Friday, September 15, 2006

Good grief!

I recently came across some material on another site trying to point out the old argument that there can't be a loving, omniscient, omnipotent God and suffering at the same time. It's an old argument that many far wiser heads than I will ever be have argued from either side, so I won't delve into the full argument, mostly to save space. (I dip into it in a later post anyway...)

The thing is, I remember discussing the topic a long time ago with an avowed agnostic. It was interesting to me at that time that the discussion turned to that topic, because at first, we had been discussing the idea of miracles. He referenced an argument from David Hume which I remember differently (and the given link seems to tell it the way I remember), but took his word for it. His version of the argument was as such:

A: A "miracle" is an event that defies the laws of nature.
B: An event that defies the laws of nature cannot be explained by science.
C: One cannot say with certainty that any event is impossible to be explained by science, only that with our current knowledge of scientific principles, we cannot understand it.
D: Therefore, rather than accepting an event as being a "miracle", it is more rational to assume it is simply something that future developments in science will explain to us.

Now, if you accept the definition of "miracle", which is reasonable enough for most people's purposes (although there's a bit more to "miracles" than that), then I think this argument, which was presented to me in less sloppy fashion than I have presented here, holds water pretty well. I admitted to the agnostic that he had a very good point, and as I think I have said in this blog as well, I don't doubt that science will one day explain everything, or at least has no limits to what it could potentially explain.

But the discussion went forward and evolved, as online discussions do, and it turned to what he presented as proof that God (as per the Bible, at least) does not exist. This argument was the argument from my first paragraph here. Now while his form of the argument was better than most I have heard, and he had managed to plug up most of the logical holes that exist in such arguments, I seem to recall two problems with his conclusions. One was very metaphysical, and I won't go into it here. The other was, to my delight, one that I presented in the same form as his previous argument. So many of these arguments for and against God are double-edged swords, and in the end, those who make them feel that they've closed the case, while at the same time, those on the other side remain utterly unconvinced. Oh well.

My argument? Well, the problem, as most people who argue for God to be able to coexist with suffering claim, is that it seems quite possible that good cannot exist without evil. Pleasure cannot exist without suffering. In order to make the world a truly wonderful place, God must allow some to suffer, and it may be beyond our comprehension why. A personal example from my own life was that I dated this woman for a while in college, but the relationship didn't go well. We broke up, and it was painful for both of us. Why should I have suffered that painful relationship and subsequent breakup? Well, I happen to know for a fact that if it were not for that failed relationship, and certain events that happened in the fallout from it, I would never have met the woman who became my wife. At the time I was suffering, I didn't know where it would lead, but it led somewhere good in the end.

That's a small example, but many Christians have heard of a more interesting one from the Holocaust. Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch woman whose family hid Jews in their house during the Nazi occupation, eventually ended up in a prison camp infested with fleas. She and her sister, who were in the same barracks, had smuggled in a Bible and were holding regular prayer meetings. Corrie was appalled on the night when her sister insisted that they should thank God for the fleas the barracks were infested with.

The fleas! This was too much. "Betsie, there's no way even God can make me grateful for a flea."

"Give thanks in all circumstances," she quoted [from 1Thess5]. "It doesn't say, 'in pleasant circumstances.' Fleas are part of this place where God has put us."

And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.

Later, Betsie made an interesting discovery.

"You're looking extraordinarily pleased with yourself," I told her.

"You know, we've never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room," she said. "Well--I've found out."

That afternoon, she said, there'd been confusion in her knitting group about sock sizes and they'd asked the supervisor to come and settle it.

"But she wouldn't. She wouldn't step through the door and neither would the guards. And you know why?"

Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice: "Because of the fleas! That's what she said, 'That place is crawling with fleas!' "

My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place. I remembered Betsie's bowed head, remembered her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.

And that's the sort of thing that I thought of when I was told that the world is too full of needless suffering. Just as he had faith in science being able to explain all, I had faith in God and His providence to explain all.

You cannot prove that any given instance of suffering has no point, you can only make the claim as an opinion. Therefore, there is no such thing as pointless suffering, only suffering that we do not yet understand the purpose of.

