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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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XTC DEAR GOD, Atheism & Blasphemy

About three years ago I wrote a post on another blog entitled, “XTC Dear God, Is It Blasphemous?”  It spurred an interesting discussion and a number of non-believers took part.  Given that the topic of atheism and faith is still very much in the news, and probably will continue as such for the foreseeable future, I thought I would repost the information here.  The initial post was quite short and included a third-party video which employed the song in question:

XTC DEAR GOD, IS IT BLASPHEMOUS?

Dear God by the Musical Group XTC

  • Is this song blasphemous?

I have heard that it is the atheist’s song.

It may be that our own failure to reflect the divine presence has brought this angst upon us.

The song calls upon God and yet the singer says he cannot believe in him. It is as if he is so angry that he wants to hurt God.

  • What do you all think?

My reckoning is that it is a musical way of asking an old question, “How can a good God allow evil?”

There is so much sickness and suffering in the world.  We endure natural calamities and the terror of men.

The Christian answer is that disharmony was brought into the world by human sin.

We contend that while Christ is victorious over sin and death and the war is won; nevertheless, these dark realities are not yet undone.

While we still experience pain and death, we know solidarity with God’s Son, and appreciate that this world of sorrow is passing away.

NOTE:  Notice who is portrayed as Satan by the slide presentation…funny, but definitely not nice.

After many comments, here is an interchange between an atheist and myself:

GIL:  Much of the motivation for all this writing, stems from the believers’ (mostly Christian) propensity to transform logic as secularists understand it, into an imaginative litany of excuses and alibis for the inconsistencies, errors and omissions of religion, the Bible, and other Christian dogma, in the light of scientific information acquired over the last half-a-millenium. The scientific evidence has gradually eroded the underpinnings of the Christian view of the cosmos, and as a result, they have responded with increasingly convoluted apologias for these shortcomings, necessitating more explanations from scientists and other secularists in an ever escalating spiral of explanation and rebuttal.

FATHER JOE:  The motivation of this post is to speak about the Christian kerygma against the backdrop of modern atheism.  It may be true that fundamentalists often posit the argument for blind faith over reason; but such is not the Catholic perspective.  Indeed, it sometimes seems that secularists are themselves void of the very logic that they fault Christians for contorting.  The language of faith is different from that of science.  There are many roads that one may take to the truth.  Elements of the truth might be better viewed through the respective prism of religion, philosophy or science.  The truths of faith are often discerned through parable and allegory; however, this should not be construed as “an imaginative litany of excuses” or “alibis for the inconsistencies.”  An old cliché comes to mind, “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

GIL:  However, the millions of words generated by the capable defenders of Atheism, Agnosticism, and other non-religious viewpoints, fascinating as they may be, in a way, may all be only superfluous dressing on the delicious pastry of skepticism. In my opinion, the best (and really only necessary) argument for the nonexistence of God was arrived at two milleniums ago by the great stoic philosopher Epicurus, who disposed of the idea of God in a mere forty-five words, although these are probably not the actual words that he had used. Since, as with many ancient writers, we have to depend on later admirers and students for knowledge about their ideas, and the few extant examples of Epicurus’ own letters are fragmentary, the “riddle” is stated in a phraseology that was probably authored by someone else.

FATHER JOE:  I am not sure what “scientific evidence” has undermined the Christian view of creation.  I would not expect that we would find God through the eye-piece of a telescope.  However, when I have studied the order and majesty of the universe, I have been filled with awe and my faith has been refueled.  My late deacon friend was a top-notch scientist, and he saw no contradiction between his secular and spiritual professions.  I will allow the contention that sometimes authorities are not entirely honest; however, such a lack of integrity afflicts both believers and the secular scoffers.

It is peculiar, at least to my mind, that anyone would regard the defenders of nothing or atheism or skepticism as a “delicious pastry.”  It would seem to me that there is nothing on their plate, either to please the taste buds or to fill the stomach.  Indeed, what they generate are polemics for despair.

