Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Whatever would make you think that academia is waging war on Christianity?

Not this, surely.

MAJOR CAVEAT: Note the byline: Ruth Gedhill. I do not have the impression that this particular woman is highly adept in the fundamental journalistic skill of getting the facts straight. So everything in this story could actually be wrong, and it's practically certain that important context is missing. Before getting too outraged (if you're inclined in that direction) you should probably do further research.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Engineering jokes

Most of these are courtesy (proximately) of David Oliver. He gave me lots of 'em and I took the ones I liked the best, thus giving David a golden opportunity to evaluate my sense of humor.

Two male engineering students were walking across campus when one said, "Where did you get such a great bike?"

The second engineer replied, "Well, I was walking along yesterday minding my own business when a beautiful woman rode up on this bike. She threw the bike to the ground, took off all her clothes and said, 'Take what you want, buddy.'"

The second engineer nodded approvingly. "Good choice; the clothes probably wouldn't have fit."
To the optimist, the glass is half full. To the pessimist, the glass is half empty. To the engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.
A pastor, a doctor and an engineer are stuck on the fourth tee one morning, waiting for a particularly slow group of golfers. The engineer fumes, "What's with these guys? We must have been waiting for 15 minutes!"

The doctor chimes in, "I don't know, but I've never seen such ineptitude!"

About this time the greenskeeper wanders by, and the pastor calls him over. "Hey, George, what's the deal with that group ahead of us? They're rather slow, aren't they?"

The greenskeeper replies, "Oh, yes, that's a group of blind firefighters. They lost their sight saving our clubhouse from a fire last year, so we always let them play for free anytime."

There is a silence. Then the pastor says, "That's so sad. I think I'll say a special prayer for them tonight."

The doctor adds, "Good idea. And I'm going to contact my ophthalmologist buddy and see if there's anything he can do for them."

The engineer looks at the greenskeeper with a face writ large with innocent curiosity. "So, why can't these guys play at night?"

[Note: I first heard that joke years ago when Tony Randall told it on Letterman about a priest, a Baptist preacher and a rabbi. He gave the punch line to the rabbi.]
Q. What is the difference between mechanical engineers and civil engineers?

A. Mechanical engineers build weapons, civil engineers build targets.
Normal people ... believe that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Engineers believe that if it ain't broke, it doesn't have enough features yet.

--Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle
An engineer was crossing a road one day when a frog called out to him and said, "If you kiss me, I'll turn into a beautiful princess."

He bent over, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket.

The frog spoke up again and said, "If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will stay with you for one week."

The engineer took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it and returned it to the pocket.

The frog then cried out, "If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I'll stay with you and do ANYTHING you want."

Again the engineer took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back into his pocket.

Finally, the frog asked, "What is the matter? I've told you I'm a beautiful princess, that I'll stay with you for a week, and that I'll do anything you want. Why won't you kiss me?"

The engineer said, "Look I'm an engineer; I don't have time for a girlfriend. But a talking frog...now that's cool."
And my own contribution to the current collection:

A mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer and a civil engineer have all agreed that God is an engineer, but they are arguing about His precise field of specialization.

"Look at those muscles and bone structure," enthuses the mechanical engineer, "the range of movement in the appendages, the power in the thighs and buttocks combined with the delicacy and precision of the fingers and eyes -- He's got to be a mechanical engineer."

"You're out of your mind," responds the electrical engineer scornfully. "We can't even begin to approach the complexity of the brain and nervous system. Coordination and intepretation of massive input streams in real time, accessibility of stored data by associative reference -- no question, absolutely clear, God's a double-E."

The civil engineer calmly shakes his head. "He's a civil engineer, guys, and I can prove it."

"We'd love to hear you try."

"Just think of it this way: who but a civil engineer would have run a toxic waste line smack through the middle of a recreational facility?"

"Zen for Those Who Take Life Too Seriously" Dept

The Princess provides me with the following words to live by (and also with the title for this post):

1. Save the whales. Collect the whole set.
2. A day without sunshine is like night.
3. On the other hand, you have different fingers.
4. I just got lost in thought. It wasn't familiar territory.
5. 42.7 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.
6. 99 percent of lawyers give the rest a bad name.
7. I feel like I'm diagonally parked in a parallel universe.
8. Honk if you love peace and quiet.
9. Remember, half the people you know are below average.
10. He who laughs last, thinks slowest.
12. The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.
13. I drive way too fast to worry about cholesterol.
14. Support bacteria. They're the only culture some people have.
15. Monday is an awful way to spend 1/7 of your week.
16. A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.
17. Change is inevitable, except from vending machines.
18. Get a new car for your spouse. It'll be a great trade!
19. Plan to be spontaneous tomorrow. [Note: really and truly, I once had a Bible Study leader who was so compulsive about his planning that we once caught him checking off on his to-do list an agenda item called "spontaneous fellowship."]
20. Always try to be modest, and be proud of it!
21. If you think nobody cares, try missing a couple of payments.
22. Raise my hand if you believe in psycho-kinesis?
23. OK, so what's the speed of dark?
24. How do you tell when you're out of invisible ink?
25. If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
26. When everything is coming your way, you're in the wrong lane.
27. Hard work sometimes pays off in the long run. Laziness always pays off now. [Note: I actually know the source of this one: it's the Procrastination poster, which is one of my favorites from despair.com.]
28. Everyone has a photographic memory. Some just don't have film.
29. If Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?
30. How much deeper would the ocean be without sponges?
31. Eagles may soar, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines.
32. What happens if you get scared half to death twice?
33. I used to have an open mind but my brains kept falling out.
34. I couldn't repair your brakes, so I made your horn louder. [Note: this reminds me of P. J. O'Rourke's classic reference to the horn in his piece on Third World driving: "...your car's horn, or, as it is also called, the Egyptian Brake Pedal."]
35. Why do psychics have to ask you for your name?
36. Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what happened.
37. Just remember - if the world didn't suck, we would all fall off.
38. Light travels faster than sound. This explains why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Let's guess which Americans will find this story plausible

Color Howard Dean skeptical, I'd guess.

"Offensive Joke of the Day" Dept

Teddy Kennedy and a fetus show up at the Pearly Gates seeking admittance. St. Peter looks at his paperwork and then says regretfully, "Sorry, but only human beings are allowed in heaven."

So off to hell trudges Senator Kennedy...

"Fabulous News For Husbands Whose Wives Are Always Complaining About Being Too Stressed Out" Dept

Said great news may be found here.

Hat Tip: who else could it be?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Need a new pigeonhole for this one

Gene Weingarten on The Great Zucchini -- a fascinating, disturbing, moving, unsettling read.

Hat tip: Dave Barry.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Interesting enough that I may have to go read up and learn something about the topic

Condi sets out to make the State Department actually show some signs of competence.

Which is long overdue, though I am not informed enough to know whether her new strategies are good ones or not.

And would it really hurt the Bushies so much to admit that Bremer was an ass of the first order and did our cause fairly severe damage in Iraq? I'm no fan of the disloyal opposition (e.g. Murtha and Durbin), but it would make me respect Republican neocons more to hear them admit that Bremer's incompetence has done considerably more actual damage than have Durbin's stupid gulag ramblings.

"Today's Life Lesson" Dept

So, I have to show my kids this vivid illustration of a fundamental principle of life: sarcasm and belittling tones of voice to those whom you consider to have behaved badly, practically never make them stop behaving badly.

Jacko line of the day

Mark Steyn in Macleans, reviewing a new book about Michael Jackson, delivers his accustomed allotment of bon mots, including this one about Jacko himself:

...in splendid contrast to Little Richard and Pat Boone, he's the first black star to become his own lucrative white cover version.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

On morally outraged atheists

I had a friend once who moved to a small town way in Oklahoma’s Kiamichi Mountains, way back where even the state highways (at the time) were dirt roads. He had a candy-apple red sports car, and about the second day he was there, he went into a little mom-’n’-pop café for a cup of coffee. The waitress took his order and then said, “I guess maybe you don’t know, but L. C. don’t like red cars.”

My friend grinned. “Too bad for L. C., whoever he is; I guess he’s got a problem.”

“No,” answered the waitress. “If L. C. don’t like you, then you got a problem.”

“Why is that?” asked my friend curiously.

“’Cause L. C. is the sherriff, and I’m tellin’ ya, he don’t like red cars.”

My friend was having trouble taking her seriously. “Hon, there ain’t no law against havin’ a red car.”

“Maybe so, but there’s lots of laws big an’ small, and you’re bound to break one of ’em someday, and when you do he’ll bust your sweet butt. You’re gonna roll through a stop sign at a half a mile an hour and he’s gonna fine you a hundred bucks just like you ran it at eighty like a Saturday night teenager. You’ll come through with your Barbara Mandrell playing a bit loud an’ the windows rolled down, and he’ll arrest you for disturbin’ the peace and make you spend a night in jail. Sweetcheeks, L. C. pulled a gun on my cousin once for violatin’ the county leash law. So if I was you, yeah, there ain’t no law against havin’ a red car, but I’d still go trade that baby in for one that L. C. ain’t so likely to notice.”

Now, I tell that story (which, I should say, I made up) because it goes to the heart of one of atheism’s major problems. An atheist is eager to tell you that there ain’t no transcendent moral laws – and then he’ll just as eagerly jump all over your butt when you do something he thinks is “wrong.” But if atheism is true, then an atheist telling you that, say, people ought not to be “racist” (by whatever definition he’s attached to that extremely fluid loaded word) is like Sherriff L. C. sayin’ he don’t like red cars. If the atheist can hurt you (because, e. g., he’s running the government) then maybe you say to yourself, “That’s total b.s.,” but you still lower your head and play along so you won’t get hurt. Otherwise, when the atheist tells you that he finds your “racism” outrageous and it honks him off, you just cheerfully and rationally respond, “Well, homie, I guess it sucks to be you, huh?”

