Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Problem of Evil V. God: Perpetrator or Responder?

Today's post, a slight digression from the God and Evil series, is inspired by a discussion with a reader (whose comments have been insightful and helpful!) in the comment thread of the previous post. I offer the reasons why I find the standard Calvinistic Theodicy a nonstarter. Please comment! 

Fire! Fire!

My father was a fireman. Because he was an officer, the fire alarms came directly to our home. And since we lived near downtown Albany, I would often ride my bike to watch live fire fights. One summer morning, when I was about 12 years old, I rode down to an older part of town to watch the fire department put out an apartment fire above the Linger Longer Tavern. Also watching, on the sidewalk beside me, was a friend I knew from my school. We’ll call him Ronnie. Ronnie (who was slightly retarded) was excited! He had turned in the alarm, he told me. In those days, Albany had Gamewell sidewalk boxes scattered around town, and indeed Ronnie had used one to call out the fire trucks. What a hero, I thought. I wish I had been on the scene to discover such a fire, and that I could pull the Gamewell lever! That fire was to be the first of five major fires that day, all in the downtown area, one right after another! The department's resources were so taxed they even rolled out the 1925 American LaFrance, the only time I ever saw it used on a real fire.

After all the dust and smoke settled, we learned what was by then obvious: the fires were the work of an over-active arsonist. We also learned that the officials had identified the perpetrator. Imagine my astonishment when I learned that the arsonist was my friend, Ronnie. In an instant, he was de-elevated from “hero of the day” to “heel of the day”. I recalled watching my own father crawl out of a basement window of a smoke filled apartment house on Lyon Street, one of Ronnie's fires. Dad was coughing and sputtering; I watched, filled with apprehension, as he lay motionless in the grass for several minutes recovering his breath (those were the days before SCBA breathing cylinders and the mandatory buddy systems all departments use today). I thought about how I could have lost my father that day. My earlier admiration of Ronnie turned to anger. How could he! I never saw Ronnie again.

Many Christians today find comfort in the thought that God is in control of all things. Carried to its extreme, this doctrine is known as Calvinism, or Reformed Theology. When Calvinists look at the Problem of Evil, they typically see no problem at all. If God is in control of all things, then it follows that he is in control of evil. In fact, he created evil itself. Calvinists will take you to Isaiah 45, and point to verse 7 which proves it! (Of course, the verse is taken out of its context, and other more likely interpretations are ignored.) This view goes on to say that evil is part of God’s plan for the cosmos, because by defeating it, God will get glory.

So, let’s see if we understand this. When Ronnie sets a fire so he can get some glory, he is institutionalized as a dangerous, mentally deranged perpetrator. When God sets loose a billions-of-years run of horrendous evil so he can get glory ....

Can there truly be glory for the charter boat operator who capsizes his vessel, but manages to save a few of his passengers? Is there glory for the zookeeper who tranquilizes the rampaging lion, saving a threatened child, if we learn that he was the very zookeeper who left the lion’s cage open? intentionally? Is there glory for the scientist who unleashes some new disease upon the population so that he can bring out the cure he has already devised? Is there glory for a God who inflicts his child with sickness, and then miraculously heals?

I am reminded of the scene from
The Count of Monte Cristo in which Edmond heroically rescues young Albert Mondego from his would-be kidnappers. But, as we later discover, Edmond had set up the whole affair, and paid the kidnappers who were his own friends. Glorious?

I fail to see how a God can create a universe in which he positions evil—limiting its power somewhat below his own, of course—so that he can defeat it and leverage up his own glory. It has simply never made sense to me. My Calvinist friends point out the presumptuous audacity of my sitting in judgment of God, and remind me that this stuff doesn’t have to make sense ... we just humbly accept it as the way things are. But in the end, the honest ones often agree:
we can't possibly understand this scenario. 

Is God a perpetrator? or is he a redeemer? Does he prescribe evil, and plan evil events? or does he respond to evil, showing the greater power of his inherent inalterable goodness? Does he design the disaster so he can step in to rescue his beloved ones? Or does he react to disaster, counter its effects, and demonstrate the brilliance of his redemptive genius?

Is God like Ronnie? Is he a clever Edmond Dantes? Or is he locked in an age-old battle with a tenacious and intractable foe, responding to his moves, slowly but surely wearing him down, and destined to ultimately dislodge and overthrow him?

You cannot have it both ways.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Problem of Evil IV. The Chief Purpose of Man (?)

With this post I resume my occasional series of posts on God and the problem of evil (see sidebar "OTHER POSTS OF INTEREST" for links to previous articles in this series). In this series, I challenge some commonly held assumptions of traditional Christianity. I do this with trepidation, and tentativeness. I invite comments from all readers, but am especially anxious to hear from believers who hold to traditional views about the purpose of man.

