11 May 2007

God's Loophole

In a previous essay, I commented that the use of free will in the Christian belief system acts as a “loophole” for God, allowing him to shirk responsibility for the questions of evil and suffering. I elaborate on that in this essay, and I apologize for its length. In this essay, I hope to point out that Free Will is not a satisfactory answer -- that it is merely an excuse.

The problems of evil and suffering plague all religions. In a universe supposedly created and governed by just entities, the rational mind expects this to be born out by the evidence. We find no such evidence, however -- and we are forced to ask why. While Christian personalities like Pat Robertson try to blame the secularization of society for our woes, Judgment is unsuitable. It is not borne out by evidence -- rain falls on the just and the unjust, and the dispensation of Judgment seems random and unguided. Take for instance a disaster that recently befell Enterprise, Alabama. Tornados destroyed a hospital and a school -- not a bar and a brothel. The idea of free will remains as the best hope for a reasonable answer -- but as we will see, it fails as well.

Free will is defined as the ability to make one’s own choices. In the Judeo-Christian system, this works out as being able to choose whether we will obey or disobey God. Free will works out differently in Christianity and Judaism, but Christianity’s is the least unworkable. In Christianity, Adam and Eve chose to disobey God. They came sinners and corrupted their seed so that all of their descendants would be born sinners. David in his 51st Psalm says that we are “conceived in sin, shapen in iniquity.” Because of this, most Christians believe that we are born inherently corrupt and evil -- nothing but carnal flesh that deserves eternal Hellfire. Think on it this way: in a factory, a malfunctioning machine will produce defective goods. Adam and Eve made the machine malfunction, and so every thing it produces will be defective. In Christian terms, Adam and Eve spoiled the potter’s wheel -- now despite the best intentions of the potter, the pottery shaped on that wheel will be warped. God gave the Jews the Law to keep their defective status from being an issue, and Jesus came to earth to die to gloss over the defect -- although “spirit-filled” humans are still sin-prone. It is curious that God doesn’t just fix the machinery, rather than indulging in all of this damage control.

This leaves us as corrupt humans who do sinful things and make life miserable for one another, accounting for a lot of suffering. Since God is perpetually offended at our sinful shenanigans, he also sends Judgment our way to punish us in hopes that we’ll wise up to our ways and “get religion”. Unfortunately, since he always uses predictable weather patterns to accomplish this, we only notice if Pat Robertson tells us so. Whenever the next big earthquake hits San Francisco, Robertson and his ilk will undoubtedly blame it on the liberals and homosexuals -- despite our knowing that the potential for a massive earthquake has been building since April 19th, 1906. This is Christian free will in a nutshell: God can’t be accountable for all the bad things that happen to us because we cause them to happen to ourselves.

Jewish free will is a bit different. In Judaism, God had no intention of letting humanity stay in the Garden. In Judaism, God sought to do good. He makes humanity so that we can appreciate that good. God wants companions -- friends. But while God knows us through and through, we don’t know him very well. Our potential for a relationship with God is improved by the use of free will: we choose to learn about God by studying Torah and performing good deeds. (Not for the sake of the deeds; but for the sake of doing good.) We also draw closer to God by overcoming our “evil inclination”. It is humans who succumb to their evil inclination who causes our woes. None of the articles I have read by Jewish authors depict God as someone who sends tornados and hurricanes at people, so their occurrence would be cause by nothing but weather. As I understand Islam, their notion of free will is roughly similar to the Jewish idea. Putting Jewish ideas beside Christian ideas, we can see that Jewish ideas are more workable and consistent with the idea of a loving god. Christianity’s god is the Homer Simpson of deities as he fouls up both the creation of Satan and the creation of humanity -- Judaism’s God at least has our best interests at heart. I find, however, that both of these ideas are flawed -- in theory and in practice.

Free will is not a tangible thing; it's not something that we can take in our hands and examine. It is an idea -- an abstraction of the mind. It’s a principle that God uses to deal with us and a law that we live our lives by. (Not a law like speeding regulations -- a law like gravity.) What we must realize, though, is that principles and laws exist for reasons: they do not exist of their own accord. If God chose to give humans free will, he did so for a reason -- and it has to be of some benefit to either him or us. Every law that we have on our books is there for a reason. If free will is to work as a practical explanation for the problems of evil and suffering, it must somehow benefit God or humanity. Free will does neither -- and thus fails.

Free will does not help God. As a thought exercise, how could free will help God? Well, God does want people to be appreciate his work; our choosing to appreciate his work would be of service to him by making him feel better. The problem is that people who fall prey to their “evil inclination” make things so difficult for the rest of us that it is difficult for people to maintain faith in God. I have read countless stories of people who “lost” their faith over the question of evil and suffering. When bad things happen, people look for explanations. Our brains are familiar with cause and effect. This is the way our ancestors were, and this is the way we are. When strong winds blew down the huts of our ancestors, they wondered what they had done to merit such misfortune -- what caused this effect? Our ancestors invented the gods to answer these questions -- and we still ask these questions of our gods. Because God is omnipotent, omniscient, and alleged to want only good things for his humans, it seems only right to question why these things happen. But sermons on free will do not matter to people in need -- people in pain are not concerned with ideas and doctrine, they want direct answers. Many people are soothed with free will -- but many aren’t. Pain breaks faith in God, denying him that companionship he would have otherwise enjoyed.

I am reminded of a story Dr. Ravi Zacharias once related, of a man who visited the statue of Venus and came back sad. When questioned about his sadness, he said “Such beauty is wasted, because she is impotent -- she has no hands!’. People can enter prayer to ask God these questions and come away sad: what good are the wisdom and power of God if he cannot use them? The notion of God is like a zoo keeper who sets out to build a wall to protect himself and the patrons of the zoo from the animals. Instead of building walls around the animals, the zookeeper accidentally builds walls around himself -- trapping himself by his own hands. He can only stand by and wring his hands as the animals tear one another to pieces. The Bible says that God is “touched’ with the feeling of our infirmities, but what good is pity? I am reminded of James 2:15-16: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” What good is a god that can only be reached by breaking into his self-imposed cage?

Free will traps God; isolates him. It makes him look negligent and cold-hearted. These drawbacks do not justify whatever goodness can be gleaned from free will.

Secondly, free will doesn’t help us. Even if we are aware of God’s intentions, our pain and evil inclination can cause us to lose trust in God. We suffer because we are separated from him. Free will is especially useless in Christianity. Adam and Eve were forced into making an uninformed decision. They had no knowledge of right and wrong, and no knowledge of death. Eve didn’t know the snake was untrustworthy. They had no idea how miserable life would be -- nor could they imagine. They were children whose minds had not been shaped by reason. They could not anticipate consequences. They were set up to fail.

Because they failed, we too are set up to fail. In the Christian tradition, we are sinful creatures, doomed by our “flesh” to think carnally. How can we make sound decisions? The odds are stacked against us. We are doomed. The writer of Ecclesiastes declared that the dead, who have escaped the woes of this life, are better off than the living -- and those “unborn ghosts” who will never know Life are the luckiest of all. Despite this, Christian apologists hold that while this world may not be the best world we can imagine, it may be the best world possible. They say that we need trials and temptations -- suffering and woe. We need obstacles to overcome; we need evil in order to appreciate good.

Again, a line of doctrine does not give rest to aching hearts -- particularly this line of doctrine. I do not need to be sick to appreciate being healthy. I may appreciate being healthy more immediately after being sick, but I enjoyed being healthy before. But even if there were no wars or disasters to contend with, we would still have problems to contend with. In five hundred years, if the Earth is united and every nation fed, we will still have problems. That is simply life. We have problems our ancestors could not have imagined -- and they had problems that would baffle us. We have problems enough -- we could do with God taking away the extraordinary ones. No one would ask God to take away all of our problems -- but we would like freedom from excessive want and fear. Who is edified by the starvation in Africa? Who is made spiritually strong by sectarian chaos?

Dr. Ravi Zacharias has said that to accuse God of negligence is to suppose the idea that he is breaking some sort of moral law. He is right in this. When people take God to task over the problems of evil and suffering, they are accusing him of breaking a law -- they are accusing him of being indifferent. Human societies are built on the idea of helping one another. Members from various families joined together to help bring down massive animals that would provide food for all of the families in our ancient past -- and today we all pay taxes so all of us have safe roads to drive on. Interdependence allows us to flourish. If God wants companionship with us, he has to contribute to the relationship in an active sense. A few weeks ago, I listened to a This American Life broadcast, one titled "What We've Learned from Television". A comedian on the show related the story of a man who died watching his TV and sat in his recliner for a year, mummified by the hot air in his apartment. The comedian, speaking of a recent study that said episodic television provides the same social benefits as actual friends, said that “The minimum of true friendship strikes me at the very least as being the capacity for one friend to look at another and say ‘hey, buddy; how ya’ doin’? You want me to call 911 or something? You look a little, I don’t know, dead.’”

People don’t want a passive god -- they do not want to be soothed with sermons and ideas. They want help. They want an Exodus god, who intervenes on people’s behalf. They want to be delivered from slavery, to have something to eat, to have a safe place to go to sleep at night. This is why the problems of evil and suffering have always and will always plague religion. Free will is not an answer: it is merely an excuse. It is an excuse that leaves people jaded toward the gods and their religions. The problems remain for those who believe in powerful, knowledgeable, and loving deities -- and so long as they remain, they will contribute to religion’s ruin.

I would like to share a page of recordings from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, New Hampshire. The website has a large number of recordings -- anthems, hymns, sermons, readings, and so on -- available for download. I especially enjoy their choir's performances of "Imagine", "Here Comes the Sun", and "All You Need is Love". I haven't been displeased with anything I've downloaded yet. I hope other people will enjoy these mp3s as much as I am.


david said...

Interesting article. The non-Christian (and sometimes uninformed Christian) would not like what I would submit is the Biblical response to your post. God does not act on behalf of any other being other than Himself, first and foremost. He is the only being existant that is perfectly righteous, omnipotent, holy and worthy of all praise. Therefore for Him to seek to glorify anything else would be a less than righteous act on His part, and it is not possible for God to do anything that is not perfect and righteous. There is no such thing as free will in any living creature, we all react to external stimuli. God has ordained everything that comes to pass and even the evil that He has ordained brings Him a greater glory than if it were not committed. For example the evil things that happen that He will ultimately judge allow Him to show His longsuffering. If we think that we, who are far less than holy inherently are appalled by evil how much more a perfect and righteous God. And the pain that God the Father suffered in crucifying His Son, and the pain that God the Son suffered were real to save His elect. I know that this answer doesn't satify because we think that we are the centers of the universe, and if there is a God what is He doing for me? However the way that those of us that are in Christ can find fulfillment in this evil world is by focusing on God rather than on our depraved selves.

smellincoffee said...

Hi, David -- thanks for reading and commenting. I must say that I disagree with you, as you would expect. I would submit to you the idea that people will never respond well to a god that doesn't relate to them. For example - God being righteous and perfect doesn't help people; that idea by itself does not help us in the least. We are concerned with improving ourselves. We only admire these concepts because we aspire to become better ourselves. In a similar way, the only value God's longsuffering has for us is to serve as an example -- and I would rather have his immediate help than an example, especially considering that I can find examples of longsuffering among my fellow (and non-Christian) humans.

Additionally, it seems strange to me that the all-that-is would be concerned with bringing glory to himself -- that to me is a rather trivial and petty thing for a god to do; a very human thing for a god to do. Thankfully, portions of humankind have been able to become selfless -- to give their lives for ideals that improve the lives of those who have not passed on; in this we best our gods, since everything -- including Jesus' "selfless" sacrifice -- God does is for his own glory.

david said...

Hey thanks for sharing your thoughts and let me say that I agree with you wholeheartedly on some points! You are absolutely right that people will not respond to God as He is. It only takes the supernatural God initiated changing of the nature of a person, what we who are Christians call regeneration or being born-again, to cause people to respond favorably to Him. Absent this, the unregenerated or natural man is by nature hostile to God.

From the Christian and Biblical perspective that I believe that God has given me, I would have to disagree that God bringing glory to Himself is petty and human. God glorifying Himself is God glorifying that which is perfectly holy, righteous, eternal, just, kind, and loving amongst many other qualities. Humans glorifying themselves is glorifying that which is evil, temporal, selfish, petty, weak, and corrupt amongst many other like qualities. Also outside of acting on a belief in the only God that exists, humans can do nothing good or as you described selfless. Human actions which on the surface appear selfless are, again outside of doing so in the service of God, completely selfish. For example someone who helps someone else does so only for the benefits that s/he may receive, ie the person returning the favor, approval from other people, or just the good feeling that is received from helping people.

Thanks again for bringing up a very interesting topic and for your thoughts.


smellincoffee said...

"God glorifying Himself is God glorifying that which is perfectly holy, righteous, eternal, just, kind, and loving amongst many other qualities."

The glorification of ideas and attributes is useless; the only idea that ever is or was important is the need of people -- the need to be fed, the need to be loved, the need to be understood. I don't care about God's perfection and righteousness -- I care about people. This is why even when I thought your god existed, I stopped serving him.

"Human actions which on the surface appear selfless are [...] completely selfish. For example someone who helps someone else does so only for the benefits that s/he may receive, ie the person returning the favor, approval from other people, or just the good feeling that is received from helping people."

While I agree with this somewhat, I think it's overly cynical. Doing good things for people does make me feel good, but this is because I know that the life of someone has been improved in some way by my existance. I don't care about someone "returning a favor" or saying "Oh, you're such a good doer of deeds", and no one has ever done or said such a thing. I just want to help people. This is not selfish, which is defined as being "concerned chiefly for one's self". My focus is on other people. I don't think this is an idea that bears debating about here, though.

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion."
~The 14th Dalai Lama

david said...

You say that you don't care about attributes but only people. Then you mention that service and compassion are important. Compassion, empathy, and love amongst other things are attributes and ideas which are put into practice by other people with respect to other people.

Your take on God is perfectly natural for a person outside of Christ, that is to exalt man over God
"having a form of godliness but denying its power."

All those who serve God outside of Christ cannot continue, those who serve God in Christ cannot stop. Although you are outside the family of believers in Christ at this point, it may be in your future, neither you nor I know whether for sure. My prayer is that you will be.