Tag Archives: theodicy

The Fault in Whose Stars?

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsTheodicy. I’m no theologian, but the problem of suffering erects a wall ever higher between wanting to believe and actual experience. Many great thinkers have laid down their faith because of this insuperable hurdle. The movie version of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars opened last night, but I didn’t see it. It was difficult enough to make it through the book. I have to admit feeling a bit wimpy about finding a young adult novel emotionally challenging, but it just is. As I mentioned a few days ago, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy has been topping charts lately, but so has John Green’s novel of childhood cancer. Theodicy is deeply inscribed in this sad tale of loss and love. From a purely biological perspective, the death of the young is explicable, but that seems to be the easy way out.

I’ve been toying with The Fault in Our Stars since January. Picking it up long enough to read a few pages, then growing frightened and putting it aside for a few weeks. The story begins in “the literal heart of Jesus” in a church for a cancer support group where Hazel meets Gus, and, as young people do, falls in love. Green is clear on one point from the beginning: no novel where the protagonists are victims of cancer can ever have a happy ending. We just have to watch and wait for the inevitable. The children return time and again to the “literal heart of Jesus” but no healing comes. They face loss and every page you turn brings more imponderable questions. Yes, this is fiction, but we live in a world where childhood cancer exists. And childhood starvation. And childhood victims of abuse and violence. And still we try to find a way to fit it into a broken-down theology and wonder why we don’t smile more often.

I don’t shy away from provocative fiction. I read scary stories with all sorts of monsters. Finding ourselves, however, in a world where neither rationalism nor theology really makes all the sense they should, sometimes the scariest stories are the truest to life. John Green’s fiction, it comes as no surprise, is frequently banned. Reading it as an adult one finds parts predictable and parts handled too gently, but with enough realism thrown in to want to see it through to the end. Banning books, however, is merely an attempt to shield children from that which they need to see. We do no favors, hiding the truth from those best equipped by nature to accept it. The real question is whether theodicy itself can survive. Perhaps, like the characters in the novel, it will come to its own quiet termination with no real answers to offer.

Any Witch Way

Witches&WitchHuntsIt’s easy to feel smug over the past. At every moment of human civilization we deem ourselves higher than those who came before. There’s no doubt that the eradication of the thought-processes that led to the witch hunts of past centuries seems decidedly positive for all parties involved. Wolfgang Behringer’s Witches and Witch-Hunts, however, is a surprising book. I’ve read a fair number of studies of those dark ages when people were cruelly tortured and murdered in horrendous ways because they were deemed to be in league with Satan. As usual in such books, Behringer begins with that history. What makes his study surprising, however, is that he doesn’t stop in the eighteenth century when, in what we’re usually told, the witch trials ended. Behringer points out that witch hunts are still happening, and that the rates of those killed perhaps rival those, per capita, of the numbers during the Middle Ages. How can this be? In an era of global awareness, we sometimes forget that the focus isn’t always on Europe or America.

In many parts of the world, witches are still part of local belief systems. Not all of these are women, by the way. Many cultures favor the male witch. What these cultures do have in common, however, is their natural fear of black magic being suppressed by colonialism. More “civilized” westerners came and enacted laws which, to the minds of the locals, protected the witches! Local tradition of eradicating those who practice black magic was considered righteous, and now the government forbids it? That seems strange, especially when many of the colonizing forces were also interested in Christianizing as well. Missionaries wanted to affirm belief in the supernatural, and, ironically, often became the vehicles that allowed beliefs in witchcraft to continue. As Behringer points out, some populations converted to Christianity precisely because it allowed the continued belief in physical evil—therefore witches—and the eradication thereof.

This creates a vexing problem. When cultures meet they inevitably attempt to assert their values. When the technologically superior force their ways of life on those behind on that front, a kind of pressure of misunderstanding builds. Instead of bringing witches to trial, they lynch them instead. It seems we may have underestimated the pull that belief in witches has on people. Traditional societies uninfluenced by the developments in Europe also came up with the idea of witchcraft independently. Witches, it seems, stand for the classic issue of theodicy—explaining why things go wrong in a world that should be ordered by deities. Coincidence is always cold comfort in explaining loss. Even the rule of law breaks down. At the same time, how can it be right to allow the murdering of those suspected of witchery even in the enlightened twenty-first century? This fear is one of our most abiding demons, and the solution remains out of reach, unless, of course, we allow ourselves to resort to magic.

