Monday, August 17, 2009

Theodicists and Job's comforters

A redated post.

Charles Williams was a great friend of C. S. Lewis who died prematurely in 1945. Lewis edited a set of essays in his honor in 1947, entitled Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Eerdmans, 1974, originally Oxford University Press, 1947) (one year before the Anscombe exchange), and included the following in the preface. p. xiii.

But that was only one side of him. This scepticism and pessimism were the expression of his feelings. High above them, overarching themn like the sky, were the things he believed, and they were wholly optimistic. the did not negate his feelings; they mocked them. To the Wiliams who had accepted the fruition of Deity itself as the true goal of man, and who deeply believed that the sufferings of this present time were as nothing in comparison, the other Williams, the Williams who wished to be annihilated, who would rather not have been born, was in the last resort a comic fugure. He did not struggle to crush it as many religious people would have done. He saw its point of view. All that it said was, on a certain level, so very reasonable. He did not believe that God Himself wanted that frightened, indignant, and voluble creature to be annihilated; or even silenced. If it wanted to carry its hot complaints to the very Throne, even that, he felt, would be a permitted absurdity. It was true, Williams added, that the Divine answer had taken the surprising form of inviting Job to study the hippopotamus and the crocodile. But Job's impatience had been approved. The weight of the divine displeasure had been reserved for the 'comforters', the self-appointed advocates on God's side, the people who tried to show that all was well--'the sort of people', he said, immeasurably dropping his lower jaw and fixing me with his eyes--'the sort of people who wrote books on the Problem of Pain'.
In his essay "De Futilitate," (William B. Eerdmans, Christian Reflections, p. 70), which was a presentation given during the Second World War but written after the Problem of Pain, he seems to echo Williams' comments:

I cannot and never could persuade myself that such defiance is displeasing to the supreme mind. There is something holier about the atheism of a Shelley than about the theism of a Paley. That is the lesson of the book of Job. No explanation of the problem of unjust suffering there given: that is not the point of the poem. The point is that the man who accepts our ordinary standard of good and by it hotly criticizes divine justice receives the divine approval: the orthodox, pious psople who palter with that standard in the attempt to justify God are condemned. Apparently the way to advance from our imperfect apprehension of justice is not tot hrow our imperfect apprehensions aside but boldly to go on applying them. Just as the pupil advances to more perfect arithmetic not by throwing the multiplication table away but by working it for all it is worth.

So is Lewis pleading guilty to the charge of being a Job's comforter in PP? In one sense he could plead innocent; he could point out that the book is designed first and foremost to prevent us from drawing the conclusion, which Williams also does not draw, that God does not exist. The book frequently offers possible, rather than actual solutions to the problem of suffering, and is not designed to allow someone to go to someone undergoing immeasurable suffering: "Look, this is why you are having such a hard time now."

But while not condemning his previous book, Lewis seems to think that Williams had a point that he ought to have taken more seriously when he became "the sort of person who writes a book about the Problem of Pain."

In much of Lewis's work, he allows a considerable constructive role to be played by what I like to call the believer's "inner atheist." He remained firmly convinced that actual atheism was self-refuting (see Reason, Argument From) and undermining to the very moral foundation of the criticism directed at God. But even so, Lewis would, I think, have to agree that a lot of people died and suffered because of Hurricane Katrina who did not deserve to and that we really don't know, specifically, why God allowed this to happen. This response to Charles Williams, I think, is an excellent lens through which we can better understand A Grief Observed.


Jason said...

Nice essay. Lewis' "Teacher" MacDonald would approve, too.

Micah Harris and Micahel Gaydos wrote/drew an interesting graphic novel in 2003, called _Heaven's War_; featuring a Lewis/Tolkien/Williams meet the Da Vinci Code (sort-of {g}) plot.

Williams' attitude comes through pretty clearly in the story; and he's the one who ends up facing down Aleister Crowley for the Grail (not Tolkien the never-say-die optimist nor Lewis the metaphysical duelist). Good salute to Williams' mystical time-overlapping plotlines, too.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Speaking of The Problem of Pain, I find myself repelled by Lewis's musing in that book about how a "heaven for mosquitoes" might be combined with a "hell for humans." Is that supposed to constitute Lewisian wit? Therefore, I was happy to read your article that asked whether Lewis might have grown to consider he went too far in writing a defense of eternal hell.

