More dumb theodicy in the New York Times

March 22, 2020 • 1:00 pm

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.

Father James Martin from Korean Wikipedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

50 thoughts on “More dumb theodicy in the New York Times

  1. “But those who are not Christian can also see him as a model for care of the sick …”.

    Oh yeah?

    “Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.”

    1. Ah, yes. I’d bet that many here came upon that passage in our devout youths and thought, “What the f***, dude.” That Jesus character wasn’t who we’d thought he was.

  2. The author should contemplate how much damage is done in telling children who witness suffering that God just does this sort of thing but that they need to worship him anyway in order to be a good person.

  3. All that fictional religious mash is just useless. In the first century AD what did they know from a virus? It is all about as helpful as Donald Trump at the news conference any day. In fact, Rachael Maddow has said the networks should stop covering Trump at these virus news conferences because he is doing damage with all the lies and half truths coming out of his mouth.

    1. To me an even better reason not to watch is the sycophant vice president evoking Trump’s name every third sentence.

  4. For once, instead of having all the answers, he says “We don’t know. For me, this is the most honest and accurate answer.”
    In trying to be honest and accurate it sounds like he took page out of a scientific journal.

  5. The relationship between a putative Supreme Being and human beings is a greater divide than the divide between human beings and flies. What is a good human from the perspective of a fly? What ethical duties does a person owe a fly or a mosquito?

    If there is a God, then God is only “good” in the sense that God gave rise to humans, and humans invented a “good”, and while God would be the Father of Good and Evil, it would be more becoming of a Supreme Being to call it “good” and not “bad”.

    I suppose that’s the point of the Incarnation trick, but how does a Supreme Being, existing timelessly, eternally, incarnate? Trying to make sense of incarnation is a much harder trick than absolving God for the existence of evil. Its like folding a n-dimensional handkerchief into your pocket.

    1. While obviously, the nature of the “Good” is the preserve of the philosophers, the nature of morality is to privilege the interests of the survival of the enduring group over the happiness, self interest, and even survival of members of that group.

      When an enduring group’s morality strays from the need to ensure group survival, life has an interesting way of replacing that group with another group more intent on preserving its way of life.

      “Morality” only makes sense in the context of a social animal facing choices and pressures to choose between loyalty to the group and cooperation and self interest, especially when it comes down to a choice between group survival and individual survival.

      A Supreme Being is not part of a community that depends upon mutual cooperation to survive, there is only supposed to be one, and an uncaused cause has no concerns about survival. Even if you posit the Trinity as some kind of community, obviously, the Son and the Holy Spirit can’t conspire to kill the Father and take control the way Alexander might conspire against Philip. The philosophers can decide if God can be “good” or not, but God is by nature “ammoral”, beyond Good and Evil.

      1. Here is William Craig Lane’s “argument” against an amoral God:

        Another way to see that God cannot be an amoral being is by reflecting on the fact that God is, by definition, a being which is worthy of worship. Nothing amoral is worthy of worship. Hence, God, if He exists, must be good.

        But only a social animal with reasoning skills can be a “moral being”, and a social animal is by nature dependent on other animals to cooperate with him or her to survive, ergo, any moral being is not the greatest being imaginable, and any God must be amoral.

        Plus, a moral God would be constrained and defined by a moral duty above him or herself, in accordance with the Euthyphro dilemma.

        No, even Fortuna exists beyond Good and Evil, any “good” God would rank below the charms of Fortuna.

        Imitatio Dei would seem to urge something much more Nietzschean than Nazarene.

  6. The Bethesda model of care for the sick: First one in the pool gets healed, everyone else gets screwed. Ironically, because God is an idiot, the healthiest would win the race since they can run faster.

  7. Oh the lengths that believers will go to make excuses for their imaginary friend. As a former believer (only thanks to childhood indoctrination), all of one’s cognitive dissonance evaporates once one abandons the infantile god (sky daddy) idea, and accepts that all there is is the natural world. When you hold that all there is is the natural world as your world view, everything……absolutely everything makes sense.

  8. Where is god during a pandemic? Well, just ask yourself: “Where is Santa Claus?” Oddly enough, the answer is exactly the same.

  9. “We don’t know.”

    Well so much for the idea that where science solves ‘how’ questions, but religion is there for the ‘why’.

    1. Incidentally, the Russian Orthodox Church in Germany has just published its opinion that the Covid 19 virus is God’s punishment for allowing euthanasia, transsexuality, abortion, and surrogate motherhood.

