Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Suffering and the Pathetic Fallacy

Many of the questions I get (and apparently questions John gets based on the web site) about pain, suffering, evil, etc. seem to have a reverse "Pathetic Fallacy" to them.  They imply for instance that pain, suffering and evil somehow reflect on the "goodness" of God.  Just as we have a term for applying human feelings to inanimate objects, is there some term or phrase for the idea of applying human attributes to God?  For example, the old argument "if God can do anything, he can make a box big enough and heavy enough that not even He can lift it."  It's a fun thing to ponder but it applies very human traits to God such as being constrained by gravitation.  Is there something that captures this idea that humans tend to define God in terms of the human experience even though he's God?  Basically any question that starts out "How can a loving God..." falls into this category.  They all take the form of "How can a loving God allow <insert human tragedy here>" as if God's love is defined by whether or not we all have a good time while we're here on earth.

Response: I think there is a technical term for what might be called Anthropomorphic projection since it’s a very old problem, but I’m on the plane at present and can’t look it up. It’s quite hard to get the balance right. What “God” says in Job always needs to be borne in mind (I say “God” because it’s clear, at least to me, that Job is essentially a play in which the characters have set speeches. It teaches us many things about profound issues but it is absolutely not intended to be an account of specific real events. Indeed the relationship between God, Satan and humanity shown in the prologue, although highly effective dramatically, is clearly a cartoon and I don’t suppose for a moment that the author(s), who were clearly enormously profound theological thinkers, ever supposed that God and Satan really interacted like that.)

Nevertheless God’s love is not so completely unlike human love that we can quite get away with dismissing the problem of suffering in the way that you suggest. We definitely have to be cautious about the grave limitations of human understanding. But it is neither theologically nor apologetically enough to say that human suffering in this life is irrelevant – after all this would make the sufferings of Jesus irrelevant as well and it’s clear that he really suffered and wanted if possible to avoid it.

It takes real faith to continue to believe in God’s love and goodness in the face of grievous suffering. This faith is perfectly rational: after all “I can’t see why a loving God has allowed X” is not the same as “there is no possible reason why a loving God could have allowed X” unless you believe the absurd proposition “If there were a reason why God allowed X I would certainly be able to see it”.  In the end it seems to me that either there is a Loving Ultimate Creator or the Universe is meaningless. We have good reasons for believing the former, but they do not amount to a knock-down proof.  We have to choose. I choose faith in our loving God even though I know, intellectually, that I might be wrong. 

And what I have recently come to understand is that, even if I the evidence against God’s existence were almost overwhelming, I would still choose faith in God.  Firstly because the “evidence” might be wrong (even a signed confession by St Paul that he had faked the whole thing – supported by archaeological evidence: this could itself be a fake) but more importantly because it seems to me that it is better to live a life based on faith in Christ, and then die and pass into oblivion, than to live as an atheist and pass into oblivion.  This is a kind of modified Pascal’s Wager where the outcomes are {infinity, a, b>0, c>0}*  It’s not just that provided a, b and c are < infinity you are always better choosing faith.  I think that, on balance, the things we (try to) give up as Christians are harmful for us (even if God doesn’t exist) and the things we aspire to are beneficial.  So if b > c then Faith is always the best option, even if a turns out not to be minus infinity (as Pascal supposed).

Best wishes

* What I mean by this is that if you chose Faith and the truth is Loving God then your “payoff” in a game-theoretic sense is infinite, if you chose Atheism and the truth is Loving God then your “payoff” is a etc..

No comments:

Post a Comment