Well, you asked for me to blockquote things I agreed with…

Well, you asked for me to blockquote things I agreed with… April 10, 2012

People who commented on this post last week might want to be careful what they wish for.   I’m going to keep an eye out for blogposts where I can highlight a pull-quote and have something positive to add, but I figured I could practice by blogging through a book that I agree with quite a bit.  (I already enjoyed doing this with Granny Weatherwax from Discworld).

So here comes a series of posts (probably one a week) on a book that made me feel just as this quote from The History Boys puts it:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

And the book is…

When I first read Mere Christianity, I was startled by the range of topics where Lewis seemed to capture what I was thinking about moral philosophy, except way more elegantly.  I reread the book over the Triduum, and dog-eared pages, so now we can have a solid thrashing out of what’s wrong with my atheism.  (And my college friends can perhaps expand on the “Convert already!” they used to yell at me on the debate floor).

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  • deiseach

    I’m genuinely laughing out loud here, Leah.

    For a follow-up, you’ll have to cover Colonel Ingersoll’s atheistic lectures or something of that ilk, just to reassure your atheist readers that you’re not really a secret theist masquerading under false colours 🙂

    (This is the Colonel Ingersoll mentioned by Chesterton in “Orthodoxy”: “As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll’s atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke across my mind, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” I was in a desperate way.”)

    • Andrew

      I didn’t take this as humor. Is it supposed to be?

  • Charles

    I feel the same way when I read your blog. 🙂

  • Patrick

    Heh. I don’t think you need to “convert already.” I think that by the standards of Catholicism practiced in my real world social circle, you’ve already converted.

  • Oh my, every time I look over your posts I so see you headed for Catholicism. Really, if you even know the word Triduum, you must be called to it (well, aren’t we all, really?)

  • Joe

    Great quote!! I had the experience it describes when I read you courageous post on stoicism. My old novice master used to say “The sin you fear the most in others is the sin you fear in yourself.”
    Looking forward to reading your reflections on “Mere Christianity”

  • Jack

    I’ve never read Mere Christianity, but I did read The Problem of Pain, which is CSL’s attempt at rationalizing away the problem of meaningless suffering. I was stunned at how utterly lame, and at some points laughable, is his reasoning. He even seriously speculates on how nonhuman animals might have sinned at some time in their past. How else are we to account for their suffering in nature? Pathetic! I can’t understand how Lewis is held in high esteem by anyone. Maybe M.C. makes a better impression, so I’m curious what you’ll have to say about it.

    • Andrew

      You’re off on this one, Jack. Lewis begins his writing on animal suffering with the humble offering that he does not understand such. He bases this work on simple two presuppositions: his love of animals and his belief that God is good. And the rest he admits is guesswork. I think that you would even agree that he is correct with his conclusions: we do not understand animal pain and that the levels of consciousness of animals differ from humans. And it’s guesswork that’s been widely appreciated both as a literary work and as a potential understanding of an earthly observation by way of a simple theological framework.

      Presumably, you call the work pathetic in order to ridicule as somehow inferior. It’s an interesting use of the word though; prior to it’s vulgar overuse, being pathetic also indicated a stirring of emotion or an induction of compassion. One would have a hard time finding a better term to describe Lewis’ thoughts on animal suffering.

    • Jack

      He bases this work on simple two presuppositions: his love of animals and his belief that God is good. And the rest he admits is guesswork. I think that you would even agree that he is correct with his conclusions: we do not understand animal pain and that the levels of consciousness of animals differ from humans.

      I do not agree. We do understand animal pain and human pain. There is no deep mystery to any of it. It is through biology, not theodicy, that pain is easily understood. Pain is an aversive signal that tells an animal it is injured, sick or hurt in some significant way, and that the circumstances that put it into this condition are to be avoided in the future. The unpleasantness of it, the subjective experience of suffering, are all part of the package, the ultimate purpose of which is reinforcement learning. Animals with genes that give them pain and suffering under appropriate circumstances are more likely to leave offspring than those whose pain and suffering are inadequate to the occasion. This was all well understood at the time CSL was alive, so he has no excuse for his shabby and pathetic scholarship. And yes, I meant ‘pathetic’ in the derogatory sense.

