When tragedy strikes: that’s when people start talking nonsense about god (let’s keep that lowercase). In a HuffPo piece on the Newtown tragedy, Edward Blum suggests silence:
Perhaps in this moment “sigh” is better than childish theology; perhaps to remain attentively quiet is what God would ask of us — because that is what God seems to do too.
And who can doubt that silence in the face of the incomprehensible is better than lies or nonsense? But what is this “that is what god seems to do too” doing here? What sense does this make? After all, has Blum ever heard god speaking on other occasions? Why is god silent when things are going badly, but good fortune is taken as a good word from god? Yesterday, the religious idiots got in their silly words about god’s unwillingness to protect children, because we don’t pay him his due. According to them, god is not being silent at all. His message is loud and clear. Start praying in your schools or else!
Now, it’s interesting that everyone has their own take on what god’s message is in situations like this. Blum thinks god has gone silent. All he has is a sigh. Huckabee thinks that god is a figure of malice and violence, who kills children if we don’t worship him by setting aside a moment or two each morning to pray for the children’s welfare. Otherwise, the kids are in danger of god’s wrath.
The problem is that no one really hears god at all, in good or in ill fortune. They either make up these stories to make a political point, or to comfort people who cannot be comforted, or just to keep our attention focused on our own failures, so that we don’t notice that god is really just an empty vessel which we fill with our own hopes and hatreds. But god never acts at all. In the video of the Dawkins-Lennox debate which I mentioned yesterday (and from which I took Lennox’s convenient lie), Lennox expressed his unwillingness to believe that god didn’t intervene at some point in the evolutionary process so that we are toto caelo distinct from the other living things that populate this earth. It’s a bit like Pope Wojtyła’s ontological saltation. At some point in the evolutionary process, he suggested in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Science, god intervened and injected a soul into human beings. When Dawkins asked Lennox at what point god might have done this, whether at the time of archaic Homo sapiens or more recently, Lennox, of course, had no answer. But his belief in eternal life requires that it must have been done — what would be the point of granting eternal life to bugs and bacteria? – so it has to be posited. There must be an ontological difference, detectable or not.
That shows how distinct are the scientific method and the methods of theology. If you need it, you simply presuppose it in theology. Science, however, requires evidence. There’s no point in positing something for which there isn’t a shred of evidence. Lennox thinks that consciousness is the main stumbling block for science. We don’t understand it, he says. It’s a big mystery. It can’t have come about by evolution. But that, of course, is nonsense, for there are other conscious beings in the world. William Lane Craig might argue that mere animals don’t have awareness. They don’t suffer pain, he suggests. They have pain responses, but no pain awareness. Jerry Coyne recently addressed himself to Craig’s rather strange argument, and says, with some justice, that if you can feel pain, you’re aware of it:
But there’s no difference between feeling pain and being aware that you’re feeling pain. Pain is a “quale” (plural “qualia”)—a conscious and subjective sensation—which demands awareness, unless it’s simply a sensation that you have learned (or evolved) to avoid. But if you’ve learned or evolved to avoid it because it’s unpleasant, then you are indeed aware of feeling pain! Finding a sensation unpleasant demands sufficient consciousness to experience qualia.
And then he goes on to point out that Craig argues as he does, because it helps to get rid of a good bit of the problem of evil. For if animals are not aware of pain, then we don’t need to take them into account in totting up the score for or against god. After all, if human beings alone feel pain — do babies, I wonder, feel pain, being no more aware than some animals? — then the millions of years before human beings came on the scene there was no suffering to speak of on earth. Like magic, the problem disappears. And since human beings are not only aware of pain, but are thinking beings, we can see that pain might do us some good. We can learn from pain and suffering, so pain and suffering could be a part of a total good. It’s wonderful what you can do with a few trick moves in an argument!
However, it won’t do any good to suggest that pain and suffering can be part of a greater good, unless there is something to follow death. This, after all, is the Christian promise: “Death, where is thy sting? Where, death, your victory?” We will all be raised up on the last day to face the judgement of god, to be parcelled either to heaven and glory, or to hell and suffering forever more. This should scare the hell out of them, thought god. They’ll be good now. But as anyone who has had the care of children knows, scaring the hell out of kids doesn’t make them better, and may make them considerably worse. So, apparently, god doesn’t have even the shadow of an idea how to deal with beings who can thumb their noses at him, and do. Not a very bright person, then?
