The meaning of human suffering is not The Meaning of Human Suffering

I started writing this a while back in response to a long, thoughtful, but ultimately misguided post at Bad Catholic on the problem of human suffering (“An Attempt to Explain Christianity to Atheists In a Manner That Might Not Freak Them Out“).

Bad Catholic’s post is a constructive bit of theologizing, pointing toward profound truths that I wholeheartedly agree with about the incarnation and the crucifixion. I’m totally down with all that Moltmann and Weil stuff. Amen. Preach it brother, as far as that goes.

But the problem is that this is not the problem. Our desire to explain human suffering, or to make sense of what it means, is a problem, but it is never, ever the problem.

The Fifth Station: Fire Capt. Chris Fields cradles Baylee Almon on April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City. Photo by Charles Porter.

Human suffering is not primarily a metaphysical problem. It is also that, and such metaphysical conundrums are immensely important in many ways. But these philosophical and theological dilemmas are always secondary.

The meaning of human suffering is never primarily The Meaning of Human Suffering. The meaning of human suffering is to be relieved.

Hunger, for example, is not a metaphysical problem. It is an acutely, urgently physical problem. The meaning of hunger is not to be found in theodicy or philosophy or mysticism. The meaning of hunger is to be fed.

Why do the hungry suffer? For lack of food. Why do the oppressed and enslaved suffer? For want of liberation.

These are not, primarily, metaphysical puzzles for us to ponder. Such puzzles are also significant, but they mustn’t ever be confused for the most important, most urgent, or most obvious response to human suffering. Human suffering is cause for action — for individual and institutional and structural steps to relieve it and to prevent it.

This, I think, is where that Bad Catholic post goes astray. It frames the matter of human suffering as primarily something to be explained, rather than as something to be addressed. And it goes one step further into abstraction by framing the matter as something to be explained to atheists. That’s fine, as far as it goes, that can be a fascinating conversation. (As to whether BC’s explanation is something atheists will find persuasive, see responses from vorjack and Daniel Fincke.) But such apologetic concerns aren’t even a secondary matter. If we’re going to set about trying to justify The Meaning of Human Suffering, then such justification does not need to be addressed to skeptics but to those humans who are suffering.

This business of theodicy isn’t important for Christians because it may come up in the next debate with Richard Dawkins. It is important because when we encounter people going through misery, horror and pain, we don’t want to add insult to injury by responding with something glib or shallow or stupid.

That Bad Catholic post is not glib, shallow or stupid, and yet, like every primarily metaphysical response to suffering, it still is inadequate. Because, again, suffering is never primarily or exclusively metaphysical.

When it came to human suffering, Jesus always kept his eye on the ball. “For I was hungry and you gave me food,” he said. Not, “For I was hungry, and you gave me an explanation as to how the existence of hunger could be reconciled, philosophically, with belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God.” The latter gift is unlikely to be appreciated unless it accompanies the former.

Hungry people want food. That is the meaning of hunger.

“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” Jesus said. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. …”

It exposes how far we’ve come from what Jesus was talking about — and how far removed we are from who he was talking about, “the least of these” — that this can strike us as a dodge, as some attempt to evade the question of theodicy and The Meaning of Human Suffering. That’s backwards. For the hungry, the thirsty, the alienated, the naked and the sick, all of our metaphysical thumb-sucking is the evasion. They believe, rightly, that they have the more urgent claim.

“Love is never abstract,” Wendell Berry wrote. And I suppose that is, itself, an abstract statement of an abstract thought. It’s probably not possible to avoid abstractions and theoretical musing about the nature of love or the meaning of suffering. But I think what Berry was saying was that whatever else may be true about all such theories and abstractions, if they are not also made material, then they do not matter.

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

“Keep warm and eat your fill,” can be an excellent thing to say to someone who is shivering and hungry. Or it can be a hideous and horrible thing to say to them. The meaning and the value of those words do not depend on the words themselves, but on what the person saying them is doing. If the speaker is, as the epistle of James says, supplying their needs, then those words are meaningful and they go a long way to addressing The Meaning of Human Suffering. But if the speaker is not meeting those needs, then the words are meaningless. If those needs are not met, then any words are meaningless — even the most profound and insightful ruminations on theodicy and metaphysics.

“As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth,” John’s Gospel says. And his disciples immediately took this as the basis for a metaphysical discussion.

“Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What is the cause of this suffering? What is the meaning of it? Who is to blame? What should we think about this?

Wrong question, Jesus said. The meaning of blindness is this — and he healed the man’s eyes and restored his sight.

The meaning of human suffering is that it be relieved.

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  • AnonaMiss

    I’m trying to force myself through that blog post but, as with my attempts to read Socrates, I find myself raising objections to the writer’s basic assumptions and then growing more and more furious as they build their entire argument on sand. “LOOK”, I scream to myself. “You can’t put a brick there! What no what are you doing? Stop! Your entire argument is built around these flaws, my brain is screaming as you screw the fallacies in deeper!