God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.

Watchtower

Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

Grendel’s Gods

GrendelGardnerSometimes I think that if I had to do it all over again, I might’ve chosen Beowulf instead of the Bible. Let me define “it” here: if I had to pick a vocation that would lead to personal fulfillment and personal penury, that is. Beowulf is the earliest written story in English and, it’s a monster story. What’s not to like? In honor of Banned Book Week, I decided retroactively to read a banned title, John Gardner’s Grendel. An early parallel novel narrated from Grendel’s point of view, we are introduced to the introspective, existentialist monster who is really just wondering, like the rest of us, what the point of it all is. Not surprisingly, the protagonist often addresses the question of religion—indeed, it might even be at the heart of the story.

In chapter nine, Grendel sits in the darkness in the ring of wooden gods of the Danes when Ork, the great, blind priest stumbles in and believes the monster is the Destroyer god. As Grendel toys with his theology, the old priest understands this all as a revelation, and although Grendel gives him no answers, the words are taken as divine utterances. The other priests, finding their leader out on a winter’s night, insist that he has gone senile, that gods do not reveal themselves like that. The old man, however, is unshakeable in his faith. As in much of the novel, there is more going on here than meets the eye. The deluded priest believes a monster is his god.

The question of theodicy (literally, the judging, or justification of God) is never-ending for theists. The world is a problematic place (made so, I must note, by human consciousness) for the creation of an omnipotent deity who is good. Too much suffering, Grendel, too many failed expectations. Clergy and theologians have, for centuries, tried to frame a convincing answer to the dilemma. The tack they all studiously avoid is that God is a monster, although some posit that as a straw hypothesis quickly to be knocked down. Gardner, although not a theologian, was the son of a lay preacher and farmer. One suspects that elements of that childhood crawled out through the pond with Grendel. One of the truly tragic characters, a “son of Cain,” Grendel still has an immense power on the imagination. And that power, at times, might even appear godlike.

By Jove!

When Zeus is taken seriously in the New York Times, even the open minded scratch their heads. It’s not because any of us really believe Zeus is up their hurling thunderbolts, but because anyone would even dare raise the question. Yes, Gary Gutting’s Opinionator article is lighthearted and perhaps even a little cynical, but it does raise serious questions. Did our ancestors believe in the gods with no “proof”? I can’t help but think of the phenomenally expensive video, I Still Worship Zeus. There are, in this day of high technology and low tolerance for non-scientific outlooks, people who continue to believe in Zeus. Well, his name does come from the same root as the old Indo-European word that gives us the Latin Deus, or “God.” And, let’s face it, the stories of the Greek gods can be pretty cool (despite sub-par big screen renditions). But to take any of this seriously…Seriously?

Jupiter_Smyrna_Louvre_Ma13

As Gutting points out, some of the great minds of Greek science didn’t question the existence of Zeus. I certainly wouldn’t care to pit my puny wit against that of Plato. Those scientifically minded Greeks, apparently, believed in the gods because of their explanatory value. Too many coincidences and synchronicities and epiphanies suggest something more than meets the eye. We don’t see gods today, so Gutting asks how we know the world hasn’t changed. Now, I take uniformitarianism seriously. It is the basis for geology and much of evolution. Our old, old earth shows no evidence of a sudden change in the way things happen. What is malleable is human interpretation. As recently as a century ago, belief in some kind of divine world was very pervasive. Only in the past few decades—since World War Two, I would guess—has the premise of the Judeo-Christian god become suspect. The daily experience of living in a world where theodicy just can’t explain all the suffering has led us to a kind of stalemate with the gods.

I once had a scholarly exchange with a colleague over the nature of the word “evidence.” Our little tiff was published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. My colleague had suggested that Yahweh—the god of Israel—was considered a solar deity. I averred that evidence did not exist. With rejoinder and riposte, we had to agree to disagree. The evidence I was seeking was stringent, but as we all know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And that is the point that Gutting makes, whether seriously or not. The question is not “Is Zeus there?” but “Was Zeus there?”. I decline to offer an opinion. I do applaud the New York Times, however, for attempting to get us thinking about serious issues once again. If Zeus did exist, then it behooves us to consider all the implications. And perhaps to reconsider home-owners’ insurance in a world where gods may roam at large.

