Friday, March 6, 2009

The Grand Inquisitor

The greatest thing ever written, best I can tell, is a chapter of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which the disappointed idealist Ivan Karamazov tells his saintly brother why he is not a Christian. He presents Alyosha and the reader with a litany of human crimes, many against children, that could have been easily prevented by an all-powerful God. Then he lays his cards on the table:
If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It's beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? . . . I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: “Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.” When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, “Thou art just, O Lord!” then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can't accept that harmony . . . Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.
Neither Ivan nor Dostoevsky invented the problem, of course; it’s one religious people and skeptics alike have been grappling with since the revelation or invention of monotheism, and it’s one that I suspect has no answer that is ultimately satisfactory for anyone. It’s the classic triangle: God is benevolent; God is omnipotent; and yet terrible things happen to people who don’t deserve it in any way we can understand.

It is this problem that Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, approaches in his latest book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (HarperOne, $25.95). Ehrman’s views on the matter should be clear from the title of the book, and indeed, he is associated with the recent “neo-atheism” movement, thanks to his 2005 best-seller, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (the man has a way with explanatory subtitles, you have to admit).

In some ways, God’s Problem is a narrative about Ehrman himself, as many or most theologies are at their base. He makes this narrative explicit in his introduction and then returns to it frequently in the rest of the chapters. It is the problem of suffering, he avows, that caused him to lose his decades-long faith, that “I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things.” Fair enough—it’s a conclusion millions have come to over the centuries, and in his introduction, Ehrman tells his story compellingly.

It is a story of questions, of course, beginning with Ehrman’s anger and doubt during a Christmas Eve service:
it brought tears to my eyes as I sat with bowed head, listening and thinking. But these were not tears of joy. They were tears of frustration. If God had come into the darkness with the advent of the Christ child, bringing salvation into the world, why is the world in such a state? Why doesn’t he enter into the darkness again? Where is the presence of God in this world of pain and misery? Why is the darkness so overwhelming?
Passages like these are the best part of God’s Problem; their author feels like a human being. The reader, even the devout reader, understands his doubt and his frustration with God and may even share his conclusions. Unfortunately, Ehrman’s tendency to bring himself into the equation subverts his ultimate point. His disbelief in God (or at least in “the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world”) clearly takes place on an emotional level, but he attempts to posit his arguments about the Bible’s failure to address them as intellectual.

Please note that I am not trying to suggest a hierarchy of argument, with the intellectual elevated over the emotional—indeed, I suspect most belief and disbelief in God springs from an emotional need to believe or disbelieve. But logos is not the same thing as pathos, and for much of the book Ehrman seems blissfully unaware of the pathetic pull behind his logic.

He therefore ends up talking out of both sides of his mouth; he can on the one hand claim that “Other books are morally dubious, in my opinion—especially those written by intellectual theologians or philosophers who wrestle with the question of evil in the abstract, trying to provide an intellectually satisfying answer to the question of theodicy” and on the other reject Christianity for its failure to be “an intellectualizing system for explaining everything.” He wants to be simultaneously a pietist and an Enlightenment thinker—thus, he can reject emotional arguments as a sort of neo-Voltaire, and he can reject intellectual arguments as a man who takes the world’s pain upon him.

He comes off as patently insincere, incidentally, when he talks about the world’s pain; sometimes he sounds like high-school freshman posting to MySpace (“Every five seconds a child dies of starvation in the world. Every five seconds. A child.”); sometimes he merely comes off as self-satisfied, as when he notes that
When I turn on the NCAA basketball tournament tonight and pour out a Pale Ale or two, I probably am not going to be reflecting on the fact that during the time it takes me to watch the game, three thousand people around the world will die because they have only unsanitary water to drink. But maybe I should think about it.

Surely it says something about Ehrman that he loses his effectiveness as an author when he attempts to talk about the real world outside of his own experience, and indeed, through most of the second half of the book, the author sounds like a crushing egotist, a man obsessed with the comforts of his own upper-middle-class life. The professor doth protest too much, methinks.

