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« A Tale of Two Modernisms | Main | Idiocentrism »

January 11, 2005

Who is Responsibible?

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

A recent post and associated comments dealt with the issue of theology and catastrophe--in particular, whether a personal God had a hand in the Asian tsunami and what to make of it if so. Some very thoughful commenters weighed in with non-dogmatic Christian perspectives, prompting this rejoinder from Fenster:

I just can't get myself worked up about explaining physical events, even terrible catastrophes, in religous terms--or at least in terms of a relation to a personal God. I just may have to accept the fact that I find the idea of a personal God to be not that compelling--never have, even in Sunday School.

On the other hand, I have to recognize that my own desire to "explain" events from a non-personal God point of view reflects a need for solace in the same fashion as does an explanation proferred by a believer.

Soon after posting, I came across this article in the Spectator on-line.

In it, Peter Jones continues his examination of modern issues from the point of view of antiquity--in this case, of paganism.

Seems that Seneca wrestled with the problem of whether the gods were responsible for bad things happening. There had been an earthquake at Pompeii (this about a decade before the Vesuvius eruption) and Seneca wondered about the gods' intervention. It was commonly held in that era that the gods were directly involved, that their interactions with one another and with mankind were part of it, and that disasters could be avoided or minimized via proper conduct on the part of makind relative to the gods with appropriate jurisdiction.

Seneca, then Jones:

‘It will help to keep in mind that gods cause none of these things and that neither heaven nor earth is overturned by the wrath of divinities. These phenomena have causes of their own; they do not rage on command.’ Seneca insists on this because, he says, it is the only way to cure humans of their ignorance about the true nature of the world and thus relieve them of the terrible fear of a capricious deity. Compared with that awful prospect, the knowledge that nature, however occasionally violent, is predictable comes as a tremendous relief.

I think of this when I see atheists raging on television, intent on showing that God had nothing--nothing!!--to do with it. In getting so worked up, they are demonstrating that they are hardly as indifferent as the universe they claim to speak for, and that the need for solace, while part of human nature, comes in quite different flavors, and can be made suitable for pagans, Christians and even agnostics and atheists.

To change subjects almost completely (while staying on the religion meme), here is a fascinating article from the Independent on the (perhaps suspect?) success of Patrick Henry College, a very new, and very Christian, college with high hopes for the success of its grads and, in turn, for changing the world.

The correct bookend for this piece is Univeristy Diaries' amusing and focussed "fisking" of the article, found here.

UD is right to point to the hypocrisy of it all. Much of what passes as the simple truth in higher ed is in fact a veiled form of theology. So let's recognize it as such. And let's keep at least one eye on Patrick Henry--I have little doubt that, were they to gain the upper hand they are currently pretty far from having, they might choose to use it.



posted by Fenster at January 11, 2005


theidiocy! (shit happens :)

Posted by: glory on January 11, 2005 10:31 PM


The word is THEODICY. And it is not just "shit" that happens, but evil, which theologians have to explain.

To put it crudely, if god is all-good and all-powerful, why doesn't he just wiggle his little nose, like Samantha on Bewitched, and make evil just whooosh, disappear?

You see, if God is all-powerful, (s)he could, potentially, eliminate evil? And if he is all-good, (s)he should want evil to disappear. So why is there evil? This is theodicy -- theological attempts to wrestle with the problem of evil. Coming to terms with evil comes up during life's biggest upsets, like the sudden death of a loved one, the existence of suffering, the inequity of life and fortune, and horrible events such as the recent tsumani.

On religious colleges, I'd have to say that they have existed since the founding of this country. One more won't hurt. I just heard of -- but have not read -- a recently published book on religious colleges called, I think, "God on the Quad." Don't know the author either, but have heard it was well-written and informative.


Posted by: Kris on January 12, 2005 12:40 AM

And on the other hand, there's always the idea of an impersonal god, which has always made a ton of intuitive sense to me. I never felt the tug of any version of a personal god. Though I can understand the utility and appeal of such an idea, it just doesn't work for me on many basic levels. I'm made fairly happy by paganism -- all these gods, up to good or up to no-good (who can tell?), but with their own (often irrational) reasons that we may or may not be able to make a little sense of ... Seems like a fair-enough model for How Things Are (as well as for Where We Stand in Relation to How Things Are) to me. But the impersonal god, at least as posited and elaborated by Hinduism and especially Vedanta -- now that gives my bells a serious ring.

Anyone else a fan of any form of the impersonal god?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2005 11:45 AM

sorry for the unintentional troll (click on the links!) but i'm glad it allowed you to expound on THEODICY :D that was just my (cryptic) attempt at a rebuttal on having "to wrestle with the problem of evil."

re: god on the quad - i rather enjoy the presence of intervarsity and campus crusade for the freshness, earnestness and idealism they bring, altho they tend to act more like a christian dating scene, so i'm not sure how much of the 'fervor' is really frustration :D

as for impersonal gods, i'm partial to dame fortune and lady luck! chance & determinism, probable & intentional, random & ordered - if freewill and god are to coexist then any explanation must, as its foundation, be built on stat mech :D


Posted by: glory on January 12, 2005 12:30 PM

I have struggled with religious belief most of my adult life. Any belief. The notion of an impersonal God, though, doesn't attract me. What does an impersonal God add to agnosticism? It answers no questions that unnerve me. No comfort comes from an impersonal God. God is up there, out there, too far from here, inaccessible ... nonexistent?

