I wrote, in my first post, that I think the atheism that refuses to believe in a God who could tolerate the evils and sufferings we do see in the world, is less like a snarky member of Anonymous, and more like the hero of James and the Giant Peach,* defying the monstrous Rhino that killed his parents and is coming after his friends. If you can't play the video or don't feel like clicking the link, the salient material is that the Rhino is coming at them, in a vulnerable position -- I mean, they live in a giant peach, which isn't exactly the Fort Knox of the vegetable kingdom -- surrounded with thunderclouds. James makes his friends climb up into the silk rigging that they've been using to fly the peach,** so he can provoke the Rhino to attack him on the peach and disconnect the silk and seagulls, flying his friends to safety. As planned, the Rhino charges at him, as he shouts, "Come out and show your face, you stupid beast! You're not even a real Rhino! You're just a lot of smoke and noise! I'm not afraid of you! I'm not afraid of you!"
Feeling that way about God seems to be to be linked in with the idea that God is directly responsible for suffering -- that He has specifically chosen the anguish of His creatures over some viable alternative. Or, to be blunter, that He does not merely permit death, but kills; does not merely allow pain, but inflicts it; does not merely suffer heartbreak to exist, but breaks hearts.
It'd be easy to say that none of these things is, in theological language, positively willed by God. When I was growing up, as a Calvinist, this explanation was so common as to be a stock answer, and I've found it to be pretty common among Catholics, too; for the philosophical problem of a good God who does evil things would seem to be insoluble and self-defeating. Holy Scripture, however, has no such scruples: I am the LORD, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.***
It is probably worth saying that, from a strictly literary perspective, the right approach to this verse (and some others like it) is to take the word evil in the broadest sense, signifying almost anything we would not want or like. However, since the import of the text is still one of the universal dominion of God, that doesn't help much. And neither, when you come to think of it, does the conciliating distinction between what God specifically wills and what He simply permits. A God who positively willed the gas chambers at Auschwitz, for instance, would be abominably evil; a God who merely allowed the gas chambers at Auschwitz may not be that, but it's still difficult to believe that He is both all-powerful and also the source and definition of all goodness, and even if He is, He's baffling. The faith that attempts to solve this conundrum in such a way that the difficulty no longer exists, in my opinion, has fundamentally failed to grasp the scope of the problem -- and, in trying to turn it into an intellectual exercise with an "answer," has fundamentally failed too to understand the real function of faith.
So where can faith go from here? I tend to think it can't go anywhere from here; it has reached a dead-end, and must turn around and retrace its steps. That is at any rate what I had to do, though I lingered in the cul-de-sac for a while, trying to convince myself that I was supposed to be there. (I'm speaking of the time I spent as a determinist, which I've written of in a little more detail in this post, for which I'd like to make a trigger warning.)
We return to the problem of pain in the world. And let's just start there. We don't start with an intuitive awareness of God; we're taught that He exists or persuaded that He exists. But we do start with the capacity to perceive that we live in a world full of suffering and evils.
For instance, the Deep Ones.
And when we take that as our starting point, the problem of suffering is not eliminated, but its relationship to the being and goodness of God is turned upside down. It becomes, not a question of starting with the goodness of God and trying to believe that all the awful things in the world are really expertly disguised blessings -- but of seeing those awful things, and asking whether it is still possible that the Being that is behind reality (the Uncaused Cause, the Absolute Mind, whatever you want to call it for now) is somehow on our side despite all of that.
It isn't a profession that we know why this or that evil has been allowed; still less is it a pretense (and this is one of the reasons that I cannot abide those belief systems that deny the existence of evil) that horrible things have the same right to exist as lovely things. It is asking the question of whether the real Rhino, supposing that there is a real Rhino, is benevolent and compassionate. Like Albert Camus' picture of the Absurdist man, acknowledging what at any rate appears to be a meaningless and lonely universe, faith in God is precisely the choice to believe that there is more to reality than meets the eye, and that that more is absolutely good -- is, in fact, a Person who loves us. As I have said there is a romantic defiance in the best atheism, so there is a romantic defiance in theism, one that we mostly forgot during the high noon of Christendom and the evening of polite deism: the defiant belief that even under the ragged wreck of our loves and hopes, the deepest reality justifies those loves and those hopes, and has, finally, the power to make them triumph; and this deepest reality we call God.
Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Giovanni Bassi, 1525
Why a God who loves us would suffer the world as we know it to exist is a separate question, and one that I rather suspect hasn't got an answer we can grasp. It may be that finite minds like ours couldn't ever grasp it in any meaningful way, though I'm inclined to doubt that; it is almost certainly true that, if we could grasp why God would allow evil and pain, we haven't got all of the facts we need. Either way, theodicy remains, in my view, repellent; and I don't think the Scriptures or most of the great saints, though they have "asserted eternal providence," have ever attempted "to justify the ways of God to men."
I do not so much admit as insist that this is not an "answer." I earnestly want an answer, and this isn't one; although taking this perspective may put us in a position where real faith is possible, the most this does is raise what I take to be the right questions.
It is a solemn and uplifting sight [in Job] to see those eternal fools, the optimist and the pessimist, destroyed in the dawn of time. And the philosophy really perfects the pagan tragic irony, precisely because it is more monotheistic and therefore more mystical. Indeed the Book of Job avowedly only answers mystery with mystery. Job is comforted with riddles; but he is comforted. Herein indeed is a type, in the sense of a prophecy, of things speaking with authority. For when he who doubts can only say 'I do not understand,' it is true that he who knows can only reply or repeat 'You do not understand.' And under that rebuke there is always a sudden hope in the heart; and the sense of something that would be worth understanding.****
But if, in going from the fact of anguish to faith in God, we are professedly only passing from mystery to mystery, why make the transition at all? Isn't faith, in that case, just wishful thinking? -- the insufferable, the saccharine choir of Look at the big picture and Everything happens for a reason and God never closes a door without opening my mouth, and all the rest of the sentimental bullshit told by people who don't get it to people who can't hear it?
This, I believe, is where we do turn precisely to reasoning our way through evidence. But it remains personal rather than abstract, because the evidence I propose to examine is that evidence which we call the Gospels, written by people about a Person who professed to be -- at the very lowest -- the perfect and utterly authoritative expression of that Absolute Mind which we have already spoken of. Its relevance to the distinction between faith and wishful thinking can be summed up in Its perfect and authoritative and, on a Catholic showing, divine cry, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?
But we'll get to that in the next post.
This series has been kind of heavy, so here's a puppy eating a cupcake by way of compensation.
*The disloyal, yet still very largely enjoyable cinematic adaptation. A number of features, such as this very episode of the Rhino, were added to the contents of the book. I object to that sort of thing, but the addition is a good piece all the same. And they certainly gave a satisfying portrait of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker.
**Come on. If you didn't balk at a kid being friends with a gigantic grasshopper with an aristocratic English accent and a monocle, you've got no right to talk balk over a peach being suspended from spider-silk rigging and flown by seagulls.
***Isaiah 45.6-7. One could observe that it is immediately after this verse about God creating evil that the verse from which the blog Rorate Caeli takes its title is found, if one were inclined towards that kind of cutting, smart-aleck humor.
****G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 98.