Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Let’s get personal

David Ignatius is disturbed by all the metaphysical musings which have been generated by the recent tragedy in Haiti. He says the important thing is to think, not act. Tocqueville would say this is the typical American attitude towards philosophy.

In one sense, I am sympathetic to Ignatius’ position. It seems that any attempt to formulate an answer to the problem of evil (Why would an all-good, all-powerful God permit human suffering?) rings hollow because it gives an impersonal answer to a personal question.

On the other hand, taking a pass on the question seems like a dodge. It reminds me of a scene from Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood:

“If she had to be blind she would rather be dead. It occurred to her suddenly that when she was dead she would be blind too. She stared in front of her intensely, facing this for the first time. She recalled the phrase, “eternal death,” that preachers used, but she cleared it out of her mind immediately, with more change of expression than the cat. She was not religious or morbid, for which every day she thanked her stars.”

Two secular worldviews which one might turn to for an answer are Atheism and Pantheism. Atheism, by rejecting an absolute point of reference in God, resolves the problem of evil by denying its very possibility. Ultimately, reality is at its foundation nothing more than chaos and meaningless in which case we must move ‘beyond good and evil’ as Nietzsche once said. But this just leads us back to the problem I mentioned earlier: reducing the personal to the impersonal. What occurred in Haiti cannot be tragic or evil in a world devoid of meaning.

Pantheism, as exemplified in the current environmental movement, is premised upon the thesis of the benevolence of Nature. The earthquake, in contrast, reveals Mother Nature’s malevolence. James Cameron and the Na’vi are selective, at best, about what aspects of her merit our worship. Moreover, terms like ‘Mother’ and ‘her’ are misleading for they signify a personality which is not there. Unlike Atheism, Pantheism does not reduce persons to things; instead, it inverts the traditional order by asking people to submit to an Impersonal Nature.

Turning to Christian Theology, the traditional answer has been that God created and sustains a world of free beings in order to be in a relationship with them. Love presupposes freedom, but an unfortunate corollary is freedom can be abused. Since our first parents, we live in world with both good and evil (Whatever natural disasters occurred before mankind’s arrival wasn’t really evil. Christian theology makes a distinction between natural and moral evil, the latter being the type discussed at the moment.)

That answer, while personal since it accounts for love, presents God as too passive for many people. This concern is addressed by the Incarnation, in which God himself becomes a human actor. Surprisingly, his reason for doing so does not seem to be about eliminating human suffering since we are still stuck with it today. And it is at this point when the attempt to answer the question philosophically must end. Yet this does not mean the Christian is shrugging his shoulders. The invocation of ‘Mystery’ is not agnosticism, but an invitation to reflect upon, and even participate in, the Cross. Elusive, yes; Impersonal, no.

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