Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Is God to blame?

Mr. Nguyen,

A friend drew my attention to your article on the religious implications of the tidal wave.

A few comments:

1. Your article bears a startling resemblance to one published by Martin Kettle in The Guardian:

Do I smell a whiff of plagiarism?

2. Speaking for myself, I’ve never had any respect for folks who only bring up the problem of evil when something spectacular happens in their own generation, or something tragic happens in their personal life.

To begin with, this is a rather psychopathic reaction. The attitude seems to be: evil is only an abstraction unless it happens to me.

Now, at an emotional level, this may be true. But at an intellectual level, you don’t have see something for yourself to know it’s real and form an opinion about it. There have been plenty of well-reported natural disasters over the centuries. A new catastrophe doesn’t raise any new questions. There is no reason to revise one’s worldview in light of the latest instance of natural or moral evil. The exercise reminds me of all those fatuous book titles about the possibility of faith after Auschwitz.

3. In addition, it makes no moral difference whether 30 people die in one day, or one person dies every day for 30 days in a row. When a lot of folks die all at once, that grabs our attention, but there is no moral difference between a sudden sum and a serial sum.

4. It isn’t clear to me why you choose to attack Christian theism rather than Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim theism. Why do you classify Yahweh as an "interventionist" God, but decline to classify Allah as an interventionist God? What about Shiva--the Destroyer?

Is it because you regard the God of the Bible is the only God worth either believing in or disbelieving? If so, I agree! Otherwise, your bias is blatant.

5. You then level a totally incoherent charge against Christian theism. On the one hand, you say that "they might have been chosen because an interventionist God actually regarded the Hindus of India and the Muslims of Indonesia and the Buddhists of Thailand as deserving of earthly suffering."

"In the aftermath to last year's Bam earthquakes, which killed more than 20,000 (mostly Muslim) Iranians, conservative American rabbi Daniel Lapin argued in the Chicago Jewish News that God dispatches natural disasters to punish those who have not embraced Judeo-Christian traditions. Noting that the US had been relatively untouched by natural disasters, Lapin wrote: "We ought to acknowledge that each day, every American derives enormous benefit from the faith of our founders and of their heirs." So goes the pungent logic of one who believes in an interventionist God."

On the other hand, you ask: "And what of the many Christians and Jews, including charity workers, still missing? Do they, and their family members, deserve their suffering?"

Okay, so which is it? Are non-Christians being singled out? Or are Jews and Christians targeted as well? Is it discriminate or indiscriminate?

BTW, Rabbi Lapin, fine man that he is, does not speak for all of Christendom. The very Christians who lay great weight on the sovereignty of God also lay great weight on the often-inscrutable character of divine providence. We do not assume a one-to-one correspondence between a particular sin and a particular judgment. The Bible itself denies such a mechanical correlation. Read John 9:1-3. Read the Book of Job.

6. You bring up the case of underage victims. To this I’d say three things:

i) Christian theology has a doctrine of original sin. You may not like it, but if you’re going to attack the inner logic of Christian theism, you need to take that into account.

ii) Every adult began life as a child. We see a child as he is. God sees a child as he would be or will be.

iii) You complain when children die along with their parents. But if the children survived, I expect you’d gripe about the plight of all the orphans. So this seems to be a red-herring.

7. You confound responsibility and blame. The title of your article poses the question, "Is God to blame?" But the body of your article attributes ultimate responsibility to God. Yet these are too different things. Responsibility is a necessary condition for blame, but it is insufficient to entail blame. Yes, according to Scripture, God is ultimately responsible for whatever happens. That goes with the pay-grade. But he is not solely responsible, and he is not blamable.

There is a vast apologetic literature on this subject. Do you ever read the people you write about?

8. Christian faith is not like a light-switch we flip on and off depending on the vicissitudes of the nightly news. Christian faith is a God-given apprehension of God’s reality and revelation. In Calvin's classic definition, "faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit," Institutes 3.2.7.

