Monday, March 30, 2015

Evil and God

An Ethical Musings' reader framed a question about evil in an interesting way, prefacing the question with the observation that people often thank God for having spared them or their property from being harmed by a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado. The reader then asks, "What about their neighbor who did suffer from the natural disaster's destructive power? Did the neighbor receive a just punishment for being bad?"

Incidentally, one of the first sermons I preached happened to be in a farming community during a drought. I argued that praying for rain was a waste of time and effort. More rain in one place necessarily meant less rain elsewhere because only a limited amount of water on the ground evaporated into the atmosphere. Do we have the wisdom to know what pattern of rainfall is optimal? Should we have the hubris to think that God loves us better than God loves those who would receive less rain? Do we think that God will answer our prayers for rain yet ignore the equally (and probably more) fervent prayers of Christians who live in lands parched by multi-year droughts, Christians who with their children and neighbors are not just suffering economic hardship but actually dying because of the drought? The congregation was surprisingly more receptive than I had anticipated, but even then, I knew that their attitude was more one of charity toward a youthful preacher than actual agreement.

Thanking God for sparing (or blaming God for striking) one with any of the evils that result from a natural disaster, disease, etc., as traditional Christian theology teaches, is nonsense. Evil, as the Bible reminds us, happens to both good and bad people, to those who appear to merit punishment and to those who appear to merit something better. In the vernacular, we might say, cancer is no respecter of persons.

Nor would a good, loving God capriciously strike both the just and unjust. Pervasive evil and the apparently innocent suffering egregious injustice have led traditional Christian theologians to insist that justice will be done, if not in this life then in the next.

Consequently, the God of traditional Christian theology resembles an imaginary being more than pointing towards a credible concept of the cosmos' creator. Psychological research confirms philosophical speculation from the last two centuries: people tend to imagine God as a heavenly parent. Persons who have had loving, caring parents tend to see God as a loving, benevolent being that helps them overcome adversity and protects them from evil. Persons who have had more distant, judgmental parents tend to see God as more remote and judgmental. I, for one, want nothing to do with an imaginary being; I do not need an imaginary being in order to feel safe or to thrive.

Nobody has ever articulated a satisfactory explanation of why evil exists. Obviously, much evil results from human actions or inactivity. Human actions are responsible for murder and rape; human failure to act responsibly results in people starving to death in a world that has ample food to feed every human now alive. Humans, however, are not responsible for most cancer, most disease, most earthquakes, and most severe weather.

Process theology rejects the idea of an omnipotent God. In creating the cosmos, God shared power with creation, ceasing to be all-powerful. Whether this is the best of all possible worlds, it is the world that God created and in which we exist. That the cosmos exists suggests the existence of a creator. That people sometimes experience a profound awe, a sense of presence or power of one who is wholly other, suggests that the creator continues to engage with the cosmos.

Seeking God's preferential treatment, especially if doing so will disadvantage or harm others, is immoral, a conclusion that most of us along with the Ethical Musings' reader whose question prompted this post intuitively recognize. Praying for rain, praising God for having spared one from suffering the destructive power of a natural disaster, or beseeching God to cure a person of cancer are all illogical. God is not supernatural (and therefore does not act supernaturally, performing miracles at supplicants' behest) but is present in the cosmos' nature. Indeed, nothing is more or can be more natural than God is.

Far too often, Christian hope for ultimate justice becomes what Marx characterized as the opiate of the masses. We cannot know with certainty if there is another world or in what way ultimate justice may prevail. My doctoral adviser, for example, believed that our life after death existed entirely in God's mind. In short, justice deferred is not justice. Thus, we must persevere in trying to make this life and this world the best that we can.

These more limited claims of process theology cohere better with our knowledge of the cosmos and offer the best explanation of evil that I've seen, much better than the answers found in traditional Christian teachings.

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