Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Divine Sovereignty and the Horror in Haiti

No theist can seriously confront the horror of a global tragedy like the Haiti earthquake without feeling the weight of the problem of evil: How could an almighty, wholly good God allow such evil to occur?

It is one of the most significant arguments offered by atheists against belief in a sovereign, loving God. It is also, I think, one of the root causes for some of the most offensive and outrageous religious views. In the effort to explain why God would permit a disaster of such enormity to hit an already impoverished people, killing tens of thousands and shattering the lives of many more, some can be inspired to blame the victims, accusing them of bringing the horror on themselves through crimes real or imagined (a phenomenon we saw vividly on display just after the earthquake, when Pat Robertson offered his now famously insensitive and absurd remarks).

Robertson-esque outrageousness is especially apt to happen when theists attempt to make sense of horrors while maintaining a rigid allegiance to s strong doctrine of divine sovereignty. In the name of such a doctrine they can be inspired not only to blame victims, but to attribute truly horrific motivations to God…and then defend God’s goodness by stripping all meaning from the concept. The result is a God who possesses none of the qualities that might justify devotion.

When we try to solve the problem of evil by sacrificing God’s goodness at the altar of His power, we are left with a deity that can inspire fear but not love. More profoundly, power rather than goodness becomes our God…and our capacity for compassion starts to shrivel. Our life becomes about appeasing the tyrant or blaming those who suffer, rather than about loving more perfectly. And worship, rather than being a joyous expression of devotion to that which embodies all goodness, becomes an act of appeasement masquerading as a gesture of love.

Better, it seems to me, to become an atheist—or, alternatively, to rage against God, shaking one’s fists at the heavens and demanding to know why. Better to deny God or oppose Him than to practice fawning obeisance towards a god one conceives of as a vindictive megalomaniac.

If we look at the theologies that tend to most outrage atheist critics of religion, they seem to share this propensity to confront the tension between divine sovereignty and divine goodness, generated by horrors like the Haiti earthquake—and then resolve that tension in favor of a strong view of sovereignty. To be God, it is assumed, is to be wholly and perfectly in charge of the universe. Anything that happens does so because God has either caused it to happen or chosen to permit it. God is not only a direct agent in history, but an all-powerful micromanager who lets nothing happen without His stamp of approval.

If this strong view of divine sovereignty is embraced, then what are we to make of the horrific images coming out of Port-au-Prince? Can we avoid viewing God as a divine dictator who either signed the order to smite Haiti or, at best, nodded quietly when He saw the impending devastation and, fully capable of preventing it, allowed it to proceed without blinking? What other choices do we have but to recoil in horror at such a God or to become self-serving sycophants (or the religious equivalent of battered spouses)?

What this view of divine sovereignty denies us is the possibility of a God who cries out against the devastation, who suffers at every death, who struggles in empathetic horror along with those caught under the rubble, gasping claustrophobically along with every trapped and dying child. What it denies us, in other words, is a God who would stop the suffering if He could, but who cannot… and so cries out in helpless despair at every new blow that is struck against the creatures He loves.

The God who is crucified with us, who takes on the evils of the world and truly endures them as we do, is not the sovereign master of the forces of destruction but a being radically vulnerable to their power. A God who could sweep away the forces of evil with a thought but decides against it is hardly vulnerable to evil in the way that we are. And even if He suffers, it is a kind of sham, a show that cannot express genuine solidarity with our condition. Because our condition is not merely defined by suffering, but by our inability to escape it.

What a strong view of divine sovereignty rules out, in short, is a portrait of a God who can’t just wave His magic wand to prevent evils like the Haiti earthquake, but who can and does transform such evil by making Himself truly vulnerable to it, sharing our afflictions with us, and thereby turning evil into an avenue for profound solidarity with the divine.

For such a view of God to make sense, we need to see God as truly constrained. He needn’t be viewed as impotent or incompetent. In fact, He might be viewed in the way we view the great artist who does not choose the materials she has to work with but who, with what she is given, creatively and brilliantly turns them into magisterial works of art. Such an artist is hardly impotent. In fact, we might even admire her more than those artists who has all conceivable materials at their disposal, and so never have to find a way to work with resources and tools that don’t suit them.

