[If road accidents occur more often in a certain place along Philippine highways, instead of erecting a sign warning drivers of a Dangerous Curve or Populated Area, they put up a sign that explains their entire philosophy of life and their relationship with an unforgiving God: Accident Prone Area. Given the number and variety of natural disasters - or "acts of God" - that the Philippines is prone to, I was reminded of an article on the subject by James Wood, former literary editor at The New Republic and author of the novel The Book Against God. When Cebu City's very own Cardinal Vidal (no relation to our own Gore Vidal, apparently) was asked to comment on the A(H1N1) scare, he said with a smile, "God is reminding us that He's still there."]
By James Wood
In April, two people, one in Northern Ireland and one in Alabama, professed a familiarity with the devil. In Northern Ireland, the Rev. Paul Symonds, a Catholic priest, admitted that the new peace agreement might falter because, "Where the spirit of God is at work, the spirit of evil will try to destroy. Satan is still at work in the hearts of some people." Meanwhile, in Alabama, Rick Cooper, a pastor in Tuscaloosa, surveyed the spoliation wrought by a powerful tornado: houses razed, several killed. He told his congregation that their survival was an act of God: "We're not here because we're better.... We're here because he's great. God poured out his grace on us Wednesday night, his kindness and his goodness. When people look around and said, `Well, is God responsible for this?'--by no means, by no means."
Both responses offer awkward and moving testimony to the unpliability of the ancient question: Why does God permit evil and suffering to exist? Both men could hardly avoid falling into the illogicalities and near-heresies that are inherent in what is called theodicy, or the justification of God's relation to human and natural evil. Thus the Rev. Symonds posits a Satan, a force of evil apparently equivalent to God's force of good. And Pastor Cooper verges on the same explanation. After all, if, as Pastor Cooper suggests, God has saved the worshipers of his church, then either God must have decided to abandon those who died when the twister came through, or God simply could not do battle with the superior force of the twister.
Though neither Cooper nor Symonds would admit it, this is close to Manicheanism, named after a third century heretical sect that believed that the force of good is opposed by a force of evil that good cannot control but can merely fight. This idea of two rival principles--God, as it were, resembling a decent but somewhat ineffectual firefighter--predates Christianity and perhaps has its roots in Egyptian paganism. Plato essentially believed in the two principles, as did Zoroaster, Plutarch, and (more complicatedly) the Gnostics.
All these people were struggling, like the Reverends Symonds and Cooper, with the question of why we suffer. The existence of pain and suffering seems either to limit God's power or to qualify his goodness. Either he cannot control this evil (and then he is not all-powerful), or, in some way, he wants it to exist (and then he is not good). David Hume puts it tartly in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?"
I was raised in a formidably Christian household. An antique evangelical language (more Matthew Arnold than Billy Graham) sternly governed my childhood: activities were "edifying" or "worthy" (or their opposites). A breach was perhaps inevitable. When it came, at the age of 15 or so, it arose out of the problem of God and evil. Though doubtless philosophically naive, I could find no satisfactory answer to David Hume's negative algebra: it all added up to nothing, to no God. Even then, I could see that Manicheanism was only plausible at the cost of so reducing God's status that "belief" in him would be meaningless.
But, if we cannot be Manicheans, and posit a satanic force at work, then how do we explain a fatal tornado, or fatal terrorists in Northern Ireland? Theology has few responses. The most enduring is that God's ways are incomprehensible. This is Job's lesson. To any thinking person, this answer is an affront and also smacks of a certain pagan stoicism. Another is that we will be rewarded in heaven for our suffering on earth. But most people find this idea unacceptable, if not repulsive, because it is not clear why happiness must be only approached belatedly by the path of suffering rather than tasted originally.
The most sophisticated defense of God's relation to evil is that a world in which we could do no harm to one another would have to be a world without free will and that this would be intolerable. For us to act as moral agents at all, we must have the choice to act immorally. A mindless utopia watched over by an absolutely controlling God would be a repulsive and pointless world. Thus God awarded us free will, knowing that we might misuse it as a very necessity of human life.
Augustine abandoned Manicheanism for the free will argument and developed it into the most powerful of theodicy's weapons. But it crumbles as soon as you squeeze it. First, as the seventeenth-century skeptic Pierre Bayle has put it, why would God bestow a gift that he knows in advance will be abused in such a manner that it will only serve to bring about the ruin of the person to whom it is given? Bayle is very penetrating, but one can go further. All free will arguments rest on the assumption that free will is the greatest good we can possibly have. The best example of this assumption is to be seen in the work of Richard Swinburne, an especially monstrous theologian at Oxford, who argues that physical pain exists to offer the sufferer the great good of choice--"Whether to endure it with patience, or to bemoan his lot."
All free will arguments posit that a world without free will would be a more awful place than the world as we know it, which is merely full of pain. But how can we possibly know this? Suppose that for all of recorded history humans had never known pain or evil, that we had always lived in precisely the utopian prison that the free will arguers fear. If we had only ever lived in such a place, would it seem pointless and colorless to us? Naturally, we would not experience it as such because we would never have known its opposite (a world full of pain, suffering, and free will). Likewise, if no human being had ever been born with hands, we would all have very developed legs, and we could not miss something we had never had. God, presumably, could have created such a world, and it would be the ideal laboratory to observe Jesus's first two commandments: "Love thy God, and love thy neighbor." In other words, free will is clearly important for humans, but why is it important for God?
So, if we are not Manicheans, then we have few available responses to the Alabama tornado or to Ulster terrorism: Either God omnipotently presides over these happenings in some way, or there is no God. But if God omnipotently presides over them, then he presides over our suffering. He watches us drown in our own incomprehension. I'm afraid that I must choose the latter explanation, even if it is not very "edifying."