Paul Johnson: carried away as with a flood

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.

19 thoughts on “Paul Johnson: carried away as with a flood

  1. I particularly like the crux of the argument, in the last paragraph:

    And any reminder of the … powerlessness of human beings, made always necessary by our arrogance and boasting, must be an act of God….

    Is the logic that the word “reminder” implies the existence of someone who does the reminding?

  2. Richard “All Dawk” Dawkins, holder of the Runcible Chair of Bishop-Baiting at the University of Oxbridge East asks or enquires:

    ?In what sense of the word ?why?, does plate tectonics not provide the answer??

    His belligerent incomprehension is certainly a lesson for us all, but the answer is nonetheless quite obvious: it is the teleologically-oriented sense of the word “why”. “To what purpose”, which is to say, “or end?”

    It is a non-trivial observation that this class of question has no satisfactory answer, and for many persons it is an unsatisfactory observation that it has no non-trivial answer. But not for Richard “All-Dawk” Dawkins, of course.

  3. Ah, whilst I cannot quarrel with the thoughts that Your Palatine Serenity has put in that last para, I agree with Dawkins (who in an earlier age would no doubt have made a grand theologian) nonetheless that that is the way it is, and our own personal satisfaction or lack thereof has little bearing on the matter.

    In any event, on this point he certainly seems less an ass than does Johnson.

  4. As an atheiste myself, it isn’t Johnson with whom it is my priority not to be associated, though.

    Dawkins would have made an equally charmless ascetic theiste under different circumstances also, I’m sure.

  5. Thnak you for that Mrs T. I shall mock Mr Johnson in the Church Times next chance I get.

    Note that he starts with two flat out factual lies: the suggestion that Anthony Flew has recanted his atheism, and the claim that Rowan Williams said the tsunami had caused him to doubt the existence of God (a headline for which the editor responsible has apologised to +RW, and called ‘theologically obtuse’). Of course, it’s after those that he really gets into his stride.

  6. “His belligerent incomprehension is certainly a lesson for us all, but the answer is nonetheless quite obvious: it is the teleologically-oriented sense of the word “why”. “To what purpose”, which is to say, “or end?”

    It is a non-trivial observation that this class of question has no satisfactory answer, and for many persons it is an unsatisfactory observation that it has no non-trivial answer.”

    Actually it has a non-trivial answer, and an obvious one. A world, or universe, with no change, variations or fluctuations is static. While there are no catastrophes in such a place, there is also no growth. It is dead.

    As an aside, I think Brian Weatherson makes a critical flaw when he begins discussing the nature of God: he assumes he can determine God’s nature by observing the universe we inhabit. Brian overlooks the possibility that the universe is merely a construct, built by God certainly, but more properly a reflection of ourselves more than Him.

  7. I think you’re right to view Johnson as being wrong in labelling this a “profoundly moral” event. As an agnostic, it’s a bit inappropriate for me to make theological arguments, but let me give it a shot anyway.

    Starting from Romans 8:28, I think you can make a theological case that this tsunami was, in some sense, a good thing. However, there is a large gap between “[A]ll things work together for good to them that love God” and claiming God did this specifically to remind us that we are ants. (Or, following the Rev. Phelps, that God did this to kill homosexual Swedes.)

    The case I would make (were I to attempt theology) is that nature isn’t “blind and indifferent” because God is the cause of all things and God is neither blind nor indifferent. The Calvinists used to go from there to claiming that God, through nature, rewards his favourites (“them that love God”) and punishes all others. However, it’s difficult to sustain such a theology when something bad happens to you. A reading of Job suggests that God does bad things to good people in order to test them; but modern Christian thinking tends to prefer not to see God as a giant sadist.

    Ultimately, one can conclude that God did this, and did it for a good reason, but that this forms a part of God’s larger plan and does not entail any special conclusions from those of us who aren’t God. God didn’t necessarily do this to punish anyone in particular nor to teach us any specific lesson. It simply serves the plan God has for the universe. Thus, this disaster is at best mundanely moral in the same sense that any phenomenon leads to the furthering of God’s plan and offers the Christian the possibility to act in morally correct ways.

    A faith in a God with an unseen plan makes this event utterly without theological significance. It is neither grounds to turn one’s back on the notion of divinity or on a divinely originated morality, nor grounds for seeing a special lesson on man’s powerlessness and need for God. It is an event of the same moral category as a stubbed toe or a dental abcess, only much much larger in scale.