No humane theology can insist that the horrors in Haiti suit God. As I see it, a humane theology must insist that in the children trapped beneath the rubble, in the child who needed to be amputated without anesthesia, in the hungry and homeless masses, the countless tragedies, God is confronted with something against which He can only recoil in dismay. But can we say that God recoils while also saying that there are no constraints that keep God from preventing these horrors? Is it coherent to say that God abhors what happened, and yet also say that He could have stopped the devastation with a thought but simply decided not to?

At least I cannot reconcile these things. And so I must view God as constrained. But if so, two questions follow. The first is how. How could God—the vastly powerful creator of the universe—be constrained and yet still be reasonably described as God? The second has to do with hope: How can we put our hope in God to redeem the evils of the world, if God is constrained in ways that keep Him from preventing them?

This latter question might be seen as asking whether it is possible for God to possess a kind of second-order sovereignty even if He is said to lack sovereignty of the more straightforward, first-order kind. Preserving such second-order sovereignty seems essential for preserving what I call, in Is God a Delusion?, the “ethico-religious hope”—the hope that, in Martin Luther King's words, "The universe bends towards justice," such that it is possible to put our trust in God to achieve what we cannot achieve for ourselves.

In answering these questions, one might follow the lead of the Zoroastrians and see God as opposed by an uncreated nemesis, a power of nonbeing and destruction that God cannot simply do away with but has to contend with in the created world. This nemesis needn’t be construed in quite the way that Zoroaster did, as a kind of evil being or devil. In fact, there is reason to take Karl Barth as offering a theology of this broadly Zoroastrian kind, but seeing the uncreated nemesis as an unavoidable by-product of creating a finite reality, one in which there exist being with limits, and who are thus confront with the vastness of a great “I AM NOT.” This is a view I sketched out in an earlier post.

If one opts for such an approach, then God can no longer be called sovereign in the sense of having complete control over everything that happens in the world. But we might still be able to attribute to God a second-order sovereignty, in the sense that God has the resources to prevail over the forces of ruin, and so will ultimately redeem all good things that these dark forces might seek to destroy. While God cannot simply wave aside the terrible I AM NOT, He can oppose it with an even vaster I AM--and so, incrementally, lift every creating thing free from the suction of the Void.

But there may be other ways to conceive of a God who is constrained but still sovereign in some second-order sense. For example, we might take seriously Simone Weil’s view (paralleling the concept of tzimtzum in Kabbalah) that creation is essentially an act of divine withdrawal: the establishment of a space within which the infinite divine reality is not, so that there might be room for a finite reality other than God to exist. We might believe, with Weil, that “were we exposed to the direct radiance of (our creator’s) love, without the protection of space, of time, and of matter, we should evaporate like water in the sun.”

And we might well view a strict observance of this distance between creator and created as a mandate of love, and so view God's constraints as moral ones that metaphorically bind His hands. We might think that love requires respecting the other as a distinct and separate self; but that when the infinite asserts direct sovereignty over the finite, the finite loses any semblance of selfhood it might have had. In short, we might think that love imposes on the infinite an absolute obligation to abdicate any claims of first-order sovereignty over the finite.

Put another way, we might think that the act of creation, if it is to be an act of love, might require that the creator impose profound and unassailable limits on how He can influence the world, so that it is free to evolve on its own terms, according to rules suited to a finite reality (and, if and when it gives rise to beings with wills of their own, then also in accord with their choices). These constraints may apply uniquely to God as creator, insofar as this status poses a threat to the otherness of His creation. His creatures do not pose such a threat to one another, and so are paradoxically less constrained than God in how they can act on one another. And so, by a kind of moral necessity, we might become God's hands in the world.

While God, on such a theology, could not simply do anything whatever to prevent unfolding events that weren’t to His liking, it doesn’t follow that He would be rendered helpless. There is a deep theological tradition which holds that love has a potency very different from that of coercive power but, nevertheless, far greater. If so, then might it not be possible that God could redeem the world simply by radiating it with an unremitting, unflagging outpouring of sustaining love—love that is palpable, that can be felt by those who open themselves to it, that can offer hope, compassion, forgiveness, and comfort? Perhaps a God of love, while constrained from staying the earthquake, has all that it takes to redeem every evil that an earthquake can produce.