9. Of much more interest is the faith of the unbeliever. Why is a secularist so emotionally and intellectually ill-adapted to the only world he claims there to be? Why does he act so disappointed? Why does he act as though there is something wrong with the world when a natural disaster strikes? Why does he act as though things are not the way they’re supposed to be? Where does he get this ideal? Not from the world, obviously.

From and evolutionary standpoint, a tsunami is just an arm of natural selection weeding the garden. If we feel bad about the victims, that is only because evolution has programmed us to empathize with members of our own species.

It is not the nominal Christian who loses his faith in God, but the atheist who loses his faith in the world, which is so very telling. The unbeliever behaves like a believer in a state of deep denial.


<< I don't think Nguyen or other secularists think there's something wrong with the world when an earthquake strikes. They are not questioning the workings of nature, rather they are questioning the workings of theistic belief, especially the interventionist model of God, and also the notion of God as benevolent. >>

No, I think it cuts deeper than that. Certainly it is possible to mount an argument based on the internal logic of a belief-system. The critic doesn't have to subscribe to the belief-system himself to do this. He is merely examining the coherence of the position on its own grounds. Yes, that can be done.

However, the reaction of the typical secularist to natural evil isn't that self-contained. He assigns a tragic significance to the catastrophic loss of life. He thinks it is a bad thing when a natural disaster sweeps away hundreds or thousands of human lives. He renders a value judgment about the consequences of a natural disaster.

So this is based on his own worldview. And this can be one reason, quite irrespective of Christian theism, that he does not subscribe to Christian theism. This is an independent value-judgment which he brings to bear in the evaluation of Christian theism.

And that reaction doesn't make much sense from a secular outlook. A cold-blooded secular analysis would run more along the following lines:

A natural disaster is a mechanism of natural selection. It is a way in which the blind watchmaker weeds his garden. We find the loss of human life disagreeable because almighty natural selection has programmed us to empathize with members of our own species. Such fellow feeling confers is survival advantage on the species by tricking the human carrier into altruistic behavior which will up the odds of passing along his smart genes to the next generation.

As Edward Wilson and Michael Ruse put it, "human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey," "Moral Philosophy as applied science," _Philosophy_ (1986), 61:179.

The underlying fallacy, committed by Kettle and Nguyen alike, is the double standard they apply to theism and atheism. On the one hand, they suggest that a natural disaster is incompatible with their preconception of what Christian theism *would* allow. On the other hand, Nguyen quotes some passages from Scripture to suggest that the outcome is, in fact, consistent with Christian theism, but this is incompatible with his preconception of what God *should* be like.

And beyond that ground-floor duplicity, neither of them regards a secular worldview as disqualified by its dire ramifications. So why do stern consequences disqualify theism, but not atheism? To the extent that we live in a harsh world, any realistic theology will have a hard-nosed aspect. That is not all it will have, but that will be part of the picture.

<< You write that "Every adult began life as a child. We see a child as he is. God sees a child as he would be or will be." Are you suggesting that God foresaw what they would be like as adults and decided to condemn them to an early death because of the sins they would commit? >>

No, my point was in response to Nguyen. He presented the underage victims as an especially problematic case for Christian theism.

Many people see children as innocent. This is a rather romantic view. Children have a violent temper which would turn murderous if it were within their power to act out their impulses. There is no more frightening spectacle than the imaginary idea of a child with godlike powers of omnipotence.

However, it is true that children under the age of discretion are in a condition of diminished responsibility--although they have a keen sense of fair play if you break a promise!

But it is also true that if we knew what some children would become, we would look at them rather differently. In fact, I recall reading a philosophical debate over whether it would be moral to smother Stalin (or some such) in the cradle if we knew the future destiny of that child. This is also the stuff of SF stories about time-travel.

I'm not entering into that debate for now. My immediate point, in relation to Nguyen, is that he is judging God by a narrow, human viewpoint when God would have a far more sweeping perspective. He postulates an omniscient God, only to disprove him by the application of a near-sighted point of view.

The question is not whether kids are especially deserving of death. The question is whether they are morally immune--from a divine vantagepoint. In Christian theology, there are reasons for death above and beyond the guilt of the decedent. It may further some larger objective.

