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Is God A Jerk?

From a four-star (not five) Amazon.com review [1] of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming [2]written by a reader named Farley:

Not many books grab me like this one did. Even with books I like, it will take a week or two to read them, but I blazed through this one in a couple of days.

I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s work for years and followed this story when it was unfolding in real time on his blog. Those were among the most memorable posts I’d ever read, so it didn’t surprise me when he decided to do a book about his little sister, her untimely death, his hometown, and his own search for meaning.

Given all cliché potential in the subject matter – the sister as a simple country girl; the urbane sophistication of the brother who left the stuffy oppression of the small town; the search for reconciliation between semi-estranged siblings; the definition of true success in life – Dreher does a great job of telling a story that isn’t neat and tidy and doesn’t have a classic happy ending, all the while avoiding the many sentimental traps along the way. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a tear-jerker. It certainly jerked more than a few tears from me, but not in the Hallmark movie sort of way that leaves me annoyed at falling for their tear-trap. On the story telling score, Dreher scores a solid five-star rating.

On the lessons for life score, I don’t think he did as well. The book isn’t a Christian book or a religious book as such, but god is ever present in Ruthie’s simple faith and in Dreher’s much more philosophical and complicated faith. As is often the case in tragedies, people try to understand god’s plan and to find the good in all the sorrow. They try and answer the classic theological question of why a good and loving god lets bad things happen, especially to good people. Dreher might say that Ruthie’s death and the town’s reaction to her death showed him the importance of family and roots and community and faith to the point of actually moving back to his home town with his wife and kids.

But if it were god’s plan for Ruthie to die, leaving behind a grieving husband and three young daughters, so that Rod and his family could feel fulfilled by moving back to his extended family and hometown, is that what a just and loving god would do? Is that trade-off worth it?

If that’s how god works, he’s a jerk.

I thank Farley for this review, and don’t blame God for his not giving me five stars! 😉

Seriously, I’m not bothered either by Farley’s last line, because it’s a good and serious question, and it comes from an honest place. There are no truly satisfying answers to the question, How can an all-good and all-powerful god allow the innocent to suffer? It is, to my mind, the most serious objection to theology. As you know, an entire branch of theological inquiry, called theodicy, arose to address this question.

Besides, if you’re going to condemn Farley, you might as well condemn Job, who wrestled with the same question.

The Christian theologian David Bentley Hart, in The Doors Of The Sea [3], his book-length meditation on theodicy in the wake of the 2004 South Asian tsunami, does not mince words when talking about the outrage of the mass death occasioned by the event. The book was inspired by this essay in First Things [4], in which Hart rejected rationalistic Christian responses to great suffering, e.g., the idea that somehow, God required the death of 200,000 in the tsunami to show forth His glory, or somesuch thing. Note this passage in particular:

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality — in nature or history — is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of — but entirely by way of — every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, [Emphasis mine. — RD] of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Those familiar with The Brothers Karamazov will remember Ivan’s fable of The Grand Inquisitor  [5], in which Ivan rejects belief in a God who would require the suffering of innocents to work out the salvation and redemption of mankind. For Ivan, it’s not so much an issue of whether or not God exists, but rather a matter of if such a God exists, Ivan wants nothing to do with Him. Remember, though, how the fable ends — with the Inquistor having lectured the Prisoner (Jesus, returned to the world) about how there’s no place for him in the world, because he’s interfering with the mission of the Church — the mission of giving people lies to make them happy in exchange for their freedom. This is Ivan speaking:

“I meant to end it like this. When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more… come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”

“And the old man?”

“The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”

Notice that Jesus did not respond to the Inquisitor’s rationalizations with argument, but with a gesture of love. The Inquisitor, who had everything logically figured out, recognized the effect of this kiss, but held on to his categories, his rationalizations, in the face of love. It was more important for things to make sense than to be transformed by love.

