Putting God on trial

We seem to be living in a very unsatisfactory world, and it’s not improving: the Middle East and all its problems, the refugees whose lives have been destroyed and are not really welcomed elsewhere, gross poverty in several places, the political threat of Marxism by another name, the effects of climate change notwithstanding the unbelievers, the Texan floods, several countries in various states of conflict and involving great cruelties to the innocent, a general rise of destructive nationalism rather than beneficial alliances. You can add to the list.

We would not be surprised to see someone shaking a fist at God and cursing him for the cruel creation which he has made. Do you see yourself joining in?

Probably not if you share a religious background. You would rapidly reply with the traditional apologia: God created a world and filled it with rational people called to act with love towards others and to nature. If we are in a fix it is because too many of mankind seek the evil rather than the good. But the sceptic would point out that many of our miseries come from the natural: floods, volcanoes, global warming and the rest. And need he have created so many people who are naturally ordered toward evil? This last is so inexplicable that we had to invent the bizarre, and gratuitous, story of original sin to give the Almighty a clean sheet and leave all of us inheriting a state of sin for which we cannot be held responsible.

I am sorry I wrote that last paragraph. I started it thinking God to be rather a good egg. I finished it thinking that the sceptic presents some strong points which cannot easily be disregarded. So please help me by refuting the sceptic. You might approach this by pretending that you are God and so deciding the sort of world you are going to create. Can you do a better job than the Almighty?

Advertisements

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Putting God on trial

  1. Barrie Machin says:

    Quentin as usual hits the bullseye with this question about God and his world. People who don’t know the blessings of the Lord always pose the question that if He is a loving and all powerful God why does he let all the things Quentin has listed and loads more happen?
    I am sorry to say that the to me the trite answer is always well God gave man free will and that is as far as members of the clergy and key christian friends one admires can offer by way of answer.
    No wonder non- believers are not convinced!
    So I shall be very interested to read the answers that Quentin’s question receives!

  2. Brian Hamill says:

    Perhaps one of the issues is that the traditional approach’s understanding to the creation story in Genesis misunderstands the meaning of the phrase, ‘God saw that it was very good’. To me this does not mean perfect, i.e. finished and completed, a state from which we ‘fell’ by means of Adam and Eve. We are created and therefore not perfect; only God is perfect. Jesus himself rejected the use of the word ‘good’ about himself with the rebuke, ‘Only God is good’. We are created and on the way to becoming uncreated. A real paradox here but St Bernard used the phrase of us, ‘capax Dei’, capable of becoming God. So we all start off, not so much wounded by original sin as ‘naturally’ imperfect. All this world’s and our own imperfections are within the will of God for our ever-closer union with him, and everyone else, in love. This is the world which God embraced and revealed as the way to him in the incarnation of his Son.

    • Martha says:

      “Only God is good”

      Another interpretation which I heard many years ago, is that Christ accepted his goodness, and was drawing out the implication, the reality of a claim to divinity. In other words, “You are saying that I am good, Yes, I am, So what does that mean? What follows from that?”

  3. Geordie says:

    What God allows to happen is terrible. Johnathan Miller called God (if He exists) a psychopath. If this world were to be all there is, then JM would be right. However we are experiencing only a small fraction of God’s creation. He asks us to trust Him. He tells us that suffering has a purpose; to teach us to love. The trouble is that we cannot see beyond the horizon. Our world is so limited.
    But if we reject God and stop believing in Him, there is no hope. We will descend into hate and evil, which is already happening. Our only hope is to do as God says and accept suffering. He promises that all will be well in the end for those who love Him.
    Let us pray that the whole of mankind will eventually learn to love Him.

  4. Martha says:

    I find these replies very helpful. It is so hard to put such ideas into words. I would hope that the definition of those who love God is very wide, and includes those of good will and good heart who may not know him explicitly. Suffering is very random, it falls on the just and on the unjust equally, on those who can understand and sublimate their pain and misery, and on those who find it inexplicable and can only accept it with good or bad grace, or rail against it. In addition, we are encouraged to volunteer and add certain extra sufferings such as fasting and acts of mortification as part of our Christian life, and we revere great saints who have taken this to heart and made enormous sacrifices to share in Christ’s saving Passion. The reality of sin and the power of evil must be really enormous to warrant the necessity and the love needed for enduring such suffering.