  10. Hello

    I am of the Catholic faith, although my beliefs have always been a bit shaky because I ask too many questions. Anyway, it should be obvious to most people now with half a brain cell on active duty that evolution and survival of the fittest is a FACT, borne out by the FACT that the coronavirus is picking off the sickest and most vulnerable in society. I am one of the 1.5 million UK residents who have just effectively been placed under house arrest for 12 weeks because we are at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19. I do not see this God that these priests blather on about, and their ‘jam tomorrow’/ Heavenly kingdom shtick now rings very hollow indeed. It is pure fantasyland, put forward by people who dont really know what else to do with their lives. This God of theirs gives me no comfort in this terrible time. Today I cried in private like I never have before: it was like a sort of wounded howl. Somehow, I have to find the strength to face potential premature death I am 49) whilst coping with being imprisoned in my house for 3 months (or more), AND trying to keep it together and be strong for my parents, both of whom are in their 70s. These priests have NO ANSWER to coronavirus, except to say its Gods punishment on us all. Well, they can keep their God.

  11. “…and it’s a question that saints and theologians have grappled with for millenniums.”

    Well, after millenniums of grappling, don’t ya think it might be time to realize the easiest and obvious answer to your question: there is no god, never has been and never will be. Problem solved. You’re welcome.

  12. It’s amazing how many theological puzzles are solve by the simple proposition “Your God doesn’t exist.”

    The clarity this brings to one’s view of the world is so gratifying in of itself, it’s a wonder more people don’t avail themselves of the thought.

    As for Jesus being someone to emulate in a crises like this: As I mentioned in the other thread, Christians cherry pick the one part of their story where Jesus can be depicted as doing anything (e.g. miracle curing a few people).

    What they leave out is the part of their story that Jesus is supposed to STILL BE HERE, just in supernatural form. Jesus is aware of every tragedy, every natural disaster, every plague that ever killed untold numbers of people, and given the astounding amounts of suffering and death, the evidence is that Jesus doesn’t lift a damned finger to help anyone. THAT, in the long haul, is his modus operandi, the signal of his character.

    Jesus has let more people suffer and die on his watch than any non-sociopathic human could dream of allowing. And we are supposed to use his behavior as standard for humane action?

    How about using the actions of actual human beings who palpably act to help other human beings in trouble. Those people are the proper objects of moral praise and emulation, not the God who sits “with folded arms” watching the suffering occur.

  13. “Where is God in a pandemic?”
    Let me take a crack at that one: MIAAU
    (missing in action as usual).

    Further, we might as well get people to realize our shared predicament: don’t bother praying, it won’t do shit.

  14. A more subtle question is why to good things happen to bad people?

    I suppose the ‘answer’ is also ‘we don’t know’ which then invites the question ‘Why are you so certain then about sin such as adultery, fornication, long hippy hair and not bearing false witness, rock music (etc.)?’

  15. If Jesus was God, he knew that the only way to prove his divinity is to explain why he allows the existence of natural evil. Miracles prove nothing because there is no way to tell if the being performing the miracle is benevolent or malignant.

  16. … consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication …

    Wait, the Vatican’s got something called a “Dicastery”?

    Good thing they didn’t teach us about that in parochial grade school. No doubt I’d’ve taken an ass whippin’ from the nuns for making puerile wisecracks about that.

  17. “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?” Yep, you hit the nail right on the head there Jerry, you don’t.

    Believing God is good and omnipotent, but also lets millions suffer must would make anyone’s head hurt. Therefore, the religious wrap the argument in so many layers of supposition, invention and confirmation bias that they can no longer keep it in working memory. This helps reduce their cognitive dissonance, which with luck, may prevent their head exploding. But it also demonstrates the arduous mental gymnastics and self-trickery required to maintain that belief.

    William of Occam, who was a pious and religious man, left us with a very useful rule of thumb for solving real problems – it works by starting with the simplest explanation when solving a problem – one based on the least assumptions. As you probably know, this is called Occam’s Razor. Unfortunately, modern theologians rely on a different rule of thumb; one which requires supposition, wishful thinking and generally just making stuff up. A more apppropriate label would be Occam’s Bulldozer.

