"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Problem of Evil, and Politics

In his column on Pope Benedict's speech at Auschwitz, Jeff Jacoby gives an excellent presentation of the problem of evil. The existence of evil, of course, has often been used as an argument against the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, and the answer is not difficult to explain but is extremely awful to comprehend. Jacoby wisely considers the matter from both the global perspective, as in the examples of Nazism, the gulags, the slaughters by the Khmer Rouge, and other such mass atrocities, and in the acts of individual criminals. He asks the atheists' question: Why would a benevolent and all-powerful God allow such things? Jacoby's answer, as excerpted below, is the answer long given by Christian theologians, and it is the right one.

The importance to politics, our subject here, is precisely what the Founders of the United States placed their greatest emphasis on: the need to create a secular realm that enables and encourages people to be good and discourages evil. And it was to do this for entirely practical, secular reasons, not religious ones. Although the Founders realized that religions, specifically the Christian religion, created the foundations for a proper morality, religion was not seen as the logical foundation for their form of government. The logic behind our form of government was a practical matter, as the Founders recognized that the encouragement of virtue in the people was the way to create the greatest combination of liberty and social order simultaneously.

Their insisghts still remain true.

This political structure is an entirely different matter, the Founders understood, from executing God's judgments on the world, a point that Puritan-descended Evangelicals and Fundamentalists too often forget. God will execute his judgments himself, but human beings must govern themselves. This thinking is a straightforward expression of Martin Luther's Two Kingdoms theology, which is itself the foundation of modern, classical liberal political philosophy. Luther's insight was precisely that although God is free to execute his judgments in the world, he allows human beings moral freedom, and that creates the need for government. And in creating the need for governmnent, our moral freedom establishes the logical limitations on what government should do.

Here is a goodly excerpt from Jeff Jacoby's excellent column:

The Nazis' ultimate goal, Benedict argued, was to rip out Christian morality by its Jewish roots, replacing it with "a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful." Hitler knew that his will to power could triumph only if he first destroyed Judeo-Christian values. In the Thousand-Year Reich, God and his moral code would be wiped out. Man, unencumbered by conscience, would reign in his place. It is the oldest of temptations, and Auschwitz is what it leads to.

"Where was God in those days?" asked the pope. How could a just and loving Creator have allowed trainload after trainload of human beings to be murdered at Auschwitz? But why ask such a question only in Auschwitz? Where, after all, was God in the Gulag? Where was God when the Khmer Rouge slaughtered 1.7 million Cambodians? Where was God during the Armenian holocaust? Where was God in Rwanda? Where is God in Darfur?

For that matter, where is God when even one innocent victim is being murdered or raped or abused?

The answer, though the pope didn't say so clearly, is that a world in which God always intervened to prevent cruelty and violence would be a world without freedom -- and life without freedom would be meaningless. God endows human beings with the power to choose between good and evil. Some choose to help their neighbor; others choose to hurt him. There were those in Nazi Europe who herded Jews into gas chambers. And there were those who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Gestapo.

The God "who spoke on Sinai" was not addressing himself to angels or robots who could do no wrong even if they wanted to. He was speaking to real people with real choices to make, and real consequences that flow from those choices. Auschwitz wasn't God's fault. He didn't build the place. And only by changing those who did build it from free moral agents into puppets could he have stopped them from committing their horrific crimes.

It was not God who failed during the Holocaust or in the Gulag, or on 9/11, or in Bosnia. It is not God who fails when human beings do barbaric things to other human beings. Auschwitz is not what happens when the God who says "Thou shalt not murder" and "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" is silent. It is what happens when men and women refuse to listen.

9 comments:

tbmbuzz said...

"Where was God in those days?" asked the pope.

I like this pope. Really, I do. Like his predecessor John Paul II, he is a good, moral man, who in fact followed his conscience during WW2. That said, he has dropped the ball with this question. God was where He always was and it is not for us (or the pope) to question why. The question he really should have asked is where was his institution known as the Roman Catholic Church, Pius XII in particular, in those days. Many individual Catholics, including clergy, certainly did the right thing, even to the point of losing their lives, but the Church hierarchy itself was too accommodative to Naziism, apparently because of its all-too-human fears of losing its power or its very existence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

...the Founders recognized that the encouragement of virtue in the people was the way to create the greatest combination of liberty and social order simultaneously.

Quite so, Mr. Karnick. I had attempted to touch on virtue in the Aristotelian sense in Hunter's discussion on natural law: that "revealed" religion need not be the only source of it.

The question in this day and age is whether "virtue" exists at all, and if so whether it is in government's compelling interest to foster it.

Your answer to both, and the Founders', is an emphatic yes.

(What virtue is and is not a separate question.)

Bubba said...

Mr. Jacoby's article was truly worthwhile reading. Thanks for highlighting it in your column, which was also good. (Ok, that was a suck up.)

A couple of tangential questions came to mind: Why are speeches such as these only given at sites of former Nazi concentration camps? Why aren’t there ever, or at least very rarely reported or accurately reported, any diatribes against the numerous other historical examples of mass murders and ethnic cleansings? Mr. Jacoby mentions the Khmer Rouge and some others, but what about the Japanese slaughters of Chinese and Koreans in WWII, the Communist Chinese purges of their own people in “The Cultural Revolution”, the purges of Stalin…? Is the Pope unaware that more Christians have been killed for their faith in the 20th and 21st centuries than in all of the previous ones? Why isn’t anyone speaking out against the current vicious Islamic genocide against Christians worldwide?

