Mouse Trap

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.

Good Ground

Young adult literature gives me hope.  The quality, speaking for a guy who grew up in a small town with limited choices, has improved astronomically over the past several years.  One of my favorite (adult) novels is Wuthering Heights, and so it’s no surprise that I found Christy Lenzi’s debut novel Stone Field quite engaging.  Set in a different time and place, and with a younger readership in mind, it retells the story of forbidden love based on xenophobia.  The message has never been more relevant.  Although it avoids explicit language, it does include adult situations and features a strong female protagonist in an age of explicit gender inequality.  During the chaos leading up to the Civil War, star-crossed lovers are set against one another because prejudice is a most effective poison.

While not a religious story, the iconic Bible plays a large role in it.  One of the main characters is a preacher, but even without him Catrina Dickinson’s family and friends are ready to quote the Good Book as unquestioningly as a Republican (with my apologies to fiscally conservative friends untainted by this aberration).  This is beyond a realistic portrayal of American life of the 1860s, it reflects the way that many people continue to think of Scripture.  Nevertheless, in one crucial episode of the story set in the church at Roubidoux, Missouri, the iconic role of the Bible becomes clear.  It is deftly woven throughout the story in a way that might serve as a lesson for modern writers seeking verisimilitude.  Many authors fear to address religion, but the Good Book is alive and well in these post-frontier days.

Often the desire to avoid religious motivations leads to stories that lack a key element of the social fabric.  In my own attempts at fiction religion is seldom absent.  It is the way average people live.  Lenzi presents Cat as being aware of but unwilling to be cowed by the Bible.  Indeed, as the story unfolds with several tragic events (remember, Wuthering Heights) she demonstrates that Catrina knows but doesn’t accept the strictures of Scripture.  The issue of theodicy hangs heavily in the atmosphere of the novel.  To me, this makes stories appear more life-like than tales that simply suppose religion doesn’t impact people.  When tragedy strikes, many people question what God, or their stand-in for the divine, is doing.  Anyone who’s asked “why me?” has directed that question into the world of theodicy, whether intentionally or not.  Reading this story while going through a family illness may have drawn this to the surface, but it underscores just how effective it may be for a realism that is otherwise lacking, whether in fact or young adult fiction.

The Job of Theodicy

Most people, I suspect, don’t think about diseases until someone they know is afflicted.  It’s natural enough to try to avoid thinking of the negative, and I know that I’ve always felt overwhelmed when it came to worthy causes seeking donations.  I surprised myself, therefore, but putting up a Facebook fundraiser for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.  Someone close to me was diagnosed with the disease, and seeing suffering first-hand has a way of changing your perspective.  You want to do whatever you can to help.  Instead of feeling completely at the mercy of chance, I put my fundraiser online and I’m hoping for the best.  A doctor I know informed me that foundations for diseases are among the most helpful websites for those with the condition.

In my mind, as in that of many others, disease is intricately tied in with theodicy—the problem of innocent suffering in the presence of a God supposed to be good.  Theodicy is frequently the first stop on the road to non-belief, as a careful reading of many of the “new atheists” reveals.  No theologian has devised a satisfying theodicy.  The question always comes down to the fact that a universe without debilitating diseases can be imagined by those of us with feeble human abilities, so why not by an almighty being with no limitations?  Human evil can be attributed to free will.  Natural evil, such as diseases not keyed to behaviors that lead to them, is a different matter.  Often we’re left to our own human devices against conditions we don’t fully understand.

Facebook may not be the best place to post a fundraiser, however, it has a reach far greater than this simple blog, and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation page helps to get such fundraisers set up.  For all of its problems, Facebook does provide a way to bring people together for common causes.  Seeing someone we know suffering is never easy.  And there are so many worthy causes out there.  The situation naturally reminds me of the book of Job.  People who turn to it looking for an answer to why innocent people suffer (Job is presented as perfect in the prologue to the story) come away disappointed.  No reason is given and the question of theodicy is left unanswered beyond the claim that human understanding is limited.  God may ask how Job has the boldness to question divine action, but there’s no suggestion that he shouldn’t try to find relief with his broken potshard.  My Facebook fundraiser is my potshard, I guess, although the larger questions still remain.