Now you need to understand some things that I am not saying.

1. I am not saying that it is irrational, even by the atheist’s own philosophy, for him to live a moral life. An atheist is perfectly free to say, “I know that there’s not really any intrinsic value in honesty, or in caring about other people, or in loving animals, or in being concerned about the future of the human race. But I also know that I, emotionally, can’t help but dislike myself when I find myself lying or being callous or littering. So the rational thing for me to do is to cater to these arbitrary emotional hangups that I have, because I’ll be happier that way.” There’s nothing at all irrational about that. An atheist can even, rationally speaking, give his life for a moral principle – if he believes that he would be miserable for the rest of his life if he were to save his life by doing something he can’t help but consider unbearably disgraceful. If an atheist believes that nonexistence is better than misery...well, who’s going to disprove that? There’s no prima facie absurdity in that position (though there is, of course, a highly dubious implicit premise that nonexistence is one of his options).

2. I am not saying that atheists and religious folks can’t cooperate to build a just and moral society. I personally happen to believe that human rights are genuinely inalienable rights, precisely because I believe human beings have been endowed, literally by their Creator, with those rights. If an atheist chooses to believe that human beings have a fundamental, inalienable right to believe as they wish on religious matters without persecution by the state – why, so do I, and we can agree on that and move forward even he believes it because he read it on the wall of a bathroom in Grand Central Station or whatever. In fact, even if the atheist doesn’t believe in a fundamental and inalienable right to religious freedom, still, as long as he’s willing to say that for practical purposes we have that right until the Constitution is amended to discard it, then he and I can move forward in peace. Practically nobody lives a genuinely intellectually consistent life, after all; if we are going to demand utter intellectual consistency from other people before we are willing to cooperate with and feel affection and respect for them, then we might as well go ahead and order our hermit’s rags right now and avoid the rush.

Indeed, the genius of the American approach to government is precisely that we do not insist that our common adherence to the basic American principles of right and wrong, must be practiced for the same reasons or even for good reasons. Are you willing to follow the basic rules upon which American civic life is predicated? Then we’re good; and on whatever’s behind those rules we’ll agree to disagree, however stupid we might think each other’s basic philosophies might be. If you’re willing to respect other people’s religious freedom then it doesn’t matter whether you’re Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, or Wiccan – and that’s true even for those of us who think that a Muslim who doesn’t believe in jihad and sharia, is a Muslim who hasn’t read the Koran very carefully. If we couldn’t find common ground and start from there without insisting that we had to believe the same things for the same reasons, then our society would disintegrate. I’m not just a conservative Christian; I’m also a libertarian, and I guarantee you that pluralism in civil society – which demands a willingness to allow wide variance in fundamental beliefs as long as those beliefs get you safely onto the common ground of the basic rights upon which we Americans base our common life – is deeply dear to my heart.

3. I’m certainly not saying you can’t admire an atheist for his moral character. I like honest people, for example, and don’t care much for liars; and if a particular friend’s reasons for being honest don’t really hold water in a philosophical bull session, still, I’ll take, any day, an honest atheist who isn’t a competent philosopher over a smart guy who can quote the entire Bible from memory but who lies to you whenever he finds it convenient to do so. There are things that are much more important than a person’s brains or philosophical consistency, and moral character is one of those things.

But it is important to understand that when an atheist gets mad at other people because they are behaving in a manner of which he does not approve, he cannot reasonably expect them to pay the slightest attention to his anger unless (a) they happen to agree with the particular moral principle in question, or (b) he can hurt them. Why should he make the rules for them?

Now you can throw this same accusation back in the theist’s face, if you wish, but the theist is (potentially) consistent in a way that the atheist simply cannot be. The theist does not believe that he is making the rules; he thinks that God is. Of course, he could be quite wrong about this; but at least there is nothing prima facie irrational in his claiming that “his” rules apply to everybody, precisely because he does not believe that they are “his” rules at all. But the atheist maintains that moral rules are a human creation, in which case why should I kowtow to the rules the atheist has created rather than to whichever rules happen to strike my fancy? – unless, of course, the atheist has a gun and I don’t. But in that case the atheist has not proved his point, except insofar as the argumentum ad baculam proves anything.

By the same token, theistic moral reasoning is consistent with the virtue of humility in a way that atheistic moral reasoning (at least, if it starts sincerely using emotionally loaded words like “ought” and “should”) cannot be. It is entirely possible for a theist to believe that there is a universal standard of good and evil, and yet have doubts as to whether he fully understands that standard. Scientists believe that there are universally valid physical laws and yet know that there are aspects of physics where they don’t yet know where the laws are – and even that some of the things they think they know, like nineteenth-century scientists thought they knew Newtonian physics was accurate, may turn out not to be. There's no reason a theist can't have a similar attitude toward universally valid moral laws.

There are, of course, lots of Christians who go to the Bible in order to proof-text their own prejudices; but there are also many Christians who go to the Bible precisely so that God will have a chance to point out errors in their own beliefs and sins in their own habits. You can't tell which kind you're dealing with just by whether they are "progressive" or "fundamentalist;" it depends on the individual. For example: There are certain liberal Christians such as John Shelby Spong (not all liberal Christians, I emphasize, are Spong-style morons) who say that it’s okay to ignore what St. Paul said because the Bible is hopelessly polluted by the patriarchal and homophobic prejudices of St. Paul’s culture. Well, okay, you can take that view, I suppose. But if the Spong dude then turns around and hurls vitriolic and bitter abuse at anybody in his church who won’t go along with his own desire to make Anglicans worldwide conform scrupulously to the political program of the late twentieth-century politically correct Western far left, then he is being, quite simply, an arrogant ass. Meanwhile a "fundamentalist" Christian, despite the Spongian chants of "homophobe," may refuse to cooperate in the condoning of homosexual practice precisely out of humility – because he believes other people, and specifically the writers of Scripture, are more to be trusted than is he himself, and because he does not believe that his own opinions are of sufficient authority to overthrow the commands of Scripture and two millenia of Church tradition. The fact that others will accuse him of “trying to force his beliefs on other people,” will not make that accusation be valid; for they are not “his beliefs” in the sense in which the moral outrage implicit in the accusation requires them to be.

Now, a liberal Christian is in a stronger position to argue morality than an atheist, because most liberal Christians do believe that there is a God, and a great many liberal Christians believe that there are things that are really right and really wrong, and many a liberal Christian sincerely believes that the Bible properly understood requires us to live a politically correct life rather than, say, the sort of life of which Opus Dei would approve. That is, a liberal Christian may very well approach moral issues with humility, and the disagreement between a liberal Christian and a conservative Christian may be a disagreement between two mutually respectful and humble people who just can’t bring themselves to see the evidence the same way. That Spong’s own liberalism is an exercise in comically unrestrained narcissism is a characteristic of Spong himself, not an intrinsic and irremovable aspect of liberal Christianity; when a liberal and a conservative Christian are arguing, either, or both, or neither may be arguing with humility and charity. It depends entirely on the people involved. The only reason I chose to contrast an arrogant liberal with a humble “fundamentalist” is because I know that many atheists think that Spong is relatively “tolerant” and that “fundamentalists” are arrogant jerks.

But in contrast to a conservative or liberal Christian, or even a Wahhabite Muslim, an atheist has cut off his own legs at the knees, at least when it comes to giving himself a platform from which to rail at the rest of us about how our behavior is “vile” or “evil” or “detestable.” The attempts of atheists to establish that the rest of us “ought” to live according to their notions of good and evil (and believe me, most atheists have some such notions and expect the rest of us to live by them, at least if the invective they toss around in political discussions is anything other than hypocritical manipulation) – those attempts cannot help but end up in an arbitrary value chosen by the atheist and imposed upon others by him, just because (a) he thinks he can impose his opinions upon us and (b) in his mind his opinion counts more than anybody else’s. For example, if you build up a utilitarian moral philosophy based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people...who says I should care about what’s good for all those other people, if it happens to be bad for me? Why should I care about other people?

Again, an atheist carrying on about how theism is “vile” and how atheism is “noble” and “heroic,” or who talks about other subjects with such value-laden epithets...such an atheist does nothing but make himself a comic figure -- at least, assuming the rest of us think he’s sincere. For in the end all he means is, “[whatever he has just called ‘vile’] honks me off and puts me in a bad mood,” and, “I think [whatever he has just called ‘noble’ or whatever] is pretty cool.” Yet his language makes it appear that he thinks there’s more to it than that – his language makes it appear that he expects us to be honked off by the same things he is and to be pleasured by whatever pleasures him, and makes it appear that he will think there’s something wrong with us if we don’t conform to his standard. “Be like me or something’s wrong with you...” in other words, to put it bluntly, that he’s a jackass.

So let the atheist rage about whatever “injustice” happens to push his own particular button. If the rest of us happen to agree that what he’s talking about is a bad thing (e.g., murder, or racism concretely and appropriately defined, or lying, or stealing), then we’ll go along with him – though not because we are overawed by his moral authority. In fact, he can even be persuasive, in certain circumstances. But he can only persuade so long as he is careful to argue from our premises rather than his own; for if he has to justify his fundamental moral principles he will ultimately be able to do no better than to say, “Because it honks me off.” If the rest of us happen to disagree with him, but he is able and willing to hurt us if we don’t comply with his demands...well, might doesn’t make right, but it sometimes makes people do what you want, at least if they don’t think they can do it without your finding out about it; though in such a case you won’t be respected, only feared.

But if the rest of us disagree with you and you can’t hurt us...why, then, when we pin you down on where your principles are coming from and you say, “Because it honks me off,” then the rest of us will with perfect rationality reply, “Guess you got a problem, then, doncha?” And we’ll keep on drivin’ our candy-apple red cars, and wearing our genuine fur coats made from genuine baby seals, or whatever it is that we’re doing that we don’t see anything wrong with doing even though it gives you a moralistic butt-rash.

