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A Religious Response

Some of the toughest questions I have been asked as a pastor are some variation of the following: Why is God allowing this to happen to me?  The life situations that prompt these questions can range (and have ranged) from the relatively insignificant to the profoundly traumatic and unsettling, but the brute existential fact underlying life on this planet is that things do not always—or even often—go as we want them to.  If one chooses to believe that a good God presides over a world that so frequently and sometimes agonizingly frustrates even the most basic human desires and aspirations, the questions of theodicy become even more acute.  If God is in control and he’s supposed to be so good, why all this misery?  Why any misery for that matter?

Christopher Hitchens asks similar questions in an essay from today’s Slate about the death of Tsutomu Yamaguchi—one of the few people who lived through the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki (h/t: Experimental Theology).  If ever there was someone who had a right to ask, “Why me?” or who had good reasons for wondering about the order and goodness of the cosmos it would be Yamaguchi!

Of course Christopher Hitchens rarely turns down an opportunity  to heap scorn upon religion and he doesn’t pull any punches here either.  Whatever else might be said about Yamaguchi’s story, according to Hitchens, it is “one of those cases that demonstrates the absolute uselessness of official piety.”  Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism—all are equally worthless in preventing or somehow altering their adherents’ experience of a world chock-full of evil.  All religion does is pile illusion upon misery.

Hitchens’s response to the story of Yamaguchi’s tragic life is predictable.  The reason God appears silent and life appears to be random and chaotic and oblivious to human concerns  is because a) there is no God; and b) life is random and chaotic and oblivious to human concerns.  Yamaguchi is just the victim of dumb bad luck in world devoid of purpose.  There is no God presiding over the cosmos and it is foolishly naive to think so.   The only proper response to the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi—or any of the horrors of history—is (pardon Hitchens’s indelicate terminology) “WTF?”

What Hitchens seems not to realize is that “WTF?” isn’t all that original a response to the problem of evil.  In fact, it’s a downright religious one.  It’s even a biblical one.  The Psalms of lament frequently express bewilderment, frustration, and anger at the apparent triumph of evil over good.  To cite one of many potential examples (roughly one third of the Psalter is comprised of Psalms of lament), Psalm 6:1-3 says this:

How long, O LORD Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;

Or how about Psalm 74:9-13?

We are given no miraculous signs;
no prophets are left,
and none of us knows how long this will be.

How long will the enemy mock you, O God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?

Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?

Many other examples could be cited within the Psalter alone (to say nothing about books like Job and Lamentations!).  The point is simply that Hitchens’s protest isn’t all that new.  While the biblical writers may not phrase things as crudely as Hitchens does, the questions they ask are the same:  Why do things seem so screwed up?  Why don’t the good guys win more often?  Why isn’t there a more obvious connection between virtue and blessing?  Why is hardship so indiscriminately distributed?  Why doesn’t the state of the world make more moral sense to us?  What’s wrong here?

Christopher Hitchens is not the first person to figure out that the world contains apparently random suffering and misfortune.  The Hebrew poets (among others) noticed that rather obvious feature of life on this planet some time ago.  For Hitchens, WTF? is “one of the most pressing, relevant, and ultimately humane” questions we can ask.  And indeed, it is.  I think the Hebrew poets would agree.

Both the Psalmists and Hitchens feel free to protest against the state of the world.  But who is more justified in expecting things to be better than they are?

46 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    The Psalmists seem to be pining away for a God to do something about the state of the world while Hitchens takes an active role in reality to try and make things better then they are.

    January 11, 2010
    • Paul Johnston #

      JC, I believe the people responsible for dropping the bombs at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were taking an active role in reality and sincere in their belief that they were making things better.

      January 12, 2010
      • jc #

        Paul, they certainly have an argument for their case. I am not really sure what to make of your comment otherwise. Are you suggesting that we have no ability to make our world better? Or are you equating Hitchens activist commentaries to bombing those cites?

