Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Exhausting morning with the guy down the hall at my office, a partner at the firm. I enjoy talking with him, but sometimes the conversation can be tiring (once the adrenalin wanes), especially when religion comes up. He has rejected religion, and religiosity, as a defect in the human condition that cripples our understanding. Accordingly, he loves to pose hard questions, to see whether people of faith truly understand what they believe. He has recently been bragging that he wrung a complete capitulation from a Catholic associate here in the office, so there's blood in the water.

It's amazing how much he takes on faith without recognizing it as such.

Anyway, he had some questions for me this morning arising from an article in the NY Observer, regarding the crisis of faith some are having over the tsunami in Asia. (Side note: Really, people, let's keep this all in perspective. In 1970, a natural disaster in Bangladesh killed 500,000 people. Why should this new tragedy suddenly shake your faith, if it was intact yesterday? Because it's newer? Because you were a poor student of history?)

We had a far-ranging debate over the problem of theodicy and the moral distinction between an unsafe humanity (which can immediately be ascribed to free will) and an unsafe natural world (which cannot be so easily ascribed). Ultimately, setting aside the meat of the argument, I find myself frustrated with the arguments often employed by this partner, and the article, and most of those who reject or alienate religious thought. They set up a straw man in the place of religion, usually because the author/interrogator has not the wit or dedication to truly understand the complexity of theology. They they tear down their own ill-informed straw man gleefully, without realizing that they have done nothing but expose the limits of their own understanding. That is the failing of this particular article: no one should crow about the conclusions of an argument that completely fails to recognize Calvinist/reform theology, or which takes as a given that Rabbi Harold Kushner has given the last (pathetic) word on the subject. Sheesh -- if you're going to claim you've out-wrestled God, at least wrestle the varsity team first. (Admittedly, there seem to be fewer and fewer Christians who have wrestled the varsity team themselves. To this end, I commend the indictment that is Os Guinness's Fit Bodies, Fat Minds.)

I get so tired of sloppy, egocentric attacks on faith. "Aha! Don't you see that either God is not God, or God is not good," sneers this article. Yes, I understand your pithy little aphorism, thanks for arriving at the party several millenia late. Now ask yourself the next question in Theology for Dummies: what is "good"? Have you truly considered the possibility that the problem is with your own definition of "good"?

God does not -- will not -- provide safety on this Earth. Not even to His faithful, no matter how hard they ask. Is that "good"? If not, what is "good"? What would a "good" earth look like?

As for me, I'll take this earth. The natural world is terrible and wonderful; it bears cathedrals of redwoods, and crisp morning air, and hells of lava under tectonic plates that churn the seas and snap the cords of life. I don't blame God for creating that world, because I can just begin to see the glimmers of wise purpose -- and even aesthetic beauty -- in that balance. Ultimately, an unsafe world is a world without training wheels. In an unsafe world, own free will can give rise to true self-determination and a search for faith in the quiet places. Anything less would smack of artifice. I admit, there's a certain leap of faith in that conclusion, because I like comfort as much as the next person. And this world hurts. A lot. But it's good.

 11:33 AM

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