Sunday, January 23, 2005

Where God was when the tsunami struck

By Andy Ho
Senior Writer

The Straits Times
22nd January 2005

IT HAS been said that the most serious challenge to the belief in God was, is, and will continue to be the problem of evil, a question that has been bandied around quite a lot in the secular media after the Boxing Day tsunami. Some religious folks have tied themselves up in knots of self-doubt over this conundrum, called the problem of 'theodicy'.

Coined by German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) from two Greek words - theos for God, and dike for justice - theodicy posits the question thus: If the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God controls all of creation, he must also be the author of, and oversees, all evil too. Yet how can a good God permit evil?

The question engaged Leibniz so much that the first and the last book he ever penned, The Philosopher's Confession, written in 1672 at age 26, and The Theodicy, written in 1709, seven years before he died, both grappled with precisely that issue.

Leibniz argued that God was morally bound to create 'the best of all possible worlds'. But since evil exists, God must have seen that this was the best of all possible worlds to create.

My colleague, Chua Mui Hoong, writing in The Sunday Times ('Where was God when the tsunamis hit?', Jan 16), resolved it even more simply by declaring that God may well be omniscient and omnipresent, 'but I no longer think he is omnipotent'.

For her, God is limited by, first, man's free will and, secondly, by natural laws, such as those which decreed that when tectonic plates shift far enough in the right places, tsunamis inevitably follow.

Many incensed and obviously religious readers and colleagues have clamoured for a rebuttal. It was clear to many that, if ever there were a contest, surely God's will must override man's - or else he is a feckless deity not worth my time. It was also clear to many that if God put all natural laws in place, he could also suspend them at will - unless he is a weakling restrained by something he instituted.

Yet that is precisely why Mui Hoong says her God is less than all powerful. However, an imperfect God is not just a contradiction in terms, but also one who deserves no attention, though Mui Hoong still believes in him because she needs to, and because she 'see(s) God in my daily life'.

This is a mistake but she is in good company: Even Leibniz got it wrong when he said that God was morally bound to create the best out of a range of possible worlds, each one also good, so this one must be the best possible, warts and all.

Here, Leibniz put the cart before the horse: God did not choose this world because it is the best. Instead, it is the best just because God chose it.

Then there was David Hume (1711-76), the boldly sceptical Scottish philosopher, who argued that the pervasiveness of evil argues against the very existence of a benevolent God.

But even if Hume had unproblematically defined 'good', 'evil', and 'benevolent' - he didn't - the inference that a benevolent God will prevent all evil doesn't follow.

Hume assumed that a benevolent deity must, by definition, be benevolent to everything in his creation - every inanimate and animate thing, but especially each and every human being.

Must he?

Humeian logic betrays a man-centred view of things that is pervasive today even among religionists. But there is an equally good case for a God- centred view, that he makes all things work together for good, not for all his creatures, but only some whom he chooses so his will is worked out.

In this argument, it is God who decrees and brings to pass everything according to his will, for his own purpose and glory. If that makes God sound selfish and self-centred, think about a god who brings everything to pass for someone else's purpose and glory rather than his: That someone is necessarily a creature, like man, which would make that god an idolater who worships creatures. That cannot be.

In a view that everything is primarily about God - not man - the very existence of evil poses no insuperable problem to the believer. When the waves struck, God was where he always is - on his throne, working out his will, perfectly.

A hard saying, to be sure, but the unbeliever can choose not to deal with such a God.

For the believer, though, this is the God with whom he has to do.

Yvonne | 10:11 PM |
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