I wonder if a Westerner who has thoroughly imbibed his culture (as you have) can believe -- intuitively, deeply believe -- in Eastern religions. Too many differences hinder this belief, I'm afraid. Concepts that make the very framework of our thought, like linear time, cannot be erased. I simply cannot conceive outside of the time framework of the West. So many Eastern religions take, implicitly or directly, a cyclical view of time. How do we line their circle? There are other foundational ideas that we do not share. So, can we think like them? And if not, do we understand their ideas as they are meant to be understood? Can we?

I have no answers, Michael. Wish you did!


Posted by: Kris on January 12, 2005 10:17 PM

Where do you get to see atheists raving on TV? I almost never see atheists on TV, and the last one I clearly remember - Carl Sagan - didn't exactly rave. On the other hand raving evangelists are all over the bloody place, and no TV show is complete unless a character gets to be touched by an angel (or angel-facsimile) at some point in its run. So really, where can I mainline some TV atheism, please?

Posted by: Marvin on January 12, 2005 10:17 PM


If you have a hankerin' for atheists on TV, I think you'll see your fair share on cable news talk fests. Post-tsunami I've seen 'em on both MSNBC and Fox. Call it "fair and balanced".

Some people like the brawl atmosphere on cable news; others decry it and prefer the decorum and (bogus?) consensus view implicit in the network approach. Say what you will (and I tend to the former view myself), the brawl atmosphere calls on all talking heads, both right-leaning and left-leaning, to round out the brawl, even if only for the sake of ratings. Thus Joe Scarborough (who tilts right for sure) brought in atheist, fundamentalist and Jewish points of view when discussing the theology, or not, of the tsunami.

Posted by: fenster on January 13, 2005 10:31 AM

Kris -- I hearya. And you may well be right that Eastern ideas don't generally suit Westerners very well. How deep can they go, how much can they resonate, after all, given culture, upbringing, etc? But I seem to be the oddball. I was raised Presbyterian and have fond memories of romping with other kids at Sunday school. But Christian-etc ideas and stories, much as I respect them, always made me go "Huh? What? You're kidding, right?" on an emotional/intuitive level.

On the other hand, I got a lot out of rummaging around Buddhism. And when I bumped into Vedanta it was like my own deepest thought-processes and concerns were being acknowledged, addressed, and elaborated. There was nothing I had to make any effort to believe in because it all seems apparent to me anyway, and as objectively (if non-scientifically) true as the weather. It was like stepping into a perfectly-tailored suit after wearing ill-fitting clothes all my life.

It's been interesting to run into other Vedanta-heads too. They often seem to have been hit by it in similar ways -- as plainly obvious, plainly true, and what they've always been thinking about anyway. So why not go along with it a ways?

It's a funny "religion," though. Much more philosophical than most religions, for one thing. You don't have to buy the gods or the mythology, for instance -- it's perfectly OK to take all that baggage as metaphorical. You don't have to buy the whole package either. The attitude seems to be, if you get something out of this, cool, and if you don't, we wish you the best.

Interesting as well: at least at the temple I like best, science profs are forever showing up to give the sermon, er, talk. The Vedanta view seems to jibe well with advanced science. Quantum physicists and Vedanta swamis may use different terms, but they're talking about the same things, and in parallel ways. I'm not even sure "religion" is quite the right word for Vedanta, at least not in the usual Western sense ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 13, 2005 12:08 PM

re: religion as metaphor... (or myth that is 'fact' :)

while a literal interpretation of the bible is an essential component of many people's 'faith', it need not be. cs lewis fer instence has written:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. … God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about "parallels" and "pagan Christs": they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren't. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic?

while tolkien also got in on the act!

We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a "sub-creator" and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic "progress" leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.

tolkienic luddism nothwistanding, i found that rather agreeable :D

also i think historical interpretations are often overlooked by religious types. as well, 'gnostic' scriptures find much more in congruence with eastern 'ideas'. i remember in sunday school one time talking about the difference between being religious and being spiritual; in the categorical venn diagrams of belief and practise, they didn't necessarily correspond indexically one to one, nor indeed, did they even need overlap :D like love and sex!


Posted by: glory on January 13, 2005 2:43 PM

Fenster -

Thanks for the info. I don't watch cable news or much network news, for that matter -- just the weather. And I need to rescind my earlier statement...I just realized that the last (out-of-the-closet) atheists I'd seen on TV were Michael Shermer and (after a fashion) Sigmund Freud, in a PBS show called "The Question of God" that compared the lives and beliefs of Freud and C.S. Lewis. Not a bad show, but probably not as raving as cable news slugfest.

Posted by: Marvin on January 13, 2005 11:54 PM

PS - I have to confess it never occurred to me to think about the theology of tsunamis.

Posted by: Marvin on January 14, 2005 12:01 AM


I too find no need to ponder the theology of it. But it's nonetheless a big issue for many it seems. Here's an NPR story:

Posted by: fenster on January 14, 2005 12:51 PM

Oh, ok. The generic "why would God let this happen" news spot wherein the answers are uniformly given at grade-school level so that they'll fit into a generic news spot. (Except for "We don't know," the only adult answer that can fit in such a space.)

Posted by: Marvin on January 14, 2005 8:14 PM

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