      Meaningless suffering is a problem and mystery if and only if you believe in an omniscient, omnipotent and loving god. CLS admits this himself at the beginning of the book. To put another way, the idea of such a god is incompatible with modern biology.

      • Andrew

        Well then, you’re much smarter than either I or CS Lewis. Please explain the notion of suffering and consciousness of a housefly or a salmon. Then, please explain the “easily understood” biology of the pain you felt when you’re mother died or the painful humiliation you suffered when you lost your job or the guilt you felt when didn’t live up to the promise you made.

        BTW – meaningless? The sensation of heat on my arm near the fire tells me to move back or I will be hurt. Humans inevitably learn by way of negative reinforcement. Rethink your idea of meaningless.

        The whole science compatibility is for a different forum…

      • Jack

        First, let me apologize for being snarky in my previous reply. I’m usually not, but I just finished reading Greta Christina’s book, and I don’t have much patience with theodicy under the best of circumstances. I don’t claim to be smarter than you or CSL. What bothers me about CSL is that he expresses lame rationalization and faulty reasoning in the beautiful prose of a highly educated British man of letters, thus giving it an undeserved appearance of respectability and authority.

        Please explain the notion of suffering and consciousness of a housefly or a salmon.

        As for explaining the suffering experienced by flies and fish, that’s covered in my previous comment. There’s no need to attribute to them “consciousness”, as we subjectively experience it, as a prerequisite to explaining reinforcement learning.

        The sensation of heat on my arm near the fire tells me to move back or I will be hurt. Humans inevitably learn by way of negative reinforcement. Rethink your idea of meaningless.

        The analogy to your burned arm is an example of pain functioning as I explained in my previous comment. Human suffering is experienced as meaningless when it serves no such obvious and immediate purpose, as is often the case. The other examples you mention — my mother’s death, losing a job, guilt at not keeping a promise — are all instances of social pain. There is good evidence that social and physical pain are implemented by the same neural circuitry, so it’s not surprising that they both engender similar subjective experiences of suffering. The more important point is that both kinds of pain, physical and social, arose through natural selection. We feel social pain because we are a highly social species. We cannot survive without other people, and social isolation is as painful to us as getting burned, if not more so.

        I’ll give you a real example of meaningless suffering. It’s the one that made an atheist of my wife back when she was 16 years old. She was learning German in high school, and some friends of the family, a married couple who lived in Switzerland, invited her to stay with them for few weeks of the summer. When she arrived, she learned that their infant had just died of sudden infant death syndrome. Not surprisingly, the parents were devastated. My wife-to-be concluded that no loving god could allow such a thing to happen, and she reached the simplest and obvious conclusion: no such god exists.

        Biology has no trouble explaining this. Human infants are helpless, and human parents form powerful emotional bonds with their infants to ensure that they protect and nurture them. That bond is reinforced by pleasure when interacting with the infant and by pain when separated from it, or when the infant is distressed and crying. As long as the parent can care for the infant, any suffering entailed in the process is meaningful. When the parent is separated from the infant by the infant’s death, the pain is at its most severe, because the separation is absolute, and there’s nothing the parent can do. To the individual parent, the suffering is meaningless. Evolution doesn’t care about that. There is no selective pressure for our consolation in bereavement; only for our reproductive success.

        • Andrew

          Feel free to be snarky, it’s typical of undergrads; are you a freshman or sophomore? Besides, rude atheists keep our numbers up.

          Well, so much for the easily understood biology, right? Of course, the physical occurs concurrent to emotional suffering; and it’s likely, given our anthropological make-up that such physicality is the result of evolutionary change. You and I can have “faith” that the likes of Lieberman and Eisenberg will someday in the distant future definitively measure the neural measurements of suffering comparatively to a stubbed toe or a stomach ache. But we won’t agree that the sensations are purely physical. In fact, atheists have reason to celebrate (for their descendants, that is) . Being that pain and suffering are merely a physical experience, our physical forms can someday be perfected to overcome such physical shortcomings; there’s no need to wonder or argue the notion of evil or suffering. The next time a tragedy occurs, chalk up your pain to our rudimentary state of medicinal neuroscience and be heartened that no such mental anguish will ever be felt by your great-grand children.

