The other day a friend asked me about theodicy.Not in so many words, of course, but the question was distinctly familiar: why would an all-good, all-powerful deity let good people suffer?My response, hurried as it had to be, coming as it did on a work day, was that this was the classic question that had led to the dismissal of much belief among those raised in the Christian tradition.It is, if you will, the Achilles heel of the non-biblical unofficial trinity of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.The answer typically given is that people have only a limited view and, given that we can’t see the whole picture we’re in no position to judge a being who can.That got me thinking about the whole picture itself, and whether there is such a thing already in place.
As a young person learning to think theologically, I had to spend hours discussing with peers and teachers what this might mean.Time, they would assure us, does not affect God.The Almighty stands (metaphorically) outside of time and therefore understands how all of this will come out.And the final result will be good.The orthodox would then chime in that an eternal Hell was necessary to punish sins that, in comparison, lasted only a short time, comparatively.This would raise the question of justice again, and whether or not we were all marionettes in a puppet-show that really excluded free will.You see, the other answer to the question of theodicy is that if humans have free will a deity can’t force us to do good.Humans, they reason are responsible for making the good suffer.
With the weather turning cooler, we caught a mouse the other day.Decades ago I opted for a humane trap since it seems unspeakably arrogant of me to kill another sentient being who’s simply trying to find food and stay warm.From the perspective of that mouse, I must seem terrifying.I’ve caught it in a metal trap.I’m a hundred times its size.It has no idea what I’m thinking.When I catch mice I try to talk to them reassuringly.It’s got to be disorienting to find yourself going from “o wow, peanut butter!” to “I can’t get out.”If that mouse is thinking of a higher power I know that I can’t see much of the larger picture.My view is local, compared to that of larger intellects than mine.Still, I don’t want that mouse to suffer for being what it is.I didn’t create it, but I do want to set it free to let it find its place in both space and time.
An atheist who created gods. That’s the basic skinny on H. P. Lovecraft. Perhaps all gods are thus created. I can’t know; I wasn’t there at the beginning. Among writers who failed to make much of an impression in their lifetimes, Lovecraft staged a remarkable comeback in his afterlife. Don G. Smith’s H. P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture attests to the fact that some academics are beginning to pay attention to one of Providence’s most famous children as his works continue to spin off new forms. With an almost Puritan devotion to rationalism, Lovecraft saw no need nor room for deities in the world. His most ardent fans claim the gods he created are mere aliens, voyagers from beyond.
I wonder why one has to be a theist to create gods. Part of the problem is definitional; what is a god? According to the three fifty-cent words in the explanatory section of my young-person’s Bible, the traits are being omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Problem is, in the Bible God doesn’t really seem to fit any of these particularly well. The closest match seems to be omnipotent, but omnipotence leads to logical conundrums in reasoning, creating rocks so large you can’t lift them, and all that. Gods are, by just about any ancient standard, defined in relational terms—they are more powerful than us. That’s true of Lovecraft’s gods as well. They are so powerful that merely viewing them could drive you insane, eh, Ezekiel? (Perhaps Ezekiel is a good choice to compare, since his God comes down from the sky as well. Some would claim in a spaceship.)
Lovecraft survived because he understood what scares a person. Power, without feeling, is frightening. I’ve seen it in the eyes of both Christian and Pagan and it always sends me away shuddering. Smith’s book is more concerned with the survival of H. P.’s ideas in the media. It is a pleasant stroll, or an unpleasant stroll, depending on your perspective, through the descendants of Lovecraft’s monsters and gods. There’s no shame in calling them deities. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that some kinds of entities are inherently frightening.
A question never adequately resolved revolves around the status of atheism. What exactly is it? Well, I suppose it is many things, actually. One thing that seems indisputable is that religion has been part of human culture from the beginning. It would seem likely that not all believers carried the same level of conviction, and there may have been “atheists” shortly after theism evolved. The difficulty is that both belief in god/s, and/or the lack thereof, are matters of personal conviction. That somewhat blurred line has been crossed, according to some, by the recent growth of “atheist churches.” In several web stories my friends have pointed out to me, a growing movement of atheist “mega-churches” has been noticed. These are groups of atheists who meet for many of the same reasons religious folk do, sans salvation. It is a social occasion, and a chance to fellowship with like-minded non-believers, and to support their lack of faith. Some atheists bristle at this (as do some religious), claiming that it cheapens the atheistic enterprise (or that religions somehow hold a copyright on belief-based gatherings).
Herein lies the rub. Atheists are no more cut from the same cloth (or lack of cloth) as religious believers are. There are varieties of unbelief. Some obviously see that the weekly gathering has benefits. There’s no question that atheists can be every bit as humanitarian as religious believers are. Besides, who doesn’t like to meet with people who think like them? “Minister” might not be the leader’s title of choice, although it has a long pedigree in politics as a secular title (as, for example, in the Ministry of Defense). The slow decline in mainstream Christian services, however, might suggest that atheist services would be inclined to grow. Weekends were originally created for religious reasons and still generally remain the religious meeting days of choice. Some religious groups do not insist on doctrine to be members—Unitarians are a prime example of this—but the value of meeting together is human, all too human.