I think of this, and the way Ruthie faced her own cancer as a believing Christian. She never doubted God’s goodness, and His love for her. She believed, though, that it would be pointless to waste her time and her energy trying to figure out why He allowed it to happen to her. As she told our mom, she never thought to ask Why me?, but rather Why not me? — her point being that bad things happen to good people all the time. What mattered to Ruthie was not that she try to make sense of it, but that she respond to it with love. Remember, beyond the Sunday School level, Ruthie knew very little theology. She wouldn’t have known what theodicy was. She believed profoundly in God’s reality, and in His goodness, in part because she accepted what she had been taught, but mostly, I think, because she had seen so much evidence of it, and had lived it out in her own life.

And she was a Christian, a believer in a religion that teaches that in some mysterious way, suffering is tied to the divine gift of freedom. She was a Christian, a believer in a religion whose central figure, the incarnate God, went to his cruel death unjustly, but willingly, out of love. Nobody understood it at the time, not even his closest companions. And Jesus did not die in some bloodless way, but with barbs piercing his flesh, and spikes savaging his bones and nerves. He died naked, nailed to a tree, tortured and humiliated. This was God himself, who could have taken himself down from the cross, who had the radical freedom to refuse the cup of suffering offered to him. But he didn’t, because he knew that suffering was in the nature of this fallen world, and in order to redeem it, he had to endure it, even unto death, so all things could be made new.

He gave us the example to follow. He did not make arguments. He did not explain himself. He acted, and acted out of love.

In the case of Ruthie Leming, a follower of Christ, she let love and faith guide her response to the cross of cancer. When someone who has never suffered like she suffered says, “It just must be God’s plan,” that sounds cruel. But Ruthie said things like that all the time — and they had real weight, because she was living with the consequences of God’s permissive will (= that God, who cannot will evil, did not will Ruthie’s full healing). Ruthie wanted to live, and believed God would restore her body, but more than anything, she wanted to submit to His will, as her Lord had done. Maybe some greater good would come out of what she was enduring, she figured. Mostly, though, she didn’t figure; she didn’t think there was any point in it. The point, Ruthie thought, was to respond to suffering and adversity with love. This is what she did, and why so many who saw her suffer and die were transformed by what they witnessed (I know; I was one of them). This is why Ruthie’s oncologist remembers how she was at the end, all skin and bones, in constant pain and too weak to lift her feet, only shuffling across the floor of the chemotherapy room at the Baton Rouge General, stopping to visit with new chemo patients, to comfort them, to smile at them, and laugh with them, and show them love.

In the end, Ruthie met death, and responded with a kiss. It is not a satisfying answer to many people, I know. But the gesture glows in my heart, and in the hearts of others who saw it, and by its light we have seen a new and better way to live in the shadow of death and suffering.

 

77 Comments (Open | Close)

77 Comments To "Is God A Jerk?"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 25, 2013 @ 11:23 am

Because of the personal nature of the post I am not going to venture into it’s contents. But I would like to address the interrogative: “Is God a Jerk?”.

That all depends, If I have no knowledge of God/Christ and I happen on the temple on a brisk Thursday afternoon and see a ruddy faced, man of thirty or so and he’s knocking over tables and chairs, pushing folks about in a rather loud fit of temper, I might conclude, “Geeez, that guys a jerk.” Later that evening sitting amongst others during supper. I ask did any else see that jerk inthe temple?” In a full stop others look to me in silence. Someone finally explains the man. Who he was. What it was all about.

“Ohhh, I see. I guess if decided to sell goat skins in the Temple of Artemis, I’d get similar treatment. And would no doubt be called a jerk as a result.”

Sometimes, we are keenly aware of why something happens. It’s as clear as day — and there are times, as stated in a previous article, ” . . . now I see but through a glass darkly . . .”

I dare not venture further. Sometimes it is hard to live with.” . . . then I will know . . .” as opposed to knowing now.

#2 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 25, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

We ask, how would a loving God allow the Holocaust? Maybe the right question is why did we??

Well none of us are omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent beings, so our inability to stop evil shouldn’t be a big shock.

#3 Comment By Bernie On April 25, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

Alex, regarding your last response to me, I have great respect for what appears to be your faithful, almost painful search for the truth concerning if people are saved (go to heaven) if they don’t personally and explicitly accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. You refer to “the orthodox Christian response” to this question and you have serious problems with it. I would suggest that there is no one “orthodox Christian belief” concerning how one is saved.

I am Roman Catholic, and our Church has an ancient, well-formed teaching on this very important issue, only a part of which I quoted in my comments. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have a different belief, one more in line with the one you’ve been taught, I surmise from your comments.

I suggest you search out my belief to see if it appears to you to resonate with truth. Study that portion of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, which you can read online, or get some apologetics books that explain the Catholic belief in how one gets to heaven. Alex, I am SO at peace with my belief on this matter. I truly pray you will find peace as well.

#4 Comment By Mere Christian Radio On April 25, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

MH,

Which is it: God exists. Evil doesn’t exist. You only get one.

You can’t say there is no God AND say there is evil.

#5 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 25, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

Mere Christian Radio said:

Which is it: God exists. Evil doesn’t exist. You only get one.

You can’t say there is no God AND say there is evil.

Untrue, humans can create categories by fiat. Does blue not exists if God doesn’t exist? We can see something we don’t like and call it evil.

“Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not” – Protagoras

Everything you’ve ever learned has been told to you by another human. Even what you call divine revelation was transmitted to you by another human.

#6 Comment By Another Matt On April 25, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

You can’t say there is no God AND say there is evil.

I can’t wrap my mind around this intuition. Here’s how it sounds to me:

“You can’t say there is no God AND say that people deliberately harm others.”

And to a lesser extent, it sounds like this:
“You can’t say there is no God AND say that there is suffering.”
“You can’t say there is no God AND say there is illness.”
“You can’t say there is no God AND say there are toxins.”

I just don’t understand what one has to do with the other. It reminds me of this awful quote by C.S. Lewis, which — if it were taken seriously and applied — could lead one to inflict all kinds of suffering and harm:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless–I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.

I know people really, seriously, take these ideas to heart. I just can’t.

#7 Comment By Dan Berger On April 25, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

@JonF The answer to the problem of evil is not in speculation, it’s not “Why?” It’s “What are you going to do?”

Hear, hear. [6]

One person can’t do everything. But if you’re not doing anything, why are you asking “why”? Why aren’t you helping?

#8 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 25, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

Another Matt, thanks for your post which dovetailed nicely with mine. As an aside I don’t get the appeal of C.S. Lewis either. Most of his ideas only seem convincing if you are already convinced.

#9 Comment By Erin Manning On April 25, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

MH, meant to get back to you earlier today! Sorry. But as you say yourself, option 3 is the least likely. A God who would create intelligent meat-suits and then tease them with just enough awareness of His reality and a false hope that they might not cease to exist after that brutal and horrible thing called “death” happened only to pull out that cosmic chair just long enough for them to be aware that it was all a lie so that the last moment of existential horror at impending oblivion would be even worse than believing in that oblivion all along would, at the least, be the kind of God who would see to it that Republicans were elected more frequently than they are. (Okay, I kid, but you get the point.) 🙂

So it really does, in my way of looking at it, go back to the two options I mentioned.

And people choosing 85 years just means they’re aware how scary that whole “oblivion” thing really is. Why bother to work? Why bother to struggle or suffer? Why try to heal or reconcile with those we are at odds with? Why not, in fact, be selfish, just intelligently criminal enough to get away with it, concerned only with one’s own pleasures and comforts, etc.?

