Theodicy as Moral Plagiarism

It will probably come as no great surprise to you if you have read even a few of my “Skeptics” columns over the years, but I have scant regard for theology. When it comes to the specific field, not of theology in general, but the sub-discipline of theodicy in particular, my “regard quotient” craters out all the way to zero.  I admit to being perversely fascinated by theodicy, if only because theodicy has historically illustrated the tortuous twists and turns of which the human intellect is capable when the thinker desperately attempts to avoid concluding “4” from “2 plus 2”, the intellectual equivalent of watching a python swallow a full-grown goat whole. Maybe mildly perverse, like binge-ing out on Quentin Tarantino movies over a weekend. But mostly harmless. Except … one of the most prevalent tactics deployed in the practice of theodicy is to basically steal the innate and intrinsic goodness of human beings and use it to shore up the edifice of God’s goodness by imputing human goodness to God. This type of theodicy amounts to moral plagiarism. It alienates humans from their own innate capacity for goodness.

I am moved to write about this particular species of theodicy by an article by Peter Wehner that appeared in the 25 March 2017 issue of the New York Times. I say this entirely without rancor, because Mr. Wehner is quite obviously a good and decent man who is clinging to his own shard of flotsam floating along with the wreckage of our common Titanic that has foundered on the existence of evil, pain, and suffering in the world. We are all awash in that same frigid ocean with Mr. Wehner and, like him, doing our level best to remain afloat. That’s us. Every last one of us, the undersigned very much included. Mostly I am content to refrain from critiquing others’ pieces of wreckage.  Mostly, but not altogether. Where I draw the line is with theodicies that, however implicitly and however unintentionally, damage the pieces of debris to which others cling. Such is the case with the theodicy of moral plagiarism, as exemplified by Mr. Wehner’s op-ed piece. I fault neither his intentions nor his ethics. But his judgment is a different matter – and that in two senses.

First of all, there is the following text, superficially clear but increasingly enigmatic the more one examines it:

So what, then, does Christianity have to offer in the midst of hardships and heartache? The answer, I think, is consolation, including the consolation that comes from being part of a Christian community — people who walk alongside us as we journey through grief, offering not pieties but tenderness and grace, encouragement and empathy, and when necessary, practical help. (One can obviously find terrifically supportive friends outside of a Christian community. My point is simply that a healthy Christian community should be characterized by extravagant love, compassion and self-giving.)

The question Mr. Wehner leaves hanging is simply this:  what is the relationship between the consoling community and the god – Christian or otherwise – upon belief in which the community is founded? If the latter – belief in god – is requisite to the former – the existence and ministry of the consoling community – then we are at least on a trajectory that leads to a theodicy of moral plagiarism:  the consolation provided by humans in that community presupposes support from its god, much as the healthy beating of a heart depends on the patient’s pacemaker. But then if god is optional – that is, if the consoling community can perform its psychotherapeutic (in the literal, etymological sense of “soul-healing”) service – it is not clear why one needs to reference god at all. (Think “Ockham’s Razor.”) God is either so inessential to the community as to be superfluous thereto, or so close to the community that God is in danger of devouring it.

C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham

Secondly, there is the matter of Mr. Wehner’s presupposition that God is, in fact, a God of consolation, even reliably and consistently, never mind invariably. (Here I refer specifically to the Christian God, as does Mr. Wehner.) We need not take the Bible literally by interpreting biblical accounts, in either Testament, of God’s words and deeds as historically factual in order to be troubled by them. It is quite unsettling enough to take the Bible seriously as ancient peoples’ anthology of moral and theological parables about God’s character – like the story of the young George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree. It is often said that, in the Bible, God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. As a clever cliché, that is difficult to beat. The problem is that – again, if we take biblical accounts seriously, never mind as factual – it is more clever than true. You do not have to be a professional biblical scholar to realize that the character of God, in both Testaments, is, not always, but often, such as to afflict everyone, usually indiscriminately.  (That is the thesis of Prof. David Blumenthal’s massively transgressive book Facing the Abusing God.) All you have to do is two things:

(1)   refuse to cherry-pick by viewing all biblical texts as of equal evidentiary value, theologically, even the ones that depict God as other than you – and any other decent person – would wish God to be -- and therefore ...

