Thursday, May 7, 2009

a bit of religious confusion

Please allow me to share my religious confusion with you.

First, the good news: There was a heart-warming story about a 3 year old toddler in Missouri who wandered away from home. He was lost for about three days, and he was found by search and rescue volunteers. He’s a tough kid who survived in the woods for three days. That’s pretty cool.

Here’s what the father said: “It’s indescribable how grateful we are. I mean, you doubt if God’s actually with you for awhile, and then something like this happens, and you know he’s there.”

Okay... I understand the sentiment. In fact, as a person of religious faith (or, for that matter, as simply a decent human being, religious or not), I share in his joy.

But I find myself utterly ambivalent about these kinds of proclamations.

There is another story of a 3 year old toddler who went missing in Montana. He also was found, but in this case, he was found dead in a septic tank three days after he went missing. He drowned in filth and refuse.

So, I guess what I’m saying is I don’t understand what it means to proclaim things like “God is there.” It cannot be the case that the expression “God is there” implies that “God saves me (us) from calamity.” Is that what the father of the rescued boy believes? Maybe he means something more subtle, such as “God is there” implies that “Sometimes God saves me (us) from calamity.” But then, what are the conditions that govern the “sometimes” qualifier? Or, perhaps it’s the case that dumb luck (bad or good) plays some determinative role. But then, is that kind of chance consistent with the traditional view of God that we find in the Christian religion? Do you see why I’m confused? I just don’t know.

At the end of the day, I haven’t said anything profound or new. All I’ve done is articulate in a somewhat plebeian way the problem that evil (both moral and natural) poses for anyone who claims to believe that there is a good, powerful, and intelligent (or at least competent) deity governing our world. Nevertheless, even though I haven’t really said anything new, I at least acknowledge a fundamental tension that some of my religious friends would rather either ignore or paste over with wafer-thin theodicies.

Another thought occurs to me... I truly marvel at the generations of past Jewish and Christian peoples (sidenote: I focus on these religions only because of my familiarity with them, not for any intentional slight on the saints of other religious traditions) who endured unspeakable hardship in the midst of their faith. In the 18th and 19th centuries of America, for example, the notion that one would lose a child was almost a matter of course given the prevailing public health conditions, and persons of faith did not automatically find that tragic phenomenon to compete against their notions of God’s governance of this world. Strange... I can’t get in that mindset. Perhaps the persons of faith in those generations would say of me that I’ve been warped by the fact that I can take a Tylenol when I have the slightest headache, and this has been transposed by me into my conception of “oughts” and “shoulds” that I then apply to how God should govern the world.

Maybe so... But I confess that I’m still religiously confused.


Mike Austin said...

I was just thinking about this yesterday. A tornado came through our town last week, killing two people and destroying the homes of many more. It came within a mile of our house. I am grateful for the fact that it missed us, but there is something odd about that since others were not so fortunate. So, I'm confused too, and yet grateful.

Rob Sica said...

How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler? [...] To interpret history as expressing God’s will, God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them. For what else can the most basic justice be? Thus, I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as [...] hideous and evil.

John Rawls, ”On My Religion”

Mike Austin said...

Rob, I think the flaw in Rawls argument above is that it is not correct to interpret history as God's will, if that is meant to entail that all that happens is God's will. God being just does not entail that every event that happens in history be just, and is consistent with great injustices such as the Holocaust.