Sunday, February 15, 2009

God, Prayer and Making a Difference

The Secular Right has three recent posts about which I wish to comment.  The posts are Civility and Order, New Mysterian Plants Marker, and Please Explain.

The posts can be summarized in three propositions:

1. Good things that happen do not prove God's beneficence, because bad things also sometimes happen that God could have stopped. If you are going to count one, you've got to count the other.

2. If there is a God, there might as well not be as far as this world is concerned. God might make a discernible difference in the hereafter, but makes no apparent difference in this one.

3. The future of our society as one of honor, decency and virtue does not depend on religious faith.

First, let us take the first proposition, drawn from the post Please Explain. If Bill O'Reilly thinks that the safe landing of Flight 1549 was due to miraculous intervention (I don't know that he does, I only know what the Secular Right has written), then he is simply a fool. The safe landing of Flight 1549 was obviously due to the training, experience and coolness of the crew. No miraculous intervention needed. God was not the immediate cause of the safe landing of the plane.

But God can be considered a remote cause of the safe landing of the plane (taking it for granted that God exists.) God created a world in which people like pilot Sullenberger are born, grow to be outstanding pilots through training and the development of virtues like courage, prudence and decisiveness, and so are on hand at a critical moment like the emergency on Flight 1549. So we can say it illustrates God's beneficence in the sense that God was a remote, though perhaps not an immediate, cause of the safe landing of the aircraft.

I was careful not to write that the safe landing of the plane "proves" that God is good. The conclusion that God is good comes from a consideration of being and creation as a whole, not a utilitarian toting up of atomized events, as though we conclude that God is good because N+1 good events have happened in the universe and only N bad events. This is what the secularist seems to want to do; she wants to put God on trial and serve as the prosecutor, and the religious believer as defense counsel. She calls her witnesses and we call ours. 

God created the world and saw that it was good. This means it is better that Flight 1549 and the crew and passengers existed than that they were never born. This is true whether or not pilot Sullenberger succeeded in making a safe landing. It is on the basis of the existential goodness of Creation that we proclaim that God is good. Flight 3407 ended in tragedy, but the only reason it is a tragedy is because something existentially good - the crew and passengers - perished in the crash. We lament the tragedy of Flight 3407, but does it make sense to conclude that God is not good as a result? If God is not good, then His works are not good, including Creation. It follows that existence is an evil, should be fled and, perversely, that tragedies like Flight 3407 are really good things since they release people from the horror of existence.

If that sounds like a horrible thing to say, the thought is not original with me, and pessimistic philosophies throughout history have drawn similar conclusions. The medieval Cathars, for example, held that material Creation is an evil, and therefore considered procreation a sin and suicide a moral example to be followed. Many of the modern existentialists like Sartre have found existence to be repulsive, although they can't quite bring themselves to commit suicide.

Life is good despite the evil things that befall us. I say this as a matter of natural knowledge, not faith. I can praise God for the safe landing of Flight 1549 because God is the remote cause of airplanes and courageous flight crews. What about Flight 3407? To denounce God as evil because of this tragedy is self-contradictory, because it is a tragedy only on condition that God's works (in the form of airplanes, crews and passengers) are good things and should be preserved. We live in a world that is fundamentally good but in which some evil is allowed to occur.

Why does God allow evil? I will risk the wrath of Heather MacDonald by saying this is a mystery. What is not a mystery is that the existence of evil does not constitute a refutation of the goodness of God, which was the point of the above. It should be remembered that all thoroughly thought-through philosophies - religious, atheist, or otherwise - necessarily have elements of mystery to them. If someone tells you that she has no elements of mystery in her thinking, that everything is clear as daylight, or even potentially clear as daylight, they are at best confused. Probably the most serious attempt to generate a philosophy of pure clarity was that of Descartes in his bid to ground philosophy on the indubitable truth of his own thinking - cogito ergo sum. Despite what he thought he was doing, what Descartes actually did was to turn his own mind into an impenetrable mystery, a mystery that haunts the philosophy and sciences of the mind to this day. Descartes simply transplanted the essential mystery from God to his own ego. 

Science is no way out here. Science explains mysteries by positing other mysteries. Newton, for example, explained the motions of the heavens in terms of mass, force and acceleration, three elements no one had heard of before, at least the way Newton used them. Newton never explained what exactly mass or force is, and how it is that a force can act on a mass and produce yet a third type of thing called an acceleration. What he showed convincingly is that these three mysterious elements do interact the way he said they do. Newton transferred the mystery from the solar system to his mechanical elements, and is rightly renowned as a genius for doing so. We have benefitted greatly as a result. Unfortunately, the exchange didn't work out so well in the case of Cartesian philosophy, which has made man an alien in his own world.

The point is that mystery is always the terminus of human thought, whatever it is. Condemning a philosophy because it ends up in mystery is, in the end, a refusal to think things through to their end.

I will take up the other two propositions in coming posts...


Anonymous said...

Greetings! It would be more accurate to state that the medieval Cathars had no doctrinal objection to contraception, euthanasia or suicide. In the case of the latter two, these were rare voluntary acts by persons in near-death situations or those undertaken by extremely ascetic, but misguided persons decades after the medieval movement was almost exterminated. Independent scholars have found the practice was otherwise rare.

The term "Cathars" derives from the Greek word Katheroi and means "Pure Ones". They were a gnostic Christian sect that arose in the 11th century, an offshoot of a small surviving European gnostic community that emigrated to the Albigensian region in the south of France.The medieval Cathar movement flourished in the 12th century A.D. throughout Europe until its virtual extermination at the hands of the Inquisition in 1245.

There are an ever increasing number of historians and other academics engaged in serious Cathar studies. Interestingly, to date, the deeper they have dug, the more they have vindicated Cathar claims to represent a survival of the Earliest Christian Church.

Thank you!

Brad Hoffstetter
Communications Division
Assembly of good Christians

May we suggest the following scholarly sources:

David T. said...

Thank you for stopping by and reading my blog.

I don't claim to be an expert on the Cathars. My information is limited to not much more than what is found in the Catholic Encyclopedia. I'll try to check out the references you gave at the end of your comment.

I do find the phrase "gnostic Christian" to be oxymoronic, and I am not sure that a religion that has no doctrinal objection to euthanasia and suicide, at least, can be Christian.


Anonymous said...

You are quite welcome David. You have an informative and well researched blog, truly a pleasure to visit.

Modern versions of the Catholic Encyclopedia while having a built in bias are more balanced than previous years.

I can refer you to a U.S. Supreme Court legal brief on assisted suicide which we helped draft.

Brief of 36 Religious Organizations, Leaders, and Scholars as Amici Curiae in Support of Respondents, Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793 (1997) (No. 95-1858), and Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (No. 96-110)

The link on our site provides internal and external downloads of the brief in its entirety.

Brad Hoffstetter
Communications Division
Assembly of good Christians