Commentary Magazine


Contentions

When Man Puts God in the Dock

In response to a piece I wrote on Nietzsche and intrinsic human worth, I heard from a college student, who wrote me this:

We read Nietzsche in philosophy last semester, so it was fun to hear him strongly taken to task. However, while this is a terrific argument about why atheism/agnosticism is an unsustainable world view, my problem with it is that I’ve heard it used too often … as a rebuttal to the Problem of Evil, despite the fact that this doesn’t really do anything to defend our worldview from the Problem of Evil. As a believer, one of the hardest philosophical questions for me to overcome is how can God be perfectly benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent and allow for evil in the world. So, I guess my question is: how do you deal with this problem philosophically as a believer?

That is a very important, difficult, and age-old question, and one I’m planning to respond to in short order. Suffice to say the matter of theodicy is among the more challenging ones for people of faith to grapple with. I should add that as someone whose own pilgrimage of faith has often been marked by intellectual struggles and even, from time to time, doubt, I have great sympathy with the question posed by this student. (C.S. Lewis once referred to the “incurable intellectualism of my approach,” which he meant as no compliment.)

My own view has been to never discourage honest inquiries from anyone, either believers or those who have no religious faith at all. The words of the Lord found in the book of Isaiah — “Come now, let us reason together” — have been something of a touchstone for me. And the examples of anti-intellectualism, and even obscurantism, that one finds within some strands of Christianity have long troubled me.

But over time I have come to some preliminary (and thoroughly unoriginal) conclusions, one of which is that faith, while certainly not at odds with reason, goes well beyond reason. Faith is, after all, “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” in the words of the author of Hebrews. Jesus put it blunter still: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

There is, in other words, something about the nature of faith that requires a leap of faith. One can believe Judaism and Christianity are historical faiths, for example, while also acknowledging that they cannot be proven to be true in an indisputable, scientific, empirical way. That will never happen – and it was never meant to happen.

The second insight into the matter of faith and doubt was underscored to me once again while re-reading Lewis. In one of his essays, when asked to write about the difficulties that people must face in trying to present their faith to modern unbelievers, Lewis said this:

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God is in the dock.

Lewis, perhaps the greatest apologist for the Christian faith in the 20th century, would have been the last person in the world to denigrate a person for asking tough questions about the nature of God. (Lewis, in fact, helped found The Oxford Socratic Club, whose guiding principle came from Socrates, who exhorted men to “follow the argument wherever it led them.” The purpose of the Club was to apply that principle to one particular subject matter – the pros and cons of the Christian religion.)

Still, Lewis was making an important point, which is that questions about faith are one thing; calling into question the fundamental character of God, or acting in arrogant judgment of Him, is something else again.

These are not easy matters to sort through. After all, if one believes some of the actions of God are unjust – for example, God calling for the complete destruction of the Canaanites, including children — that will, for some people, reflect on how they perceive the character of God. Lewis himself, besieged by grief after the death of his wife, gave voice to his own fears. “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”

Some theologians I know found Lewis’s book, and his struggles, to be troubling. I never have and, in fact, I appreciate his candor and honesty. I also took some comfort in the fact that even Lewis was not immune to doubt and to struggles. We shouldn’t pretend these things are virtues; but neither should we deny that they are fully understandable, and in some respects entirely predictable. There is no shame in wrestling with doubt.

In the end, Lewis regained his faith. At the conclusion of A Grief Observed, Lewis quotes his dying wife Joy as telling a chaplain, “I am at peace with God.” She then smiled, but not at Lewis, who ends his book with these words: Poi si torno all eterna Fontana (the words come from Dante and translated mean, “Then unto the eternal fountain she turned.”)

Man was no longer on the bench, and God was no longer in the dock.