Tuesday, February 28, 2012

on avoiding theological hubris.

Suppose that Tim and Sarah are born to two sets of morally equivalent parents, but that Tim was born without limbs and Sarah wasn’t. Our initial response, I think, would be to think that Tim is a victim of no one in particular—that the evil that Tim suffers in being born without limbs is one in which there is only a victim and no oppressor.[1]

Assuming that there aren’t any unequivocal verses from Scripture that would imply the contrary (to my knowledge there isn’t any, and Romans 8:28[2] is no exception[3]), it seems to me that we should be equally agnostic regarding the truth of value of both of the following propositions:

(A) God has some specific purpose in allowing this evil to happen to Tim instead of Sarah.

(B) There is no reason why God allowed this evil to happen to Tim and not Sarah.

Why do I say that we should resist assenting to both (A) and (B)? Because we’re not God, and to affirm either (A) or (B) is to presume we know something that we don’t.

Objection: How could (B) be true? Surely God’s omnibenevolence and omnipotence is such that (B) is false (and necessarily so).

Reply: Nothing we know regarding God’s omnibenevolence and omnipotence would render the following proposition epistemically impossible or implausible:

(X) A natural (viz.—necessary) consequence of living in a world in which we have separated ourselves from God is that we are subject to destruction by chance.[4]

I’m not saying that I know (X) is true.[5] What I am saying is that for whatever any creature may know, (X) is true. And if (X) were true, then affirming (A) above (and thereby denying (B)) would have the consequence that we might be trivializing Tim’s suffering. If what happened to Tim serves no specific purpose, believing it does would foist upon Tim the added evil of our misunderstanding the severity of his suffering. The more we might wrongfully think that his suffering serves some greater purpose, the more we won’t think his suffering is as horrible as it actually is. This is already an evil in itself, but it would also lead to another evil: in not being open to the possibility that his suffering has no purpose at all, we won’t be able to endure and embrace it with him in the way that we should.

No one knows that (X) isn’t true. If we don’t know (X) isn’t true, affirming (A) and thereby denying (B) could make us (unwittingly or not) guilty of the evil of trivializing Tim’s suffering. Hence, whenever we’re confronted with evils that seem to have only victims and no oppressors, we should neither think that God allowed them to happen for some purpose nor that He did.[6]

[1] That there is such a thing as a victim with no oppressor is highly suggested by the following passage from St. John’s Gospel: “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”” (John 9: 1-3) cf. note 6.

[2] “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Louis: the epigraph on your phil blog incorrectly says “Romans 8:18.”

[3] Just because all things work together for good (i.e., that God does and will make the best of any situation), it doesn’t fol­low that some of the events (that God would work into his plan) were intended, determined, or meaningful *in the first place*. Again, just because God can bring meaning out of the meaningless, that doesn’t mean that the meaninglessness that he brought the mean­ing out of is now no longer meaningless. Again, just because God brings purpose to that which has no purpose whatever, it doesn’t follow that that which originally had no purpose is now itself retroactively imbued with purpose.

[5] Here’s a reason to think that maybe (X) and (B) are true if God exists and such evils as Tim’s really happen. Perhaps God wouldn’t purposely have Tim be born with no limbs so that some other good may come of it. Though God has certain rights over us, maybe he would never use His own image-bearers as a means to an end like that. Whatever good may come of God’s choosing Tim to be born that way, it seems that it could be right for us to ask: “But what about Tim?! Couldn’t You have brought about whatever good you did bring out of Tim’s suffering by some other means? And if you couldn’t have, how could you, in your infinite goodness, use Tim as a means to an end like that?”

[6] When Jesus explains that the man was not born blind because “… this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him”, one gets (or might get) the prima facie impression that God allowed this man in particular to be born blind for the purpose of having God’s works displayed in him. And if one had this impression, then one would be inclined to think that God allowed this man to be blind for a purpose. But, this need not nor may not be the case at all. Suppose that (X) above is true and that this man’s affliction happened by chance. We might ask: why did God allow this man in particular to be born blind and not Peter or Judas? Possible answer: Since this man’s being born blind was a matter of chance that could have equally happened to Peter or Judas or anyone else, there is no reason why it happened to him and not to one of them. But, there is a reason (and a purpose) for why the distribution of such affliction can be random and without purpose: It’s part of God’s plan of atonement that we realize (X) (van Inwagen, p. 183). So, perhaps this random affliction was allowed to happen to this man to show the work of God in two senses: (1) Man without God lives in a world where Providence cannot protect him from random purposeless destruction, and (2) Jesus can and will heal our souls in the same way he healed this man’s blindness, so long as we ourselves are willing to be so healed. In a word: That random purposeless destruction is allowed to happen to particular persons is compatible with God having a purpose in allowing random purposeless destruction to happen. The fact that God has a reason and a purpose for its happening does not mean that God chose such affliction to happen to this man as opposed to that one.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

on a kind of nihilism.

“…Oh my love
High above us
The Sun now
Embraces Nature
And from
Nature we should learn
That all can start again
” (Riz Ortolani:Oh My Love”)

But what about the lilies of the field who withered away during the winter? How is it any constellation to them that some other lilies will “start again”? How can it be any constellation for our love for those lilies that we now have some other ones?

“He also had seven sons and three daughters.” (Job 42:13)

But what about Job’s former children who were ravished by that God-forsaken tornado? How is having a new set of children going to be any constellation to the eternal suffering Job must endure in losing his other children? Are the new ones supposed to replace the old ones? If not, will the new children provide Job with just enough joy so that he may simply forget about his former children? How is that not just nihilism?

I really don’t struggle with having eternal hope. I believe with every fiber of my being that there will come a day when the Kingdom of God will be ushered in and we’ll be with one another and we’ll be able to love one another as He loves us. But that kind of hope is cheap and easy. What’s not cheap and what’s nearly impossible is to hope that some beautiful fact about the future in this life will somehow make up for everything I have destroyed. I hope this suffering will never fade away until all things are made as if they were new.

The brightest light
Cannot return
To where it was
Formerly absent
Even if
Those shadows are
Still present.

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