(Excerpts from Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pluto is not a bird, he's a dog

I had been rolling around the idea of a post about the recent downgrading of Pluto from "planet" to "dwarf planet" in the back of my mind, but I wasn't sure it was worthwhile. Last night, I was reading the letters section of Newsweek, and there were many, many letters from people responding to a recent article about Pluto, and what I thought was funny about the letters was the manner in which so many of them seemed to be expressing the sentiment that it just wasn't something to get worked up about. What made this funny for me is that these people actually took a chunk of their valuable time to sit down and write a formal letter to express to others that this was a non-issue; it reminds me of those people who call in to news programs to answer their polls with "I have no opinion." I myself have never written a letter to the editor of any publication, so I'm not sure what gets people so worked up to do such a thing, especially if they're worked up about how getting worked up--oh never mind, you get it I'm sure.

So I thought I'd let the issue drop. It really isn't a big deal for the most part, and by now, it's pretty much old news. Here in the 21st century, we seem to absorb information and quickly move on to the next big thing as soon as possible. Things must go more slowly on Pluto, where, as one letter writer pointed out, only about a quarter of a Plutonian year (248 Earth years) has gone by since it was discovered and placed on the list of planets in the first place. Pluto didn't change, our system of classifying celestial objects changed.

But that's what hit me with profoundness after setting down the magazine. It's something profound in its simplicity. For someone like me who spends a fair amount of his time explaining away the nitpicking of skeptics towards the Bible, this is a current-day moment that we can reflect on in light of some scientific issues people have with the Bible. Follow me here...

Back in junior high school, I took an astronomy class. In that astronomy class, among the many things we were taught was that Pluto was a planet: one of nine, actually. Since this is a new thing that has changed, you'll find Pluto called a planet in most science textbooks today that talk about planets; you'll even find it all over the internet. I ask you, were those textbooks and my instructor wrong? No! To say now that Pluto is a planet is technically wrong, but up until we changed the definition just a short time ago, it was not wrong. For 76 years, "Pluto is a planet." was a true statement. The fact that it has changed now is not the fault of those who said it then, but a natural result of a paradigm shift in astronomy.

Oddly enough, this is not the first time we have had a major paradigm shift in the definition of "planet". If you look up the word in the dictionary, and look at the etymology, you'll note that the word originally meant "wandering" and referred to "(def. 1c) a celestial body moving in the sky, as distinguished from a fixed star, applied also to the sun and moon." While until a couple months ago, we had nine planets which were Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, before the Copernican heliocentric model of the cosmos became popular, we had seven planets, which were Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. A planet was an object that you could see in the sky that didn't stay in one place like the stars did. This ruled out the earth, since it was not in the sky, and included the sun and moon. Pretty much from Ptolemy to Copernicus, it was acceptable and entirely correct to say "The sun is a planet." simply because the word meant something else then.

So, to get to my point... A verse that's often been a darling of the Bible skeptics is , which reads:

And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: {long list of various birds, ending with} and the bat.
People love to point to this excerpt from the Bible and point out triumphantly that bats are not birds, some as though they are the first enlightened messenger in the history of Christendom to notice this fact. You are correct, bats are not birds. So what?

Do you think the Israelites thought that bats had wings and beaks and laid eggs? If you live in a place that has a lot of bats and you're interested in studying them, it's not hard to do. For a couple of months when I was a kid, I lived in a drafty old cabin in the mountains, and there were bats that nested in my bedroom. At night they would go out and fly around eating bugs, but in the morning when I got up for school, I could get out a flashlight and peek around in the nooks and crannies of the cabin and find them nestling down to go to sleep for the day. They don't look anything like the creatures we call birds; to me they actually looked like little furry winged pigs.

The Israelites knew the difference between bats and "other" birds, I assure you. It wouldn't be hard to figure out. So why does the Bible call them birds when they most surely are not? For the same reason the ancient Greeks called the sun a planet: at the time, it was the correct terminology. The word translated as "fowl" in verse 13 is a general-purpose word that might translate better to "flying things" than "fowl" or "birds". Case in point, the same word is actually used in verse 21 of the same chapter to refer to insects, and is translated "flying". The word is not wrong; the best one could say is that "fowl" is a questionable translation.

For those who wish to continue to think of Pluto as a planet, I personally don't care. By the 20th-century meaning of that word, it is a planet, after all. It's going to take some time for everybody to get used to the 21st-century definition, and in the meantime, while technically wrong, the old definition will still have cultural acceptance. For those ancient documents that want to commit the unforgivable sin of using terminology consistent with the time in which they were written rather than modern scientific terminology, I'll accept you, even if some people want to pick on you just for being what you are.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Whys and wherefores without wherewithal

What happened five years ago on September 11, 2001 means something different to everyone, but for just about every American, it was a life-changing moment in time.