In short, we might view the constraints that God faces as metaphysical ones that straightforwardly limit His power; but we might also view them as moral ones, as strict normative requirements that uniquely bind God precisely because He is God, making it such that God has less moral freedom than we enjoy. In either case, however, we must deny that God is sovereign in the naïve way that, for example, Pat Robertson seems to think that God is sovereign.

But given the horrific theologies that seem to flow from such a view of divine sovereignty, that may be a very small theological price to pay.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    I think your "trust" is misplaced, not to say abused. But your imagination seems to be fully active!

    Below are a few selections of you creating your own god instead of knowing anything about it. If you don't know what you are talking about, why make stuff up? Why so focussed on creating a theo-fantasy?

    More seriously, you are on the very long path toward accepting that the universe began in a blind physical process, not a personal / anthropomorphic /narcissistic one.

    The result is a God who ...

    ... we are left with a deity that can inspire fear but not love.

    To be God, it is assumed, ...

    Can we avoid viewing God as a ...

    ... the possibility of a God who ...

    A God who could sweep ...

    ... we need to see God as ...

    He might be viewed in the way ...

    But can we say that God recoils ...

    ... asking whether it is possible for God to possess ...

    ... may be other ways to conceive of a God who ...

    ... and so view God's constraints as ...

    ... we might become God's hands ...

    ... making it such that God has ...

    You know, perhaps this god thing just doesn't exist, and you could be doing something more productive with your time (as could we all!)

    Sincerely and with best wishes -Burk

  2. You seem to think that atheism is a novel idea, one that has never crossed theists' minds. Sorry, Burk, as you might deduce from the fact that Eric has written a book countering atheism, he has weighed atheism and found it wanting. Maybe this seems strange, possibly even disingenuous, to you, but this is the case for most thoughtful theists. This might also seem strange, but we aren't on the same journey as you. You can never say never, of course, but I think it says more about you and your lack of respect and imagination, when you declare that theists are on an inevitable path towards atheism. That is simply not the case.
    Also, I think *you* could be doing something more productive with your time other than simply revealing your own ideological lens like that.

  3. Burk--Your comment suggests that you really don't understand theology. Put simply, theology is an interpretive, not a descriptive, discipline.

    Put another way, theism is a core element of an interpretive worldview. The function of an interpretive worldview is not to describe some object of experience but offer an interpretation of the whole of experience (sometimes by positing entities not directly experienced).

    Theology involves the effort to construct the most defensible version of the theistic interpretive worldview. Such disciplines are essential if we want to compare the BEST version of one kind of interpretation against the BEST of another.

    When one is interpreting facts rather than describing them, it is common to use the kind of language that you pick out of my post as if there were something wrong with it. Because an interpretation has to conform to the facts, the facts provide a constraint on one's interpretive worldview, but not the ONLY one. Clearly, logical constraints must be observed. But there may also be further constraints--in the case at hand, I invoke the demands of moral decency as a constraint on any plausible theistic interpretation of experience.

    In any event, an interpreter will attempt to construct an understanding of the significance of experience in the light of the relevant constraints. In the course of doing so, he or she will likely say things like, "In order to account for this fact, we must suppose that..."

    The activity of interpretation IS a constructive exercize that makes use of imagination, but it is more than just a flight of fancy. The fact is that before we can decide which interpretation is correct, we must first come up with a set of alternative interpretations that fall within the relevant constraints--a task which involves the disciplined use of the imagination. Only then are we well positioned to decide which interpretation offers the best overall "fit" with what is being interpreted.

    In the case of a holistic worldview aimed at offering an interpretive account of such a diverse body of experience (not merely empirical) as what we encounter in human life, the project of constructing, refining, and comparatively evaluating alternatives will be ongoing, arguably neverending.

    In any event, the purpose of my post here was to identify some constraints that must be met in order for a theistic interpretation of experience to be credible. I then sketched out a couple of approaches that have some promise of falling within the parameters set by these constraints. Whether theistic interpretations that fall within these parameters are, all things considered, more or less reasonable than non-theistic ones is another matter altogether.

