A ‘Vale of Soul-Making’ (Part 4)

Having summarized David Paulsen’s theodicy, I almost feel ready to begin a proper analysis of his ideas, but we must pay careful attention to what we say in our analysis. To discuss the suffering of others as merely some kind abstract evidence or data point that is to be marshaled in favor of our own thesis (the believer’s or the unbeliever’s) runs the risk of furthering the damage already done. I find the distinctions drawn between the logical and existential problems of evil to be spurious. Logic is rooted in the ultimate reality of the world and so to with evil, the logical problem of evil is fundamentally connected to the existential. To try and separate the two is to dehumanize, an all too grievous mistake.

By Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, 1626-8.

In the Babylonian Talmud, there is a fascinating section called Tractate Berachot that deals extensively on the activity of prayer. It is fascinating how carefully and reverently the ChaZaL[1] treated prayer, discussing all the instances where and when it is acceptable to pray and when to interrupt your prayer. For example, if you are walking home and you see the pillar of smoke that could only come from a house fire in your neighborhood, you are forbidden to pray that the house on fire is not your own. The reasoning is persuasive, if you are to invoke God’s intervention to save your property you are doing it at the expense of a fellow human being and is a selfish use of prayer that is abominable.

I think we should extend such caution and care in our discussions on the theological, philosophical, and existential problems of evil and theodicies. Evil and suffering are potent topics, and not paying attention to one’s words can inadvertently cause another person even more harm. Take for example this missionary who was serving as a missionary in Japan last year when the tsunami struck and wrecked disaster on the island nation on a large scale. In an e-mail from Japan, he wrote:

“We really have been protected. It’s hard when we can’t even go back to our own area,” [he] wrote. “We have been extremely blessed all the way through. All my stuff is still in Tagajo, but oh well. In Tagajo, there is water, nothing else. Wow!”

It is easy to see what is implicitly being said here, that those who did not survive did not have God’s protection, that those who lost more than some material goods were not blessed. I think it is safe to assume that this missionary had zero intention of implicitly saying such things and would immediately offer a sincere apology if it was brought to his attention. He just serves as an example of how just speaking about evil and suffering in innocent and even reverent contexts can lead one to be dismissive, cavalier, and even cruel to others. A mistake we all make.

A fair response to my warning above is the reaction that it could simply be the truth that a person’s misfortune could be the result of sin in their lives. In a comment on my third installment of this series, a gentleman by the name of Seth correctly points out that Jerry Falwell’s attribution of Hurricane Katrina to the sins of New Orleans may be unpopular, but that does not entail Falwell is wrong in his assessment.

In fact, I would argue that Falwell’s understanding of Hurricane Katrina is very biblical. Such conditionals are central to the relation between God and Israel in the Deuteronomic history that is preserved today in the Hebrew scriptures. My favorite poem from the Torah can serve as an example of this conditional theology [2]:

So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked
You grew grew fat and gross and coarse
He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the Rock of his support
They incensed Him with alien things
Vexed Him with abominations
They sacrificed  to demons, no-gods,
Gods they had never known
New ones who came but lately
Who stirred not your fathers’ fears
You neglected the Rock that begot you
Forgot the God who brought you forth

After a vivid description of the actions that had angered God, we get an equally vivid description of God’s judgment:

When I whet My flashing blade
And My hand lays hold on judgment
Vengeance will I wreak on My foes
Will I deal to those who reject Me
I will make My arrows drunk with blood
As My sword devours flesh
Blood of the slain and the captive
From the long-haired enemy chiefs

The poems ends in the next verse, and Moses advises the Israelites to inscribe the laws of God on to their heart, because faithfully following it will determine the conditions of their inhabitance in the promised land. This is Moses’ last warning before he ascends the heights of Mount Neob and dies. In light of this consistent theme it seems that Falwell isn’t doing anything more than following a model laid out in the scriptures, should it come to any suprises that this draws the ire of the world?

There is a biblical response to Falwell, namely that he is making the same mistake as Job’s three friends, by insisting calamity is being used to punish sin. When Job finally confronts God in the whirlwind the answer is disappointing, but the major take away message from the confrontation is that unless one is a Prophet, you cannot divine God’s intentions in who is blessed and who is cursed.

It is with Job in mind that I move on to my next post about the instrumentalism of evil in Soul-Making theodicies like Swinburne, Hick, and Paulsen. We must exercise care and not commandeer another person’s story of suffering for polemical or rhetorical purposes, to do so is a crime against philosophy and your fellow human beings.

[1]ChaZaL stands for “Hachameinu Zichronam Lebracha” a Hebrew phrase that can be literally translated as “Our Sages may their memory be blessed”. It is a term that refers to the rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew Bible that is now largely seen as authoritative, such as the Talmud.

[2] The ‘Song of Moses’ or chapter 32 of Deuteronomy. I’m using the JPS translation of verses 15-18 and 41-42. I urge readers to read the entire poem (verses 1-41) entirely, it is truly an ancient literary accomplishment.