“The chief purpose of man,” we are assured by the Westminster Confession, “is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” Most Christians hold to this view, or something very much like it. From our earliest days in Sunday School we are told that God made mankind “for fellowship.” Humans exist, according to this view, for the express purpose of enjoying God, worshiping him, and glorifying him.

With respect to the Problem of Evil, this assumption typically leads to the “free will” defense which argues the following: in order for God to have the quality of fellowship he desired, it was necessary to give his created beings the freedom to choose him or not, thus leaving the door open to rebellion and consequent evil. Thus, all manifestations of evil are the unavoidable by-product of a universe which allows free-will choices.

If you are able, wrap your mind around all the suffering in the universe, all the privation, predation, and pain extending over billions years, all the extinctions, all the terror, all the suffering whether from natural causes or perpetrated by fallen humans; this view suggests the aggregate of all this suffering is considered by God a price which must be paid in order to fulfill his purpose of developing a billion or two redeemed humans for his glory.

I grew up believing this. But for most of my Christian life, it has been a difficult pill for me swallow. Assuming that this cosmos exists primarily to fulfill a divine wish for free-will worshippers forces me to assign a value system to God that seems grotesquely disproportionate. Now, if God had revealed to us that this traditional view fairly represents his purpose for creating man, or to put it a different way, if the Bible clearly taught this view, then I surely ought to do as some of my friends suggest: be quiet and accept it. But does the Bible teach this view?

A few years ago, I began a search for Biblical texts that specifically declared God’s purpose for making man. I wanted to know 1) if the traditional view expressed in the Westminster Confession has any direct Scriptural support, or 2) if the Bible actually taught something different.

My own views about God’s purpose in creation had already changed considerably. I had already accepted modern cosmology and physics which tell us that the cosmos is very old and that death and decay have been around since the moment of creation. And I had already accepted common descent, that human beings were the result of a 3.8 billion year evolutionary rise. All of this suggested to me that the cosmos exists as a divine response to evil (see this earlier
post on entropy), and that evolution plays some role in that response. I had concluded that the highly improbable evolutionary rise of life against all odds, life overcoming the powers of death, was likely part of a divine plan to demonstrate the superior power of life, and to defeat evil and death. This cosmos, and life on the earth, stand as demonstrations of a principle found throughout the pages of the Bible: life is more powerful than death!

If this were true, the “chief purpose of man” would shift away from fellowship and worship toward the concept of mankind fulfilling a significant role in God’s warfare on evil. Man’s role would be to become the agents of life overcoming, and ultimately defeating, death. I found many similarities between the principle of evolution and the principle of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

As these thoughts were developing in my mind, and as I continued my search for a Biblical declaration of God’s purpose for man, I stumbled upon these verses from 2 Corinthians 5:
4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
5 Now it is God who has
made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
(NIV, emphasis added)
Is there another verse in all the Bible which declares in such clear language God’s purpose for making man? I know of none. Did God make us for fellowship? Or are we made for the strategic purpose of being vehicles though which death is destroyed? The Greek word in verse 4 which is translated “swallowed up” is katapino. The Greek lexicon of Thayer and Smith offer the alternate meanings of “devour” and “destroy”. These verses strongly suggest to me the following:

The chief purpose of man is to be the means through which God destroys death by the superior power of life.

Do you agree? Is it possible that we are called to co-venture with God in his cosmic battle with evil? that our very existence as the culmination of evolution becomes the means by which life is shown to be more powerful than death? and that through us,
life wins, death loses?

A closing note: this concept does not imply that we will not glorify and enjoy God forever. It merely suggests an alternate “chief purpose” for man.

I am interested in your comments.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

“The Ancient Sage”

We host an every-other-week gathering in our home, which we simply call "Sunday Breakfast". As the name would imply, we serve breakfast to our guests, after which we gather in the living room for worship, Bible study, and discussion. We usually have a "questions that skeptics ask" segment in which we pose some of the difficult questions that skeptics ask us, or that our own "skeptic within" might raise. Tomorrow, we will be asking some difficult "why" questions. I plan to use the following poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in our discussion. It was written in 1885, late in the life of the poet. Because this site often considers evidence for and against faith, I am sharing the poem with my readers. Tennyson shares insights he gained over a lifetime about faith and hope, urging caution against certitude, and healthy humility for all who pursue truth. Feel free to offer your comments!

"The Ancient Sage"
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

If thou would’st hear the Nameless, and wilt dive
  Into the Temple-cave of thine own self,
There, brooding by the central altar, thou
May’st haply learn the Nameless hath a voice,
By which thou wilt abide, if thou be wise,
As if thou knewest, tho’ thou canst not know;
For Knowledge is the swallow on the lake
That sees and stirs the surface-shadow there
But never yet hath dipt into the abysm,
The Abysm of all Abysms, beneath, within
The blue of sky and sea, the green of earth,
And in the million-millionth of a grain
Which cleft and cleft again for evermore,
And ever vanishing, never vanishes,
To me, my son, more mystic than myself,
Or even than the Nameless is to me.
  And when thou sendest thy free soul thro’ heaven,
Nor understandest bound nor boundlessness,
Thou seest the Nameless of the hundred names.
  And if the Nameless should withdraw from all
Thy frailty counts most real, all thy world
Might vanish like thy shadow in the dark.