Usually people will say something about happiness requiring us to be honest and fair and so on, but it’s empirically observable that the filthy rich have a very tangible sort of happiness that doesn’t require honesty or fairness or even good relationships with their families, so if you’ve got 85 years at best before you cease to be, snuffed out like that proverbial candle, then why wouldn’t the most rational goal for everyone who thinks this is all we get be to become as wealthy as possible by any means necessary? I mean, heck, if getting along with people and being appreciated and approved of are important to you, you can hire a personal acting coach when you’ve started to pile up the dollars so that people can think you’re tremendously wonderful, and the slight detail that you’re a total fraud shouldn’t worry you any. What does it matter, so long as nobody figures it out? You say the right things, you practice that empathetic look, you have just the right touch of sorrow or joy on your face at important moments, and you get the reputation for being amazingly generous and kind by coldly calculating the exact percentage of your money you will need to purchase the undying loyalty of your family and friends. And you spend 85 years doing whatever you damn well please, and even *then* it’s a meaningless charade, but at least you have satisfied the animal impulses with enough sybaritic amenities that you avoid contemplating that reality.

To me, the question is not whether God exists (yes) or whether He’s a jerk (no) but why the people who think He either doesn’t exist or must be a jerk if He does exist do not live lives of purposeful wild self-indulgence. If I’m a child of God and a steward of this earth, then taking time to recycle and to avoid mindless consumption makes sense; but it’s amazing to me how so many of the people who don’t believe in Him at all drive hybrids or electric cars and raise awareness about environmental issues at every opportunity. Why? So future generations can also know the stale ennui of 85 years or so (give or take) of a completely meaningless and purposeless existence during which they are also, for unexplained reasons, supposed to be nice, obey laws, practice thrift, and reduce, reuse, recycle? If we depleted the planet of its resources so this silly “human” phase of evolution came to an early end, we’d probably be doing Mother Earth a favor–at least, if we think this is all there is, and that inevitably evolution will solve the human problem the way it dealt with other unsatisfactory species, which it most certainly will.

#10 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 25, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

You can’t have both God and Evil? Once again, turn to Albert Einstein, who pointed out that just as cold is the absence of heat, and darkness the absence of light, so evil is the absence of God. C.S. Lewis said something similar, about God being on “without whom nothing is strong, and adding “Nothing can be very strong indeed.”

#11 Comment By Turmarion On April 25, 2013 @ 11:39 pm

Another Matt at 10:45, you’re very perceptive! Taoism has, in fact, been a deep and profound influence on me. Many thanks for the link, BTW–I liked it so much that I went and bought one of the author’s books on my Kindle! You’re right that universalists tend to get a bad rap; nevertheless, I call ’em as I seem ’em, and that’s my viewpoint. Catholicism and Orthodoxy are relatively congenial homes for universalists, though both still harbor plenty of fire and brimstone types, alas.

Alex, I agree with your analysis, and the unsatisfactoriness of the traditional orthodox views. If you’re interested, I wrote a rather lengthy [7] laying out my views on unversalism and how I came to them on my blog. I discuss it there in far greater detail than I could here.

MH, I’d quibble with you slightly in that I don’t maintain that this is necessarily the best of all possible worlds; I’d say it’s more the best of all possible types of worlds. In other words, I think that by creating truly free creatures, God introduces a certain amount of randomness (even from His perspective) into the cosmos, and that therefore if free humans had chosen differently, the world could have been better than it is; but a world with true freedom is the best kind of world.

The problem for me is essentially doubting that anything I can’t perceive (e.g. God, afterlife) exists.

I truly think that such a view is to a large extent a matter of temperament, and therefore I’d think a God who damned you (or any other such person) on that basis would be egregiously unjust. That is part of the reason I’m a universalist. I certainly reject TULIP Calvinism and other such similar views, which make God demonic. My belief is that in the afterlife all of us, believers and unbelievers, will all get together to have a drink and a good laugh about how all of us were wrong on some things. I could, of course, be wrong; but that’s not my hope.

So I see any injustice in this world as likely final, which takes the problem of evil up to eleven.