To take a human analogy, a foot-soldier may be more evil than a field commander, but it terms of strategy and tactics, you aim for the field commander, not because he is especially depraved, but because he is more important to the success of the enemy.

As I also said in my reply to Nguyen, astute Christians are extremely reticent about reading divine providence like a cautionary tale.

A few final clarifications:

1. I'm not the one trying to assign blame, here. Kettle and Nguyen are the ones playing the blame-game. Since that is how they chose to frame the debate, I have to answer the question the way the answer was cast.

2. It is also possible to say that there's some blame to go around without blaming everyone concerned.

For example, the West Coast has had a tsunami monitoring system since the 60s. And this is very low-tech. Why didn't the authorities in S. Asia take the elementary precaution of installing a monitoring system as well?

Likewise, the West Coast has certain evacuation procedures in place in case of an earthquake which might generate a tsunami. A few years ago, when I was still living in the NW, some coastal schools were evacuated due to submarine earthquake in the vicinity of Japan or some such place. No tsunami in fact materialized, but the schools were evacuated just in case--since an evacuation needs a little lead time.

Now, seismologists had, naturally enough, registered the earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, but they didn't relay that info to the authorities. Why wasn't there a protocol in place for doing that?

In addition, one precursor to a tsunami making landfall is that the water goes out before it comes back in. I've heard on the news that when this happened, what people did, instead of heading for high ground or an upper story building, was to head for the teach and mull around, gawking at the spectacle. This reflects elementary ignorance. Shouldn't the school system be teaching the coastal population what to expect?

The answer is that most folks, including most politicians, are crisis-driven. They put off the day of reckoning until disaster strikes (literally!), then they throw up their hands and ask how this could have happened. With 120K casualties, you can be sure that, after all the recriminations are duly ventilated, all the obvious precautions will now be put in place--now that its too late to do the victims any good.

In a natural and moral order, there are consequences for failing to anticipate and make minimal provision for predictable natural disasters. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if, by the time another natural disaster should strike, preparedness had once again fallen by the wayside and the populace is caught off guard.

3. Kettle and Nguyen contend that an event like the S. Asian tsunami falsifies belief in the Christian God. This objection can take two forms.

i) They can mount an internal argument to the effect that this is inconsistent with what Christian theology would predict for the state of the world.

Indeed, both of them broach that line of argument. However, their objection is prized, not on what Christian theology actually teaches, but on some sort of thirdhand, greeting card version.

There are a lot of fatalities in the pages of Scripture. Some of these reflect the judgment of God, and make use of natural disasters. And some of those entail underage fatalities as well (e.g., the Flood; the Plague of the Firstborn).

In addition, children can die through no fault of their own. We just celebrated the Christmas season. One of the traditional elements of the season is a commemoration of the massacre of the innocents (Mt 2:16-18). In order to kill the Christchild, Herod orders the slaughter of all the boys in Bethlehem 2 years and under. And this in fulfillment of OT prophecy (Jer 31:15).

So there is nothing in Christian theology which is contradicted by a natural disaster. Kettle and Nguyen don't know what they're talking about. They attack the Christian faith in studied ignorance of what it allows or disallows.

4. The alternative is to mount an external argument, based on their own value-system. Kettle and Nguyen hint at this tactic as well. They oppose secular naturalism to Christian supernaturalism. But this assumes that naturalism has the inner resources to derive a secular system of ethics. To see some of the hurdles in the way of that program, just read a review of Richard Dawkins latest missive (see below).


<< I'm not an expert on the Christian God - but Christians do seem to believe that God can intervene in individual cases. >>

Yes, this is the traditional view, as held by such classic exponents as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Edwards.

<< In almost every disaster (whether natural or man-made) where there are survivors, you often hear people thanking God they survived. But they overlook the fact that God allowed many others to perish. >>

That depends. "Miracle" is often used rather loosely for highly improbable events like being the only survivor of a plane crash. Skeptics discount this sort of claim on the grounds that, sooner or later, an improbable event is bound to turn up. And there is some truth to that.

