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Friday, March 18, 2011

When Bad Things Happen, Part II

In this morning's San Jose Mercury News there was an Op-Ed ("In Japan and Elsewhere, 'Murderous' Nature is a Neutral Party") by Fenton Johnson that initially appeared in the LA Times ("Shaking Open Our Self-Centered Eyes"). In it he takes to task those who see the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami from a human perspective:
"The key is not to rid ourselves of seeing the world in human terms; we're imaginative creatures, our imaginations are where our greatest fun lies, and besides, we comprehend the universe by placing it in a box whose boundaries and metaphors we draw from human experience. We don't need to abandon anthropomorphism, but we desperately need a bit of distance from the tendency to see the world through our inevitably self-centered eyes...
"To describe an earthquake as cruel (or a tsunami as murderous) assumes that good and evil are qualities established and defined by some overarching, presumably supernatural power whose ways and means lend themselves to human comprehension and even control. But who says the universe was created so that human beings might understand it -- that it must make or is supposed to make sense?"
Johnson's understanding of the Japanese disaster is an example of what I labeled in an earlier post ("When Bad Things Happen: The Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami") the gnostic approach in my thesis. This is the position individual's take that rather than seeking a rational explanation of evil, it instead seeks to transcend it through the acquisition of some greater knowledge (i.e., gnosis) of the way things truly are.  In fact, when recounting feminist theologian Sallie McFague's  ("Models of God") understanding of evil that "McFague is forced to conclude that God, in some sense, must be responsible for the... evil that has befallen human history... Evil, however, is in the eye of the beholder:"
"But is God, then, not in some sense responsible for the horrendous evil that has already occurred... in human history? In a monist ontology, one has to give a qualified yes to the question: since there is no evil power comparable to God, God is in some sense responsible for the worst that happens in the cosmos. But qualifications are crucial. First, the universe is, as an evolutionary phenomenon, so immense and complex, with so many constituent phenomena interrelating in so many ways, that evil is a relative concept. What is evil to some species, what diminishes or destroys them, is to other species for it brings them satisfaction and fulfillment (p. 141)."
In other words, what may be bad for one of God's creatures could be good for another. I suspect that very few individuals living in Japan would find such a perspective comforting. Taking such a position is far easier from behind a desk in a divinity school than in the rubble of an earthquake. Nevertheless, it illustrates how one might attempt to distance oneself from the tendency to see the world through our self-centered eyes.


  1. Yes, this view does allow us to distance ourselves from our own perspective, but it still assumes things not in evidence: the existence of a finite power that is not comparable to any other. It seems to me that there is no rational way to affirm or deny the existence of such a power, so agnosticism follows. Anyone who wishes to use his/her creativity to generate a myth about an Ultimate has a right to do so, but the problem is in remembering that such myths are of our own making. In my view, this also applies to the elaborate and, in some cases, beautiful myths that were spun by Paul.

  2. Dave, I would be willing to bet that you are an empiricist, which means that you view the world differently than gnostics do, thus requiring a different type of evidence to affirm or deny God's existence. In other words, for non-empiricists, agnosticism does not necessarily follow.

    What is more is that as far as I can tell, there is no way to adjudicate between the various world views, which makes debates about God, the causes of evil (both human and physical) irresolvable.

  3. Well, yes, I suppose I am an empiricist. And, for this reason, I view all factual claims about God as suppositions. But it doesn't follow from this that I believe empirical claims exhaust meaning. Were I to do so, I would be going beyond the limits of my own epistemological system. In addition propositions of value and policy which are, by definition, not amenable to empirical analysis are essential to all of us. Life would not be possible without them.

    I think you are correct in saying there is no way to adjudicate between the various views, especially on issues of fact. Empiricists will always be unable to agree with those who choose to place their trust in authority or revelation on issues of this sort. But that doesn't mean they can't come together on issues of value and policy. There is no reason, for example, why they couldn't agree that the advice (propositions of policy) Jesus and Paul offered on living are worthy of being followed.

  4. Yes, I think they would. Now, if we can only agree on what Jesus and Paul actually said