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Friday, January 04, 2008

Where is God when things hurt us badly?

Theresia hugged her knees. "It hurts," she said again.
"Why has God abandoned us?" Gregor asked.
Dietrich tried to pry Theresia's arm loose so he could lance the last pustule. He did not think that it mattered. "God will never abandon us," he insisted, "but we may abandon God."
The mason swept his arm wide, relinquishing his grip on Theresia's shoulder. "Then where is He in all this?" he shouted. Theresia flinched at the bellow and he immediately took a more tender note and stroked her hair with his great stubby fingers.
Dietrich thought of all the reasoned arguments, of Aquinas and the other philosophers. He wondered how Joachim would have answered. Then he thought that Gregor did not need an answer, did not want an answer, or that the only answer was hope. Michael Flynn, Eifelheim. New York: Tor, p. 297.

"Katherine," Roche called.
. . . "What is it?" she demanded.
He looked at her solemnly. "We must not give up hope," he said.
"Why not?" she burst out. "We're up to eighty-five percent, and we haven't even got started. The clerk is dying, Rosemund's dying, you've all been exposed. Why shouldn't I give up hope?"
"God has not abandoned us utterly," he said. "Agnes is safe in His arms."
Safe, she thought bitterly. In the ground. In the cold. In the dark. She put her hands up to her face.
"She is in heaven, where the plague cannot reach her. And God's love is ever with us," he said, "and naught can separate us from it, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor things present -- "
"Nor things to come," Kivrin said.
"Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature," he said. He put his hand on her shoulder, gently, as if he were anointing her. "It was his love that sent you to help us."
She put her hand up to his where it rested on her shoulder and held it tightly. "We must help each other," she said. Connie Willis, Doomsday Book. New York: Bantam, 1992, p. 381.

These were, and are, important science-fiction novels. Eifelheim was a nominee for the Hugo Award in 2007. Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Although both are clearly legitimate science fiction works, the crisis of faith posed by the title of this post is a central part of each book, and, in both cases, one of the things that hurts badly is the black plague in Europe of the 1300s. They both present answers. In Eifelheim, it is God's love, expressed through the unselfish love of fellow creatures, hope of heaven, and hope of ultimate redemption. In Doomsday Book, it is God's love, and that love expressed through the unselfish love of fellow creatures.

Thanks for reading.

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January 8: I have received some comments, for which I am grateful. I have responded to one of those comments in this subsequent post (which includes the entire comment), and to another.

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Added Jan 21, 2008: I have come to see that there is a serious omission in my musing on this subject, which I have attempted to repair with a fourth post on the subject.

11 comments:

C. Marie Byars said...

Hey, thanks for visiting my site! I looked at your older postings on evolution. I once left a long guest book posting on an evolutionary website. I explained the detailed scientific reasons why I had discarded the theory of evolution, on its own lack of merits back when I had been an agnostic. That's one thing that makes you aware of how much this whole evolutionary thing is really a philosophy---any time someone questions the theory, it can only be because they're a "naive & ignorant creationist". I think the theory will eventually fall due to its own lack of merits, but probably quicker if scientists don't feel on the defensive, as if they're preserving the fortress of reason from the marauding "ignorant forces of creationists" (as they are wont to see creationists).

C. Marie Byars said...

BTW--When I get time, I need to figure out a quick way to link blogs to mine. Can you tell me over on one of my sites? Also, would you want to be linked!

Martin LaBar said...

I tried to answer your second comment on one of your blogs.

As to the first comment, before rejecting "evolution," (or accepting it) the first step should be to define what is meant by the term. I have never read a scientist, of any religious persuasion, who doubts that natural selection works, at least in the development of new varieties or races over time. Therefore, evolution, in that sense, at least, must be true.

Thanks for your comments.

David B. Ellis said...


They both present answers. In Eifelheim, it is God's love, expressed through the unselfish love of fellow creatures, hope of heaven, and hope of ultimate redemption.


Hope? That sounds more like a coping mechanism than an actual answer to the problem of evil (or problem of unnecessary suffering, as I think its better called).

The "answer" in DOOMSDAY BOOK is even worse:


The question: why does a loving God allow terrible suffering he could easily prevent?

nonanswer: God loves us.

questioner: That doesn't address my question. If he loves us, WHY does he allow terrible suffering?

nonanswer: God loves us. 'Nuff said.



There's no answer in that. Just an unwillingness to actually face the challenge extreme suffering presents to the reasonableness of belief in a caring God.

Of course, in the passage you quoted from the book the actual question that was raised was whether one should go on struggling in the face of terrible odds.

The reasonable answer, of course, is yes. A 1% chance is better than the odds for just giving up, which is, of course, ) 0%.

One doesn't need belief in God for that. Just common sense.

David B. Ellis said...


I think the theory will eventually fall due to its own lack of merits


All I can say is, then I think you ought to re-examine the evidence.

I was a creationist when I first examined the evidence for evolution---and the creationist arguments against it---so any bias I had was strongly in favor of creationism.

I see no way a reasonable person could conclude evolution isnt a fact.

Evolution (and abiogenesis) are, of course, no obstacle to belief in God---only to a literal interpretation of Genesis. There's no reason to assume that if God exists, he didn't design the universe so that life would emerge through natural processes (other, of course, than the problem of evil---but if you aren't swayed by other instances of unnecessary suffering to doubt the existence of a caring God I see no reason the inherent cruelty of the evolutionary process should cause one to doubt).

If you're interested in sharing them here, I'd be glad to discuss your reasons for thinking evolutionary theory untenable. I won't speak for him, but maybe Martin would too.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, David B. Ellis. Yes, I would be happy to discuss evolution, too.

Martin LaBar said...

I think you are right in saying that these are coping mechanisms, not answers. Here's one take on this:

"I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?" C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, p. 308.

In other words, God's love is the answer. Thanks for your comment.

David B. Ellis said...

The whole question is WHY if God loves human beings he stands by inactive while they undergo horrible unnecessary agonies.

Such behavior is not consistent with a loving nature.

The religious skeptic is able to give a clear and credible answer to the question of why a loving God would allow such suffering:

Because he's fictional.

Theism, on the other hand, has been able to give no credible answer.

Simply restating your premise that God loves us does nothing to address this question---one of the most puzzling of issues that theism must address.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you, David B. Ellis.

Your comments deserve a complete post in response, and I am working on one. I make no guarantee as to how satisfactory you will find it.

George DW said...

You know, I just got Doomsday Book for Christmas, and I read Eifelheim last summer. Both excellent books.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, George DW.

Critics, and the public, seem to agree. They are splendid.