  5. Alasdair says:

    Stephen Fry describes God as capricious, mean-minded, stupid, an utter maniac, totally selfish etc etc. This is similar to what Geordie records Jonathan Miller as saying and is also similar to what Richard Dawkins has repeatedly said. Let’s remember though that each of these does not actually believe that God exists. Their views regarding God’s qualities are therefore either so hypothetical, or so much the product of ire-driven muddled thinking as to merit barely a mention.

  6. Brendan says:

    Speculation on God and his works maybe a good thing ; but arguments for and against are really futile if one ‘ finds ‘ that one lives in His ‘ presence ‘ daily…it is enough and ample for human existence ( in the existential sense )…….” and all manner of things shall [ WILL ] be well ” ( Julian of Norwich )

  7. Brendan says:

    Geordie’s stance is about right for me. Why are the likes of Fry and Dawkins so vituperaive in their language ? If they don’t BELIEVE there is GOD …why bother ? Let us all in on their secret ,so we can all live in the same ‘ presence ‘ as themselves …..assuming of course they have the same singularity in such existential living or sublime happiness ?
    There are of course no secrets with God …he just IS and reveals all to us in His immanence.

  8. Brendan says:

    It’s not much consolation to a person of nominal ‘ faith ‘ in terms of purely existential living , let alone one of no ‘ faith ‘ when God said , ” my kingdom is not of this world ”. But all the more reason to believe in a better world than this one. Would not the non-believer faced with the desperate seeming continuum of a fallen world , over and over again, be forced to face the abyss of despair….or in the end to cry out somewhere from from the depth of his humanity ….” Abba, Father ” …… save me ?

  9. Hock says:

    Why does every Catholic Church have a figure of Christ crucified in the most prominent place of the building ? ( If not , it should have.)
    To answer my own question it is because we are a suffering Church and a stark reminder of this is Christ crucified.
    We are instructed by the words of our Saviour to carry our crosses and follow him. Without suffering there would be no love.
    As an aside natural disasters are in fact natural occurrences and where they to occur without any loss to human life or damage to habitations then they would remain exactly what we have labelled them. Natural. Such phenomenon is needed to re-generate our planet or we would soon be striving unsuccessfully to live in some kind of stagnant cesspool that could not support life.
    My father used to tell me that his ambition in life was: ‘to die healthy!’
    He did die , and not healthily. As we all do, otherwise the world could not survive without death.

  10. galerimo says:

    Thanks Quentin. The regular appearances in history of the first views of Christianity are predictable. BecauseI think our instincts don’t change. Many of us are still closet Gnostics, Stoics or later Cathars.

    Nut no matter how world weary we become it is still true that what God has done is good indeed.

    Christian teaching always collapses into the morass of confusion where it is thinly underpinned by dualistic Hellenism. The taint of Neo-platonism, Stoicism and Epicureanism is evident here. Views that were all, at best, ambivalent about matter and life in the body. So theological reflections should never surprise when we arrive at this dead end of “We seem to be living in a very unsatisfactory world, and it’s not improving”, or “And need he have created so many people who are naturally ordered toward evil?

    Maybe its all part of the price we have to pay in the West for choosing Augustine over Irenaeus.

    I doubt if any of that will carry much weight with the sceptic – they are rarely persuaded by argument and no one is impressed with history.

    Maybe I could offer a sense of proportion in support of your call for help?

    Tony Kelly imagines us at about 46, (and not likely to reach 47). Were we to accompany our planet on its journey through life each one of those birthdays represents 100 million years. You were 42 before the first flower appeared. And its only in the last minute before we reach our 47th birthday that the whistles of great factories have been heard. And only in the last few seconds we have started coughing and choking with our pollution.

    Then there is the fact that in the first few seconds of this nearly 15 billion year old universe all the fundamental particles and constants without which life on this seemingly insignificant little planet would have been impossible. If it were different in any way, we would not be here wondering about how bad it all is.

    My defense in God’s trail would now lead me to call for a recess for 15 billion years in order to gather all the evidence in support of God’s track record of providing the means for beauty, goodness, wonder and survival. As well as all the time to enjoy it. I already have ducks, as exhibit “A”. I shall use them in my argument against anthropocentrism.

    “You see, mi lud, they fly, swim and walk, while in the absence of tickets none of us can fly, only some of us can swim and in our decling years we struggle even to get out of a chair for a halting constitutional walk”. That should clinch it.