(2)  ... allow the text to drive your theological conclusions, instead of vice versa

Here Mr. Wehner is in good company:  both he and C. S. Lewis violate both (1) and (2). (In fact, [1] and [2] are arguably synonymous, but that is beside the point.) Mr. Wehner admires the text in Lewis’s A Grief Observed where Lewis says, vis a vis the horrific experience of watching his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, die of cancer:

[W]hen your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, … what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence … 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 implication, of course, is that it is imperative that one avoid “coming to believe such dreadful things about [God]”. Now, I have never, and hope I may never, have to watch my wife die as Lewis watched Joy. I would probably not do as well as Lewis did. In fact, I expect I would not survive the experience. But, with all due respect to Lewis’s grief, I must nevertheless respond to the question implicit in Lewis’s concluding sentence by asking:  Why not? Both Wehner and Lewis simply assume that, because they do not like a God about Whom Lewis's "dreadful things" may be true, that therefore the "dreadful things" cannot be true -- what is true of God must comport with human sensibilities -- violating principle (2). Why is that a “danger”, and why does Wehner tacitly accept that description? Why do conclusions suddenly drive premises? Here I think we are within touching distance of the real motivation behind the existence, and the durability, of the theodicy of moral plagiarism. Here is my theory:

I am not sure how much of the following is conscious and how much is unconscious. Nor is such an issue necessarily even relevant. But we know, certainly consciously, that, from time to time, people, even innocent people, die and suffer horribly. If we are theistic believers, we also know, in fact, we are taught every Sunday or Sabbath or prayer interval – on a relentlessly conscious level -- that the Universe is superintended by a God of infinite power, infinite majesty, and infinite wisdom. On a perhaps less conscious level, we also know that, as humans, the only infinite thing about us is our infinite vulnerability.  (There is a wonderful – and terrifying – old Protestant hymn that asks in agony “O how shall I, whose native sphere is dark, whose mind is dim, before the Ineffable appear, and on my naked spirit bear the Uncreated Beam?” Yes. Exactly.) Now, on a level almost certainly unconscious, we are haunted by the following thought:  what if ... just what if ... taking the sacred text (biblical, qur’anic, etc.) seriously if not factually, we confront the possibility that the God of infinite power who presides over Creation is not invariably benevolent, invariably comforting, and invariably consoling? What if God is, at least occasionally, the God of Job, the God of the Amalekite genocide – the God of the Shoah? The "terrible texts" in our sacred writings haunt us with the question: what if God is, at least on occasion, more like Donald Trump than Dr. King or Albert Schweitzer or Sri Ramakrishna or Rabbi Heschel or Gandhi?

If you are a theistic believer – Christian, Muslim, Jew … whatever – you need, desperately and at all cost, you need for your god to be good. And if your sacred text declines to validate that need unambiguously, then you do the next best thing:  you plagiarize from your fellow humans' morality in order to “make” your god good enough to sustain your expectations of comfort and consolation. You “make” god good, if necessary, even at the expense of human beings -- just as you might "plagiarize" (embezzle) money from a business to feed your kids, or you might "plagiarize" gas from your neighbor's car to get your spouse to the hospital. And -- perhaps this is the most telling -- recognizing that human beings are also capable of grotesque levels of evil, you are careful to elide, to edit out, to redact, to filter humans' propensity for evil and thus avoid imputing to God that capability. (Speaking of Jews, there is in Jewish Holocaust theology a school of theology -- the "theology of protest" -- exemplified by people like David Blumenthal, Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovits, Zachary Braiterman, et al., who do take with utter seriousness the implications of a theology accommodating the possibility that, at least on occasion, God does indeed act abusively. There is simply no Christian equivalent.) In other words, you meticulously cherry pick from humans to arrive at the kind of God you need.

I have been in just such predicaments and committed similar acts of plagiarism. That I can discuss it in such a detached and academic manner now is purely due to dumb luck:  I am not in such a situation now, and so can afford to be detached. But back in "the day", I learned the hard way to avoid pontificating about such dilemmas to those who are -- for now -- less fortunate.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:
Giacometti sculpture ... Alexey Druzhinin ... CC by 2.0
Plagiarism note ... Digital Rebel ... CC by 2.0
"Paste copy paste copy" ... WiredForLego ... CC by SA 2.0
Leibniz's "Theodicy -- Concerning the Goodness of God and the Freedom of Man" ... Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz ... Public domain
C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham ... ... Image of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis, online courtesy Douglas Gresham "Into the Wardrobe" website.


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