However, not all miraculous events (or reports thereof) are statistical anomalies. Premonitions, say, or the sudden and utter remission of terminal cancer after prayer, are resistant to that sort of parsing. The fact that everyone is not cured of terminal cancer in answer to prayer does not, of itself, explain away the cases that are--any more than if I went into a casino, and every hand I played was a royal flush, would my appeal to random chance or the fact that most of the other gamblers were losing save me from a pair of concrete galoshes!

<< I think theism makes more sense if you think of God as the creator of the natural order, including the process of evolution, but not as a power that intervenes in specific cases to affect human beings one way or another or passes judgment on human beings. >>

You don't say why you think this makes more sense than the interventionist model. In Christian theology, there is a balance between providence and miracle. There is room for miraculous intervention, but if that became the norm, then chaos would ensue.

<< I know you'll cite the Bible to refute this notion, but the Bible was written by human beings -- any divine "input" or inspiration is unprovable. Well, that's a whole other matter for debate! >>

It's not that I cite the Bible to refute it. Quoting Scripture to someone who doesn't believe it is obviously a question-begging exercise.

However, it is not question-begging to quote Scripture when folks like Kettle and Nguyen contend that natural disasters such as the recent tsunami falsify Christian theism. There are no simple refutations of Christian theism. For we're dealing here with an interlocking belief-system in which one doctrine can come to the aid of another doctrine at any given pressure point. Hence, there are built-in answers to stock objections. It is not so much that it was designed that way, but it works out that way.


Different religious traditions have different strategies for dealing with the problem of evil. The Hindu/Buddhist theodicy is based on the law of karma. This does involve blaming the victim. And it is, of course, also bound up with belief in reincarnation. For a classic critique, cf. P. Edwards, _Reincarnation_ (Prometheus Books 1996).

This is a philosophical theodicy. At a more down-to-earth level, folk Hinduism and folk Buddhism are polytheistic, so that life is an obstacle course in which you bribe the gods and play one off against another.

Because Muhammad claimed to be the successor and seal of the OT and NT prophets, Islam has a nominal commitment to the notion of an interventionist God. That is a pillar of OT narrative theology, not to mention the life of Christ in the Gospels.

However, this is a rather perfunctory apologetic move on Muhammad's part. He had no real knowledge or grasp of the Bible. He was just using what little he knew of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a launching pad for his own "prophetic" career.

Stripped of this Judeo-Christian residual, Islamic theism is essentially deistic and apophatic. Islam is not a redemptive religion--hence, it has no central place for redemptive miracles. According to a Muslim philosophy of history, the major events in world history are creation, the revelation of the Koran, and the day of judgment.

In addition, Allah is utterly other and intrinsically unknowable. His will is both inexorable and inscrutable--not unlike the old Greek notion of fate.

As a consequence, there is, in Islam, a strong emphasis on blind submission to the capricious will of Allah. Unlike Yahweh, Allah is not a God who binds himself by covenant to a people. Rather, we're just ants on an anthill.

Incidentally, I think this is the major reason why Muslims are so often so irrational. Muslims are just as smart as anyone else, but their religious tradition cultivates a totally unquestioning faith--unlike, say, the Anselmian tradition of faith seeking understanding.

Also, because Islam is not a redemptive religion, their prophets have to be well-nigh perfect. The sins and foibles we run across in the Scriptural accounts of Abraham, Moses, David, and the like are simply inadmissible in Islam. This is why Muslims fly into a homicidal rage against the slightest suggestion that Muhammad may have been subject to the commonplace passions and iniquities of every other man.

The idea of a test of faith or test of character is an ancient one, and is not necessarily religious, although it can be.

This frequently has a humanistic coloration. There is, for example, then ancient idea of trial by ordeal. Here the contestant proves himself to be worthy of some reward.

You can find a carryover of this principle in Catholic martyriology, as well as mysticism (the dark night of the soul) and monasticism (the counsels of perfection--poverty, celibacy, obedience; not to mention other austerities, viz., vow of silence, self-flagellation, hair-shirt, &c.).

In classic Protestantism (e.g., Calvinism, Lutheranism), there is no place for human merit in salvation, and hence, no place for trial by ordeal in this sense.

