Friday, March 6, 2009

Good God, man! Good God-Man!

The following was inspired by a thread at Just Thomism concerning James Chastek's post there about atheism and the idea of a good God. Chastek writes:

Let's face it, the claim that God is a loving father to the whole world is a Christian claim. Both authors above are therefore critiquing a Christian claim, but they sever it from its Christian basis and tie it to an interpretation that is downright silly. The Christian argument for the divine love is well known. Finish the following sentences: "God so loved the world that _____" or "Greater love hath no man than that ____". If you are Heather Mac Donald, you fill in the blank with "he attends on us", if you are Medawar, you fill it in with "he looks after small children as a doting schoolteacher". Having written in an obviously ridiculous answer they then- quite reasonably- call the answer ridiculous, and then (of course) see no evidence for it. ... The Christian claim for the fatherly love of God is based on faith. If it is by faith that we hold that God became man, then it is by faith that we hold that God became man to die out of love for us, in order that we might saved.

An atheist named Ben critcized this post for the error he sees endemic in Christianity, namely, that of setting low standards for God's love and then claiming His actions raise no "problem of evil".

It seems to me, however, that what is happening in the thread is the perennial mistake of subsuming God and His creatures under some idealized rubric of categories. This is the presumption of an a-Christological worldview. The key premise for Ben, it seems, is the moral primacy of "individual autonomy." Unfortunately, however, this relies on an assumption that "individuality" not only is coherent per se (which I deny) but also presides over God and creatures univocally. Likewise it is assumed that there is some highest standard of goodness, to which both God and man must submit.

But the Catholic protest to all such pagan "subsumption" is simply the Eucharist. In the Eucharist alone do we find our canon of humanity and divine goodness. In Chrsit alone, as He is truly given to us in the divine litrugy, we find all the treasures of wisdom and goodness. The Eucharist, which is one with the Cross, is not something that happens in some larger "given" field of being (viz., the supposedly "neutral" universe as such), but something which simultaneously grounds creation as stemming from the Father in the Son by the Holy Spirit and elevates it to the same divine persons in common. Ontologically, Christ Incarnate is the basis for there being individual humans at all. Only insofar as a creation suitable for humans is ratified and redeemed in His Incarnation (made present historically and concretely in the Eucharist), can we fathom the creation of humans. Christ partakes of our humanness, not as if it were some antecedent metaphysical category limiting God, but as the ordained pattern for our existence. Thus, our humanity becomes the means by which we find (or lose) God. It is not that Christ partook of humanity qua ideal form, but that humanity is privileged to exist actually by participation in the kenotic glory of Christ Incarnate. God did not look ahead and see "humanity," and then decide that was a fitting way for us to know and love Him. Quite the contrary: He looked ahead at a myriad of ways in which creatures might reflect and share in His goodness, and decided "humanity" was a fitting way for that self-diffusion to happen. Christ is not to be measured by His likeness to our instinct for "the good man," for we are human only insofar as we possess a likeness to Him as the Suffering Servant.

This shows us that our canon for good human conduct is to be patterned after gratuitous suffering on behalf of others who can give us nothing in return. This is precisely why much of "being human" means enduring life for the good of future generations and people we don't even know. This impulse in humans to keep living and to "make things better" is but an analogical reflection of Christ’s own preeminent one-way kenosis on our behalf. As long as the standard for "good conduct" is reified anonymously and pitted against God-in-Christ, the atheist critic is simply not engaging the Catholic Church’s own claims about good and evil. This, I believe, is James Chastek's point. Precisely in the intersection of the gratuitous existence of the world (i.e., nothing need have been the case apart from God) and the gratuitous suffering we can offer for others, we find a clue to the mystery of evil. Ezekiel denies a man will be punished individually for the individual sins of another, but unfortunately, no one exists individually. We exist collectively, derivatively, as members of the human race. Hence, we can individually experience the collective evils of our race, as well as individually add to them. So, if we desire to exist as humans, we have no choice but to exist as the heirs of concrete humans before us. This, of course, entails inheriting humanity from them as much as inheriting the woes of sin. Certainly, if God wanted to "dote on" us individually, so that we would never experience the rotten fruit of our ancestors, He could—namely, by not creating us as humans. We are not punished for the sins of others, but we are subject to the punishments given to others insofar as others are the ontological and psychological basis for our particular humanity.

Along many of the above lines, I highly recommend the reading of Michael Liccione's essays, "Mystery and Explanation in Aquinas's Account of Creation" and "The Problems of Evil" and a reading of Donald Keefe's Covenantal Theology and his other writings on creation, theology of history, and the Eucharist. (John Kelleher has good introductory materials to Keefe's work. Also, Fr. David Meconi, SJ [PDF!], has a good essay on Keefe's theology of history, but it seems to be offline. I have a copy on my computer, which I can send to those who request it.)

Lastly, as for Max Tegmark's surd-omniverse, which Ben cited as a coherent naturalistic explanation of existence, I must interject: if it a) is mathematically-axiomatically formalizable and b) claims to provide a necessarily true description of the physical universe, it is subject to Gödel's incompleteness theorems, and is therefore not necessarily true. Further, insofar as it purports to be a scientific theory, it needs empirical backing. Suffice to say, the empirical backing for the unified existence of every logically possible state of affairs (SoA) is not only slim but also asymptotically hard to come by.

I have to wonder: surely "a purely possible state of affairs" is logically coherent, but can such a SoA be said to exist in Tegmark-space? Likewise: surely "a metaphysically simple cosmos with no parallel universes or alternative modes of being" is logically coherent, but can such a SoA be said to exist in Tegmark-space?

1 comment:

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Hello Elliot!

Thanks for your response. I'd clutter up your comment section with my response, but I'll have to stick with providing a link (link) instead to it if you don't mind. You may continue the exchange in either venue as I will repost all of it on my blog one way or the other.

Thanks again!
Ben