Wednesday, October 12, 2011

More on Monotheism Ethical and Otherwise II: for Dennis Prager

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Speaking out against the horrors of nature veneration, Dennis Prager says
It is not possible for God to be part of nature for two reasons.
First, nature is finite and God is infinite. If God were within nature, He would be limited, and God, who is not physical, has no limits (I use the pronoun "He"" not because I believe God is a male, but because the neuter pronoun "It" depersonalizes God. You cannot talk to, relate to, love, or obey an "It.").
Who says God is 'infinite'? That assertion is unique to the Abrahamic faiths: what's more, it sets up a number of philosophical conundrums.  Some are interesting logical puzzles i.e. "Can God make a rock so heavy He can't lift it?" Others are more troubling, particularly the Problem of Suffering.  Sometimes it is worded in childlike terms: "If God loves us, why did He let my puppy get hit by a car?" A more sophisticated version of this question is posed by the Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas:
Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore,God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.
Reply to Objection 1. As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): "Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.
When we strip away the fancy wording, we find that Aquinas has given us the same answer we got when we were standing over our deceased dog: "God has a plan, and sometimes we can't understand it. We just have to trust in His infinite wisdom, power and mercy." It does nothing to explain exactly what good comes out of the numerous ills which torment our world. It does not assuage the suffering of the sick, the starving, and the victims of injustice: neither does it bring Fido back from the dead.

Some blame Adam and Eve for their disobedience in the Garden of Eden.  But was their sin so great that an all-powerful and all-loving God felt it necessary to respond with the Black Death, the Holocaust and the Mongol invasions?  Others take refuge in a coming "Day of Judgment" wherein the good shall be rewarded and the evil punished.  This does nothing to explain why evil had to exist in the first place, nor does it provide any immediate comfort to those suffering in the here and now.  And some redefine "good" to mean "God's Word and God's Will," while "evil" is "that which goes against God's Word and God's Will." This may work for the faithful, but it doesn't hold up well under rational scrutiny. A moral code which says "genocide is wrong unless God orders you to do it" is hardly an improvement over "genocide is wrong unless the Führer orders you to do it."

This is far less an issue for a polytheist.  Polytheism sees the Gods as possessing great power and great wisdom, but acknowledges that even They have limits.  They are capable of error like we are; They share in our joys and our sorrows. Indeed, we might look to Their myths and to our history and conclude that suffering is the price we pay for sentience. To be a living and thinking being is to respond to stimuli positive and negative: a life free of discontentment and desire is a life free of meaning and purpose.   This world, with all its flaws, is what we have.  If we are unhappy with the way things are, it is up to us to change them.