And why is this a problem with atheism? It’s not a crippling problem with the philosophy as an intellectual construct, because it’s always open to the atheist to say, “Listen, right and wrong is just about who’s got the power to make other people to live their way.” If an atheist is genuinely capable of placidly letting other people do whatever they want to do – eat meat, listen to country music while dippin’ Skoal, kill people who chew their food with their mouths open, compel people to worship in mosques on penalty of beheading, forcibly castrate boys so that their voices won’t change, kidnap other people and sell them into slavery, poison the environment with radioactive waste, practice female circumcision on unwilling girls, stone homosexuals, implement a Final Solution...why, if the atheist is willing to let others do all this, or if when he tries to make people stop and they ask, “Why?” he answers simply, “Because I say so and I have the gun” – why, then, he can live as an atheist in complete intellectual consistency.

But that’s not where most atheists are. The problem with atheism comes when you want other people to behave in ways that don’t honk you off, but you aren’t strong enough to force them to and you are unfortunate enough to live among sensible people who aren’t intimidated by high-minded-sounding crap. Most atheists, being human, can’t help but feel righteous indignation – but their philosophy has reduced righteousness to, essentially, “behavior that suits my own personal arbitrary emotional reactions.” Which means that when they get angry at everybody else for doing “bad” things, most of the rest of us understand that the atheist’s anger is fundamentally an emotional claim that everybody else owes it to the atheist to behave in a way that makes the atheist happy – that is, a claim to be the most important person in the world. And the rest of us...well, we know you aren’t any more important than we are. So if we’re charitable people who know that to be human is to be a fool every now and then, we’ll be amused by you (unless it starts to look like you might actually be able to get enough power to be able to start hurting other people who don’t do what you say, in which case we’ll stop being amused and we’ll set about to adjust your attitude as forcibly as your stubbornness requires); and if we’re the sort of uncharitable person who is annoyed by others’ folly and never notices his own, why then we’ll think you’re a jerk.

To have others either think you’re a fool or else think you’re a jerk...is that really what you’re after?

(No, it’s not what I’m after, either; but I long since got used to it...)

If you're not watching Stephen Colbert...

..why the heck not?

Thanks to Her Anchorship, I give you Colbert -- sorry, I mean Hitler -- on bloggers.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Looking for context

Does anybody have a link to the full transcript of the Murtha town meeting in which he allegedly said, "I worry about a slow withdrawal which makes it look like there's a victory when I think it should be a redeployment as quickly as possible and let the Iraqis handle the whole thing"?

Since it is clearly in the interest of Americans that terrorists and the Arab world believe we won in Iraq, why would Murtha be worried that we might appear to have won a victory, as if that were somehow a bad thing? Of course, if we appear to have won a victory then that makes it harder for Democrats to get elected after carrying on about how victory was impossible and about how failure has been our constant companion throughout the entire war. If we win in Iraq it is likely to make Murtha personally look especially bad if he really has admitted publicly, "A year ago, I said we can't win this militarily." So the easy explanation is that he wants Bush to fail -- and thus, wants our military to fail and our people to be in greater danger from emboldened terrorists -- so that he won't have to admit that he was wrong and so that his party will have a better chance of recovering power tomorrow. But that would make him despicable scum of the second order (not the first order, which is reserved for actual terrorists), and I hate to think that about anybody, especially on the word of a political enemy indulging in selective quotation.

So does anybody have the complete transcript?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A despicable Supreme Court decision bears predictable fruit

In my first draft of this post, I had expressed in vividly metaphorical terms my disgust at the continuing consequences of one of the four or five all-time grotesquely, appalingly, moronically, despicably, contemptibly, immorally wrong Supreme Court decisions -- one which, in a perfecly ordered Republic, would have resulted in the instant impeachment and disbarment of all Justices concurring in the decision. But since the metaphor was of Madam Kelo and her brothel in which the girls had no choice but to submit to the politicians' lust, the imagery got too vivid for a semi-family blog. So I'll just link to the story and say that there is no place for the City Council of Sand Springs, or for the guilty Justices, in sane, civilized, moral society.

Despicable is far too kind a word for anyone involved. That includes you, Justice Souter, and you, Mayor Bob Walker, and...

Maybe I'll calm down and find out more information about the Sand Springs travesty or something and revise my opinion of the Sand Springs people slightly. But Kelo is a sick joke and nothing the conspiring Justices can ever do will erase their infamy.

Not that I feel strongly about it or anything.

HT: The Anchoress

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

"I Can't Believe She Wasn't Satisfied with Her Computer Programmer" Dept

I have nothing to add to this.

Well, other than this classic chestnut:

An architect's wife, an artist's wife, and a computer programmer's wife are sitting around talking about their husbands' lovemaking abilities.

The artist's wife says, "Oh, mercy, when my husband takes me to bed, there's passion, there's poetry, there's romance -- incredible!"

The architect's wife replies, "Well, when my husband makes love to me, there's power, there's strength, and, well, let's just say his Flying Buttress is toweringly Gothic!"

The programmer's wife looks confused and says plaintively, "I don't know what you girls are talking about...when my husband and I make love, he just sits on the side of the bed and tells me how great it's going to be in three months..."

"Job Posting" Dept

Thanks to David Oliver, who asks me rhetorically, "Can you believe you accepted this position eight times?"

Mom, Mommy, Mama, Ma
Dad, Daddy, Dada, Pa

Long term, team players needed, for challenging permanent work in an often chaotic environment. Candidates must possess excellent communication and organizational skills and be willing to work variable hours, which will include evenings and weekends and frequent 24 hour shifts on call. Some overnight travel required, including trips to primitive camping sites on rainy weekends and endless sports tournaments in far away cities! Travel expenses not reimbursed. Extensive courier duties also required.

The rest of your life. Must be willing to be hated, at least temporarily, until someone needs $5. Must be willing to bite tongue repeatedly. Also, must possess the physical stamina of a pack mule and be able to go from zero to 60 mph in three seconds flat in case, this time, the screams from the backyard are not someone just crying wolf. Must be willing to face stimulating technical challenges, such as small gadget repair, mysteriously sluggish toilets and stuck zippers. Must screen phone calls, maintain calendars and coordinate production of multiple homework projects. Must have ability to plan and organize social gatherings for clients of all ages and mental outlooks. Must be willing to be indispensable one minute, an embarrassment the next. Must handle assembly and product safety testing of a half million cheap, plastic toys, and battery operated devices. Must always hope for the best but be prepared for the worst. Must assume final, complete accountability for the quality of the end product. Responsibilities also include floor maintenance and janitorial work throughout the facility.

None. Your job is to remain in the same position for years, without complaining, constantly retraining and updating your skills, so that those in your charge can ultimately surpass you.

None required, unfortunately. On-the-job training offered on a continually exhausting basis. Extreme variability from unit to unit renders previous experience irrelevant with each new version.

Get this! You pay them! Offering frequent raises and bonuses. A balloon payment is due when they turn 18 because of the assumption that college will help them become financially independent. When you die, you give them whatever is left. The oddest thing about this reverse-salary scheme is that you actually enjoy it and wish you could only do more.

While no health or dental insurance, no pension, no tuition reimbursement, no paid holidays and no stock options are offered; this job supplies limitless opportunities for personal growth and free hugs for life if you play your cards right.

Monday, January 16, 2006

And in response I find myself speechless

Mayor Nagin attempts to channel God.

An Appeal from Center-Right Bloggers

From NZ Bear:

We are bloggers with boatloads of opinions, and none of us come close to agreeing with any other one of us all of the time. But we do agree on this: The new leadership in the House of Representatives needs to be thoroughly and transparently free of the taint of the Jack Abramoff scandals, and beyond that, of undue influence of K Street. We are not naive about lobbying, and we know it can and has in fact advanced crucial issues and has often served to inform rather than simply influence Members.

But we are certain that the public is disgusted with excess and with privilege. We hope the Hastert-Dreier effort leads to sweeping reforms including the end of subsidized travel and other obvious influence operations. Just as importantly, we call for major changes to increase openness, transparency and accountability in Congressional operations and in the appropriations process.

As for the Republican leadership elections, we hope to see more candidates who will support these goals, and we therefore welcome the entry of Congressman John Shadegg to the race for Majority Leader. We hope every Congressman who is committed to ethical and transparent conduct supports a reform agenda and a reform candidate. And we hope all would-be members of the leadership make themselves available to new media to answer questions now and on a regular basis in the future.


Ken Pierce, Redneck Peril
(and lots of people lots more important than me)

Required Reading

From Michael Barone:

Going into the 2004 election cycle, just about everyone said the Internet was going to change politics. But no one was sure how. Now we know....So what hath the blogosphere wrought? The left blogosphere has moved the Democrats off to the left, and the right blogosphere has undermined the credibility of the Republicans' adversaries in Old Media. Both changes help Bush and the Republicans.

Barone also points out how much damage the internet, and the Kos Coalition of Hatred, has done to the carefully constructed Clinton version of the Middle-Way Democratic Party, in the political game where the folks who can deliver the fund-raising are the folks who set the rules.

Read the whole thing.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Evil, Suffering, and the Justice of God

In early 1997, I wandered briefly through alt.christnet and happened to notice a post by a gentleman whom I'll just call Robert (he has requested that I not use his full name in this age of personal google searches). Robert had had an extremely negative experience with “Christianity,” and had written a post about it. The responses he received from Christians...well, despite being a conservative Christian myself, I found myself entirely in sympathy with Robert and out of sympathy with the Christians. So I began to write out an answer for Robert.

But Robert had asked some very fundamental questions, questions that could not be disposed of with trite responses. (Which is, of course, the reason the pat answers of his Christian correspondents had been so inadequate as to be insulting.) I didn’t finish that first day, so I saved my start. It was several days before I could return to the post, and when I did, I still didn’t finish. And so it went: the “post” grew and grew until it had consumed two months and fifty pages, and when finally I returned to the newsgroup, Robert had gone.

