More theodicy

In one of his books, Dilbert creator Scott Adams wrote that he feels whale guilt -- not guilt that he's not doing anything to save the whales per se, but guilt that he doesn't feel guilty about not doing anything to save the whales. In a related vein, I've tried to get worked up about the theodicy questions triggered by the recent tsunami, but I just can't. Every time a major disaster strikes, writers and reporters ask anew, If there is a God, how can he allow this?

Some ask it like it's a new question, or as if a failure to proffer a quick and convincing answer should put the lie to religion once and for all.

As Doug LeBlanc quoted the editors of Arts & Letters Daily quoting J.L. Mackie: "If God is God, he's not good. If God is good, he's not God. You can't have it both ways, especially not after the Indian Ocean catastrophe."

I repeat this here because New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum followed the links and used them, along with a few stray e-mails, as an opportunity to revisit the "age old question" of theodicy. Rosenbaum calls it "an underappreciated scandal that, philosophically," the question of theodicy "has not been satisfactorily settled without resort to vague evasions."

Rosenbaum splashes into different puddles of intellectual history in such a way that many readers may wish he had tread more cautiously. He upbraids Voltaire for deliberately misreading G.W. Leibniz's Theodicy.

Leibniz, Rosenbaum explains, claimed that "God created the best of all possible worlds consistent with free will . . . The best of all possible worlds consistent with the nature of human nature, in other words -- and its predilection for choosing evil." The question that Voltaire should have raised "is whether a better, less murderous human nature -- consistent with free will -- could have been created by Leibniz's God."

He meanders a bit before getting back to the theodicy of the tsunami: "[N]atural disasters are both more and less problematical for defenders of the faiths." Less because floods or earthquakes or whatnot

don't involve man-made evils and thus the question of the depravity of human nature -- and the difficult question behind that question: whether humans are at fault for their depraved nature, or whether the deity who created them could have done a better job creating humanity consistent with free will.

More because these were, well, "acts of God." Even the insurance companies deign to recognize the deity when the stuff really hits the fan. As Rosenbaum puts it, "If God is responsible for the fall of a sparrow, it's hard to exempt him from other, more dramatic natural developments."

Rosenbaum found himself sucked into a debate over on Beliefnet's forums about the question of divine culpability for the tsunamis. He asked readers then, "Why this need to defend God?" Now he elaborates:

All so eager to rush forward and exonerate their version of God from any connection to the slaughter. It began to smack of "they doth protest too much": The disaster somehow gets transformed into a display of God's wonderfulness. In a way, doesn't this sort of thinking suggest a kind of Stockholm syndrome? He's the only God we've got, He's got us imprisoned in this hell of a world -- so, after a while, we worship Him.

Even a story of a premature baby, born as its mother was fleeing from the surging waves, sets Rosenbaum's teeth on edge. Because the child's father praises "God's grace" for allowing the baby and the mother to come through alive, our modern-day wannabe Job launches into the following: "If you believe that God intervened to save this one little life, you have to believe that He chose not to intervene to save the lives of all the other children. He wanted them dead."

I'd issue some kind of grand retort here but, like I said, this stuff just does not move me. That people are rotten, or that the earth shakes, it seems to me, do not count for much against the possibility of a good and loving God whose actions in this world are not always easy to discern or explain.

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