    Let's put it this way. Suppose a team of detectives is trying to piece together an account of a murder, based on an array of clues, suspects, and the like. Imagine that one team member has a hunch that the wife of the victim is involved and another team member says, "Well, since she has this airtight alibi, WERE she involved we'd need to suppose that she had an accomplice..."

    Would it make any sense for someone who is committed to the "butler did it" theory to butt in, while the other team members are attempting to imaginitively construct the most plausible version of the complicit wife theory, with "If you don't know what you're talking about, why make stuff up?"...and then follow it up by pointing out all the times that the other detectives have been using phrases like "We'd have to suppose" and "we need to postulate that"?

    Obviously not.

  4. Hi, Eric-

    Yes, I was being excessively harsh, since any investigation requires hypotheses to be put forward. But on the other hand, any serious investigation (like murder scene) presupposes an observation that requires explanation. The whole exercise of theology presupposes not such an observation, but its own hypothesis, in circular fashion.

    The universe is a given that, to the extent that it has been productively described at all, has been mechanistically described. Theology provides zero extra explanation, though it may provide some anthropomorphic comfort (or fear, as the case may be). Our feelings, being the other anchor of theology, are all more thoroughly and accurately described by evolutionary means than theological ones. Why do we have, and want to have, hope? The reason should be obvious in terms of survival benefits.

    Pinning this on a creator of the universe is a matter of holding to a primitive tradition in spite of every piece of evidence showing the contrary, now including yet another natural disaster that demands that theology's personal, omnipotent, and good god be dialed back, as you reluctantly do in this post.

    Where will this process end? The "constraints" you allude to are far more stringent than you seem to think, since no remaining rationale for this god of theology is necessary to any observation whatsoever ... the whole idea is fully dispensible.

    To take one example, why can we experience deep spiritual one-ness and uplift? Neuroscience and psychology show countless cases of extreme versions of normal emotions (love in this case) and perceptions. The brain is a messy place. LSD can bend a flower into a life-changing dream and spiritual experience. If one believes in god first, then one might explain all this via that belief/hypothesis (and be not a whit better off than before, as was true for theological explanations of lightning). But if not, then the explanation lies much closer to home, in our heads where reason says it lies.

  5. He addresses many of your concerns in his book, Burk, and all of them have been discussed extensively by theologians and philosophers of religion. Of course, you can disagree with the theistic responses, but don't pretend that we haven't heard your arguments or assume that we're somehow intellectually less respectable than you.

  6. I haven't read through yout entry yet, but I wanted to share this with you:

    It's a response from Haitians to Pat Robertson

  7. I think it wouldn't hurt Burk to read at least one theological work before trying to pigeonhole what it is. Burk might be surprised - you never know.

    I like the post - it reminds me of Moltmann's work. For me, I think of it in terms of a theological starting point. How do Christians understand who God is? If you begin with a strong view of sovereignty, abstract monotheism, and Hebrew scriptures interpreted through a Calvinist lens, then you are going to get an ugly God who capriciously wills or allows great suffering and pain.

    If, on the other hand, you begin with the triune God of Christian scripture, where the Father is best known through the Son, then you will instead understand God as suffering with us and for us, and not punishing us or turning God's back on us in tragedy.

    I KNOW this doesn't at all solve the great problems of theodicy, but I think it helps to figure out what your starting point is for thinking about who God is.

