The Waves Of Mutilation

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes.

CaoimheB, the balding, middle aged Dutch academic posing as a DCU Multimedia and Colouring-In student and owner of the greenest blog in Ireland, has become a bit of a locus-point for the rest of the self obsessed, self important, narcissistic, default liberal, css illiterate, template using “original thinkers” that pass for a weblogging community in Ireland. I am not linked of course because I have a JOURNAL.

Of course, before you push the red button on your Safari/Firefox/Opera browsers that says “RiGhTeOuS iNdIgNaTiOn” remember I am just kidding. CaoimheB has provided a really useful service by linking to all the blogs she can find. I slagged her once and condemned her to blogger’s hell (which is a pit with 28k connections, the only news source is FOX and the only image manipulation software is MS Paint), but I take it all back.

Having condemned her to hell, she then linked to some folks who would like to condemn God to hell for the tragedy of the tsunami of December 26th. (Joke’s on them since He has already been there!) But this edition of Zoomtard won’t have to do with the brilliance of Clint Eastwood’s new movie, although I would like to know what people think of Hillary Swank (Skank, Mank or rather attractive?) but will have to do with the topic of theodicy. Theodicy is not gambling with God, but the attempt to justify the claimed goodness of the Judeo-Christian God.

This is particularly topical after the tsunami on Stephen’s Day. Certainly, a great many people who did not believe in God in the first place have seized on the tsunami as further evidence that He does not exist. But I have yet to come across anybody who has said: “I used to believe in God until the tsunami struck, but I don’t any more.” How many times have believers been told how irrational it is to believe in a God? Regardless of the merits of that statement, belief in God doesn’t come close on the crazy, illogic scale to the gist of many of the comments I’ve heard since Stephen’s Day: “I am really angry at God, and this is precisely why I don’t believe in Him.”

Ultimately, when faced with issues so massive and tragic as this one, there are two things that a Christian must do. I appreciate the response of Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth of Nations, on the first of these: “The only adequate response is to say: ‘God, I do not know why this terrifying disaster has happened, but I do know what You want of us: to help the afflicted, comfort the bereaved, send healing to the injured and aid those who have lost their livelihoods and homes.”

The second task for a Christian is one that probably isn’t shared in any meaningful way by secular people. It is to return to the Bible to see what it has to teach us. It is best encapsulated by my poetic muse, N.T. Wright, in his Independent editorial on New Year’s Day. He writes that the Bible, “tells a story about the Creator’s plan to put the world to rights, a plan which involves a people who are themselves part of the problem as well as the bearers of the solution.”

Yet for the non-Christian, it is unreasonable to present the Bible as a source of authority. So, what response can a believer make to a challenge like Peter Buckley’s? Pete thinks that we can tell something about the nature of God by looking at His handiwork. This makes a whole bunch of sense on an instinctive level. Find me someone who doesn’t agree with that idea off the bat and I’ll show you Meg Ryan (the human sensibility radar). Go on sure, I’ll show you Meg Ryan for the craic.

But the great Scottish atheist philosopher, David Hume would disagree. Amongst his more unreadable and turgid essays is the Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion and in it he creates a couple of straw-men characters to extend the opposing view. In Part II he undermines the whole effort of theodicy when his idiot-boy Cleanthes says the world is lovely and nice and pretty and kind and lovely and that we need to believe in a good and wonderful God because it is all so lovely. In response, David Hume… I mean, Philo (meaning love, because as you can see from the picture above, he was a demon in the sack) takes him to town and debunks any such nonsense. He does a fine job of it too and if you care to read it, you will think twice, thrice and many more times before you would claim that the nature of the world can tell us anything about the nature of God. (Its notable that he can’t pull himself up to defeating belief in God, only defeating the belief of idiot-boys who deny the existence of evil).

Before you decide to never return here, let me try and present some interesting ideas on the armchair philosophising that come so easily to those privileged with wealth. Y’all know what Free Will is? Here is my bold claim: Free Will can’t be maintained without a relatively independent and unbounded Nature.

Before we get to a discussion of big-ass waves, lets go way back to the beginning: Self-consciousness. The first step to asking any questions about why the world is the way the world is, is self-consciousness. Think about self-consciousness. It exists in terms of the “Other”. It is against an environment of the Other selves that the awareness of Myself stands out.

Now this self-consciousness is a pre-requisite for Free Will, as you can’t choose if you aren’t rational. To put it another way, you can’t choose if you can’t choose.