  8. Paul Johnson’s lunacy has fortuanatly been relegated to the Spectator. I can remember his why oh why rants int he Daily Mail, culminating with him hypothosising that global warming wouldn’t be that bad as it would allow Somerset (where he lives) to have vineyards.

    If that wasn’t sign enough of his rabid tendencies one only has to trawl back through some of his soap box rants. Fortuanatley his downfall from the popular media was caused when it came to light that this devout Catholic and strong advocate of marriage had been having an affair for several years. At that point even the Daily Mail dropped him (and replaced him with Peter Hitchens) and he was exiled. I am grateful that this exile takes him to the Spectator as I had been considering subscribing, I shall now save my money.

    I hold no strong religious views but do get irritated by those who purport to see divine interverntion in all things great and small (vis the wine yards of Somerset) and feel the need to ram it down others throats. A bit like conspiracy theorists who see new twists in the most mundane events.

    My take on the tsunami? It was a geological act, rationally explained that we have to live with on this planet. A lot of people died and we are trying to help the surviors (unless they are in Indonesia where the aide is being syphoned off to line pockets). Be grateful it didn’t hit Britain, although I do live 40 miles from the coast. Thats it

  9. Simon,

    yes, I think the views expressed in your final paragraph sum the matter up pretty well.

    And thank you for the amusing anecdote about Johnson’s affair. It’s not the affair that is amusing – that was essentially a matter for Johnson to sort out with his wife and his mistress (and, if he was so inclined, with his God, given that he believes in one), and is nobody else’s business — though one hopes Johnson was man enough to have regretted his betrayal (and not just his getting caught out). No, it’s the hypocrisy that amuses, as it did when we learned that William Bennett’s famously rigid virtue was flexible enough to accommodate millions thrown away gambling.

    Scott, not to make this thread any more theological than it already is, but I don’t think we need to read that passage from Romans as conferring any teleological value on the tsunami. A religious person might, perhaps, see in the event an instrumental value (‘It reminds me that life in this vale of tears is fragile; it gives me the opportunity to help alleviate the sufferings of victims’, or what have you). (And an irreligious person could do the same, albeit from a perspective that differs on some points.) But this, crucially, is not something inherent in the tsunami itself; this is not why it happened. And any ‘moral value’ would inhere not in the tsunami, but in one’s reaction to it. The tsunami itself remains as it is: simply a natural event caused by natural forces that, as is often the case, had very unfortunate effects for many people — and certainly not a ‘moral and benevolent act of God’. Had Johnson taken an only slightly different tack, considering instrumentality rather than teleology, he might have written a very significantly less stupid column.

  10. Deviating from the theological debate, I think there is a lesson in the tsunami, but one that, as always & everywhere, won’t be learnt: nature won’t abide to human scales, so let’s not ignore stuff beyond ours & be prepared.

    I mean, if, say – the wind blows gently every day, the rain falls every week or two, a tropical storm hits every few years, you can continue the series with earthquakes, major volcano explosions and tsunamis that happen on scales beyond a human lifespan (or memory span) – and see these as as natural and necessitating adaptation of your lifestyle as the previous.

    But, instead, after bemoaning a sudden calamnity, or cursing or praying to gods, or making sacrifices, or taking it all fatalistically, usually nothing changes. Maybe there will be a warning system, but cities won’t be laid out to ensure (wide enough) escape routes, or a settlement plan/building code preferring relocation to higher ground. Why care about it anyway, if the economic situation or a civil war poses more immediate existential problems.

  11. As an atheist, I’ll comment on the theological debate only from the sidelines.

    While I see Johnson’s moral arguments as offensive indeed, I wonder in what sense they are ‘wrong’. I would say Mrs. T’s and Johnson’s ‘God’ are two different gods, and Mrs. T’s emphasis on or interpretation of Ecclesiastes might not be shared by Johnson. For example, Johnson’s God might be based more on the passages where the author(s) of the Pentateuch call YHVH/El/Elohim a mass murderer (Noah’s Flood et al, my favourite is the last ‘punishment’ of the Egyptians).

