Tag Archives: theodicy

Watchers and the Holy One

WatchersI’m not really a fan of Dean R. Koontz’s thrillers, but I do find myself turning to them from time to time. Like Stephen King’s, Koontz’s books are easily found at book sales, but you don’t always have your choice of which titles. I picked up Watchers because it had a vaguely biblical sound to it. The title seems to fit the story only loosely, but there are a number of points where God is invoked in the tale. Watchers is a book about genetic engineering, both the good and the bad aspects of it. Scientists have produced a dog as intelligent as a human being, and a monster that kills indiscriminately; a Cain and Abel. As this is being explained to one of the characters, he says “If we can do this, we have the power and, potentially, the wisdom of God.” Here, in a nutshell, is the debate about intentional genetic modification. We don’t have the ability to see ahead very far, and although we like to think ourselves god-like, we could very well be creating catastrophes. At least, in this story, God is deemed wise.

Some time later another character in the story opines that when humanity can create an intelligent species, it is our responsibility to act, in a sense, as its deity. “If we’ve come so far that we can create as God creates, then we have to learn to act with the justice and mercy of God.” Interestingly, there is no question of theodicy here. The justice and mercy of God are assumed, despite the many wakeful nights and unsettled days of the theologians. Casting God as the “good guy” is not as easy as it used to be, and our own “engineering” isn’t always assumed to be for the good of our own planet.

Finally, as some of the characters are discussing who has the right to own this super-intelligent dog, God is invoked once again. The qualities of the dog (a golden retriever, since, one presumes, a Rotweiler, for instance, might have different qualities), its courage, ability to distinguish right from wrong, ability to love, and selflessness, make it more in the image of God than human beings. Again, God here is unquestioningly assumed to be the great good, the advocate of humankind. I realize novelists are under no obligation to be theologians, yet it is difficult to tell a tale of genetic tampering without invoking the Almighty. What I find so interesting here in Koontz is that despite the evil of some of the characters, the goodness of God is never called into question. It is assumed that the evil we create is our own while the good in the world belongs to God. It’s a view of the world that could be called almost biblical. Those who professionally reflect on these things, however, often come to a different conclusion.

I’m No Legend

First there was The Last Man on Earth with that rare, disappointing performance by Vincent Price. Then there was The Omega Man, putting Charlton Heston into the role that fit him better than Moses. Finally, returning to the original title, I Am Legend featured Will Smith as Robert Neville. Having watched all three movies, I knew I should have read Richard Matheson’s short novel first. After all, it was a vampire story, and who doesn’t feel utterly alone once in a while? I finally decided to make an honest man of myself. It occurred to me as I started to read that I didn’t know how this story would end. All I had ever seen were cinematic treatments—and who writes anything serious about genre fiction? Still, I needed to know.

Last Man

Matheson was one of the writers who had caught Rod Serling’s attention on the Twilight Zone. Having read some of his short stories I could see why. Not knowing the ending, some of them can actually be scary. I Am Legend isn’t exactly frightening. It is, however, thought-provoking and sad. Matheson, a New Jersey native, wasn’t among the most literary of writers. Nevertheless, he conveys some deeply disturbing images of humanity in this particular novel. After all (spoiler alert!) Robert Neville is the evil one. He has been killing vampires with a cold calculation, no matter whether they are living or undead (good or bad). Who has a right to kill whom depends on your point of view.

The-Omega-Man-Poster

In I Am Legend, Matheson makes it clear that Neville, the last man alive, is an atheist. The problem, as it usually is, is theodicy. How could a god allow such a massive tragedy to strike not only himself, but the entire world? After the vampire virus had spread, Neville finds himself dragged into an evangelistic meeting by terrified survivors who had turned to religion to make sense of their tragedy. Neville escapes as quickly as he can. The movie versions tend to ignore this poignant aspect of the narrative. After all, the audience watching must sympathize with Neville or the whole draw of the movie is off. In a nation where atheists are trusted about as much as vampires, it seems that Matheson left us a parable as well as a legend.

The Fault in Whose Stars?