          I, and most believers on the other hand, see our pain (and joy along with our capabilities in art, music, etc.) as something beyond ourselves and outside of our known surroundings and something that must inescapably be endured. This belief is our consent to question such suffering and it’s our permission accept it as a necessity of our limited physical human condition.

        • deiseach

          “To the individual parent, the suffering is meaningless. ”

          I’m not sure I understand your definitions here; you just categorised social pain (which is what the parent is feeling here) as an evolutionary tool to ensure that social bonds of our social species are maintained; would the suffering then not be meaningful because it means the parent felt the appropriate response towards its offspring and so would continue to take care of existing and future offspring?

          If the idea of meaningless pain is pain that does not serve a purpose, then the pain in this instance does serve a purpose. Or then should the parent desire not to feel pain, in which case the lack of pain means lack of care for offspring and others, and so fails the social needs of the wider group (e.g. sociopaths who do not care about the pain of others or feel pain on their behalf)?

          The only shape I can put on it is that “meaningless suffering” is suffering that causes us to ask “Why me?” (or “why him/her?”) and then the answer is either “Why not you?” or “This happens and it was just the luck of the draw that this happened to you”. I can see why this might make someone decide “There can be no god” in such instances, but it still doesn’t take away the causes of such pain or prevent it from happening; the only way to protect oneself from such pain – whether one is a theist or an atheist – is to not care about anyone else in such a manner that any ill to them could possibly cause one pain, and that brings us back to our sociopaths and the utility of social pain.

        • Jack

          Andrew and deiseach,

          Please re-read my last comment, especially its last paragraph. It’s simple. My wife saw the suffering of this couple as meaningless for the same reason any normal person would in the circumstances. The baby’s death served no purpose. The infant didn’t die to make the world safe for democracy. The parents were good and decent people. The infant’s death wasn’t punishment for their sins. It didn’t teach them a lesson they needed to learn. It didn’t make their neighbors, whose baby was still alive, more grateful for god’s mercy and love. It didn’t serve some mysterious purpose of an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly loving but inscrutable god. These are the usual excuses believers make for god in such circumstances. The suffering of these parents was extreme in its magnitude and duration, far beyond anything that would be commensurate with these excuses. In this short comment I can’t explain for you all that is wrong with theodicy. I urge you to read this.

          Biology makes it possible for us to understand why infants die of SIDS, why parents and infants are emotionally attached to one another, and why the parents suffer so when an infant dies. Belief in an omnimax god is not compatible with this understanding.

          I also understand why believers seek meaning in their suffering, and why they try to make excuses for god. I understand why CSL did so; he had a difficult life and much meaningless suffering of his own. But I am disappointed in theodicy, to put it mildly, because it is so intellectually dishonest. It is all mental gymnastics, logically inconsistent and indefensible, done out of desperation to cling to a comforting belief in god that is at odds with reality.

          • Andrew

            This thread is significant in that indicates a different type of atheism. That is, the atheism arrived at by way of emotion, rather than by reason. Inasmuch as most apologetics fittingly is based upon an intellectual evidentiary approach, believers do need an improved apologetic for those afflicted by grief and driven to a non-belief of despair.

            It seems the beginning of such an approach must be an admission that each believer has experienced significant doubt in the face of deep grief.

            “Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back. How well the spirtualists bait their hooks!” -CSL

          • Jack


            This thread is significant in that indicates a different type of atheism. That is, the atheism arrived at by way of emotion, rather than by reason. Inasmuch as most apologetics fittingly is based upon an intellectual evidentiary approach, believers do need an improved apologetic for those afflicted by grief and driven to a non-belief of despair.

            You have this exactly backwards. The argument from meaningless suffering, more commonly called the “argument from evil”, is a straightforward logical argument against the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and loving god.

        • Cous

          Apologies for hijacking, but as a member of the Church (the una, sancta, catholica one) who sets aside 40 days every year for her members to think about suffering and then a week right after that for them to REALLY think about it…well, suffering’s been on my mind lately.