    I’ve gotten as far as the explanation of how we know that god is perfect and the sheer quantity of stupid is making me want to throw something. Even if you could order everything in the universe by something as subjective as “perfection,” and consider god a “thing”, and define god as OBVIOUSLY being the most “perfect” of all things, it still wouldn’t mean he was completely perfect! It would mean he was the most perfect of all things, but you know what, if I order all of the balls in the universe by roundness, the roundest of all the balls is still not going to be completely round! 

  • Jim Roberts

    And after he healed them, he told the disciples that, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day.”

  • The meaning of human suffering is that it be relieved.

    This is the inherent problem of BC’s response and an underlying difficulty in coming to agreement with Fred’s response.

    My formulation of this idea is that the response to human suffering is to attempt to relieve it.  The meaning of any human suffering on a cosmic scale is immaterial.  Human suffering is simply a byproduct of the fact that we live in a cold, cruel, impersonal universe that simply has no shits to give about us or anything else.  So Bad Catholic asks atheists to enter a discussion about how many angels are dancing on a head of a pin while Fred asks us to consider what to do in response to the fact that the angels have driven that pin into someone’s arm and they’re bleeding.

    The atheist response is to pull the pin out and put a bandage over the hole.  There are no angels to consider, only the pin and what it’s doing.  Fred and the atheist might end up taking the same action (for that matter, BC might, too).  But the atheist doesn’t need to have the metaphysical conversation in the process.

  • Fusina

    This. This is, I think, the reason Jesus said, “If you did/did not do it to the least of these, you did/did not do it to me.”

    I am becoming a much more liberal christian as I get older. I take some things more seriously (feed the hungry etc…) and some things less seriously (err, lots that is written in the bible, for one).  I really don’t care what religion people follow, or what the skin color is, or even if they have no religion. I have come to believe that those things are irrelevant to god and should be irrelevant to us.

    I hate, hate, hate the way that people are regarded by too many members of my family. There is US, and there is them, and never the twain shall meet. My Dad does not go to my Mom’s church on sunday. He has, on occasion, gone to my brother’s church, usually when one of the grandkids is in a concert or play. This is one of the “altar call churches”, which I call them because they have one during every service (including funerals, which I know because they did during the funeral of my niece who died as a baby), and he hates them because when they start that, all of his grandkids turn to stare at him on the off chance that this time he will “repent”. This is the person who responds to alarms at my mom’s church in the middle of the night (or whenever it goes off) because “someone has to and I was available”. I think they “pray” for my repentance too, because I think that Glenn Beck and others of his ilk are not people we should be emulating, and dared to say so, which got me condemned to hell by my brother. Damn that hurt a lot. And his considering that I should just shut up and suck it up and man up and just come to the family reunion and continue being quiet because no one else wanted to hear my opinion and that my children would suffer from not hanging out with his family…

    I didn’t go. Neither did my kids or my husband. And I still, two years later, am still mourning the death of this relationship.

  • I agree; to atheists, human suffering isn’t a grand mystery to be reconciled with one’s comprehension of a just universe; it just is. This is a big part of apologetics, though, because in debates the suffering of those who incur suffering with no opportunity of salvation or grace invariably comes up.

    In a debate I once posited that the flood, if real, was a moral failing on the part of God and met the response that I am a hypocrite because I don’t hold natural selection to the same standard; if natural selection is real then it is founded on the suffering of literally hundreds of billions of billions of animals including humans, and so comparatively speaking, natural selection is responsible for 4 more suffering than God any 6000 year universe. I remain completely unable to convince him that natural selection, not being a moral agent, can’t be held to a moral standard, nor did he seem to grasp that I don’t actually endorse natural selection, I just accepted as an exclamation for biodiversity.

  • flat

    well written Fred, well written.

  • MaryKaye

    I once attended a round-table “minority religion” discussion with a Scientologist, a Unitarian Pagan, a Nichiren Buddhist, a Tibetian Buddhist, and a fifth person whose affiliation I can’t remember anymore.

    After an hour or so of debate the Tibetian Buddhist said, “This is fun, and would make a good evening bull session.  But you know, it’s not all that relevant to what we need to *do*.”  Which was clearly, from her talk, show compassion to those who suffer.

    I’m not telling this as well as she did.  She made a profound impression on me, because she took her religion very seriously (she was a nun) but she didn’t take her theology overly seriously.  She came across as a person who knew what was important and gracefully made that her center.