God has Left the Theater

When teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I realized that an effective way to engage students was through popular culture. I could assign them just about any choice of movie and have them look for the religious themes of whatever class in it for a short paper. Of course, most went for the low-hanging fruit, over my teaching years, and I eventually had to ban movies with obvious religious themes or premises. One of those movies was Bruce Almighty. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently rewatched it. Never a big Jim Carrie fan, I nevertheless always enjoyed Bruce Almighty—it was such an improvement over those truly dreadful Oh, God! movies that were so popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I never found George Burns funny, and he made for an awfully feeble God. Everyone was buzzing in the new millennium when God was portrayed by a black man, Morgan Freeman. Still, we await a director who dares cast a female God. Patriarchy runs deep.

BruceAlmighty

One of the features that movies portraying God run up against is showing a believable omnipotence. The powers granted to mortals always seem so petty. Theodicy is always raised in these kinds of movies—why people suffer if God is good and all powerful—and since movies rely on directors and writers rather than theologians, they often leave the answer at the doorstep of free will. Human suffering is our own fault. In our society we can’t have a movie that actually pins the blame back on the divine, because that wouldn’t be funny. And movies where people meet God are almost always comedies. But Bruce Almighty is actually a bit more sophisticated than it seems at first. That is best seen in the outtakes perhaps, where Morgan Freeman seems to care more about people than George Burns did. Of course, my memory on the older movies is hazy. They were considered slightly blasphemous three-and-a-half decades ago. Today they seem tame.

OhGod

Why do movies with God in the cast rake it in at the box office? A couple of reasons suggest themselves. As humans, we like to place ourselves in the role of the divine to consider what we would do with unlimited power. Who wouldn’t, like Bruce Nolan, at least include their own satisfaction in the package? I think, however, there is a deeper, more serious reason. We do genuinely wonder about God’s motivation. Most of us don’t have the training to know how to grapple with the often incomprehensible arguments that theologians make. Even when we do, they still make no sense. Our movie gods appeal to us because they are so terribly Freudian—made in the human image. We can’t conceive of a god who’s not like us, so we at least make the situation funny. If we can’t achieve omnipotence, at least we can hope for a few laughs.

Angels of Ages

Angels&Ages February 12, 1809. Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Some days can be momentous that way. Although I’d known about this coincidental birth for some years, I had supposed it was one of history’s curiosities and nothing more. Adam Gropnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life changed all that. What’s more, while both Lincoln and Darwin are secular characters, the book has a strong dose of how religion influenced and perhaps even emanated from ideas both of these giants had. Religion actually surfaces throughout much of the book, although Lincoln grew up as a skeptic, and certainly was not a “church goer,” and Darwin was groomed for the clergy but came, through nature, to have serious doubts about God’s existence. Religion may not be Gropnik’s main point, but it has a way of following these two historical figures around.

Using a biographical and intellectual parallelism, Gropnik lays the two men side-by-side in their Victorian lives and shows how death was really a factor that bound them. Both lost a beloved child at about the same age, and both found death’s pervasiveness a problem for believing in any kindly God. Of course, we all know that none of us would be here now if our forebears had not passed on, making room for us. It is the way of nature. Nature is hardly kind or just, however. Ringing throughout this fascinating exploration is the ubiquitous problem of theodicy—in a world of such palpable suffering, where, indeed, has God gone? How do we continue to believe when all the evidence is contrary? Some of our greatest doubters have become our greatest guides.

I appreciated especially how Gropnik ends his little book with some thoughts on religion. He makes the essential point that Darwinism, by definition, cannot be a religion. Even better is the clear-eyed vision that he has that religion and science are both needed by people and they may both be held as true. Even when they’re fighting. The truth is nobody has all the answers. Those who brashly dismiss religion or science are equally wrong. In his eloquent style, Gropnik makes a decidedly sane suggestion that we should learn from our assertions of pluralism. We are accustomed to thinking about much of life and culture as being equally valued, no matter where on the planet we find it. Why can we not do the same with truths? Some will find meaning in science and have little time for faith. Others will find religion to be their ultimate and will not be bothered by science. The vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. And what brought us to this point was the fact that February 12, 1809 was such an extraordinary day.