Where Pride Masquerades as Compassion

The latest New Yorker (June 9 & 16) has a fascinating article about the problem of evil by James Wood, an excellent writer who formerly reviewed books for The New Republic. Titled “Holiday in Hellmouth,” it continues with deliberate illogic in the subhead: “God may be dead, but the question of why he permits suffering lives on.”

Wood says that the problem of evil has undermined the faith of many thinkers, himself included. If God “has the power to alleviate this suffering but does not, he is cruel; if he cannot, he is weak.” Such reflections eventually separated him “from the somewhat austere Christian environment” of his youth.

He reflects on a new book by Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina: God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. That sounds as if it should be “furiously triple underlined on the dust jacket,” Wood says, and those who accept the problem of evil as a serious argument against God’s power or goodness often do begin to get very angry — with Him.

In fact, the argument itself is more an expression of rebellion than of disbelief. It is also rebellion at a profound level because it pits itself against the very structure of creation. The argument really goes like this: An all-powerful God could have made the world differently; could have left out the pain and suffering. But he didn’t. Why not? Maybe because, in the end, he is not so great, or not so good.

All this amounts to “permanent rebellion,” according to Wood. “It is not quite atheism but wounded theism.” It is “condemned to argue ceaselessly against a God it is supposed not to believe in.”

Obviously, I am not going to resolve the problem of pain here. But it is not a problem to be “solved,” as though it were a test of our logical skills. The error of those who allow their thoughts to be restricted to these paths is to imagine that human understanding can exist on the same plane as God’s. From that vantage point, some then actually look down on God. In C.S. Lewis’s phrase, they put God in the Dock.

Such people re-imagine a kinder, gentler world, devoid of suffering, then give themselves moral credit for their sensitivity. It’s not hard to see why such an attitude is favored in our time. Pride masquerades as compassion.

Many in the contemporary world cannot accept that human understanding, on its own, has real limits and is often little more that a meager candle in the dark. Medieval theologians described whole hierarchies: angels and archangels, principalities and powers, cherubim and seraphim. And they distinguished what could be achieved by reason and what comes to us only by faith. That has all been leveled by the modernist wrecking ball.

And just as there’s nothing higher, so there’s nothing lower. The same people who want to show God how the world could be better organized also aspire to teach chimps sign language. We are even-handedly disdainful of the Higher and the Lower. Animals are not on our level? That is species-ism.

Egalitarian sentiment peeks through, now dressed up as theology. Sometimes what we object to is not so much the existence of evil as its maldistribution. We can hardly deny that we all suffer and sooner or later we all die. But suffering appears unevenly rationed. “For the lucky few,” writes Wood, who acknowledges that the problem of evil really only gained traction in the post-Enlightenment era, “there is reason to hope that life will be a business of evenly rationed suffering.”

It’s worth noting that this view of Creation — we could have done a better job — is frequently used in an almost identical way to support evolution and denigrate intelligent design. Often anti-design arguments have nothing to do with science but are veiled theological claims. They go like this:

“If God had designed than organ, he would have done a much better job than that!”

The influential Darwinian theorist George Williams, for example, says that the eye was “stupidly designed,” because a smart designer would not have placed the wiring of the retina on the side facing incoming light. Among other things it created a blind spot. But how well have they done? Even with the help of GPS, their dim driverless robots blunder about the Mojave Desert at 15 mph and tumble into ditches. The fact is, the best engineers and computer scientists haven’t been able to produce anything remotely comparable. But they can imagine something better, so they feel entitled to call existing structures poorly designed.

“Creating ‘successive species of crocodiles?’ God wouldn’t have wasted his time in that way!” (That paraphrases an actual argument used by Thomas Henry Huxley.)

The anti-design frenzy mocks heaven, while the problem of evil rails against it. Both are forms of the same argument. Both are condescending, prideful, and thinly veiled displays of rebellion against the Creator.

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a contributing editor to The New Oxford Review. He is the author most recently of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.