    I also noticed that, standing in that center where she was, she was well-nigh immune to harassment attempts from the Scientologist and the Nichiren Buddhist, both of whom were a bit inclined to it.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I get what Fred is doing here, and that this is primarily a conversation between Christians about the salience of theodicy questions, but as an atheist who has no dog in that Christian  fight, it’s hard not to see  this post as a colossal dodge. Fred may not view the metaphysical Problem of Evil as particularly worth addressing from  so long as there are hungry or homeless or sick people. Fine. If propagating that idea puts more food into hungry peoples’ mouths, great. But it doesn’t erase the fact that said Problem is a logical conundrum that monotheists haven’t been able to adequately answer (after millennia!) without oodles of hand-waving. And as the recent nonsense spouted by a certain Indiana Senate candidate it *does* have an impact on the practical, tangible response to suffering, because it leads to blanket invocation of that nasty hobgoblin “God’s Plan,” whenever a Christian is confronted with a particular suffering they can’t correct (or don’t feel like correcting). Maybe that’s Bad Theology in Fred’s view, but such sloppy armchair metaphysics is staggeringly common among Christians.  People like explanations for things are this way and not that way, and Christianity’s explanations have the disadvantage of being *both* flat-out nonsensical and leading to monstrous moral outcomes. Fred seems to prefer that his fellow Christians not inspect those metaphysical questions too closely, and just focus on being benevolent to their fellow humans, which is swell, but he’s just changing the subject. If all that matters is how we treat one another, then why hold fast to a metaphysics that is logically unsound? Instead of simultaneously relying upon religious beliefs for one’s pragmatic, real-world actions *and* pretending the nonsensical metaphysics of those beliefs aren’t nonsensical, why not just set down the beliefs and treat people kindly? Millions of godless people do it every day.

    Then there’s the matter of free will, and how increasingly apparent it is that it’s an illusion. That fact seems to have fairly significant consequences for how we as a species address suffering (at least the anthropogenic kind), and it clashes strongly with the (majority) Christian view that we are all master of our actions and have complete freedom to make the choices we make.  (And, yeah, I know I’m generalizing across sects and schisms, but the “mean Christian” is not a theologian with nuanced view of free will.) It has important consequences for entire spheres of human life, such as criminal justice, but Christians can’t even engage with such debates if they’re wedded to the illusion of free will. Because they are rooted in a false metaphysics, a Christian’s answers to moral questions like “Should we engage in retributive punishment against child molesters?” are not only off-topic, they aren’t even answers for the universe in which we actually dwell.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Michael Albright:

    It doesn’t sound like your debating opponent was framing the challenge very effectively, but it is a relevant question:  Why, assuming an omni/omni/omni deity, is natural selection not a “moral agent”? If God is omnipotent, can’t we hold him responsible for everything that happens in the universe? If not, why not? What distinguishes a “natural” process like evolution by natural selection from a divine act like Noah’s flood, other than the tautological insignia of “Goddidit”?

  • Magic_Cracker

    As neo-animo-anarcho-dada-crypto-existential-pagan-ego-nihilist, I have no squid in this brisket, but I appreciation (and agree with) Fred’s core point — suffering exists to be alleviated. I mean, what else are you going to do with it? Put it in a Mylar bag and wait for it to appreciate? That’s what everyone did with The Death of Superman, and look how that turned out!

  • Albanaeon

    Interestingly enough, in Philosophy class we had something similar come up.  Two people were confronted with the chance to take a large amount of money from a wallet.  Both gave it back, but one (a Kantian Ethicist) struggled with the temptation for a while while the other (a Virtue Ethicist) gave it back without a thought and we were asked to judge which one had more moral worth.

    Now I lean toward Virtue Ethics myself, so it was tempting to say the latter, but really, the effect was the same, so I had to say there was no difference in moral worth.

    Now, here we have one trying to hand wave why there is suffering and Fred going basically “who cares, just fix it” and I can’t help but think how it relates to that question.  There’s a lot of thought devoted to why someone does something to the point it neglects what was actually done.  And that seems wrong to me, because I care far more about what you do than why you do it.

  • AnonymousSam

    Worse than explaining why we have suffering is the deeper question of why we must have suffering. “Why do we have suffering” is an explanation of consequence. “Why must we have suffering” is a justification of having those consequences.

    People who strive to answer the former seem so often to answer the latter without even being aware of it, and without being aware that they are painting God out as a monstrous sociopath with rules he created, can and won’t break, and which have the direct consequence of making many people (the majority?) miserable throughout a large portion of their lives. They score bonus points if their explanation (inadvertently or otherwise, though often it does seem intentional) sums to God making the majority of people miserable in order to benefit the 1% who gets to Heaven.

    In my mind, it comes down to a crucial fork: either God can’t (directly or otherwise) relieve suffering, or he won’t (because it breaks his own cosmic rules). Both of these are a condition which requires justification. Why can’t God wave his perfect hand and have us all live in comfortable harmony, or why must God have rules which apparently exist to trap us in a state of suffering (even more so if you believe most people go to Hell to suffer for eternity)?

