July 24, 2019

The Odyssey of Theodicy

I don’t do this very often (in fact, I can’t remember ever doing it, and can’t imagine that I might do it again because I usually think of this sort of thing as artsy and pretentious), but this article was inspired by a recent dream, coupled with a common question that people ask about things like religion, all-powerful God-ness, and prayer very frequently. In this dream of mine, God (yes, the Almighty, big “G” Daddy-Pants, Creator of all the cosmos Himself) appeared to this group of folks that I was a part of, as a young kid of around the age of ten or so.* The purpose for his modest apparition seemed to be to attempt to explain himself and his motives to humans so that we might understand him a little better. He talked about one thing primarily, which I’ll give you a shiny ten-dollar word for in a moment, and that was why he doesn’t always seem to do what we humans think is “good.”

As he spoke to the crowd, people would occasionally interject with questions that indicated that they had difficulty understanding his explanations. This likely reflected a bit of the old axiom that the “will of God is unknowable” to us monkey-brained little human critters. So, as the Almighty (in child form) reduced his language to simplicity, he also seemed to get somewhat sympathetic to the people’s dejection of grappling with mortality, injury, and the general misfortunes of material existence. He started to “change his mind,” so to speak, on certain topics—for example, on questions of natural disasters and disease, he tried to concede and agree that he would intercede in future ordeals and possibly prevent them. But, each time he conceded on any point, he would quickly start to decay as he spoke, shriveling and blackening, and exposing teeth like a rotting corpse. And, when he realized it happening, he would kindly apologize and reverse his statement, causing his face to rejuvenate once again. Kind of gross and more than a little odd, I agree, but that’s what you get with dreams: crazy-go-nuts symbols and subconscious metaphors. In any case, this made a solid point in the narrative, which was that the compromises of limited, material perspectives deteriorate the concepts of transcendence/divinity,** which in turn relates to a very old philosophical and theological problem called “theodicy.”

What’s Big G doing up there anyway, if not taking care of stuff down here?

Theodicy is defined by our old buddy, Webster, as “defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.” That’s as good a definition as any, since the word itself translates from Greek to “justice of God” (theos, “God” + dike, "justice"). It relates to some pretty severe questions that most spiritual leaders in just about any of the big religions of the world have trouble addressing, assuming they don’t just dodge or botch the issue up entirely. But, before you think I’m getting too big for my intellectual britches, it is justifiably a hard issue for me as well and one that can’t be addresses adequately in a quick conversation. If there is a God (or gods), then why would He let bad stuff happen? Why do good things happen to rotten folks and bad things happen to awesome folks? How does religion and the idea of a caring/loving God explain things like a tsunami that kills thousands of innocent people, or allowing millions to be slaughtered in concentrations camps during an unjust war? Does God even answer prayers, or do things just happen all William Nilliam in the world? What’s the point of praying to an omnipotent deity if you can’t avert terrible things from happening? Above all: What’s Big G doing up there anyway, if not taking care of stuff down here?

To answer... well, I won’t say answer those questions, but I’ll say address those questions, I’ll go back to the dream bit and how my sleepy subconscious translated a decent response. The little God-kid shared a bit of insight on two rules that he followed as deity. Rule number one was that he could not do anything that was a logical contradiction. A logical contradiction would be something like having a square-shaped circle. This is logically impossible, since to have what is properly defined as a circle, you need an equidistant, round, two-dimensional figure, and if you properly called it a “square,” that would mean that it was of course anything but round. This brings up some more philosophical conundrums right away though, like: If God is all-powerful, then you can’t say there's anything He can't do. But, logical contradictions are a little different. To say He “can’t do” something might be the wrong phrasing. Let’s say that God won’t perpetrate a logical contradiction in the same way that I say you “can’t” jump off a sixth story balcony. You obviously can jump off whatever you damn well please, but the consequences of that (rather ill-advised) action would be that unfortunate fall to a sudden, unfortunate, and altogether goopy death on the sidewalk. So, maybe God could make a square circle, but the consequences might be that squares became no longer what we know to be “square” and circles would no longer be round, or some such nonsense. Just tuck that into your brain folds for the moment and I’ll come back to it shortly.

Brutality and suffering are unavoidable, logical truths.