Well, that’s why I take Pascal’s gambit. I am well aware of its flaws, but I’d rather assume an ultimate beneficence that I just don’t understand now than absolute cosmic indifference/hostility. In that regard, many atheists–Sartre, many Existentialist in general, Nietzsche, even Woody Allen–actually agree with C. S. Lewis as quoted–that is, if there is no ultimate meaning and the universe is hostile, then nothing really does matter. Whether, as Matt said, that view would lead one to “inflict all kinds of suffering and harm” is debatable. Atheist Joss Whedon, speaking through his character Angel, once said something to the effect that if there’s no meaning, every act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

Is a meaningless cosmos a reason to despair and “inflict suffering and harm”, or a stronger reason to do good? Depends on temperament again, I think. Once more, our temperaments explain more of our spirituality than we’d like to believe, IMO. Once more, that’s part of why I’m a universalist, since it seems unfair for God to damn people over temperaments He gave them in the first place.

Anyway, it comes back to the gambit for meaning; if I’m wrong and I die utterly, nothing lost; but in the meantime, it helps. For myself, I don’t know how one deals with the idea that all suffering ins meaningless, all injustices final; but that’s me. In the end, we’ll find out one way or the other.

#12 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 26, 2013 @ 6:26 am

Erin said:

To me, the question is not whether God exists (yes) or whether He’s a jerk (no) but why the people who think He either doesn’t exist or must be a jerk if He does exist do not live lives of purposeful wild self-indulgence.

Well we’ve had similar discussions in the past, so I will answer you slightly differently. You admit in the paragraph that followed that people act contrary to how your logic thinks that they should act. Since these people think they are rational from their own point of view, this should be a red flag that your premise is flawed.

I’m 48, I’ve never robbed a bank, shoplifted, cheated on my taxes, taken candy from a baby, and I try not to be cruel to other people. Indeed I self sacrifice by giving money away to charity, and work hard at a job to provide for my family. Nor do I feel compelled to end this existential horror. Basically I’m acting contrary to how your logic thinks that I should act.

The answer is that logic and reason don’t control my behavior, emotions and instincts do. When I act like a jerk I feel worse about myself, when I act nicer to others I feel better about myself. It’s all about being able to look at yourself in the mirror.

#13 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 26, 2013 @ 6:54 am

Turmarion said:

In the end, we’ll find out one way or the other.

Well I’ll only find out if I’m wrong. I’ll be happy to be wrong if I end up in a universalist God’s heaven. But if I end up in the Calvinist God’ Hell next to Hitler and Pol Pot, I’m definitely concluding option 3 was correct.

While I liked the Buffyverse, and I know it was Joss channeling his POV into the story, but any atheist there is a flat earther. They see that supernatural evil exists and that crosses and holy water repel it.

#14 Comment By Another Matt On April 26, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

In that regard, many atheists–Sartre, many Existentialist in general, Nietzsche, even Woody Allen–actually agree with C. S. Lewis as quoted–that is, if there is no ultimate meaning and the universe is hostile, then nothing really does matter. Whether, as Matt said, that view would lead one to “inflict all kinds of suffering and harm” is debatable. Atheist Joss Whedon, speaking through his character Angel, once said something to the effect that if there’s no meaning, every act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

Hi Turmarion,

Thanks for this reply. I may have meant what I said in a different way than people around here are likely to have taken it, so let me try to explain.

Here’s the relevant part of Lewis’s quote for reference below:

Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies.

The way I see it, belief in God does not rescue us from this conundrum — it makes it worse. Let’s put it starkly — imagine someone has kidnapped, chained you to a wall in a dungeon, and has begun throwing rocks at you. Do you really have to go beyond “ow you’re hurting me please stop please stop” to believe that he’s doing something bad to you? Would this just be a “private fancy” if God didn’t exist?

Now, imagine he says, “God has demanded I do this to you. I honestly wish I didn’t have to, and I’m sorry you think it hurts, but God has commanded it so it must be good.” In that situation, the only good replies are “this would be bad whether or not God commanded it; please stop” or “this is not something God would command; please stop.” But if he’s determined in his beliefs, why would he care what you believe about God? Beliefs about God’s will are themselves “merely private fancies,” though real life situations are seldom this stark.