  • LouisDoench

     So… nights off then? Good to know… ;)

  • Well but and yet also…

    OK, yes, the meaning of famine in Village is that there are people in Village who are starving, and who must be fed. Certainly.

    But addressing broader questions is often relevant and sometimes crucial to ensuring that those people are fed. If it turns out that they are hungry because they are using agricultural techniques ill-suited to their climate, then part of ensuring that they are fed is teaching them more useful techniques. If it turns out that they are hungry because their food is being stolen from them by a local warlord, then part of ensuring that they are fed is liberating them from said warlord. If it turns out that they are hungry because food shipments can’t get to Village, then part of ensuring that they are fed is improving Village’s transportation infrastructure. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    So if someone comes along and starts talking about the broader issues related to that famine, and how it relates to agriculture or local politics or the quality of roads or what-have-you, it’s possible that pursuing the chain of thought they’re on is far, far more effective at ensuring the hungry are fed than continuing to airlift food supplies into Village for the rest of time. In other words, maybe what they are saying really is about the meaning of hunger (which is feeding the hungry), even if it’s not obvious at first.

    Of course, it’s also possible that they’re completely full of it and distracting attention from the actual alleviation of suffering. If someone comes along and starts talking about how the famine relates to the color shoes that the people of Village wear, I will probably dismiss them as irrelevant to the real meaning of hunger. And this is because I believe addressing the color of people’s shoes does nothing to alleviate their hunger. (I might, of course, be wrong, but all I can do is draw my best conclusions from the data I have.)

    In the same spirit, if it turns out that George, who lives in Village, is sitting on top of a huge well-defended stockpile of food, and could feed everyone in Village for years if he were convinced to… well, in that case understanding George’s psychology becomes an important part of the meaning of hunger. And if I dismiss discussion of George as irrelevant to feeding the hungry, I am implicitly asserting that there is no such potential-Village-feeding George. (Of course, there might be a George, or even several, but from the perspective of feeding the village he/they are irrelevant.)

    And if it turns out that God could feed everyone in Village forever if He chose to… well, in that case understanding theology similarly becomes an important part of the meaning of hunger. And if I dismiss discussion of theology as irrelevant to feeding the hungry, I am similarly implicitly asserting that there is no such potential-Village-feeding God.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    And if I dismiss discussion of theology as irrelevant to feeding the hungry, I am similarly implicitly asserting that there is no such potential-Village-feeding God.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Why can’t God wave his perfect hand and have us all live in comfortable harmony, or why must God have rules which apparently exist to trap us in a state of suffering (even more so if you believe most people go to Hell to suffer for eternity)?

    Because God rolled  “cold, unfeeling universe” on the Random Dungeon Encounter table, and we are all “Fuuuuu-uuu-uuuuu-uuuuck, why couldn’t it just be bugbears?”

  • Carstonio

    No disagreement about the meaning of human suffering, and no question that Bad Catholic is tragically wrong in focusing on explanations. But I don’t see any relevance for the metaphysical at all when looking at suffering. Making the subject about the metaphysical inevitably makes it about explanations, which is really about whether people who suffer did something to bring it on. Not quite the same as saying they deserve to suffer, but it still assumes that one can control the universe to some extent.

  • Carstonio

    That assumption that the universe is a just place is the whole problem, whether or not one believes in gods. 

  • AnonaMiss

    I believe the debate in question was between a creationist Christian on the one side, and a materialist atheist on the other. In which case, the question is not relevant, because the person who accepts natural selection as fact doesn’t believe it’s directed by anything that could be characterized as a person.

  • olsonam

    “And if I dismiss discussion of theology as irrelevant to feeding the
    hungry, I am similarly implicitly asserting that there is no such
    potential-Village-feeding God.”

    Frank addresses this in his post – he quotes Jesus over and over again. Our “potential Village feeding God” has told us over and over that we need to feed the hungry.  If I consider the theology irrelevant then it is because I’m following the example of my God.  Or am I forgetting passages in the Gospels where Jesus is debating metaphysics with the Pharisees?

  • I like what Fred has written here, but it does seem like he’s dodging the question.  The question is not, “How do we respond to suffering?”  the questions are: “Doesn’t suffering demonstrate that there is no God?  Or, if there is, that God is not good, can’t be trusted, and should not be worshiped?”

    This essay doesn’t answer those questions unless Fred is saying, “God allows suffering in order to give people the chance to love and help each other.”  Is that what you’re saying, Fred? If so, I don’t think it’s a very satisfying answer.  (We can’t love without suffering?  Will there be no love in heaven?  Was there no love among the Trinity before the Fall?)