The trouble is that the concept of god is problematic. Yes, I know, this is not particularly news. It’s been problematic all along. And no wonder, since it’s one of our concepts, and language is not an unproblematically pellucid medium in which to work. Words slip and slide under the pressure of usage, so it’s not easy to say, at any given point, what it is we mean by the word ’god’. In fact, so difficult is the concept of god, that some theologians, fed up by having this pointed out to them, opt for the incomprehensible something that comes at the end of a chain of deductions. That they turn around and say some very particular things about the incomprehensible shows that the incomprehensible something at the heart of religious belief is simply not rich enough to provide the basis for a religious life. So they have to improvise.
In the debate between Dawkins and Lennox, the question arose about “man” being made in the image of god. So, said Dawkins, it all boils down to the fact that god looks like us. No, no, said Lennox. That’s an anthropomorphism, but god is a person, just as we are persons. But even that won’t do it, will it? Because an infinite and eternal person — what’s that like? Could we even know? Well, said, Lennox, god is a person so we can have a personal relationship with him. The whole thing is a bit of a muddle, really. We know what it’s like to be in relationship with a person. But what if that person never spoke? Never told us what was on his mind? Never offered to help when we were in trouble? Remained silent in the face of the most horrendous suffering? What would a relationship with a person like that be like?
Well, Lennox would no doubt say, but god has spoken to us. He spoke to us in the figure of Jesus. And then he would unfold the Christian mystery of redemption through suffering and death of that man, the word of god made flesh, whatever that means. Well, says Lennox, it means that the designer of the world, the logos, the reason, the structure of being, came into the world, and died on a cross, and then he came back to life again, just to show us that it can be done, and will be done for us. And we’re supposed to think that this really makes sense and says something intelligible. All we have to do is to trust his word. He has given us his assurance that we are not alone, and he promised us, by rising (or being raised) from the dead, that death is not the end, and that we can go on to look forward to the broad sunlit uplands of heaven, wherever and whatever that is. It’s much easier to describe hell, so, accordingly, the religion that takes hell with the greatest earnestness, Islam, is simply full of terrifying descriptions of the suffering that awaits the unfaithful. But heaven itself. It’s pretty much a blank cheque. But, be of good cheer, says Jesus, “I have overcome the world.” (John 16.33)
But this is a great problem, isn’t it? That is — overcoming the world? I’ve been, a bit fitfully, trying to learn German over the last few years. I’m making very slow progress, but yesterday I was reading parts of Luther’s Bible, the gospel of John, to be exact, and I came across this verse. Of course, I had read it in English many times, but reading it in German made it much more powerful, because the language was strange to me, the verse struck me with greater impact. It seemed, suddenly, fresh and new. Here’s the verse in German, with my own translation:
Wer sein Leben liebhat, der wird’s verlieren; und wer sein Leben auf dieser Welt hasset, der wird’s erhalten zum ewigen Leben. [John 12.25]
Whoever loves his life will lose it; and whoever hates his life in this world, will preserve it for everlasting life.
Nothing could be clearer. This is not the real thing. You belong somewhere else. And anyone who strives to make a home here, has lost his life already. No wonder Obama said of the children of Newtown, that god had called them home.
What a reassuring word that is: home! Just think what he was saying! Instead of acknowledging that they will never go home again, that they would no longer brighten their parents lives, would no longer play happily at their childish games, Obama said that they had gone to their real home. They did not belong here! I’m sure he said it with the greatest respect, and intended to be comforting, but it’s a strange world in which a child’s home is not with his or her family, but somewhere we know not where. They’re dead, and yet they are said to have been called home! You must hate your life in this world!