        January 12, 2010
    • jc, how do you know that the Psalmists were simply “pining away” for God rather than doing something about it? I would certainly hope that someone wouldn’t view the words of my prayers as the sum total of my activity in and for the world, just as I would hope that someone wouldn’t view Hitchens’s “WTF?” as the sum total of his activity in and for the world.

      January 12, 2010
      • jc #

        Well I don’t know. I am was probably reaching too far there but the Psalms above state the desire of the authors for God to do something about their situation. They seemed resigned to the idea that if God doesn’t do something they will “sleep in death” or the “foe” will revile God’s name forever.

        January 12, 2010
      • Ken #

        I would suggest that the people of Israel had no ability to change their situation themselves at the time the Psalms were written – they were a small minority oppressed by the major world power of their day. God was their only hope. Our situation in the democratic West is largely different from theirs, although there are people among us, and there will be times in our own lives, when there is or will be nothing we can do to change our situation and God is or will be our only hope. It is to those situations that the Psalms still speak.

        January 13, 2010
  2. Your last statement is revealing, yet simple to answer:

    But who is more justified in expecting things to be better than they are“?

    Humanity is better equipped to bring about the manifestation of change–lest we wait on the hand of staggering futility.

    January 12, 2010
    • You haven’t answered the question. Yours is a claim about the means of change not about how its necessity is justified.

      January 12, 2010
    • Even if it is the means… to what standard or two what horizon (to use the terminology of Charles Taylor) does humanity reference to bring about this change?

      January 12, 2010
      • to* (bad bad bad)

        January 12, 2010
      • From a Christian perspective, the standard is what we understand God’s creational intent to be. Christians claim this to be revealed uniquely in Scripture, but also through reason, the historical tradition of the church, and human experience. I think there are two things worth noting about Christian understandings of the standard/horizon:

        1. Christians do not (and cannot, according to our own theology/anthropology) need to apprehend this truth perfectly in order to claim it to be the one that guides our ethics. Luckily you can work toward a goal without having a perfect conception of what the end result will look like. The fact that a purpose exists gives one something to strive for (and it is precisely this purpose-ability that I feel is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to squeeze out of a consistently materialistic worldview).

        2. There will be a good deal of overlap between the Christian conception of “the good” and other religious or irreligious understandings. Again, this is to be expected according to Christian theology itself. If we believe that all human beings (not just Christians) are made in the image of God and that God has created us to be ethical creatures, then we should expect to see others advocating profoundly good and honourable ethical ideals even if they do not identify God as their source.

        Of course there is much more that could be said about this, but maybe that’s a decent start…

        (You’ll have to explain to me what “to* (bad bad bad)” means :))

        January 12, 2010
      • Sorry, I meant the first response to Arius.

        The bad bad bad was for my grammar…. I used ‘two” instead of to. Just terrible.

        January 12, 2010
      • Got it! Sorry about the superfluous response!

        January 12, 2010
      • …to what standard or two what horizon (to use the terminology of Charles Taylor) does humanity reference to bring about this change“?

        Other than fanciful concoctions purporting in the direction of what is deemed incomprehensible anyway, what other source other than ourselves, has been proven to bring about change since time immemorial: humanity is such a source—and until the transcendental concept of…whatever can become an absolute rather than mere speculation, then and only then, will the conversation amid humanity become revised.

        Is there an unsightly reference we should be taking in consideration?

        Sorry for the late response.

        January 13, 2010
      • Arius, while I agree with you that humanity is the agent of change, as Ryan pointed out, the means to change is trivial without a justifiable end.

        If the self is ultimately the end, the sole source of justification, even it is formed through dialogical processes, then the justification for any action by any human being is unquestionably correct. As J.S. Mill highlights, some choices must hold weight over others. If they do not, then all choices are equal in their triviality and inconsequentiality.

        January 13, 2010
      • J.S. Mill articulates this point out well (much better than I). If you desire the exact textual reference it is worth the read and I can get it for you.