  11. Martha says:

    Today’s Gospel is relevant. Even Peter, who has been chosen as the rock to lead Christ’s church, does not understand that his master must suffer and die a painful death. Our Lord rebukes him and tells him that the way he thinks is not God’s way but man’s, and goes on to say that all his followers must also take up the cross and follow him. I think this is something we have to learn gradually and very difficult to explain to those who do not know Christ at all.

    • Alasdair says:

      Martha’s comment is probably about the best possible answer – and also Hock’s. Thank you. However, what they say is not only very difficult to explain to non-believers – it’s probably totally unintelligible.

  12. ignatius says:

    “Probably not if you share a religious background. You would rapidly reply with the traditional apologia: God created a world and filled it with rational people called to act with love towards others and to nature. If we are in a fix it is because too many of mankind seek the evil rather than the good. But the sceptic would point out that many of our miseries come from the natural: floods, volcanoes, global warming and the rest. And need he have created so many people who are naturally ordered toward evil? This last is so inexplicable that we had to invent the bizarre, and gratuitous, story of original sin to give the Almighty a clean sheet and leave all of us inheriting a state of sin for which we cannot be held responsible…”

    I think the answer I would give would be something along the lines of:
    “Look carefully into your own heart for awhile. When you have done that read up on physics a bit and then ask yourself how else the natural tensions of the earth might be resolved if not through the odd earthquake and flood here and there?

    If we then turn to human geography and ask why it is that people live in dangerous places that too might be instructive.

    If none of that helps try asking yourself how you might make things differently and yet remain as you are? How could the world possibly be any other than it is?”

  13. Ignatius says:

    To be honest though I usually give people a little more credit than this. Most folk I talk to are pretty clear that the preponderance of the worlds misery is man made and most, if pressed, will be aware of their part in the way things are…otherwise there’s not much point in having the conversation at all. Also the picture Quentin paints misses out the overwhelming good that is also in the world and is equally inexplicable.

  14. Martha says:

    We are talking about different kinds of suffering and misery aren’t we? Natural events like earthquakes and floods, catastrophic for humankind, are largely beyond our control, though improvements in building and flood defences can alleviate some of the damage. Man made suffering is often beyond very much individual control. Pollution and destruction of the environment needs concerted national and international action to address the harm, individual response can help but not nearly enough, as in general terms with illness and health problems. The tragedies and ruined lives which result from the evils of greed and selfishness and lust for power, individually and corporately, seem to me to cause the most misery, and would be much more controllable if we all followed the commandments of God and put his will into action, though of course many people do that and live lives of overwhelming good and charity as Ignatius says. And this in itself requires discipline and self control, which can sometimes amount to hardship and suffering.

    I think it is indeed very hard to know fully and explain why God does not alleviate more of some of this suffering. He worked very many miracles during his earthly life, curing many people with health problems, and still allows them from time to time in certain holy places and for some holy saints. Mostly now though it seems he has passed the task to his followers instead, to do as much as they can to help and comfort those in difficulty, even to the extent of many devoting their whole lives to this special vocation, and thereby leading very hard lives themselves. He also requires us to accept suffering and sometimes to even volunteer for extra penances, fasting for instance, to follow in his footsteps and in repentance and reparation for sin.

  15. ignatius says:

    The truth is there are no answers for much of this, we simply do not know. In fact it would be a good question to ask why any of us believe in the first place? We could follow that up with asking ourselves what, exactly it is we believe in? I sometimes think it is impertinent of us to bang on about suffering unless we can also see the joy.
    Also that we simply do not know how much suffering God DOES alleviate in this world, I guess that without God’s intervention this place would be hell. I asked a prison group a few weeks ago if, despite their current situation they would rather live than die, most replied in the strong affirmative even though facing long periods of incarceration.

  16. Alasdair says:

    My daughter has only just been allowed back to her house in the town of Katy after the Texan floods (One of the reasons Quentin gives for us wanting to shake a fist at God). She managed to get away to friends on higher ground and narrowly missed having to be “helivac’d” along with her husband and our grandchildren as their neighbourhood became isolated. Their return to their undamaged house was delayed due to danger of maurauding alligators in the neighborhood which are feasting on drowned cats.
    She comments that the situation has brought out the very best of human nature. The level of voluntary support mobilised within the state, both at the emergency and at the recovery stage, is probably unprecedented – in any place, at any time. But for that, the professional agencies would have been quite overwhelmed.
    It might surprise some people to know that the people of Houston and district are only too aware that an even more extreme and tragic situation has occurred in Asia.

