Friday, December 31, 2004
I find Susan's posts on the Buddhist perspective on disasters to be appealing, but isn't there considerable tension between that perspective and the Catholic tradition, at least as that tradition discerns and articulates the natural law? I would love to say that the tsunamis just "are," or that tsunamis show us nothing about God, but isn't that a bit self-serving if we also claim that nature reveals qualities of God to all who are willing to look? If, for example, we can learn about God's creative genius by studying DNA, or can discover God's intentions for sex through the physical differentiation of the genders, can we suddenly call off the inquiry when it comes to tsunamis? If the "heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands," (Psalm 119) aren't tsunamis part of the divine declaration?
I don't claim to know what that declaration might be. For my own faith journey, the problem of tsunamis is not overcome by figuring them out, but by focusing on the Emmanuel ("God is with us") of this Christmas season. If not for my belief in the Incarnation, I'd likely be some sort of deist, believing in a distant God, a non-intervening, non-caring creative force who started things rolling and then moved on. But the Incarnation changes everything. By way of clumsy analogy, if I was living in an apartment with no heat, no electricity, and no plumbing, I'd bear some righteous anger toward the landlord. But what if the landlord moved in with me, subjecting himself to the same conditions? It certainly wouldn't take away my questions about the apartment's failings, but it would change my righteous anger into something else entirely.
In our continuing discussion of the tsunamis, a reader forwarded me some apt words from Bishop Robinson:
"God is in the cancer as he is in the sunset, and is to be met and responded to in each. Both are among the faces of God, the one terrible, the other beautiful. The problem of evil is not how God can will it (that is not even touched on in Romans 8) but its power to threaten meaninglessness and separation, to sever and to sour, to darken our capacity to make the response of Thou.
If this is the case, the first task for theology is to restate the problem rather than to look for a solution. So much of the conventional presentation of the problem of evil, both from the Christian and the anti-Christian side, assumes a Being who is 'personally responsible' for directing the course of events. Such a being is declared by the atheist to be morally intolerable, and I find myself concurring. I have no wish to defend such a conception of God. One senses the genuine agony that lies behind, say, the innocent suffering of a child, but to define the problem in terms of how this can be 'meant' in terms of an almighty Being who permits it, is to distort the issue from the beginning.
We have to start from the other end. The concatenation of events that produces earthquakes and accidents....are not to be seen in terms of prevenient intention. That is to introduce categories of interpretation as foreign as those of the old teleologists who argued that fleas were made black so that men could see to swat them against white sheets. In the dense world of subpersonal relationships, the purposiveness of love works itself out through 'blinder' categories. There is no intention in an earthquake or an accident. But in and through it it is still possible to respond to the Thou that claims even this for meaning and personal purpose."
Well, now we have an authoritative answer. The following paragraph, written by Richard Posner, is lifted from the Gary Becker-Richard Posner weblog:
"I agree that my statement that foreign aid is an inappropriate use of public funds requires qualification in several respects. First, it can be a way of buying allies, and from that standpoint the fact that the money is diverted to the political or economic elite of the recipient country need not be an objection. Second, it can be a way of conferring utility on Americans who have ethnic or religious or family or other ties to people in the recipient countries. Third, it can be a subsidy to U.S. industry if the aid is conditioned on the recipients’ using the money to buy U.S. goods; in such a case the net transfer to the recipient nation may be small. Fourth, as in the case of the Indian Ocean tsunami, it can be a form of social insurance. It is also possible that such aid can confer utility on the populations of the donor countries because the plight of the victims of the tsunami triggers altruistic sentiments in those populations, and that emergency assistance, being temporary, is somewhat less likely to be appropriated by the ruling elites of the recipient countries."
About that second category: Second, it can be a way of conferring utility on Americans who have ethnic or religious or family or other ties to people in the recipient countries. "Other" ties? Hmm ... Is Matthew 25:34-40 relevant here?
Thought that readers of this blog would be interested to know (if they don't already) about Network: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, which was founded by Catholic sisters from different religious orders and is located in Washington, DC. Click here to check out the website.
I receivied an e-mail responding to my response to Rob's initial post on the subject of Tsunamis and moral anthropology from Malcom Dean, who follows the Zen tradition. He first shared this story involving Shunryu Suzuki, the first abbot of Zen Center in San Francisco:
A student, filled with emotion and crying,
implored, "Why is there so much suffering?"
Suzuki Roshi replied, "No reason."