  • JustoneK

    The idea the universe is just relates back to that idea of personal power:  if the universe/creator  is just, then I can avoid hardship by doing Right and avoiding Wrong.  When shit inevitably goes down, I spend hours agonizing what I screwed up instead of accepting that sometimes I can’t control what happens to me.

  • Raymond

    I’m not sure that the phrase “suffering exists to be alleviated” has much meaning. It presupposes that there is a purpose behind it, or behind anything. I think a better phrasing is “suffering exists, and the moral imperative is to alleviate it”. Suffering doesnt exist for a REASON, any more than anything else exists for a reason.  But if you have compassion, or if you think this is the only world we have, then trying to ease that suffering is the moral imperative.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    It’s a relevant question for the atheist to ask of the creationist, however, or–extrapolating here–to ask of any theist who believes that A) some but not all real-world events and phenomena are directed by the hand of God, and B) God is omnipotent. 

  • Carstonio

    That ignore other possibilities for a god. Maybe the being doesn’t have the capability to cause for alleviate suffering. Or maybe it does have that capability but is indifferent to human suffering or even unaware of it.  Your post seems to assume that the Christian ideas for deity are the only ones on the table.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    “Jesus Commanded Us To” is just an appeal to authority. It’s not an argument. Maybe following Jesus’ commands (or the commands of the people who wrote and edited the Gospels, at least) is a good behavioral shorthand (the WWJD canard), because one has judged Jesus’ moral correctness to be pretty unshakable (if not perfect) when it comes to matters of humanitarianism. It’s still doesn’t address the question of why God doesn’t feed the hungry himself. Either he can’t or he won’t, which raises the questions of why we should be worshiping him or listening to what he has to say at all.

  • LL

    But Fred, alleviating suffering is so much WORK, darn it. I mean, I got stuff to do. Gays to hate. Brown people to eye suspiciously. Whorish women to condemn. If I spent time actually helping people, well, I wouldn’t have time to judge them and find them wanting, as the Good Book so obviously wants me to do. C’mon. There’s only 24 hours in a day.  All those people aren’t going to judge themselves, are they? Be reasonable. 

    So you all go on and help all those people who are going to hell anyway, if you want to waste your time. I’ll be over here doing the Lord’s work, sneering contemptuously at people who fail to live up to the lofty standards that I myself never, ever fall short of (as far as anybody else knows). 

    Damn liberal pinko commies. 

  • Jessica_R

    I guess this another thing that helps me clarify why I don’t believe in god. I believe humans should help each other, but this post makes me wary, as it comes dangerously close to the nonsense that “poor people were put on Earth for rich people to help them, in token amounts of course”. I know that’s not what Fred is saying at all, but still, it goes back to why I don’t bother with apologetics or the problem of evil. So much suffering just is, and so much suffer is caused, directly or indirectly by human agents and their systems of injustice and oppression. 

    In other words I actually find it a lot more comforting for there to be no God. The universe just is, and it’s up to us to behave decently, and to step up when others don’t. 

  • Madhabmatics

     God being The Great Dungeonmaster would totally explain why we have so many types of polearms

  • Victor


    (((And after he healed them, he told the disciples that, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day.”)))

    Yes so simple and yet so complicated, “Him who sent Me”.

    “IT” seems that we must understand everything and “I” guess there’s nothing wrong in wanting to do that. The danger is that when “ME” starts to really believe that they are “gods” “IT” can be pretty scary if ya know what “I” mean?

    Gee maybe “I” should instead just start a third blog in order to try and explain this stuff as to how and why “I” see “IT” a certain way but then I might be better off opening my old “Hockey Cards Plus Business” again cause I still own over a half million sport cards to my name.

    I hear ya sinner vic! You can’t do that Victor cause we own the soul and spirit of those sport players and we want to hang on to “IT” so don’t sell them!

    As “I” was about to say before sinner vic interrupted “ME”. :)

    Look folks, I honestly believe that “IT” would be easier to try and understand where vampires and/or warewolves originated from before trying to figure out GOD (Good Old Dad) and that’s if they even originated at all. If “I” was to say that they were spirits, souls and/or angels in human bodies who truly thought they were gods of old but GOD (Good Old Dad) said to them, leave my children alone if ya know what’s good for ya. Most would say that “I” was going crazy cause this was just another ferry tail and me, myself and i would certainly not be able to convince them otherwise! Could we NOW?

    Listen Victor! You can’t say those things cause that’s “ONE” of the conditions which the aliens made in order to save the human race from the U>S gods which is that they didn’t want U>S (usual sinners) to know that any of them existed otherwise these human bodies might start believing that “Jesus” really knew what He was talking about when He said in so many words to be careful not to become slaves to sin and we know that was a silly statement, right Victor?

     So let’s give these clowns, I mean, let’s give U>S a chance to clone themselves first.

    OK Victor?

    Whatever ya say sinner vic cause “I’M” not in the mood to argue right NOW!?