Superstar Detective

One of the reasons I accept reading challenges is that they take you places you otherwise wouldn’t go. Not all the books I read for the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2017 challenge make it onto this blog (to find the full list you need to see what I post on Goodreads.com), but some I can’t help but talk about. My wife had noticed a book that ended up in her Christmas stocking and for which I had admitted curiosity: J. Bradley’s Jesus Christ, Boy Detective. Now, Jesus is no stranger to fiction. In fact, he appears in lots of books as either the main character or as fulfilling some supporting role. In some books you have to really squint to find him. In others he’s obvious. In Bradley’s novel he’s a bit of both.

There’s a good bit of theology going on in the background of Jesus Christ, Boy Detective. As the title suggests, Jesus functions through a new incarnation in the body of a, well, boy detective. With some assistance from a criminal uncle and Saint Peter, he investigates bizarre murders and other crimes. There seems to be an ulterior motive, however, since he’s trying to get his father to own up for all the suffering he’s caused humanity. That’s right, this book is a modern theodicy.

Theodicy is a word for considering how a single deity can be both all powerful and all good. Since there’s plenty of suffering in the world we all experience, the question naturally arises: why doesn’t God do something about it? Theologians are fond of reminding us that we can’t see the bigger picture. It’s like global warming—it’s easy not to believe since we only live a few decades and the climate takes a lot longer than that to react to our pouring toxic stuff into the ecosystem. Maybe, theologians say, we have to suffer because we don’t see everything. Only God does. The boy detective disagrees. The deity in this story is truculent and culpable. A strong-willed divinity. If he doesn’t sound familiar, take another look at the Bible. I don’t know if J. Bradley has any theological training—I don’t even know his first name—but it’s clear that he’s down here with the rest of us wondering how all the pieces fit. And where there are clues it’s not a bad idea to call in a detective.

Interior Theodicy

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Speaking of theodicy, I have a dentist appointment today. Now, if you were raised with the Protestant guilt that used to be so pervasive in this nation, you’ll understand. I do brush my teeth twice a day. I even use floss and that mouthwash that burns away a layer of mouth lining every night. But there’s always more you could do. I’m not particularly good about visiting the dentist, though. Partially it’s a memory thing, partially it’s a pain thing, but mostly it’s a time thing. No matter how far back I jam the toothbrush, well beyond my gaging threshold, cavities seem to appear. And I don’t even have a sweet-tooth. What kind of deity allows cavities in a person who eats very little sugar and brushes so assiduously that last time the dentist told him to ease up a bit since he was scraping away the enamel? (People tell me I’m too intense.)

One of the real ironies of all this is that for all the trouble teeth give us during our lifetimes, they are our most durable parts after we die. Archaeologists find mostly teeth. In fact, it seems that Neanderthals might have practiced some primitive dentistry. I wonder what they thought of their neanderthal deity? So teeth are pretty useful, no matter whether the gray matter above them is dead or alive. I can explain this to my dentist, but he only seems interested in me as a specimen of carnassial curiosity. Maybe it all goes back to my belief that fillings were meant to last forever. Or all those root canals that seem to come in pairs that cost as much as a semester at a public university. Mostly it’s the memories.

In Edinburgh I had a tooth go bad. The Scottish dentist was surprised. “You’ve got a twelve-year molar erupting,” he said (you’ll have to imagine the accent). I asked if that was unusual. He owned that it was as I was a post-graduate student in his late twenties and the twelve-year molar was so precise in its timing that child labor laws used to be built around its presence. Years later in Wisconsin a different dentist asked about one of my fillings. I told him it was from Edinburgh. He called all the other dentists in announcing, “You wanna see a real Scottish filling?” Or maybe the fears go back to my earliest dental nightmares where the cheap doctor seemed unaware that teeth actually had nerves in them. I always left with a guilt trip. “You should brush —“ (more, better, longer, with a more gentle touch) you fill in the blank. I’m afraid of another kind of filling. And I know as it is with Protestant guilt, so it is with teeth. There’s always more you could be doing.

