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Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Lesser God

The gods of Dungeons & Dragons can be pretty disappointing. In the Player's Handbook they might look cool, but in practice they aren't terribly awe-inspiring. Like depictions of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, in novels and actual game play they tend to come across as merely superhuman. They can be petty, jealous, and volatile, and there is wrangling among them for primacy over domains of influence. This is far from the kind of deity that comes to mind for people in the western world when 'God' is the topic. Generally the popular conception now is of an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful creator. This is problematic, because then what do we do about evil?

In D&D the problem is simple to resolve. The gods aren't necessarily good, aware of everything in the universe, or have power over anything outside their immediate domain (magic, decay, war, etc). In the worldview of historic Christian monotheism (I dare not attempt to include Judaism or Islam, where I have no standing to comment meaningfully) God stands outside of history, viewing it from beginning to end like a parade seen from a tall building, as Boethius described it in The Consolation of Philosophy. At the same time, God is immanent, meaning that he his right here with us at all times, in each moment. This understanding of a supreme being has long been challenged by a simple formula:

  • God is all good (omnibenevolent)
  • God is all-knowing (omniscient)
  • God is all-powerful (omnipotent)
  • Evil exists
One of those four is not like the others.

For God to be omnibenevolent, God would have to always do the good and right thing all all times. For God to be omniscient, God would have to know everything that was, is, or ever will be. For God to be omnipotent, God would have to be able to do or resolve absolutely anything. These three must hang together for the standard conception of God in the western world to hold up. The fly in the ointment is that bad things happen. There are natural disasters, from eruptions to tsunamis and beyond, that can kill thousands in short order. Those we perceive as a sort of mindless evil. There is also the intentional evil that people do to one another. 

It's common for people to argue that natural disasters are either punishment from God, as Pat Robertson likes to tell us, or else that they happen for reasons beyond our understanding. Well, isn't that convenient. The fact is that an completely loving God who knows our pain and can do anything could certainly do away with landslides that bury families in their homes, and he could stop leukemia from taking a 8 year old's life. If such a being existed, that God would most certainly arrange circumstances better for human life. If there were a God, natural evil wouldn't be quite so 'mindless.' Either it was caused or not prevented, but either way a supreme being made a decision.

Among conservative Christians the additional case is made that we were created to live in paradise, but were cursed because of the sin of Adam and Eve. The difficulty there is that the story is a myth, and the archeological record shows that our species arose from natural circumstances, as did all life. There was never a point where there were two first parents of our species. If so, the inbreeding would have killed us out in the first few generations. The world is as it has been since life first arose and throughout evolutionary history: geologically unstable, prone to storms, and often unpredictable. 

As for the evils of humankind, those are chalked up to free will. Somehow we're supposed to believe that the free will of mere mortals can somehow thwart the divine will. It's apparently terribly important that humans have free will and be capable of torturing animals or exploiting the vulnerable, because it's only with free will that we can properly choose to know and love God. It is baffling to me that I ever believed such things.

Aside from the solutions above, another way of cracking the god vs evil nut is to modify some part of the formula. In open theism, a system I held to for perhaps a year or two before my evangelical faith ended, it's believed that God is omnibenevolent and omniscient, but that God created the world in such a way that not even God knows the future perfectly. Such a limit eases the pressure on the question of evil, but only by altering the formula. The same thing happens with process theology, where God is understood to be participating in history, but only through influence. Direct miracles really aren't on the table. 

Even Moses, the greatest of the prophets, is told that he can’t see God’s face, but can only catch a glimpse of God’s back as he passes by. At another point, God responds to Moses’ request to know his name (that is, his nature) by telling him “ehi’eh asher ehi’eh” —“I will be what I will be.” In most English-language Bibles this is translated “I am that I am,” following the Septuagint, which sought to bring the biblical text into line with the Greek tradition (descended from Xenophanes, Parmenides and Plato’s “Timaeus”) of identifying God with perfect being. But in the Hebrew original, the text says almost exactly the opposite of this: The Hebrew “I will be what I will be” is in the imperfect tense, suggesting to us a God who is incomplete and changing. In their run-ins with God, human beings can glimpse a corner or an edge of something too immense to be encompassed, a “coming-into-being” as God approaches, and no more. The belief that any human mind can grasp enough of God to begin recognizing perfections in him would have struck the biblical authors as a pagan conceit. — Yoram Hazony, 'An Imperfect God'

What troubles me about every attempt to resolve the problem of evil by modifying some part of the aforementioned formula is that it looks like wanting to have one's cake and eat it too. I can't imagine someone being converted to the god of process theology without having first run into the problem of pain. It's an alternative theism, and not fit to serve as primary if the only other option were non-theism. For better or worst, the god of Hellenistic philosophy is the default conceptualization, and everything else is less-than. 

Really, how would the world be different if there were no God, or if God were actually evil? Imagine a God who hates kindness and loves hate. This God has the same parameters as the one people tend to believe in within Christianity, except that this God favors those who maim kill, and destroy. Anyone who works for healing, happiness, and hope is disfavored by this God. Would the world really look any different? I think not.
  • If God isn't all-powerful, intervening only through 'influence,' then how can God be counted on for real help?
  • If God doesn't know everything, then how could be be sure God even hears our prayers?
  • If God is indifferent to us, or even against our goodness, then how is God relevant or worthy of worship?

Looking for a lesser god, thinking it's better than no god, involves a lot of mental gymnastics. Far simpler to set aside a commitment to ideas about gods and view the world as if there were none. Just as the gods of D&D are unimpressive, so to me is any lesser god conceived to resolve the question of evil.