A Sense of Injustice

One of the features of being in a place of doubt, is that while there are things that I find make it hard for me to believe in the existence of god, there are other things that I find equally hard to rationalise away. Some of these things are harder to define, somewhat more esoteric, perhaps, than specific doctrines, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to elucidate them a little.

Somewhat related to the last post is the problem of our sense of injustice. As I said in the last post, it seems that a natural and somewhat universal human response to tragedy is to shake our fists at the heavens and shout “WHY?!” We experience a profound sense of injustice to situations of death, sickness and suffering – as if deep down within us somewhere we believe these situations to be fundamentally wrong. The question I have though, is why is this true? Why is this the most common human reaction to tragedy?

If you look at the question in Theistic terms (believing in the existence of god), then it is relatively easy to explain. Either, as discussed in the last post, the tragedy is caused or ‘ordained’ by the deity – in which case there is someone/something to be genuinely angry with. Or it is caused by the consequences of evil or sin in the world – in which case, there is again a force to be angry with, or else a right sense that the world was not meant to be this way, and therefore the situation is genuinely wrong.

It is more difficult trying to explain this sense of injustice from an atheistic (belief that there is no god) standpoint. In fact, I’m struggling now even to frame an argument for this side.

What purpose does a sense of injustice towards tragedy and dire circumstances serve? Does it somehow help us heal from the pain, to be able to have something to blame? Does having an outside cause stop us feeling so tiny, powerless and insignificant in the face of the vastness and complexity of the universe, and hence stop us going insane?

You could perhaps argue that a sense of injustice is simply an inherited characteristic from our more ignorant, superstitious pasts. But that doesn’t help much, because you then have to ask why such a superstition would evolve in the first place? What purpose does it serve? And why is it that, even the most committed atheists and agnostics seem to fall back to pain and anger in the face of personal suffering?

I guess my question is this: is it possible that a sense of injustice is inbuilt, inherent in all of humankind? And if so, how do we explain the existence of this response? It isn’t simply biological, because it isn’t something we see reflected in the animal kingdom – even the most ‘emotional’ animals grieve, and then get up and get on with their lives – they seem more able to accept death than humans are.

Humans are dumbfounded and full of rage and injustice in the face of death – as if we were never meant to die. A Christian will tell you that this is because we never were meant to die. But what explanation can the atheist give? The best I can come up with is that this is an inherited response from a more superstitious age, intended to protect us somehow from… and then I get lost.

In and of itself, this isn’t compelling enough to justify a theistic position for me. But there are other parts of our humanness that I can’t easily explain in evolutionary terms. Hopefully I’ll get on to those here in time.

Sovereign Gold?

[Warning: this is a long post, and a bit of a rant. I get a little heated here; sorry]

As I said in the last post, I find it hard to know exactly what I believe about god and about Christianity right now. But I think there are some things that I can safely say that I don’t believe. Or, at least, are things that prejudice me against the Christian faith, if they can be described as indicative of that faith.

One of the things I realised at l’Abri was quite how angry I was towards certain Christian theologies. There are beliefs within some wings of the church that I find downright insidious and damaging. Some of the ones I find hardest are those held by the Reformed or Calvinist branches of Christian faith.

Now, a friend complimented me last night on how I had managed to write the last post with a ‘profound lack of bitterness’ in my tone. I want to apologise right now if I don’t manage to maintain that attitude here. I am going to try and be charitable, but I don’t honestly know if I will manage it.

One of the biggest issues I have is with the concept of the Sovereignty of God. The idea, as far as I understand it, goes like this: God, if he exists, has to be the biggest, most powerful being conceivable. God created the universe out of his will, and sustains it out of his will. The very continued existence of the universe is because of the present, continuous will of God. But more than that, God, being the biggest, most powerful force in all of creation, is fully sovereign over all of said creation.

Which is taken to mean, in this theological interpretation, that everything that happens, happens according to the will of God. Effectively, ‘because He Said So‘.

In some ways, this is one of the oldest philosophies. The Greeks and the Persians, and all sorts of ancient peoples would look upon a natural disaster, such as the failure of a harvest, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption as the anger of the gods. The Mayan’s would sacrifice people to appease the wrath of the gods. It is an OLD idea.

And even today, to many of us, it is the first, most natural thought when it comes to the existence of a Supreme Being. When sickness or natural disaster, or unnatural calamity afflict us, our deepest hurt reacts, crying WHY?!?

We cry ‘why?’ because we believe there to be someone to blame, someone pulling the strings, someone afflicting us. I find it perfectly natural that reaction in so many of us is to find someone to blame; someone to direct our understandable anger at. I have done the same. I have angrily ranted and blamed God for my hurt and my circumstances in the past.