The Deal

Intellectual property is a concept that only arises where thought can be monetized. Think about that. (But don’t charge me, please!) It is a strange idea, when you ponder it. In any case, one of the problems with writing book reviews is that the reviews themselves become the intellectual property of the journal in which they appear. In a mental ménage à trois, everyone gets something out of it: the publisher gives away a book for free publicity, the journal gets copyright content of value to its readers, and the reviewer gets a free book. In the best of these encounters everyone goes home happy. I began doing book reviews when teaching at Nashotah House. Academic books are expensive and although professors make more than editors do, they are still hard-pressed to pay academic press prices. After my strictly platonic affair with higher education, I stopped doing reviews for a while, but now that I have hours on a bus to read, I’ve picked up the habit again.

Most often I review books for the two societies of which I’m a member—the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. There might, however, be a conflict of interest here. One of the main things I do on this blog is talk about books. Since I’m no longer a professor, but I still think like one, I figure it’s a compromise I can live with. The conflict arises because I post daily on my blog while publishers take weeks, or even months, to publish reviews. Despite technology, publishing is a slow business. That means that I read books I can’t really talk about until the review has appeared. That’s the case with Jill Graper Hernandez’s Early Modern Women and the Problem of Evil: Atrocity & Theodicy. I can’t say here what I say in my review since the review isn’t my intellectual property anymore. There’s another trade-off here: publishers get your name out there in return for owning your content—everything can come down to the level of business, it seems.

Still, I can use this post to reflect on theodicy—the justification of God in the face of evil. Since I don’t address this fact in my review I can say here that since Trump’s election it’s difficult to read a book about suffering without tying it to the current political situation. Many of the incumbent’s ardent supporters are coming to see that he doesn’t really care for them or their issues, and conservatives as well as liberals have four years of suffering to face. I was surprised how often in reading this philosophical treatise that our present national shame came to mind. Perhaps that’s inevitable in a book that discusses how women have been repressed in a world where they too have been relegated to the level of a commodity. Intellectual property seems less a concern when human beings are still trafficked as chattel. That’s not just bad business, it’s evil.

Wild Things

islanddrmoreauLast year my wife suggested we each do a reading challenge for the year. The one we selected was Modern Mrs. Darcy’s, which, with only a dozen books, seemed doable. What makes it a challenge is that to meet Mrs. Darcy’s expectations, you have to read certain types of books, not just go through the stack beside your favorite chair than never seems to get any smaller. I finished the challenge in October or November and posted on most of the books on this blog. This year’s challenge includes a book you’ve read before. Since I’ve been reading about horror movies I decided to reach back to childhood and once again read H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. It was a timely choice.

For anyone not familiar with it, the story concerns a mad scientist (Moreau) who experiments on animals, making them “men” on an isolated island in the Pacific. These creations aren’t fully human and most of them are blends of different animals as well as part human. They can talk, and they can reason, in a rudimentary way. To create them without anesthesia, Dr. Moreau subjects them to tremendous pain and to prevent them from attacking him, he establishes a basic religion where they obey his rules or he will subject them once again to the “House of Pain.” The narrator, victim of a shipwreck, ends up on the island and has to come to an uneasy peace amid these very strange circumstances. The heart of the book is the chapter where Moreau explains what he’s doing and to justify it he makes a secular theodicy. He is, after all, god to these poor creatures. The book has been made into a horror movie or two over the years, but I’ve never seen any of the cinematic treatments.

What struck me as particularly interesting, revisiting this book some forty years after I last read it, was how easily Wells slips into theological thinking. This is a book unafraid of implicating the Almighty in the troubles of an island that clearly stands in for the world. I wouldn’t have noticed that as a tween. I don’t think there even were tweens when I was one. In any case, the story ends in chaos, rather than creation. What makes it such a timely choice? I suppose the arrogance and entitlement of Dr. Moreau suggested themselves as analogues to our current situation here in the US. Only Moreau is clearly intelligent as well as deranged. This little book is a cautionary tale of what happens when a strong will has its way, unimpeded. It might be a good time for all of us to pick up a copy.