  8. All ontology is the result of interpreting experience under a particular set of constrains, or, one might also say, of basic metaphysical assumptions. An excellent case in point is quantum mechanics. When quantum mechanics was discovered early in the 20th century it did not comport with naturalists’ previous metaphysical assumptions, including determinism, locality, and the primacy of matter over consciousness. Indeed the very first interpretation of quantum mechanics, the so-called Copenhagen interpretation, appeared to be saying that mind is over matter, which sounded very close to what religious people had been saying and was therefore deeply troubling to naturalists [1]. Probably the most popular interpretation of quantum mechanics among naturalistic scientists today is the so-called many-worlds interpretation, which succeeds in upholding many of the traditional naturalistic assumptions about reality including determinism and materialism. According to this interpretation our universe is all the time splitting into a huge number of almost identical copies. We don’t notice this remarkable event because each one of us is being split into as many copies too. This naturalistic interpretation has many highly implausible implications, including, say, that in some of these universes each one of us will never die (see “quantum suicide”). Now, is there any physical or other evidence for this naturalistic interpretation? None, whatsoever. Indeed there are today at least a dozen mutually contradictory interpretations of quantum mechanics, including the original Copenhagen which is still going strong. Does the many-worlds or any other interpretation explain anything? Nothing whatsoever. Why then do scientists keep coming up with such interpretations? Because a basic metaphysical assumption that most scientists (theists and atheists alike) share is what is called “scientific realism”, namely the assumption that science describes reality (albeit perhaps not all of reality), so they want to find a plausible way to describe the reality which produces the quantum phenomena which quantum mechanics so well models.

    My point here is that Burk Braun does not only display an ignorance of theology, but also of philosophy, including philosophy of science. Metaphysics and especially ontology, i.e. the study of what exists, is a really hard field for theists and non-theists alike. The impression that only religious people disagree among themselves about how reality is, or that only religious people make hypotheses about reality which are difficult to fathom, or that only religious people hold beliefs for which they can show no objective evidence – is just another atheistic myth. On the contrary, it seems to me, that under any objective criterion scientific naturalism fares in comparison much worse.

    [1] Famously, Einstein, who believed there must be something wrong with quantum mechanics, in desperation asked whether one can reasonably believe that the moon is there only when somebody was looking.

  9. Eric:

    In relation to your original post about the problem of evil, can you tell us what you think about the so-called Irenaean theodicy as described in the second part of John Hick’s book “Evil and the God of Love”? It seems to me that that theodicy succeeds in explaining what God’s morally sufficient reason is for allowing both moral and natural evil to exist. It’s not that I have a problem with your idea of a self-limiting God, or of a God who submits to the consequences of His/Her creating us experiencing the life we do. Rather it seems to me that the Irenaean theodicy offers the deeper explanation of both what God’s purpose in creation is and why the state of the whole of our experience of life comports with that purpose. Anyway I’d very much value your thoughts on this issue.

  10. Dianelos--My own thinking on the problem of evil is much influenced by Hick's work, and I think of my own approach to theodicy as in many ways inspired by his Irenaean or "soul-making" theodicy.

    The biggest problems with his theodicy, as I see it, are posed by (1) animal suffering, (2) what Simone Weil called "affliction"--intense suffering that strikes someone at such a time and in such a way that they are psychologically unequipped to handle it and are BROKEN or psychologically shattered by it, and (3) the apparent absence of God to those who are in the midst of affliction (arguably a component of affliction, insofar as the experience of divine presence in the midst of suffering would prevent the sort of brokenness that defines affliction).

    I think that all of these problems can be addressed within a broadly Irenaean theodicy, but it calls for refinement in the light of some of the ideas developed by Weil and Marylin Adams and others.

    I may devote a post to the subject in the near future.

  11. A theodicy that offers a solution to this dilemma is process theology, and this was one reason I came to be quite interested in process theology some time ago. Process theology denies that God is omnipotent, not as a result of some act of divine withdrawal or choice to allow creation its freedom, but simply because inherently God's power is no that of coercion but of persuasion. Process theologians will suggest that there is far greater power in being able to persuade than in coercion.

    Charles Hartshorne, the father of process theology (or at least the person who took Whitehead's process philosophy and made a theology out of it) provocatively titled one of his books "Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes." I think that if we stop thinking in terms of of Divine power, and instead in terms of the creative lure that offers the highest value to each point of cosmic evolution, the problem of theodicy evaporates. God does not "prevent" evil because God is not a coercive force. (By extension, of course, this rules out the idea of creation ex nihilo.)

    So many people are offer the Haiti disaster as an argument against the existence of God simply take for granted that omnipotence is inherent to the definition of God. But there is no reason to assume this.

