Friday, April 16, 2010

On Obstinacy in Unbelief

I'm reading the revised edition of John Beversluis's C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Prometheus, 2007), and it occurred to me that much of Christian pastoral counseling -- which is a form of apologetic in itself: one of its functions is to reassure Christians that the problems they're having don't invalidate their commitment to Christian faith -- relies on convincing people that their God isn't God after all, that he's not even a very good human being.

As Lewis said in a piece called "On Obstinacy in Belief", one's trust in God should not depend on one's mood, or falter when things aren't going perfectly:
We believe that His intention is to create a certain personal relation between Himself and us, a relation really sui generis but analogically describable in terms of filial or of erotic love. Complete trust is an ingredient in that relation -- such trust as could have no room to grow except where there is also room for doubt. To love involves trusting the beloved beyond the evidence, even against much evidence. No man is our friend who believes in our good intentions only when they are proved. No man is our friend who will not be very slow to accept evidence against them. Such confidence, between one man and another, is in fact almost universally praised as a moral beauty, not blamed as a logical error. And the suspicious man is blamed for a meanness of character, not admired for the excellence of his logic [in The World's Last Night, Harcourt 1960, pp. 25-6].
Lewis properly declares the relation between the believer and God as sui generis, that is, unique and not comparable to any other relation. But it can, he allows, be described by analogy to relations we are familiar with, like parent/child, erotic love, or friendship. The trouble is that because the relation is sui generis, all analogies break down quickly. I'd say, myself, that better analogies are available -- they're just less flattering.

Take one of Lewis's own examples: "No man is our friend who will not be very slow to accept evidence against them." True. That's because we can't know any other person's inner self, appearances can be deceiving, evidence can be falsified and we have to wait until our friend can explain problems that arise. Our friend promised to meet us at our favorite restaurant at 2 p.m., but he didn't show. Only later do we learn that he was hit by a car and taken to the hospital unconscious with two broken legs and a smashed cell phone. If we stomp back and forth fuming about our friend's unreliability without knowing the facts, it's our friendship that in question, not our friend's.

Another example is one I read years ago. Suppose you are fighting in the Resistance against the Nazi occupation, and you meet a highly placed collaborator in a secret encounter, who assures you that he is really on your side and he will soon act to prove it, but in the meantime you must trust him. For some reason you do, although more of your comrades are rounded up and executed each day.

Another example of Lewis's, after his wife died of cancer. He compared his God to a surgeon, who must do terrible, painful things to us in order to make us better. It hurts him as much as it hurts us, but there is no other way to improve us. (This would be something like Rabbi Kushner's claim that God sends us disasters so that we can overcome them. The dead, who don't get to overcome anything, don't show up in the balance sheet.)

There's one other thing I should mention here, an example which seems to be Beversluis's: "'Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him,' says Job (Job 13:15), who surely was not unaware of the problem of apparently contrary evidence" (210). "Apparently"! Job, for those who've forgotten, lost his wealth, his family and his own health as the result of a bet between Yahweh and Satan. Satan bet that if Yahweh removed the fence of protection to which Job owed his fabled well-being, Job would lose his trust in him, and Yahweh gave Satan permission to do everything to Job but kill him. Tormented beyond measure, Job finally denied the justice of Yahweh. In context, Job is saying that he'll continue attacking Yahweh for mistreating him, even if Yahweh slays him. I suspect that Job 13:15 is mistranslated here (it's the King James Version, I believe, but the text of Job is notoriously "corrupt," which means that experts aren't always sure what the Hebrew is, let alone what it means. [An explanation here.] Walter Kaufmann, whose discussion of Job and the Problem of Evil in The Faith of a Heretic (Doubleday, 1961) is still the best I've encountered, translated the verse as "He will slay me? For that I hope. But my ways I will maintain to his face. And let this be my salvation that no hypocrite comes to face him." (This translation is found in Kaufmann's Critique of Religion and Philosophy [Harper, 1958], page 349; I don't know Hebrew, but Kaufmann did, and I think this rendering fits the context better than the AV.) And rightly so, since nowhere in the book is it claimed by anyone (except his false friends) that Job has done anything wrong. And as Kaufmann pointed out [151],
Nowhere else in the the Bible does shadday ['almighty'] appear so constantly as the name of God as in the book of Job. But the claim that God's omnipotence is not questioned in the book does not rest merely on the use of a word. Rather, the point is that it never occurs to anybody that God might simply be unable to prevent Job's suffering.
The trouble is that these sorts of excuses can't apply to relations with a god who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly benevolent. If such a god promises to meet you for lunch at 2 p.m., no auto accident can stop him, he can't be knocked unconscious, and his cell phone battery is always charged. If your friend who promised to meet you turns up later undamaged and breezily says, "Oh yeah, I was supposed to meet you; sorry, I just didn't feel like lunch, and I decided I didn't need to check in with you," then you would have a sound reason to begin doubting his friendship. If he's never behaved like this before, you'd give him a second and even a third chance. God needs a better excuse than this kind of analogy.

Similarly for the high-placed Nazi collaborator. Sure, he must move carefully, marshal his resources and allies, and strike when the moment is right, or he'll end up with a bullet in his brain too. But a god doesn't have this excuse. He's not vulnerable, he's in no danger from the Nazis and can act when it suits him -- indeed, to deny that is to deny his divine sovereignty. Nor does he need to sneak around at night, meeting his partisans by candlelight with secret handshakes and passwords, making portentous promises. (Christians sometimes like to talk as though the earth were in the hands of the devil and his forces, and so God must sneak around to escape detection as he prepares for his final victory. Um, no.) He can safely keep you informed without danger to you, let alone to himself. Doubting a god is not like doubting a mere human being. The standards for a god are higher than they are for us, yet to listen to Christian apologists, you'd think they were lower.

The same thing goes for the divine Surgeon. Surgeons cut you up, oncologists prescribe intensely unpleasant courses of chemotherapy or radiation, because they are not omnipotent or omniscient. A surgeon who insisted on vivisecting you when he or she could simply wave a hand and say, "Be healed," could reasonably be suspected of being a vicious sadist, and the burden of proof would be on him or her to give reasons why not. This applies to a god even more, and Lewis's argument isn't helped by the fact that his lord and savior didn't heal people by invasive procedures -- he simply said the word. If there's a reason why "spiritual" healing requires prolonged torture that may just as well destroy the patient's trust in the doctor as achieve its nominal end, the patient needs to know the reason. (Notice that if the patient loses faith, Christians see that as a failure of the patient, not of the doctor's abusive treatment.) If no such reason is given, it's time to look for a new doctor.

And so on. I've never yet encountered an analogical defense of God that didn't rely on excuses that might just barely excuse a human being, but not an all-powerful deity. This doesn't prove that the Christian god doesn't exist, of course; it only gives what I think is a plausible reason not to trust him. Considering that the Bible presents its god as an abusive husband, and in other unflattering ways, it's hard not to feel about suffering Christians who cling to their faith as I would about a human being who won't leave an abusive relationship, and keeps making the most extravagant excuses for the abuser. They have to find their own way out, but they need support when they're ready to leave. Otherwise the cycle of abuse will continue.