Even though the New York Times is full of advice about how to take care of yourself during the pandemic, it also brings in a Jesuit priest, Fr. James Martin, to deal with the issue of theodicy, as you can see from the title of his piece in today’s paper (click on screenshot to read):
The paper identifies Martin as “a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication and the author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” And of course he raises the inevitable question—what I call the Achilles Heel of Abrahamic religion: “why is there natural evil?” Why would an omnipotent and loving God suddenly snuff out thousands of lives for no discernible reason? (We atheists don’t need to ponder that question, for the answer is simple: there is no God, and viruses evolved by natural selection to propagate their genes, killing our cells and fostering their transmission between people to do so.) Martin’s a Jesuit, so he’s not dumb, just canny:
The question is essentially the same that people ask when a hurricane wipes out hundreds of lives or when a single child dies from cancer. It is called the “problem of suffering,” “the mystery of evil” or the “theodicy,” and it’s a question that saints and theologians have grappled with for millenniums. The question of “natural” suffering (from illnesses or natural disasters) differs from that of “moral evil” (in which suffering flows from the actions of individuals — think Hitler and Stalin). But leaving aside theological distinctions, the question now consumes the minds of millions of believers, who quail at steadily rising death tolls, struggle with stories of physicians forced to triage patients and recoil at photos of rows of coffins: Why?
. . . The overall confusion for believers is encapsulated in what is called the “inconsistent triad,” which can be summarized as follows: God is all powerful, therefore God can prevent suffering. But God does not prevent suffering. Therefore, God is either not all powerful or not all loving.
To his credit, Martin disposes with the answers that suffering is a test (“Does God send cancer to ‘test’ a young child?”) and that suffering is a punishment for sin (ditto). But then he punts:
In the end, the most honest answer to the question of why the Covid-19 virus is killing thousands of people, why infectious diseases ravage humanity and why there is suffering at all is: We don’t know. For me, this is the most honest and accurate answer.
This answer always baffles me. For if you don’t know why God does horrible stuff, or allows horrible stuff to happen, or fails to prevent horrible stuff, how on earth do you know that God is all-powerful and all-loving? Indeed, how do you know there’s a God at all? If you say “revelation tells me”, then why can’t revelation give you the answer to the question of natural evil? (The answer to that, of course, is that there is no such benevolent and powerful God, and you can’t fabricate a convincing reason if you think there is.) And if you respond, “The order and goodness of existence tells me there’s a God,” well, you’ve just contradicted yourself, for existence isn’t that orderly and good.
So, instead of giving an explanation, Fr. Martin suggests we just look to Jesus, even though the good Father has no more knowledge of Jesus or his motives than he does of God and His motives. Yes, the benighted priest says that because Jesus was a healer, too, in looking to Jesus we are looking at a model for how to treat the sick and how to be compassionate even towards the dying. Because, after all, Jesus was that way.
And so we get this pathetic circumlocution to avoid questions of theodicy:
Christians believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Yet we sometimes overlook the second part. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a world of illness. . . . “A case of the flu, a bad cold, or an abscessed tooth could kill.” This was Jesus’s world.
Yeah, and a world of dead people too, whom Jesus was able to bring back to life. Sadly, doctors can’t yet emulate that. And so here’s our model:
. . . in his public ministry, Jesus continually sought out those who were sick. Most of his miracles were healings from illnesses and disabilities: debilitating skin conditions (under the rubric of “leprosy”), epilepsy, a woman’s “flow of blood,” a withered hand, “dropsy,” blindness, deafness, paralysis. In these frightening times, Christians may find comfort in knowing that when they pray to Jesus, they are praying to someone who understands them not only because he is divine and knows all things, but because he is human and experienced all things.
Except for coronavirus! But let us pass on. . . .
But those who are not Christian [JAC: If you’re not a Christian then in all likelihood you don’t think Jesus worked miracles, much less did what the Bible says he did!] can also see him as a model for care of the sick. Needless to say, when caring for someone with coronavirus, one should take the necessary precautions in order not to pass on the infection. But for Jesus, the sick or dying person was not the “other,” not one to be blamed, but our brother and sister. When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was “moved with pity.” He is a model for how we are to care during this crisis: with hearts moved by pity.
So THAT is the answer? Be compassionate? Do we really need Jesus to teach us this? As far as I know, there are plenty of atheists out there on the front lines, with hearts moved by pity. They are risking their own lives to help others. They are altruists, and they don’t demand the fealty that Jesus did. These are real people to see as models, not some fictionalized rabbi whose deeds are, at best, dubious, and who may not even have existed.
The fact is that we don’t need religion or Jesus to give us an example of how to behave. Simple empathy or even humanistic philosophy is a better guide. After all, Jesus also counseled people to leave their families to follow him, and surely that’s not what Father Martin wants us to do in these trying times.
Yes, look to the doctors, the nurses, the healthcare workers, the ambulance drivers, and others of their species to be models “for how we are to care.” We don’t need a fictional Jesus-Man to show us how to act. We already know how to act. In fact, the Euthyphro dilemma tells us that our compassion isn’t really modeled on that of God or Jesus, for we see Jesus’s supposed acts as good because they were good before Jesus even existed. Jesus didn’t invent compassion; rather, we see Jesus as compassionate because his behavior conformed to behavior that was considered good long before he supposedly lived.
And I’d say this to Jesus, too: “Since you’re actually God as well as the son of God, you’re fricking responsible for this pandemic. Why on earth should we use you as a model for anything?”
I hate to say it, but this article is a crock, and doesn’t do credit to the NYT. Even the admission that we don’t understand God’s ways doesn’t qualify it as serious theology. It is a waste of column inches.