Monday, April 28, 2008

I'm not really cynical, but I'd understand if you thought I was

I should know better than to start talking about a philosophical dispute that I don't have a good answer to, but I've been thinking about the problem of evil/suffering. It started with reading this dialogue between Bart Ehrman and N. T. Wright. It's a good exchange; both sides make really good points. Like I said, I don't have a good answer for my side (that would be the Yes-there-is-a-God side, in case you didn't know). It's not that Ehrman's arguments make me doubt the existence of God or his goodness; it's more like they leave me saying, "Well, it looks like he's got you there, God. I don't have any more arguments. How about you?"

What I've been thinking about in the last few days, though, is how the enormity of human suffering isn't just a challenge to the existence of the God of the Bible. It's also a challenge to the value of human beings (as put forth by Christian theology, our culture in general, and presumably other religions and cultures). Maybe the central challenge of suffering isn't to force us to justify God (theodicy). Maybe it's central challenge is to force us to justify our own sense that we matter (anthrodicy?). One can look at the vast amount of suffering for which no justification can be given, no advantage can be calculated, and conclude that a good, powerful God is an absurdity. But it seems just as reasonable to conclude that suffering doesn't count as much as we think it does.

I'm no doubt treading a well-travelled path here. There are many who have reached this conclusion, or at least observed (with far more art than I can) the wrenching gap between our sense that we matter and the universe's/God's seeming indifference. Stephen Crane. Shusaku Endo. Many observers would see the 20th Century as an era convinced of this point, that human beings just don't matter as much as we have been told; convinced of the point and lusting to prove it. Can you trace a straight line from the observation that "If God is dead, everything is permissible" to Auschwitz? (An observation that Dostoevsky may or may not have made. Now I need to re-read The Brothers Karamazov to find out. Or I could just watch the movie.) This isn't an argument, just a question: independently of trust in the words of God that assure us of his love for human beings (despite what we see of their suffering), how does one avoid the conclusion that human life is worthless? This isn't a "gotcha" question; I'm genuinely curious.

(Chesterton ridiculed the notion that the vastness of the universe made man insignificant, but why should we believe him just because he's a brilliant writer?)

I have one more thought to drop here. I make no attempt at coherence. It seems to me that the problem of suffering exposes the contradiction between our general claim that human beings are valuable and our general behavior. We (if you're reading this, you're included in the "we") are perfectly aware, for example, that people are dying for lack of food, water, and medicine. We are also perfectly capable of buying some of them food, water, or medicine. As they say in the appeals, "What if it were your own child about to die?" But who bankrupts himself to save a stranger's life?

I forget who proposed the following moral thought experiment. Suppose you knew that you could save a 1,000 lives on the other side of the world by crossing the room. Just get up, walk to the other side of the room, and 1,000 people are saved from a horrible death. We would think a person very wicked and perverse if he didn't cross the room. Now suppose you could save those 1,000 strangers by cutting off your pinky finger. It may just be my deep-seated fear of mutilation, but I can easily see myself deciding to keep my fingers intact.

It's not just an issue of money. We don't even have the emotional resources to make good on our belief that human lives are valuable. I shouldn't be so confident about this, since we barely make any effort to invest ourselves emotionally with people who are suffering; maybe it has been found too difficult and left untried. But my impression is that none of us could maintain the energy (or even the interest) to care about every person starving or being tortured or dying of thirst. With difficulty, we care about those that we know, those whose presence gives us pleasure, those who are like us.

As a Christian, this all makes a certain horrible sense to me. Caring only about myself is the way I am bent; it is the twisted shape we all share. I believe that human lives are valuable; that each is as valuable as my own. Yet my behavior, my real indifference to suffering, condemns me. The strange implication is, if human lives derived their value from my estimation of their value, or the sum total of people's estimation of their value, it would be undeniable that human lives have no value. Only if there is someone who could esteem each life equally would each life have value.

So let God be the one who speaks the truth, even if it makes every one of us a liar.


Pirate Jimmy said...

This is an interesting post, I'd like to comment on it.

Pirate Jimmy said...

A friend of mine showed me this quote by Nietzsche.

"Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of "world history," but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly-as though the world's axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself." - Nietzsche