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)

1 comment:

Na said...

You give an example of an unpleasant experience, that happened to stop another unpleasant experience. However, if they didn't end up in prison the whole thing would be irrelevant. My guess is that they would have been happy to forgo the flea revelation in exchange for just not being put in prison in the first place.

It's a dangerous path wanting to believe that there is a greater noble reason for what seems to be pointless suffering. Your image of God becomes one that allows child rape, murder and mutilation as a format for a lesson about his existent. And you become compelled to accept this as reason enough to believe the suffering is ultimately positive.

Any God that requires and uses extreme suffering to make its points, deserves only to be despised.