We’re left with a de facto moral relativism of a sort, though nobody has to be committed to relativism for this to be the case — the thousands of religious doctrines which are asserted without evidence and which conflict make it impossible to even make motions toward a universal morality or ethics. This is a problem with any ideology, obviously, but the point is that belief in God compounds the difficulty. What worries me the most is that religious and other ideological beliefs make a person much less likely to admit that a “stop you’re hurting me please stop” response to their actions is evidence that they are causing real harm, if what they are doing is demanded by their religion or ideology. As I’ve said a lot lately, this is colored by a fundamentalist upbringing; but in my experience religion puts whatever tenuous grasp we have of “good” and “love” completely out of reach.

The biggest issue I have with Lewis’s remarks is that God, if he exists, is hidden. We’re so often asked to defer to the authority of religious individuals or groups on little more than, “trust me, this is what God wants.” If God would make himself universally known, and make his will clear, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I think the diversity of beliefs ought to put to rest the popular Christian notion that God is universally known but that most of us are experiencing false consciousness; but Lewis’s arguments only work with this assumption.

The good news is that even if God doesn’t exist, morality and ethics is still “transcendent” — in the sense that it transcends any individual human, but not in the sense that it transcends the material world.

Sorry for the long post.

#15 Comment By Erin Manning On April 26, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

Okay, MH, let’s proceed from there–if it’s okay for emotions and instincts to guide our behavior, why is it not okay for emotions and instincts like anger, self-preservation to the point of selfishness, and the like to be our guiding principles? Or, perhaps more possibly, how do we know that they are not our true guiding principles, but that we have evolved to need (in order to deal with that existential horror business) nice little warm fuzzies about how great we are, so we think about how terrific it is that we don’t rob banks or lie, cheat, and steal, and how fantastic it is that we work hard for our families–and filter out the memory of every negative thing we have done, or rationalize those things by thinking “Boy, I was young and stupid when I treated that boyfriend/girlfriend like dirt! Good thing I became a wise and mature person with good values,” when in fact our values haven’t changed, but our opportunities to treat people like dirt have in that various cultural ties we have willingly entered (e.g., marriage) make it a bit more complicated (though not at all impossible) to live with the consequences of treating people like dirt (or at least to afford the divorce afterward).

I think you could actually make a good case that *most* people are jerks or will revert to jerkishness on the slightest provocation, all without losing that nice warm-fuzzy feel-good sense of how terrific they are. Think about how many people do, in fact, treat their spouses like dirt (but offset that with something else of perceived value like money or relationship stability), practice serial matrimony and divorce, neglect their children not in the ways that get CPS called but in ways that damage their emotions and their ability to relate well to others, cheat in the small things (like skipping out of work early on a regular basis or manipulating co-workers into taking the responsibility for unpleasant assignments), “steal” time from their families and relationships just to enjoy some form of entertainment or other–all while serenely able to convince themselves what terrifically good sorts they are.

I will grant you that religious people are no less prone to acting this way than non-religious people. But religious people, if they pay attention to their faiths (and it’s true for most of them) will sooner or later be challenged to do better, to quit wrapping up their jerkishness in a mantle of sanctity, to ponder what really matters and take action accordingly, and to do all of those things against a backdrop which says that life does matter, that we are immortal, that our choices on earth have eternal consequences, and that we are loved by our creator. Non-religious people, on the other hand, are faced with the dilemma of this ancient question: What is good? Should men be good? Why should they be good? What do we mean by virtue, and how do we live a virtuous life?

The relativistic answers are that good is whatever works for us, that being good is being true to yourself and that’s why we should be good (because for unexplained reasons it’s better to be true to yourself than false), and we live a virtuous life by doing what makes us feel good about ourselves.