          Jack, I agree that your wife’s response was not an emotional or irrational one: her experience with the Swiss couple was a piece of evidence, and she interpreted it as pointing to the non-existence of God. You did not say whether/how she tried to explain it as well. But you gave an explanation here, and so given that explanation of suffering, I cannot help but wonder – do you also feel the same way about love and friendship? By your lights, biology has just as good of an explanation for genuine love as it does for genuine anguish. I’m somewhat echoing here what Andrew said above at 6:42.

          Also, I just wanted to say that when Christians deal with other Christians on this question, they tend to shoot themselves in the foot by considering the “argument from evil/suffering” in isolation. Because Christianity is fundamentally based on the fact that “meaningless” suffering is completely compatible with an all-loving God. That is, Christianity claims, above all else, that in 1st century Palestine, there was a man named Jesus who was also God and who 1) suffered throughout in the 33 years his human life and especially in the last 24 hours of his life, 2) DIED after being nailed to a cross for 3 hours, and 3) came back to life. And that suffering, by all human accounts, was meaningless – if death was all that was required to save mankind, he could have had a much shorter life and a much less painful death. If suffering was all that was required, as God, his human actions had infinite value; numerous theologians have written that a single drop of blood, nay, a single tear, a single moment of distress, would have sufficed, if suffering was all that was required. And yet, the Church stands as witness to the fact that this man who claimed to be God underwent betrayal, slander, humiliation, torture, and a public, excruciating death. Why this overwhelming excess of suffering? The answer (hint to Dan Brown: it’s not masochism) that comes back is as much a mystery as the question: love. To show us how much he loved us.

          In other words, suffering is only meaningless if it is not given or received in love. The Church embraces suffering as valuable because God has chosen it as a means for redemption and an expression of love (same goes for her counterintuitive embrace of poverty and humility), but suffering instantly loses its value once love is taken out of the picture. I have undergone fairly strong emotional suffering that seemed meaningless at the time, but as the years have gone by, I have seen that the source of it was an excess in the wrong type of love (self-love) and the fact that my love for God was weak and conditioned on Him giving me what I wanted.

          And Jack, just to be clear, the above is not meant to be an argument for conversion – the fact that a religion has an internally consistent explanation for suffering is not a reason per se to believe in it. But even if I’m skipping the premises for belief and jumping straight to the answer the Church has for your question, I hope you can see that theodicy is not, as you claim below, a problem that she has only weak answers to or shirks from, but is rather one that she faces head on. And for us Christians, we often fail to see the implications of the central truths that we profess.

          • Jack


            By your lights, biology has just as good of an explanation for genuine love as it does for genuine anguish.

            Yes, of course. Love is an affiliative emotion between individuals who depend upon one another in some critical way that is essential for reproductive success. No big mystery here. In highly social animals, like humans, it can and often does take altruistic forms. Again, no big mystery. In animals that form powerful attachments to their infants, the drive for that affiliation is so great that it may express itself in ways that have no obvious relation to reproductive success, as in, for example, the love of a human for a pet — an obvious baby substitute. Still no big mystery.

            In other words, suffering is only meaningless if it is not given or received in love. The Church embraces suffering as valuable because God has chosen it as a means for redemption and an expression of love (same goes for her counterintuitive embrace of poverty and humility), but suffering instantly loses its value once love is taken out of the picture.

            Are you suggesting that god so loved the Swiss couple that he murdered their infant? If so, I suggest that your moral compass is seriously warped.

            I hope you can see that theodicy is not, as you claim below, a problem that she has only weak answers to or shirks from, but is rather one that she faces head on.

            Sorry, but I don’t see any “internally consistent explanation” for meaningless suffering Christianity.

            I truly have compassion for whatever suffering you have experienced in your life. I am old enough to have had plenty myself. I understand how belief in god may comfort you. Maybe that comfort means so much to you that you cannot deal with the simple and obvious conclusion that my wife reached many years ago. But if I’m wrong, and you are more interested in truth than in remaining Catholic, then I urge you to read this. No, I don’t expect you to deconvert after reading it, but it might at least make you think seriously about the alleged “internal consistency” of theodicy.