    1. Occam’s Teflon
      Occam’s ‘Look! Squirrel!’

      Or, of course, “Since God exists, using Occam’s Razor in a religious explanation is unnecessary”

  18. “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
    ― Epicurus’ 2300-year-old mic drop

  19. Religion is a part of culture, like it or not. You don’t have to believe, but if you are going to comment, you kind of have an obligation to be at least somewhat informed. Years ago, Yale law professor Stephen Carter, a progressive Episcopal laymen, wrote a wonderful book, The Culture of Disbelief, lamenting the basic ignorance most Americans have about what various denominations, factions, and religious subcultures believe and how dangerous it is when people make ill-informed generalizations because they lack such knowledge. This includes a large swath of the press corp. That is a lot of what is at work in these comments.

    It’s one thing to be an atheist or skeptic, but if you are going to comment, you should at least have all the facts. Most of these posts show a basic ignorance about who believes what, who said what and what the author’s intent was.

    James Martin is a Jesuit priest and a progressive Catholic. You can say that’s a contradiction in terms? Then maybe you never heard of Frs. Dan and Phil Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, or Henri Nouwen. Martin wrote a book on the need for full acceptance of LGBTQ+ Catholics in the church. He is managing editor of America Magazine, a Jesuit periodical. He routinely writes about social justice issues, matters of war and peace, and the need for deep-seated structural and economic change. And he is hardly a grifter!

    Martin did NOT say that non-Christians and non-believers can not do the right thing and no one I know believes that. He simply said that Jesus can be a role model for people and that that can and might include those for whom he is not “true God and true man.” It was an invitation. As far as whether it is “worthy of the Times”: is it “unworthy” simply because you don’t like it? The Times has always represented a variety of opinions, especially in its op-ed section. Feel free to skip over it next time.

    Jim Bakker is a grifter. Martin is not. If you are putting them in the same bin, you are just plain ignorant.

    1. No, sir, you are the ignorant one, and a braying jackass as well. Most people on this site know a lot more about religion than believers do. Nobody equates Bakker with Martin, and certainly I didn’t. But religionists, including the “progressive” believers, are all prone to believing in stuff without evidence. That is, they have faith. There is not an iota of evidence for a wonder-working Jesus outside scripture; indeed, there’s no evidence for a person on whom the Jesus myth was based outside of scripture. And, of course, there’s no evidence for A god, except in the minds of those who WANT to believe.

      Another reason you’re a jackass is because you argue that I shouldn’t criticize delusions like Martin’s–just ‘skip over it’. Well, why didn’t you skip over my post rather than write such a long comment? Why didn’t you just skip over my post. The reason I didn’t skip Martin’s is because faith itself, even as evinced by a “sophisticated” believer, is dangerous.

      Most of us took the “religion” test some site ran a while back, and most of us did immensely better than did believers themselves. That’s because many of the commenters here were once believers, but gave up religion for one reason or another. Most pervasive was probably because there’s simply no evidence for any kind of God, and such a belief is one thing that Martin and Bakker have in common.

      As Mark Twain said, who had a lot more sense than you seem to, “Faith is believing in what you know ain’t so.” Before you start going after the readers here, you could have spent some time educating yourself about the level of religious understanding most of us have. But no, you barge in here like a bull, or rather, like the jackass you are. You will bray no more on this site.

      Oh, and you’re rude as well. Not very Christian of you . . .

  20. P.S., I attend a Catholic church in downtown Brooklyn, operated by the Oratorian friars. You would be hard-pressed, I would guess, to find a single parishioner who does not accept the theory of evolution and FYI, the last several popes have affirmed its truth. Yes, we still believe in an immortal soul, but you won’t find it by looking under a miscroscope.

    1. Oy vey, more braying An immortal soul? Where’s the evidence for that, Gary B.? Answer: THERE IS NONE.

      Also, although the Catholic church purports to accept evolution. 27% of Catholics are young-earth creationists, despite what their church says. Not only that, but Catholics believe that all humans descend from a single ancestral couple–Adam and Eve. Belief in that, according to the Catholic Catechism, is NOT OPTIONAL. But science tells us that we don’t descend from an ancestral couple like that. Without that truth, the idea of Original Sin goes out the window. Catholicism is one of the craziest of all the Christian faiths, believing in Hell, the fact that a homosexual act, if unconfessed, is a grave sin that will send you to hell, and all kinds of guilt-inducing nonsense like making divorce impossible to get.

      Face it, pal, if you adhere to the kind of Catholicism the Vatican promotes, you’re adhering not just to an antiscience delusion, but to a dangerous one.

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