I have not been able to locate him since. For a long time, I continued to hope that I would track him down someday with a Web search engine or something. After almost eight years, though, even if I were to track him down, I assume he’s long since moved past interest in the questions that concerned him all those years ago.

A few days ago, though, a commenter over at All Things Beautiful mentioned that his fianceé was troubled by the suffering of a child who was dying from leukemia, and that he hadn’t known what to say. Now, in Robert’s post he leans on two principal objections to Christianity, one of which is the problem of evil (in both major forms of the argument, viz. that God allows evil, and that God commits evil). So I thought I’d pull out the part of my response that had to do with theodicy (that is, the justice – or lack thereof – of God) and post it. But in order for that response to make sense, you need to know what I was responding to. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, here after an eight-year time-lag is today’s guest blogger, Robert. And if anybody knows the dude, I’d sure like to hear from him.

My response will follow in a separate series of posts.

By the way, one important caveat: I will at times sound like I am accusing Robert of various bad attitudes. I do not mean to say anything at all about his actual emotions or attitudes. When I say that a certain theological position entails rampant egomania, for example, and it happens to be a position he holds, I'm not trying to call him an egomaniac. I'm saying that he probably has not thought out all the logical consequences of his position, for if he had, and he acknowledged those consequences, and he still insisted on holding his position, then he would be an raving egomaniac. But of course all of us hold all sorts of opinions that we haven't fully worked out. If I really thought he a close-minded egomaniac, I wouldn't have gone to all this trouble on what would have been, ex hypothesi a colossal waste of time.

1. A Deist’s Take on Christianity (by Robert).

2. Introduction to Theodicy -- How Can God Exist When the World Is Such a Crappy Place? -- how the question of “Why did X (some bad thing) happen?” could really be one of several different questions, each requiring a different answer.

3. Where Does God Get Off Being Such a Jerk? -- meditations on the meaning of the book of Job.

4a. Theodicy Proper: How Can Evil and Suffering Be Reconciled with the Existence of a Loving and Omnipotent God? -- mostly philosophy and apologetics

4b. Theodicy and Eternal Suffering: Hell and Predestination -- more philosophy and apologetics

4c. Theodicy and Temporal Suffering -- yet more philosophy and apologetics.

4d. Final Conclusions in re Theodicy Proper -- wrapping up most of the philosophy and apologetics

5. Other Questions about Why Bad Things Happen -- more speculative and meditative, drifting away from apologetics and into musings about God and His character purposes and the underlying principles He has built into our world. Non-Christians will probably find things to be outraged about herein, but then if a non-Christian has yet to be outraged by Christianity, he probably doesn’t know much about it yet.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Other Questions about Why Bad Things Happen

Back in 1997, a gentleman whom I'll just call Robert (he has requested that I not use his full name in this age of personal google searches) posted on alt.christnet a post rejecting Christianity in part because of the existence of evil and suffering. This is the seventh and last in a series of posts that constitute my response to some of his objections. You can use this table-of-contents post to read Robert’s original post and then each of my response posts, in the appropriate order.


Now we can still ask, "Why does God allow man to harm his fellow? Why does God allow war? Why does God allow profound suffering? Why did God allow 6 million of his Chosen People to die in the Nazi death camps?" We can't rationally ask those questions as judges ("How dare You, God?"), but we can reasonably ask them as students ("Why do you, God?"). In other words the question, "Why is God such a jerk?" is out of court, and the question, "How can the Christian God be logically reconciled with the existence of suffering?" has been answered; but there still remains the question, "What principles lie behind the existence of evil and human suffering?" ...continue reading...

In a sense the best answer is — as you yourself have rightly noted — "Who knows?" As the Bible puts it, "Who has known the mind of the Lord, that he can instruct Him?" In talking about God and His purposes in creation we face the same difficulty scientists face in talking about quantum physics: the only words available to us are words developed to express human experience, and therefore it is impossible adequately to express in human language those things that are permanently beyond human experience. We can at best draw models and analogies, making approximations that come more or less near the truth without ever fully grasping it.

However, God has given us some help, through Scripture and the life of Christ. So we can make some guesses that are at least better than, "You need to get involved in a relationship with God before any of these questions can be answered. You can't do it by yourself."

Let me pause for a moment to try to salvage that last quotation, which understandably enraged you. It is true that watching an atheist try to understand Christian doctrines is like watching an eight-year-old boy try to understand grown-up discussions of falling in love. When we speak of the "love" of God, the very word "love" is a metaphor for something that, while it is more like human love than like anything else we know, is still in many ways very unlike human love. Christian doctrine tends not to make sense to atheists for the same reason that romantic poetry tends not to make sense to eight-year-old boys: communication presupposes some commonality of experience.

But that quotation goes too far. In the first place, while it is true that any explanation I can give you will be necessarily inadequate because of your lack of experience of the love of God (and by that I mean the kind of experience that people such as Mother Theresa or St. Francis of Assisi or Billy Graham or my father have had), that hardly means that you can't understand any explanation at all. Furthermore, if we're going to avoid any explanations that are inadequate, why then we can't talk about God at all, no matter how holy we think ourselves to be or for that matter how holy we really are. The most brilliant Christian mind ever, St. Thomas Aquinas, refused to complete the most monumental work of Christian theology ever, his Summa Theologica, after having a vision in which, as he told a friend, "I have seen things that make everything I've written seem like straw." There is a point beyond which you cannot go without knowing God's love experientially; for that matter there is a point beyond which you won't go if you live a thousand years and never sin again. But you can get quite a ways down the road to understanding even as an unbeliever. The Christian who gave you that cop-out answer owed you more than that, and I apologize on his behalf.

I'm not the best person to give you an explanation; you really should start with C. S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain; from that it wouldn't hurt you to read his Till We Have Faces. I can point out a couple of things to get you started, though.

First there is the principle of the Fall. Christianity teaches that God did not create evil; he created free will, which entails the potentiality, but not necessarily the actuality, of evil. Both Satan and man chose to commit evil; thus we are, in a very real sense, the creators of evil.

There were three principal, immediate results of the Fall:

(1) The individual Adam and Eve were cursed with chronic and incurable (save through grace) self-centeredness and rebelliousness.

(2) Their descendants were also cursed with this same sinfulness.

(3) Their entire world was cursed because of them.

(4) God set about a plan to redeem both mankind and the world, a plan which involved Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and ultimately the recreation of the universe and its cleansing from the curse of the Fall.

The second should not be misunderstood. We are bound to sin sometime. However, each of us, at least from time to time, finds himself at a point of genuine choice, where we are perfectly free not to sin right now and in this particular way. If we choose selfishly and cause others to suffer, we can hardly blame God for our choice. Let me make that a little clearer. I may not be able to help being self-centered. Still, unless I have considerably worse mental problems than has the average American adult, I can, even self-centered as I am, decide not to seduce the sixteen-year-old neighbor girl this evening. If I seduce her anyway, I cannot truly say, "It wasn't my fault; it's Adam's." And if she gets pregnant and has to face the unpleasant alternatives of secret abortion or public disgrace, it is surely unreasonable for me to blame Adam and Eve — or God — instead of accepting my own responsibility in the matter.

Now for two reasons you will probably consider the doctrine of the Fall a bad answer. The first is that you probably don't believe in it, because you think belief in a literal Fall entails belief in "creation science." This is hardly true, as I think you'll see if you'll do a thought experiment with me. Imagine that the "Garden of Eden" was actually a parallel space-time continuum, and that when Adam and Eve, in the perfect universe which parallels the present one (and therefore has left no trace in the present one), chose to rebel, they were punished by being evicted from their original home and translated to this parallel — and cursed — universe. Now imagine that you are asked to tell this story of Adam and Eve to a group of second-millennium-B.C. shepherds who have no concept of experimental science and have never read so much as a page of modern science fiction. How would you tell the story? Wouldn't it come out looking remarkably like Genesis 2? I think so, at least; and so I agree with, say, Francis Schaeffer in insisting on a "literal space-time fall," while disagreeing with the particular brand of inerrantist who insists that dinosaur fossils are red herrings left by God as a test to see whether a person trusts God or science more.

I am in fact making a distinction here between the mythical and the scientific — though not between the false and the factual (which is what people usually mean when they contrast the "mythical" with the "scientific"). That is, the Fall of Man is a true story, corresponding to real actions by real beings making real choices, but it is set in the narrative form of myth in order to render it comprehensible to people who lacked the conceptual background necessary for a scientific (in the modern sense) account.

Your second probable objection goes deeper. For I will be very surprised if your reaction to my blaming human suffering on the Fall doesn't go something like this:

"Okay, fine. We'll say, arguendo, that Adam and Eve sinned and deserved to be punished. But what kind of God punishes an entire universe because two people sin?" Now my answer is basically the Christian rejoinder to the whole American fixation on "fairness."

For that objection rests on the assumption that God should be fair. I have said already that God cares about Love, not Fairness. But I didn't explain what a Christian means by Love. Only as you come to understand what Christians mean when they say, "God is love," and, "Love your neighbor as yourself," do you begin to grasp the outlines of God's use of "unfair" suffering as a means of love.

I assume that you have seen Disney's Beauty and the Beast. You will remember the scene in which Belle asks permission to suffer in her father's place, while her father begs to be the one to suffer. Each wants to be the one to suffer, not because they love suffering, but because they love each other. Or think of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities going to the guillotine in another's place, and saying, "It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done." Above all, think of the central doctrine of Christianity, that God Himself bore the suffering that should have been ours, out of His unquenchable love for us.

Then think of a petulant six-year-old saying, "Why do we all have to stay home from the park just because Jimmy broke the rules? I didn't do nuthin'."

Which attitude shows love? Which demands fairness?

