God’s existence and the problem of evil

A couple of days ago, Andrew Sullivan quoted Einstein. The quote begins with some statements that could be taken as an endorsement of religion. But it continues with this:

The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in the concept of a personal God. … In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God.

One of Sullivan’s readers has responded with an anecdote:

The trouble is, what does Einstein mean by “personal God”? If, by this, he means the interventionist Santa Claus figure to whom we dutifully give a list of wants and demands every time we pray, then I am totally with him and think Christianity should have abandoned this God long ago. But if, by “give up the personal God” he means abandon a God who relates to each individual on a spiritually intimate level, then I can’t go that far.

I myself suffer from a somewhat crippling anxiety disorder, and there have been several times when I have called on God for help and felt something indescribable comforting me. I didn’t receive a magic-cure-all that made everything better again. I did, however, receive a spiritual companionship to help me endure the worst the illness had to offer.

If atheists accuse me of being weak, I say to them “you’re exactly right, I can’t fight this illness by myself.” Fate is going to throw everyone some pretty unsavory curve balls sooner or later. Christianity is unique in that it tells us we don’t have to face those curve balls alone.

Meanwhile, over on Jewish Atheist’s blog, there has been a rather compelling argument against God’s existence grounded in the problem of evil. (An aside to JA: you should have left out the bit about acts of charity, which only deflected your argument away from its main point.)

Yes, the problem of evil is so familiar as to constitute a somewhat trite argument against Christianity. But the problem is real and intractable:  and many Christians respond mostly by looking the other way.

Sullivan’s reader doesn’t address the problem of evil. He’s responding to a different sort of challenge. But I would like to add two interpretive glosses.

First, everything we know about life and the cosmos traces back to our subjective experiences. Here’s an interesting statement of the concept from the Tao Te Ching:

What a man desires to know is that [i.e. the external world]. But his means of knowing is this [i.e. himself].1

I thought this was a modern (even post-modern) insight:  it’s all the rage in the university climate. So I was a little surprised to see it expressed so deftly in such an ancient source (c. 3rd century B.C.E.)

All knowledge is ultimately subjective. I emphasize the point because I know sceptics will respond by saying, That’s anecdotal evidence, and therefore worthless.

There’s no reason you should be convinced by someone else’s experience, of course. But the experience is real to him (her?) and it is not, in fact, worthless. Don’t make the naive mistake of assuming that you’re somehow different: that your worldview is objective, scientific, and non-anecdotal!

Second, I offer the anecdote as an important part of the Christian response to the problem of evil. Yes, there is suffering in this world. And no, we don’t have an adequate explanation of how such suffering can be reconciled with the existence of a personal, omnipotent (sovereign), loving God.

But let’s look at the countervailing data. Literally millions of people have had experiences similar to the one recounted above. We suffer, but God visits us in our suffering to offer extraordinary comfort. This has been one of the hallmarks of Christianity from its inception — that is, from the time of Christ’s own suffering:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction…. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2Co. 1:3-5)

It takes faith to believe in God despite the reality of human misery. Christians are not unaware of the problem:  it has confronted Christianity since Christ’s crucifixion.

The experience described above — of sublime comfort in the very teeth of suffering — is commonplace among Christians, and not to be dismissed reflexively.


1Translated, including the interpretive remarks in square brackets, by Arthur Waley in The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place In Chinese Thought, p. 47. For a little more of the quote, see my sidebar.




MaryP will likely put up a photo on her blog shortly. They aren’t from the “official” photographer, so there are some better shots yet to come.

Medieval wedding ceremony

MaryP and I have been thinking about wedding ceremonies recently. I was googling a particular phrase ("all spiritual benediction and grace") when I came across a reconstruction of the medieval wedding ceremony.

medieval wedding gif

If this was my preferred wording, I think MaryP would lose much of her enthusiasm for marriage. I bet she would call the wedding off!

The ceremony is asymmetrical:  the man says one thing, the woman another. First, there are the notorious lines where the woman promises to serve and obey her husband (whereas he pledges to comfort her):

Man’s vows Woman’s vows
Wilt thou have this Woman to be thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live? Wilt thou have this man to be thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?

OK, everybody’s familiar with that bit. We’ll pass over it in solemn silence. To insert a cheap joke here might be a risky venture, what with the wedding merely hours away.

Then there’s the line, “Who giveth this Woman to be married to this Man?” I’m not sure how this is supposed to work when it’s a second marriage. But again, it’s best to move along post haste.

