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Doctor Pangloss Speaks


Old Testament Reading: Numbers 16:25-33

New Testament Reading: Luke 13:1-5

Text Job 38:1-13; 40:1-8

Christian theologians like to assure themselves that their religion is no mere matter of eternal truths and abstractions, but rather a theology of history, of the Mighty Acts of God, interpreting them and accounting for them. I am not sure that is true. For me Christianity is much more like Buddhism, a system that touches down on the earth only insofar as it helps us live more nobly upon it.

But today I make an exception, though before long it will reveal itself as an exception that only goes to prove the rule. I want to think theologically on the great tragedy of the Indian Earthquake. It is a horror of truly unimaginable proportions. The mind reels from its magnitude. And yet for most of us it is far enough removed that we can afford, unlike the survivors of it in India, to consider it dispassionately. Let us try. Maybe it can tell us something, positively or negatively, of the ways of God in the world.

This sermon was catalyzed by a remark David Benfield made the other night when he and Carol and I were returning from our friend Patrice's wedding in New York. David exclaimed how this earthquake rivalled the Lisbon Earthquake, and that henceforth we ought to speak of the Indian Earthquake rather than the Lisbon Earthquake as Exhibit "A" vis-a-vis the problem of evil.

Of course he was referring to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, in which 60,000 died. This created considerable credibility problems for theologians and philosophers who had wanted to argue that really the world was running along pretty smoothly and that God was in control, not asleep at the switch. When the earth erupted in Lisbon, casualty number 60,000 and one was this belief, the belief that this was "the best of all possible worlds."

Here is the source of the venom in Voltaire's picaresque burlesque Candide. The hero, Candide, is candidly honest and frank about the horrors through which he and his companions pass, unlike the rationalizing Dr. Pangloss, who strives at every point to preserve the illusion, required by his philosophical system, that this is indeed "the best of all possible worlds." "It's not so bad! There's a good reason for all this, if you'll just give God a chance to explain!" Yeah? We're listening.

Let us take a turn at bat and see if we can deal with the challenge to our assurance of divine providence posed by the Indian Earthquake. Can we square the idea of a vigilant, all-powerful and benevolent deity with a tragedy like this? Or even with the lesser ones you and I are likely to encounter?

In the old days, and in some quarters still today, people will look at a tragedy and ask what God had in mind by causing it or permitting it. This makes God pretty much the direct cause of the matter. In the story from the Book of Numbers this morning you heard a bit of priestcraft in which the Aaronic hierarchy of the Second Temple put in their place the upstart Korah guild of priestly singers who wanted to expand their duties to include sacrifice. It is a scare story in which the vengeful imagination of the priests had the earth quake and gape long enough to swallow up the uppidy Korahites.

I have two observations about this. First, it shows something frightful about this whole line of thinking. To seek a purpose in God causing a disaster is automatically to reduce him to human proportions. For him to have caused the event at all and to have been seeking to attain some concrete aim by so doing is anthropomorphism of the worst kind. If we are to believe the Korah bogeyman story, God's motive is just as petty as that of the teller of the tale.

And once you start down that mythologizing path, it becomes impossible to attribute to this god of yours any kind of a noble motive. You have him, like a human, doing an act that we would immediately condemn had some mere mortal done it. When the terrorists bomb the World Trade Center it is reprehensible. But suddenly if God pulls a similar stunt, only a thousand times worse--it's OK?!

This is serious moral confusion. It is something ordinarily considered an evil act, but it is not to be condemned in this particular instance just because God did it. Well, then, it  must be OK. We are making God into an arbitrary dictator above the law.

I am not saying God's ways are not inscrutable. I will return to that theme in a moment. I am now rejecting the view that says God's acts are quite scrutable indeed, that we have scrutinized them and determined that he intentionally caused or permitted the earthquake to kill tens of thousands, but that it not to be condemned. If you say that, you are not saying God's ways are inscrutable; you are just saying he is not answerable to anyone for his actions, any more than John Gotti or Muammar Khadaffi.

The second lesson I draw from the Korah story is that attributing petty human motives to God was regarded as a necessary price tag if one wanted to continue to believe in God's close hands-on involvement in the workings of the world. If you want to believe that he showers blessings with your name on them, or that he might be induced to do so, you cannot suddenly shift the theology machine into neutral when tragedy strikes and say we can't discern God's ways in the world.

If you want to believe God will give you the goodies, then what are you stuck believing when bad things happen? The victims must have deserved it! If they didn't, if it was only blind chance, then the universe seems morally neutral, indifferent.

Think of the passage from Job that I read a few moments ago. Through most of the book Job has been asking the question of the Indian Earthquake: why has great suffering overtaken him? And that despite his long life of perfect piety? He is sure God is persecuting him for no reason, and he says he only wishes he could take God to court before some higher authority, which of course he can't do.

God appears to him and expresses exasperation that Job would have the effrontery to think he can second-guess God as if the Almighty were some pin-head like Eliphaz or Bildad, Job's windbag pals. God bids Job simply to look at the mysteries of nature all around him, the instincts of migratory animals, the gravitational bands of the constellations. Job takes for granted that no mortal could understand the working of these things. And yet he imagines he can understand God? He has the right to conclude God ought to adhere to certain rules and holds him accountable when he doesn't? Absurd!