Even if eternal hell exists, is it really up to any human being with half a feeling heart to "defend" it? I have difficulty imagining myself even being willing (if I had the power) to inflict an eternal toothache even on my worst enemy.

Lewis also wrote in the Problem of Pain that "the doctrine of eternal hell had the full support of Scripture," but a little later, when Lewis wrote his allegory, The Great Divorce, Lewis had one character subtract from Lewis's ealier pronouncement, for you find in this latter work the words, "St. Paul spoke as if all men would be saved." So did Lewis's mind change? Lewis even cited the words of a famed medieval mystic in The Great Divorce, a mystic who had a vision of Jesus who told her that "all would be well," and the mystic wrote that she understood that to mean that all would go to heaven, though the religious authorities of her day renounced such an idea.

Lewis also admitted that he had great sympathy with the universalistic Christianity of George Macdonald, whom he added as a character in The Great Divorce, but Lewis added when asked later in life that for all of his wishes to the contrary, he could not relinquish the doctrine of eternal hell because the doctrine came out of the mouth of Christ himself according to certain N.T. verses.

Of course, universalist theologians like those whose books and articles appear at question just how literally to take the apocalyptic language found in the Gospels. Perhaps if Lewis lived longer and studied more, if any of us could do so during our brief lives on earth, we'd all change our views any number of times over the centuries on any number of our beliefs? Certainly many have changed theirs in a variety of directions during the course of in-depth lives of study.

Another statement from C.S. in this regard is found in A Grief Observed written or published in the year of his own death. Lewis wrote:

"The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'so there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'"[1]

And only four months before his death, Lewis wrote in a letter to an American philosopher that there were dangers in judging God by moral standards. However, he maintained that "believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him 'good' and worshipping Him, is still greater danger."[2]

Lewis was responding specifically to the question of Joshua's slaughter of the Canaanites by divine decree and Peter's striking Ananias and Sapphira dead. Knowing that the evangelical doctrine of the Bible's infallibility required him to approve of "the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua," Lewis made this surprising concession: "The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.[3]

The Lewis quotations in the paragraph directly above are from an online article, "The Relativity of Biblical Ethics" by Joe Barnhart, prof. of philosophy

One might even compare Lewis's second lengthy comment in your excellent blog-post with this one by Voltaire:

"The silly fanatic repeats to me that it is not for us to judge what is reasonable and just in the divine Being. That His reason is not like our reason, that His justice is not like our justice. Eh? How, you mad demoniac, shall we judge justice and reason otherwise than by the notions we have of them? Do you want us to walk otherwise than with our feet, and speak otherwise than with our mouths?"--Voltaire

Mike Darus said...

We live in the age of "Win-Win" conflict resolution. Shouldn't we expect God would have worked this way in ancient cultures? Why was it necessary for the passage through the Sea of Reeds be such a bad day for the Egyptians (regardless of how much water was involved)? Why not just tell Ananias and Sapphira to join the church down the street? Maybe God should have explained to Joshua how a hostile takeover can be accomplished through stock transfer. Revelation would also be much more concrete using modern audio and video recording. God just spoke too soon.

Ilíon said...

Mr Babinski,
Squeemishness is not evidence of possession of an elevated morality.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Ilíon said: "Mr. Babinski, Squeemishness is not evidence of possession of an elevated morality."

Babinski's reply: Then I suppose C. S. Lewis was "squeemish" too, at least concerning the "treacheries of Joshua," and the story in Acts of the slaying of two church members (a husband and wife) for lying about turning in all they had to the church. Neither story made much moral sense to Lewis.

May I ask also what moral sense it makes to speak of ancient Israelites up in heaven right now for having been obedient child slaughterers? Is that what it takes to get to heaven? And how does that reflect on the Bible's "morality" in general if it's own ethics appear relative in cases of genocide, polygamy, concubinage, slavery, and murdering disobedient children or anyone who questions Yahweh or the priest?

“I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the Lord: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them... A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord’s work! A curse on him who keeps his sword from bloodshed.You are My war-club... with you I shatter old man and youth... young man and virgin.
(Jeremiah 13:14; 19:9; 48:10; 51:20,22)

“Leave alive nothing that breathes... show them no mercy.” (Deut. 7:2)

“The Lord hardened their hearts... that they might receive no mercy.” (Joshua 11:20)

“Blessed are the merciful.”
(Matthew 5:7)

Oops, how'd THATt command get in there?

