Search Results for: theodicy

Time resolves theodicy

Time Good EvilIn a cover story for the Dec. 3 Time, Jeffrey Kluger quickly jumps into a collective voice, oddly crediting humanity as a whole for the most noble behavior while also blaming it for the worst horrors. As early as the second paragraph, he’s revealing a tone of scientism that weaves throughout the piece:

We’re a species that is capable of almost dumbfounding kindness. We nurse one another, romance one another, weep for one another. Ever since science taught us how, we willingly tear the very organs from our bodies and give them to one another. And at the same time, we slaughter one another. The past 15 years of human history are the temporal equivalent of those subatomic particles that are created in accelerators and vanish in a trillionth of a second, but in that fleeting instant, we’ve visited untold horrors on ourselves — in Mogadishu, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, Beslan, Baghdad, Pakistan, London, Madrid, Lebanon, Israel, New York City, Abu Ghraib, Oklahoma City, an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania — all of the crimes committed by the highest, wisest, most principled species the planet has produced. That we’re also the lowest, cruelest, most blood-drenched species is our shame — and our paradox.

Spread across pages 56 and 57 is a photo gallery of the noble (Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama) and the savage (Stalin, Pinochet, Hitler, Bin Laden, Pol Pot). The one-sentence summary for each precludes saying anything of substance, other than to list a few facts of history as if they are an athlete’s statistics.

If ever a cover article cried out for a contribution from the world of faith — which has said more than a few things about good and evil — this one does.

Still, the only appearance of faith comes in these amazingly glib sentences:

One of the most powerful tools for enforcing group morals is the practice of shunning. If membership in a tribe is the way you ensure yourself food, family and protection from predators, being blackballed can be a terrifying thing. Religious believers as diverse as Roman Catholics, Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses have practiced their own forms of shunning — though the banishments may go by names like excommunication or disfellowshipping.

The deck headline on Time‘s cover promises far more than it delivers: “Humans are the planet’s most noble creatures — and its most savage. Science is discovering why.” Kluger reports on studies showing what happens in people’s brains as they make decisions or feel sympathy for the pain of a spouse, but he comes nowhere near answering the question of why humans are noble or savage.

To think that science ever could explain the why speaks of a curious certainty that science can solve life’s deepest mysteries through chemistry and brain waves and sociobiology. To publish an article that not only makes such triumphalist claims for science, but fails even to acknowledge millennia of religious thinking about these mysteries, is one of the most ridiculous stunts in journalism this year.

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.

Theodicy on the radio

rowan-williamsThe Archbishop of Canterbury sat Saturday morning for an 11-minute interview (requires RealAudio) with John Humphrys of the BBC about the school massacre in Beslan, Russia. Humphrys asked tough questions the entire time (hat tip: Simon Sarmiento of Thinking Anglicans).

Their conversation is an amazingly detailed dialogue about evil, the nature of free will and what it all means for a Christian’s faith. A key excerpt:

In a world in which human decisions are free, even free for the most appalling evil like this, God does not dictate, intervene for outcomes.

Human decisions are free.

Human decisions are free.

Not for the children they weren’t, were they?

The children were held captive. The decisions were being made by others. And that’s how power works in the world, of course, that some are enslaved by the decisions of others.

So when Christianity talks about free will, what it actually means is power.

It means the ability to make a difference in a situation. Now that also means the difference — the ability, tragically — to use others in the way that these terrorists were attempting to use those children. I suppose the sense that we all have that some kind of line has been crossed here is the almost impossibility of imagining how people can not only calculate that the death of children will serve their purpose but actually to sit with suffering children for days, watching that in a calculating way. And that’s the kind of decision that, yes, you have to call evil.

In condemning the terrorists’ actions, Williams cites not only Jesus’ words about the judgment that will come to those who harm children (Matt. 18:6), but also cites the Qur’an’s warning that “Allah does not love people who overstep the limits” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 87).

The interview is a model of how a religious leader can, amid the most horrifying circumstances, speak on behalf of God’s love and justice.

Brazil’s faith in football: What happens after the apocalypse?

If you know anything about the sport the world calls “football,” then you know that an apocalyptic event took place yesterday in Brazil.

If you know anything at all about the host nation for the 2014 World Cup, then you know — everyone chant the mantra together — that football is the true religion of Brazil. Here is a typical blast of this faith language, drawn from today’s Los Angeles Times piece about Germany’s 7-1 shredding of what is left of this year’s battered Brazilian team.