    That’s so true Victor and besides, you’re way off topic again!

     (((Wrong question, Jesus said. The meaning of blindness is this — and he healed the man’s eyes and restored his sight.

    The meaning of human suffering is that it be relieved.)))

    Those who say they can see NOW are still blind! :(

    Thanks for setting me straight sinner vic! :)


  • Andrew Wyatt

    In other words I actually find it a lot more comforting for there to be no God.

    I grok this. If the monotheistic God envisioned by the median believer were real,  the primary moral decision of my life would be whether to cower in quaking fear at His obvious sadism and insanity, or to have the courage to actually oppose Him. (How, exactly, I might oppose an omnipotent deity, I’m uncertain.  I’m counting on Him to have foolishly created a Saint of Killers who has the power to slay Him.)

  • Jim Roberts

    Heh. Something like that, really. One paraphrase of that passage reads, “As long as you can stand up, do good.”

  • Jim Roberts

    Or, say, if you’re flying a plane where one of his mortal scions is cackling at the death and destruction he’s wreaked, you could fly it into a cliffside.

  • That’s covered under the second part of the question, which is whether any God that exists is worth trusting and worshiping.  I’d say no, for a God who is indifferent to suffering or a God who is unable to do anything about it. 

    If God can’t fix the world today, why should I trust that God will ever fix it?  Why should I trust that the arc of the universe bends towards justice?  Or that all manner of thing shall be well?

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I’d say no, for a God who is indifferent to suffering or a God who is unable to do anything about it.

    Monotheism has been hand-waving this since the Book of Job was written, mostly by saying that our pitiful, finite human understanding of good is woefully inadequate compared to God’s. Which, of course, just shifts the question to why God would create humankind with such feeble brains and such a humanocentric conception of good that causes us such confusion and despair (which, is itself a form of suffering). For our own good, I suppose, in the same way that a husband occasionally has to give his wife or kids a good, hard smack.

  • Victor

     (((For our own good, I suppose, in the same way that a husband occasionally has to give his wife or kids a good, hard smack.)))

    I know that you’re being funny Andrew Wyatt! Having said that, I also know where you’re coming from butt “I” won’t start here although I could probably write a book on “IT”.

    I hear ya sinner vic! Butt who would read “IT” Victor? :)


  • Andrew Wyatt

    FWIW, I edited my comment because it seemed unnecessarily insensitive and triggering.

  • Beleester

    If God’s only input is to tell you to feed the hungry, then you have to assume he’s not potentially-Village-feeding.  Because if he is potentially-Village-feeding and doesn’t feed the Village, something is very wrong (Problem of Evil, you’ve heard this one before).

    On the flip side, if all God does is tell you to feed the hungry, then what makes him so special?  George can tell you that just as well as God.

    Dave isn’t arguing that God does or doesn’t exist, but that he is not useful for alleviating suffering.  Which is kind of what Fred is saying, as well.  Fred is using Jesus as an example of what we should do, not talking about what God can do.

  • B

    Perhaps I’m weird, but to be honest, as a theist, I’ve never been that worried about these problems.  Perhaps it’s a byproduct of my view of God (which tends toward the panentheist rather than the “God is being outside the universe sticking a hand in messing with things) but I suppose I just figure that suffering is a result of the way the universe works and not of God per se.

    Consider the question: could God create a fully functioning human being with no head?  I would say no, not so much because of the properties of God, but because of the properties of humans (specifically, that we require brains to function). 

    So, we could ask the question, why are there earthquakes?  Couldn’t God make a planet with no earthquakes?   Maybe not… again, not so much because of the properties of God, but because of the properties of planets.  I’m no kind of expert, but it sounds like planetary scientists have suggested that an active core and plate tectonics are necessary to sustain life on a planet, and when you have plate tectonics, you’re going to have earthquakes.

    I found an interesting quote this morning in an article a FB friend linked to.  Speaking of some recent Republican statement re: rape and pregnancy, a Father Tom Reese said, “Someone getting pregnant through rape simply means biology continues to function.  That doesn’t mean God wills it.” 

    I think many of the terrible things that happen aren’t a result of an “act of God” but rather the fact that chemistry, biology, and physics continue to work the the way they always have and always will.  If you see God as an interventionist God that will step in and break the laws of physics to (say) zap or speed along individual sperm cells depending on whether God wills a woman to get pregnant, then this a problem, but personally that’s not how I see God.  YMMV.

    Of course, you could ask why chemistry/biology/physics works the way they do and not totally differently, but I guess I’m willing to take it on faith that there’s a reason for that. :-)

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I think many of the terrible things that happen aren’t a result of an “act of God” but rather the fact that chemistry, biology, and physics continue to work the the way they always have and always will.

