Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Theodicy

When I was a child I hated gravity. It made high places unsafe. Falling hurt, climbing hills on my bike was hard. Why couldn't we just not have gravity and we'd be able to fly by just flapping our arms. Of course you know that was wrong. If God turned off gravity right now, all the air would go spinning off the earth and we'd all be launched into space because the Earth is spinning and without gravity, we'd fly off like water droplets on a spinning bike-tire.

I changed my mind so completely, I advise new parents to be as consistent as gravity when raising kids.

A long time ago, I came to see a unity between Law of the moral 10 Commandments sort and of the natural F=ma sort. The ancient Greeks called this organizing unity behind phenomena Logos. In the beginning was the Word. This led me to see Christ in this Logos either as its archetype, or something deeper. God is immutable and his essential laws won't change. Some laws directly reflect the moral character of God, whereas God told Moses things that had only a ceremonial basis back then. Maybe God will repeal the law of gravity, but he doesn't change laws capriciously.

Some weeks ago there was a tsunami and people questioned the goodness of God. But water and techtonic plates were merely obeying he laws of physics. These same laws of physics allow us to live. If nature behaves in a consistent, predictable fashion then there will be times when nature's forces can crush us.

That's the rub. We now understand the consistent, predictable behaviour of nature. We can detect tsunami's and issue warnings. We can track hurricanes by satellites. We can build levees to hold back water. We can evacuate threatened areas. God has given us sufficient gray matter to see these things coming and get ot of the way.

Then there's the matter of preparation. Nobody planned on building New Orleans below sea level. Last year another hurricane missed New Orleans. The word then was that levees couldn't handle a direct hit and after the city was flooded, it would be difficult to pump it dry again. I don't think signing the Kyoto protocol would have evaporated hurricane Katrina. But I do think that after last year's near miss, some serious attention should have been given to the problem of flooding.

That discloses the role of government in natural disasters. Shoddy governments can skate by for a long time. Something like a natural disaster discloses its failures. Ferinstance, inspectors are bribed and then buildings collapse. Emergency management roles may go to political cronies who prove unable to cope. It's up to the electorate to insist upon integrity in government.

So, does something like a natural disaster indicate that God is malign? What would God do differently? Repeal the law of gravity? But there's that spinning off into space business.

In addition to law there is mercy.

Two objects can't coexist in the same place at the same time. If you and I drive through the same intersection at the same time, our cars will go bonk. That's why we have traffic lights. I sat at a traffic light a couple saturdays ago. Distracted, I saw it a flash of green and I started off into the empty intersection. The blast of a car horn roused me and I saw that the green was the LEFT TURN ARROW. The light in my lane was red. Mortified, I realized that I should have had a car crash, but it was only mercy that spared me.

Mercy tells me that God is good. I see mercy as those remarkable times when circumstances should crush us, but they work out much better than anyone deserves. Why is mercy remarkable instead of customary? If it is customary, it's law and law is not mercy.

Theodicy is always the lame attempt to defend God or vindicate his reputation. I think that's a bad idea. God can defend himself much more ably than I could. I hope nobody thought this was what I was trying to do just now.

2 comments:

Uncle Aron said...

If mercy breaks the law, is it mercy? or lawlessness?

... just a little sophistry.

steve poling said...

This is an excellent observation. How is mercy administered? In God's case, the only thing God cannot do is break his own law. This causes the remarkable business of substitutionary atonement, where God in Christ on the Cross satisfies the demands of justice in my stead. And God imputes the righteousness of Christ to my account.

Christianity has wired into it all these unexpected solutions to philosophical problems. It reminds me of when I'm playing my very best chess. I make a move and afterwards realize it was a lot better than I first imagined.

Sometimes the answer to a problem weakens a system. It gets bolted onto the system like a kludge. But Christianity has these unexpected answers that strengthen it and show us how superficial our previous understanding was and how much more robust the system becomes as we better understand it.