More theodicy

ChagalIn one of his books, Dilbert creator Scott Adams wrote that he feels whale guilt — not guilt that he’s not doing anything to save the whales per se, but guilt that he doesn’t feel guilty about not doing anything to save the whales.

In a related vein, I’ve tried to get worked up about the theodicy questions triggered by the recent tsunami, but I just can’t. Every time a major disaster strikes, writers and reporters ask anew, If there is a God, how can he allow this?

Some ask it like it’s a new question, or as if a failure to proffer a quick and convincing answer should put the lie to religion once and for all.

As Doug LeBlanc quoted the editors of Arts & Letters Daily quoting J.L. Mackie: “If God is God, he’s not good. If God is good, he’s not God. You can’t have it both ways, especially not after the Indian Ocean catastrophe.”

I repeat this here because New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum followed the links and used them, along with a few stray e-mails, as an opportunity to revisit the “age old question” of theodicy. Rosenbaum calls it “an underappreciated scandal that, philosophically,” the question of theodicy “has not been satisfactorily settled without resort to vague evasions.”

Rosenbaum splashes into different puddles of intellectual history in such a way that many readers may wish he had tread more cautiously. He upbraids Voltaire for deliberately misreading G.W. Leibniz’s Theodicy.

Leibniz, Rosenbaum explains, claimed that “God created the best of all possible worlds consistent with free will . . . The best of all possible worlds consistent with the nature of human nature, in other words — and its predilection for choosing evil.” The question that Voltaire should have raised “is whether a better, less murderous human nature — consistent with free will — could have been created by Leibniz’s God.”

He meanders a bit before getting back to the theodicy of the tsunami: “[N]atural disasters are both more and less problematical for defenders of the faiths.” Less because floods or earthquakes or whatnot

don’t involve man-made evils and thus the question of the depravity of human nature — and the difficult question behind that question: whether humans are at fault for their depraved nature, or whether the deity who created them could have done a better job creating humanity consistent with free will.

More because these were, well, “acts of God.” Even the insurance companies deign to recognize the deity when the stuff really hits the fan. As Rosenbaum puts it, “If God is responsible for the fall of a sparrow, it’s hard to exempt him from other, more dramatic natural developments.”

Rosenbaum found himself sucked into a debate over on Beliefnet’s forums about the question of divine culpability for the tsunamis. He asked readers then, “Why this need to defend God?” Now he elaborates:

All so eager to rush forward and exonerate their version of God from any connection to the slaughter. It began to smack of “they doth protest too much”: The disaster somehow gets transformed into a display of God’s wonderfulness. In a way, doesn’t this sort of thinking suggest a kind of Stockholm syndrome? He’s the only God we’ve got, He’s got us imprisoned in this hell of a world — so, after a while, we worship Him.

Even a story of a premature baby, born as its mother was fleeing from the surging waves, sets Rosenbaum’s teeth on edge. Because the child’s father praises “God’s grace” for allowing the baby and the mother to come through alive, our modern-day wannabe Job launches into the following: “If you believe that God intervened to save this one little life, you have to believe that He chose not to intervene to save the lives of all the other children. He wanted them dead.”

I’d issue some kind of grand retort here but, like I said, this stuff just does not move me. That people are rotten, or that the earth shakes, it seems to me, do not count for much against the possibility of a good and loving God whose actions in this world are not always easy to discern or explain.

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  • Bill
  • Doc

    I deal with this subject on my new blog (with a link right back here)—

  • Deborah

    “How deep is the mine of God’s wisdom, of his knowledge; how inscrutable are his judgments, how undiscoverable are his ways!

    Who has ever understood the Lord’s thoughts, or been his counsellor? Who ever was the first to give, and so earned his favors? All things find in him their origin, their impulse, the center of their being; to him be glory throughout the ages, Amen.”

    Romans 11:33-36

  • Adjarian

    “I’d issue some kind of grand retort here but, like I said, this stuff just does not move me. That people are rotten, or that the earth shakes, it seems to me, do not count for much against the possibility of a good and loving God whose actions in this world are not always easy to discern or explain.”

    This comes disturbingly close to saying that the hardest theological questions are the ones that it’s best to avoid entirely, using a “been there, done that” approach to discourage debate. I do hope that’s not what you’re saying.

  • jeff

    When people start asking the question of ‘Where is God? or How can God allow disaster X to occur?’, I think of my 18 month-old son. I want to protect him from bumping into the furniture, but if I don’t allow him the freedom to explore and learn how to walk and avoid bumping into stuff, what kind of father am I? One who does not acknowledge my son’s free will / determinism – [btw - his birth, my first child, has convinced me even more that free will is inherent in humans].

    What does this have to do with God? Imagine a God who created a world where no one could get hurt if they make a mistake or no accidents occur? How much would the will of mankind be free? If God were like an over-protective father, putting his hand under every bottom that’s about to fall to the floor, it’s not free will. It’s God’s romper room.

    It seems that there is no logical way to have *some* free will – i.e., so that humans are ‘less murderous’. By it’s definition, free will (like free speech in the U.S.) means that society takes the good with the bad. For every 10 million good people, there’s a Ted Bundy, exercising his free will in ways that we don’t condone. When bad stuff happens, every good person is rightly upset. However, no amount of hoping, praying, or coercing will fundamentally change another’s free will — that’s what makes it free — it’s not controlled by God, but solely controlled by that person.

  • Robert Sutherland

    You might be interested in this website and companion book:”Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job” (Trafford, Victoria, 2004)( The entire commentary is online.

    The book was highly praised by leading Job scholars: Clines, Habel, Janzen and by the Review of Biblical Literature. The entire commentary is online.

    It was written by a Anglican Canadian criminal defense lawyer who argues the Book of Job presents a Hegelian theodicy, where God is causally responsible for the undeserved evil that befalls Job (and by implication us), but not morally blameworthy for it. Such undeserved evil is morally necessary to bring the existence of God as a God of goodness into doubt and sever any necessary connection between righteousness and reward. Only in such a world is the existence of a truely selfless love of men and women for God possible.

    Robert Sutherland