  12. When I saw those arguments (Paul Johnson wasn’t the only one, George Will or David Brooks or some equivalent made similiar points) I had a sick feeling. Job, Voltaire, Mark Twain — this has been covered already, hasn’t it?

    Sometimes it seems that conservatives say what they do only in order to annoy liberals, like bad little boys taunting their teacher. They sometimes seem entirely unconcerned about in being right, or even in being non-stupid.

  13. Mark Twain explained the New Madrid, Missouri earthquake as God’s correction of an oversight in his original plan, comparing it to putting in a much-needed broom-closet which had been overlooked.

  14. The philosophy I can cope with. From all sides. The thing I find really difficult to not get upset with is the use of traumatised victims as fodder for the recruiting capaigns for all of the major religions and a fair few number of the minor ones.

    Yes. I know it happens after all natural disasters. And, yes, I know that the others providing aid all want something in return, even if it is just time on the mainstream news. And, I’m not even religious. But, I still find it depressing.

  15. No, it’s the hypocrisy that amuses, as it did when we learned that William Bennett’s famously rigid virtue was flexible enough to accommodate millions thrown away gambling.

    Why is that hypocrisy? Can you find any evidence that William Bennett preached against gambling? If he doesn’t believe gambling to be a sin then he is certainly no hypocrite.

    Or is it that only conservatives can be hypocrites, as they are the only ones who back standards of behavior?

  16. Bennett is a hypocrite because his gambling is precisely the sort of ‘victimless private vice’ (‘It doesn’t harm anybody else, so what business it is of yours?’) that he otherwise loses no time in railing against. Non-orthodox consenting sexual activity between adults; private use of ‘soft drugs’ like cannabis; these are all things Bennett liked to be quite fierce about. Indeed, shortly before his unmasking he penned a piece urging that otherwise law-abiding middle class people who indulge in the occasional recreational bong-hit be very severely chastised; pour encourager les autres, don’t you know.

    That leaves aside the issues of (i) whether even legal gambling is as ‘victimless’ as all that, and (ii) the really quite astounding amounts of money Bennett fed to his monkey. What’s more, Bennett is a stalwart champion of marriage. One wonders: does his wife view her husband’s waste of millions of dollars gambling — dollars that might have used for the family or (Bennett presumably approving this sort of thing, or least given to voicing approval of it) to do charitable good works — with the same equanimity that Bennett does?

    As for your final question, why don’t you come back and try again when it is true that conservatives are (i) the only people who back standards of behaviour and (ii) better at upholding the standards they back than are other people. Or, alternatively, go raise your question at some website like The Corner. I don’t doubt you will be gratified by receiving a great deal of head-nodding and affirmation in response.

  17. Bennett is a hypocrite because his gambling is precisely the sort of ‘victimless private vice’ (‘It doesn’t harm anybody else, so what business it is of yours?’) that he otherwise loses no time in railing against.

    Unless he has specifically stated, and I would add repeatedly, that he thinks gambling is a vice, then your attempt to link his gambling to the vices he does rail against has no force.

    As for your final question, why don’t you come back and try again when it is true that conservatives are (i) the only people who back standards of behaviour and (ii) better at upholding the standards they back than are other people. Or, alternatively, go raise your question at some website like The Corner. I don’t doubt you will be gratified by receiving a great deal of head-nodding and affirmation in response.

    And I don’t doubt that you felt pretty self-gratified with your smug little reference to The Corner. No doubt you caused a lot of head-nodding of your own.

    But do you seriously ask me to believe that in general (and yes, I believe in generalities) liberals back standards in the same proportion as do conservatives? The standard bearer for the left, the ACLU, has pretty much degenerated into an organization that does nothing but attempt to tear down standards and dismantle this country’s value system. You might say, Huzzah to that, but you can’t really claim that they’re upholding standards.

  18. Eh, Karl, just noticed that you’ve posted again. You probably won’t see this, but:

    1) You presume much when you write ‘this country’s value system’. What country are you thinking of? This is a European website.

    2) Even with reference to your own country, the ACLU (of which I am not an uncritical fan) renders valuable service in upholding the only ‘value system’ that ought to matter for that country, viz. its remarkable constitution. I recognise that this document and its values are an embarassment and obstacle for much of what passes for ‘conservatism’ in America these days. You and your lot seem to be making good progress in undermining the thing, though. Another few heaves, and you will probably succeed in overcoming it.

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