Every time I lay down my pen after writing about matters supernatural, I say I’ll never take it up again. I’m going to let this business rest, as some of my readers urge, and confine myself to matters mundane, even municipal, like the purchase of Chevy Tahoes for the convenience of Schenectady cops.
But the letters keep coming in — more than you see in print — and some of them so provoke me that I cannot hold back. This is what happened when I raised the question of why the invisible man in the sky, as I call him, allows a little boy in Seattle to contract a deadly infection in the first place, and why, if he’s going to save that boy, he doesn’t save all gravely ill children.
A simple question but one that, as I well knew, has vexed theologians since the invention of the invisible man or at least since the attribution to him of omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness. If he is all of those things, why does a little boy get his face half-eaten away by a raging bacteria? Very fine to claim that the spirit of a long-dead Indian girl interceded and got the invisible man to relent, but why was that necessary?
Some readers simply sputtered with rage at the question, and I don’t blame them, since I think it’s as good a response as any, given the difficulties of the situation. But others endeavored to give reasonable answers, and these are the ones who fell into a quagmire from which nobody since the time of St. Augustine has been able to extricate himself. Indeed, St. Augustine is floundering there yet, and so is the mighty Thomas Aquinas.
I’ll let one letter-writer stand for them all. He identified himself as a part-time philosophy instructor, and he wrote in his letter, which was published over the weekend: “Evil in its primary sense requires human intent, and in fact the Christian answer to the problem of evil is that evil entered world through human free will. But, indeed, the Bible has an answer as to why things like disease and natural disasters were allowed into the world as well: as punishment and result of the misuse of that free will.”
That is the orthodox Christian position. There is “moral evil” wrought by humans, like murder, and there is the “physical evil” of disease and natural disasters, and both are ultimately traceable to human malevolence.
“Suffering is the penal consequence of wilfull disobedience to the law of God,” in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Students of logic are familiar with this kind of reasoning from Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” stories, which are playful accounts of how the camel got his hump and the leopard his spots, designed for the entertainment of children. The process is the same: You make up a story to explain something retroactively, based on what is called in logical terms the ad hoc fallacy.
But never mind the logic, for a moment. Just think about the claim itself, that “the cause of suffering is sin,” in the abrupt formulation of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Whose sin? The sin of a 6-year-old boy playing basketball? I have to wonder, was his sin such that it warranted his grotesque disfigurement, while his playmates were spared?
How about the sins of the 300,000 Haitians who were killed in an earthquake a few years ago? Were they any worse than the sins of the 9 million Haitians who were not killed?
It strikes me as incredibly callous, not to say stupid, to contend any such thing. Also, incredibly smug. Any time there is a horrible disease or natural disaster to argue that, basically, the people afflicted had it coming because they were sinners who had misused their God-given free will.
Or maybe they weren’t individually worse than other sinners, but we’re all descendants of the original sinners, Adam and Eve, and we’ve all got to pay the price, however God feels like parceling it out.
It’s not my reasoning, heaven help us, it is orthodox Christian reasoning, and I believe Jewish also.
When you put it in plain English, isn’t it clear that the invisible man these believers postulate could only be a type we would not want to socialize with?
And isn’t it clear that their rationalizations are lame, ludicrous and even insulting?
I think so.
To claim that the half-destruction of a child’s face is fair recompense for either the child’s or mankind’s disobedience to some spirit up in the sky strikes me as very poor philosophy, and I’m glad that the writer who proposed it teaches the subject only part time. I hate to think what he’d come up with if he exerted himself full time.
In fact, the line of reasoning, if you want to call it reasoning, comes down to us in a direct line from an Iron Age desert tribe who imagined any time they suffered a plague of locusts it was punishment from their tribal god.
They were innocent of meteorology, those people, and of epidemiology, entomology and all other -ologies, so they are not to be blamed. Indeed, I don’t blame them. They explained the world the best they could. I just marvel that their view still has currency today and that there are otherwise intelligent people who passionately advocate it.
As for the letter from my friend Jim Murphy, former priest and lifelong friend of the less fortunate, published yesterday in this newspaper, I thought it demonstrated the uses religion can be put to when it is interpreted poetically rather than literally.
The idea of Christ as not belonging in the world and therefore having his place with “those others who do not belong, who are rejected by power, because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated,” as quoted from Thomas Merton, I thought was something that could inspire decent people without forcing any logical contortions. Just leave logic out of it.
Now, again, I’ve had my say, and again I’m going to retire from the field. I’m going to return to the mundane matters that newspapers are supposed to occupy themselves with and leave supernatural matters to the professionals.
Just don’t provoke me.