GIL: 

But regardless of the authenticity of its grammatical structure, as it is most often presented, (although it has never been found among Epicurus’ writings in that particular form) it asks and says:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

FATHER JOE: 

While I run the danger of being rude, I suspect what we merely see in the last comment is an overly erudite but simplistic assertion that the riddle of Epicurus resolves the argument at hand in favor of atheism. 

In Catholic circles, this is not known so much as the first postulate of atheism as it is an early rendition of the problem of evil.  We should note that while there was little of true divinity about them, Epicurus believed in the existence of gods.  Epicurus distanced himself from the concept of an all-powerful God and judged the gods as unconcerned about men and creation.  The riddle itself emerges in the writings of a Christian apologist, Lactantius.  He essentially echoed the Neo-Platonist argument in favor of theism over atomist materialism.

GIL: 

In James A. Haught’s book 2000 Years of Disbelief, Haught rewrites or “requotes” Epicurus as saying more prosaically, “Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

Some experts claim that this argument is “a reductio ad absurdum of the premises” and not a riddle or paradox at all, but when I tried to research and understand the meaning of a reductio ad absurdum of the premises, my head began to ache and I thought I’d try my own metaphor instead.

As I see it, solutions to the riddle of Epicurus are similar to someone telling me that they own a simple three-dimensional solid object that simultaneously possesses all the qualities of a sphere, a cube and a regular pyramid. One does not need a doctorate in mathematics, or even to have had a course in solid geometry to understand that an object cannot possess mutually exclusive attributes. Like oxymorons, they define themselves out of existence.

FATHER JOE:

The critic fails to appreciate that much of what we know about an infinite and all-powerful God is through analogies that fall short.  God cannot be reduced to mathematics or geometry.  Such a god that is ridiculed in arguments of this sort is not really God at all.  Christians speak of a Trinity:  three divine persons but one divine nature.  This is doctrine but no one really understands it.  Augustine and Thomas would use the analogy of the mind or soul to speak about it.  The Father knows himself and generates from all eternity the Son.  There is infinite goodwill (Love) between the Father and Son, generating from all eternity the Holy Spirit.  Taken too far, the analogy falls apart.  But it still speaks truth.  God is complete in himself.  He is a perfect Spirit.  He is the divine “esse” or existence itself and the source for all created beings.  He is the Unmoved Mover.  He has no parts and is changeless.  He creates out of nothing and stands outside of time.  And yet, the Second Person of the Trinity becomes a man, dies on the Cross and rises from the dead.  Philosophical proofs might bring one to an awareness of God’s existence, but divine positive revelation and religion bring us into a personal and corporate relationship with him.  One teaches, albeit poorly, “what” God is and the other “who” he is.  True religion gives substance to that which we discover by natural reason.

The argument of Epicurus is laid out plainly enough in 2000 Years of Disbelief by James Haught:

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to.”

“If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent.”

“If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked.”

“If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

There seems at first glance to be a serious conundrum.  If we were to accept these statements in an unqualified manner, then a logical contradiction appears.  By definition, God must be both omnipotent and omnibenevolent.  Given the fact of evil, this reasoning would back the theist into a corner.  A deity (as understood by Christianity) that is either impotent or wicked is impossible.  The problem is compounded when we add the element of divine omniscience. 

Obviously an all-good God is opposed to evil.  Would not such a God desire to abolish evil?  The answer is yes, and in the course of time, his providence in this regard will be accomplished.  Given that we are finite and only see a small temporal and spatial portion of reality, we are handicapped in any appraisal of the perimeters of this question.  The problem of evil requires that we envision all of history and the final consummation.  Indeed, given the angelic hosts, this question has a cosmic dimension that goes beyond material creation (where there may be duration but not time as such).  Such a solution might be logically adequate but the problem of evil and suffering remains a mystery because we are intensely self-preoccupied.  There is no evil that hurts as terribly as that which faces us right now in the present moment.  A couple who loses a child cannot be consoled.  The patient suffering pain in a hospital bed cries out for morphine, wanting the pain to stop, even if the treatment will kill him.  The mother watching her children starve and sicken cannot be cheered with platitudes.  Realities like these do not undermine the truth of Christian argument, but they do dampen or nullify our emotional and personal ability to be satisfied by them.

