “helplessness” and “babyness” is in some way what God has always been like. Those silly, silly Jews made another mistake which the Christian story corrects.

He has a nice line in sending barbed nasties at people he doesn’t quite agree with. “Thus spitte I out my venym under hewe/of holynesse, to semen hooly and trewe” as the fellow said. It isn’t sufficient for Fraser to say that the standard theological answers to the problem of evil are inadequate. The people who put them forward have to be bad people. (“and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern...”) Is it really likely that those who he has heard propose solutions to the problem of evil are doing so because they have no other concerns? Isn’t it more likely that they are undergraduates attempting to answer a question that has been set them? And are they really trying to “find God an alibi” or “let him off the hook”? Isn’t it more likely that they are asking whether it is intellectually or morally possible to believe that there is any such being as God in the first place? Fraser doesn’t seem to mind us asking these question: but if you try to answer them, you aren’t merely foolish -- you are morally sick.

I also like the bit about the “ ‘so-called’ problem of evil”. Reminds me of Dorothy L Sayers reference to a war-time leading article which referred to Hitler and his dupes as “these so-called Germans.”

Fraser appears to be saying that knowing the answer to the Problem of Evil would be of no help in councelling a bereaved mother. He’s probably right. He concludes that it is silly, or futile, or pointless or actually bad to ask the question, which seems to me to be a non sequitur. The “problem of evil” is a logical problem. So it is not very surprising that people try to come up with logical answers to it. And it is not very surprising that answering a logical problem doesn’t help you solve a pastoral one.

The"problem" of evil itself is actually very simple. It’s a bit like the old business proverb: “You can have it cheap. You can have it quick. You can have it good. Pick any two.”

Similarly, you are welcome to pick any 4 statments off the following list:

1: God exists
2 God is good
3: God knows everything.
4: God can do anything.
5: Bad things happen.

But you can’t logically believe in all 5.

If God doesn’t exist, then there is no problem. Bad things happen: they just do. (It’s probably even a fallacy to call them bad. One baby dying, or a lot of people dying in a natural disaster, is not “bad” in any cosmological sense. We just happen not to like it very much. It would be better to just say “stuff happens” and leave it at that.) But if you were prepared to say “God doesn’t exist”, then you wouldn’t be a vicar, even a Church of England vicar. If you want God to carry on existing, you have to chose one of the remaining four lines to delete.

So: cross out line 2, and there is no problem. God exists, and knows about all the bad things which are happening, and could stop them if he wanted to, only he doesn’t want to, because he isn’t good, not in the sense that we usually mean. Maybe we are so Totally Depraved that we couldn’t possibly know the difference between Goodness and Badness, and all our arguments are therefore invalidated. Maybe God is like Galactus or the Force, totally above “good” and “evil”. Maybe the God who is running this universe is actually a Baddy. There have been wacky forms of Christianity which say that an evil demiurge created the universe against God’s will; or that for the time being, God has delegated the running of this world to Satan.

Not happy with an evil or amoral God? Then cross out line 3. The reason that so many bad things happen in the world is because God doesn't know about them. Either he created the universe and then left it running like a clockwork thing, with a view to coming back and checking up on it in a few billion years, or else he just happens to be looking the other way at the moment. Maybe it's our job to draw his attention to the problems down here, and the reason bad things happen is that we aren't all praying hard enough. This was the line taken by the Diests and some Country and Western singers.

You’d rather God was omniscient? All right then, dispense with line 5, and say that in actual fact, bad things don’t happen in the world, so there is nothing surprising about the fact that God doesn’t stop them. If you go down this path, you’ve got lots and lots of options. You can either say that, in actual fact, things like earthquakes and AIDS don’t happen at all: that they only figments of our imagination. Or you can say that they certainly happen, but they aren’t actually bad. Maybe they are a divine punishment, and therefore a good thing. Or maybe they are less bad than the alternatives, because we live in the best of all possible worlds. Maybe living in a place where bad things happen is a necessary part of the process whereby we grow into sons of god. Or maybe dying isn’t actually an evil, because you go to heaven (or hell, if you deserve it, which is still good in the long run). Maybe dying in a disaster is actually an advantage, because it concentrates your mind wonderfully so you have got more chance of making a good end, getting saved, and going to heaven.