It had been 64 years since Brazil staged a World Cup at home. And in a country so passionate about the sport it is worshipped like a religion, even now that 1950 final loss to Uruguay is remembered as a national tragedy.

This year’s team, though, was expected to erase that stain. And when the Brazilian government lavished a record $11.5 billion on the preparations for this World Cup, the pressure on the national team increased. A World Cup title was seen as the only way to justify the cost. So hundreds of fans began gathering daily outside the gates of the team’s training facility while hundreds more lined the roads when the team’s bus would pass.

All of them were seeking deliverance as much as they were a championship.

Finally, if you know anything about football in Brazil, if you have watched any of the national team’s matches over the past decade or more, then you know that many members of the team are outspoken Christians. In fact, several of the young superstars are part of the emerging face of born-again and Pentecostal Protestantism in this historically Catholic nation.

In a fine feature before the Germany match, BBC covered the essential facts and added some color, as well. The first statement is crucial:

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After more bullets in Baltimore: ‘Why couldn’t God stop this?’

Long ago, I was talking to an inner-city pastor (a priest, actually) in Denver who made a very interesting, insightful and depressing observation about his work. One thing that African-American clergy in major cities have to live with is the reality that — as a rule — there are only three things they can do that will ever be seen as newsworthy by their local news media. They can:

(1) Make a political statement of some kind. Everyone knows that African-American church life centers on politics, way more than on the Gospel.

(2) Start some new and innovative form of ministry to the poor, which would be seen as newsworthy because helping poor people is really all about politics (as opposed to obeying the clear call of scripture). See reason No. 1.

(3) Preach in the funeral of a person, the younger the better, who has been gunned down in their neighborhood.

I added that the clergy person could, of course, commit some kind of crime and that would be considered newsworthy. We both laughed, sharing rather tired smiles. Yes, that would be newsworthy, too.

I thought of that when working my way through a stack of newspapers after returning to Baltimore after a few days on the road. The first story that grabbed my attention was a perfect example of African-American Church News No. 3, complete with an agonizing, and appropriate, does of pull-quote-worthy “theodicy.” For an update on the meaning of this theological term, click here. Here’s the top of that Baltimore Sun story, including the crucial leap to theodicy:

Craig David Ray and his cousins believed they were beating the odds. Growing up in Baltimore, they knew many young black men who were gunned down or sent to prison. As they entered their 30s, Ray and his family members were thankful for their health and welfare with each passing year.

“That’s behind us,” cousin Larry Barganier said he told Ray not long ago as they talked about the family’s good fortune. “We beat the statistics.”

But the gray coffin cradling his cousin on Wednesday was a cruel reminder that the “streets are cold,” Barganier told mourners at Ray’s funeral. Authorities said Ray, 34, was shot to death, after he called the police on a Westport neighbor who refused to turn down loud music. He was trying to rest before his shift as a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver.

Ray’s death left his family grasping for meaning. He was steadily building his life, they said, planning to get married. On Feb. 24, the night that he died, he was at his girlfriend’s house watching her kids.

“Why couldn’t God stop this?” the Rev. Samuel Ray, an uncle, asked. “He couldn’t. There’s some things God doesn’t give us the answer for. That doesn’t mean we lose faith.”

Now this is, in my opinion, a rather well done story in this tragic genre. I was struck, over and over, by the connections between this young man and elements of both the church and civic establishment.

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What was the demon Adam Lanza locked in that hard drive?

From the beginning, there was a familiar moral tension at the heart of news coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. It’s hard to ponder such a hellish act without wanting to be able to name the demon, to link the actions of the young gunman to some kind of logical motive.

Was religion involved? Maybe. Maybe not.

Did faith play any role in the dramas inside the silent home in which Adam Lanza and his mother Nancy lived those final years of their lives? Her funeral was held in the First Congregational Church of Kingston, N.H., but that could have been a simple matter of convenience — choosing the historic church in the middle of the typical New England public square.

Was evil involved in this tragedy? Yes. But what kind? As I wrote early on, in a post here at GetReligion:

In most cases, debates about massacres of this kind devolve into discussions between gun-control liberals, gun-freedom libertarians and various kinds of cultural conservatives who see evidence of various forms of social decay — from violence in our movies, to splintered homes, to increasingly value-neutral schools, to first-person-shooter video games that resemble the programs our military leaders use to make soldiers more willing to pull triggers in combat. Then there are people like me whose beliefs fall in more than one of these camps.