I had never heard of the next bit. Get a load of these vows:

Man says Woman says
I, Stephen, take thee MaryP to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for fairer or fouler, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us depart, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereunto I plight thee my troth. I, MaryP, take thee Stephen to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to be bonny and buxom at bed and at board, to love and to cherish, till death us depart, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereunto I plight thee my troth.

To be bonny and buxom? At bed and at board? I almost want to include it in the ceremony just to see whether MaryP can say it with a straight face. But I suspect the whole event would quickly disintegrate at that point.

All in all, the medieval wedding ceremony is not for us. But I do love the traditional benediction, which is what I was looking for in the first place:

God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep you; the Lord mercifully with his favour look upon you; and so fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace, that ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting. Amen.

When the Reverend pronounces those words over the two of you, you have been blessed!

That about says it

  1. I started out with nothing and still have most of it left.
  2. Nice perfume:  must you marinate in it? (This one’s for Bill.)
  3. The meek shall inherit the earth, but not til we’re through with it. (I fear this one is true.)
  4. Failure is not an option:  it comes bundled with the software. (I know this one is true.)
  5. If I want to hear the pitter-patter of little feet, I’ll put shoes on my cat. (This one’s for MaryP.)
  6. Meandering to a different drummer.
  7. Don’t bother us — we’re living happily ever after. (This one’s for MaryP and me, effective Monday.)

Apple Patent

An interesting notion presented in this article. Just thought I would share it with you.

The feature would likely be pretty buggy and aggravating at first, but it could be worked into something incredible! I think the most amusing thing that’s mentioned here is the accelerometer in Macbooks, though. I had no idea, but it’s a really cool idea!

Would-be presidential candidates support torture

I’m a Canadian, and the USA’s 2008 presidential election is a long way off. But at least one issue — torture — warrants continual attention.

The Republican Party is already holding debates to choose a leader to succeed George W. Bush. The second debate took place last night. Here’s Andrew Sullivan‘s report on the issue of primary interest to me:

Two candidates opposed [torture] clearly and honorably: [John] McCain and [Ron] Paul. All the others gleefully supported it — including [Sam] Brownback. He’s a born-again Christian for torture.

[Rudy] Giuliani revealed himself as someone we already know. He would have no qualms in exercising executive power brutally, no scruples or restraints.

[Mitt] Romney would double the size and scope of Gitmo, to ensure that none of the detainees have lawyers, regardless of their innocence or guilt.

Sullivan has more on Romney’s position here:

Romney reveals in this [National Review Online interview] clip that he does not believe the president is bound by the law in this question.

He says that he will not provide a definition of “what is torture and what is not torture,” because a president should be able to keep terror supects guessing. So he supports “enhanced interrogation techniques” and not torture, but refuses to say what the difference is. And he says the president gets to pick. And U.S. citizens are subject to this regime.

The logic of Romney’s position, then, is that the president can designate any human being or citizen an “enemy combatant,” detain them indefinitely without charges or recourse to the courts, and torture them using any method he wishes as long as he says it’s not torture and he is under no obligation to explain what torture is.

I continue to find this situation shocking. Many Republican candidates clearly believe they need to take a pro-torture position to improve their prospects of electoral success. That this position is now mainstream is a horrific development, in my view.

And I should call attention to a second extremely important issue. The second quote touches on it: detain them indefinitely without charges or recourse to the courts. The issue is habeus corpus:  we’re still waiting to see which presidential candidates would reinstate it and which candidates would not.

What an Orwellian world the Bush Administration has created in its response to 9/11! If habeus corpus no longer applies, and any citizen of any country can be tortured at pleasure of the US President, the terrorists win.

I know the statement is trite, but it also happens to be true.

The Tao of Pooh, part 2

“What flows like water, reflects like a mirror, and responds like an echo?”

“Oh, a Riddle,” said Pooh. “How many guesses do I get?” (p. 85)

The Tao (the “T” is pronounced more like a “D”) might be described as the power or energy that animates the cosmos (my terminology, not Benjamin Hoff’s). The Taoist seeks to live in harmony with that energy.

book coverInstead of struggling (physically or mentally) to make things happen, the Taoist’s goal is to align his actions with the Tao. Ultimately it is the Tao which makes things happen, not the Taoist.

