Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rorschach's Test


No, not the famous ink blots; the character in the graphic novel, Watchmen.

Rorschach is easily the most interesting character in the novel. He is meant to be the least sympathetic. Anthony Lane calls the character in the movie "a slip of a psychopath." He represents one side of a bifurcated Bruce Wayne. In Watchmen, Nite Owl II is Bruce Wayne: a bored rich man with a cellar full of gadgets and equipment, dressing up like a winged creature of the night, fighting bad guys. Rorschach is the driven Batman; except he's a poor man, practically homeless. No job, no apparent income, his costume simply a mask which has become his true face, an overcoat, a hat. But Rorschach is the true detective of the novel. He knows everyone's secrets, he knows the tiniest infraction of the law, as when he confronts one character who pulls a gun (because Rorschach has broken into his apartment to terrorize him, R's modus operandi in crime fighting, much as Batman does) with the fact the gun owner has no permit for it. If he is not the world's greatest detective, he is it's most obsessive.

Rorschach's mania for justice on the smallest, most insignificant level, masks a truth that is all but lost in the overall story of the novel, and intentionally so. Rorschach understands that every individual matters, that every human life, and every act of that human life, matters. Justice is his irrevocable standard for behavior, but it is because every human life is important. He makes this point at the end of the novel, when he refuses to keep the secret all the other "heroes" accept, because it is an injustice conducted in order to effect what should be a greater justice. Rorschach alone understands that isn't justice at all, but he understands it because every human life matters, even those sacrificed for the greater good. Justice based on such sacrifice is not justice at all. It is in the middle of the novel, however, that he states what should be a banal observation, yet isn't:

"This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical deities. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs.

It's us.

Only us."
I should point out he's speaking literally there, not metaphorically; describing the horrific outcome of a kidnapping where he finds the criminal after the victim has been disposed of. It is the last traumatic event that pushes Rorschach over the edge into what seems to be madness. Such an experience should lead to despair and resignation, especially as Rorschach's world-view is clearly Hobbesian: civilization is not civilized, as there is no strong leader. Consequently life is red in tooth and claw, nasty, brutish, and short. It's also clearly the view of most comic books: that only strong men (and a few women) can save society from the predators. Rorschach is strong, but only because he is completely outside society, completely beyond the boundaries of even human connection, of social or even personal ties. He's meant to be driven there by his life experiences, by the brutality he has witnessed or has had inflicted on him. But when human life still matters, when every individual's actions form a part of the whole, no sacrifice of even one life is permissible to lay the foundations of a better world order, no compromise can lead to a utopia. Rorschach is unyielding in his determination to hold every human life accountable, but that is the necessary concomitant of believing that every human life counts. And believing that we are responsible, one to another; that we are, indeed, our brother's keeper.*

What prompts this reflection is the interview with Bart Ehrman on Fresh Air. Not the advertised topic of the interview because that's old news to me. What interests me is Ehrman's conversion from Bible-believing fundamentalist to agnostic, via Princeton Seminary and Biblical scholarship since the 19th century. But Ehrman's conversion to agnosticism (I won't say "loss of faith") was, he says, prompted by the problem of evil. That old philosophy of religion chestnut is my real subject; because the more I think on it, the more absurd it becomes. It's not an obvious connection, and Rorschach is hardly a moral or, certainly not, theological, avatar. But his example leads to some very interesting insights.

First, the problem of evil is tied to, indeed arises from, the question of the existence of God. To put it fully in historical context, it is a question arising from Hellenistic reasoning, not from Hebraic thought. This is not to say that Hellenistic reasoning is "stronger" than Hebraic thought, simply that the two proceed from different assumptions about the nature of existence and the cosmos. As Peter Kreeft notes:
The problem of evil is the most serious problem in the world. It is also the one serious objection to the existence of God....

More people have abandoned their faith because of the problem of evil than for any other reason. It is certainly the greatest test of faith, the greatest temptation to unbelief. And it's not just an intellectual objection. We feel it. We live it.That's why the Book of Job is so arresting.
In modern parlance, it is an existential question. And it proves how trenchant Kierkegaard's observation was: truth is subjective.

In it's simplest form, the argument can be traced back to Epicurus:

One example among many of a formulation of the problem of evil is presented by Epicurus and may be schematized as follows (this form of the argument is called 'the inconsistent triad'):

1. If a perfectly good god exists, then there is no evil in the world.
2. There is evil in the world.
3. Therefore, a perfectly good god does not exist.

