A Response to David Wood, Part 2

In our debate on suffering David Wood mentioned that his “arguments are by no means the only arguments that theists would offer in response to evil." He said "There are entire categories of answers that I won’t be using.” Mr. Wood claimed that the classical theistic position has “probably the strongest response to the problem of evil.” According to Mr. Wood, classical theists (like Thomas Aquinas) didn’t think of God as a personal “moral agent.” When they said God is good, “they didn’t mean that God is an extremely well-behaved person.” In his review of the debate, David said this: “…for classical theists, God is not a person, nor does he have emotions like humans. God isn’t like us at all. A classical theist would reject a concept of God which views him as the sort of being who would come to our rescue when we’re in danger, for this wouldn’t be a changeless, eternal being (and, according to the classical theist, sheer anthropomorphism).”

In our debate, and in his review itself, Mr. Wood mentions this view without arguing for it, so there was nothing I had to respond to, even now. However, I still want to take a look at it.

I'll skip a critque of the classical concept of an eternally unchanging God, since Christians themselves are rejecting such a notion. Suffice it to say that the whole notion that God doesn’t change seems to imply that God never has a new thought, or idea, since everything is an eternal NOW, and there is nothing he can learn. This is woodenly static. God would not be person, of course. But he would end up being a block of ice, a thing. To say he does nothing NEW, thinks nothing NEW, feels nothing NEW, basically means he does nothing, thinks nothing, feels nothing, for it’s all been done. What would it mean for a such a being not to take risks (since the outcome is sure), not to plan (for it’s already been planned), or to think (thinking involves weighing temporal alternatives, does it not?). But if God cannot have a new thought then he cannot think--he is analogous to a block of ice.

The classical theist’s position is defended today by Brian Davies, in his book An Introduction the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press, 1993). Davies questions “whether the theist is bound to regard God as morally good,” and writes, “if the problem of evil depends on thinking of God as a morally good agent and if theists do not have to regard him as such, then the problem is not necessarily a problem for belief in God.”(p. 48) Davies is correct, I think, to say that if the classical theist’s God is not a morally good agent then the problem of evil is a “pseudo-problem,” in exactly the same way that Process theologians do away with the problem of evil by arguing that God is not omnipotent. That’s because in order for there to be a problem of evil theists must first believe that their God is morally good, omnipotent and omniscient in some sense. Lacking these characteristics in a God makes the problem of evil pretty much null and void, although, as I'll argue, there is a price to pay for this view.

Davies makes a distinction between God being known as “good” from God being known as “morally good.” He argues God can be known to be good without also being morally good. What does the word “good” mean when applied to God? Davies writes that “it is implausible to hold that moral goodness is the only goodness there is. There are good chairs, good radios, good dinners, good essays, good books, good poems, good maps, good all sort of things.” So the only way we can know whether or not God is morally good would be to understand the context of the word “good” when applied to God. Theists will typically claim God is a person, and like other persons he should at least be as good as we are when we act good. But Davies argues the phrase “God is a person” “does not occur anywhere in the Bible.” And neither does the Bible say that the Trinity being made up of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are “persons” or a “person” either. Even if theists still want to say “God is personal” Davies claims there is something “odd” in thinking God is morally good, “for if we are talking of the maker and sustainer of creatures, must it not, rather, be true that God can be neither morally good nor morally bad?” “To deem an agent to be morally good, we need positive grounds for attributing to that agent virtue or obedience to duty or obligation. And this, of course, means that if something is such that virtue or obedience to duty or obligation cannot be intelligibly attributed to it, we have no reason to think of it as either morally good or morally bad. (p. 49). Davies goes on to argue that God has no obligations or duties to his creature since he is the creator of them all. Only creatures have obligations and duties to their creator and to each other. God is not bound by any moral laws to his creatures. “If anything, it should be said that God must be the cause of duties and obligations, for, if God is the creator, he must be the cause of there being situations in which people have such things. (p. 52).

Roy F. Holland argues in a similar fashion in his article, “On the Form of the Problem of Evil” Against Empiricism: On Education, Epistemology, and Value (Barnes & Nobles Books, 1980). Holland claims that “God is not a member of a moral community, or any community for that matter,” and since moral obligations are only to be found within moral communities, God does not have any moral obligations.

