January 05, 2005,
What are we to say about a human condition in which "Nature red in tooth and claw" rears up on its massive hindquarters, and hurls a 30-foot wall of water against the lowlands of eleven of the poorest and most populous nations on earth, including some playgrounds of the rich of Europe and America, and crushes, chokes, and twists away the lives of going past 150,000 human beings?
"Nature" is not the way the Greens picture it. Nature batters human beings. Nature has annihilated tens of thousands of other species, why not the human species?
Most of the public voices in our enlightened age have gotten away with the indefensible drivel of liberal sentimentalism, chattering as if all intelligent people are atheists, whose god is a benevolent, nurturing, sheltering Mother Nature. Recently, I was debating on radio a Dutch member of the European parliament, who described herself on air as "an atheist who has values." She then described her values as "caring about this Earth and protecting it, and passing it on to my children."
I respect and admire her choice. At that moment, though, she was probably not thinking about this murderous tsunami and other natural furies, such as the raging seas that would overpower Holland if the extensive, huge dikes did not prevent it. Nor about diseases that for millennia kept the primitive human population on earth pitifully low.
How cruel a habitat is Earth!
The evils that afflict humankind upon this Earth are not a scandal solely for those who believe in a Creator. They are also a scandal for those who believe that Nature cares for human beings.
Most of the atheists among my friends at Harvard years ago (and elsewhere in academic departments of philosophy) were actually rationalists, who believed that in the end, at bottom, reason and law governed all things. They simply saw no reason for calling that abiding rationality in things a gift from God, whom they could not see. It was simply there, unexplained.
A few of them, however, were nihilists. They believed that "at bottom" there was just one unexplained bottom after another unexplained bottom "all the way down." Our existence is only a joke, a fluke, an irrational flick of pure, unadulterated chance. They believed that their superior intellects allowed them to cut through all the fraud, pretense, and superstition in which others took comfort. They thought that even the "rationalist" atheists were not smart enough to detect the absurdity of their own position. An "unexplained" rationality is a non-rational rationality. The rationalists were actually nihilists who couldn't yet admit it.
To this accusation, the atheists who were rationalists replied that they were merely being pragmatic, walking as far as the light of rationality took them, and saw no need to throw themselves on the ground in adolescent "existential anguish." They thought the nihilists went way too far in romantic self-dramatization, and their admonition to them was: "Grow up."
Modernism, however, which in my university years connoted Nietzsche, nihilism, contempt for anything bourgois or orthodox, and all the flowers of evil, has become the common language of the arts and "culture." Although now under the banner of "post-modernism," the invisible gas of nihilism seems to have seeped into every quarter. More even than the universities, the media have become the carriers of nihilism, even when nihilism is far from the intentions of the carrier.
Well, then, how does nihilism explain the ease with which Nature threw 150,000 living, unsuspecting, terrified human victims in Asia to their anonymous deaths?
The entire "nobility" of nihilism depends on the superiority of intellect that allows the nihilist to see himself as smarter than those who believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent Creator God. In other words, the Jewish and Christian God. The whole emotional-moral point of nihilism is to hold itself superior to Judaism and Christianity. If everything else is absurd, religion must be too. That is why, faced with a horrendous natural disaster, in which thousands of innocent human beings die irrationally, for no reason, the rationalist atheists and the nihilists alike blame God first. It is important for them to do that.
They do not blame just any God. The God of the Maya and many other religions of nature has always been known to be cruel, as Nature itself is cruel, and heedless of human emotion, aspiration, and hope. Rather, it is only the God of Judaism (learned of and spread round the world by Christians) that they blame. No, perhaps more, they blame the God of Christianity, for in Christ the world has been given an even more vivid image of divine concern for the poor, the lowly, and the needy, and of divine gentleness, friendship and love. They are blaming the God of the Sermon on the Mount. That is the God that there is true joy in blaming.
THE PROBLEM OF EVILTruly, the continuing presence of evil in the world perhaps most acutely when this evil is manifested in unconscious Nature, out of its own laws and processes is a great scandal to loving, believing Christians. It is truly hard for them to understand how a kind and gracious Providence can allow such terrible things to happen to human beings. To so many scores of thousands of human beings. On such a vast scale.
In some ways, it is easier to understand how individual human beings can do horribly evil deeds. At least one can point to their free will. Struggling to find plausible reasons, one recalls one's own irrationalities and sins, murders one has read of in the local papers, etc.
It is true that some evils are so unspeakable and unimaginable that they defy all attempted comparisons to anything in anyone's previous experience the Holocaust, for example. How can a good God possibly allow that horror to happen to (in a twofold sense) his own people? But even these we attribute to human agency, however monstrous. Whereas the dead that have suffered from a naked act of Nature seem somehow to have been stricken by God's own unmediated action.
What can biblically informed believers reply to those who, contemplating the massive destruction and death in today's Asia, blame their God (a God in Whom those who do the blaming do not believe)?