There is a stretch of dialogue in Lewis's Till We Have Faces that is inexpressibly moving to the person who has really grasped the Christian point of Love, while being alien and repellent to the person who retains his American attachment to Fairness. When this dialogue makes sense to you — and not before — then you can approach an understanding of the way in which Christianity sees the very unfairness of suffering as a sign that the universe was created by a God who is Himself nothing but Love:

"But how could she—did she really—do such things and go to such places—and not...? Grandfather, she was all but unscathed. She was almost happy."

"Another bore nearly all the anguish."

"I? Is it possible?...Oh, I give thanks. I bless the gods. Then it was really I—"

"Who bore the anguish. But she achieved the tasks. Would you rather have had justice?"
The theological principle here is Vicariousness. One sins and another suffers: "Bear ye one another's burdens." One acts virtuously and another reaps the benefits: "Surely He bore our sorrows, and by His stripes we are healed." It is a principle that runs through Scripture from beginning to end. It makes possible the good news of Atonement, but it is also responsible for the (to us repulsive) idea that God punishes sins "to the third and fourth generation." It causes the very universe to suffer vicariously for Mankind: "The creation waits in eager anticipation for the sons of God to be revealed...the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" — a pregnant (sorry, couldn't help myself) analogy in light of the fact that the pains of childbirth are part of the curse of the Fall. Suffering in this fallen world is not meted out by desert because love is not concerned with desert, and the universe was meant to be a universe founded on love.

Now we may be able to see that an individual who sacrifices himself in love is admirable and Christ-like, and yet feel that it is wrong to force anyone to be a hero. We might say, "I can admire a friend who stands up and says, 'I'm willing to pay his fine,' but I would despise a judge who says, 'You are guilty, so I am going to force your friend (who hasn't done anything) to pay a fine.'" On the level of human law-courts, that is perfectly justified. But if we extend the analogy to the relationship between man and God, we err. God is in a sense our Judge; but then He is also the potter to our clay. God can make whatever demands He wishes — and His demand is, "Be ye perfect, even as I am perfect." There are limits to what one man can demand of another. There is no limit to what God can demand of man. And God demands precisely that kind of love which casts aside concern for its own rights and rushes in to bear the beloved's suffering. To every man, woman, boy and girl, Jesus says, "If you want to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, and take up your cross, and follow me." Everyone is called to be a Christian, and every Christian is called to suffer for the sins of others. That is, I think, the meaning of Paul's statement, "I fill up in my body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ."

If this call, this demand seems unreasonable, we must bear in mind two things. First, that all such vicarious suffering is rewarded with glory incomparable. The same Paul who said, "I fill up in my body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ," said also, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us." This theme as well runs throughout the New Testament. "...Christ, who for the glory that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame..." "Have the same mind as Christ Jesus...he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has exalted him to the highest place..." The single most striking aspect of most conversations I've had with atheists is their complete inability to entertain, even hypothetically, the possibility that eternity overwhelms our fourscore and ten, and that everything that happens to us here is preparatory work for when our real existence begins, and that any attempt to understand what happens here without reference to eternity is hopelessly out-of-context and doomed to fail. Christianity says, "If you don't see everything that happens in this life from the perspective of eternity, then you get it wrong and come to all kinds of wrong conclusions and make all kinds of wrong decisions." But for most atheists of my acquaintance, their entire emotional makeup rebels at the mere thought of such an approach to life. They have read the one-page prologue to a ten-thousand-page novel and passed judgment on the whole thing, and can't allow themselves even seriously to entertain the idea that anything could be misleading in that approach. God says of the suffering, "Trust me, and you won't regret it," and they answer, "Up Yours, I'll never forgive You for this no matter what You do from this point on." This is a less than impressively rational response.

But even more importantly, I must again emphasize that God asks us to do nothing more than He has already done. No suffering of ours can be more unfair, more undeserved, more objectionable than the suffering that God Himself has already taken on for our sakes. Dorothy Sayers: "[F]or whatever reason God chose to make man as he is — limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death — He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself....[The story of the Crucifixion is] the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like the men He had made, and the men He had made broke Him and killed Him." (Creed or Chaos, pp. 4-5)

Each of us is called to share in the work of Christ; and the work of Christ was — and is — to suffer vicariously for the whole world.

Now because God has created a universe characterized by vicarious suffering, we really cannot choose whether to participate. We will suffer without desert; that is the nature of our world, the mode of existence for every element of our fallen creation. But we can choose whether freely to accept the suffering as an act of love, or rebelliously to resent and to try to wriggle out of the suffering in the name of "fairness." If we rebel, why then we are rebelling against God and render ourselves deserving of punishment; if we don't...well, then we suffer. It appears to be a Catch-22: we suffer either way, so what's the difference?

That appearance is an illusion, however. If we refuse to carry our cross, we will not escape suffering; we will only fail to love, and thus lose the reward for which we were intended to suffer. "He who saves his live shall lose it." But if we take up our cross, then we discover the joy of love and ultimately receive the glory that awaits the children of God. "He who loses his life for My sake shall save it." The world does not give us a choice as to whether we will be crucified. It does, however, give us a choice as to whether we will be crucified as a snarling thief hurling defiance to the end, or whether we will be crucified with Christ, sharing in his sufferings "so that we may also share in his glory."

"Why did God allow 6 million of his Chosen People to die in the Nazi death camps?" you ask. At least in part precisely because they were His Chosen. For to be chosen by God is, usually if not always, to be chosen to suffer undeservedly. "Why did God allow 6 million of his Chosen People to die in the Nazi death camps?" I answer in fear and trembling, as one whose heart quails at the thought that I or (worse) my family might ever be trapped in such a horror myself. Yet I cannot deny the Christian answer: Each of the 12 million people killed by the Nazis was, in the end, called by God to share in the undeserved sufferings of Christ. To each victim was given the opportunity and the responsibility to love his murderers. Every person is called to return good for evil, and no limit is set beyond which the evil becomes so bad that we are not required to respond in love. Every Jew and Christian and homosexual who fell dying in Nazi camps could either curse with the unrepentant thief on the cross or else cry out with Christ and St. Stephen, "Father, forgive them." (I completely understand anyone's thinking that I have no business talking about it since I didn't go through it. I can only send such people to The Hiding Place, written by a woman who herself saw her sister die at Ravensbrück, the Nazis having killed her father months earlier. Her conclusion is the same as mine; her authority to state it is much greater. Kenny Pierce may be a mere idle theorizer, but Betsy and Caspar ten Boom were obedient literally unto death.) The Holocaust was one of the ways in which the expiation of the human race for the sins of the human race was worked out, and the fact that in this case the price for the sins of the Nazis was paid in part by the sufferings of the Jews, is an echo of the way in which the sins of Jew and Gentile alike are redeemed by the sufferings of the Galileean Jew Yeshua, "by whose stripes we are healed."

Please do not think that I am implying that the Jews deserved what they got "because their ancestors killed Christ" — a doctrine I find abhorrent in the highest degree. (I've actually been called "Christ-killer" by a group of skinhead teenagers who thought I was Jewish, by the way. Not a pleasant experience.) I am saying that the Nazis' victims did not deserve their suffering, and that precisely because they did not deserve it, they were sharing the burden of Christ.

In all this discussion of pain and suffering, I'm grossly oversimplifying, of course. Twenty-five pages makes a long post, but it would make a ridiculously superficial book about pain and suffering and God's purposes therein. I have not talked about pain that we bring on ourselves through silliness or carelessness or as a direct consequence of sin (e.g., lung cancer in a chain smoker), or about pain that God imposes on us as spiritual discipline to bring us back to Him. There is pain that we suffer at the hands of evil people such as Hitler (the possibility of which is a necessary corollary of free will; see Sheldon Vanauken's essay, "God's Will: Reflections on the Problem of Pain"). There is the generalized pain of living in a cursed world (e.g., the leukemia that killed my late partner, or the Parkinson's disease that incapacitated and eventually destroyed my grandfather, so painfully and slowly that it was a relief to see him released from his suffering). There is even pain that exists simply and solely so that God can take it away and thus remind us that our health is due to Him; see John 9, especially 9.3. (Don't go up in the air about the "unfairness" or "selfishness" of God's inflicting blindness on that fellow for His own glory; the greatest beneficiary may well have been the man himself, who might never have come to know and believe in Jesus had he not spent those years in blindness.) If I have concentrated on the suffering of innocents, that is only because I thought that was the kind most likely to cause you intellectual difficulties.

Unfortunately this makes my presentation out of balance. For I've spent all this time talking as though God were the Great Inflictor of Suffering, when in fact He is much better described as the Great Healer. It is true that sometimes doctors have to inflict extra (short-term) pain in order to help the patient to long-term health, as in back surgery or the filling of a cavity. It is even true that in certain cases doctors have to inflict pain on one person in order to help another person, as in an emergency C-section due to fetal distress. And there are trainers who push athletes to the point of pain in order to fit them for peak performance (hence the motto, "No pain, no gain"). In all this doctors are roughly analogous to God. But surely it is obvious that doctors spend far more time easing pain than inflicting it? You have put me in the position of someone having to justify surgeons' painful use of the scalpel; that is hardly the way to get a balanced view of the medical profession as a whole.

I'm particularly concerned about this balance because all along, behind your intellectual difficulties, there stands the terribly negative experience you had with "Christianity." It would be very natural for you to be afraid to try Christianity again because last time you got hurt. And here I've spent pages trying to assure you intellectually that it's okay for God to hurt you and indeed that Christians are called to suffering. The more effective I have been intellectually, the more I have reinforced your emotional barrier. So let me here pause just a moment to remind you of a couple of things.