A ‘Vale of Soul-Making’ (Part 4) — 6 Comments

  1. “you are forbidden to pray that the house on fire is not your own. . . . if you invoke God’s intervention to save your property you are doing it at the expense of a fellow human being and is a selfish use of prayer that is abominable.”

    This is really fascinating, Patrick! I do think there’s a sense of discomfort in our culture with selfish uses of prayer. After all, we often crack jokes about how prayers for a particular team to win an athletic contest probably cancel each other out. But perhaps we don’t take the issue seriously enough. If the mandate is “do no harm,” and we believe that our prayers are really efficacious, then it would appear to be immoral to pray for a larger piece of any zero-sum pie.

  2. With your example of the missionary in Japan.

    Of course it’s true that you could imply that the missionary claiming he was blessed to be safe has the built in notion that everyone who died was not similarly blessed. It’s also true the missionary would be dismayed to have this pointed out to him.

    But I wonder if that misses the point. Maybe trying to get external meaning out of God on the subject of the Japanese tsunami is the wrong approach.

    There’s an excellent, but little-known, book by an LDS author Dennis Rasmussen. Title is “The Lord’s Question” and it’s a short little read. And deals with the problem of suffering. A quote from the first page of the book:

    “There is an old tradition that views man as the being who asks questions. In the words of Aristotle, “All men by nature desire to know.” From this point of view man is distinguished by his power to discover. The mark of man is a question. The history of the ages is the record of man’s questions. When an old question is answered or even just abandoned and a new one replaces it, then a new age begins. All the knowledge that creates civilization emerges in answer to human questions. The history of religion follows this same pattern as it tells of man’s quest for God. In all things man’s progress is the progress of man’s questions. They lead to knowledge, and knowledge is power.

    There is another tradition even older that makes a different claim. It asserts that man is born into the world with a question and that he lives with a question, but it is not man’s question. On this view man is not primarily a being who questions but a being who is questioned. The question addressed to man persist, harder than stone, softer than snow, more insistent than the warmth of the sun. “Where art thou?” Man is distinguished not by his power to ask but by his power to hear. The question, with which he lives is not his own but God’s.”

    [end quote]

    The book makes the point that we miss the point in asking God why something happens. We fail to realize that our position is not to question, but to answer. That when bad things happen, the answer for why it happened may not exist yet. And the answer WILL not exist until we provide the answer ourselves by the kind of people we become, and the actions we take.

    A beloved parent developing terminal cancer can have any number of answers to why it happened – depending entirely on how those involved react to it. It could be an uplifting moment of spiritual growth for all that brings the family closer together and blesses them all. Or it could be a time of bitterness and anger.

    We provide the meaning. God asks – and we answer.

    Maybe the missionary in Japan was just trying to answer for himself.

  3. And maybe the missionary was just parroting what he has been taught his whole life, and there is no deeper hidden meaning in such suffering outside of plate tectonics and capricious luck.

    God is the great ATM in the sky, blessing the righteous and smiting the wicked.

    Except when he smites the righteous and blesses the wicked.

    For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.

  4. Hi Seth,

    I’m uneasy with Rasmussen’s answer, because it comes across as self centered. When the missionary is faced with catastrophe like the tsunami, it seems inappropriate to me to be asking, “What meaning could I create out of this?” I don’t think it wise to see another person’s suffering as a chance to grow in character.

    Also, I think this strategy has limits. For example, take this passage from Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’:

    Three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.

    “Long live liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.

    “Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.

    “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.

    “Cover your heads!”

    Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive. . . .

    For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

    Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

    “Where is God now?”

    And I heard a voice within me answer him:

    “Where is He? Here He is–He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”

    That night the soup tasted of corpses.

    Can we imagine what effect Rasmussen’s counsel might have? Could he really look the young Wiesel in the eye that night during dinner and say, “It is up to you to create the meaning for that child’s slow death.” I don’t think he could, and if such a theodicy is inappropriate for this circumstance, then it is inappropriate for any circumstance.

  5. I don’t think it’s really exactly illuminating to try and emotionalize this particular argument.

    “Look at this cute little innocent boy – can you look him in the eye and coldly tell him that this is all going to mean something”

    Perhaps with a (“you jerk”) thrown in under one’s breath.

    I know that you weren’t being aggressive. But I think the emotional appeal simply obscures what we are getting at.

    In the Weisel example, the boy’s death wasn’t meaningless actually. The fact that we are discussing it years and years after the fact means it had meaning. It reached thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people and made them think about life. It deeply impacted Weisel’s life in ways even he doesn’t understand yet.

    The meaning of the event is being made.

  6. I wrote “boy’s death” erroneously – conflating this story with another. Tried editing, and it didn’t go through, so I’ll just say sorry. Hope the meaning is clear anyway.