Confronted with this demand confronted with it, actually, quite often in my lifetime I think first of this: Since those who ask it do not believe in God, the question is not what it seems to be. The real point of the question is to get me to groan inwardly by agreeing that the one who thinks he is my superior is correct, after all. The real point is to get me to deny the reality of God.
The point is even a little more complex. My taunter does not want me to deny the reality of God on the ground that the assertion of that reality is absurd. Actually, my taunter holds that everything, at bottom, is absurd. My taunter really wants to show me that I am like him; and that I too am driven to join him in recognizing the absurd at the bottom of all things. He wants to prove that he has been smarter all along, and to watch me have to surrender as he has surrendered. He has given up his faith in reason all the way down, and he wants me to do the same.
My second thought is as follows. The Bible warns us often of the confrontation with the absurd that each of us who believes in the goodness of the Lord must face, and more than once in our lives. We see all the time in the Bible that the just are made to suffer, while the unjust live and laugh in plenty, heaping ridicule on the just. We read of the horrid, unfathomable afflictions that God piles up on his faithful servant, Job. Job refuses to say that in doing these things to him God is acting justly or kindly; Job knows his own pain, and he refuses to lie. He refuses to "prettify" God, or to cut God down to human standards. He knows that God is no sentimental liberal.
And if Job is the type of "the suffering servant," whose sufferings cannot be explained by his own deeds, and whose sufferings are on the face of it horribly and inexcusably unjust, so also is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the sinless One, who in forewarning his apostles of the sufferings he will endure on the cross alludes to Job more than once.
WHO'S JUDGING WHOM?Stand before the cross. Look at the body of this suffering servant of God. Look, perhaps, with eyes opened by Mel Gibson's all but unendurable The Passion. If this is what God did to His own Son His own being, with Whom He is one then what hope is there that we will be treated "nicely"? The God who does this is not "the God of niceness." His scale of grandeur is far different from ours. One has no sense of Him whatever if one does not feel inner trembling and vast distance.
He is not a God made in our image. We are made as (very poor) images of Him images chiefly in the sense that we experience insight and judgment, decision and love, and that we too have responsibilities.
This is the God who made the vastness of the Alps and the Rockies and the Andes; who knows the silence of jungles no human has yet penetrated; who made all the galaxies beyond our ken; who gave to Mozart and Beethoven and Shakespeare and Milton and Dante and legions of others great talents; who infused life into the eyes of every newborn, and love into the hearts of all lovers; and imagined, created, and expressed love for all the things that He made. He made all the powers of storms, and all the immense force of earthquakes, and the roiling and tumultuous churning of the oceans. He imagined all the beautiful melodies we have ever heard, and more that we have not.
God is God.
God is our Judge.
We are not His judge.
The question is not, "Does God measure up to our (liberal, compassionate, self-deceived) standards?" The question is, "Will we learn in silence and in awe at the far-beyond-human power of nature how great, on a far different scale from ours, is God's love?"
It would be the greatest and most obscene of illusions for a man, any man, to imagine that he has greater love for a child mangled in the oily, dark waters of the recent tsunami than the Creator of that child has. It would be like Ivan Karamazov being unable to forgive God so long as one single child anywhere went to bed at night crying in loneliness and in pain. Who is Karamazov to think that his own love for that child a purely abstract, speculative, hard-case, counterexample love is greater than that of the child's Creator?
The tapestry on which God weaves human existence is not the tapestry within the framework of time that we experience. As we do not comprehend the power of nature (especially nowadays, when we live so far removed from it, so protected from it), even more we do not begin to comprehend the love and goodness of God.
The truth is, the sight and smell of awful human death is sometimes more than we can take. Perhaps we should feel confidence in the power of God's love, but we do not see it. All we feel is the night. Our darkness is as keen as that of the unbeliever and the nihilist.
Yet in that darkness, we the believers alone (not the unbeliever or the nihilist) feel betrayed by One whom we love. We alone feel anguish because we cannot understand.
But it is not as if we had not often before bumped into the limits of our understanding, and recognized nonetheless that there are undeniable glimmerings of powers and presences we know not of. And, like Job, we refuse to deny the power of the goodness and light which we do see, their power to go out into the night in which we cannot now see.
It does seem that the Creator is not always kind, not even just, within the bounded space that we experience. It does seem that the Creator acts with undeniable cruelty. In our time, we have seen unimaginable suffering. Like Job, we cannot deny what we see.
Neither can we deny the Light, which is what makes the absurd seem absurd. Only in contrast to Light is the absurd absurd. Otherwise it is only a brute matter of fact.
No less than the unbeliever or the nihilist does the devout Jew or Christian inhabit the night. But only the believers continue in the silence to utter the unseeing yes of our love. The yes that Ivan Karamazov cannot say in the night Alyosha does say.
Michael Novak's latest book is The Universal Hunger for Liberty (Perseus, Basic), but he has written extensively on the theme addressed above in Belief and Unbelief and The Experience of Nothingness, as well as (with Jana Novak) Tell Me Why, all of which are still in print and available through his website at www.michaelnovak.net.