Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bad things and good people

Concerning what is generally known as "the problem of evil", that is, "How can a good God allow bad things to happen (to good people)?", in the past I have said:
Evil isn't a naturally occurring substance. It is a moral judgment in an ethical context. It arises from an evolved strategy for recognizing and viscerally reacting to threats to social beings and it is enabled by a recognition of others as self-aware individuals with similar feelings and experiences. Suffering is an integral aspect of conscious awareness in a body with limits and needs, and death is an fundamental component of life. So, a universe without suffering and death would be a universe without sentience or life. A world without good and evil would be a world of indifference.

The problem with theodicy arises when God is seen as a cosmic architect who somehow chooses among options for how the universe could have been formulated and when we are dissatisfied with what we assume are God's choices. If it is suggested that existence reflects God's nature then God must be capricious and cruel. Yet many secularists will argue that life is (more) precious and meaningful because each moment is so fragile -- full of the potential for joy, pain, life, death, wonder, fear and a million other experiences -- and each moment and each life is therefore unique and irreplaceable.
I would like to elaborate a little on this but before I proceed, rather than go over ground previously covered, for those who want a glimpse of my views of things like God, here is a brief survey of some relevant essays:

Into the great wide open, part two - going beyond supernaturalism
Holding the mystery of the faith
Hang-ups to seeking God, Part 1: What does it mean to know God?
Quantum tempest in a celestial teapot
Ajahn Punnadhammo ponders "Why is there something rather than nothing?"
Is God a person or just some vague cosmic force?
"The highest" and "most worthy"?
"The One" and "the Only"
Handling Science and Religion Properly
Caveman Og and the problem of religious mystery
Solid rock or shifting sand?
Reconciling tradition and contemporary insight (several part series)

A quick and dirty summary is that I see God as:
  • your deepest self, which is connected through every other thing in existence through the heart of the cosmos...
  • the source, substance and sustainer of everything that was, is, will be, can be, or could be...
  • our noblest and most sincere aspirations...
  • that which binds us all together and makes us aware of our common nature and our interdependence with all things...
  • a way of looking at the world, a fundamental orientation to existence, in which meaning is inherent to all things, in which such meaning is defining these things and acting as the essence of the relationships between all things, relationships which therefore allow these things to exist (not to go into detail as I have the past, but there must be some distinction between two phenomena in order for them to exist as separate phenomena)...
  • the ground of being which is also the transcendent Thou. 

A similar summary I have used previously goes something like this: "God appears to be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, present in all things yet not limited to this presence; God is the source, substance and sustainer of existence, not the first cause or first link in causality, but the shape of such links, their material and the space in which they exist; God is beyond personal versus impersonal, exploding our limited categories trying to define God as a person or non-person; God is the ultimate reality, or ultimate nature of reality, and encompasses the historical dimension of reality (bounded by time and space) as well; God is the raw potential out of which phenomena arise and of which they are comprised. Other popular images include a comparison in which God is water and phenomena are waves. Hence my understanding of all religious imagery and narrative is appreciated and interpreted with this [panentheistic] understanding of the divine."

So, taking that all together a more realistic and consistent view comes into focus. As I quoted at the start, evil isn't a naturally occurring substance. It is a value judgment. The earthquake and the tsunami which devastated Japan and damaged several nuclear reactors aren't good or evil. Humans make it so. In the quote at the start I used the phrase "existence reflects God's nature", and here I will elaborate a bit more. The immanent aspect of God is the island of Japan, the ocean, and its people. That is to say, on that level God is what we see all around us. In that sense, God does not "stop" the tsunami because God is the tsunami as well as those who were killed by it. It isn't that God is too weak or too indifferent. That requires a view of God as some external agent completely cut off from the universe who can toy with it like a child playing with Legos.