        January 13, 2010
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Hey, Ryan, I’m assuming your question at the close of this post is a rhetorical one. If nothing else, I’ll take the bewildered hope of the psalmist over the atheistic fruit of callous indifference.

    With regard to suffering, this is my testimony. There are two basic predispositions with regard to suffering. Suffering with Christ; suffering apart from Christ. Suffering with Christ, in time, allows for healing, forgiveness, redemption, renewal. Suffering apart from Christ leads to a perpetual state of suffering, no healing, no forgiveness, no redemption, no renewal.

    To those whom Christ has not been made known, the Holy Spirit animates and offers the same opportunites. Christ works in secret, so to speak, through the heart of one who loves.

    In the end, it is the choice between love and expediency. The biologigal impulses are strong but to those who perservere, choosing the moral impulse first, the satisfaction of just being alive and knowingly working for the good in the best way you can, standing just where you are, is immeasurable. It is more than enough.

    January 12, 2010
    • I will cast my lot with the bewildered hope of the Psalmists as well, Paul.

      January 12, 2010
  4. Ken #

    Re: “But who is more justified in expecting things to be better than they are?”

    As you know, I am on your side. Still, I think each side of this Christian/atheist debate believes it is more justified.

    Another voice says neither. The green voice says “no” to both the Christians who hold hope that God will redeem the world, one way or another, and to atheists who believe humanity and its science will do a better job, to the extent that it is even possible to relieve the world of suffering. The green mind sees a harmful millennial dream behind both the Christian and the humanist voice. It sees harm in the dream because such a dream justifies expansion of humanity in a way that harms the rest of life and ultimately humanity itself. The green voice does not hope for an end to suffering. It imagines that the force of life, whatever that is, is good and hopes that it will not die and will continue to create life and universes into eternity. The green voice represents another way of not surrendering to suffering, even while it is powerless to stop it and does not expect it to end or improve. In that sense, it is a way of life that is not alien to Christianity, and although not millennial is not unrelated to the metaphor Paul used above – suffering in Christ.

    January 12, 2010
    • As you know, I am on your side. Still, I think each side of this Christian/atheist debate believes it is more justified.

      Both sides certainly believe they are justified in expecting a better world. I am asking whether their beliefs are correct.

      The green voice may not imagine an end to suffering (although I think a case could be made that many green voices do), but the moral stridency that accompanies a lot of the environmental rhetoric is very interesting to observe. It may not be millennial in the strictest sense of the word, but many green voices are telling their own story of salvation as well and it is a story that is as religiously fervent as the ones it critiques.

      (I came across an interesting article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that addresses “green guilt,” if anyone’s interested. Here’s the link.)

      January 12, 2010
      • Ken #

        I think each side believes it has the correct belief.

        I agree with what you have written about the green movement overall. Although I have not seen the movie Avatar, from the descriptions I have read it is a green movie and it does offer a millennial vision – one that is so beautiful that some people feel depressed when they leave the theatre. My words above about the green voice only apply to a segment of the green spectrum in the west today, and it is a different voice from the one in the movie Avatar. And even if one can find traces of a millennial dream in that voice to which I refer, to say that it is not millennial is largely true.

        I have never been able to imagine Christianity without its millennial dream. Some of the green writers help me with that imagining – I would put Loren Eiseley, Mary Austin and Henry David Thoreau at the top of that list, and with them, Darwin. I think it is like the vision of Psalm 104.

        January 12, 2010
      • I think each side believes it has the correct belief.

        So what do you think? Are both sides correct in their belief?

        January 12, 2010
      • Ken #

        I think the Christian expectation has more justification – a clearer justification.

        At the same time, the green voice that I described (not the one represented by the movie) makes me think again about whether we understand goodness and aim for it the right way. Our justification for what we have pursued in the name of goodness may be clear, but our aim may have been awfully wrong.

        January 12, 2010
      • How does the non-Avatar green voice help us understand goodness and aim for it in the right way?

        (I agree, by the way, that our aim has been “awfully wrong” at times.)

        January 12, 2010
    • Ken #

      I think Taylor described how we have come to associate goodness with human flourishing, and this is one reason why suffering is such a concern for us, why it troubles us so much. I think this green voice of which I wrote causes us to question this association. It says, “Stop.”

      Thoreau once wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I think it represents a partial correction of our aim.

      And Psalm 104: it seems to offer a different way of looking at the world than the way we have adopted in the West. In the Psalm, wildness is the preservation of the world. The wild world is the cosmos, or the cosmogenesis, if that is what it is, that God made.

      Milton, in the last few lines of Paradise Lost, wrote of Adam and Eve as they left Eden, “The world was all before them, where to choose their place of rest, and Providence their guide.” The world all before them where Providence would be their guide was the world or cosmos described in Psalm 104. We lost this understanding in our urge to bring about a millennial era and place.

      January 12, 2010
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Wow, JC I cannot imagine wanting to affirm arguements that make the case for the instantanious incineration of hundreds of thousands of civilian people during wartime.

    My point, underscored by your response, is that mankind’s understandings of what constitutes the “better” can be quite dangerous indeed.

    As for Mr. Hitchens and atheism, what is morality in a world of randomness and chaos? What choice of actions aren’t available to a person who believes that self preservation trumps all other interests?

    January 12, 2010
    • jc #

      “My point, underscored by your response, is that mankind’s understandings of what constitutes the “better” can be quite dangerous indeed.”

      I still don’t understand this. Are you saying that human beings can’t know what is better so it is better to write poems? Or are you just stating that some people have abhorrent ideas about what is better. I can see we would probably disagree on just war theory or morality so I will leave that aside as it seems a distraction from the topic for now.

      January 12, 2010
      • Paul Johnston #

        Hey JC, I guess what I’m saying is something like this; In order to engage with reality for the “better”, one has to have some kind of objective understanding of what the better, is. Subjectivity, wholly applied in this context, could lead to wildly divergent understandings. With regards to making things better, I’m sure the American people of 1945 had a very different view of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than did the civilian populations of Japan, who experienced the bombings.

        I would like to think that a true and humane understanding and application of the “better” would, if not fulfill the needs of all involved, lead to an acceptable compromise, satisfying some of everyone’s basic needs, while at the same time protecting the dignity and identity of those engaged.

        The challenge then becomes what ideas are big enough, transcendant of, and beyond the bias of politics, race and culture to guide in and help influence the choice of the “better”.

        I would argue that the Christian worldview is one such idea. Further I am at a loss to understand how an atheist perspective with it’s Darwinian perogatives of chance and neccessity, combined with it’s rejection of theistic morality, not just in it’s failed executions or misapplications, but in it’s totality, as a set of guiding philosophical proposals, could ever offer a better or even coherent alternative.

        What is moral to the amoral?

        January 13, 2010
  6. Gil Dueck #

    You’ve made the point many times before but I think it’s worth making here again: if we accept Hitchens’ argument then we we become incomprehensible to ourselves. If he’s right then it should never have occurred to us to expect anything better than what we have.

    Asking the question of who is ‘doing more’ to fix things (as if that would settle the debate) is very interesting because of what it conceals, namely the assumption that we all have a duty to alleviate suffering and work toward a better world. I don’t know how, in Hitchens view, this could be taken for granted at anything beyond the level of private comfort.

    January 12, 2010
    • Paul Johnston #

      Gil, I’ve been pondering your comment, particularly the sentence…” If he’s right then it should never have occurred to us to expect anything better than what we have.”

      How simple, how profoundly true. To deny the expectation; the hope in, the desire for the “someting better”, seems to defy one’s very humanity.

      Atheism is an inhumane set of propositions and dangerously so.

      January 13, 2010
  7. JC #

    Paul,

    “The challenge then becomes what ideas are big enough, transcendant of, and beyond the bias of politics, race and culture to guide in and help influence the choice of the “better”.”

    Exactly! I think the answer lies in an objective morality that is formed through logic and reason. I disagree that the Christian worldview offers us this because it relies to much on revelation. If we rely on holy books to prescribe our morality then it’s just one books claim over anothers.

    January 13, 2010
  8. JC #

    Gil,
    “If he’s right then it should never have occurred to us to expect anything better than what we have.”

    Perhaps I am not understanding your point here but why does disbelief in the supernatural disqualify one from desiring something better then what they have? Once one chooses to live and hold life as valueble why wouldn’t they value things that would extend that life and make them happy?

    January 13, 2010
    • Gil Dueck #

      JC,
      What I meant that if we take Hitchens’ naturalist assumptions (what is, is all there is) we have no grounds for a moral protest against the kind of world that we live in. Death and suffering would simply be ‘givens’ of reality that wouldn’t produce the existential responses (crises?) that seems to be fairly common across human experience.

      I realize that there are other ways of explaining why human beings react the way they do to suffering but all the naturalistic explanations I’ve come across seem to reduce everything to a basic survival instinct that is biologically rooted in the need to replicate our genetic material (indeed, I don’t see what other option you have if you’re a naturalist). I suppose this is a possible explanation but it doesn’t seem adequate to the task of explaining the persistence and depth of the human revolt against evil and suffering.

      January 13, 2010
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Sorry JC, I don’t know if it is me, you or us both but I find the ground underneath my point of view continually shifting. From my perspective it doesn’t help me stay on point when you take my statements in isolation and seperate them from the context in which I origionally wrote them. It seems to me to give them a voice I did not intend them to have.

    I don’t mean to offend but I have to be honest with you and assert that it is not the kind of dialogue I prefer. I work much better in exchanges that are more conversational in nature and where each person makes effort to understand the totality of the points of view being expressed…

    I guess my question for you would be, and a small one it is,…lol… How do you understand morality, apart from theism?

    I get your point with regard to the application of logic and reason insofar as ethics are concerned. But what of the moral antecedents that inform our choices. Where do they come from? And more to my point, where do they come from in the Darwinian constructs that seem to be at the foundation of atheistic arguement?

    January 13, 2010
    • Thanks Tyler. One more reason to lament. And to act.

      January 13, 2010
  10. To Tyler-I would like that-as I do have my suspicions of what his undertone will be. At any rate, I enjoy reading different perspectives about ideas.

    January 13, 2010
    • JS Mill talks about choice in his essay On Liberty, specifically the section on individuality.
      Charles Taylor speaks of the implications of some choices being more important than others in the chapter Inescapable Horizons in The Malaise of Modernity.

      While Mill is speaking from his stand point of utility, I don’t think it discredits his thoughts on choice. Taylor’s argument, in my opinion, is solid.

      January 14, 2010
  11. Based on the biography I read by Fred Wilson in the SEP (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), J.S. Mill was an empiricist (the epistemological theory that genuine information about the world must be acquired by a posteriori means, so that nothing can be thought without first being sensed)—deriving much of his philosophy from Hume, Locke, and Berkley.

    As to my initial reply to Ryan’s post: “Humanity is better equipped to bring about the manifestation of change–lest we wait on the hand of staggering futility”, I am puzzled as to your question regarding a sort of reference that humanity must incur regarding change—at the same time, quoting Mill as if his position was antonymous with my response.

    Mill was against institutionalized religion—as I am.
    Mill was against the omnipotence and omniscience of a creator being—as I am (albeit, he did not rule out the possibility, he declared the subjectivity of belief, thus categorizing it as hope—inductive at best).
    Mill was also against a morality that was steeped in the divine—yet, human made which I believe.