          • Cous

            Hi Jack, thanks for your considerate reply. I didn’t give much context for my first question – given that you said you have a wife, and given that I come from a background where love is portrayed as an act of the will, a choice that must endure beyond merely pleasurable emotion, I was curious about how your beliefs as an evolution-determined “affiliative emotion” shape your attitude toward your marriage.

            Ha, I suppose that must make it sound like all Christians have “seriously warped” moral compasses, but, again, it is not so surprising when you consider the central claims of Christianity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” I do not disagree that it is a hard idea to accept that God allowed the Swiss couple’s son to die out of love. I cannot explain why your wife found the problem of suffering so great that it overwhelmed all reasons for belief in God that she encountered before or after that point, whereas I find the reasons for belief in God so great that they overwhelm, and can account for, the problem of suffering.

            I am certainly interested in the truth above all things, and I will read the link you posted (although I think I have encountered most of those deconstructions before) and will think about it. In return, here’s a short piece http://www.christianity.co.nz/suffer7.htm
            Again, I don’t expect it to change your mind either, but it’s food for thought.

          • Andrew

            Jack – the “argument from evil” is purely and fallaciously emotional.

            So, here’s the question:
            Can God allow evil?

            Or, maybe this is the real question:
            Can (the) God (that I define by presupposition by my terms as good and as understood by my human limitations) allow evil?

            It’s a loaded question by presupposition.- a plurium interrogationum. Kind of the “have you stopped beating your wife?”. It’s a trap and there’s no good answer.

            I know of no believer who has faith in any god like this! Why would he?

            And of course our emotions drive us to ask such questions. We greatly desire to know God. And we demand to know him on our terms. But, inescapably, we can’t; if He exists, He is outside of our boundaries and He is not constricted by our laws.

            So, to avoid the presupposition, the question is far better phrased:
            Can God (who, by his nature, is infinite and outside human limits of space and time) allow evil?

          • Jack

            I read http://www.christianity.co.nz/suffer7.htm, but it did not offer anything more substantial than your previous comment. Both strike me as attempts to circumvent the problem of meaningless suffering by suggesting a rationalization for why we should not expect god to prevent it: in your comment, because our suffering is an expression of god’s love for us; in the article, because god has also suffered, and suffered much more than we have, and so that somehow makes our suffering OK, and god should not be expected to try to prevent it.
            These vague bromides, “God understands suffering”, “Suffering is not meaningless if given and received in love”, “God has suffered more than we”, etc, serve only to cloud and confuse the issue and direct attention away from the essential point: an omniscient, omnipotent and loving god would never allow the kind and magnitude of meaningless suffering experienced by the Swiss couple. You implicitly admitted this yourself, in your reply to my question, “Are you suggesting that god so loved the Swiss couple that he murdered their infant?” Rather than simply answering, “Yes” — which is the only answer consistent with your idea that suffering is an expression of god’s love — you equivocated ever so slightly:
            >blockquote>I do not disagree that it is a hard idea to accept that God allowed the Swiss couple’s son to die out of love. Frankly, I am shocked that you did not answer, “No, of course I don’t mean that.” On the planet I inhabit (it’s called Earth), killing another person’s infant is not considered an expression of love. It’s not even considered an ambiguous or difficult-to-understand expression of love. It’s considered one of the most vile and reprehensible acts imaginable. If this is the god you and the other folks on your planet consider worthy of worship, then you really do have a seriously warped moral compass.
            But you did equivocate ever so slightly, which gives me hope that your moral compass is not really as warped as your theodicies suggest. I suspect that at some level you understand that extreme and meaningless suffering is not good for us, and cannot be an expression of love — from god or anyone else. I would hope that your own behavior is proof of this. Do you contribute to charities that feed the hungry or comfort the sick? Have you ever helped in such activities through your own time and effort? If so, then you cannot believe that suffering is an expression of god’s love, because you have been deliberately thwarting god’s efforts to deliver these expressions of his love.
            Suppose you volunteered to do some housecleaning at your church, and on entering a room to clean it, found your priest sodomizing a 6-year-old altar boy. Which of these courses of action would you chose:
            (a) Take the boy from the priest, shouting, “How dare you assault this innocent child? I’m calling the police. You will be defrocked and imprisoned for this!”
            (b) Say to the priest, “Oh, I’m sorry Father, I didn’t mean to interrupt. You just go on with that while I sweep in the next room. And don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. I know you’re only showing your love for the boy, and suffering is good for him. It’s an expression of God’s love for us all.”
            Please tell me you’d choose (a). And then, please tell me why god, if he exists, has NOT chosen (a). He could easily have prevented child sexual abuse by the clergy. He could have prevented most of it without even performing any miracle. Just a hint to the pope that celibacy for the priesthood was an error and is henceforth abolished would have prevented most of the abuses. Better yet, god could have told the pope that only married women are allowed to be priests.