    I don’t really follow this line of reasoning at all. If God established natural laws, perhaps at the beginning of time, then he can presumably break them at any time, yes?  Is he capable of straight-jacketing his own future actions by forbidding himself from taking certain actions? (Is he like a cosmic ascetic who *could* partake of meat or alcohol or sex, but *chooses* not to?) If he’s benevolent and all-knowing, why would he do this? Surely he could see that this voluntary restriction of his power would result it a great deal of suffering for humankind (not to mention every living thing)?

    Or were natural laws *not* dictated by God? Are they out of his control? If so, he’s not nearly as powerful as he would have us believe. 

  • LL

    Once again, Victor says what we’re all thinking, after we’ve mixed a powerful narcotic with large amounts of some kind of alcohol. With maybe a dash of manic depression thrown in. 

  • B

     Well, the idea of panentheism is that the universe is a proper subset of God (as distinct from pantheism, which says that the universe IS God).  So it’s not a view that sees God as potentially stepping in from outside the universe and breaking the laws of physics.  Rather, the laws of physics are in fact God (along with everything else plus more besides).  I assume there’s a reason they are what they are and not something totally different (I believe I’ve read that if the laws of physics were even slightly different than they are life couldn’t exist, but I’m not a cosmologist so I can neither confirm nor deny this.)  I suppose in a sense this means God isn’t omnipotent and I’m OK with that (and he’s never told me he is!) but in another sense I think it’s just not a question that makes sense to me in the context of my beliefs about the nature of God.   YMMV.

    I suppose I’m not being very articulate but I don’t know how to explain any better how I feel.  You’d probably have to go to a pantheist philosopher for that, which I most definitely am not! :-)  

  • Carstonio

    I take worship and trust off the table with such questions, because a god that deserves those things is no more or no less likely to exist than one who doesn’t. And because it implies that what we want is what should be, like the universe is being defined in human terms.

  • AnonaMiss

    Squid eyes. Though I suppose you could abstract back to natural selection being requisite for life to exist and get to the point of breeding things with big enough brains to notice god – though that then begs the question of how we know that we’re the intended species and not just a sparrow on the evolutionary tree to god’s eventual intended Master Species.

    The kind of anthropocentric exceptionalism that Christianity requires can allow a guided/directed evolution, an evolution that is a process used to churn out the Wonder of Man; but the kind of undirected evolution that gives us mammal eyes instead of squid eyes implies that we weren’t a pre-designed/pre-desired product, and thus that evolution wasn’t set into motion with us in mind.

    I can only imagine two kinds of creator deities who actually care about certain, exceptional species of life in their universes in a personal way – exceptional enough to incarnate itself into that sort of body, suffer and die for that species’ spiritual growth. 

    The first is a creator deity with a certain, perfected design in mind, with the entire workings of the universe a factory working towards the creation of this perfect species; we can be certain that humans aren’t this species, because we have design flaws, so if this universe was created by this kind of deity, our species would have come about as part of the process of iterating towards that species – an early model, or a product of the generation process on a suboptimal seed. At this point in our evolution, it would be impossible to say. Our species receiving a visit from the deity in “us form” could be a part of the perfection process that we don’t understand, though if it ever came to light that Jesus had children that would lend this view of his visit a lot more credibility. A little genetic shove in the preferred direction.

    The second kind of creator deity that would incarnate himself for his species’ benefit is one who loves variety in his life-forms and values them all enough to consider their lives precious (2A), or at least once they’ve gotten to a certain level of development (2B). With type 2A we’d expect not only a human messiah, but a crow messiah, an earthworm messiah, a platypus messiah, an archaebacteria messiah… or, with 2B, a Klingon messiah, an Unas messiah, a Twi’lek messiah… In a universe created by a type 2B deity, we’d expect to find planets with life pretty densely, as densely as they could be packed without the different species annihilating each other (or, if the deity prefers to watch each ‘valuable’ species develop separately, without coming into contact with each other). A type 2A deity would presumably not care as much about species destroying each other as about generating as many as possible, so the lack of life elsewhere in our solar system makes a 2A unlikely.

    tl;dr Evolution by natural selection and a god who values human beings enough to make a Christ of himself cuts down the reasons why god would have created us to a handful of fascinating possibilities!

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Rather, the laws of physics are in fact God (along with everything else plus more besides).

    This is a great example of why inclusive theism is just as exasperating (sometimes moreso) as exclusive theism.  It starts to erode down a gooey nub that permits no meaningful statements whatsoever.

    If God is equal to the the all-inclusive One Thing that includes the subset of the Universe, what possible effect does this have on human life, and how can it possibly be distinguished from a reality in which there are no deities at all?  How is a God that encompasses all things (the physical universe and Everything Else, whatever that Everything Else might be) revealed to us? What are the consequences of its existence, versus its non-existence?