The problem I have is when you turn the understandable first reaction of a hurting individual into a cast-iron theology, into an explanation of The Way The World Is. This theological understanding of the Sovereignty of God says that everything that happens, good or bad, is the Will of God. Everything. The failure of a harvest, an earthquake, the collapse of the money markets this year, the almost-inevitable victory of Manchester United in this year’s Premiership, the Holocaust.

While it might comfort us in the midst of our pain to shake our fists at God after the death or a friend or relative, to have someone or something to vent at and direct our cries of ‘Why?!’, it doesn’t actually comfort once the blood has stopped boiling. It actually makes the questions harder, deeper. You see, to me, it seems that if you ascribe the cause of every action to God, then you have some real issues when it comes to his nature. A God who causes Holocausts and tsunamis doesn’t seem very nice. I honestly do not know why anyone would want to be involved with, let alone worship, a divine entity that sweeps thousands of unsuspecting individuals away in a ‘sovereign’ fit of pique.

We’re hit with a real dilemma here. The Christian god is supposedly described as gracious and compassionate, as the very embodiment and definition of love. Not loving, but love. Yet there are very few circumstances that the average person can imagine where killing someone could be considered loving. And what happens when we consider sickness, or poverty, or oppression, or the evil, damaging actions of individuals?

Now, the proponents of this theology would probably argue that there are also verses in the bible that speak of gods anger, and of the sinfulness of man, and of gods sovereignty. Well, yes, there probably are. I’m not pretending that there is no rational basis for this idea, that it isn’t a theology that someone of good conscience can hold. I know good people who believe this. I wish they wouldn’t, but they do. I don’t love them any less (well, much less) or value them less as human beings for espousing this belief.

But I have huge problems with the idea. Of what it tells people, of what it communicates about the nature of reality, of this supposedly-loving god. I have a friend who was raped. Another two friends who were sexually abused as children. These friends have been profoundly damaged by their experiences, by the evil, deeply wrong actions of human beings. These events overshadow their whole lives. But rather than giving them comfort or solace, this insidious doctrine lays the blame for these crippling events at the feet of god himself. It says that, because God is Sovereign and only the things that He Purposes happen, that in some way these terrible events must have been His Will for my friends lives. God ordaining rape and child abuse? No thanks!

I have a family member who has been sick, bed-bound, for 8 years now. Eight years, their whole adult life, stolen, and that of their parents who care for them too. Does it comfort me, or them, to think that god has planned this, purposed this, even if it is (somehow) supposedly for their good? No. I think that, if this is gods will, then he’s a real sadistic bastard.

(sorry, I think I might have lost my ‘lack of bitterness’ there)

If you think I’m being ridiculous here, or painting a wrong picture, then I just want to repost this link, to a very senior figure in the Reformed wing of the American church, who is effectively saying that God caused a bridge to collapse and kill people. Why? Because we’re all sinners and deserve to die, and this event reminds of the fact. Effectively, we should all fear and tremble before God, and be grateful that He is so ‘loving’ as to let us live our pitiful existences in the first place.

I’m sorry, no. Just no. I don’t know how to resolve the problem of suffering. I don’t know how to square the circle when it comes to the seeming incompatibility of the sovereignty of god and the free will of his creation. But I do know that my friends were abused by human beings, and to shift the blame to god removes comfort rather than gives it. To say that god ‘ordained’ the action somehow is seeking to find purpose in actions that are evil, wrong and damaging – actions that are inherently purposeless. And it removes the blame from those who should carry it, squarely, on their shoulders.

To blame sickness, or natural disasters on god is perhaps understandable in emotional terms, but in theology or philosophy it simply creates a monster of a deity – an angry, vengeful, petulant god, not in any way deserving of love or worship. If god causes tsunamis and earthquakes, if he afflicts people with sickness deliberately, if he purposes, directs and ordains rape, child abuse, murder, then there is nothing loving in him, and I for one don’t want anything to do with him.

Like I said, I really don’t know what I believe when it comes to the existence of god or the problem of suffering. It may be that the cruelty and hardship of this world are all because of the selfish actions of human beings and the natural movements of tectonic plates – that it is all random and senseless. It may be that god exists and weeps for the brokenness of his creation. I don’t know.

But I do know this – there are some doctrines of some parts of the Christian church that paint a picture of a deity that I want nothing to do with. I don’t find them believable, good, or consistent with the idea of a god that is meant to be the very definition of love. I can’t believe they are true, but if they are, I want nothing to do with them.