Novak (novak) wrote,

  • Mood:

Theological Notebook: New Orleans, Lisbon, and the Problem of Evil

"Why do bad things happen to good people?" A classic question for anyone who believes in God. friede reminds me of "the Lisbon Earthquake that hit on All Saints Day 1755" and "which killed some 100,000 people and is credited for starting the thought processes which led to the Enlightenment." The anti-Christian writers of the Enlightenment used the occurrence of the earthquake as the basis of a powerful popular argument that a good God couldn't possibly have let such a tragedy occur, and that therefore God must be depraved or--as that seemed unlikely, given the absence of such constant calamity, I suppose--just must be a false idea. Taking advantage of the suffering and horror involved, those writers made a powerful impression.

So I just wrote back to Em when she reminded me of those events,
Oh, I forgot about that connection between the Lisbon Earthquake and the Enlightenment. I've been hearing bits of that kind of "problem of evil" question tossed around w.r.t. Katrina. That is one of the worst problems of shallow thinking: I've seen more of my students screwed up by taking "Everything happens for a reason" as a theological certainty. They follow the logic of that out and come to "God killed Grandma." Since God becomes hateful in such a schema, and since they realize God, if God is really there, ought not to be hateful, it becomes then reasonable to disbelieve in God, since "Everything happens for a reason" isn't to be doubted. Maddening. It was a constant struggle to try to uproot weedy thoughts like that once they'd taken hold.
Of course, if you really play the thought-experiment out, and imagine what an Interventionist God would really be like, you quickly realize how much of a double-edged sword freedom really is. You can't find any logical reason why God should only prevent such natural disasters. So you include murder, rape and those kind of totally-destructive human acts that God must prevent. But there's still no logical reason to stop there. So every harsh word about yourself that you overhear walking down the hallway, high school students standing around their lockers who can shred one-another's self-worth with casual daggers, these two must be stopped.

What you come to with a God who prevents evil in an infinite "Superman" kind of way is a world where not only does freedom not exist, but neither does any good moral action. When "kindness" and "love" are stripped of freedom of will, they are no more real than programing your computer to tell you that it loves you, or a puppet for whom you supply all the words. A lot of theological work has been done with regard to the freedom of the will, but I have been interested in expanding that to include the kind of notions of freedom that the physicists whisper about: theology has also got to more explicitly include the kind of freedom that extends from Heisenberg's Uncertainty to the "macro-freedom" of the universe as a system. Our freedom, it seems to me, while distinct from that of the rest of the universe's because it involves will, is nevertheless still in some way characteristic of the universe, of which we humans are representative, being that aspect of the universe that possesses consciousness, will and spirit.

So the argument that there can be no God because of the existence of Evil in the world seems to me to fail for a few reasons: it avoids the "flipside" question of the origin of the Good; it avoids a deeper examination of its own offered concept of "what a good God would do" and relies on a kind of deception that appeals to an emotional reaction dependent on an "interrupted" argument; it appeals to such Christian notions as the death of individuals being significant and for which we should feel loss and suffering, although a secularist vision of the world has no real basis of any kind of ethic or value that I can discern.

I understand why people offer theological or anti-theological explanations for natural phenomena--we humans have a deep need for meaning in our lives, and rightly so if God is really there--and the idea that this is simply a consequence of the universe's freedom, part of its having sharp edges, seems unsatisfying in the pain and rage of our loss. But I think in the end, it's a much more true answer than quick (and bad) theological or anti-theological explanations of God's judgment or absence. Bad theology, or theology's destruction, never did my students any favours.
Tags: friends-marquette era, historical, philosophical, problem of evil/theodicy, secularism/modernity, students, theological notebook

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.