  12. Eric:

    The problem of animal suffering is perhaps the hardest variant of the problem of evil. Indeed it looks like animal suffering is the paradigmatic case of intrinsically gratuitous suffering which an all-good, all-knowledgeable and all-powerful God would not allow. I think there is a somewhat radical solution to this problem, but one I find works quite well. Here it is:

    The idea starts with the realization that suffering, and indeed any experience, entails two things: The object (or content) of the experience and the subject of that experience. There can’t be any experience lacking one of these two. Now in the case of our experience of life it is quite clear who the subject of our suffering is, namely each one of us. But it is not equally clear who the subject of animal suffering is. We do assume that animals, just like us, are individual subjects [1] – but, on theism and given the huge ontological difference between animals and persons, I don’t see any good reason why one should believe that. Indeed if animals were subjects then their suffering would be gratuitous because contrary to ours it cannot play any spiritual role. So, given that there is animal suffering (otherwise God would be kind of deceiving us in our experience of animals) and given that someone must be the subject of that suffering and given that it’s not us – the most parsimonious alternative is that it is God who is the subject of the experience of animals, including their suffering. Under this view animal suffering is not gratuitous but rather a price that God pays for creation.

    As I said, this is a radical solution, but the more I think about it the more obvious it gets. God had some reason to create animals around us, animals who experience life including pain. If that experiential life of animals does not have any spiritual purpose the way our life has, then why should God create individual animal subjects? That would be pointless; which leaves the simple alternative that God is the subject of their experience.

    [1] Actually, I happen to doubt that we humans are *individual* subjects, but this is another issue.

  13. All animal experience being God's seems almost as contrary to appearances as there not being any at all to me...

  14. Dustin--I agree with your instinct here, but Dianelos is so insightful overall that I'm loathe to dismiss his idea too quickly. I'm going to sit with it for awhile, see how it feels while I'm playing with my dogs or listening to them whine.

  15. Dustin and Eric:

    I understand you are questioning the plausibility of the solution I proposed to the problem of animal suffering. Even though plausibility is a valid criterion when comparing worldviews, it is not as important as other criteria, such as coherence (both internal, as well as compatibility with our experience of life), or explanatory power (in the sense of deducing much of what we know based on a few principles, and ideally with the power to make successful predictions). Clearly a worldview which contains a few implausible beliefs but is coherent works better than a worldview which is free from implausible beliefs but is incoherent. Nevertheless, on theism at least, implausibility carries quite some weight, because one would expect God to have created us in such a way that nothing that is true would strike us as implausible after careful consideration. So I’d like to discuss on what grounds the idea that God is the subject of animal experience may strike one as implausible.

    Perhaps one thought is that as some animals are so primitive and even disgusting (think of rats for example) their experience is somehow unworthy of being God’s. But consider that all experience is God’s anyway, in the sense that God, being perfect in empathy too, experiences all that sentient beings experience. That much I think is obvious; God is after all the ground of all there is, including experiences. The only difference in the suggested solution is that there is no individual animal subject of the same experience, leaving God as the actual and only subject. Thus this solution, far from adding an implausible assumption to the theistic worldview, actually removes a superfluous assumption, and thus produces a more parsimonious worldview. Further, consider that in one sense it is us who are primitive in comparison to animals, for animals are a perfect realization of their nature. So, for example, a dog perfectly realizes the doggy nature. We, on the other hand, do not perfectly realize our nature, namely of being children of God. Rather our current state is incomplete and transient, the only partially realized image of our true nature. Ours then is the special condition, which perhaps for this very reason necessitates the creation of independent subjects at least for as long as this condition holds (i.e. before theosis).

    Or perhaps our very experience with animals makes the solution proposed appear implausible. It is important to notice though that our experience of animals remains the experience of animals and nothing else - independently of whether their experience is theirs (as well as God’s by empahy), or God’s only.

    Dustin thinks that the solution suggested is as implausible as the idea that no animal experience exists. But even though the latter idea also solves the problem of animal suffering (trivially, by denying its very existence) it contradicts our moral sense according to which animals are worthy of special moral consideration precisely because they are sentient beings. Thus this idea removes one incoherence only by introducing another greater one. Indeed we have as much grounds for doubting the existence of animal experience as we have for doubting the existence of other humans’ experience. And in any case, that animals are conscious is obvious for anybody who has been around animals and has loved them. Also if animal experience does not really exist it would be like God deceiving us, which, again, is an incoherent idea.

