I was planning on posting on this subject anyway, but I then got tagged with a meme by Lingamish, and so the original idea will have a longer prelude and the post will have a slightly different form. The meme began at Elizaphanian. It poses the following questions:
1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?
The ifs in the first question are BIG ifs. But the question itself illustrates a key point. Often the issue of theodicy is viewed as finding the best solution to the problem of undeserved suffering that preserves the concept of God we already have. But this assumes that we have received a unified, definitive understanding of God that must be preserved in this way, and anyone who has engaged in academic study of the Bible or religion in general will know that this is not the case. And so unless one has good reason for assuming a particular set of symbols and doctrines relating to God, the best approach is that set forth in the Book of Job: formulate and reformulate a view of God that does justice to the world as you experience, while also acknowledging how limited our understanding of the universe we are a part of really is.
If I were the sort of anthropomorphic God mentioned, I would like to hope that, if I asked my creations to be the sort of people that “go the extra mile” (literally or metaphorically), help those in need even if they are foreigners from a hated race, and hold them to these sorts of ideals, then I would live by those ideals myself. An anthropomorphic God is one who is very much like us, only bigger and more powerful and supposedly better in the sense of more kind and loving. If I asked my creations to forgive 70 times 7 times, and to turn the other cheek, I hope I would also do that myself. But this is one of the paradoxes of many forms of fundamentalism: it depicts God as setting a standard for human beings that the Scriptures, stories and doctrines of that tradition do not consistently show God living up to.
This is not to say that one cannot hold to some form of anthropomorphism and deal with the problem of evil in some way. The free will defense works to a certain extent for moral evil, even though it does nothing to mitigate the issues of cyclones and tsunamis. One simply has to acknowledge that God has placed constraints on his freedom by giving freedom to his creations. The analogy I used to use was of a chess grandmaster. If I play chess against a grandmaster, the expert can know for sure he or she will win even though I am free to make any legal move within the game. How is that possible? Simple: the grandmaster is better at it, and can see further ahead because of it. Apply this to an omniscience, omnipresent God, and his will reigns supreme even if we are free. Of course, sooner or later you have to explore the details of the analogy and that is when things get dicey. What are God’s pieces in such a scenario, and how does God move them?
At present, I tend to use panentheistic language, symbols and metaphors for God. For some progressive Christians, giving up theistic language has led to God being thought of as in some sense “less real” (in practice if not in theory). But such an outcome is not essential. We must think about God differently than people did in the past, but can one avoid objectifying God without making God seem less real?
In light of both a better understanding of the Biblical literature and an increasing scientific understanding of human nature, we’ve rethought the idea of human identity localized in an immaterial soul. But does this mean that there is no sense in which I exist? Not at all. What it means is that the personality and subjective experience I think of as me are emergent phenomena out of the material substances that make up my body. I am inseparable from all the cells, the chemicals, the molecules, the atoms, the subatomic particles that make up my person. Yet if you take each one and analyse it looking for “me”, you may never find “me”. I as a personality arise from the interconnectedness of these substances. I’m there in the relationships between them. I am the sum of their whole, and somehow (seemingly miraculously) I am greater than the sum of my parts.
I find it helpful to think of God in the same way. Is this not perhaps the reason why our experience of God centers around acts of kindness and self-sacrifice, the experience of love and being loved, the ensemble of musicians making harmonies? Is this not why the mystics so consistently speak of having a sense of the interconnectedness of all things? If we take apart our relationships, we will never find love as a separate substance. If we stop the orchestra and bring in scientific apparatuses of various sorts, we’ll never find the music. These arise out of the interrelationships and actions of things and of persons.
If we think of God as the ultimate level of existence, that which or the one who emerges out of the interconnectedness of all things, then we won’t find God in any of the places we look or the gaps between the things we understand. But that doesn’t mean that God is less real than you or I. It means God exists in the same sense as you or I.
Let me conclude by pointing you to an interview with Bart Ehrman on “The Artist’s Craft”: