Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A game of theodicy?

This is the second in a reasonably short series of debate/interactions I've had recently where I wanted to keep track of the answers.

To me, theodicy is not a game. The problem of evil is personal. The right response to evil may be to love your enemies or it may be to oppose the evil some other way. When someone show no signs of being bothered by the evil itself, when they ponder it from a safe distance, it becomes less than a life-and-death struggle, and more of a debating game. Early in March, I ran across one such argument from someone who was pondering evil from a safe distance. Her argument went like this:
So, right now I'm trying to reconcile the goodness of God in relation to the problem of evil, so I had written down some things I thought about this and some other questions. Tell me what you think.

Things I don't understand:
Original sin, morality, and salvation (in relation to each other)

1) Original sin: I think Rand summed this one up nicely. How can I be corrupted before I exist? If that is the case - that I'm born guilty or have "tendencies," then I am not free. If that is determined by outside forces, I am not free. If I am not free, but merely acting under compulsion, how can I just be held responsible for anything I do, good or bad?

This leads into the next question, which will lead to the last one:

2) Morality: certain moral issues arise when considering the idea of creation. If God is all-knowing, he would know what we would do, whether he determines it or not, through that knowledge he could (should?) select certain people to exist or not exist. In this sense, God would have to be not omniscient (can he be God w/o omniscience?) or evil, not merely by "omission" but by actively creating people he knows will do evil. For instance, inventors of weapons. If the latter, there is no reason to worship him except maybe fear. If the former, why is he God? Though, the lack of omniscience could be a product of pure freedom, in which case, I suppose that could work or it could work depending on whether or not the future exists.

Mildly unrelated: Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing God want relationships with people? This seems to be some sort of desperately lonely God or people who decided to raise themselves up to be friends of God. The first seems illogical, the second, petty. However, this only deals with God's morality, what of that of the people? In many cases, it would seem to be irrelevant: God picked them to do certain things [Leibniz: best possible world] and therefore they deserve no credit or blame.

3) Salvation: how can a moral, just, omniscient God create people who will reject his truth? Isn't that the best definition of evil - rejection of truth? Furthermore, how can he punish them if he created them to do just that? It doesn't make sense. How would he pick those who would go with him, those he would call?

Possible resolutions:
1) Determinism is true and God is evil
2) We are free and God is not omniscient
3) We are free/physically determined and there is no God

So, that's what I was thinking about earlier. If there are other resolutions, do tell, but I haven't been able to think of them.

It had been awhile since I'd read someone who was viewing theodicy from that angle. This particular argument hinges on two premises:

1) God is omniscient; AND
2) The speaker is more knowledgeable than God.

Most arguments from God's omniscience to atheism hinge on the premise (usually unstated) that the arguer is more knowledgeable than the omniscient God. This debater just has that a little closer to the surface than most. And I don't mean to bash her for that; the idea that we know better than God -- that for all his omniscience he isn't to be trusted -- goes at least as far back as whoever penned the story of Adam and Eve. It strikes a chord with all of us at times. So here's what I suggested for an answer:
Bless her. Once she works through her questions, may she be closer to God than ever before. Her questions will take her awhile, if she decides to pursue the truth fully.

I hope you don't mind too much if I put her questions in an order more suited to explaining the answers.

Her tangent is where I'd want to start: "Mildly unrelated: Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing God want relationships with people? This seems to be some sort of desperately lonely God or people who decided to raise themselves up to be friends of God."

I think she has reasoned from the characteristics "all-powerful, all-knowing" to the idea that God is -- or even should be -- snooty and arrogant. She overlooks the possibility that God is by nature humble and by nature loving. When God determined himself to be creator, he determined that He would love the world. Love is a joyful thing, and in creation he multiplied the goodness that existed by creating. I suspect the ultimate reason for creation is that creation is good, and life is worth living. Genesis implies that God created humanity in order to bless us: it's the first thing he does after he creates us.

On original sin: I hope to start with common ground: I have never met anyone who did not have (as she says) "tendencies" to sin. I sure have my "tendencies". "To err is human" -- so I'm sure she does too. Most of us recognize that struggle inside ourselves. Some people struggle with pride and arrogance and vanity (whether it's about beauty or intellect or any other thing in which we are gifted), some struggle with the assumption of superiority over others, some struggle against coldness and do not recognize the value of love, some struggle with the greed for recognition and admiration. Some use what gifts they have to dominate others rather than help others. The list goes on.

I think it's a little bit of a red herring to say if we have "tendencies" we're acting under compulsion. Do we always act on our tendencies? It seems not, so it's not quite compulsion. There's a lot to say on this, but I'll start here: to reason from "tendencies" to "compulsion" is oversimplifying.

The real question of original sin is: Am I basically good? And the follow-up question she asks is: Is God basically good? Because of Christ, I believe that God is good and that we are created to be like him, good; for this reason Christ came into this world to restore us and transform us to be like God again. We've already talked about our "tendencies" for various kinds of evil; Christ intends to save us from that so that we can cling tight to God and answer truthfully that, thanks be to God, we are again becoming good.

As far as God picking certain people not to exist, I'm going to tell you a true story that I'm not proud of: just a few generations back in my family, one of my ancestors was a murderer. Should God have arranged things so that he never existed? But then my great-grandmother would never have been born, and my grandfather would never have been born, and my aunt and mother would never have been born, and my brother and I would never have been born, and so on for all the generations that will come after us. When it comes to her suggestion to pick people who should never have existed, I'm not saying "separating good from evil isn't simple" -- I'm saying "separating good from evil isn't always possible" -- because good and evil can be inside the same person. It is with me; I've done things I regret. Most people have. So it may be that God, if omniscient, knows more than us about the interplay between good and evil, and whether or not a person should have ever been born. If she's a sci-fi fan at all, she may have thought about the complexities of changing things, and how there may be unintended consequences of what she suggests as a solution for God.

On salvation -- on whether God should have created people who will reject him (and truth), remember my great-great grandfather the murderer, without whom several generations of my family would not exist. On salvation itself: it is the blessing of God through Christ Jesus because of his love for us. God created us for good not for evil; he calls all of us.

Her possible resolutions are missing something:
4) She takes at least a beginner's course (Theology 101, however it's called where she is) before deciding she has considered all the possibilities.
5) If she's not quite ready to pursue her answers that far, then maybe she could read Thomas Aquinas. Now, I offer this last with some hesitation because Aquinas shares some of the same assumptions (possibly mistaken assumptions) that she does, and in that sense there are areas where Aquinas cannot help her. But on the other hand, it may be helpful to her to have someone who shares some of those assumptions from the outset. And there's the advantage that Summa Theologica is available online ...


Martin LaBar said...

As before, good answers.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you much. In one or two places I wonder if I struck the wrong tone, but my first impression was that the original questioner was playing parlor games and used to being able to talk over peoples' heads. So I wanted to try to stop that into the mix with all the rest.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF