First Things First: Tsunami, Theodicy, and Recycling for Cyclones in Myanmar

This wasn’t quite how I wanted to start a series of posts on theodicy, but here we are. In the wake of the recent cyclone disaster in Burma/Myanmar, the conservative religious journal First Things has reprinted any article attempting to reflect on the similarly shocking disaster of tsunami. You might remember First Things from my previous rants on one of the journal’s founders Richard John Neuhaus and his loving fantasies of anguished atheists. Well, a link from Exploring our Matrix led me back there yet again, and this was the result:

What is it about theodicy, sophisticated or crude, that leaves me so cold and horrified? I give David Hart credit for not trying to celebrate depravity and death as part of a rich and wondrous tapestry, but I can’t bring myself to then overlook the flaws in his alternative.

He scoffs at atheists who find such things incompatible with the idea of a good God, saying that they just don’t get it.

So, what don’t they get? That suffering is not God’s fault… somehow. And I guess that’s the part we can’t get: I suppose we must simply assume, say, that the antagonist in the torture film Saw meant no harm by his deadly traps, but they were merely corrupted by some inexplicable force on their way to the gulag, or maybe its all the fault of their intended victims for not understanding the true purpose of the devices, or having the correct solutions in a timely fashion.

A world merely “fallen” from some disrepute and lack would merely be a sloppy mess. But that is simply not what we have. And if creationists have a hard time understanding how an eye evolved, then I likewise have a very difficult time understanding how to nudists eating fruit somehow resulted in the design of as intricate a machine of torture as malaria or river blindness, all quite apart from the intentions of the master designer (or even a master who employs the “devil may care” device of evolution).

Or perhaps I am meant to think, as I think Hart implies, that it is all “ultimately” meaningless: perhaps this suffering is merely a distracting illusion compared to imminent grace!

But you see, I have a hard time understanding how one can have it both ways. Either suffering is a real evil that we do and should feel a moral compunction to reduce, or it is, thanks to our “enlightenment,” now known to be ultimately meaningless. All thanks to whatever unintelligible theological doctrine we’re tossing at the issue this week. In that case, it makes little sense to concern oneself with it. Once the play is revealed to be just that, a play, there’s no more reason to leap on stage and try to save Hamlet from his untimely fate. You can’t completely undermine the core of moral feeling and then continue to demand that we insincerely act out the pointless part… as if doing so would continue to demonstrate one’s character.

And in the end, what is more ridiculous than someone certain that he knows the purposes of God and the ordering of the entire cosmos? How does he know how bad things came to be, or what God’s place and responsibility in all of it is? Is he really willing to stake his moral judgment on the belief that the cosmos is exactly how he imagines it? Let the infants burn and drown all they want before he dares let the spectacle challenge his beliefs one iota?

Am I being too harsh on Hart here? You tell me.

4 Responses to First Things First: Tsunami, Theodicy, and Recycling for Cyclones in Myanmar

  1. (((Billy))) says:

    No. You are not being too hard on Mr. Hart. The rationalization of random occurrences (some of which are bad, some of which are good) in order to force them to fit a predetermined idea (God did it) results in some mental gymnastics which would put the Flying Walendas to shame. To many Christians, (too many Christians) suffering is an evil if it is happening to one’s nieghbor, one’s fellow churchgoer, one’s fellow believer. On the other hand, if the sufferer is a brown-skinned animist (or Buddhist, or (insert religion here)), then suffering is ultimately meaningless except that it may (or may not) draw the end of the world nigh.

    Good post. Thought provoking. Thanks.

  2. Bad says:

    Hart is not saying that God did it though. In fact, as I give him a little credit for, he argues against the idea that it’s all part of some grand devious plan that God has. The problem I have is him trying to reconcile a particular sort of God with the idea that this God is not responsible, and that the buck stops somewhere else.

    And I don’t agree at all with your assessment of how “many” Christians see people of other races and religions. I don’t think they see the suffering of others as different from the suffering of fellow believers, theologically.

  3. (((Billy))) says:

    Bad: To me, there is little difference between ‘God did it’ and ‘its all part of God’s plan’. Either way, suffering is, ultimately, layed at God’s feet. To me, though, these random occurences are just that — random.

    As to the second part, I generalized and I apologize. I was extrapolating from the individuals I have known (about two out of three Christians that I have known (and I’m talking thumpers, here)) view those of different religions and/or ethnicities as pawns in God’s chess game — expendable as long as it helps God (their God) win. Again, I apologize for my expansion from personal acquaintances to a generality.

  4. Bad says:

    To me, there is little difference between ‘God did it’ and ‘its all part of God’s plan’. Either way, suffering is, ultimately, layed at God’s feet

    Hart doesn’t think so. I disagree with him and agree with you that the responsibility is unavoidable, but that’s not at least, his position.

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