Does this sound callous to you? Then reject point 4. Bad things are bad, and God knows they are bad, and God wants to help...but he can’t. Because he isn’t omnipotent. This one is harder work, but you could say that God is one of two or more forces in the universe, and right now, the Devil has the upper hand. Or you could say that it just so happens that God is powerful enough to bring the universe into being, but not powerful enough to control everything in it on a day to day basis. Or that God’s omnipotence doesn’t stretch to doing things which are literally impossible (like making four sided triangles, or two hills without a valley between them) and “a world in which nothing bad ever happens” is one of those literally impossible things. Or that when he created the universe he said “I am going to waive my omnipotence: there will be lots of things in this creation that I can’t influence.” ("Human free will" is often invoked in this context, although I have never been quite sure how it helps.) Or maybe, in some complicated way, God just happens not to be omnipotent. Maybe he is more like a vulnerable baby in a manger. Maybe the essence of the divine is not power but love. Maybe...

You will, of course, have spotted, that this is precisely the line taken by the Vicar of Putney. Granted, he wraps it up in a lot of thought-for-the-day-Latin which, frankly, has no meaning that I can discern. (“Far from being a reason for people to to take their leave of God, many find that the language of God is the only language sufficient to express their pain and grief” ... what?), but what he actually does is deny, at length and repeatedly, God’s omnipotence. Which is, as long as we are talking about the problem of pain, is perfectly good answer. His theory of a God who never answers prayers or does miracles or so so far as I can tell, does anything at all just as much a logical solution to the logical problem of pain as any other. “How can an omnipotent God let bad things happen.” “Because he is not omnipotent.” (And, I suspect, just as un-helpful in an actual pastoral situation. "Why did God let my baby die?" "Because he's a helpless baby in a manger and can't do anything about it.")

It seems that Giles Fraser is just as much of a moral sicko as the rest of us.


Anonymous said...

So, just out of interest, which of the five options do you cross off?

Anonymous said...

Oof!Well, I was going to post a meaty little comment, speaking as someone from a Jewish family whose relatives died in the Holocaust and who herself is a Christian...

...but that thread got entirely too long and dull.

And I was going to post on the thread about Anglicanism and Lutheranism, speaking as one who is living with this change, and who is more upset at losing the traditional Anglican formulation about the Eucharist (the faith in the heart of the believer makes the Bread and Wine into the Body and Blood (Hooker)) to consubstantiation (the two things exist in the same space simultaneously), which is the Lutheran view...

...but the image of the female Eposicopalian priest dancing around behind the Lutheran minister was making me laugh too hard.

So, instead I will just declare my view that I cross off number 5, with a strong caveat to the effect that the suffering humans cause humans is largely due to the fact that God will not override any individual's free will. Someone I respect once preached a sermon to the effect that Jesus is God's apology for doing just that to Job. But even then, Job was free to keep kvetching.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I hadn't thought that demons might have free will, but that does make sense. (How else could they have rebelled, after all?) In which case the answer to Andrew's rhetorical question is just that, rightly or wrongly, it's easier to believe one apparently-impossible thing before breakfast than to believe six.Devils are no help in a discussion of the "the problem of evil" because they just push the question back a level. Why do bad things happen? Because of the Devil. Why is there a Devil? Either because it isn't logically possible to create a universe without a devil in it; or because he serves some good purpose; or because God isn't sufficiently poowerful to defeat him, or choses not to be...etc etc etc.

There are very good reasons for not believing in the Devil (or, at any rate, in not making it a major plank in your theology). There is not much about him in the Bible; he very easily becomes the pretext for spiritual bullying; people can use him as an excuse for not taking responsibility for their own actions. Etc.

But I am sure that the biggest reason is the one which Screwtape suggested:

"If any faint suspicion of your existance begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you."

Andrew Rilstone said...

I agree completely - devils don't shed any light on the problem of evil. I just find the construction "if {unlikely thing x} then why not {unlikely thing y}?" faintly irritating. Unlikelyhoods do get more unlikely when you multiply them, which is why very few people are happy with turtles all the way down.

Of course, this has no bearing on the question of weather devils exist. Truth, as Mark Twain said, is not required to stick to possibilities
I wonder if what you are talking about here is like Lewis's "soup" analogy -- there are "clear" religions, with a single stark philosophical idea; and there are "thick" religions, with a plethora of gods, myths, rituals, ceremonies, holy places and so on. I wonder if a preference for the "clear" over the "thick" has more to do with aesthetic taste than philosophical ideas?

That said good or bad angels have never been remotely relevant to my (spirituality / theology / paradigm / world-view delete according to taste). They occasionally function as metaphors, as in Screwtape or Milton; and the devil works rather nicely as a dramatic device in things like the Mystery Plays. But the Mystery Plays are very much "A rollicking and hopefully edifying pantomime loosely based on ideas from the Bible." I enjoy "The Harrowing of Hell" where Jesus goes down to hell and actually fights with Satan for the souls of mankind. But only at a narrative level: read as allegory or theology it makes little sense. And of course, the whole modern "angels" thing is about as un-Christian or actually un-religious as you can get.