  16. Dianelos, I agree that we have good reasons for thinking animals are conscious; my point was that I also think we have good reasons for thinking that consciousness is not God's (my cat and God do not relate to me in anything like the same way; there is nothing--aside from theological concerns--in the world to make us think that animals don't have individual consciousnesses; they react individually to stimuli; they have individual bodies and nervous systems, etc.) It probably isn't *impossible*, but it *does* seem very contrary to appearances and not at all a natural assumption to make.

  17. Dustin:

    In relation to the problem of evil I do use “theological concerns” in my reasoning, as indeed I should. You see the problem of evil tries to demonstrate an internal incoherence in theism, so while discussing this problem one must assume the theistic premises as given. This is an important point. Here, for example, is a fallacious argument that some theists use: “The problem of evil assumes that objective moral values exist, but the atheist does not believe they exist, so the atheist cannot argue from the presence of objective evil in the world.” But when an atheist uses the problem of evil to argue against theism, the atheist is not using her own ontology or epistemology as a foundation. Rather she takes at face value theism’s and argues that they are incoherent from the inside as it were. Similarly, when a theist builds counterarguments she must use theism’s ontology and epistemology as the foundation. As far as defending the coherence of theism goes, it’s obviously unreasonable to expect from theists to argue in a way that conforms to naturalists’ ontological and epistemological assumptions (and vice-versa of course).

    Now I don’t know where your ontological beliefs lie, so let me clarify an important issue that apparently many atheists ignore: According to even traditional theism, material things and their properties were not just created by God and then left more or less alone; rather they exist because of God’s continuous so-called “general providence”. So, for example, an apple exists and its movement when it falls displays mathematical order as the result of the continuous application of God’s will. Similarly every atom in a cat’s nervous system existence and behavior is contingent on God’s will. Now on theism there is indeed good reason (namely our moral sense) for believing that animal experience is real and not just apparent. Also, on theism, God’s general providence as well as God's perfect knowledge and empathy implies that God has experiential knowledge of animals’ life. The only question under discussion is whether on theism one has good reason to believe that, additionally, there is an individual subject for each animal’s experience. I am not aware of any such reason. On the contrary and especially on Irenaean theodicy there exists reason for believing that no such individual animal subjects exist, for their existence would be pointless and God’s perfection implies that God does no create superfluous things (and especially no superfluous sentient beings).

    As for what is “contrary to appearances” should be the least of our concern, whether we are theists or naturalists. We can all be pretty certain that objective reality is not like it appears to us when we look around. For example the universe around us appears to be full of colors, but according to scientific naturalism colors do not form part of objective reality. (Incidentally the ontology that comes closest to fusing appearance with reality is Berkeley’s subjective idealism.)

  18. I am an Episcopalian, as it happens.

    I agree that one has to assume theistic premises when arguing over the problem of evil. My point was about it being contrary to appearances. It's true that modern science also gives us a picture of the world that, in a sense, is very contrary to appearances, but my intuition is to say that's not really the same--on the level that we operate, colors, solid objects, etc. do, functionally, exist. I'm not saying this part of your theodicy is *impossible*--I'm just raising a concern that it seems to be borderline deceptive on the part of God.

    I also seem to think individual lives for animals would be of more value than you do--it seems that it is intrinsically good for there to be many different types of consciousnesses, and I am not as sure as you that this would serve no spiritual purpose. (I also would be interested in your clarifying what you mean by "superfluous"--it is not entirely clear to me that I agree with that.)

    (Incidentally, under this, how does one make sense of Jesus telling us that God is mindful of every sparrow falling, and that therfore we can be assured that he is looking after us? That makes sense if sparrows have individual experiences, but not much if Jesus is saying, "Hey, God looks after himself; surely he'll look after you, too.")

