Saturday, April 6, 2013

Predicament of Belief - Part 2

This is entry #2 on Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp's The Predicament of Belief (find #1 a few days ago here).  Chapters 2 and 3 aim to show that it is reasonable to believe that Ultimate Reality is in fact personal, and that the problem of evil does not overwhelm us with reasons to the contrary.  But I suspect most readers of this blog would think that they are going to an awful lot of trouble to argue for such minimal claims.  One of the features of this book, however, is that it is born out of significant engagement with those outside of our normal Christian communities.  Far too much of our Christian "apologetics" is done within our bubbles where we suggest what problems those people on the outside might have, and give solutions to those problems, which results in the inside people nodding their heads in agreement--while the outside people are never given the chance to respond.  We've satisfied ourselves that we've responded definitively to the problems.  Isn't it curious, then, that it is fairly rare that the outsiders overhear our conversations and say, "Oh, I see now.  I'll change my mind completely and enter into your bubble."

In my Logic and Critical Thinking class, I've probably said ten times this semester (with more to come), "If you get only one thing out of this class, I want it to be that critical thinkers acknowledge, understand, and respond to the best objections to their positions."  That's what Clayton and Knapp are trying to do in this book.  In responding to the problem of evil, they confront, motivate, and empathize with the version that is sometimes called the "argument from neglect".  The problem here is not that there is evil in the world.  That seems to be the consequence of free will (for instances of people doing evil things) and of the kind of dynamic environment necessary for sustaining life (for instances of natural evils, like hurricanes and earthquakes).  But rather, the argument from neglect says, "an all-powerful God who cares about us has a pretty abysmal record of inaction in the face of these evils."  Maybe God isn't going override Hitler's freewill and prevent him from trying to kill a bunch of Jews; but why doesn't God at least help more Jews escape?  Or maybe God needs to let nature to take its course and allow the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 to occur; but why not warn the 250,000 people hanging out on the beaches who were swept away?

One of the currently fashionable responses to this predicament is to say that God has reasons for allowing such things, and we probably can't figure them out.  Think of a small child whose little world is often frustrated by adults who take away a lollipop or even administer corporal punishment.  Those children probably can't understand why those things happen, even if the adult may be acting in what is ultimately their best interest.  Maybe God is like that, and we're the children who can't understand.

OK, granted, that is a possibility, say Clayton and Knapp.  But it is not convincing in the least to people on the outside.  Because for them, the amount of inaction by God to prevent or lessen evils is too overwhelming.    Sure, we might each have our personal examples of when God has intervened and aided in some situation.  But from the outside, we've not been fair in acknowledging the times when God hasn't done that.  And from their perspective the percentages come out roughly to what what we would expect by coincidences.  So Clayton and Knapp are driven to a principle that they call "not even once".  They think that God doesn't directly intervene in the physical structure of the world (though God does intervene in the mental realm).  If we were to allow that God stepped in and prevented your loved one from dying in the car accident, then we have to ask why God didn't step in and prevent someone else's loved one from dying in their car accident.  If God does it for some, then why doesn't God do it for all?

That's the really tough question to answer.  The conservative Christians won't like the answer Clayton and Knapp give.  But they're OK with that, because they're not trying to answer the objections of the conservative Christians.  They are trying to answer those who think the notion of God is absurd.  Their's is a way to answer them.


D.C. Cramer said...

"Conservativism" aside, how does the "not even once" principle jive with the orthodox view of the incarnation? Is this a new-wave deism or is there more to it?

D.C. Cramer said...

Or, given Clayton's post at Claremont, maybe the "not even once" principle reflects a commitment to process theology?

Jonny Schult said...

Nate (Loucks) and I talk about these issues often. This post reminded me of a conversation Nate and I had on prayer. We decided we can make sense of effective prayer and God intervening in to prevent natural evils if he does it every time or never, unfortunately neither of those seem to be the case so we fail to understand. I want to read this book.