Tuesday, August 19, 2008

God plays dice with the Universe... sometimes.

Consider this hypothetical: Two children, Tommy and Jack, are in separate rooms of a hospital where they are being treated for pneumonia. The parents of both are good Christians who pray every day for their children to get better. Both Tommy and Jack experience dangerous complications. Eventually, a week after his admittance, Tommy makes a full recovery. Jack, however, dies.

There are three possible reactions for Jack's parents: They could see it as God's Will and accept it, they could see it as God's Will and question it, or they could see it as not the work of God at all.

The first reaction is how some Christians deal with such tragedies. They believe in a world with an encompassing order in control of everything. This includes having every death mean something, especially when it's someone close to them. They might not know what that meaning could be, but they will state that "God is ultimately unknowable" and be content to remain in the dark as to God's motives. Their faith in Him will guide them through the tragedy.

The second reaction, where the parents would wallow in their misery while crying out "God killed my son and I want to know why", can lead to anger, bitterness and sometimes even a loss of faith. In the movie Signs, Mel Gibson plays a reverend who abandons his faith when his wife dies in an automobile accident. Cold Fusion Video's Nathan Shumate, who is a faithful Mormon, wrote a review of the movie Signs where he takes issue with Mel Gibson's character:

"I really have to wonder how much of a reverend Graham was if his trust in God was so easily shaken. 'Easily'? No, I don’t mean to belittle the pain of losing a spouse, a pain I can only imagine at present. But all the same, I’m not unaware of it intellectually, and I hope that when/if it does happen to me, I’ll be far enough from that teenagerish stage of 'No one has EVER felt like I feel!' that I won’t feel singled out by the cosmos to suffer, that I won’t think that somehow I’m justified in giving up where millions of bereaved spouses before me have persevered."
Allow me to play Shyamalan's advocate (which is hard to do given how much I disliked his film) and side with Graham for a moment. His anger at God was not because of the death itself, but because the death was, in his view, meaningless. I would wager you don't have military spouses spouting the same rhetoric when their loved ones get killed in Iraq. Soldiers in the field die for a reason, and their death (given their environment) is not unexpected. Such is not the case with Graham's wife.

Ultimately, though, I agree with Nathan's assessment of the character. And though I sympathise with fictional folks like Graham (as well as real-life people like Julia Sweeney), I cannot agree to how they came to their conclusions about God. Which leads us to the third reaction: God had nothing to do with it. Let's go back to Nathan's review:

"Look, I’m a Believer with a capital B, but if you present me with the false dichotomy of either EVERYTHING’s meaningful or NOTHING’s meaningful, I’m going to have to choose the second. Because you know what? Shit happens. I don’t think it’s necessary to believe that God intends and wills every event in order to believe in God, but this movie leaves no middle ground; it’s all or nothing. In the real world, it’s so easy to disprove the former beyond a reasonable doubt that the false dichotomy forces the thoughtful person into believing the latter."
This happens to be the exact phrasing Mrs. Mosley once used in a discussion with me. Though I can't recall what prompted the declaration, she stated she was sick of people who suffered pain and hardship and then either cursed God for doing it to them and/or abandoned a belief in God entirely. Her answer to this collective "Why?" was a curt "You know, sometimes shit happens!".

The sentiment may be profane, but it gets the point across. In Nathan's argument, the dichotomy is invalid because there is a third option: SOME things are meaningful. For those that choose the first reaction, this is an unacceptable scenario, because it throws into doubt everything in their lives. They would have to admit that though they may be looked over by God, they are also subject to the whims of chance just like everybody else.

But let's leave Jack for a moment and look at Tommy. His parents, given that they are believers, will likely deem the recovery to be a miracle and proclaim it as evidence of God's benevolence. If that is the case, then here's a few questions for them: Why is Tommy better and Jack dead? Did they pray longer? More fervently? Did they attend church more often? Did they tithe in greater amounts? Were Tommy's parents Catholic and Jack's Protestant?

There's no need to tell me that such questions are ridiculous and insulting. I agree with you. But depending on their views, the response of Tommy's parents to the "Why is Tommy better and Jack dead" question may be just as insulting.

If they believe that EVERYTHING is meaningful, then we go back to "God is unknowable" and there is no need for further explanation because no one but God could possibly give one. However, if Tommy's parents are of the opinion that only SOME things are meaningful ("Shit Happens"), then they would be stating that Jack's death was mere circumstance and that Tommy's recovery was by the hand of God.

Such a view would seem to credit God with all the good stuff and none of the bad. Isn't this... well, I almost said "unfair', but that would be the wrong thing to say. Life is unfair. If life was fair, then there would be a God that ensured that good things happened to those that deserved it, but that isn't the case. Good things happen all by themselves right along with bad things, regardless of the people involved. SHIT HAPPENS!

The ultimate question is this: Was Tommy blessed... or just lucky? When it comes right down to it, none of us can really know for sure.

One of the biggest arguments that atheists use is called "The Problem of Evil", which states that you cannot have simultaneously (a) a God that is all powerful, (b) a God that is all-benevolent and (c) a world where evil runs rampant. Although I was once fond of this argument, it's one I can no longer support. Because all three can be true if you accept the fact that God can allow bad things to happen if he has a reason to do so, such as a parent that will allow their child to be hurt on purpose in order that the child learns a lesson. Such is the view of those who look for meaning.

But given the way life actually works, I can only accept a "Shit Happens" God; One who is all-benevolent and all powerful but permits bad things to happen because... they happen. Life is unpredictable, sometimes rewarding the wicked and punishing the virtuous, and the real reward for the true believer comes only after we pass this realm into another.

Everything that comes before, for all practical purposes, is just a roll of the dice.

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