Dean then observed,
"To Western ears this kind of thing can sound cryptic or even cold. To
my mind it is profoundly compassionate and healing, even liberating,
because it speaks to a profound metaphysical principle: evil has no
ontological basis. Had the student asked about a specific event perhaps
Suzuki would have given a different answer, but he or she was asking a
higher-level question and received a higher-level reply: evil,
suffering, is a phenomenon of the relative, created world, a natural
and inevitable phenomenon, but it has no ontological foundation, no
root in the absolute (God) -- in other words, evil and suffering have
no reason, no cause rooted in God. That understanding liberates because
it frees one from spiritual doubt and confusion, even anger. In a world
filled with suffering it makes suffering understandable and therefore
meaningful. Suzuki of course would smile at this kind of long-winded
explication. His teaching technique was pure Zen, the spontaneous snap
Thursday, December 30, 2004
My friend Harold Ernst, a theologian studying at Notre Dame, passes on these comments, regarding our discussion on "Tsunamis and Moral Anthropology":
Rob's concluding challenge, "What do we have to say for God?", draws to mind anessay of the English Dominican Herbert McCabe, titled simply "Evil," thatappears in God Matters (Templegate, 1987). It is a philosophical defense,broadly Thomistic in character, to the kind of "God in the dock" perspectiveRob assumes. The essay is useful, I think, for bringing some intellectualclarity to which aspects require, and which do not require, recourse to whatRob terms the mystery of God "cop-out." What is more, the tenor of the essayis methodologically instructive, for it only attempts to answer rationalattacks on the legitimacy of religious belief by rebutting those arguments ontheir own terms. This approach concedes (as Susan does) that suchargumentation cannot rationally prove faith convictions to unbelievers, butonly demonstrate that those convictions are not philosophically incoherent orirrational (faith is above reason, but not against reason). As Newman said,"it is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing."Two other brief comments, each of which may be a mere quibble given the contextof their overall remarks. Rob notes the particular poignancy of this naturaldisaster occurring at Christmas, for relative to its scale "the divine concernfor humanity promised by the Incarnation seems relatively meaningless." Whilethis remark no doubt reflects an understandable degree of immediate despairover the present enormity of human suffering, it nonetheless suggests a whollyinadequate appreciation of what God has accomplished by means of theIncarnation. We live, after all, in the "in between times" where the kingdomof God is both "already" and "not yet." The promise of the Incarnation isprimarily of an eschatological reality, and those who seek to live in imitatioChristi cannot reasonably expect that our earthly existence will be, as itwere, all beer and skittles.Susan makes a similar point at the conclusion of her response to Rob, then adds:"And God weeps along with us at their deaths and at the suffering of those leftbehind." In making this addition she touches on a highly controversialquestion in contemporary theology, whether and how God (qua God) might sufferin solidarity with suffering humanity. A book length treatment that exploresthe historical tradition on this point, and highlights how the contemporarypredisposition for affirming God's suffering is theologically problematic, isThomas Weinandy's Does God Suffer? (T&T Clark, 2000).
Rodger Kamenetz, known for his work in Jewish-Buddhist dialogue, offers some thoughts on Rob's question in his essay, Was God in This Disaster?, linked here. Among other things, Kamenetz observes:
"I don't believe that a mass disaster, in and of itself, tells us anything about God. I don't believe in a God who punishes through disaster. The disaster is. That is exactly the way I would understand it, without adding my own interpretation, without supplying a meaning or completing the sentence. The disaster is. The tragedy is. And I need to abide with it, and feel it, instead of seeking an answer, because the answers just make me complacent and take me away from the children on the beach, and the father with the dead child in his arms.
There is no God in the disaster.
I think there is God in the response, in the human hearts of those who are feeling and responding to this, the families and neighbors of the victims, and the rest of us, the bystanders, and us, too. The whole world is feeling it."
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
The essay by former colleague Jeff Murphy that Rick mentions is, indeed, "a great read." If you're interested in these questions and haven't already seen it, you should check out Ch. 4, "Forgiveness as an Eternal Work of Love," of Tim Jackson's (Emory) The Priority of Love (Princeton 2003). Jackson does a bang-up job of bringing out the dangers of "diluting agape by entangling it in economies of exchange."
Professor Jeffrie Murphy (author of -- among other things -- the provocative and important book, "Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits") has a new essay out, in the Syracuse Law Review, called "Law Like Love." Unfortunately, I do not have a link (yet), but the citation is 55 Syracuse L. Rev. 15 (2004). I encourage readers to track down the essay; it's a great read. The paper explores the questions whether, when, and why agape permits punishment. It concludes with this from Ezekiel: "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked should turn from his way and live."
Here is a link, by the way, to W.H. Auden's "Law Like Love."