Which is fine, as long as that translates roughly to what you describe above as your life–but how do you tell the guy who has evolved differently and who feels good about himself when he’s successfully getting away with lying, cheating, stealing etc. that there’s anything wrong with that–especially if he’s smart enough to go on getting away with it forever? Or do you just accept that the evolutionary results which make you feel good when you are nice, honest, and hardworking are just one possible type of result, and that in the end the liars, cheaters, and thieves might end up being the “fittest” who will eventually replace people who act against their own self-interests in exchange for a brief burst of endorphin response, which in purely material terms isn’t much of a bargain?

Bottom line: before we decide that God is a jerk, we have to figure out whether we’re not all just jerks who are good about lying about it to ourselves, because it makes us feel good.

#16 Comment By JonF On April 26, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

MH, did religious items work against vampires in Buffy? I don’t recall them ever being used. But yes, supernatural evil was real in that universe, although it was very much a non-Christian sort of evil. (In the spin-off Angel there were “Powers That Be” but they were plural, and rather like Platonic demiurges.)

#17 Comment By Another Matt On April 26, 2013 @ 9:13 pm

JonF — yes, religious items worked — crosses and holy water burned the vampires.

#18 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 26, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

JonF, there were several episodes where crosses or holy water were used against vampires. One that comes to mind right way is the episode Helpless [8] where Buffy kills a vamp by tricking it into drinking holy water.

Crosses and holy water could hurt Angel even though he has a soul. In the episode where he tries to find a cure for the dying now mortal Darla he had to pass a series of trials. One of which required him to reach into holy water.

#19 Comment By Turmarion On April 26, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

JonF, crosses, holy water, the whole nine yards, indeed worked in the Buffyverse. However, they were de-emphasized over time, their power was diminished (in early seasons, vampires would flinch from merely seeing a cross; later on, it was only a problem if they touched it, and even then some could hold on to one for several seconds before having to release it), and they were used not so much religiously but more or less like magical charms (which is how they tended to be used in old black-and-white horror movies).

Whedon said somewhere that he decided to take the traditional tropes more or less as they were, and then go from there, which is pretty much what he did.

#20 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 26, 2013 @ 10:26 pm

Erin said:

if it’s okay for emotions and instincts to guide our behavior, why is it not okay for emotions and instincts like anger, self-preservation to the point of selfishness, and the like to be our guiding principles?

Such a person is a sociopath, they’re not common, but they exist. Sociopaths make lousy parents because while they can lie to themselves, they’re not willing to self-sacrifice enough. So they are selected against by evolution over the long term.

Or, perhaps more possibly, how do we know that they are not our true guiding principles, but that we have evolved to need (in order to deal with that existential horror business) nice little warm fuzzies about how great we are, so we think about how terrific it is that we don’t rob banks or lie, cheat, and steal, and how fantastic it is that we work hard for our families–and filter out the memory of every negative thing we have done, or rationalize those things by thinking “Boy, I was young and stupid when I treated that boyfriend/girlfriend like dirt! Good thing I became a wise and mature person with good values,” when in fact our values haven’t changed, but our opportunities to treat people like dirt have in that various cultural ties we have willingly entered (e.g., marriage) make it a bit more complicated (though not at all impossible) to live with the consequences of treating people like dirt (or at least to afford the divorce afterward).

What you are saying is that perhaps we’re all self-deluded. This seems unlikely because humans like living and working in social groups. Most of us are fairly good at picking up on the reactions of others that they don’t express. So that sort of constant feedback from other people tends to keep most people away from being jerks who hold themselves in high self-esteem.

Also the emotions of remorse, regret, or guilt generally cause people to rethink their behavior when they’ve act like jerks.

The relativistic answers are that good is whatever works for us, that being good is being true to yourself and that’s why we should be good (because for unexplained reasons it’s better to be true to yourself than false), and we live a virtuous life by doing what makes us feel good about ourselves.

Being true to yourself implies conscious evaluation and reason. Our desire to forms groups and engage in pro-social is instinct on par with birds flying south for the winter. This is because we’re collectively strong and individually weak. We have a vested interest in getting along.

but how do you tell the guy who has evolved d.ifferently and who feels good about himself when he’s successfully getting away with lying, cheating, stealing etc. that there’s anything wrong with that–especially if he’s smart enough to go on getting away with it forever?

