Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Mind of God (Part 1: Suffering & Death)

Over the past week or two, a couple pieces by City Journal editor Heather Mac Donald (first one in American Conservative, and then a piece written for National Review Online in response to criticisms of the original article by Michael Novak) have stirred up a bit of discussion on the old topic of whether "conservative" and "religious conservative" are or should be synonymous.

Mac Donald's article is not really about conservatism so much as about belief. She considers conservatism to be a highly rational, skeptical approach to politics. And she considers the behavior of many Christians to be anything but rational and skeptical:
Upon leaving office in November 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft thanked his staff for keeping the country safe since 9/11. But the real credit, he added, belonged to God. Ultimately, it was God's solicitude for America that had prevented another attack on the homeland.

Many conservatives hear such statements with a soothing sense of approbation. But others -- count me among them -- feel bewilderment, among much else. If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place?...

When nine miners were pulled unharmed from a collapsed Pennsylvania mineshaft in 2002, a representative placard read: "Thank you God, 9 for 9." God's mercy was supposedly manifest when children were saved from the 2005 Indonesian tsunami.

But why did the prayers for five-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her Southern California home in 2002 and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated? If you ask a believer, you will be told that the human mind cannot fathom God's ways. It would seem as if God benefits from double standards of a kind that would make even affirmative action look just. When 12 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion in January 2006, no one posted a sign saying: "For God;s sake, please explain: Why 1 for 13?" Innocent children were swept away in the 2005 tsunami, too, but believers blamed natural forces, not God.
I have a certain tendency to ignore these kinds of questions, for the simple reason that I've heard them so many times before, but the fact that one hears these things so frequenty from those perplexed by religious belief suggests that there's something here worth looking at.

First of all, these problems are contributed to by Christians who express themselves badly when talking about providence and the answering of prayers. Ashcroft's statement, if summarized accurately, suggests a certain simplicity of thinking: It would (the vast majority of the time if not always) be a grave mistake, I think, to picture God as speshielding sheilding one country from terrorist attacks, or allowing terrorist attacks against another country.

Why, then, do we as Christians thank God when our loved ones are preserved from an accident or when our country survives or is spared some major catastrophe? Traditionally, the Catholic Church teaches there are four kinds of prayer: adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and supplication (in that order of importance.)

It seems to me that there's something important to be found in thanksgiving being listed below adoration, and in supplication being listed last. One of the things that is very difficult for most of us (and perhaps the more so for modern Americans in particular, with our emphasis on justice and equality) is to truly treat God's will as superior to our own. Very often, Christians see God as a boss with all sorts of powers, but essentially acting under the rules and understanding of the world as we ourselves have. Thus, people think (at least implicitly) in terms of filing requests (such as, "No terrorist attacks, please") and thanking God when He performs as requested. ("Good job on keeping those terrorists away. Keep it up.")

In this sense, Christ's prayer in the Garden of Gesthemene is very human "My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me." And yet there follows the proper acknowledgement of God's all-powerful will, "Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." Proper supplicatory prayer not only asks God for what the believer desires, but also seeks to unite the will of the believer with that of God.

Thus, in the widest possible sense, prayer of thanksgiving should be offered not merely for what goes as one would wish, but for what doesn't. Sometimes we find it very difficult to be thankful for what transpires in our lives, and in such circumstances one prays for the ability to accept God's will. This is the sense in which one may offer prayers of thanks that our country has thus far been spared another terrorist attack. God neither forces terrorists to attack us, nor removes their free will so that they may not, but to the extent that God is the creator of all the world and all the people in it, it is proper to express thanks to God that our fellow men have not yet inflicted another such attack on us, while understanding at the same time that should such an attack take place, we must pray for the ability to accept that God's creation of free will allows such cruelties to take place -- just as it allows the virtues of great saints.

Going back to Ms. Mac Donald's articles, I think her problem is indeed only superficially with prayer (or perhaps more accurately with the way many Christians talk about prayer) and much more directly with the basic question that unbelief so often comes back to: If God is both all-good and all-powerful, then why do bad things happen to good people?

Answers to this question tend to fall under the general categories of "it's for some greater good" and "it's because of free will/the Fall". I suppose my own response straddles these two a bit: it seems to me that to a great extent our accusations against God result from our perspective as mortal creatures, who however much faith we may have have difficulty seeing our lives, sufferings and deaths in the context of eternity and our immortal souls.

Continued comfortable life in thisdefinitelydefinately what most of us plan, and so we naturally see a story of nine miners being rescued from a collapse as being a "good" story while we see 12 out of 13 dying in another mining accident as being a "bad" story. Yet from God's point of view (if what we as Catholics believe about Him is true) whether I die today on my drive home or fifty years from now as a grandfather is a matter of indifference compared to whether I merit heaven or hell, whenever I die. Which is not to suggest that people's deaths are orchestrated by God to maximize the number that merit heaven, but rather that our perspective is by its nature so very different from God's that judging whether an event should or should not have happened becomes impossible.

Clearly, if the only perspective on the world is that which we have as mortal creatures in the temporal world, God has much to answer for. And yet, would a god ruled by our human standards and laws be worth worshipping anyway? If God is anything worthy of regard, He is not limited by human comprehension. All of which may make belief appear no more rational to Ms. Mac Donald. It is not without reason that Paul said the Gospel seemed like "foolishness to the Greeks". While on the one hand, it seems to me, the rational mind recoils at treating something essentially the same as oneself as superior, the rational mind must also confess itself unable to fully understand that which is far greater than itself.

1 comment:

Kiwi Nomad said...

My parents both died, when I was 8 and 15. Some parts of life have not been smooth sailing as a result. But I have learned some lessons of wisdom and compassion I might have otherwise missed. "Good" things are not always what we would plan and wish for.

My thoughts are with Jack and all who know him.