            And finally, for Andrew:
            Please point out for me where in the following lies the blatant emotionality:

            Assumption (1): God exists.
            Assumption (1a): God is all-knowing.
            Assumption (1b): God is all-powerful.
            Assumption (1c): God is perfectly loving.
            Assumption (1d): Any being that did not possess all three of the above properties would not be God.
            Premise (2): Evil exists.
            Premise (3): An all-knowing being would be aware of the existence of evil.
            Premise (4): An all-powerful being would be able to eliminate evil.
            Premise (5): A perfectly loving being would desire to eliminate evil.
            Conclusion (6): Evil does not exist. (from (1),(3),(4),(5))
            Contradiction: But evil does exist. (from (2))
            Conclusion (7): There is no being that is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly loving. (from (2),(3),(4),(5))
            Conclusion (8): God does not exist. (from (7),(1d))

            And before you reply, I urge you to read all four parts of the essay from which the above was snipped.

          • Easy. Premise 2. Evil does not exist just as blue does not exist, which is to say it is not a thing with quality of essence. Evil is a quality of things twisted or lacking. It is anti-being.

          • Cous

            Hi Jack,
            There are two scenarios on the table now, the Swiss couple and the sodomizing priest, which I’ll address briefly at the end; my short answer to “Why does God permit evil?” is in that section, but since the answer is ultimately “We don’t always know,” this long preface may help you understand why Christians call faith what you call childish illusions, denial of reality, and naievete:
            1. Suffering has no value in itself; any value it has is accidental, imparted to it by the circumstances in which it occurs or the intention of the giver and the receiver. I do not go to my friends and say, “You are my friend and I love you; here, let me stab you!” However, suffering is meaningful when allowed as part of love, where love means desiring and acting for the good of the person (insert a millenia-long debate about what the “good of a person” means). If a child is about to undergo surgery and is not supposed to eat for 24 hrs beforehand, the parents may have to deny their child food with tears in their eyes, because they know that this suffering is actually for the sake of the child’s long-term health. From the Christian point of view (which you do not share, so I understand this may just make you more frustrated, but bear with me to the end), this analogy carries over as follows:

            2. Re. the parent: we have good reason to believe that we have a parent (namely, God) and that this parent wills what is good for us and that we can trust him. This is basically where you could insert all apologetics for the Catholic faith, but I’ll attempt a summary: the Old and New Testaments are meant to give us those reasons for believe by showing us God’s visible/sensible interactions with humanity and the two covenants, i.e. testaments, he has made with humanity: first with the Jewish people alone through his promises to Abraham, Moses, and others, and physically manifested by the tablets of 10 Commandments, hence the place where they were stored was the “Ark of the Covenant.” This was an incomplete and temporary covenant, which was fulfilled in the “new and everlasting covenant” in a series of events in human history in which God became a Jewish man in first century Palestine and was crucified in order to reconcile humanity with God. This covenant which is physically manifested to this day in the Eucharist and in an another way through the Church that Christ established before he died. As Christ, God didn’t just give someone a divine vision and then ask everyone else to believe that person; he showed himself to thousands of eyewitnesses and gave a group of those witnesses the specific mission of continuing to teach and live as he taught and lived.