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsTheodicy. I’m no theologian, but the problem of suffering erects a wall ever higher between wanting to believe and actual experience. Many great thinkers have laid down their faith because of this insuperable hurdle. The movie version of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars opened last night, but I didn’t see it. It was difficult enough to make it through the book. I have to admit feeling a bit wimpy about finding a young adult novel emotionally challenging, but it just is. As I mentioned a few days ago, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy has been topping charts lately, but so has John Green’s novel of childhood cancer. Theodicy is deeply inscribed in this sad tale of loss and love. From a purely biological perspective, the death of the young is explicable, but that seems to be the easy way out.

I’ve been toying with The Fault in Our Stars since January. Picking it up long enough to read a few pages, then growing frightened and putting it aside for a few weeks. The story begins in “the literal heart of Jesus” in a church for a cancer support group where Hazel meets Gus, and, as young people do, falls in love. Green is clear on one point from the beginning: no novel where the protagonists are victims of cancer can ever have a happy ending. We just have to watch and wait for the inevitable. The children return time and again to the “literal heart of Jesus” but no healing comes. They face loss and every page you turn brings more imponderable questions. Yes, this is fiction, but we live in a world where childhood cancer exists. And childhood starvation. And childhood victims of abuse and violence. And still we try to find a way to fit it into a broken-down theology and wonder why we don’t smile more often.

I don’t shy away from provocative fiction. I read scary stories with all sorts of monsters. Finding ourselves, however, in a world where neither rationalism nor theology really makes all the sense they should, sometimes the scariest stories are the truest to life. John Green’s fiction, it comes as no surprise, is frequently banned. Reading it as an adult one finds parts predictable and parts handled too gently, but with enough realism thrown in to want to see it through to the end. Banning books, however, is merely an attempt to shield children from that which they need to see. We do no favors, hiding the truth from those best equipped by nature to accept it. The real question is whether theodicy itself can survive. Perhaps, like the characters in the novel, it will come to its own quiet termination with no real answers to offer.

Any Witch Way

Witches&WitchHuntsIt’s easy to feel smug over the past. At every moment of human civilization we deem ourselves higher than those who came before. There’s no doubt that the eradication of the thought-processes that led to the witch hunts of past centuries seems decidedly positive for all parties involved. Wolfgang Behringer’s Witches and Witch-Hunts, however, is a surprising book. I’ve read a fair number of studies of those dark ages when people were cruelly tortured and murdered in horrendous ways because they were deemed to be in league with Satan. As usual in such books, Behringer begins with that history. What makes his study surprising, however, is that he doesn’t stop in the eighteenth century when, in what we’re usually told, the witch trials ended. Behringer points out that witch hunts are still happening, and that the rates of those killed perhaps rival those, per capita, of the numbers during the Middle Ages. How can this be? In an era of global awareness, we sometimes forget that the focus isn’t always on Europe or America.

In many parts of the world, witches are still part of local belief systems. Not all of these are women, by the way. Many cultures favor the male witch. What these cultures do have in common, however, is their natural fear of black magic being suppressed by colonialism. More “civilized” westerners came and enacted laws which, to the minds of the locals, protected the witches! Local tradition of eradicating those who practice black magic was considered righteous, and now the government forbids it? That seems strange, especially when many of the colonizing forces were also interested in Christianizing as well. Missionaries wanted to affirm belief in the supernatural, and, ironically, often became the vehicles that allowed beliefs in witchcraft to continue. As Behringer points out, some populations converted to Christianity precisely because it allowed the continued belief in physical evil—therefore witches—and the eradication thereof.

This creates a vexing problem. When cultures meet they inevitably attempt to assert their values. When the technologically superior force their ways of life on those behind on that front, a kind of pressure of misunderstanding builds. Instead of bringing witches to trial, they lynch them instead. It seems we may have underestimated the pull that belief in witches has on people. Traditional societies uninfluenced by the developments in Europe also came up with the idea of witchcraft independently. Witches, it seems, stand for the classic issue of theodicy—explaining why things go wrong in a world that should be ordered by deities. Coincidence is always cold comfort in explaining loss. Even the rule of law breaks down. At the same time, how can it be right to allow the murdering of those suspected of witchery even in the enlightened twenty-first century? This fear is one of our most abiding demons, and the solution remains out of reach, unless, of course, we allow ourselves to resort to magic.

God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.