What can be said about these responses to the problem of evil? In the first place, what must be understood about them are that they are all concessionary solutions, that is, they concede that the problem of evil is a powerful argument. So to escape the conclusion of the argument these theists must give up believing God has one or more of the characteristics traditionally ascribed to him, like moral agency, moral goodness, omnipotence and/or omniscience. That’s quite a concession. It’s a concession I’m very pleased to see them admit.

In the second place, the Christian theist has a new problem. It's one I expressed in the debate itself, and it comes from John Beversluis who has argued, that “If the word ‘good’ must mean approximately the same thing when we apply it to God as what it means when we apply it to human beings, then the fact of suffering provides a clear empirical refutation of the existence of a being who is both omnipotent and perfectly good. If on the other hand, we are prepared to give up the idea that ‘good’ in reference to God means anything like what it means when we refer to humans as good, then the problem of evil can be sidestepped, but any hope of a rational defense of the Christian God goes by the boards.” [C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Eerdmans, 1985)].

The reason why a rational defense of the Christian God goes by the boards is because of the kind of God they are left with by conceding the argument from evil. What kind of God are they left with? That’s the question. They have a non-personal God who is not a moral agent. As such this God has no moral obligations to his creatures. This non-personal God can almost be equated with the “Force” of the Star Wars movie (which is neither good nor evil), and as such IT is amoral in our sense of the word, which is the only sense of the word we can rationally know.

This God does not have moral obligations toward his creatures and therefore he can do whatever he wants to us for his own ends and his own glory. If I were to ask whether this God has any obligation to love us, then the answer would be “No.” If I were to ask whether this God has any obligation to tell us the truth, then the answer would be “No.” If I were to ask if this God is under any obligation to help us when we suffer, then the answer would be “No.” Why then does the believer think God loves us, or that he tells us the truth, or that he will help us when we suffer? The believer will answer that God freely chooses to do so. What reasons does the Christian believer have for answering this way? They will answer that God has shown us he loves us in Jesus Christ.

Now there are plenty of reasons for rejecting the claim that Jesus is God, or that his death atoned for our sins, and that he resurrected from the grave. But even if these superstitious claims can be accepted, which are implausible at best, what reason do we have for thinking that God tells us the truth in Jesus, or that Jesus’ death on the cross helps us, or that he will come to our aid when we are suffering? If God has no obligations toward us then what reason does anyone have for thinking Jesus helped us, or that the Bible is a true account of why his death helps us, or why God will help us in our suffering, or keep any of his promises to us? By this very logic God does not have any obligation toward us at all, so even if he did freely choose to show us he cared for us in the ancient past, what reason do we have for supposing he still cares for us? I see none. None based upon the logic of the classical theists viewpoint, that is.

In the third place, what sense can be made that God is not a person when Christians try to understand the incarnation of a purported God-man, Jesus? What sense can be made of such a God-man who both had no moral obligations as a non-moral divine agent, and at the same time had human obligations? How can this purported God-man represent one being, who is both personal and impersonal, who has no obligations and yet has obligations?

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, such a concept of God is also inadequate as an object of worship. I might fear him, but then I fear a bully with a baseball bat in his hands too. Such a being is untrustworthy. I cannot believe a single word he speaks. For all that Christians would know, the Bible is not true, the events never occurred, and we would be deceived by this God if we believed it. Nor do I have any guarantees such a being loves me and will help me when I suffer, no matter what I hear him say or see him do. As far as I know from this world, I am just a rat in a maze, or an ant in an ant farm, or a human guinea pig. That’s all, as far as I know, from the logic of the position espoused. I will never worship such a being. If I believed such a Being existed I would probably obey out of fear, but if such a Being could read my thoughts then he would also know I'm rebelling against him as I do.

There is one thing more about this classical view though. It admits what we actually find in the Bible. It admits what I see in the Bible, and the God in the Bible is barbaric.

No wonder then that Christian theologians beginning with Anselm have adopted what's called perfect being theology. Since a proper concept of God must entail he is "the greatest conceivable being," that means God must be omnibenelovent, omnipotent and omniscient. Anything less than this isn't a proper concept of God worthy of worship. However, as classical theology reminds us, maybe God's omnibenelovence cannot be found in the Bible after all! Therein lies the final problem for the Christian theist. Can he have it both ways?

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