First, if Christianity is true, refusing to come to Christ because it might be painful is like refusing to go to the dentist for the same reason. But much more importantly, I am very far from convinced that your "Christian" experience had anything to do with God in the first place. Your post gives ample reason to suspect that your "Christian" teachers weren't really Christians at all; at best they were hopelessly incompetent Christians with no idea of what is required to live a successful Christian life. Either that or you weren't listening — but my guess is that the fault lies more with your teachers than with you. Anybody can call himself a "Christian," even if he is as far off the pier as Jim Jones or David Koresh. I think that responsible Christianity "works," but I would certainly agree that "Christianity" in the Branch Davidian compound did not. Responsible Christianity is no bed of roses, but I think you may legitimately hope that your "Christian" experience is not representative of what you would find if you came back to Christianity through an orthodox and spiritually mature community. To be fair, my wife and I have good friends who received reasonably sound teaching in college but still felt that Christianity "didn't work" for them. But you don't sound like them. You don't sound like someone who has seen solid Christianity and rejected it. You sound like someone who has run into some fringe group and quite rightly rejected their snake oil under the impression that you were rejecting Christianity. In short it looks to me like you didn't meet the Great Physician. You appear to have met the Great Quack.

Rather than pursue that assertion further, though – which would require a series of posts at least as long as you’ve already waded through here – I want to tie up the loose ends in theodicy.

There remain the questions, "What does God want me to do about this suffering?" and, "What specific thing is God going to do in my life through this?" A general answer to the first should be obvious: "Take up your cross, and follow Me." If your goal in life is to minimize your suffering, Christianity is the wrong religion, for we are called to love at whatever cost to ourselves — and in this fallen world, love is guaranteed to cost us some suffering. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." (Bonhoeffer, by the way, is another of those Christians, like the ten Booms, who forgave the Nazis at his execution.) More specific answers are of course beyond the scope of this post, since they must be tailored to the specific circumstances of the Christian's life.

Similarly, a general answer can be given to the last question. "What is God going to do in my life through this?" The answer: "Reveal His glory in you, and accomplish (in part) His work of redeeming the world." Again, more specific answers depend on individual situations.

We come at last, then, to the end of Crappy World. To the question, "Why is God such a jerk?" we can only point out that no human being is competent to stand in judgment over God, and anyone who stands around shaking his fist at God (or even tsk-tsking Him) is nothing more nor less than a prize jackass. To the question, "How can a good, loving and omnipotent God be considered logically compossible with evil and suffering?" we can observe that apparent contradictions are based on misleading definitions of the terms "good," "loving," "omnipotent," and "evil," as well as on hidden premises about the nature of God (such as the false assumption that God is subject to the time continuum). To the question, "What principles govern the distribution of suffering and evil?" we can point to the principles of free will, the Fall of Man, and Vicariousness as at least first steps toward an understanding of the good Creator behind this apparently bad creation. To the question, "What am I supposed to do about it?" we can answer in general terms, "Take up your cross and follow Him." And to the question, "What is God going to do in my life through this?" we can provide one more generalization: "Reveal His glory, build His character into you and into others, make fit you to share in the glory of the saints, and accomplish His work in the world."

And there's my answer to the Crappy World argument.

...And that’s where I left this response to you, Robert, when I originally wrote it, ten years ago. I would add something more now, though. I have in the last few years become much more heavily involved in the lives of people who suffer deeply, as a result of working with orphans in Kazakhstan. I have a friend who jumped out of a third-storey window to escape a murderously drunken father when she was ten or eleven; I have a friend whose mother forced her to watch while the mother murdered my friend's father; I have helped various kids get adopted and have adopted four myself and have tried and (heart-breakingly) failed to adopt two others. And my wife and I, with help from other people, have been trying to help several orphanage “graduates” make it through college. One evening after they had all come to visit the apartment where we were staying on our most recent trip to Karaganda, I found myself thinking some more about how God was using their suffering, and the pain we felt on their behalf because we loved them. I wrote what follows, groping my way to an understanding of something hovering at the edge of my ability to articulate it. I hope someday a Christian wiser and far more advanced than I can express what I was trying to grasp. Perhaps it’ll be you.

Compassion is so named because it is, fundamentally, the act of suffering along with somebody else. Now, I never could see the point of feeling pain if it didn’t do any good. How can it possibly help anything for me to know, without being able to do anything about it, that our friend Maryam will be on the street in five days, if the knowledge causes me pain and doesn’t keep her from being kicked out onto the street? Isn’t it bad enough for her to be hurting without my having to hurt, too, when it does no good? If that seems callous, turn it around: when I feel bad I tend to withdraw and keep to myself because it’s bad enough for me to be having a crappy day without other people’s days having to be ruined, too. What a very rationally unselfish attitude that is, eh?

Yet I have come to see, slowly, that if you love someone and they are hurting, then it causes you pain; and that therefore that if someone is hurting (and most of the world is) and you do not feel pain, that simply means that you do not yet love him. But I begin to understand these days that when we share pain with someone, that sharing binds us together more closely than anything else in the world can do. Pain is love’s toll, and it is a toll that God pays more deeply than we can imagine because He loves more deeply than we can imagine. But intimacy is shared pain’s fruit. And the more we learn to love God, the more deeply we feel the pain of others, because God hurts for them and we love Him. And in sharing His pain we grow close to His heart.

Thus there is value in the tears we shed for Maryam even if we never find a way to help her (though God knows we desperately want to help her). I stood at the grave of a young girl I never met not so long ago, and you would think my tears did her no good; yet who knows whether she now intercedes on my behalf to God and appeals to my tears and loves me for having let myself feel hurt on her behalf?

Paul says that we fill up in our own lives “what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” There are three characteristics, I think, of the sufferings of Christ that I see more clearly now than ever I have. First, His sufferings were all on our behalf, not His own. Second, His sufferings were all freely and voluntarily chosen by Himself; He needn’t have accepted them.

And third, it is His suffering that made our very relationship with Him possible at all. His suffering opened the door for us to experience His love.

So as I meditate on filling up His sufferings, I look at these kids and at the pain I have felt on their behalf, and I compare it to Christ’s sufferings in those three ways. I see that their suffering is becoming my own, a little like my suffering became God’s; and I recognize that Dessie and I didn’t need to accept the burden, any more than God needed to accept mine. But I begin to realize that when Damyir says, “You have been our greatest support,” he is talking not about the money we’ve sent, but about the fact that we know their names and we know their stories and we long to be with them so that they don’t have to go through it alone, and they know we desperately want to be there with them even though we can’t. Just the knowledge that we desire it is deeply valuable to them even though we haven’t yet actually succeeded. Jessica sees in my eyes how I hurt for Layla; Damyir and the rest see how we hurt for Maryam. Because they can see the pain, they can see the love. It is precisely our felt pain on their behalf that opens up to us the doors of their hearts. The ministry of Christ to the world is a ministry of shared suffering; and these children who never met Jesus, see the pain we suffer on their behalf and know themselves – feel themselves – to be loved, as they otherwise never could.

But at root, though all that is true, I think there is something deeper.

As long as it is always just Christ sharing our pain, then we have a one-sided relationship. His pain on our behalf can only take the relationship so far. There is more needed. It is not enough for Him to love us. We must love Him. And so He invites us to choose to share in His pain, as He has chosen to share in ours; so that we can pass the relational barrier of non-reciprocity and find levels of intimacy with God that we could not otherwise have tasted.

It probably is not the most important of the Christian mysteries, but I think it must be one of the most astonishing and unexpected of all the graces that God has bestowed upon us: that, even such as we are, God invites us to have compassion...on Himself.

Good-bye, Robert. I hope we meet someday.

Final Conclusions in re Theodicy Proper

Back in 1997, a gentleman whom I'll just call Robert (he has requested that I not use his full name in this age of personal google searches) posted on alt.christnet a post rejecting Christianity in part because of the existence of evil and suffering. This is the sixth in a series of posts that constitute my response to some of his objections. You can use this table-of-contents post to read Robert’s original post and then each of my response posts, in the appropriate order.


Recapping the arguments, then:

1. You can't prove atheism from evil, because the proof depends on the assumption that cosmically binding morality (a) is objectively real rather than a matter of mere personal taste (which an atheist is logically compelled to deny) and (b) happens to conform exactly to the personal prejudices of the person making the argument, a person who not only is a finite contingent being of statistically insignificant experience, but who doesn't even live up to his own moral code. (Everybody who thinks there is such a thing as right or wrong has at some time in his life done something he himself thought was wrong at the very time that he did it.) ...continue reading...

2. If you say, "There is a God, and there is a moral code, and it does agree precisely with my personal prejudices, and the Christian God doesn't suit my moral taste, so therefore the Christian God isn't the real God," then how do you show that your moral tastes are divinely inspired? Either you are claiming to be a prophet authorized to speak for God, or else you are appealing to some authoritative revelation (whose authority you must be able to defend on rational grounds such as the historical evidence for the literal Resurrection of Christ). Now you, Robert, apparently are not appealing to any holy text, for you say that Deism is "the only way I can make god work," not, "The Koran/Book of Mormon/Zend Avesta/Vedas tell us that fairness is an absolute requirement of morality." So whether you realize it or not, you are claiming that your personal moral preconceptions are the standards by which the universe is to be judged. Good luck justifying that one logically.

3. If you try to prove that the Christian God is self-contradictory because He stands condemned by His own standards, you fail for the simple reason that He does not. Attempts to prove that He does all start either from a misconception of Christian doctrine about God (such as your confusion about whether God is constrained by the time continuum) or of Christian doctrine about morality (such as the common silly ideas of what it means to be a "God of love").

But those three are the only variants of Crappy World that even pretend to be logical. Does this mean that people who have faced up to the flaws in Crappy World admit, then, that the Christian God could exist? Most of the time, yes. Does that mean they become Christians? Not at all.