    • Martha says:

      That does sound very inspiring Alasdair, and you must be very thankful for your daughter’s relatively good fortune.

    • galerimo says:

      So good to know your daughter with her husband and children are safe and their home was undamaged. g

      • Alasdair says:

        Thank you so much. My point being, of course, that God is at work through these people. Many of them are being driven to superhuman efforts by love and by the Spirit – in some cases in contrast to how they have lived their lives up to this point. Something has changed, and many believe it will stay changed. His ways are not our ways.

  17. Martha says:

    Doesn’t this just illustrate the paradox of suffering and of our thinking about it? We say suffering is inevitable, and can be salvific, but we so often ask God to protect us and relieve us from it, and we all rejoice when this happens.

    • ignatius says:

      Hi Martha,
      Yes. You see this very clearly in the life of the Apostle Peter. But it seems to be a general precept that those who would know mercy must first encounter suffering.

  18. Peter Foster says:

    Man first acquired self consciousness in a bewildering world and probably turned to animistic ideas to provide explanations. By Darwin’s time, the development of monotheism had led to the anthropomorphic idea of a god who sat at a drawing board and designed the world with all its flora and fauna created in situ in relation to each other. It was logical to ask why he didn’t make a better job of it! This model had unnecessarily attained the status of a belief which led to turmoil when it was contradicted by discoveries in the fossil record.

    In the new view of biology, cells, tissues, organs and body, have their own networks with “intentions” on vastly different scales and cooperate to serve the whole organism so that it evolves in interaction with its environment selecting the operation of its genes.

    That living matter seems to have a mind of its own is as bewildering as animism was to Stone Age man and as the fossil record was to that particular idea of an anthropomorphic god.
    Man may be made in the image of god; but god is not a reflection of man.
    We have to deal with things as they are.
    We are always involved in a struggle to work out what our new knowledge means in relation to the message of Christ.

    [Dance to The Tune of Life; Biological Relativity by Denis Noble. Cambridge University Press, 2017]

    • Alasdair says:

      Apologies if we’re getting off the intended theme:-
      To pick up Peter Foster on a point – “god who sat at a drawing board and designed the world with all its flora and fauna created in situ”.
      In Augustine’s De Genesis ad Litteram (very paraphrased reference) “he stated that God did not create the Universe as we see it now, but created all the elements of the world in a confused and nebulous mass. Within this, were the makings of the creatures that were later to come into existence. Augustine’s thought therefore already contains the elements of a theory of evolution”.
      Also long before Darwin, James Hutton had already proved that the earth was millions, rather than thousands of years old, and this idea was well embedded by Darwin’s time. That being the case therefore, I seriously don’t believe the secular historical narrative describing total turmoil following Darwin’s publication.

      • Peter Foster says:

        Alasdair, Access the British Association section meeting of 30 June 1860: perhaps a mini-turmoil.

      • Peter Foster says:

        Alasdair. Access the British Association section meeting of 30 June 1860: perhaps a mini-turmoil.

    • galerimo says:

      Quick Quip. Wow. Very keen observations indeed and so true. What Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme refer to when they say how theology needs now to take geology and the new cosmology seriously in the work of a new creation myth – God’s original and continuing relational work.

  19. ignatius says:

    “Man first acquired self consciousness in a bewildering world and probably turned to animistic ideas to provide explanations. By Darwin’s time, the development of monotheism had led to the anthropomorphic idea of a god who sat at a drawing board and designed the world with all its flora and fauna created in situ in relation to each other. It was logical to ask why he didn’t make a better job of it! This model had unnecessarily attained the status of a belief which led to turmoil when it was contradicted by discoveries in the fossil record…”

    This must rank among the most stupid of paragraphs I have read in a long time…can anyone spot any meaning here? It’s the ‘probably’ in the first line that gives the game away.

    • Peter Foster says:

      Unless it is established that man evolved to human consciousness by a step change, it seems reasonable to speculate that his condition was similar to that of isolated tribes with their own world view.

      Quentin says: “You might approach this by pretending that you are God and so deciding the sort of world you are going to create. Can you do a better job than the Almighty?”