Choice implies a selection of things to choose from; options. Free Will, like self-consciousness, requires something other than the self to define the self.

Keep going with me on this. We will work up to tsunamis. Eventually. We know that for two people to communicate they have to have things in common- namely an external world that they share. Let me elaborate: There must be a common space and a common time for people to, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “give the co- in co-existence a meaning”. We know that this communication between people requires some kind of work. If your thoughts were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, there would be no way for me to distinguish them from mine.

The Rule-ness of the Laws of Nature
What we have done here is draw out a brief picture of humanity and hopefully laid out the need for the external world in any, even the most basic of activities. This external common field is required for any kind of interaction between people. We call this the world. Now imagine a world with only one occupant, who has complete control of the environmental factors. It conforms to her tastes at every point. It could be ideal. If the occupant needs shade from the sun, trees would be there to protect her. If the occupant needed water, a pool would bubble up. But if you were introduced into this common field that had been built and changes to suit the needs of its original occupant, then you would be unable to act fully in it. In this world, your Free Will could be easily contravened for the moment your existence irritated the occupant, she could change it. Even simple things like expressing your frustration to the world’s original tenant could be beyond your control since the existence of your ability is at her whim.

You are asking, “Zoomy, why are you taking us on this mind-numbing tour to the gates of boredom-induced-coma?” I will answer. That world in the previous paragraph doesn’t exist. In our common externality, that is, world, rules have been applied without preference to any individual or indeed for anything. The laws of the universe are entirely impartial. Matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws. As a result of that, matter can’t be modified to avoid being disagreeable to a person. For communication to take place at all between two people, for you to hope to exercise any choice, the laws of the universe must be firm and impartial. This firmness then means that there is no way that matter can be distributed across the universe to be equally convenient and pleasurable to each human being.

To this, some might say, “Zoomy, you have done a marvelous job at making grammatical sentences but you have missed the point. Why could God not just have built the world differently?” Well, the specifics of the laws of the universe don’t matter here. What matters is that there are laws. God can set the laws up differently so that gravity is at 9.6 m/s2 instead of 9.8 m/s2, but what matters is that the law is still impartial. (And incidentally, it seems that the laws can’t be changed very easily.) As such, if I place a pebble where I want it to be, it cannot, except by coincidence, be where you want it to be.

This is still very far from explaining the 200,000+ deaths as a result of Stephen’s Day’s events. But one of the first eventualities of this fixed nature of matter is that when humans stop being corteous about the fact that the valuable pebble is in my yard instead of yours, the fixed nature of matter can be used to hurt others. Wooden beams that can be used to provide shelter in the form of houses can, due to the same properties, be used as bats to bash people’s heads in. If God were to intervene every time someone was going to abuse the laws of nature and use them to do harm, so that the beam turns into soft grass moments before it makes impact with the skull, God would remove the expression of Free Will which is vital to our nature as humans (and is a dominant theme in the Bible). Taken to its conclusion, even evil thoughts would be impossible in this world since that is the perversion of the fixed matter of the world for the pursuit of bad.

We can imagine a universe created by God where the laws of nature are bounded so that forces as powerful as the tsunami can’t arise. This conceivable universe would still permit Free Will. I argue that the problem of a hostile universe created by a good God still exists here though. It isn’t simply gargantuan forces that lead to natural evil. In this universe, a simple Spring ice on a February morning can cause a slippage that leads to the death of an elderly lady. The charge of shallow histrionics can be leveled at someone who rants against a God who can “kill” 200,000 people all in one go but who doesn’t have any qualms with a universe where people can be killed through co-incidence and fate and the hostile natural world on 200,000 separate occasions.

If we try to conceive of a universe where the laws are arranged so that no one dies as a result of natural events, we can all picture it (leaving aside the troublesome issue of Ree’s book). Yet a close analysis of this picture shows us that we haven’t escaped the problem. For in this universe, although no one dies, serious harm can still be done. Tsunamis and earthquakes don’t kill multitudes in moments but dying trees can still paralyse people as they fall. To the “How can a good God do this?!?”-protesters, surely this is an equal outrage.