For after all the arguments, after all the pros and cons have been bandied back and forth and reason has reached its conclusions, you may still say, "Oh, if that's all you mean by 'good' — well, maybe there is a God like that, but if there is, I refuse to worship Him. Even if there's no ultimate standard of good and evil, I refuse to worship a sadistic God; I will stand on my own standards, and will not compromise them, even if the alternative is Hell. If God is thus, then I say He is vile, and I defy Him for all eternity. Like John Stuart Mill, I say that whatever power such a being may have over me, there is one thing which He shall not do: He shall not compel me to worship Him, and if He can sentence me to Hell for refusing to call Him good, then to Hell I will go." If you do...well, there are those to whom in the end God says, "Thy will be done." He will not force you to love Him; He is Love, not a cosmic rapist. But you must not expect the rest of us to admire you for your "moral courage." For we would be obligated to admire you only if your stand was a genuinely moral stand, whereas on your own hypothesis there would be no genuine morality to take a stand on other than your personal taste and social conditioning (with a possible genetic quirk in favor of gene-pool-saving altruism thrown in). In that case you might say, "I won't worship an evil God." But logically you could only mean, "I won't worship a God who doesn't do things my way." Your use of the language of morality would be simply a psychologically underhanded way to bring in the connotations of nobility that accompany such language — connotations that are there only because in our bones we believe that good and evil are something more than mere personal preference. It would be, in short, an attempt to overcome logic with emotion. Yet you are of course free to choose that path. If you do, you will be relieved to know that God will not force you to worship Him — but you can hardly be shocked to find that neither will He go back and recreate the universe to suit you.

And I must warn you — all the while hoping that the warning will turn out to be superfluous — that you cannot pick and choose where you are going to be reasonable. Once a person deliberately chooses to defy reason in any one area, he begins to lose the capacity for honesty. An Crappy Worlder who is moved primarily by moral indignation, not yet having realized that his very capacity for moral indignation is a meaningless quirk of nature unless God exists, is not doing himself a whole lot of damage. Although his reasoning about evil is invalid, his emotional reaction to evil is basically healthy. But a man who consciously admits that his moral impulses have no meaning outside his own emotions, and yet demands that the universe conform to his moral impulses, is deliberately turning his gaze away from reality and taking his first steps on the path to irreversible self-deception — which is just another name for Hell. Thus stubborn Crappy Worlders tend to be led into the kind of fatuity exemplified (admittedly to an unusual degree) by Bertrand Russell, who first argued that values were purely subjective, created by the individual for his own self-actualization; then wrote a vitriolic satire abusing "Nice People" (meaning Victorian religious hypocrites) because they violated the moral standards Russell admitted to having made up for himself; then (in "Why I Am Not a Christian") informed us that he thought Jesus was not particularly moral because...well, because a truly moral Jesus wouldn't have criticized the Pharisees so harshly just because they didn't accept his teaching. Thus we have the spectacle of a man who admits to having constructed his own values yet still feels free to pour scorn on those who don't follow the particular values he has chosen to construct, condemning a man who, believing good and evil to be really good and really evil, criticized those he thought to be committing evil — and condemning him for being judgmental! Among religious people this is known as "hypocrisy;" I don't know what it's called in modern philosophy departments — "fighting religious intolerance," perhaps.

Anyway, there is your dilemma. If morality is genuine and you are fallible, then Christianity could be true even though evil exists. If morality is not genuine then you have no moral argument against the Christian God — since Christian theology and morality are compatible with the current state of the world, and there is no higher standard by which to condemn God. To insist that the universe must meet your standards anyway is not to amend the dilemma, but to defy it, to turn your back on reason. And "when reason is gone, the monster comes out."

Theodicy and Temporal Suffering

Back in 1997, a gentleman whom I'll just call Robert (he has requested that I not use his full name in this age of personal google searches) posted on alt.christnet a post rejecting Christianity in part because of the existence of evil and suffering. This is the fifth in a series of posts that constitute my response to some of his objections. You can use this table-of-contents post to read Robert’s original post and then each of my response posts, in the appropriate order.


Let us turn our attention, then, to the problem of temporal suffering, i.e., war, poverty and disease.

First of all, Painful World assumes that suffering can never be a good thing. Christianity says the opposite; it says that God allows no suffering that he can't, judo-style, turn into good if the sufferer is willing to cooperate with Him. ...continue reading...(St. Augustine, for example: "For God Almighty..., being supremely good, would on no account permit the existence of any admixture of evil in his works unless he were to such a degree almighty and good as to bring good even out of evil" [Enchiridion xi].) On this view any suffering that you see is suffering that will one day not be regretted by the sufferer, if he lets God deal with it. So Painful World really says, "If God were all-powerful, He could keep undeserved suffering from happening or make something good out of it; if He were good, He would keep undeserved suffering from happening or make something good out of it, and He would have done it already. But people suffer undeservedly, and I haven't seen God turn it into good yet. Therefore He isn't going to. Therefore, etc. Q.E.D." Obviously this is not logically compelling at all.

I don't expect you to buy right off the idea that anyone could ever be glad that something painful had happened to them. So let me give you a simple example, in a very unimportant arena. Remember Emmitt Smith in the 1994 playoffs? He had a separated shoulder, which involves a tremendous amount of pain, and nobody in the world would have blamed him if he hadn't played. Yet he insisted on playing, gained more than 150 yards, and all but single-handedly dragged the Cowboys to victory in what is now recognized as one of the most lion-hearted athletic performances of all time. That game has made Emmitt Smith forever one of the great heroes of the NFL. Now, imagine that God now, here in 1996, gives Emmitt a choice. He says, "Emmitt, you had to go through a lot of pain back then, and I feel real bad about it. Would you like Me to go back in time and fix it so that you didn't get injured? You'll get the same amount of yardage and you'll still win the Super Bowl. You just won't have to suffer all that pain." Would Emmitt say yes, do you think? I myself don't think so. Before the game he would have taken the offer, I'm sure. But now that the pain is over, the fact that he experienced it has made his performance not just another excellent game, but a landmark in sports. If you asked him now whether he is glad the injury happened, I think his honest answer would be, "Yeah, it wasn't any fun at the time, but looking back it made my performance so much more satisfying...no, I wouldn't change a thing." In other words, Emmitt would say, echoing the words of Paul: "I consider the suffering I underwent not worth comparing to the glory I got out of it."

Or what about Kerri Strug? If she's healthy, then it's a good vault, and it secures the medal for the Americans. And that's all. But since she was injured, 1996 becomes, now and forever, the Kerri Strug Olympics. You think she considers the suffering worth comparing to the glory?

Now there are thousands of people besides Smith and Strug who look back at some painful experience in their lives and say, "Sure it was painful, but looking back I'm glad it happened." In other words, the suffering has turned out to be a good in their lives. What's more, there is no logical grounds for denying that an infinite God, given an infinite afterlife, isn't planning to do the same sort of thing even for those people who do not yet see any reason to be thankful for their suffering. So the identification of suffering with evil is too simplistic, and Painful World as it stands is a bad argument.

You can try to rescue it, of course. You can do so in one of two ways. The first is to complain that if God is all-powerful He should have been able to give us the benefits of suffering without the actual suffering. However, this is pretty plainly another example of CKIAS: you assume that you are aware of actual options a being such as God might theoretically have had, and that you are capable of weighing all the pros and cons and passing judgment on God's decisions. For if anyone says, "Look, maybe God had His reasons," you reply, "Well, I can't imagine what they could have been, and therefore I know they weren't good enough."

You may be tempted to complain, "Oh, but God's omnipotent; He could do anything He wanted to, so I can't think up an option that He didn't really have and reject." So I should point out that omnipotence strictly speaking is not the power to do whatever wild thing we think up. There are certain things that God cannot do, even under the Christian assumption of His "omnipotence." He cannot violate His own nature. And since He is reasonable — rather, since he is Reason — it would be a violation of His reasonable nature to do nonsense. Thus He can't create square circles, or put in a single universe both an irresistible force and an immovable object, or do any other such self-contradictory (that is, unreasonable) thing.

To us, understanding neither what God is trying to accomplish by allowing suffering nor what banishing suffering would entail, there appears no reason why God couldn't make this world just as good as it is now but without suffering. In the same way, a person who didn't understand geometry would not understand why God couldn't make a square circle. Yet when we understand geometry we see that to ask for a square circle is to talk nonsense, and humility forces us to admit that if we were capable of cosmic understanding we might see how our request for a world that got the good of suffering without actually experiencing suffering is cosmic nonsense. That's why the statement, "Well, I can't imagine any good reasons for allowing suffering, and therefore I know there are none," is cosmic know-it-all syndrome.

By the way, the limitations on God's "omnipotence" are not something I've made up just now to wriggle out of your argument. These limitations have been part of standard doctrine at least since St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, explained how God's "omnipotence" was properly to be understood. (See the Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 25, especially Article 3.)

The second way to save Painful World is to point to some suffering that cannot possibly be redeemed. If you can say, "Here's some undeserved suffering that's never going to be turned into good in all eternity, so either God's evil, impotent, or nonexistent," then you'd have the beginnings of a cogent argument. It seems to me that that is exactly what you are trying to accomplish when you accuse God of predestining people to Hell, and thus not merely allowing evil but actually practicing it. For if God creates people who can't help choosing to go to Hell, then it's hard to see how they can deserve their suffering, and hence hard to see how God's behavior could be excused (assuming our intuition about what is "good" is valid). But that takes us back to predestination, which we don't need to go over again.

Besides, we still have the question, "Irredeemable by what standard?" For this argument implicitly appeals to a moral standard (a) which we happen to know infallibly, and (b) to which God is subject. But where do you get that standard? What can you be doing if not either denying that God is the ultimate standard of morality (and hence begging the question of whether the Christian God exists) or else throwing a hissy fit because God didn't make the universe in accordance with your personal taste?

Enough. For centuries now people who are mad at God for not doing things their way have been arguing that God doesn't exist, because if He did He would have done things the way they would have done them if they'd been God. That argument is logically hopeless, not to mention hysterically egocentric. It is a complete dead end.

Yet logical arguments are not the only thing to consider. There are a few emotional barriers that are no less powerful for being irrational. They spring partly from the American prejudice that unfairness is inexcusable, and partly from the very human feeling that some sufferings are so unspeakably hideous, and those who suffer so heartbreakingly innocent, as to render those sufferings intolerable. So let's look briefly at the emotional (as opposed to logical) argument from "irredeemable" temporal suffering.