I guess it's fortunate for the sake of the Bible's own future preservation and use, that there are a variety of examples of behavior to choose from throughout its pages.

Psalm 34:14b -- peace and pursue it.

Proverbs 17:5b, 24:17, 25:21 [NIV] -- ...whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished. Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice... If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

Matthew 5:7,9,44 -- Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy... Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God... But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

2 Peter 2:21-23 -- To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.


The children of Israel stoned Achan and his daughters...burned them with fire...raised over them a heap of stones. And the Lord turned from the fierceness of His anger...The Lord hardened their hearts to meet Israel in battle in order that He might destroy them utterly, that they might receive no mercy.
- Joshua 7:24-26; 11:20

Moses said, “Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who is not a virgin. But all the virgins save for yourselves.”

The Lord said, “[Because] she has rebelled against her God..;[Samarian] infants shall be dashed to pieces and women with child ripped open.”
- Hosea 13:16

The Lord said, “Slay man and woman, infant and suckling.”
- 1st Samuel 15:3

You shall fear (no other gods) only Yahweh...for He is a jealous God. Otherwise His anger will be kindled against you and He will wipe you off the face of the earth... In the cities He gives you leave alive nothing that breathes... utterly destroy them no mercy... or Yahweh will destroy you utterly... The Lord delivered them before us... we... utterly destroyed the men... women, and the little ones of every city... If your brother, son, daughter, wife, or your friend who is your own soul, entice you away secretly, saying, “Let us go serve other gods”... you shall kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death... These curses shall come on you... because you would not obey the Lord... you shall eat the offspring of your own body, the flesh of your sons and of your daughters... I [the Lord] will make mine arrows drunk with blood.
- Deuteronomy. 2:34; 5:9; 6:13,15; 7:2,4; 13:6-9; 20:16,17; 28:45,47,53; 32:42

LASTLY as for "squeemishness" itself, it has a range of applications. Some Christians like Jonathan Edwards chided his congregation for feeling "squeemish" about the sight of their own wives and children suffering eternally in hell. Instead he taught that if beloved family members and friends wound up in heaven with you, you ought to rejoice, but if any of them did not wind up in heaven with you, you ought to rejoice too, even at the blessed sight of them reeling in hell.

If guess that worked for Jonathan Edwards and some Christians (since both devout Calvinists and devout Catholics agreed on that notion, the sight of hell's torments blessing the righteous, one of the few things they ever agreed upon), but then I guess each believed they'd get to see the other roasted. And that's "unsqueemish Christian" morality for you.

philip m said...

I was actually just thinking today about what a good atheist I would make. Interesting.

But yes, the point is well made that the atheist who is mad at God for all the evil which occurs is right on the score that it is evil which is, in fact, occurring. The mistake, Lewis claims, is in thinking that God has the same moral obligations as humans.

It is the case that there are certain levels of morality, and humans are on the level of morality where we are meant to prevent others from suffering as much as we can. Given God has much more knowledge and priority than us, it could be the case that there are higher goods in life which involve immense amounts of pain, which God may allow to occur. Of course humans do not have the right - or the intellectual ability - to try to engage in this higher moral level by bringing pain on others. We do not have the priority or juridiction to do that.

So the atheist's problem is in thinking that God is just a human. Doesn't he know we're supposed to help other people out, you know, decrease their pain as much as possible? But of course, from God's vantage point, there are more important things occurring in the life of our souls than experiences of pain and pleasure.

Although yes, it is true that the atheist being mad at God does at least mean they understand their human obligations correctly

Mike Darus said...

I want to affirm your point that man has different moral obligations that God. One of the cornerstones of the skeptics version of the problem with pain is the moral obligation placed on God to prevent any calamity that he knows about and has the ability to prevent. It is certainly a moral obligation for people "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins." James 4:17
The irony is -- this cannot be a moral duty placed in God. If it were, God would so act. If God so acted, there would be no occasions for people to so act because God would have resolved all situations. The result is that there could not be this moral obligation on people. There is no possible world where people and God have an obligation to counteract evil.