            3. Re. the child, we are in the position of the child in two ways: 1) we are all indeed “sick;” individual humans are sick with sin and a lack of love for God, and as a result, creation is sick (see Genesis, where work, disease, and suffering are results of the Fall; while the Church does not teach that Genesis must be taken literally, it conveys the truth is that creation is out of harmony with its intended state), and 2) we are not omnipotent; as long as we are on this earth, we have only limited, imperfect knowledge, and we cannot fully understand every instance of suffering or the why the world was created as it is, and we certainly cannot understand everything about God; we can only work with what he gives us (see point 2).

            Thus, when confronted with suffering, a Christian’s response, as the child, is not to say, “I do not understand this suffering, therefore you must not really be my parents, or else you are liars and I do not really have parents,” but rather to say, “I believe you are my parents, you have told me that you love me and only want what is good for me, so I will trust you and endure this suffering.” I know this is an imperfect analogy, that sometimes we confront the suffering before we encounter the reasons to believe that we have parents (this would be like waking up in a hospital in pain after the surgery and not remembering that your parents sent you there, but then the doctors would tell you that you had parents and show you the signed consent form and the family pictures they left on your bedside table) and that believing in God is much more difficult, complicated, life-changing, etc. than believing that your parents care for you and are who they say they are BUT that’s the best I can do in this space at this moment.

            So, to briefly respond to the two scenarios:
            I would certainly choose a). That suffering is the result of moral evil, which God may permit but never wills, and if I witness this, I am obliged to prevent it. You may ask, “Why doesn’t God stop the priest in the first place?” Answer: sometimes he does actually “stop the priest,” i.e. sometimes there are miraculous interventions, but most of the time I would refer you to the Free Will defense, with the caveat that the article you link to completely misunderstands free will and how it relates to God and human nature. Insert another millenia-long debate. I’m sorry I can’t give you a totally satisfactory answer here. And for the Swiss couple, where unlike the sodomizing priest, their suffering is not the direct result of moral evil (though I would say it’s indirectly the result of evil, since all suffering has its ultimate source in the fallen nature of the world) I would not stand by and say, “Well, just have faith and deal with it. Tough luck.” I did not mean to equivocate; I stand by the claim that their suffering is not meaningless, and that God (who did not “murder” their son, since that would deny that the child’s life belonged to God in the first place) had some purpose in allowing their son to die. While I cannot fully explain to them how it is that an “omnimax” God loves in this way, I know that I, as a decidedly non-omnimax human, can act only according to the knowledge and resources that I have. And so, with the reasons for belief presented by the Church, the God-given gift of faith, and the teachings of the Church on how to fulfill the commandment “love your neighbor as yourself,” I would try to comfort them, help them to deal with their loss, be a reliable friend, etc. I am certainly not called to prolong their suffering or torture them further because, as I said at the beginning, suffering qua suffering is not valuable.

          • Cous

            Edit: “incomplete and temporary” are a misleading description of the covenant God made with the people of Israel, I typed that in a hurry. I was trying to convey that the Messiah fulfilled, consummated, brought to fruition the first covenant, and established a new covenant not just with Israel but with all people and nations, and that the Mosaic Law was no longer applicable. The first covenant was not any less true or valid for having been “Part I of II.”

          • Jack

            Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I am relieved that you chose (a) in the hypothetical sexual abuse scenario. Your moral compass is fairly well intact. I brought up this extreme and shocking scenario partly because I suspected that your “god gives us suffering out of love” theodicy had its basis in the analogy of a parent spanking a child out of love. You confirmed that suspicion with your analogy about the food deprivation prior to surgery. Notice that the idea utterly fails in real-world examples of meaningless suffering of great magnitude, like that of the Swiss couple, or the hypothetical sodomizing priest (which, sad to say, has had many real instantiations). You drop it in these cases and resort to the free will or unknown purpose defenses, both of which are fatally flawed for reasons you have already read, if not accepted. You also suggest that the Swiss couple, like all humans, deserve whatever suffering we get anyway, because we are all descendents of Adam and Eve, who broke one of God’s rules. Assuming, for sake of argument, that this is true — how, by any stretch of the imagination, can you think of your god as just and fair and loving, when he punishes Nth-degree descendants for the breaking of some rule by a distant ancestor? This idea makes no sense whatsoever. One of my great-great-great-great grandfathers may have been a rapist, thief and serial murderer. I don’t know, because I haven’t gone that deeply into my genealogy. But if it were so, would that make me guilty of those crimes? Should I be punished for them? I didn’t even exist at the time. This is only one of many colossal ways in which Christianity makes no sense, unless you have been so thoroughly indoctrinated with it, typically since childhood, that you cannot see it for what it is and cannot even think clearly about it. Part of what inhibits that clear thinking is the fog of rationalization that we call theodicy.