    As Wilson pointed out: In spite of Mill’s argument that the proper rational attitude towards supernatural religion is neither belief nor disbelief, he now concludes, in his last essay, in a way that many found rather surprising, that “the whole domain of the supernatural is thus removed from the region of Belief into that of simple Hope emphasis mine.” (“Theism,” Three Essays, p. 483)

    Again, I do not see how your reference inquiry is somehow linked to that of Mills empiricism.

    Mill on liberty is free online and I am now reading that—thanks for info. I’ve read Hume and Locke of course, but Mill has improved upon British empiricism.

    January 14, 2010
    • ” I am puzzled as to your question regarding a sort of reference that humanity must incur regarding change—at the same time, quoting Mill as if his position was antonymous with my response.”

      To be brief: What makes any change significant? What is the baseline or foundation of this significant?

      I suggested Mill as he writes well on the topic of choice. I suggested Taylor as he highlights the fact the some choices are deemed more important than others. So to the original question or issue I am trying to raise with your question is it may be all fine to view humans as being the means for change, but to what ends is the change oriented?

      January 14, 2010
  12. To be a little Nietzsche-an here, the significance of change is itself–albeit, my position is not concerned with its novelty, but rather its proprietor–humanity.

    As for its origin or foundation: does it bypass human biology innateness–if that is indeed the case, the task is left for the theist to decipher its ontologism; not mine.

    January 15, 2010
    • Ken #

      To be a little more Nietzsche-an, one might say change has no significance. We may give change significance through creative interpretation, but change itself has no significance. And the naming of change, the giving it significance is an exertion of power, not a naming of truth.

      In the emergent view represented by evolution through natural selection, change has no orientation – it is all accident. And Arius is right, it is not his task given his position, to answer the question “to what ends is the change oriented?”

      Tyler, can you give me a page number in Secular Age so I can read the passage to which you referred in the Malaise chapter?

      One thing I find quite fascinating in Taylor’s work is his admiration of and indebtedness to Nietzsche in his whole approach to his subject, and yet he does in the end tilt away, towards teleology.

      January 15, 2010
      • Ken,

        Pages:
        35-39
        68-69

        January 15, 2010
      • James #

        Now that I have finished Taylor, [at your recommendation, Ken 🙂 ] I can submit a brief comment here. I don’t think Taylor admires Nietzche as much as he sees him as the archetypical voice blowing up the optimistic modernist, materialist worldview by taking it to its awful conclusions. Blowing modernism up with literary flourish is admirable but the conclusions are miserable and irredeemable.

        January 15, 2010
  13. As Ken highlights, change in a Nitzchean system has no significance. Therefore, I fail to see how humanity is better at bringing change about. The only truth is that which is spoken by the ‘new philosopher’ or the being with the greatest manifestation of will to power. If this is the consistent stance that wishes to be taken then I am definitely cool with that.

    But in the context of Ryan’s original post, the only way for things to be ‘better’ is if their is a horizon that implies that ‘better’ can actually be achieved or is even relevant.

    As Nietzche explains in aphorism two of Beyond Good and Evil, there may not be opposite values, so where does ‘better’ fit into this?

    January 15, 2010
    • Ken #

      Tyler,

      Re: “so where does ‘better’ fit into this?”

      I agree, it does not fit.

      I think Taylor does a good job of explaining how the idea that one thing is better than another morally fits in exclusive humanism, even if the fit is a little loose, and looser than the fit with Christianity. I think humanism, like Christianity, resists Nietzsche, or, rather, Nietzsche resisted both.

      I think humanism’s claim to embrace Darwin is as tainted as Christianity’s. Or, perhaps, it is more appropriate to say that the adoption of humanism or Christianity after starting with Darwinian assumptions about life is tough.

      Thank you for the page numbers.

      James,
      I agree that Taylor does what you say he does with Nietzsche, and that Nietzsche did what you say he did, but at the same time Taylor’s whole book is a genealogy. He has effectively copied Nietzsche’s method, which is what I was thinking about when I wrote about the admiration and indebtedness I see.

      January 15, 2010

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