Watchtower

Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

Grendel’s Gods

GrendelGardnerSometimes I think that if I had to do it all over again, I might’ve chosen Beowulf instead of the Bible. Let me define “it” here: if I had to pick a vocation that would lead to personal fulfillment and personal penury, that is. Beowulf is the earliest written story in English and, it’s a monster story. What’s not to like? In honor of Banned Book Week, I decided retroactively to read a banned title, John Gardner’s Grendel. An early parallel novel narrated from Grendel’s point of view, we are introduced to the introspective, existentialist monster who is really just wondering, like the rest of us, what the point of it all is. Not surprisingly, the protagonist often addresses the question of religion—indeed, it might even be at the heart of the story.

In chapter nine, Grendel sits in the darkness in the ring of wooden gods of the Danes when Ork, the great, blind priest stumbles in and believes the monster is the Destroyer god. As Grendel toys with his theology, the old priest understands this all as a revelation, and although Grendel gives him no answers, the words are taken as divine utterances. The other priests, finding their leader out on a winter’s night, insist that he has gone senile, that gods do not reveal themselves like that. The old man, however, is unshakeable in his faith. As in much of the novel, there is more going on here than meets the eye. The deluded priest believes a monster is his god.

The question of theodicy (literally, the judging, or justification of God) is never-ending for theists. The world is a problematic place (made so, I must note, by human consciousness) for the creation of an omnipotent deity who is good. Too much suffering, Grendel, too many failed expectations. Clergy and theologians have, for centuries, tried to frame a convincing answer to the dilemma. The tack they all studiously avoid is that God is a monster, although some posit that as a straw hypothesis quickly to be knocked down. Gardner, although not a theologian, was the son of a lay preacher and farmer. One suspects that elements of that childhood crawled out through the pond with Grendel. One of the truly tragic characters, a “son of Cain,” Grendel still has an immense power on the imagination. And that power, at times, might even appear godlike.

By Jove!

When Zeus is taken seriously in the New York Times, even the open minded scratch their heads. It’s not because any of us really believe Zeus is up their hurling thunderbolts, but because anyone would even dare raise the question. Yes, Gary Gutting’s Opinionator article is lighthearted and perhaps even a little cynical, but it does raise serious questions. Did our ancestors believe in the gods with no “proof”? I can’t help but think of the phenomenally expensive video, I Still Worship Zeus. There are, in this day of high technology and low tolerance for non-scientific outlooks, people who continue to believe in Zeus. Well, his name does come from the same root as the old Indo-European word that gives us the Latin Deus, or “God.” And, let’s face it, the stories of the Greek gods can be pretty cool (despite sub-par big screen renditions). But to take any of this seriously…Seriously?

Jupiter_Smyrna_Louvre_Ma13

As Gutting points out, some of the great minds of Greek science didn’t question the existence of Zeus. I certainly wouldn’t care to pit my puny wit against that of Plato. Those scientifically minded Greeks, apparently, believed in the gods because of their explanatory value. Too many coincidences and synchronicities and epiphanies suggest something more than meets the eye. We don’t see gods today, so Gutting asks how we know the world hasn’t changed. Now, I take uniformitarianism seriously. It is the basis for geology and much of evolution. Our old, old earth shows no evidence of a sudden change in the way things happen. What is malleable is human interpretation. As recently as a century ago, belief in some kind of divine world was very pervasive. Only in the past few decades—since World War Two, I would guess—has the premise of the Judeo-Christian god become suspect. The daily experience of living in a world where theodicy just can’t explain all the suffering has led us to a kind of stalemate with the gods.

I once had a scholarly exchange with a colleague over the nature of the word “evidence.” Our little tiff was published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. My colleague had suggested that Yahweh—the god of Israel—was considered a solar deity. I averred that evidence did not exist. With rejoinder and riposte, we had to agree to disagree. The evidence I was seeking was stringent, but as we all know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And that is the point that Gutting makes, whether seriously or not. The question is not “Is Zeus there?” but “Was Zeus there?”. I decline to offer an opinion. I do applaud the New York Times, however, for attempting to get us thinking about serious issues once again. If Zeus did exist, then it behooves us to consider all the implications. And perhaps to reconsider home-owners’ insurance in a world where gods may roam at large.