This reminds me that Elizabeth once wrote in her journal that sometimes she wished that there was a life after death, so that we could be together again and share in the time that was lost here. But she simply rebelled against the idea, because that would mean that all the suffering that she was enduring was done with a purpose, that someone had planned and then executed the plan to make her suffer. And the plan was such that she would be forced to look on what we had known together as not the important thing, because that she was going to lose. So she would have to begin despising that, because that wasn’t part of the plan. Something else was. And at that she simply balked and could not get her head around it. If our joy and love was not the real thing, and if that was to be cut off by her suffering and then her death, then whatever came could not be good, not good as we could understand that good, and this she was not prepared to say. And I am grateful that she could not.
For I am not prepared to say that either. To say that those children, so cruelly shot by an alienated young man, whose heart was full of hatred and murder, had been called home, is a monstrous thing to say! It is to give a victory to the gunman. He became the means by which God had called those children “home.” His act is blessed thereby and dignified, and their deaths are to be celebrated and not mourned. It reminds me of that old windbag Billy Graham, saying with exalted certainty that the victims of the 9/11 atrocities would not come back now, even if they could! That’s what it means to hate life in the world. Whoever loves his life will lose it. Love life, live life to the full, find meaning and purpose here, and your life is already lost. The religious say that without religion you can have no reason or purpose. But Jesus says that if you find meaning and purpose, and celebrate your brief stay upon this earth, then you have lost already. You have to hate your life on this earth, and only then are you worthy of eternal life.
Hyperbole? Not in the context. And it rings true, because elsewhere Jesus is claimed to have said that those are blessed who are hated and persecuted, and falsely accused (and thus, we may assume, placed in danger of their lives, just as Jesus was by the false testimony borne against him). Our stay here is only temporary, and full of trouble, so we should take greater care for what should follow this life. (Pascal understood this, and lived his life that way.) This is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak: there is more and better to come. But even this is dishonest. If this life, full of trouble and pain and sorrow as it is, is like this, then what reason have we to imagine anything better in another life, supposing there is one? After all, this is the only evidence we have of god’s love and care. As C.S. Lewis said — and then, it seems, promptly forgot — he got no comfort from people telling him that his wife was now in the hands of god. But she was in god’s hands here, and he saw what being in the hands of god meant. That was no comfort.
Later in the same book (A Grief Observed) he forgot the point. He was returning, by this time, to faith, and so he had to shape things according to his heart’s desire. He had questioned god’s goodness, and had every reason to do so, but later, thinking of god as good again, wholly good, he supposed the following choice:
Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. [69 HarperSanFrancisco paperback]
But by this time he had forgotten that the tortures may go on and on. He has no reason, based on his own experience, why they should not go on and on. The only evidence he has is this world and its sufferings, as he had experienced them. But this, he says, is unendurable, and at that point he abandons his reason, his own perception of the realities of life, and the love and esteem that he bore towards his wife. It is the most pusillanimous betrayal. He can’t live without empty promises, and so, he convinces himself that he can believe again. He thinks to himself, “If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of it, instead of her.” (70) But we never know whether this is sincerely meant. Would we take it on ourselves if we could? We don’t know. But … but, he says:
It was allowed to One, we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that He has done vicariously whatever can be so done. He replies to our babble, ‘You cannot and you dare not. I could and dared.’ 
Considering the number of people who have dared, and have lost their lives on the prospect, this is just silly. Lots of people are prepared to step into the breach, and have done. Not only one, but many. And Jesus does it only in story. We have no idea what he did, or why he did it. These parts of the gospels are the most heavily theologised. The stories that are told are about as reliable as the Qu’ran, which is a pastiche of quotations and misquotations from many sources. The idea that we can step over the threshold in trust is based on nothing more than a myth. The whole thing is a tissue of wish fulfilment and empty hope. And in order to have hope like this, you must really hate this life, and pass through this life as on a pilgrimage, a stranger in a strange land, heading towards that city, whose builder, we are assured, and maker, is god. This is not purpose and meaning. It is a denial of it. Paul said that if our hope is only for this world, then Christian believers are, of all people, most miserable — or to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15.19). And he was right. Because if you live your life on earth as if this is only important because of what is to come, then you cannot have made the best use of your life, if that is all the life you have. You haven’t really lived fully, because you think you have a second chance, and you get the chance only if you despise your earthly life. And this is called meaning and purpose?!