  19. Dustin:

    According to the Irenaean theodicy God’s purpose in creation is to produce what is most valuable, which is new persons who would become as perfect as S/He is. Why not create perfect persons right away, one may wonder. Because a person who has achieved perfection by her own merit is more valuable than a ready-made perfect person (assuming that the latter is a coherent concept). Which immediately explains why the existence of evil is necessary. To mention just one example, one cannot be considered courageous if one has never acted courageously in one’s life, and one cannot have thus acted without facing some state of affairs in which courage is required, and such a state must be one where evil is present.

    Coming back to the issue of animal suffering, I think it is now clear why I consider the existence of animal subjects to be superfluous: The existence of created persons (such as humans) is meaningful and good because it serves an excellent purpose, a purpose which explains why we are made imperfect and why we experience a world where also suffering is present. The creation of animal subjects would not serve any purpose, the subject of their life would disappear at death and be lost for ever, and their suffering would be gratuitous from their point of view.

    Also it’s not like there are not many types of animal consciousness on my view. So, there is this dog’s experience of life and how it is like to be this dog, and there is this mouse’s experience of life and how it is like to be this mouse. All the marvelous diversity and richness of the animal world is still there and is experienced fully and first hand by God (imagine God watching many TV sets at once). Neither do I think that the absence of a corresponding individual subject makes a particular animal less valuable; on the contrary it makes it more valuable for its creation is now immaculate with nothing good in it being destined to be lost.

    One more consideration concerns the ethics of our relation with animals. If animals were individual subjects then, arguably, we would not be morally justified to use them for our purposes. But our moral sense is that even though animals deserve our care and respect we are also justified in using them for our greater benefit.

    Thus there are several reasons why I think that the right view is that animal life has an individual conscious content but not an individual subject. Further I have found that it is very useful to keep in mind the distinction between content and subject of conscious life. Indeed this distinction has some remarkable applications in eschatology and in Christology. I’d like to elaborate on the latter point:

    I believe that to the question “How was it like to be Jesus of Nazareth?” the right answer is “Like it is to be a human, and nothing more”. But to the question of “Who was the subject of Jesus’s life?” I think the right answer is “Not a human and created individual, but God Him/Herself who incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth and humbled Him/Herself into becoming a human and fully tasting life as a human does, including all the limitations entailed in the human condition”. I think this view comports well with the traditional Christian understanding that Jesus was at the same time fully human and fully God, but also maximizes the value of Jesus’s life and sacrifice, and makes coherent the idea that Jesus is the model for us to follow.

  20. There is a growing idea within the field of NT studies called the Jesus myth theory, or Christ myth theory, that understands Jesus as a non-historical character. Someone one who either on purpose or accidently was made up. The Great German theologian Bruno Bauer first, I believe put this idea forward in the 1840s, and a number of others have been put forward since. A more recent version of the view has been put forth by Earl Doherty.

    Would this Jesus myth hypothesis if correct, help in addressing the "problem of evil"?


  21. Rich, the Jesus myth idea is interesting and there are most likely some legendary content in the Gospels (the birth narratives spring to mind initially), but it's not a very popular idea among Biblical scholars. That doesn't say everything, of course - an idea may be true regardless of whether it's popular among experts. But I think the lack of support from experts is significant.
    Also, can you say a little bit about how you think the Jesus myth hypothesis addresses the problem of evil?

  22. So you are suggesting that animals have more rights if they are individual subjects than if their experiences are God's? I am not sure that is obviously true.

    And it does seem to me that there is something intrinsically good about having animal subjects. And how do we know that the animal subjects would disappear at death, or that--at least in the case of the higher animals--their suffering would be gratuitous?

    Anyway, it's an intriguing concept. But it still seems awfully counter-intuitive to me.

  23. Arni Zachariassen said...
    February 13, 2010 9:43 AM
    Also, can you say a little bit about how you think the Jesus myth hypothesis addresses the problem of evil?
    I don't actually see a "problem with evil".

    Evil is not a very descriptive term. It would be better to be specific. For example; are we talking about people murdering each other? are we talking about people not having enough food? are we talking about people getting hurt when they bump their head against a wall? etc...

    I think "problems" would have to be identified, and then examined. Is there a particular one that you have in mind?


  24. "The problem of evil" is a philosophical term and includes all of those things. What is it that you think the myth hypothesis would help resolve?