This argument is of the logically valid form modus tollens (denying the consequent). In this case, P is "God exists" and Q is "there is no evil in the world". Other logical forms of arguments articulating the problem follow. Most philosophical debate has focused on the first premise, questioning the statement that God is unable to coexist with evil.
I told you it was a Greek, not an Hebraic, question. Kreeft mentions the book of Job. What is the first thing Job says to his wife?

2:9 Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die.

2:10 But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.
Job goes on to complain, of course; but his complaint is about justice, not about the existence of God. It never occurs to Job that his suffering is reason to call God's existence into question. He merely questions the justice of what has happened to him (merely! As if that weren't the more important issue!) There is an even blunter form of the argument:

1. Gratuitous evils exist.
2. The hypothesis of indifference (HI), i.e., that if there are supernatural beings they are indifferent to gratuitous evils, is a better explanation for (1) than theism.
3. Therefore, evidence prefers that no god, as commonly understood by theists, exists.
(this argument is little different in substance from Manichaeism, which Augustine worked so hard to distinguish Christianity from. Everything old is indeed new again.) But they all come down to the same thing: why do bad things happen to good people? The Hellenistic answer is: because there is no benevolent deity in charge, or existent as designer of the universe. We have to digress to the Greek theory of the origin of the universe to understand the latter part of that argument. The Hebraic answer is: what about God's justice? The modern answer is: why me?

Let me stop and note there are two different issues involved here, and they are truly irreconcilable: one is a question of philosophy of religion; the other is a pastoral issue. No one wants a discussion of philosophy when they ask why they have cancer; why a loved one has to suffer the slow decay of Alzheimer's; why a child is born only to die from disease, starvation, neglect, abuse. My concern here is decidedly and pointedly not pastoral. Nor is it meant to be taken as a response to those very real, very important, pastoral issues. One more reason I started with the example of Rorschach. This is a discussion in the abstract, not in the quotidian. First things first.+

There are two different issues extant in the philosophical problem of evil: the definition of "gratuitous evils," and the elements of the "god as commonly understood by theists." There's also the simple fundamental of logic: the form of the syllogism may be valid, but that does not validate the conclusion. The syllogism does not constitute proof of the premises offered. It merely says: given these premises, this conclusion can be validly drawn. But if the premises are questionable, the conclusion cannot be unquestionable. Also, I mean to set aside entirely the question of how this issues impinges on arguments for the existence of God, though the relevance of that issue to modern discourse will be something taken up before we're done. Let's start with "gratuitous evils."

The evils that Rorschach mentions seem gratuitous, and indeed are. Cruely, horror, brutality; where is the need for these things? But he is right: they are our responsibility, at least insofar as human beings are responsible for the actions of others, or for their own actions. The victim of a horrific crime is not responsible for the criminal act, even if she is a rape victim alone at night in provocative clothing. The evil is gratuitous, but it is particularly human. Seeking an explanation for God's indifference in the face of our own indifference to the human condition is a very particular kind of special pleading, and gives force to the Freudian argument that God is a merely a projection of our desire for a father to protect us from the world, or even from the consequences of our own actions. Society is no more responsible for the rapist than the victim of the rape; but society can treat the questions of justice that result in rape, and those issues aren't limited to the punishments meted out by a judiciary. Can society, then, validly look to God and say: why do you let this crime happen? Can't God look back and say: why do you?

Some would even go so far as to say that question is basis of the teaching of the basileia tou theou. Hard to imagine how much crime would occur if everyone were racing to the bottom, to be last of all and servant of all. The argument that such naivete would simply leave society even more vulnerable to the predator, to the criminal, is itself naive. What has striving to be No. 1 done to protect us all?

If this sounds like the "free will" response to the argument, it is; or might as well be. People make choices. People are responsible for their actions. Without the freedom to choose evil, there is no freedom to choose at all, and people become automatons. If we are separated from the animals, it is by this fine line and heavy burden of responsibility. What causes a person to be a rapist? It may be the comic book answer of childhood trauma (i.e., the trigger for Bruce Wayne into Batman, for Walter Kovacs into Rorshach). It may be genetics. It may be a mixture of nature and nurture. But to the extent the individual cannot be held responsible (genetics), society can. We have a hard time foisting the burden of our responsibility onto another, especially if that other stands outside the human realm. It simply won't leave our shoulders, no matter how much effort we put into shifting it.