Rule number two from God-boy was that he couldn’t do good all the time, or else there would be no good. This rule was a little more abstract than the first—one of those “if you never have a rainy day, then you never know what a sunny day is” sort of concepts. But, more so than that, what this idea speaks to one of what one person sees as “good” in their perspective versus what is “good” in a broader, global, or even universal perspective. Basically, it means that if you are good to everyone all the time, then you are good to no one ever. Think if it as a statement of material existentialism. Despite what B.S. The Lion King might imply, lions can’t live without brutally slaughtering and devouring a zebra here and there. People can’t exist without eating other animals and plants, animals can’t live without eating other stuff, and even plants can’t grow without feeding off the nutrients provided by decaying, dead animals and other plants. Yes, the “circle of life” is pretty brutal, but it’s part of how things work, it’s what made us what we evolved into today, it’s what makes the world go ‘round, and it’s an unavoidable (perhaps even by God) logical truth.

In the The Matrix, a computer program (“Agent Smith”) fairly accurately and bleakly describes why perfection can’t exist in this particular reality:

“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered? Where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops [of humans] were lost. Some believed we [the computers] lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.”

In a way, he was right. We are, at least partially, defined by our sufferings, as well as our pleasures. Without the various sufferings and successes we experience throughout our lives and the memories of such—each contrasting the other and helping to define how we perceive and understand the world—we wouldn’t really be anything, at least in a sense of our brains and consciousnesses. So, not only can the natural world not function without death and pain, but we humans can’t even really comprehend with our squishy thinking organs what perfection, bliss, or utopia would really be like, at least not in a way that we wouldn’t get sick of eventually.

Could God make a rock so heavy that He couldn’t lift it?

Here’s another old philosophical thought experiment question: Could God make a rock so heavy that He couldn’t lift it? To answer that, I’ll give you the last bit of the dream story. The God-kid ended his public address by saying that while he had two rules to follow—the first being no logical contradictions and the second being that he couldn’t do all good all the time—rule number one was, in fact, the same as rule number two. This means that, like Agent Smith said, to have a world that was all perfect all the time would actually be a logical contradiction in itself. So, again, to say the God “can’t” do all good all the time is more to say the He won’t because it would defy the very rule and structure that existence is based on (maybe even unraveling existence as we know it as a result...?). It’s also sort of like how if you designed a video game based on racing cars, you wouldn’t program the cars to randomly take flight, or else the rules that govern the game’s internal reality would be useless and nobody would play your lame, floaty-car game (well, not for long anyway). So, I would say no, God could not make a rock so heavy that He couldn’t lift it, because if He did, it would contradict His own God-ness as well as the heaviness of physical rocks and perhaps "crash the game," so to speak.

At this point, you might be wondering why I didn’t give you any feel-goodies about prayer, or God’s goodness, or other such things. Well, I’ll admit, I’m not the best at the feel-goodies. But, if you look at it in this way, it does, at least sort of, explain what God and goodness is all about. Bad things happen, good things happen, and what we “deserve” doesn’t always pan out like we think it should. You might have a rainy day ruin your favorite outdoor event, but in the grander weather patterns of the globe, it might have had to happen to prevent a catastrophic hurricane on the other side of the planet. People hurt and kill other people for no good reason. It is terrible, but the truth of it is that we all have our own free will to do whatever the hell we want, so free will is an unfortunately double-edged sword in and of itself.

All these things don’t mean that whatever your deity or deities of choice are must be uncaring or non-existent, any more than the game programmer who doesn’t make race cars shoot into the air doesn’t mean that he doesn’t like the idea of flying cars (because really, who doesn’t like the idea of flying cars?). In fact, the ancient pagan religions used these to justify the existence of the multitudes of gods in their various pantheons, which is where we get a lot of the philosophical inspiration for stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the classical myths. The biggest difference back then was just that the gods were usually petty and temperamental, causing both good and bad events on a whim (or, more often, out of jealousy or anger). All this really means in today's context is that to try to understand big issues, we have to realize how small we are in the big scheme of the cosmos.

By all means, believe, pray, and hope. But, understand and remember that the world is bigger than you, me, or any single person. Hell, things are even much bigger than that, since our planet is just a very small “pale blue dot” in the nearly incomprehensible expanse of the universe. In this way, our smallness and insignificance can comforting in a things-are-bigger-than-they-seem kind of way.

*This was a bit similar, and perhaps inspired by, the way God appeared to Moses in the film Exodus: Gods and Kings. To be totally clear, while I liked the idea of this movie, its actors, and all, it was honestly not very good and I don’t recommend watching it.
**To again use a film reference, this could be compared to the movie Dogma, in which a couple of angels seek to unmake creation by proving God wrong (or at least proving Him to be fallible)—the same basic effect, I suppose.