  • Victor

    (((Once again, Victor says what we’re all thinking, after we’ve mixed a powerful narcotic with large amounts of some kind of alcohol. With maybe a dash of manic depression thrown in.)))

    Gee Loving Lady, what box of pop corn did you get your internet deplomat from cause I can’t recall having said that “I” knew what most people were thinking and/or what drugs they might even be on and……????

    Don’t be sarcastic sinner vic! She’s just as entitled to her opinion as you and/or any of your imaginary so called puppets besides,  how do you know that she’s not a real working professional so have a little respect!

    SORRY VICTOR! “IT” won’t happen again! :)

    Time will tell sinner vic! :(


  • konrad_arflane


    Then there’s the matter of free will, and the increasing scientific evidence that it is an illusion. (…) Because they are rooted in a false
    metaphysics, a Christian’s answers to moral questions like “Should we
    engage in retributive punishment against child molesters?” are not only
    off-topic, they aren’t even applicable to the universe in which we
    actually dwell.

    But the trouble is, “Should we engage in retributive punishment against child molesters?” – like any question beginning with “Should we” – only makes sense if we have free will. If we don’t, then we will engage in whatever type of punishment we will engage in, because that’s what we will do.

    Debates over the existence of free will always strike me as futile for this reason, since the logical consequences of one of the positions are that a) we are powerless to act differently based on our adopting the position (unless we were going to anyway), b) we are powerless to change the other person’s mind (unless they were going to change their mind anyway) and c) we are powerless to even STOP ARGUING (unless we were going to anyway).

    Regardless of whether free will exists, I think the safest course of action is to assume that it does. After all, if it doesn’t, it’s not *really* your fault that you were wrong…

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Observing that free will is illusory does not equal flaccid acceptance that things are unchangeable. There is a wide gulf between between recognizing that personal agency is chimerical and apathetic fatalism. Our actions still *matter* and have consequences. Causality is self-evidently still in operation.

    That said, the illusion of free will does have consequences for public policy. Perhaps when I say “Should we…” I actually mean, “Does it make any sense for us to…” Punishment as a end of criminal justice, for example, doesn’t make much sense if every individual is being tugged along by countless factors, none of which are the “will”. It makes more sense to lock up criminals for rehabilitation and public safety purposes than for punishment in such a universe.


    inclusive theism [..] starts to erode down a gooey nub that permits no meaningful
    statements whatsoever. [..] what possible effect does this have on human life, and how can it
    possibly be distinguished from a reality in which there are no deities
    at all? 

    I am sympathetic to this frustration, but I ultimately don’t share it.

    Let me start with a simpler variation to explain why.

    If I assert that people have moral worth, this is not a verifiable claim. It’s not a falsifiable claim. There is no “essence of moral worth” out there in the world that I’m hypothesizing attaches to people but not to, say, rocks; I don’t anticipate that someday someone could develop a moralworthometer they could use to test my assertion. If someone else asserts that people don’t have moral worth, we’re not really disagreeing about how the world is. There’s no test anyone could perform that could determine which of us is accurate.

    But neither are we saying meaningless things. When I say that people have moral worth, I’m asserting that I value certain things more than other things. If someone else asserts that people don’t have moral worth, we’re disagreeing about what is valuable.

    In other words, when I make statements about the moral worth of people (or rocks, or whatever), I’m taking a particular stance with respect to people (or rocks, or whatever).

    Is that a cost-effective use of
    my time? Maybe not… I’m not really sure. It’s not like I go around spending hours every day asserting the moral
    worth of people, or the moral worthlessness of rocks, or whatever, so I
    don’t really worry too much about it. Still less do I worry about whether it’s a cost-effective use
    of someone else‘s time.

    Might I do better to frame that stance some other way, and give over talking about “moral worth” altogether? Maybe. I haven’t yet found an alternative formulation that I like, but if you’ve got one to propose I’m open to it.

    In my experience, the sort of “gooey nub” of theism that you describe here can be the same sort of thing, such that asserting it (or denying it) is a way of taking a particular stance with respect to the universe as a whole. That’s harder to wrap my brain around, of course, since it’s so much larger a target, but that doesn’t make it meaningless.

  • KNicoll

    I’m afraid my ability to plow through the linked post crapped out at the point that it appeared that it was defining existence as axiomatically sinful….  That’s a level of nihilism that I can’t take as a given; in fact, I tend more towards ‘this is self-evidently immoral’ in my response to it.

    That the posited equation of ‘sinfulness’ with ‘existence’ seems to me to inevitably lead to ‘a sinless god does not exist in any meaningful way’, too, which means it doesn’t work well for me as an argument for Christianity.

    (I mean, as a pagan theologian I don’t worry much about Christian theology arguments, but I just stalled out right there.  I know C. S. Lewis thought the world itself was sufficient proof of a fallen creation, but I can’t get theyah from heeyah.)