Again, would I counsel the rape victim as a pastor, telling her society had failed her in this case? No; but neither would I tell her the crime was evidence God was indifferent, or even absent. There are too many people responsible between the victim of crime and the Deity. We push a great deal of trouble off ourselves and put it on God when we go that route. Nice work, if you can get it.

Do I mean, then, to let God off the hook for evil? Again, no. My Old Testament professor pointed out to us the times the prophets, especially, railed at God. Read Jeremiah's Lamentations, or the outrage of the Psalmist (Psalm 22 in particular comes to mind). God is not excused in Hebraic thought; but God's place in the chain of responsibility is understood. It is understood, but it is understood differently. It is the difference that is instructive.

The Greek concept of the gods is of those always interfering in human affairs, either out of lust (Zeus' many metamorphoses) or out of a sense of justice (Oedipua Rex; Antigone). And when the Greek gods punish, they both fail to make clear just what the problem is (the Delphic Oracle was notoriously cryptic), and frequently punish the city-state for the injustice of one person. At least the prophets understood that almost all the children of Abraham had sinned, and they explained that to the people even when the people didn't want to hear it. At least Abraham was able to convince God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if ten righteous people could be found there. Apollo punishes all of Thebes because Oedipus doesn't know who his father is.

What about lesser sufferings, such as pain? What about disease, misery, anguish, emotional and physical? Some of that is simply the necessity of existence: without pain, you'd pick up the burning coal and burn your fingers down to the bone, exposing you to all kinds of disease. Without bacteria, nothing would decay, and life would soon come to a halt. Without death, life would be an endless and changeless eternity. Without change, none of us would ever be more than we were at birth; would birth itself even be possible?

Change introduces hope and danger equally. The cells which can grow and recreate themselves so we grow and heal, can age and die, so we decline. They can also turn cancerous, and so we die. But how much of cancer today is the result of either modern medicine (we live long enough to die of cancer because we control infectious diseaeses so well) or simply modern living (how much of cancer is environmental, and that enviroment toxic due to technology?). Did God gives us the blueprints for the internal combustion engine, for the dark, Satanic mills? The common understanding is that technology is the very opposite of religious belief, that it is, according to some, the corrective to a primitive, "medieval" faith. If the "corrective" brings its own unintended consequences, how can we blame that on God, and use it to prove God doesn't exist? If we are successul, haven't we simply put the blame back on ourselves?

The problem of evil is not a new one, but American society has recently given it a few new twists that make the focus on suffering as our main difficulty both narcissistic and pitiful. Walter Brueggeman comes close to examining this when he discusses the power of narrative as a script we all try to follow:

3. The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.

* I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

* I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved.

* I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that "if you want it, you need it." Thus there is now an advertisement that says: "It is not something you don't need; it is just that you haven't thought of it."

* The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.

It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.
Sociologists have extended the idea of religion as therapy through the idea of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Basically, God exists and watches over human life, which was created by God. God wants people to be nice, as it says in the bible and in most world religions. God does not have to be involved in our lives except to solve our problems and make us happy. Good people will be even happier in heaven after they die. The religious beliefs of American teens tend to be -- as a whole, across all traditions -- that simple. It’s something Jews and Catholics and Protestants of all stripes seem to have in common. It is instrumentalist. "This God is not demanding," say the authors. "He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good."
And so basically the problem of evil is the problem of inconvenience.

Again, we have to distinguish between the conceptual problem of evil, and the existential problem of evil. Evil experienced is much harder to wrestle with then evil conceptualized. The experience of evil is akin to Jacob's wrestling with an angel, except we don't expect a blessing when the match is over. (Although, according to the Beatitudes, perhaps we should.) The conceptualization of evil, though, is what syllogisms deal with. And so the question, "what is gratuitous evil?", has to be answered before we can establish that it proves the non-existence of God, or the impossibility of faith in God. It may be an experience of evil is so shattering one's hold on faith is destroyed. That is a different question from the intellectual conceit that God is impossible because evil is undeniable.

