Thursday, December 22, 2016

When should we thank God?

Justin Schieber
When somebody thanks God for helping them find their keys they betray their belief in a God with some profoundly misaligned priorities. 
Jason Thibodeau 
But it is ridiculous to think that God is going to go out of his way to help someone find a wedding band when he won't go out of his way to save children from bombs.

Both Schieber and Thibodeau are atheists. In a broken clock moment, Randal Rauser said some worthwhile things in reply to Schieber:

I'd like to make a few additional points. 

i) This raises the significant question of what Christians should thank God for. Likewise, it goes to the question of what counts as answered prayer. 

ii) Should we only thank God for big things and never for little things? Only thank God for extraordinary things and never for ordinary things? If that is Schieber's point, then he has no understanding of Christian theology. 

iii) Perhaps his point is that if something is naturally explicable, like finding your keys, then you have no warrant to thank God because you have no reason to believe God enabled you to find your keys. 

Mind you, it may be overly generous to assume that much thought went into Schieber's statement. 

It would be a mistake to base your belief in God on naturally explicable incidents. If finding your keys is consistent with God's nonexistence, you shouldn't base your belief in God on the evidence that God answered a prayer like that. Identifying incidents like that as divine signs can precipitate a crisis of faith, because it's such a thin foundation. 

iv) If, however, you have good reason to believe in God apart from such incidents, then it's proper to interpret such incidents within that larger, preestablished framework. 

v) Assuming that an outcome is consistent with coincidence or answered prayer alike, you should thank God or withhold judgment–since it might be coincidental? 

To begin with, that's a false dichotomy. Even a coincidence is part of God's ordinary providence. It's not as though some events happen randomly while God directs other events. No, God is behind every event. 

The only question would be whether that particular outcome was for your benefit. Is it special providence, or is it an incidental result of God's general providence?

Even that can be a false dichotomy, for God can intend the same chain of events to benefit more than one individual. That link may benefit you, while another link in the chain, may benefit someone else. Even if the entire chain isn't for your benefit, different links can benefit different targets. 

In any event, we can thank God, but with the mental caveat that in ambiguous cases, it might not be an answer to prayer. I thank God for answering my prayer–on condition that it was, indeed, in answer to prayer. "Lord, thank you for that–if you did it for me".  

We don't have to commit ourselves to interpreting an ambiguous case as an answer to prayer. We can make allowance for the possibility that it's just a coincidence. And that's important from an evidentiary standpoint.

Moreover, that's a pious caveat, as it would be presumptuous to be dogmatic when we attempt to discern God's providential aims. We need to be circumspect in that regard.  

Yet we can still express gratitude when things work out according to our needs. 

vi) It's not as if praying for one thing prevents us from praying for another thing. It's not as if giving thanks for one thing prevents us from giving thanks for another thing. Those are not mutually exclusive options. 

vii) Thibodeau's objection is confused. It isn't possible for an omnipotent being to go out of his way. Everything God does is equally effortless for God. 

viii) Thibodeau's underlying objection concerns the old issue of theodicy. In particular, the seemingly random distribution of weal and woe. One problem with that objection is assessing particular incidents in isolation to their place in vast chains of events. Yes, finding or not finding your keys may be trivial comparing to saving or not saving children from bombs. But we need to compare one chain of events with another chain of events. Not just comparing one link in one chain with another link in another chain, but all the links leading up to and away from those respective links. What else is connected to those particular links? And other good things and bad things are linked in different chains of events? 

What goods down further down are linked to evils further up? You can't just remove one link without removing every link thereafter. Each succeeded link is dependent on each preceding link. When goods are eliminated in the process of eliminating an evil? 

And, frankly, it's hard to see how we're in a position to assess that. It's far too complex. We don't know the future, and our knowledge of the past is very spotty. Heck, our knowledge of the present is very spotty. 

1 comment:

  1. Justin Schieber is a clear thinker. Unfortunately, like most atheists, he's too ignorant of Christianity theology to properly represent it. That's despite his being a former Christian (if I recall correctly). I'd like to see him debate a really capable Calvinist apologist like Steve or Paul Manata.