At the very least, Newtown was another one of those stories that — logically enough — pushes people to ask that ancient/modern question: Where was God? As your GetReligionistas noted at the time, there is a theological name for that puzzle and, tragically, anyone who wants to cover the religion beat needs to know it:

the·od·i·cy noun …

: defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil

The painful, dry New York Times report about the final Sandy Hook report makes it perfectly clear that the investigators have not been able to name that evil and they refused to speculate about Lanza’s motive, even though it it is clear that his actions were premeditated.

If there was a motive, it almost certainly was contained in one particular computer hard drive that Lanza destroyed, doing such a meticulous job that investigators were not able to recover the contents. The lede describes the key location in this story, which was the computer-driven Lanza’s darkened haven from the outside world:

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That holy ghost in Baylor head coach’s guilt and grief

Right now, Baylor University coach Art Briles is one of the hottest leaders in college football, the creator of the hottest offense in around. Last night, the No. 6 Bears clawed the No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners to the tune of 41-12, even while losing three of their top four players on offense to injuries of various kinds.

Yes, I am a Baylor alum, one who a decade-plus ago thought my alma mater faced certain gridiron doom if it stayed in the Big 12.

Crazy things are happening. GetReligion readers who follow sports will have noticed that.

Meanwhile, what can we make of ESPN’s important story about the amazing personal story behind Briles and his work? This feature includes some fine work, even if — surprise, surprise — it offers no major insights into the obvious faith issues at the heart of this story.

So what is the heart of this story of God, grief and eventual glory (in terms of success on the field)?

The first act of the drama is, of course, right at the top where it should be.

WACO, Texas – Reminders of the worst day of Baylor coach Art Briles’ life come every year like clockwork. There are a few dates on the calendar — his parents’ birthdays, their wedding day, holidays and, of course, the anniversary of their tragic deaths — that tug the painful memories from the back of his mind.

Briles, 57, has never forgotten how much his life changed on Oct. 16, 1976. Nearly four decades later, the deep emotional wounds still fester because he never allowed them to heal. How could they? Briles still shoulders much of the blame for the deaths of his parents, Dennis and Wanda, and his beloved aunt, Elsie “Tottie” Kittley, who was more like a grandmother to him.

“I think about them every day, every second,” Briles said, while sitting in his dark office last month. “I can sit here right now and know that tomorrow is the anniversary of it. It never leaves you.”

It was a car wreck on a Texas highway. His loved ones were driving a long way to the Cotton Bowl on the chance that the 20-year-old Briles would be able to play wide receiver for the Houston Cougars, after fighting hard to win a fight with an achy knee. They didn’t make it after a collision with an out-of-control tanker truck. It could have been worse: Briles’ girlfriend, and eventual wife, almost made the trip with them.

Frequent GetReligion readers can probably sense where this is going: theodicy.

So who or what is to blame? God, man or the sickness of a fallen creation?

Briles blamed himself, and still does. That brings us to the key moment in the ESPN piece:

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Following up on the Sikh temple shooting

I’m a sucker for a good follow-up story and the Associated Press hit this one out of the park. It’s a follow-up to the horrible shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last year. Religious perspectives are woven throughout the piece, including in this lede:

OAK CREEK, Wis. (AP) — Sikh temples generally have four doors, one on each side of the building, as a symbolic invitation to travelers in every direction. But after a lone gunman walked into a Milwaukee-area Sikh temple last year and killed six people, some of the survivors suggested rethinking their openness.

After consideration and contemplation, temple members kept the policy, deciding it was important to show the world the best way to stand against violence was to respond with love, peace and compassion.

Still, officials at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin took precautions. A guard now works three days a week in the lobby, opening the door for visitors and keeping watch on the grounds and parking lot. Additional security cameras and lighting have been installed. Doors and windows are now bulletproof, and the locks have been upgraded.

But even as temple members prepare to mark the one-year anniversary of the shootings on Monday, the Oak Creek temple remains open to everyone. All members of the community, Sikh and non-Sikh alike, are always welcome to join them for meditation and free meals, temple member Harpreet Singh said.

“We will always welcome people,” Singh said.

Tragic and horrific as shootings or other violent crimes are, the way they affect a community is a story best told over the long term. The AP used a series of a memorial events in connection with the one-year anniversary as the news hook for this piece. In it, we learn about “chardhi kala” — a Punjabi term that refers to a state of constant optimism. We learn why Sikhs believe this is important, with a mention of theodicy.

The story covers the important details and mentions how Sikh understanding of forgiveness, compassion and understanding come into play.

Toward the end we learn about “akhand paath,” a ceremonial Scripture reading that can take two full days.

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