Clearly the purpose of an atheist gathering is not primarily worship. I should imagine, however, that wonder is still part of the non-religious vocabulary. God is not necessary for feelings of awe and joy. And sometimes it is fun to get together for some structured activity that isn’t work (for those who have jobs). An Associated Press story, however, points out the irony of the gathering of “people bound by their belief in non-belief.” There is, however, believing going on here. There can be no escaping it. Despite all the problems associated with omnipotence, the idea of a deity where the buck indeed stopped was an ebenezer for grounding belief. Even the most outspoken of atheists share this with the literalist and the moderate—they all believe. And as long as people believe, they will seek groups of those who share similar views. Why not? Even the truth requires belief.
Philip Roth was an author unknown to me (shame on me!) until this summer. Over the past several years I’ve taken it upon myself to read my daughter’s high school novel-reading assignments so that we can stay current (in an aspect where a parent is permitted to do so). Her school requires summer reading and this year Roth’s novel Nemesis was on the roster. As a recent book, it is unusual in being assigned before the test of time has rendered its verdict. Set during a fictionalized polio outbreak in Newark in 1944, Nemesis follows the fortunes of Bucky Cantor, a Jewish physical education teacher in charge of a summer playground program in Newark. As his kids begin to fall to the disease, the protagonist flees to the Poconos to be with his fiancée at a Jewish summer camp. As the situation deteriorates, Bucky questions God’s role in the world of disease and in the war that continues to rage in Europe and the Pacific.
It is the classic issue of theodicy. Having been raised in a tradition that espouses God’s goodness, the protagonist has to face the death and disabling of children by a disease for which there is no cure (at the time). The issue of God’s role in the disaster is a recurring theme throughout the book. In the final chapter when the atheist narrator—himself a victim of polio and one of Bucky’s former students—questions Cantor about his beliefs, Bucky holds onto a dogged insistence that blame must be ascribed. His student opines: “it’s a medical enigma… His [Bucky’s] conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two—a sick f**k and an evil genius.” That statement gave me pause. Traditionally theodicy assumes the goodness of God and tries to bend the facts to fit the premise. Here God is in the dock and all interpretations are permitted in cross-examination.
The angst of dealing with the concept of omnipotence is real enough. In this Tea-Party world where selfish personal aggrandizement is seen as divine prerogative while children starve in misery and die painfully on an hourly basis, very real questions should be asked. Instead, most people assume the religion they have been taught is correct: often the facts of history are distorted to make such a belief match pre-decided outcomes. God is good as long as I get my share.
Reviews of Nemesis have been mixed, but Roth does a powerful job in his final chapter of this novel. The action is almost as predictable as the heat of summer, but the real substance, as usual, lies in the interpretation of the events. When God is brought into the equation, the temperature is sure to rise even further.
With the final Harry Potter movie opening this weekend, it is clear that the brainchild of J. K. Rowling will live forever. When the books first started to gain popularity numerous Christian groups protested that children would be tempted into witchcraft by the appeal of the young protagonists. Ironically, standard Christian teaching denounces the power of witchcraft, although some groups do still acknowledge a very active devil. Now that the series has run its course–all the movie spin-offs of the novels are complete–many are coming to the realization that the message is profoundly ethical if not downright religious. As usual with knee-jerk protests, the message is missed for the medium, and those with fragile faith clamor for a spell of their own to put an end to opposition.
Joining the bandwagon late, I first started reading the Harry Potter books when the third or fourth volume had been published and public interest was riding high. I haven’t kept up with the movies, however, last watching Goblet of Fire at a theatre in Wisconsin while contemplating my own position at a school like Hogwarts, minus the magic. The books, however, convey the message more clearly–the power of evil is real, good is not always what it seems, and institutions can’t save you. The importance of love (the main thrust, many would contend, of the preaching of Jesus) is the driving force behind the story from the moment Lord Voldemort (the Darth Vader of the twenty-first century) failed to kill young Harry Potter. Perhaps the true concern that many religions have with Rowling’s work is that it has trumped the traditional mythology with a bit more style and panache.
As a regular Protestant Christian, Rowling expresses traditional beliefs in her writing. The fantasy of witchcraft, however, has always maintained a lure for those cut out of society’s pathway to wealth, recognition and ease. In the days before Christianity, the early Israelites believed the power to be real to the point of making witchcraft a capital offence. Of course, omnipotence had not yet been invented. Once a deity becomes all-powerful, why should fear remain concerning magic? More likely protests against Harry Potter had less to do with the witchcraft than with the insecurity that many believers feel about God. The plan doesn’t seem to be unfolding as the Pat Robertsons and Timothy LaHayes are saying it should. Doubt is a much more powerful force, it appears, than magic.