Apologetics: May 2010 Archives

The Author Theodicy

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My friend and sometime co-blogger Wink likes to think of God as the author of creation in a much more literal way than most people do. He sees God as writing a story, with human beings as some of the main characters, and one response he has to the problem of evil is that the story overall justifies certain instances of badness occurring throughout the story.

This also serves as a helpful analogy for him in thinking through the relation between divine sovereignty and human freedom, since the characters in a book can easily have free will of whatever sort you'd like even if every step of their fictional lives is written by an author. Within the story, their choices are all free. They make choices, and those choices need not be determined in any way by anything outside their control (although if it's a story in a deterministic world, then of course something outside their control does determine their actions, and they at most have only compatibilist free will).

It was hard to resist thinking about the author theodicy when I heard this quote on a recent podcast (see writeup here) by the executive producers of Lost:

We're sorry that it happened, but we're not sorry that we did it, and we make no excuses for it. It is a very intense and dark time on the show. Obviously the deaths of these characters provides a tremendous emotional catalyst for the survivors, because now they're at war. The sides were a little hazy before now. Now, there's great clarity. -- Damon Lindelof

Then consider the specific reasoning given:

We felt it was really important that the audience understand that, going into the end of this show, nobody is safe. One of the problems in television is that you innately know that certain characters aren't going to die, and that strips certain shows of their jeopardy. We want there to be a feeling that anything is possible, and that going into the end of the series, that is very much true. There will be some surprising things.

It's the author-theodicy version of a point made by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in sections of their work that I've taught in my history of philosophy intro class. Augustine asks us to consider a painting. There will likely be spots that, taken apart from the whole, would look ugly. But in the context of the whole painting they fit and make the painting itself more beautiful than it would be without them. Aquinas similarly says that the occurrences of evil in the world are indeed intrinsically bad. The fact that they occur is unfortunate, and other things being equal a good God who could prevent them would do so. But other things aren't equal, because the macroscopic picture of the history of the universe (which, of course, goes on forever into eternity according to Aquinas, with evil defeated forever after a certain point) is better as a whole if that evil occurs, even if the microscopic look at just that bit of evil should lead God to declare it bad and worth avoiding.

Lindelof seems to be making a similar point. It's unfortunate that these beloved characters had to die, but they thought things would be best for them to die at this point given the story they are trying to tell. The macroscopic look determines whether it's worth doing. They're not sorry they did it, because of that macroscopic effect. The microscopic look determines whether the event is unfortunate in itself, and in this case they admit that it is. But the macroscopic effect is what matters for storytelling, even if sometimes honesty requires acknowledging the microscopic picture as Lindelof does in this quote.

Jesus the Jew

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Prov 19:17 says those gracious to the poor are lending to God. It's hard for anyone familiar with the New Testament to think about such a statement for very long without being reminded of Jesus' discussion in Matthew 25, where he says, "whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me."

It amazes me how far people will go to find sources outside the Hebrew tradition for some of Jesus' ideas. So many of his statements are steeped in the language and conceptual framework of the Hebrew scripture. The extent of these connections don't often enough get noticed, and not all of them are as obvious as others, but enough of them are transparent enough that I have to wonder if the people who make such statements know the Hebrew scriptures very well.

Christians will look at this example as a proverb in the Hebrew scriptures teaching a principle that would come to be exemplified in Jesus' teaching about himself, with the implication that Jesus is according himself divinity by taking on a feature the Hebrew scriptures reserve for God. But even those more skeptical of such notions should at least admit that Jesus' teachings are so strongly influenced by the Hebrew Bible and that it's contextually insensitive to take Jesus to be primarily something more like a Roman Stoic or an adherent to the teachings of some kind of eastern mysticism. Where there might be similarities there, his actual background, language, and cultural milieu serve as a far better explanation even of the teachings that are fairly distinctive in the gospels and not found with such close parallels such as this one.

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