      My point is that we don’t even have a reasonably complete knowledge of ourselves. It is only human to speculate about God, but apart from revelation, it is just a gloss on our own mental structures in a particular era.

      • ignatius says:

        Hi Peter,
        Yes but the point is that we simply do not know how self consciousness came and we most likely never will so much speculation on the subject is simply empty.
        As to the question of development, you will be aware I’m sure that there is the thought that increasing complexity of nerve tissue can lead to step changes which can be quite large so the possibility of a ‘leap’ to self consciousness remains a plausibility. Also the idea that mankind should gradually evolve a self consciousness and then suddenly be bewildered by it is a little strange don’t you think?
        Certainly you are correct with your last sentence and this ‘gloss’ is traceable through the history of theology. But I think the paragraph you have quoted and I have taken issue with is just that, a gloss on nothing much. I would argue that ‘revelation’ is different than ‘speculation’ and it is the very awareness of our incompleteness that acts as a spur toward the divine.

  20. Peter Foster says:

    Ignatius. I agree that ‘revelation’ is different than ‘speculation’. I did not say the contrary.
    People in the middle ages were bewildered by nature and disease and the “spirit world”; see the painting of hell by Taddeo di Bartolo in San Gimignano; early man could have been also.

  21. ignatius says:

    Peter. I wouldn’t confuse Di Bartolo’s commissions with his own thought, nor with literal understanding, the Rennaisance was not entirely a period of ignorance! Our tendency to imbue the past with a modern idea of primitivism is a gloss of a different kind. You could say the same about Bosch but his work was a little more complex than that:
    “..Art historians frequently interpret the painting as a didactic warning on the perils of life’s temptations.[3] However, the intricacy of its symbolism, particularly that of the central panel, has led to a wide range of scholarly interpretations over the centuries.[4] Twentieth-century art historians are divided as to whether the triptych’s central panel is a moral warning or a panorama of paradise lost. American writer Peter S. Beagle describes it as an “erotic derangement that turns us all into voyeurs, a place filled with the intoxicating air of perfect liberty…” wikipedia Hieronymous Bosch

    You are right of course that the accumulation of knowledge we call progress brings insight and results.

  22. ignatius says:

    Cont’d:
    Though we may agree that there is a process of accumulation -and the same is true of the church- it is not the case that this process is linear. So for example, Peter, you choose a symbolic Rennaisance painter but you do not choose Socrates or Plato.
    It is probably fair to say that Hitlers rule, with his obsession towards black magic and paganism marked a decline into superstition but that is not to say he was a marker for the state of humanity in the mid 20th century.
    I think that what I’m trying to get at is that the writer you quoted was, in his own modernist/post modernist way, labouring under a kind of illusory rationalism based on the various superstitions of present day pseudo science. So when I say we know little about the prehistory of the human mind I mean just that. The speculations of your author do seem to me pretty hollow, I don’t think we as Christians do any good by kow towing blindly to apparent nonsense dressed up as the view of the ‘reasonable man’

    • Peter Foster says:

      Ignatius. Apologies for straying off the topic of improving on our perception of God’s so called design. I don’t challenge what you say, however, many people were not in a position to easily dismiss Taddeo’s picture. Furthermore, there is a tendency to select from the past what has been later incorporated into modern thought and Catholic history and to neglect the context. Few are now aware that the material world was universally understood to be composed of four elements, earth, water, air and fire Its enormous diversity was explained by an variation of the elements in its parts. Everything was classified in amazing detail, minerals animals, plants, meteorology, cosmology etcetera; in circular diagrams, rota. It provided a theory of women as in some aspects deficient in relation to men (women priests??); and in medicine persisted with blood letting.

      • ignatius says:

        Peter,
        My comments have got a bit out of sync so the one below will be a bit of a non sequitor by now. But I couldn’t agree more about ideas being transplanted without context within Catholic history and thinking. Also that, if we take the time of Augustine and compare it with today we see the tools and tenets of exegesis to be very different. All in all its a pretty slippery eel we are trying to trap here…

  23. ignatius says:

    On the other hand it is the case that Dennis Noble is an extremely bright man and the last paragraph tilts towards the theology of Teilhard de chardin in that it asks the question:
    “How does God inhabit matter?”
    Strangely enough theology has been asking the same thing for the past 2,000 years with regard to transubstantiation…a belief which might be described as primitive superstition by the ultra rationalist. I think we need to be happier with the notion of mystery.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s