What is the theodicy, the understanding of the justice of God that emerges from God's Oz-like monologue here at the end of Job?

Thomas Aquinas took one possible option when he focused on nature and natural law as a way of salvaging God's justice. He said that the loss of life is indeed horrifying, but that is a price we really ought to be glad to pay for the dependable regularity of a stable world of natural law.

If we want gravity we are going to have to accept an avalanche every once in a while. If gravity were not such as to permit avalanches, it wouldn't hold your feet on the floor either. And what a mess that would be. If we want a world with enough room for everybody in a typical generation, somebody is going to have to die every once in a while. That would seem to get God off the hook, though at the price of his hands-on providence. If we accept this excuse for God, it means we are taking a big step toward Deism, the belief that God has created the world but doesn't intervene in it, at least not in the way we seem to think he does when we pray to him to ask for this or that to happen. Indeed, I think we are all the way to Deism in a single leap. This is what the Korah story wants to avoid. It wants a God who is directly responsible for every act even if we have to attribute terrorism to him since tragedies have to be explained, too.

But there is another way to go from the Job passage. Not focusing on the natural law idea, but rather on the inscrutability of God. If I am reading the speech of God right, it seems to me the point is that God is so utterly transcendent that one cannot even begin to attribute motives or even events to him.

I admit the price is dear: one cannot trace the providential hand of such a God who seeth and is seen in secret. One cannot even tearfully exclaim to the mourner, "God must have had a purpose in it." That is the very thing we do not and cannot know. So neither can we blame God for tragedy (and you think that's good because you don't want to make God into a blameworthy devil), nor can we imagine that he is secretly fashioning some divine plan or weaving some blessed tapestry.

Now you would like to do that, to say that God had some inscrutable plan, because you want to see meaning in death as well as life. But hold on! How different is this from saying that God is making an omelet and that he can't do it without breaking a few eggs, in this case the lives of your loved one?! Don't you see, you are making God a devil either way?

If you want to find the real comfort in tragedy, I suggest it is the blessed knowledge that a death was not a divine murder. That there was no Machiavellian "purpose." This was the gospel of the Greek sage Epicurus. He proclaimed the good news that humans have nothing to fear from the Gods.

Plutarch, in his essay On Superstition, said that the only difference between the atheist and the superstitious man is that the atheist believes there is no God, while the superstitious man believes there is but wishes there were not! It is superstition that makes us think a divine being has engineered disasters, and I can hardly see how such a belief comforts anybody.

Let me hasten on to a comment on our text from Luke's Gospel. Jesus' hearers seem to be suggesting to him that the well-known fates of two groups of Jews signalled God's justice. They must have been sinners, and Pilate's bloodlust and the tottering masonry of Siloam's Tower were the instruments of divine justice.

Jesus' reply is usually taken to be a rejection of such superstition. Just as Luke says in the Sermon on the Plain that God causes the sun and the rain to bless the just as well as the unjust, so does tragedy strike without any moral discrimination. Surely the point is a step in the direction of comforting Deism and agnosticism. What a comfort to the surviving relatives of any of these victims to hear Jesus say they needn't bear the stigma that their loved ones had only gotten what was coming to them.

I say it's a step toward Deistical agnosticism, because the price of such comfort is a greater realism, a realization that God's providence, whatever we may conceive it to be, operates in a morally neutral universe.

But here's something else I see in the story. Notice how Jesus dispenses his rational-emotive therapy with a stiff jolt of reality! "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." What is the implication of this parting shot?

I think it is this: all attempts to rationalize tragedy, to get God off the hook for it, assume that the death of human beings is a strange, untoward thing. That it is so anomalous that some explanation is demanded. We will even accept the explanation that God was punishing us or using us as lab rats in an experiment.

And more than that, this astonishment at death, as if it were the Bermuda Triangle or Bridey Murphy--it is a way of forgetting and denying our own mortality. If we can come up with an explanation of some remarkable death we can go on pretending that death is an extraordinary thing, a tragedy to be sure, but something out of the ordinary. As if otherwise we would be immortal.

Why did the victims of Pilate or those crushed by the tower perish? As if to perish were not the inevitable fate of all who ponder the question! Stop thinking about their deaths and start reckoning with your own!

Of course we know on one level that we will die, but we are in denial, much as the wife-beating alcoholic or drug-user who won't believe he has a problem. Like the heart-attack victim who ignores the classic symptoms and says it will go away. We are going to die but we do not really believe it. Why?

Because we don't want to get serious! We don't want to admit that there is precious little time left in which to make our lives count for something, to make some difference, even in only a single life, even if our name is not remembered.

Heidegger said that only facing the prospect of our own death can make us take responsibility for our own life! And that's what we would rather not do. And equally what we must do. Psalm 90 said the same thing: "The years of our life are three-score and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore; yet their span is but trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."

Must we justify God in the face of death? Hardly! It is our life we must justify in the face of death, if we are to avoid the tragedy of wasting the whole thing.




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