            Since you brought up The Fall, I’ll close with just one more example of colossal contradiction in Christianity. The Christian God is supposed to be omniscient, but you say he also cares about humans having free will. These two things are mutually exclusive. If God knows everything, that means he knew in advance that Adam and Eve would break his rules. Therefore A&E had no free will, and neither do you or I. Because God knows everything that will happen in your future, he could write a book detailing every decision you will make, for the rest of your life. If he gave you that book and you read it, you might decide, if you really have free will, deliberately NOT TO DO one of the things God wrote in the book. But if you were able to do that, that would mean that God got it wrong — that he is not omniscient.

            I could go on, but I know I won’t change your mind, and I probably won’t tell you anything you haven’t already heard. So I’m signing off this thread now. I apologize if I seemed snarky at times, or if the shocking scenarios were upsetting. No harm intended.

          • Cous

            Hi Jack (if you ever read this),
            Understood; thanks for a good discussion. A last attempt to clear up possible misunderstandings (though, as you point out, it sounds like we’ve both been through this debate multiple times):
            First, the “colossal contradiction” you find in Christianity is hardly a knock-down one. Suffice it to say that there is hardly a universally accepted definition of free will; I refer you here, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/, and here. If you’re interested in a Catholic take on things, I refer you here. I’m not saying you’re not making good points; if you asked me on the spot to give a perfect end-to-end defense of omniscience and free will, I’d probably ask for a month or two to go do background research. But it’s hardly an open-and-shut case as you seem to think it is.
            Second, I didn’t “drop” the suffering-out of-love in the two scenarios and “resort to the free will or unknown purpose defenses;” I’m saying that those ARE both suffering-out-of-love situations; for each scenario, there might be many ways of understanding how they are. In the case of the sodomizing priest, the “free will” defense is easiest to see; moral evil and its consequent suffering are a cost of humans being able to choose moral good, an ability which God gave us out of love. For the Swiss couple, there is no immediate moral evil we can see – the child’s death was not the result of anything irresponsible or evil they did – but death is certainly a consequence of the fallen state of the world (see below for why this does not entail guilt on the Swiss couple’s part) and there could very well be additional ways in which God allowed it out of love, and this is what I was getting at with the “unknown purpose;” for example, it could have been for the child’s own sake.

            Third, when I refer to a “fallen world,” I am saying that, whatever the cause (who knows if there was a Garden of Eden or not), there is a disharmony, a disconnect, between the world/the creatures in it and their complete good/flourishing/happiness. It’s not a guilt model where you’re punished as if you had committed the crimes of your ancestors; it’s more like someone introduced disease into a previously disease-free population, and everyone born after that point was born infected, obviously through no fault of their own. As the Catechism puts it,

            And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” – a state and not an act. Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence”.

            Why didn’t God step in and prevent the “disease” from spreading? Again, there may be much more to it than this, but certainly part of it has to do with free will, which as I said above, is a manifestation of God’s love: this sickness, decay, and deprivation in humans and their environment were introduced into the world as the result of a choice made for evil by an agent. Whether the agents involved were actually a serpent, a man named Adam, and a woman named Eve, the Church leaves as an open question.
            Anyway, thanks again for a respectful discussion, and I wish you only the best (however that should be defined :p).

  • Cous

    Funnily enough, that “History Boys” quote sounds like a paraphrase of a Lewis quote on friendship:

    “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’ ”

    (can haz moar Lewis quotes: http://www.whatchristianswanttoknow.com/22-awesome-c-s-lewis-quotes/#ixzz1rqATqkPR)