The catastrophic tsunami in the Indian Ocean gave many of us reason to crack open the dictionary and reacquaint ourselves with the term ‘theodicy’. Crooked Timber‘s Brian Weatherson, for example, saw in the catastrophe an opportunity to discuss the ‘problem of evil’ (i.e., given the manifest existence of evil in the world, is it not correct to say that God, if he exist, may be all-good, or all-powerful, but in any event cannot be both?).
Now that is is a very proper thing for a philosopher to discuss. As for me, though, I have never found the problem of evil very interesting, as it seems to presume that God plays a much more direct role in the day-to-day running of the world than I think he does.
But this is not the place to explore my unorthodox religious views. I wish instead to consider the religious views of Paul Johnson, which are presumably much more orthodox than my own and are at any rate, I think, far more offensive. For Johnson regards the tsunami from the perspective of classical theodicy, and concludes that it was a Good Thing.
Before going any farther, perhaps I should explain what this post is doing in afoe. The tsunami, after all, primarily afflicted Asia, not Europe. Well, there were a fair number of Europeans (mostly tourists) among the victims. But that is incidental. More importantly, it seems to me that European culture is very strongly disposed to ask the questions ‘Why?’ and ‘What does it all mean?’, even of events on the other side of the planet. Johnson asks that question, and gets the answer astonishingly wrong.
In this week’s Spectator, Johnson waxes wroth (something he has long practice in waxing) at those who see in the tsunami the absence or else the indifference of God. And he cannot resist seeing in all this the hand of the Wicked Evolutionists:
The notion, put forward by the Darwinian Central Committee, that the Indian Ocean disaster should persuade us to turn our intellectual backs on a God-directed universe, seems to be puerile. Why did God kill so many people? But God kills people all the time, millions every day. For that matter, God creates people, millions every day.
Ah, well that’s all right then, as long as God is careful to run a surplus.
But no, there’s more to it than that for Johnson. Even the killing itself was Good, if concedely rather hard luck on the killed. It was good, because There Is A Lesson In This For All Of Us:
The true theological or philosophical point to be made about the Indian Ocean wave ? if, indeed, there is one ? is that it is a timely reminder of the fragility of our existence in this world, the ease with which life on a sunny holiday beach can be snuffed out in a few torrential seconds…. So the calamity ? so distressing for those individually involved ? was for humanity as a whole a profoundly moral occurrence, and an act of God performed for our benefit. [Emph. added.]
I cannot speak for God, but were I he I am not altogether certain that I’d be well-pleased in my good and faithful servant Paul Johnson for calling me a mass murderer. More broadly, though the tsunami surely does have valuable lessons for all of us (e.g., ‘establish a working early-warning system’), it does not have the lesson Johnson thinks it does. It does not tell us anything at all about Good And Evil. It does not tell us whether there is or is not a God, and if one accept that there is, it does not tell us anything about him.
It is understandable, of course, that an event like the tsunami would provoke an anguished question of ‘Why?’. But Richard Dawkins (who could certanly be said to sit on the Darwinian Central Committee, if only there were such a thing) doesn’t think much of the question. As he put it in a letter to the Guardian: ‘In what sense of the word “why”, does plate tectonics not provide the answer?’
I do not share Dawkins’s atheism, but I certainly agree with him here. We are part of the natural world, and the workings of nature therefore affect us, sometimes catastrophically. And that’s about all there is to it.
Johnson would doubtless find this worldview, devoid as it is of the comforting direction of the Almighty, radically impoverished if not positively perverse. But before he starts accusing others of puerility, he ought to consider the self-inserted beam in his own eye. Dawkins is famously antireligious, but religious thinkers far more profound than Johnson can ever hope to be would have found Dawkins’s take more palatable than his.
Johnson is probably familar with the sermon of a certain itinerant rabbi as reported in the gospel of Matthew. This rabbi (who is, I presume, not without some significance for Johnson’s own religious beliefs) reminded us that God ‘maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.’ There is no deeper moral message to fortune or misfortune. We live in a world of uncertainty. That is all.
But it is the Jewish, not the Christian, scriptures in which this theme is most fully developed. Scholars classify one major category of the writings in the Hebrew bible as ‘wisdom literature’. And much of it is as you’d expect. Lots of the stuff in Proverbs, for example, seems solidly commonsensical, if a bit pompous and self-satisified; rather like advice from a virtuous but tiresome uncle. But wisdom literature has a deeper and more interesting subcategory, the so-called antiwisdom literature, exemplified by Job and Ecclesiastes. Antiwisdom literature warns you that the world is not the comfortable place your tiresome old uncle believes it to be. It is fraught with danger. Good people suffer, and the wicked go unpunished. (And yet antiwisdom literature, after plumbing the depths, ultimately confirms that existence is nonetheless good.) I have previously considered antiwisdom literature on my own website when writing about Stephen Mitchell’s remarkable translation of Job. Here I’d like to consider Johnson’s theodicy in the light of Ecclesiastes.
We may safely presume that the ‘preacher’, or Qohelet (and ‘Luther Blisset’ surely did the man a disservice in giving his name to his villain), was not trying to persuade us to turn our intellectual backs on God. In any event, he certainly had no investment in Darwinism, never having heard of it. Yet he viewed catastrophe much as Dawkins does. Unlike Dawkins, he was not an atheist; for all that he saw clearly the absurdity, the ‘vanity’, of this world, he affirmed that trust in God and a passion for justice and mercy were ultimately the proper response. (Dawkins and other atheists part company with him on the former point, but can just as strongly affirm the latter point as the correct human answer to existential angst.)
Qohelet insists as strongly as Dawkins does that nature is blind and indifferent. Things just happen, and they do so without reference to how this will affect us, let alone what we might feel about it: ‘If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.’
And as for us, well, we experience the good and the bad with no strong connection to whether we are ourselves good or bad, and in the long run (as a much later thinker once said, in words that could have come from a modern rephrasing of Ecclesiastes) we are all dead.
All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath…. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
Indeed, though Qohelet can have had no inkling of evolution, were he alive today he would probably come down hard against panadaptationism. Sometimes, you see, virtue (even in a biological sense) is not enough. Being an exquisitely-evolved hunting (or fleeing) animal does your progeny no good at all if you are crushed in an earthquake before you reproduce. One of the most famous passages in Ecclesiastes bears repeating (even if Harry Hutton disagrees with it):
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Johnson is wrong, offensively so. Yes, the tsunami was a reminder of the fragility of our existence in the world. One may see this as its ‘lesson’, as though that were a lesson that needed teaching. But it was not a ‘profoundly moral’ event, any more than it is profoundly moral when you come down with cancer, or win a lottery. Even less was it ‘an act of God performed for our benefit.’ Surely the tsunami was no benefit at all to a significant minority of ‘us’ — those killed or bereaved by it. And it would be a perverse God indeed who wiped out countless thousands of Asians to benefit a cantankerous old Englishman with a timely reminder that Life Is Fragile.
In the moral sphere, the ‘lesson’ of the tsunami is that there is no lesson. In his letter to the Guardian, Dawkins urges us to ‘get up off our knees… and help science to do something constructive about human suffering.’ I certainly agree with the second part. As a theist, I would still assert that there is a place for time spent on one’s knees (though perhaps that should be left off till later, if one is in a position to take action to relieve the immediate suffering of the people affected). I don’t agree with Dawkins that God is merely a ‘bogeyman’. But he is surely right about the ‘why’ of the tsunami. And Johnson is wrong, not to mention puerile.