The problem of evil is the problem of inconvenience because Freud was right, and God exists to make our lives more comfortable, to insure our happiness. But if there is unhappiness God cannot cure, then how can there be God? Or how can God be all powerful? Manicheism or atheism seem the only two possible conclusions. Brueggeman's analysis is a bit more trenchant, but comes to much the same conclusion: we don't confess a belief in God, we confess a belief in ourselves. It is indeed "difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated." So if we think of God at all, we think of God as failing to remove this script from us which we so desperately cling to. And we aren't even as honest about is a Rorschach. It isn't every human life that matters; it is only our human life that matters.

And the problem of evil is that we are evil. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Is God indifferent to gratuitous evils? No; we are. The sentencing of the "shoe thrower" in Iraq today reminds us of the pain and horror of the occupation of Iraq. Part of the defense offered by the defendant was that Bush's grinning in a country destroyed by his actions was provocative, and the defendant could not restrain himself. “'In that moment, I saw nothing but Bush, and I felt the blood of the innocents flowing under his feet while he was smiling that smile,' he said at the hearing." He wanted to wipe that smile off Bush's face. The death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan should make us all ashamed: and yet nobody talks about it, and George Bush is free to move about the country, collecting fees for talking about his 8 years as President. Is God indifferent? Who can say; we are so indifferent to evil ourselves, what do we care what God thinks?

We aren't indifferent when evil strikes us, of course. Then we want to know where God is, why God would allow this. That question can be plaintive and heart-breaking. But it can also be simply bizarre. The problem with evil in the world is not that God allows it; it is that we do. Of all the creatures on the planet, we seem to be the only ones who know evil, or commit evil; which makes us the only ones who allow evil.

Does this mean, then, that God is powerless? Yes. It is the theological mistake of the premise that God cannot do what has been done, that, having power, that power must be exerted qua power.** That is the false key to power. The true key to power is through powerlessness. Which returns us to the relationship between the Creator and Creation. God is Creator, but the Creation is created. It exists as it was created (the question of "design" is another misleading concept. Odd we have discarded "design" as a scientific principle, yet retain it as essential in this argument. If we remove it...?) We can still affirm that God makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike, but that is because God makes the conditions for rain, as God is Creator. God neither causes the rain to fall out of whim, nor withholds the rain out of spite or for the sake of justice (again, contra, say, Apollo, at least as represented in "Oedipus Rex"). None of this removes God from responsibility for the conditions of Creation, but neither does it misplace our responsibilities, either. "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy,and walk humbly with your God?" Except for the confessional portion of that statement, and the place of mercy, that could be the credo of the anonymous Rorschach. He over-emphasizes justice, and under-values mercy (almost); yet who among us comes any closer to living up to that simple standard? And Rorschach never asks why God allows evil, why God doesn't do something about it.

So don't tell me about how God doesn't exist, or how the problem of evil makes it impossible for you to believe, to accept any of the tenets of theology. Get over yourself. Tell me what you are doing to make the world a better place to live. And tell me what it has to do with really improving the world, rather than making you feel better about the place you take up in it. The problem of evil is staring at you in the mirror. Stare back, and then do what you can about it.

What, after all, does the Lord require of you?

*I am aware, as Wikipedia notes and Brian Doherty has argued, that Rorschach is meant to be an Objectivist, an Ayn Rand hero. It's an argument, but it's not definitive. Interesting the different facets one can see in any fictional character, and how far beyond the intentions of their creators they might go.

+The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy tells me that abstract formulations of the problem of evil (which it treats solely as a challenge to the establishment of the existence of God) are generally more favored than more concrete formulations, although the latter would seem to make a stronger case for the theodicial question. I think that's correct, but I don't set it aside because I fear the outcome. I'm not interested in teh question of God's existence. I'm interested in how, theologically, one deals with the problem of evil. In this, you could say that I agree with Alan Plantinga (though just barely): I see the issue as a religious one, and the problem of evil (from one side, at least) as a problem of pastoral care. From the other side, I see it as a problem of how we understand the nature of God.

**The Stanford Encyclopedia has a fuller expression of the syllogism used in the post:
  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn't have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn't know when evil exists, or doesn't have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  7. Therefore, God doesn't exist.
It's stated as a proof of God's existence; but the problem is in the second premise: that God is omnipotent, therefore God must use such power as God has, or God is either evil, or not omnipotent, or (Manichee's answer): both. Not necessarily, however; if one understands the power of powerlessness, the paradox resolves itself, and the premise can be discarded, removing the conclusion with it.

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