I wouldn't say I actively dis-believe in angels or think the idea is intrinsically ridiculous. I just tend not to think about it very much.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if what you are talking about here is like Lewis's "soup" analogy -- there are "clear" religions, with a single stark philosophical idea; and there are "thick" religions, with a plethora of gods, myths, rituals, ceremonies, holy places and so on.The amusing question, from some points of view, is how long it takes the average population of believers to turn a "clear" religion into a hysterically "thick" one.

About ten minutes, I'd guess.

Anonymous said...

I'll start this by saying that, in real life, I am an ordained ELCA pastor. I mention this because otherwise what I have to say doesn't make much sense.

lirazel, I'm not suggesting that the theological compromise was all one way. Unhappy as I am to have been dragooned into the apostolic succession, my Anglican friends are equally unhappy to have constubstantiation shoved down their throats. CCM was a bod idea. Yes, we can work together, but we can do that without having to merge. Lutherans and Anglicans are not the same, and we shouldn't pretend to be.

Andrew, I'm sure you are aware that orthodox Christianity wants to keep all five statements. I do too. I'm profoundly uncomfortable with where you end up if you cross any of them out. I realize that holding onto all of them ties you up in logical knots, but there we are.

It's not that I haven't faced the question. I've been in hospital rooms with parents whose child has been diagnosed with cancer. I've done funerals for teenagers killed by drunk drivers. I've sat with grieving families. I've listened to stories that left me stunned and sick to my stomach. The nature of my call is that, when tragedy strikes or life gets to be too much of a burden, I'm there. (Doesn't that sound melodramatic? But my point is that I'm not living in some Pollyana dream world, and this is a real, day to day concern for me.)

One of my best sermons was on this topic. By one of my best, I mean that people have stopped me in the grocery store and restaurants to talk about it, even though I've moved to another parish since then. I used the Slaughter of the Innocents (the Gospel reading for the day) and 9/11 as examples of evil, and ended up in the book of Job.

The gist of it was that people who are actually in grief are not very interested in a philosophically or logically consistent system that explains human suffering. That seems to be something that is more important to those of us observing the suffering. People in the midst of it just want to know that their suffering is acknowleged, and that it isn't meaningless.

Job ends, not with an answer to why do we suffer, but with a statement from God -" I am God, and you aren't. I know more than you do. Your experience of me has shown that I am good, loving and have your long-term best interests at heart. Trust me." As a philosophical or ethical statement, it fails. As part of a relationship, it works.

Tertullian pointed out that there are a lot of things about Christianity that only make sense from the inside. This is one of them. No one will ever be converted to Christianity by this argument. Non-Christians will remain, let's put it politely, skeptical. But from the inside, it works. I've seen it, in some pretty horrible situations.

So I'll hold onto all 5 of your statements, and freely acknowlege that they seem to be contradictory, and say that this is one of the ways in which God and humans differ - we can't fully comprehend a reality that embraces all of those things. It's one of those things that will become clear at the Eschaton.

And, as for the vicar, picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to accept is a sure path to heresy.


Anonymous said...

If you aren't allowed to pick and choose which bits of the Bible you accept, you presumably have to stone adulterers, and worry about people marrying their deceased wife's sisters, and prevent women speaking in church, and so on. Plus, you doubtless have to take Genesis literally.

But once you start saying "that's just a metaphor" and "that bit is superceded" and "that was a rule for a specific historical period, and not a generality", it's really just a personal judgement where you stop. So every Christian is a heretic, I guess.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

Andrew: My personal solution to the problem of pain is the alternative. God could easily (I am assuming) make us all in to marrionettes, but then what would be the point? He could sanitize the system and each of us so that life was happy and without trial, but of what interest would that be? I rather live and then die, then not live at all, and I, for one, am happy that I don't live in teletubbie land. Which I find I distinctly dubious prospect. Certainly I find life reasonably interesting, but that is because I have had a secure middle-class upbringing and have never suffered any personal trauma. How do you explain to a concentration camp victim, a victim of the tsunami or a rape victim that their trauma was necessary in order to provide a bit of variety to the world?

Anonymous said...

This is why I enjoyed Preacher so darn much. God exists, but he's a bit of a tool. And the whole sixty-six issue quest is devoted to finding out why, in fact, bad things happen. The creation has outgrown its creator.

Sort of like... did you catch Grant Morrison's run on Animal Man? As thought-provoking as The Invisibles, but way less inscrutable. As Morrison is very deliberately breaking the fourth wall, he lets his characters ask questions like---what if the world above isn't heaven, but rather hell? What if the world above is so terrible that the people in it had to dream us up as an escape?