‘And since—from when this earth began—
  The Nameless never came
Among us, never spake with man,
  And never named the Name’—
Thou canst not prove the Nameless, O my son,
Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in,
Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one:
Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no
Nor yet that thou art mortal—nay my son,
Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee,
Am not thyself in converse with thyself,
For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise,
Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,
And cling to Faith beyond the forms of Faith
She reels not in the storm of warring words,
She brightens at the clash of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’,
She sees the Best that glimmers thro’ the Worst,
She feels the Sun is hid but for a night,
She spies the summer thro’ the winter bud,
She tastes the fruit before the blossom falls,
She hears the lark within the songless egg,
She finds the fountain where they wail’d ‘Mirage’!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Book Review: Only a Theory

Subtitle: "Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul."
Author: Brown University Biology Professor, Kenneth R. Miller.
Publisher: Viking, in 2008.
Available at: Amazon
The stakes in the evolution debates are higher than I had imagined. Miller gives a very sobering analysis of the potential ultimate damage possible if the Intelligent Design movement wins the day. Every Christian interested in the I.D. verses Evolution controversy should read this book! My review follows ...

Will I.D. Undo American Leadership in Science?

... for that is precisely what it threatens to do. Ken Miller sets into clear focus all that is at stake in the Intelligent Design verses Evolution controversy. (Miller is a committed Christian, and one of the leading evolutionary biologists in America today.)

If this were merely a science question, if the debate were taking place in laboratories and peer-reviewed science journals, evolution would be winning hands-down. This, Miller contends, was clearly demonstrated at the
2005 Dover, Pennsylvania trial. And Miller devotes several chapters to scientifically dismantling the contentions of Intelligent Design theorists, building a strong case for the overwhelming superiority of Evolution over I.D. However, Miller shows us how the debate has been deftly shifted out of the realms of laboratory, field stations, data, and evidence, and into the realms of philosophy, religious dogma, and the very soul of America.

There is more at stake in the evolution wars then a mere testing of Darwin’s theory. Darwinists, like Miller, have always welcomed challenges to evolution. But I.D. fails miserably as a science. Recognizing this failure, the founder of the I.D. movement, Phillip Johnson, has proposed a strategy that has little to do with defeating evolution scientifically. Rather, he outlined a new set of goals in his
Wedge Document, which is an appeal for a new approach to unseating evolution in the American classroom. Apparently concluding that evolution cannot be defeated on scientific grounds, Johnson suggests the battle be engaged in the courtrooms of public opinion, at the ballot box, and by rallying social conservative evangelicals.

While many Christians might applaud this approach, and while it may be effective, this is not the historically proven methodology for arriving at scientific conclusions. If the Copernican controversy had been settled in the courtroom of public opinion, we might be confirmed
Geocentrists to this day. No, the scientific method which has served America so well, and thrust us into world leadership on so many fronts, does not settle its questions through public relations, get-out-the-vote drives, or political action committees.

Miller laments that if I.D. is successful in turning the question of origins from a scientific quest into a philosophical debate, the loser will not just be evolution, but our entire scientific enterprise, and our place of leadership in the world. Science, and evolution, will live on in the rest of the industrialized world with or without America’s leadership. (This is a distinctly American issue. Miller points out that America lags far behind the rest of the industrialized world when it come to public acceptance of evolutionary science.) The proponents of I.D. seem content with that prospect. Miller is not.

Written in a readable, and at times entertaining style,
Only a Theory deserves more attention within the Christian community. I recommend it to my readers, especially those who take a favorable view of I.D.

One of the most fascinating discussions in the book for me comes in Chapter 8, the last chapter. Here, Miller discusses the paradoxical alignment of anti-evolution dogma and political conservatism. True economic conservatism is based in the teachings of Adam Smith. Smith proposed that the larger economic system is best served by the somewhat chaotic interplay of self-interested capitalists. The economic freedoms of unfettered capitalism result in greater innovations, and growth and development benefiting the entire economic system. Charles Darwin credited Adam Smith with helping him to see how the same principles led to innovation, growth and development in our evolutionary past. Thus, Miller draws the bold conclusion that support for evolutionary science is a more natural fit for economic conservatism than the anti-evolution stance we typically observer in those quarters. Hopefully, our scientific future will continue to lead us into innovation, growth and development, unfettered by the restraints of a philosophical movement, Intelligent Design.