You also get, in liberal theology, the idea that faith in God is an inherently dubious affair, and hence, faith is an act of the will, suppressing our doubts. On this view, a test of faith is a test of our willpower.

Again, in classic Protestant theology, faith is a gift of God. God is both the source and object of faith. Hence, there is no need for a test of faith in this sense.

At the same time, the heat of adversity can either melt or harden an untested faith. It has opposite effects depending on the believer. And this is also a mark of whether faith is of grace, or simply a hereditary relic.

One function of adversity in Christian piety and theology is to give faith an existential dimension. For the most part, Christian faith is a form of knowledge by description rather than acquaintance--of faith in things past and future rather than here-and-now. But by experiencing the providence of God in our lives as he carries us through various adversities, faith is enriched.

In Scripture there are some notable challenges to faith. Among the best known cases are the trial of Abraham (Gen 22), the Book of Job, and the temptation of Christ in the desert (Mt 4; par. Lk 4), as well as the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26; par. Lk 22).

People usually read the Book of Job out of context, ignoring the programmatic function of the prologue (1-2). The book of Job is not about the worthiness of Job, but about the worthiness of God. Is God worthy of total devotion? Job's faith under fire supplies the occasion for illustrating an affirmative answer to this question. Job is singled out to honor God by his steadfast faith.

There is no entirely satisfactory explanation of the trial of Abraham if we limit ourselves to Gen 22. It can only be understood as it was understood in the Gospel of John, where Abraham prefigures God the Father and Isaac prefigures Christ as the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29,36; cf. Gen 22:8) and only Son of the Father (Jn 3:16). Just as Isaac brings the firewood to the altar, Christ bears his cross to Calvary (Jn 19:17). Just as Isaac submits to self-immolation, Christ submits to crucifixion.

Likewise, the temptation of Christ in the wilderness recapitulates the temptation of Israel in the wilderness. He suffers for his people. And when his people suffer, they take comfort and courage in the fact that they have in him an empathetic high priest who has been there before them and gone before them to prepare a way to God. This is the leading theme of the Book of Hebrews.


I agree with this and would only add a few other points:

1. You know the old distinction between the cardinal virtues and the theological virtues, and there is some truth to that. Neighbor-love really is a Christian virtue. It is not something that common grace supplies.

Ecumenists decry the fact that denominationalism makes a poor witness to the world, and there's a grain of truth in that, but you only have to compare a broadly Christian culture, even a nominally Christian culture, with a pre-Christian, post-Christian, or anti-Christian culture, be it Buddhist, Marxist, fascist, Dutch, Hindu, pagan (e.g., Aztec, Assyrian, Iroquois), Muslim, &c., to see how much we're taking for granted.

2. In Calvinism, God is translucent to reason; in Islam, God is opaque to reason. In Calvinism, God has a plan for the world. What is more, his has a revealed plan for the world. It is not revealed in exhaustive detail, but it is knowable and known in broad outline.

His providence is often mysterious in detail, but our knowledge of his plan enables us to make some sense of his providence.

In Islam, God has a will, but no apparent plan or purpose. Islam has a doctrine of revelation, but it is the revelation of an inapprehensible God. Although various attributes are apparently predicated of Allah in the Koran, their ascription is equivocal rather than analogical.

There was a fight over in the early days of Islam between the progressive, rationalist wing (Mu'tazilites) and the apophatic old guard (Ash'arites). The Ash'arites won, the Mu'tazilites lost. The former represent orthodox Islam, the latter--heresy. So we end up with a classic contrast between predestination (Calvinism) and fatalism (Islam).

3. This also accounts, I think, for our (US) failures in Iraq. Americans are a charitable, proactive, problem-solving, can-do people. Bush acted as though Iraqis would react to the liberation the way Americans would.

But Iraq, being a Muslim country, Iraqis are passive, suspicious, superstitious, risk-aversive, uncharitable, and fatalistic.

This is not to deny that we've make some friends there and have some success stories (under-reported in the media), but it's obvious that the level of public support has been pretty pathetic. And it was naive to expect otherwise.


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  6. Steve! I'm from Tacoma. We were neighbors.

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