'Course, none of this breaks the four-of-five statement, but it seems like a much more sensible position to take. I don't understand why Preacher is written off as being an immature work. Is it the grievous head wounds? The gratuitous tit shots? I don't know.

Anyway, if you haven't gotten to read Animal Man, I would highly recommend it. Morrison's run has recently been republished in three trade paperbacks, but I'd still be more than willing to send you the best of the lot (issue five, "The Coyote Gospel"), if you'd like.

Andrew Rilstone said...

grendelkhan said...

This is why I enjoyed Preacher so darn much. God exists, but he's a bit of a tool.
Preacher is my favourite graphic novel which doesn't contain an aardvark. The most typical English comic book character is a naughty boy who keeps getting punished and doesn't care very much. The most typical American comic book character is a guy in a cape who ensures that naughty people get punished. Preacher is about America but written by the English. Everyone involved is very, very naughty indeed. In a way, that is quite immature. I feel an article coming on...

Animal Man I found a little sophomoric, if that's the word I'm looking for. Yes, the Coyote episode was very clever. I had come across the idea that of cartoon characters being like endlessly killed and resurrected totem-beasts elsewhere. (I seem to think in an essay on Crow from structuralist viewpoint. I suspect Morrison had read the same essay.) He seemed to think that the idea of the Character meeting the Author had never been done before: although I must say that I have not seen it carried through quite so logically. A Very Good Comic, certainly, but not a great one.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The "marrionettes" argument works fairly well if you are talking about, say, terrorists flying aircraft into skyscrapers. You can logically say "It isn't god's fault if some of his creations choose to behave like idiots." It is much less use when you are talking about an earthquake. If you believe that

a: God directly causes the earthquake and

b: The earthquake is genuinely an evil with no higher purpose or long term good

then you have to conclude "God is an evil being." I assume that all Christians adopt some version of "The earthquake is not really evil."
Either "If we could see the whole picutre, we would understand that it is for our good in the long run" or "God is not administering the universe on a day to day basis -- he didn't the will the earthquake. But he did allow the circumstances under which the earthquake could occur to happen. And if we could see the big picture, we would understand that THAT is for out good in the long run."

I don't think that "faith" means "believing two logically incompatible things." But it may mean saying "I believe that bad things may have a good putpose, even when I can't see that purpose."

O dear. An old episode of Little House on the Prairie just flashed into my head, where one of the ghastly children loses her sight, and it turns out that this is all right because God needed a new teacher at the blind school. I never watched it voluntarily, but it was my baby sister's favourite programme.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I take it back about the longer pieces. This is downright interesting. Logical or not, it seems worse to me to cross out any of the 5 statements than to try to keep them all at the risk of it not making sense.

Perhaps it doesn't have to make sense. As someone or other noted, if that's so then God created our limitations, and this does tend to create a few more logic problems, but perhaps it's that only the infinite can grasp how this works, and, not having the ability to be infinite beings, we don't have that luxury.

To my mind, it all ties into what you believe God's purpose was in creating the universe. And why create mankind if he's just going to fall and mess it all up, not to mention damning himself? Why bother?

An interesting theory has been raised that perhaps what He wanted was company. Something after His own nature. Adam couldn't do it because he was merely a created being, but by being absorbed, as it were, into Christ in salvation, we become not mere creatures, but children. Sons and daughters in His own nature. And in order to do this we had to fall so that He could redeem us. In order for that to happen, we had to have free will. Having beings with free will creates the devil and curses not only us, the very stuff of the earth on account of mankind. This allows bad things to happen. This is necessarily a complicated and not altogether faultless argument in that it doesn't address why God, being kind and good, doesn't rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity. In order to accept this, one would have to be able to advance an argument for why He shouldn't.

Or, one could simply decide that God plays with the universe "an ineffable game of His own devising . . ." but there are problems with that theory, too.

One thing that I don't believe we can do is decide that death is no longer a bad thing. Certainly for the Sunday-School-going Christian death no longer holds terror, and is a one-way ticket to bliss, but traditional theology holds to the fact that mankind was not created to die. Death is an evil, an enemy, a bad thing. Not as much in all circumstances, surely, and to be welcomed as a lesser evil in some cases, but an evil, nonetheless.

Philip said...

(Question: Why is the idea of devils so often assumed to be medieval or supersititous, when the idea of God is treated with at least a modicum of respect? Is there anything inherently less sensible about believing in bad supernatural beings than believing in good ones?)

Because, while God can loosely be described as "a supernatural being", it's a fallacy to suppose that God's existence implies a whole class of "supernatural beings". It's reasonable to believe in a Supreme Cause of the Universe who may intervene in that universe, whilst thinking that malevolent incorporeal entities who want to corrupt you sound like something from Star Trek.

(You have a very infectious posting style, you know.)