Such a person is a sociopath, they’re not common, but they exist.

Bottom line: before we decide that God is a jerk, we have to figure out whether we’re not all just jerks who are good about lying about it to ourselves, because it makes us feel good.

Why? Those seem like independent variables, we could be saints or self-deluded jerks, but that doesn’t control God’s behavior. If he acts like a jerk then he’s a jerk.

#21 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 26, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

Turmarion, I seem to recall the relative power of the vampire and their culture was a mitigating factor in their cross reaction.

In the first season the Master wouldn’t be turned away by a cross, and he could grab and hold onto it, but the cross and his hand were in flames.

In the mirror universe Vampire Willow shrugged when a cross was held up to her. Although they never showed how she would react to a Star of David.

#22 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 27, 2013 @ 8:50 am

MH;’s musings remind me of my own speculation, what if God was bad? I mean, we always pray about “God is great, God is good…” but what if an omnipotent, transcendent deity were not good at all? What could we do about it?

Fortunately for us, if there is a God, he seems to be more good than a jerk. Thus, Erin does not have to choose between reveling in torture, or becoming an atheist. But MH, possibly the reason it feels better to be true than false is that God made us that way?

#23 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 27, 2013 @ 11:20 am

Siarlys Jenkins said:

But MH, possibly the reason it feels better to be true than false is that God made us that way?

That’s a possibility and one could say that the evolutionary origins of moral feelings are the proximate, but not ultimate cause.

but what if an omnipotent, transcendent deity were not good at all? What could we do about it?

It’s my understanding that Gnostic sects like the Cathars had exactly that viewpoint. Essentially the God of the old testament was an evil Demiurge and Christ was a manifestation of a God beyond God. Their rebellion against the Demiurge was to promote sexual abstinence to avoid creating more people. Which has an odd sort of logic to it, but almost ensures that your beliefs die out.

#24 Comment By Socrates On April 27, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

When I read through a thread like this, I just find it astonishing that anyone would find any of these explanations in any way satisfying as to why things are as they are, considering that the Christian god is allegedly omnipotent, omniscient, and loving.

But how about the suffering of animals? (I know others have mentioned this.) Even in the best of circumstances, in the wild, they are eating each other alive, killing each other’s children, and most of it is hidden from us, so it’s hard to see how this could have some sort of lessons for us to learn. I don’t see any evidence that most people even think about this very much.

So, put aside for a moment the suffering of humans, how do you explain the horrible suffering of most of the wild animals on this planet, given your belief in an omnipotent, loving god?

#25 Comment By JonF On April 27, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

Re: It’s my understanding that Gnostic sects like the Cathars had exactly that viewpoint. Essentially the God of the old testament was an evil Demiurge

Right, but that god was also not omnipotent, nor the single Supreme Being.

#26 Comment By jb On April 29, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

MH;’s musings remind me of my own speculation, what if God was bad? I mean, we always pray about “God is great, God is good…” but what if an omnipotent, transcendent deity were not good at all? What could we do about it?

Fortunately for us, if there is a God, he seems to be more good than a jerk. Thus, Erin does not have to choose between reveling in torture, or becoming an atheist. But MH, possibly the reason it feels better to be true than false is that God made us that way?

If God were in fact evil, it is difficult to imagine what he could do that would be worse than creating a world full of weak and foolish creatures, giving them hard lives, granting them hope of an afterlife that would be better, and then throwing almost all of them into eternal fire, while capriciously saving a handful that happened to be lucky enough to belong to the right sect of the right religion. Can you think of anything worse? Such a god would truly be a demon, wouldn’t you say?

And yet, isn’t that in fact the traditional Christian god that most Christians actually believed in over most of the past 2000 years?!?

#27 Comment By TruthIs On September 8, 2015 @ 10:59 am

Well he never gave me a wife and family that he gave to so many others.