Friday, January 4, 2013

A Fool's Theodicy

John M. Chernoff's Hustling Is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl (Chicago, 2003) has a 118-page introduction, but unusually for such matter, it's worth reading all the way through.  I like Chernoff's approach to mapping out the problems of describing African society -- or any society, really -- but 80 pages in, I'm starting to notice a pattern.  He starts off well, then wanders off in what seems to me a wrong direction.  Then he takes up a new subject and repeats the pattern.  For example:
… Maybe in some situations, the purpose of knowing about something is not to understand it. Maybe in some times in places, the purpose of building and sustaining our knowledge is merely like that of a sermon, or even an incantation, in which Western social thought and social science function theologically as a bulwark against chaos, drawing boundaries to keep chaos away or to project it outward. If one assumes that there are things we will never understand, then chaos is another word for the limitations of our knowledge and capability, a word like nature or uncertainty or irony or fate or mess. Perhaps disorganization is part of the system, a regressive part that is beyond what we know and work with every day, yet nonetheless is a part that is serving the system or helps in a mysterious way, something like the imagination of the system. At least, for some philosophers and most fools, chaos represents the capacity to make fun of self-evident knowledge and of people who claim to know what is happening. Faced with a mess, the narrator of this book and her acquaintances do not need a teleology grounded in social policy or social theory. They need a theodicy grounded in a comic vision, a pathway to redemption, or at least an assertion of hope [21-2].
What I like is his initial speculation that understanding isn't necessary for knowledge, and even more, that "Western social thought and social science function theologically as a bulwark against chaos, drawing boundaries to keep chaos away or to project it outward."  I mean, I thought that was obvious, and I don't think it's just "social science" that has this function; so does physical science.

But I don't think it's necessary to "assume that there are things we will never understand," though it depends on what conclusions Chernoff wants to draw from that assumption.  We can't know in advance which things we will be able to understand and which we won't, so we might as well take on whatever problems look interesting.  It's not like we're in any danger of running out of questions we can't answer in the foreseeable future.  Mainly, though, we can't know in advance which things we will or won't understand.  The horizon of knowing all we can possibly know is still too far off to worry about.  And so often we don't even know what it is that we don't know.

I agree that Hawa (the name Chernoff gave to his narrator) and her acquaintances don't need a teleology, but I didn't know that anyone does.  But a theodicy isn't needed either.  The word means "justification of God", and in practice refers to any "defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil."  But what if God is in the wrong? What if God is guilty?  What if there is no "pathway to redemption"?  Can one live without it?  I don't see why not.  Hawa probably believes in God, and so do her acquaintances, but they don't need Chernoff to justify Its ways to them.

Maybe Chernoff recognizes this.  In his discussion of AIDS (which is not very good, I'm afraid -- it's the weakest part of the introduction so far), he writes (page 83):
An African proverb says, "When a river is dry, it is God Who is in shame, not the river."  And truly, as for this case, God really should be ashamed.