It may seem unfair that in this world the amount different people suffer seems to have very little to do with how much those people deserve to suffer. You complain, for example, that God is "capricious;" that "we eat while Calcutta starves;" that he "allow[ed] me to live in relative luxury...while children and grandmothers were being murdered in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda." May I point out that Americans have a very odd fixation on "fairness," meaning that everybody should be treated the same way? I see no reason to think that the world "ought" to be fair.

Consider the implications, as demonstrated in your own examples, of the idea that God should be "fair:" if God doesn't feed Calcuttans, that's a bad thing; but His offense is made worse if he...does feed Americans. You manage to complain both because God allows political murder in some places and because He doesn't allow it in others. If you intend to insist on "fairness" as a moral imperative, why then you must think that two murders are better than one — because if Jack gets murdered, then Jill's murder at least restores "fairness." Is this morality? Or is it merely an inversion of the self-righteous envy that says, "Well, if I and the folks I happen to like can't be happy then by God the people I don't like had better be unhappy too"? Now don't accuse me of caricaturing your arguments. It was you who used the fact that you live in comfort as proof that God is evil. Unless you believe that two wrongs are worse than none but better than one, then you should have simply asked, "Why does Calcutta starve?" For "Why do I eat while..." is simply irrelevant unless two wrongs make at least a half-right. (I'm not criticizing your morals, you understand, just your very odd logic.)

At any rate, most people at most times and places in history outside of modern-day America have felt that there were more important things than making sure everybody gets treated exactly the same way, and the God of Christianity in this case votes with the majority. The Christian God is not at all interested in fairness, nor is any other God outside of the vague deity produced by hypostasizing the currently fashionable p.c. code into a Politically Correct Holiness for whose existence there is neither empirical nor philosophical evidence. Consider the Christian doctrine of the Atonement: we screw up, God doesn't; God volunteers to suffer so that we don't have to. (Highly simplified, of course.) The question of whether Atonement makes sense is not at issue here; what matters is simply that it is plainly very unfair to God for Him to suffer instead of us. The Christian God feels no obligation to be a good American (and only a very silly provincialism could expect Him to). He does not care about Fairness. He cares about Love.

Besides, imagine what a boring place the world would be if everybody were treated the same way. If everybody could play basketball like Michael Jordan, what would be the fun of watching Michael Jordan? If all my neighbors could act as well as Meryl Streep, and all the men were as handsome as Robert Redford and all the women as beautiful as Demi Moore, what would be the fun of going to movies? If the lottery prize money were divided fairly (i.e., equally) among all players, who would play? God decided to make a world of individuals with widely differing talents and interests and backgrounds, and in a world full of individuals where everything else varies dramatically from person to person, why should it be odd to find that suffering varies as well — especially if those who suffer will one day find their suffering transformed into glory? God's "capriciousness" is just His creativity as it happens to be manifested in suffering. It does not, as the term "capricious" would imply, mean that God loves some people more intensely than others, or has no good reasons for treating different people differently. (And before you start quoting Scriptures about "Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated" and the like, remember that the Bible's statements about God's feelings are figures of speech, not rigorous philosophical formulations. To take that verse literally is to be as naive as one who would say that since the Bible speaks of "the hand of God" He must have a human body.)

Perhaps it's not minor variations in the suffering-to-desert ratio that bother you; perhaps it's only extreme examples that move you to wrath. For example, you might think that a two-year-old girl suffering sexual abuse and then dying a lingering, agonizing death at the hands of her abuser, represents suffering that cannot possibly be redeemed. Certainly it should shock, grieve and infuriate anyone who hears of it. But to say that it can't be redeemed is to assume that you know in advance either that there is no afterlife, or else that in that pitiable child's afterlife God will not be able to redeem her suffering — and unless you are a cosmic know-it-all, you can't possibly know that. The same objection holds for any form of suffering you put forward except for eternal damnation, which brings us once again back to predestination. Therefore no form of temporal suffering is logically sufficient to rule out the existence of a good and omnipotent God.

We are talking about emotions, however, not logic, and while I can only guess at your emotional response, most non-Christians see the preceding paragraph as a huge cop-out. "Oh, yeah," the feeling is, "how convenient — God will fix it all after we die. That's so obviously just making up a belief to comfort yourself." Of course it is a comforting belief; of course many Christians have been comforted by it; of course it is possible that the belief has its ultimate origin in wish-fulfillment rather than in reason. On the other hand, some beliefs are both comforting and true. It has, for example, been quite useful to you emotionally to believe that Christianity has evolved from earlier religions and has no validity beyond the mythical. Would you say that since this belief has been useful for you it is therefore false? Of course not. Similarly the mere fact that Christian belief in an afterlife is convenient is in itself no sign that the belief is false. Most significant for our purposes, however, is the fact that at the very least the Christian doctrine could be true. And that possibility is enough to render Painful World invalid for any form of temporal suffering.

And yet...and yet it all still sounds pretty sophistic, right? Callous, too: it sounds as though I am making light of other people's suffering. If I had suffered myself, I wouldn't be so glib...right? When it comes right down to it, you just can't buy a God who would sit back and let that child suffer, no matter how much He might promise to make it up to her in heaven — isn't that how you feel about it? It's how most people who use Painful World feel, at any rate. So here is a column I once wrote for a local church newsletter that addresses such feelings:

At this time of year (Christmas and Epiphany), it’s often said that Jesus "wasn’t born the way we would expect God to be born," meaning that we would expect God to be born in a palace, as befits his rank. It seems to me, however, that in at least one sense Jesus’ miserable birth, in a stable at midwinter to impoverished, politically oppressed, socially despised parents was exactly what we should have expected.

Different men reject Christ for different reasons. In this column we’re interested in those people who refuse to be a Christian because they don’t like the way God has chosen to do things; they have a grievance against God. Of these, the most noble are those who complain, not of how God has treated them personally, but of how God has treated others — those, in other words, who hold that since evil and suffering exist, God does not.

Now this argument against God actually has two parts. One part is rational; it consists of the arguments that claim to prove that God and evil are incompossible. (To steal Ambrose Bierce’s definition of incom¬possible: "Two things are incompossible when the world of being has scope enough for one of them, but not enough for both — as Walt Whitman’s poetry and God’s mercy to man." I consider this the most amusing of all attempts to disprove God’s existence by appeal to human suffering.) If God is to win the soul of the atheist, He must refute these arguments, and that is why He created people like St. Thomas and C. S. Lewis and Josh McDowell.

But the rational arguments are not what really matters. The complaint against God does not begin with logic. The caring atheist does not look at a suffering child and calmly deduce that he should be outraged. No, he looks at the suffering child, feels outraged, and shapes his outrage into the form of logical arguments. The idea, "No caring God would allow this," is not something we figure out by thinking rationally. It is an instinct, or, to use technical language, a direct judgment. And no matter how clearly you show the holes in his arguments, the compassionate atheist will continue to believe that no caring God would allow such suffering. For he believes it, not because his logic demonstrates it, but because his indignation demands it. The logic trots along behind the indignation, not the other way around.

Now the indignation comes, not from a belief that God is powerless (if He were, who could blame Him for allowing suffering?), but because He "doesn’t care." And I think that the image behind that is something like this: "God’s in His heaven, even though all’s wrong with the world." We want to know what kind of smug Being would sit comfortably on a celestial throne and gaze unconcernedly on the misery of an innocent child. [Or, in your words, Robert, "What kind of God would sit back and let it happen?"] If He cared, wouldn’t He be driven to act? Wouldn’t He be driven to end the suffering?

Now the cure for this feeling of outrage only begins when we recognize a curious fact. A person can help end the suffering of another without caring about him at all; if, for example, God wanted to show off His nobility, He could end suffering and congratulate Himself on His "compassion," even if He didn’t care tuppence about us. It’s perfectly true that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes; we must not forget the new heaven and new earth that await us. But first God did something even more compassionate than ending our suffering. Before He ended it, He stooped down and shared it.

The atheist’s true answer is the life of Christ. Is it outrageous to see an infant born into extreme poverty? You bet. And what is God’s answer? "She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger." Is it obscene that a child should suffer degradation because his parents are thought to have sinned? Absolutely; think, for example, of what it meant for a Jewish boy to be referred to as "Jesus, son of Mary (since we don’t know who his father is, heh, heh)." Are we sickened by political oppression — such as the Roman oppression of the Jews? Or by brutal physical and mental torture, such as ripping the flesh off a man’s back and spitting in his face and hurling insults in his broken teeth? Or, most of all, by the murder of an innocent man? From Calvary come the words of the dying thief: "This man has done nothing wrong."

The atheist will never be convinced until his moral outrage has been appeased. And I know of no way to appease it except by the observation of Dorothy Sayers, that though the reasons that God’s rules allow sufferings are beyond our understanding, still "God plays by His own rules." For the eyes of every suffering child are the eyes of Christ, who two thousand years ago was born in a stable, "because there was no room in the inn."
Robert, if you could look at the suffering that people in this world undergo and not be moved to pity and outrage, I would think there was something wrong with you. But if you allow your philosophy to be dominated by your emotions to the point at which you accept fallacious arguments, then you have overreacted.

I remember driving along I-40 just west of Memphis after an ice storm and seeing forty accidents in a twelve-mile stretch. The one that sticks in my mind the most, however, is a lady who had slid into the median. Four strapping college lads were straining to get enough traction to push her back on the road while she gunned the motor helplessly. Then suddenly the tires bit, and she shot out of median onto the road...and slid helplessly right on across both lanes into the ditch on the other side. We crept on by, and she was still there when we eased out of sight over the next hill.

I tell this story just to say: don't let your entirely admirable compassion and pity slingshot you from the median of callousness into the ditch of CKIAS.