The people of my generation were told that we would remember 9/11 vividly the way a previous generation would remember the assassination of President Kennedy. I do actually remember fairly vividly many of the details of that morning. I remember sleeping in on that morning, as I had already decided to take the day off of work for personal reasons, and the phone rang. It was my mother-in-law, who urged me and my wife to turn on the television. "Somebody's bombed New York or something!" We turned it on in time to see the first building collapse.

For me though, there was an eerie quality to the whole first half of September that I occasionally play over in my mind. For me personally, the events of 9/11/2001 were one tragedy in the midst of a string of several that happened in my life. In my life, but not directly to me, I suppose, tragedy is a strange thing. Tragedies come with a factor of distance and severity. The other tragedies were closer to me but of course less severe than a pair of 100-story buildings collapsing to kill several thousand people. Still, the exchange in those factors made them all seem fairly even to me in a fashion; does that make sense?

Many of the things that happened were too personal to discuss here, but I will speak of the first and the last of them all. First, a beloved family member passed away. There had just been a funeral, right at the start of the month. He had gone to the doctor complaining of some problems, and the doctor had told him nothing was wrong, he should go home and rest. So he did. A couple days later, he was dead.

Why did the doctor miss his diagnosis? Why did this man accept the diagnosis without question, even as his symptoms grew worse? Why did he have to die? Why does it hurt for those of us left behind even though all of us who were believers in Christ were certain of this man's salvation, and felt it safe to assume he was in heaven? None of those are questions that are easy to answer.

The last thing that happened, to me anyway, was that I received notice of a friend and co-worker from a couple years back having committed suicide. She was an intelligent, beautiful, fun person that everybody liked, and she seemed to have a lot going for her as far as anybody knew. But apparently on the 9th of September, she hung herself in her apartment, and wasn't discovered until nearly a week after. She left no note.

Why did she kill herself? What was it that was causing her enough suffering that dying seemed like an improvement over her situation? Was there anything that I myself could have done, either at the time or back years previously when I had known her better, to change her mind? Does suicide really relieve one of suffering if there is an afterlife? Might she have suffered worse or found a reason to live if she had waited a few more days and seen the horror in New York? These are questions that are virtually impossible to answer.

But while I had never been to New York, while I had never seen the towers in person, while I didn't know any of the people who died on *that* day, some of the most nagging questions linger on that central event. When two planes crashed into towers in New York and two tried (one unsuccessfully) to crash into buildings in Washington, DC, we were left with a lot of questions that I sometimes wonder who is asking.

Why? Don't we want to know why? This isn't about 72 houris awaiting each hijacker in paradise, not to Osama bin Laden. This isn't about "" who "hate freedom". I don't buy that. Osama bin Laden wanted to send a message to the world. Even if we refuse to respect that message, even if we condemn that message for the brutal manner in which it was sent, doesn't the severity of that make us want to sit up and at least hear what it was he was trying to say? If only to respond intelligently?

It's an odd thing about myself. My religious beliefs lead me to hold the view that human beings are, at their heart, evil. Yet at the same time, I believe that there also exists a drive in people that makes them desire to do what they think is the right thing. Bin Laden and his cohorts who planned out and executed the attacks of 9/11 may appear to be evil, and indeed, they most likely are. Isn't it not just possible, but likely that they believed that what they were doing was the right thing to do? The 19 hijackers were willing to give their lives for it. The al-Qaeda organization, while maybe weaker than it once was, still exists, so I assume its members didn't look at 9/11 and say, "My, that was a bit too brutal for my tastes!"

The majority of the people of the world heard about what had happened to our country on 9/11, and their sympathy and support went out to us as a nation. That is a good thing. However, there exists a minority of the world's population who, upon hearing the news, celebrated. Some of these people are in fact so elated by this attack, that if they had the chance to be a part of another attack like it in the future, they wouldn't hesitate. This is a phenomenon that makes me want to ask "Why?" but unlike the other things that make me want to ask "Why?" there are people who are willing, able, and probably eager to answer it. Shouldn't more of us be asking?