The Taoist Way could easily be mistaken for passivity, but I think that interpretation would miss an important nuance. The Taoist is active, but she doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that events are determined by her. She knows she can only achieve appropriate outcomes by living in harmony with and relying on the Tao.
This brings us back to Chuang-tse‘s riddle. What flows like water, reflects like a mirror, and responds like an echo? A life lived in harmony with the Tao:

  • Flows like water —
    Water flows over and around obstacles. It does not resort to force to destroy the obstacles in its path. One might say that the Taoist plays the cards that have been dealt to her, instead of sulking or demanding a new deal.

      In the background of this riddle we can see P’u, the principle of the Uncarved Block (described in part one). Taoists orient their actions to Things As They Are — not Things As They Might Have Been, or Things As We Would Have Preferred Them.

  • Reflects like a mirror —
    A mirror does not distort; it accurately represents whatever is before it (blemishes and all!). The Taoist (like the Buddhist) tries to see what is actually there before him.

      It is more difficult than it sounds! Human beings constantly interpret reality in accordance with our prior expectations, and thereby introduce distortions / illusions. As George Orwell observed, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”.

  • Responds like an echo —
    An echo does not generate sound, it merely deflects it. (Not unlike the mirror, which does not generate light but reflects it.)

Hoff uses T’ai Chi Ch’üan, the Taoist martial art, to illustrate:

The basic idea of T’ai Chi Ch’üan is to wear the opponent out either by sending his energy back at him or by deflecting it away, in order to weaken his power, balance, and position-for-defense. Never is force opposed with force; instead, it is overcome with yielding. …

The principle can be understood by striking at a piece of cork floating in water. The harder you hit it, the more it yields; the more it yields, the harder it bounces back. Without expending energy, the cork can easily wear you out. (pp. 87-88)

Of course, Hoff also uses Winnie-the-Pooh to illustrate the Taoist Way. Remember that occasion when Rabbit, Piglet, and Pooh were lost in the woods? They went hopelessly in circles for a while, and then Rabbit wandered off and left the other two alone:

“Now then, Piglet, let’s go home.”

“But Pooh,” cried Piglet, all excited, “do you know the way?”

“No,” said Pooh. “But there are twelve pots of honey in my cupboard, and they’ve been calling to me for hours. I couldn’t hear them properly before, because Rabbit would talk, but if nobody says anything except those twelve pots, I think, Piglet, I shall know where they’re calling from. Come on.”

They walked off together; and for a long time Piglet said nothing, so as not to interrupt the pots; and then suddenly he made a squeaky noise … and an oo-noise … because now he began to know where he was. (p. 14)

This is the Tao. Pooh is not engaged in frenetic activity, expending energy indiscriminately (Rabbit’s way). He is not trying to be clever (Owl’s way). Pooh’s way is to go with the flow. Somehow things just seem to work out for him:

When you do that sort of thing, people may say you have a Sixth Sense or something. All it really is, though, is being Sensitive to Circumstances. That’s just natural. It’s only strange when you don’t listen. (p. 85)

Life never leaves us without hints as to which way we should turn from moment to moment. The problem is, we overlook those hints. The Taoist seeks the inner stillness and the concentrated awareness that enables him to pick up on Life’s cues.

In conclusion, let me offer a couple of observations.

First, it seems to me that Taoism could be practised by the atheist and the theist alike. For example, environmentalism might constitute a secular form of Taoism. Environmentalists decry the negative consequences of industrialization and the West’s reliance on technology to solve problems. The environmentalist’s goal of a life lived in harmony with nature is not far from the Taoist Way.

But Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that we must introduce a personal God into the equation. It isn’t just a matter of living in harmony with nature (though that is valid, insofar as “nature” is God’s creation). It is also a matter of discerning God’s will and relying on God’s power. If God is integral to Reality, then the Taoist must also value harmony with God — perhaps preeminently.

Second, I wonder whether Taoists exercise moral discernment and, if so, on what basis. Christians would argue that nature is fallen. Insofar as nature conforms to God’s will, it is right and good to live in harmony with it. But insofar as nature is alienated from God, and distorted by sin, it is a mistake to yield to one’s “natural” impulses.

Surely nature can be pitiless and destructive. And animals are motivated first and foremost by self-interest. Taoists, on the other hand, value compassion (again, like Buddhists). I’m not sure where this value comes from:  or how it can be reconciled with living in harmony with nature, which all too often is devoid of compassion.

Perhaps the objection merely shows how limited my understanding is. I am an outsider, and Eastern thought is still new to me.

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