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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.1 (Winter 2013)
FAITH AND CULTURAL MELTDOWN
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Omnipotent or Benevolent? The Christian Conundrum
Peter T. Singleton
When I wrote the short fable included in this issue [see “Evaporated Ice”—Ed.], I did so because it struck me as artistic. Only later did it occur to me that anyone might consider the little piece an argument for a certain belief system. Perhaps there is something amiss about having faith in one kind of supreme being while representing the supreme being in another light artistically; but then, I do not believe that such was my act. What the fable represented was the opacity of divine purpose to human eyes. One can surely be a Christian yet also assent to the proposition that living in this world is immensely frustrating—and even to the proposition that the hand of God All Good is sometimes very hard to make out in so much visible chaos and corruption. I could name certain very prominent public figures who were preaching fervently last summer that God had designed a special plan for America and that He would not allow her constitutionally guaranteed freedoms to be eroded any further. I haven’t heard any updated version of that sermon lately. Either the God of these enthusiasts does not exist, or else they were looking for too much clarity at the level of human comprehension.
The personal side of Christianity is nevertheless its critical component—its most distinctive element, setting it apart from all other monotheistic systems. Some believers desire a more personal touch than others, though. We apparently cannot ask God why villains prosper and expect a quick, clear answer. The real answer may be, instead, that we need to reconsider our definition of prosperity. This is a virtual paraphrase of Epictetus on the subject (which he approached from the other direction, calling for poverty rather than prosperity to be redefined). Yet the question keeps resurfacing, even in the discussions of the Stoics’ philosophical grandfather, Socrates: why do bad things happen to good people? Let us concede that wealth may be more curse than blessing from the proper perspective. That yet leaves much of suffering’s terrain to be examined, for the trials of the virtuous go far beyond the pinches of a thrifty existence. Socrates was literally tried, condemned, and executed for doing no more than exercising what we would call First Amendment rights. He was slanderously misrepresented by those who envied his influence and hypocritically charged with impiety by those who worshipped only a status quo assuring them of special privileges. He seems to have borne up very well. By all accounts, he was still talking freely as the hemlock was poured. In the Republic, however, he severely chides the poets for suggesting that the gods are both all good and all powerful. This, he insists, is an outrageous absurdity; for if the gods were fully in control and fully good, how could they allow evil to run riot through the world as it does?
Was the master of Plato and Aristotle inconsistent? Maybe he just wanted better cultural support for those weaker than himself—for the ideal republic hatched out in Plato’s longest dialogue is really an attempt to create the perfect culture, the perfect crucible for young people. It takes a very rare understanding to grasp that being sentenced to death for virtuous conduct is a happy event. Maybe Socrates did not want people in life’s most impressionable stages to bend under such pressure and conclude that the gods do not exist, or—perhaps worse—that they are lovers of evil.
Is it not really evil, though, to see good people persecuted even unto death? If it is not so in Socrates’ case (and Xenophon maintained that the old man embraced his death sentence as a pleasant alternative to letting age undermine his faculties), then surely it must be so in the case of a younger man: say, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What quality of serenity is it that looks on as children are murdered and focuses on higher purpose, or trusts in higher purpose beyond the imaginable? The medieval Gesta Romanorum carries a tale about an angel’s visit to earth. Among the celestial visitor’s “achievements” is the cold-blooded killing of a child. It is explained in the tale’s conclusion that the child, if left to mature, would have become a mass-murderer. Is this, then, how we are to view such deeds in the real world: are we quietistically to suppose that every slaughtered innocent was really a monster-in-the-making from whose predations God’s providence has spared us?
A person who would accept such a line of reasoning would sign off on any horror that psychopathic tyrants or perverted traditions might throw his way. One of my favorite ecumenical books, Zen Catholicism by Dom Alred Graham, observes somewhere (though Graham’s intent is to find Christian tendencies in Zen) that the Japanese would probably not have submitted to a kamikaze style of service during World War II but for the influence of their religious inheritance. Principled resignation is often the ruthless despot’s best friend. We do not want to be “of the world” in the sense that our inner peace depends upon material acquisitions or happy circumstances; but we must not as Christians be reluctant to cry foul when innocence and justice are deliberately, routinely violated. And they are so violated in this world: such things do happen.
How, then, can God let them happen if He is all good? Or since He is surely all good, how can He be in a position of “letting” them happen?
This may be a disjunctive approach to the question better fitted to the human intelligence than to ultimate reality—but human intelligence, looking through a glass darkly, is what we’re stuck with for the nonce. God, in choosing to give His human creatures free will, can plainly not nip in continually to save these humans over here from the consequences of what those humans over there have decided. But this is not at all plain, really, to our moral understanding. As parents ourselves, we cannot relate to it. Though we similarly give our children various freedoms so that they may learn more and more self-governance, we do not watch from the sidelines as they put themselves or other children at grave risk. Such “hands-off love” would appear well-meaning stupidity at best in any mortal adult. If God is allowed such carelessness because of His divinity, then we are very close to rating Him surreptitiously an inferior sort of moral being—morally well-intended, but dangerously dull. We say otherwise—we recite the sentiment that He is God and may do what He wants. Yet we don’t understand this, and it isn’t fully sincere: our distant ancestors said the same thing when the Rain God flooded villages and drowned babies.
Christ is the bridge from the divine to the human side of this quandary. In Christ we are left in no doubt that God suffers along with us. He cannot possibly look on serenely as Socrates, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and countless martyrs in between are publically butchered for advocating common humanity. In the person of Jesus Christ, He Himself was so butchered. The enigma is not resolved logically, but it assumes the flesh and blood of a terrestrial narrative. God is indeed in control, yet He suffers terribly—as much as any of us. He is the divine Sufferer to whom all mortal sufferers may turn. In some way, we must imagine, He truly might have intervened to stop Hitler or Stalin or Mao, to steal the formula for gunpowder or waylay the Bomb… yet He did not do so; and this, in some way, agonizes Him with all of our cumulative agonies. He is certainly not indifferent. Only a false god—a stupid or a cruel god—could remain indifferent.
In this sense, and in this sense only, perhaps the seeming nullity at the end of “Evaporated Ice” is at last Christian: in its silence, that is. Somehow we must all continue forward beyond the place where words might have found any reason in events. The moving forward is our hope—the rejection of surrender, of suicide, of nihilistic cataclysm. The pain of it all may eventually take us out of this life, for only in God has pain no limits. In the meantime, though, while our mounting pains are still endurable, we find that moment when we give up on words, pick up our pilgrim’s staff again, and go a little farther.
I think that picture has more than a trace of aesthetic merit, by the way. Part of what makes pain endurable—perhaps most of what does—is the beauty of the weaves it fashions over time. Character creates resistance to worldly forces, resistance brings pain, the pain is repeated if the character warring with the world holds out… and a pattern emerges. That pattern is the signature of human free will rowing against Nature’s current. It is a story.