That being said, Ehrman’s rundown of biblical views on suffering are comprehensive and interesting, and for the most part he gives biblical theodicians a fair shake, even if he’s quick to appeal to higher criticism when there’s really no need for him to do so. (For example, he spends several pages—twice—arguing that Second Isaiah can’t possibly refer to a coming messiah.) He’s particularly kind to the author of Ecclesiastes, whose view of suffering as incomprehensible appeals to him, especially since it takes God out of the equation altogether.

The overall point, I suppose, is that the Bible does not have a coherent view on the problems of evil and suffering. Ehrman doesn’t take this in itself as a proof for the Bible’s falsity or insufficiency, and instead he dismantles each argument the Bible makes—suffering as a manifestation of God’s wrath, as the result of our own sin, and so on. The degree to which his dismantling is effective, I suspect, will depend chiefly upon the reader’s level of agreement with the author.

And that, I suspect, is the real problem with both theodicy and anti-theodicy. A person’s views about evil are nearly completely dependent on his level of faith, an equation that Ehrman does not appear to recognize. So, for example, when he writes about the message of Job, he says that “God, who appears at the end of the poetic exchanges, refuses to give a reason. It appears that for the author, the answer to innocent suffering is that there is no answer”—and he misses the point.

The answer is not that there is no answer, not according to the author of Job; it’s that it’s not our business to know the answer. To the Enlightenment mind—and Ehrman, for all his emotional hand-wringing over the state of the world, sets himself up as heir to the Enlightenment—this is the same thing. For the person of faith, I suspect that it is not.

After Ivan finishes raving against God in The Brothers Karamazov, his brother Aloysha, as close to the perfect Christian as has ever existed in literature, silent stands up, “went to him and softly kissed him on the lips.” This, perhaps, is the only answer to the Grand Inquisitor’s questions—and it’s not intellectually satisfying most of the time.


stanford said...

Tally me up under the column of "Brothers K is the greatest novel of all time." If I didn’t have a thing about naming women after men, our second daughter would be named Alyosha.

What I love about that chapter is that Ivan drones on for page after page and Alyosha responds with one sentence:

"But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!”

He essentially says, yeah, that is horrifying, and I can't answer it (Dostoevsky tells us that Ivan articulated an argument that the author himself had no answer for) but I think the answer has something to do with the divine co-sufferer.

RE Ehrman on Evil: Tim Keller talks about how sociologists think that all belief is intellectually conditioned, socially conditioned AND personally conditioned. So it is disingenuous for the neo-atheists to say ‘my belief is purely intellectual while yours is emotional, intuitive, and inherited from your community.” BOTH beliefs are intellectually, socially and personally conditioned. Ehrman seems to illustrate that no-where is that more true than in our explanations (or defenses in the Plantinga/Moltmann approach) of evil.

Joel said...

This post is one of my favorites by you so far. I think about this topic a lot, but I have nothing really illuminating or thought-provoking to add to the ongoing conversation, though I really dig what that last commenter said.

slant-truth said...

You're so much more articulate about these issues than I can be. All I know is that Ehrman is a whiner who needs to realize that our inability to understand or quantify God is what makes him God. He makes me SO ANGRY.

Tim Rhodes said...

I'm kind of with Joel in the sense that i don't really have anything to add either, but I really enjoyed the post. I read "God's Problem" within the last few months (or maybe during the Fall). It definitely brought up many questions for me (many of which I had already been dealing with). I finally have to just place it in the "mystery of God" category. Sometimes it bothers me and feels like it's a cop-out (the part of me that feels like I have to know and understand everything), but some of the time it comforts me. If God can be fully understood then he's really not God at all.

It was great revisiting this post-- I had read it back when it was first posted and meant to comment then.

Michial said...

Sorry it took me sixty years to reply to these comments--between that and not posting for nearly a month, I am turning into a very bad blogger.

Stanford: And I hate to sound like a Creationist, but the fact of the matter is that atheism requires as much of a leap of faith as theism. As Pascal says, it's ridiculous that there would be a God, and it's ridiculous that there wouldn't be. We're all agnostics, but you've got to take the faith stand one direction or another.

Victoria: It was crazy fun to watch you pound your little fist in Sunday School.

Tim: I really think Job's answer is the best--You don't get to know. Dostoevsky takes the New Testament and adds to Job's solution: " the way, I love you." That's not intellectually satisfying, but none of the other options are all that tenable anyway.