Saturday, February 6, 2010

Haiti . . .

It is not possible for us ordinary Christians to avoid some of the hard questions that arise from tragedies such as the recent earthquake in Haiti (or tsunamis, or bushfires). The scale of the suffering tears our hearts asunder. On top of that, we are interrogated by atheist or agnostic friends about how how it is possible that there is a God of love who is all powerful if he lets these things happen. A handful of responses like that of Pat Robertson - i.e. this was God's judgment on the people of Haiti on account of the voodoo practised by some! - makes a humble and reasoned Christian response both more difficult and more necessary.

So, I was moved by an article in the Catholic Herald by Mark Dowd, Where was God when the earthquake flattened Haiti? I'm sure he is on the right track. This is how his article finishes:

'I would never invoke the intellectual arguments about a "creation defence" for God with those whose lives had been directly afflicted. They would appear crass and insensitive. But there are others of faith, several stages removed, who are troubled and disturbed by what they see on the television screens and I think we should speak out as best we can. Sir John Polkinghorne, the great Christian physicist, has articulated his view that in a material world, whenever you cast a light you cannot but help cast a shadow. "Why can't we have all the good bits in creation and leave out the bad side effects?" we might ask. Well, everything we know about evolution and the journey to bring about complex intelligent life like our own suggests that death and some form of suffering are integral parts of a process of the passing on of genetic material.

'Is it possible to create a better world free of these downsides? This is the territory that Job wanders into in chapter 38 of that great Old Testament book and when he demands that God explain all this to him, he is greeted with: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand."

'I think old Leibniz is treated rather badly. If we could somehow prove that God has done a botched job of all this then there would be a case to answer. But if positives and negatives in a material world are impossible to separate, then the real question is this: "why create at all?" Why push that button if you know that creation involves death and suffering? This was the point I put to Professor Philip Clayton at that Castel Gandolfo conference. When the programme was repeated on December 27 of last year it was watched by a Catholic priest who had been dealing for years with the torment of watching his elderly father suffer from dementia. He told me that he had started and stopped the programme four times because its subject matter was so painful. Then came Clayton's words five minutes before the end.

'"I filled up with tears at the image of a creator God weeping before pressing the button to bring us into being, and the prospect that he pressed it knowing that the destination would outweigh the pains on the journey," the priest wrote to me last week. "The image of a God who would weep at our sufferings and the sufferings of his own Son, knowing that the bond of love between us in the end would be preferable to an eternity without us, in a God-filled emptiness, is just so overwhelming. At last something had resonated and struck a chord of truth."'

This article elicited some letters to the editor. One of them made the point that believers must do more than just defend our position, and referred to a paper by Dr James Franklin (from the School of Mathematics at the University of New South Wales, Australia) which seriously undermines the atheist case. Franklin says:

"The problem of evil has a kick in its tail for the atheist... Consider, for example, the materialist world-picture which most atheists believe in. Is there really evil in the materialist world? Of course, there are animals in pain and distress, but one who takes an absolute perspective can well ask, why does that matter? Ordinarily one thinks that the suffering of a human is a tragedy but the explosion of a dead galaxy is just a firework. Materialism, though, denies the distinction between the two, since it takes humans to be the same kind of things as galaxies, namely, moderately complicated heaps of matter. If the fate of a galaxy cannot give rise to a problem of evil, because its fate cannot in any absolute sense matter, then neither can the fate of a brain. In posing the problem of evil, the materialist who does not really believe in positive worth is cynically trading on our sense of the importance of those who suffer, knowing he will undermine it later."

In other words, the standard materialist answer to the problem of evil is to imply in the face of all our instinct to the contrary that evil and suffering are of no significance. Franklin concludes:

"The very existence of evil as a matter of absolute seriousness is a substantial reason to believe that the materialist world picture is false. Since the leading alternative theory involves a good and powerful God, that is a reason to believe there must be some solution to the problem of evil."

Go HERE to download a pdf of Franklin's paper.

Not unconnected with this is an article in today's Sydney Morning Herald about a man of faith whose wife and two sons died in the tragic bushfires one year ago. It, too, is well worth reading.


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