I propose that speaking out against the Nazis and their many concentration camps is a “safe” bet. No one is going to be offended if Adolf is verbally immolated.

Not to belittle in the least the evil that the Nazis and other anti-Semitics have committed, however, these speeches only serve to establish one’s credentials as a “hater of evil”, while not making anyone uncomfortable with any more historically recent examples of genocide, let alone any that might be occurring right now while something might be done about it. I propose that such bloviations are actually detrimental. Although they whip up the enthusiasm of those assembled, the presumed “Never again” intent of the speech is never realized since the only evil spoken of is Nazi anti-Semitism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Bubba, I think it's because Nazism is one of the few things on all agree. When you drag in other particular instances, the discussion becomes worldly and therefore decidedly unphilosophical.

It's my understanding that the Holocaust also triggered quite a crisis of faith in Judaism, and much along Benedict's lines has already been written. He is picking up the discussion rather than initiating a new one.

Michael Simpson said...

"God will execute his judgments himself, but human beings must govern themselves. This thinking is a straightforward expression of Martin Luther's Two Kingdoms theology, which is itself the foundation of modern, classical liberal political philosophy. Luther's insight was precisely that although God is free to execute his judgments in the world, he allows human beings moral freedom, and that creates the need for government. And in creating the need for governmnent, our moral freedom establishes the logical limitations on what government should do."

This seems not quite right. It's not the case, I think, that Luther thought of politics as "secular" in the sense that most people think of it today. It seems right to say that Luther (and, to a much lesser degree, Calvin) thought that political authority ought to be distinct, maybe even "separate" from ecclesial authority, and so in that sense "secular." But it's not the case that politics is a realm in which men simply "rule themselves" separate from God's judgments. Political authority, like all authority, devolves from God, even if it is not executed as what we would think of as 'religious' authority. To say otherwise suggests that there is some realm of human life that exists apart from God's sovereignty.

Tom Van Dyke said...

But it's not the case that politics is a realm in which men simply "rule themselves" separate from God's judgments.

Perish the thought. Everything Hitler did was "legal." And the Romans just declared their emperors divine, and that took care of that problem.

Political authority, like all authority, devolves from God, even if it is not executed as what we would think of as 'religious' authority. To say otherwise suggests that there is some realm of human life that exists apart from God's sovereignty.

In that Bible thing, Israel asks for a king, their first, even tho they certainly didn't need one with the bodacious G-d still hanging around.

Still, they wanted the terminally crabby Saul, so G-d let 'em have Saul. Ick.

Free will, even political free will, is an inextricable part of God's sovereignty. He invented "consent of the governed" in the first place.

There might be some argument for Providence in political leadership, but then there's King Ahab. He married Jezebel, y'know, and she was definitely not down with the YHWH plan. She and he led Israel to its greatest material success, but that didn't stop YHWH from sending Elijah to condemn them.

Even my patron saint Thomas (1225-74), who might be predicted to be OK in his medieval way with the Divine Right of Kings (he was related to a fair number of the crowns of Europe), was down with regicide if there was a righteous reason. (But not on a humbug.)

Politics are transitory, as all human things are. God is a full member of the reality-based community.

tbmbuzz said...

I propose that speaking out against the Nazis and their many concentration camps is a “safe” bet. No one is going to be offended if Adolf is verbally immolated.

Not to belittle in the least the evil that the Nazis and other anti-Semitics have committed, however, these speeches only serve to establish one’s credentials as a “hater of evil”, while not making anyone uncomfortable with any more historically recent examples of genocide, let alone any that might be occurring right now while something might be done about it. I propose that such bloviations are actually detrimental. Although they whip up the enthusiasm of those assembled, the presumed “Never again” intent of the speech is never realized since the only evil spoken of is Nazi anti-Semitism.


So true. In a historical context, Naziism was a short-lived and localized phenomenon, unlike Communism, which is responsible for far greater atrocities. Stalin was far more evil than Hitler, if for no other reason than Stalin was sane and knew what he was doing to a much greater extent than Hitler.

Bubba, I think it's because Nazism is one of the few things on all agree. When you drag in other particular instances, the discussion becomes worldly and therefore decidedly unphilosophical.

Witness, for instance, the embrace by some Far Left members of Fidel Castro and his ilk.

Tlaloc said...

"Stalin was far more evil than Hitler, if for no other reason than Stalin was sane and knew what he was doing to a much greater extent than Hitler."

Maybe so, but Stalin was by no means a communist.

tbmbuzz said...

Maybe so, but Stalin was by no means a communist.

Theoretically no. But the fictional political theory espoused by Marx holds no sway in the real world. Stalin was the natural and inevitable result of the attempt to apply Marx's nonsense to a human society, and the same thing has happened every time the Communist experiment has been tried. Tito, Mao, Ceausescu, Castro, Honnecker, Ortega were all cloned from the same mold.