Saturday, October 21, 2006

The CSO asks about the rational, interventionist God

I was discussing with CC how theologians deal with evil things happening to apparently non-evil people. I can understand easily enough how this makes sense if one posits a non-interventionist or non-rational God. (Personally, I find myself somewhere between "there is no God" and "if there is a God, so what?" In both cases, decidedly non-interventionist. As for God's rationality, though the question does not directly apply, my faith in science is in its own way a deeply, even essentially, rational God of sorts.)

However, I don't understand how one can rationally reconcile evil things happening to non-evil people, or evil things happening to good people, with a rational and interventionist God. If one takes the rationality and interventionism of God as axiomatic, it simply does not seem to make sense that evil things would happen to other than evil people. It seems to me that the only way to reconcile evil things happening to apparently non-evil people with a rational and interventionist God is to seize on the "apparently" in "apparently non-evil". Having only human perception, we cannot know for sure whether someone is evil, so if a rational and interventionist God allows evil things to happen to them, they must have been evil after all.

It seems like such a copout to say that God must not really care all that much after all - there goes God's being interventionist - or that God doesn't actually have the power to change much of anything - again, there goes God's being interventionist. Same goes for asserting that God is irrational - what's the point of even studying God then?

My understanding from CC is that all modern theologians (post-Holocaust) she's read about have rejected the idea that evil things happening to someone implies that they are evil, even those theologians who believe in a rational, interventionist God. I don't see how that can be possible without giving up on some of the essential characteristics of such a God - how do they do it? What am I missing?

12 comments:

Lizard Eater said...

Great post. I hope you'll get some good comments on this. The only answer I have been given is, "Well, it's God, we can't understand ..." which seems to be a pretty big cop-out.

Of course, how many people are going to tell the mother that the reason her baby got cancer was because she (the baby) is evil? ;P

LinguistFriend said...

I entirely reject the idea that the occurrence of bad things indicates that the person to whom they happened is bad. See the book of Job for the arguments, and for some impressive prose. My personal take is that the pantheistic God (of Einstein, pretty much) is so busy making sure that the world works according to the rules (it's just a big analog computer, after all) that he does not focus on little things such as the daily lives of primates. Probably the best artistic treatment I can think of is the sketch by some English artist of a hundred years ago with a very severe and accusatory-looking Thomas Hardy facing off with a rather traditional portrayal of God (elderly bearded white male in flowing robes etc.), and God defending himself: "But Mr. Hardy, if you only understood the circumstances!"
LinguistFriend

svafa said...

Well, my mother always insisted that, being God, He had some greater plan and would make something good happen from the bad stuff. Sort of a 'let the kid get a shot so he doesn't get polio' kind of thing I think.

Personally I'd just like to point out that being involved and rational and maybe even having a master plan doesn't prevent God from also being kind of a jerk.

Bill Baar said...

I think the Greeks and Pagans had it right about God. They're there; but they're not always our buddies. We're often nobler beings.

UU's hit a brick wall with this question. It's not asked often far as I can tell.

Anonymous said...

Two main arguments I've heard about this from a Muslim perspective are:

-"God is the Master Planner" (He knows that which we do not; and it is our limited perspective as human beings that prevents us from seeing what future blessings can come from hardship.)

-"Our faith is being tested" (The early Muslims endured persecution, torture, battles and death. But they remained steadfast and demonstrated their faith in God by turning to Him in times of despair - not away from Him; their reward will be in this life and/or the next. Will you, too, be steadfast?)

There may be others, but these are the two big ones I easily remembered.

A reference:
(Qur'an 2:152)

Then do ye remember Me; I will remember you; be grateful to Me, and reject not faith. O ye who believe! seek help with patient perseverance and prayer; for Allah is with those who patiently persevere. And say not of those who are slain in the way of Allah: "They are dead." Nay, they are living, though ye perceive (it) not. Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, Who say, when afflicted with calamity: "To Allah We belong, and to Him is our return" - they are those on whom (descend) blessings from Allah, and mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.

Joel Monka said...

It is my belief that the Divine acts only through sentient agents, and that she persuades but does not compel. Such a Divinity may have a plan (I do not know), but if so, is asking us to do it rather than using us as pawns.

I was never able to swallow the "testing" explanation- even as a very young child, my answer was, "What- he doesn't know?" Nor could I swallow the "it's for your own good, you're just not smart enough to realise it" explanation, either. This question, plus my inability to accept the concept of "original sin" was what caused me to leave the church of my youth.

kim said...

It is my belief that the Divine acts only through sentient agents, and that she persuades but does not compel. Such a Divinity may have a plan (I do not know), but if so, is asking us to do it rather than using us as pawns.


I basically agree with Joel on this one. This is essentially the Process Theology position on this question: we are God's hands. He only intervenes spiritually, not physically. It is for us to do.
Perhaps God tried it the other way (interventionist) and it didn't work. I sortof think that "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely" works on gods too, so they eschew power to remain uncorrupted -- after all, they are wiser than us, no?

PG said...

"Having only human perception, we cannot know for sure whether someone is evil, so if a rational and interventionist God allows evil things to happen to them, they must have been evil after all."

Another agnostic more inclined to Christianity than I once tried to explain this to me as the universe being like a diamond, of which humans can see only one facet at a time, but God can see the whole diamond. It also had something to do with time. The fact that I can't explain it is a clear indication that one should not have these discussions in a bar.

Also, I love that the notion that the existence of evil shows God is imperfect is called "the underachiever problem."

Anyway, my way around all of this a long time ago was to make up a god in my own image (in the best theistic traditions). The Absent Minded Goddess means well, which is why the world doesn't entirely suck, but often gets distracted and lets things go for a long time, hence the Holocaust, but will rush back at the last minute to try to fix things, hence the defeat of the Axis powers.

"Probably the best artistic treatment I can think of is the sketch by some English artist of a hundred years ago with a very severe and accusatory-looking Thomas Hardy facing off with a rather traditional portrayal of God (elderly bearded white male in flowing robes etc.), and God defending himself: 'But Mr. Hardy, if you only understood the circumstances!'"

This reminds me of when I went to Westminister Abbey and stomped on the part where Thomas Hardy was buried, because I was pissed off about what he'd done with Tess.

Cerulean said...

I felt that the ideas toward the bottom of the page on This Link where somewhat relevant.

All Points said...

CSO,
You seem to presuppose two quaitiesL benevolence and omnipotence in this question.
A rational, interventionist God who is not benevolent would allow evil things to happen to good people.
Ditto a rational, interventionist God who is not all powerful.
I prefer the latter of th two explanations.
Most people seem to maintain that God has some standards of benevolence and rationality that ae different from ours.
Of course, the only real, intellectually honest answer to the question I have ever heard is, "Gee whiz, I dunno."

kim said...

Cerulean -- I read your link. The one he left out is: that pain has some purpose.

Personally, I just don't subscribe to the all-powerful bit.

LinguistFriend said...

For PG -
It might seem that Hardy was hard on Tess, but he had many real sources for that story, as his biographers make clear. I am addicted enough to Hardy myself that Gordon Cairny, who ran the Grolier bookstore off Harvard Square for many years, would call me "Mr. Hardy", because I picked up so much of the Hardy material that he had collected when in England during the first World War. The one that is so painful that I cannot bring myself to reread it these days is "Jude the Obscure", of which I own both the British and American first editions. Hardy's beef with God was well-founded.
LinguistFriend