Several friends have recommended Martin Gardner’s review of Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem in the New Criterion, the brilliant journal of principled culture criticism. Gardner, a math and science writer, lays out a Leibnizian explanation for life-destroying natural disasters: Any human-supportive universe which God created must obey physical laws in order to continue functioning; those laws cannot be suspended, even to prevent mass slaughter by earthquake or individual loss by car accident. “If God were obliged to prevent all accidents that kill or injure, he would have to be constantly poking his fingers into millions of events around the globe. History would turn into a chaos of endless miracles,” writes Gardner.
Perhaps this argument is a compelling answer to Ehrman’s argument for the irreconcilability of a benevolent God and human suffering (I haven’t read Ehrman’s book), but it strikes me almost irrelevant to actual religious practice and belief. The vast majority of Christians, guided by their priests and pastors, assume a loving God who intervenes regularly in human affairs. Christians pray to God to cure them from cancer or protect them from a plane crash. (Intermediaries are also useful: A soon-to-be closed Catholic school in Brooklyn is called Our Lady of Perpetual Help, presumably because She does provide perpetual help, but not in this case.) A politician and Baptist minister in Kentucky is promoting a law requiring the state’s office of homeland security to display a plaque that reads: “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.” Apparently God is not just a co-founder of the United States but also a federalist, honoring state boundaries in his on again, off again solicitude for the country.
Gardner argues that were God to start preventing some deadly accidents, he would have to prevent all such accidents, resulting in chaos. The reality is far worse than that. Since believers give credit to God for answering their prayers when they are saved from catastrophe or illness, they have to explain why he answered their prayers and not those other people’s prayers, why he saved these children from a tsunami and not those other children. Any believer who today thanks God for making sure that his coronary bypass operation was successful has to explain why God allowed at least 37 peasants to be buried in a Guatemalan landslide on Sunday. Such an explanation requires either extraordinary narcissism on the believer’s part or positing capricious injustice on the part of God.
While I am more sympathetic to Gardner’s semi-stripped-down theism than to the full-blown Christian account of a loving, personal, prayer-answering God, the enterprise of trying to logically determine God’s intentions and actions by the use of reason strikes me as questionable, whatever its august pedigree. The gulf that surely yawns between a being that is self-created and that created all of reality (even if such causal concepts apply to God) and our feeble mentation precludes any confidence that what we deem as logically necessary and thus binding on God actually does bind him or has the slightest relevance to him. And why even posit as starting concepts goodness and justice? Those are human desires and values. They may be wholly irrelevant to something as massive and impenetrable as God. Gardner seems to embrace a logical argument for the afterlife (proposition three below), since it is more consistent with a good, omnipotent God than several alternative propositions:
1. God is unable to provide an afterlife, in which case his power seems unduly limited.
2. God can provide an afterlife but chooses not to, in which case his goodness is tarnished.
3. God is both able and willing to provide an afterlife.
If we’re going this far and attributing both will and ability to God, I see no reason why Gardner should not specify whether we get free will and justice in that afterlife, which he abjures doing.