This doesn't mean that it is in God's nature to "want" death or destruction, but that these things, along with life and creation, are part and parcel of the package. I previously alluded to the idea that this package allows for what we see as binary opposites: light/dark, life/death, beauty/tragedy, pleasure/pain, etc. They are two sides of the same coin. If one curses pain, one is also accusing pleasure. If one despises death, one is also insulting life. It is we who divide them up label them and infuse them with our preferences. If we left it at this, then we would have what is known as pantheism, the belief that God is exhausted in its immanence. Yet panentheism is more than that, as it suggests that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Prior to the evolution of photosensitive cells, the existence of light was unknown on this planet. In the same way, I speculate that prior to a particular form of consciousness that as yet seems peculiar to our own species, an awareness of spirit (not defined here as a substance or force, just as a placeholder term for a phenomena which is difficult to grasp or pin down) was similarly unknown. This consciousness may allow us to touch a deeper form of awareness that we then represented in all manner of ways, including the idea of God. This is the "whole" referred to above. To use traditional language, it speaks to us through our hearts. This is the aspect of God that Jesus, for example, referred to as Abba, or "daddy". It is also referred to in the Upanishads as He/She who dwells in the temple of the heart, and it is spoken of in many other cultures in similar ways.

It is this aspect of God that is associated with the idea that we are all interrelated and interdependent. It is this aspect of God that resonates with our conscience as social animals because that same moral capacity allows us to appreciate the implications of our fundamental interbeing. It is this aspect of God that is often anthropomorphized as well, and which owing to its association with our conscience leads people to describe God as "good". The question for theodicy is whether this aspect of God is somehow able to control or alter what has been described as the immanent aspect of God. Generally this is intervention is thought of in terms of what we might call grandiose and earth-shattering miracles.

I am not a spokesperson for God. I don't have a special hotline to dial up for answers to the biggest mysteries of the universe and even if I did my limited brain couldn't handle the download anyway. But I suspect that the answer to whether one aspect of God can influence and alter the other is: yes and no. No, in the sense that God cannot undo his own nature. I don't even think it makes sense (or is possible) to try to fully describe the nature of God, let alone to suggest it can be altered. That might be a bit like asking if there is a way to make water that isn't wet. The answer is also "yes" in the sense that this other aspect of God does change things by working through us. In most stories, miracles and changes don't just happen, they are done through people.

Let me clarify a few things. First, I am not telling anyone they should call the phenomena I am collectively describing "God". I am using the conventional term, but that's beside the point. Second, I am not trying to "rescue" the idea of God by deconstructing the problem of evil. Most of what I am discussing here is re-phrased and re-formulated from the time when I was a somewhat secular-minded Buddhist who didn't talk much if at all about "God". Third, I am not offering this as an explanation of "why" what we consider to be "bad things" happen to good people. I know that the desire to erase uncertainty in such matters leads some people to embrace all manner of explanations for "why" such things happen, but I don't buy it. I see such events like the rest of this aspect of reality, conditioned and shaped by cause and effect.

Instead, I am suggesting that flat, immature, and poor thinking about terms like "God", "evil", "prayer" and the like as well as a desire for clear and easy answers to what are sometimes impossible questions leads religious and non-religious people alike to have some pretty unrealistic or toxic opinions about hard things. This is most counter-productive. I am also suggesting that any understanding of God that can be damaged by the facts of suffering and death needed demolishing anyway, as well as any that diminish the naked awe and raw beauty of our fragile and precarious existence. Lastly, I am suggesting God isn't a problem to be solved or a problem-solver to be brought out to "fix" whatever we don't like about our lives. God is a reality to be lived, bravely and fiercely.


  1. Well said. It's rare that someone discusses theodicy without me rolling my eyes. No eye rolling here.

    I like many of the concepts you talk about here, but the name God has too much baggage, or perhaps I have too much baggage to allow me to use the word in such a way. ;-)

  2. But Coach bags can be purchased by good people with bad things happening to them or bad people with good things happening to them.

  3. I think I remember Tillich saying something about how the word "God" has so many meanings and implications that vary that it may be best to drop the term.Between Classical, panentheistic, and pantheistic dieties he may have a point.


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