And I hope the final picture, as I see it, is becoming clear. The effects of the tsunami are tragic and they cause us to pause and ask why it has to happen. It has to happen not because of the specifics of the laws of nature but because of the law-ness of the laws of nature. That which makes us human cannot exist without these laws and although these laws can be conceived of differently so as to lessen the forces at work, they will always be able to harm. If you are walking in one direction and it is down the hill and I meet you while going in the opposite direction, then I must be going uphill, no matter how tiring or inconvenient that is to me. We can’t logically conceive of a way for the two of us to be walking in opposite directions and still both be benefiting. And we can’t therefore ask for that of God. Nonsense is still nonsense, even when applied to God. If you try to exclude the possibility of suffering as a result of the natural world, you find that you have excluded life itself.

The obvious response that must be made is the call to miracle.

My Internets (in chorus): Why couldn’t God have made a miracle to stop it from happening?

Zoomy: Well you have me there. I don’t know why. It is fruitless for me to blather on like the kind of hapless parish priest that I hope doesn’t exist in Ireland anymore and say, “How do you know He doesn’t do miracles to stop that kind of thing every other day of the year? Well? Think about that one and say 26 Hail Mary’s as penance for the sin of asking a priest a question when he is trying to watch the Formula One.” But some short comments on the nature of miracles might bring that question back into focus and away from a crisis-to-faith zone.

The idea of a miracle requires the existence of a stable world where rules apply. A miracle is, after all, a God ordained departure from normal service. From this, we have to agree that miracles must occur rarely. If that weren’t the case, then the miracle would undermine the universality of the laws that create stability in the first place. In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary decisions to improve game play. Maybe you will decide to let the opponent take his last move back or you can deprive yourself of a rook. But if you concede everything that at any moment happened to suit him, then you would not have a game at all. So it is with the universe’s laws and with miracles. If God were to intervene at every moment where the world was being cruel to us, then we would have none of the fixed laws that are pre-requisites for us to truly be US.

Yet that doesn’t for a moment explain why He didn’t intervene with this one.

Seriously, I’ll finish with this point

Ten million children will die this year as a result of hunger or easily treatable diseases- non-fatal or extinct diseases in the West. That is equivalent to one of these tsunamis happening every single week for the whole year. Yet this is caused not by the uncontrollable forces of nature, but by man’s inhumanity to man. AIDS, war and the afflictions of unfair trade laws will kill many millions more even though the West has the power to stop the vast majority of those deaths. I made the point at New Year’s that I stand by today: the most terrifying humanitarian disaster of our times is not the waves that pummeled east Africa and south Asia but the slow and ceaseless, utterly needless and painlessly prevented death of our fellow men, women and children in sub-human conditions all over the southern hemisphere. The tsunami prompts serious questions for Christians about their faith and that is a positive thing. Questioning God is always good. But as I see it, the challenge to belief in the God of Christianity isn’t in how we can love Him when bad things happen, but how He can love us when we ignore what is happening.

Your Correspondent, Plagiarizing The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis.

6 Responses to “The Waves Of Mutilation”

  1. adrian says:

    Normally I’d be the first to say ‘where’s your messiah now? Nyeh!’.
    But not this time. Christians accept that human beings have free will, don’t they? Well, human beings destroyed the natural defences against the Tsunami that could’ve saved thousands of lives:

  2. Caoimhe says:

    Hmm….the philosophy lost me…….but the final three lines are thought provoking.

  3. Zoomtard says:

    Thanks Adrian. I heard a very interesting priest on Newstalk talking about the coral reef factor. Interesting.

    Caoimhe, the philosophy is just a formal way of saying that we can’t hope to live in a safe world and still have the freedom that is an integral part of being human. It doesn’t explain or resolve the great suffering of the tsunami victims but it is a formal and serious attempt to challenge the views that you linked to a few weeks ago.

    The final three lines are the most important though so I’m glad you stuck with it.

  4. […] While in Scotland, I missed all the Katrina stuff. After the Stephen’s Day tsunami the pages of our papers and the opinions of our media were declaring loudly, “Where is God?” or “Can we trust God?” or most pressingly, “How can a good God let this happen?” I made a stab at understanding, independent of a Christian worldview, how such natural evil is a logical inevitability of a physical environment that permits free will. After Katrina however, the media seems to be quiet on such questions. Why is that? Is the perception of Asia as being less of a “Christian” region and America as being a “Christian” place somehow playing into it? Or is that we don’t easily sympathise with those as wealthy as us? Surely the same doubts about an all controlling God, a soverign God, apply in this case? Why is God not absent from New Orleans? […]

  5. […] not God or he is not good. After the Stephen’s Day tsunami I wrote an entry called, unsubtly, Waves of Mutilation. If I was a more articulate and confident and well-placed man, I would be happy to regurgitate it […]

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