God is able to prevent evil. 

However, the presence of evil is not an immediate sign that God is malevolent. 

GIL: 

Whether or not you understand what a reductio ad absurdum of the premises is, it is self-evident that there are no square circles . . . nor are there any gods as defined by the god-fearing. Either way, Epicurus came to the inexorable conclusion that the existence of god, as most Abrahamic religions describe him, is impossible.

But believers, most notably Christians, are not impressed with what appears to Atheists to be unassailable logic, and employing a mysterious logic of their own, have devoted countless hours, energy, and mental and semantic manipulation in attempting to refute, obfuscate and deny the undeniable conclusion of the “Epicurean paradox,” as it is sometimes called. In so doing, they have created the branch of theology called “theodicy” which despite its partial aural resemblance to “idiocy” is not necessarily etymologically related to that noble enterprise.

In an interesting statement (quoted form the Catholic Encyclopedia)* Catholics display an amazing degree of chutzpa mingled with self-contradiction, in calling theodicy “a science” while describing theology as the “knowledge of God as drawn from the sources of supernatural revelation” (Thereby admitting to the failure of theology.)

FATHER JOE:

There is nothing about the definition of theodicy or theology which admits to failure.  The critic makes silly assertions but offers no sensible or logical argument. 

Epicurus, himself, lived at a time prior to the incarnation and had not been exposed to the God who would reveal himself in human history.  God created man in his own image and likeness.  Of all creation, men and women could respond to God, not with blind animal instinct but with deep awareness and love.  There was a terrible cost with such freedom and power for self-determination.  God’s will would permit evil but would not remain frozen regarding it.  This is why God is not a monster and why this argument against his existence fails.  He intervenes in human history.  What he would not prevent, he comes to heal and to forgive.  He comes to make right the wrongs we committed.  While sin, suffering and death have not been undone, they have been conquered.  The Greatest Good, which nothing greater can be conceived and which by necessity must exist, will prevail over evil.

The “reduction to absurdity” argument is dependent upon the accuracy of the premises.  If any of the assertions lack consistency or wholeness of meaning, the conclusion would be invalid.  It seeks to prove a contention by deriving an absurdity from its denial.  I am reminded of the omnipotence paradox.  “Given that God can do anything and is omnipotent, could God create a rock too heavy for anyone to lift?”  If God could then he would not seem to be omnipotent at all.  If he could not, the same conclusion would be applied.  In truth, there is an inner contradiction to the reasoning.  God can doing anything except violate his own nature, identity and will.  God is an objective reality possessing the perfections of attributes in which we participate in a lesser manner.  Similarly, Epicurus’ understanding of omnipotence, evil and goodness might need a re-evaluation.  What God directly wills is not evil, no matter what name we might give it.  This does not mean that evil is an illusion, only that there is some value we might not immediately perceive in permitting it, like free will and a contingent good.  God is man’s judge, not the other way around.  We can abstract from finite things the concept of the infinite.  We know imperfection and thus attribute to God the perfection we do not experience.  However, the finite can never exhaust or fully comprehend the infinite.  There will always be mystery.

Just as he might contend that believers are bias in their reasoning, the atheist critic is also prejudiced in that he assumes he has proven what he set out to prove.  I suppose he thinks that this brings under his ridicule the “Abrahamic religions” of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.  While I cannot speak to the other two monotheistic faiths, the essential message of Christianity is a resolution of the problem of sin and evil.  Christ redeems a people and heals the breach caused by human iniquity.  The lamentation of Job is given its final resolution and response in the God who made our pain his own.  He who was higher over us than we are over ants has made himself an ant for us.  Such is not a sign of malice but a sacrificial love that is unmerited and unfathomable.  Now the Father finally receives the love and fidelity he deserves.  We join ourselves with Jesus so that there might be one eternal Lamb which surrenders himself to the Father.  The riddle of Epicurus speaks against the god of the deists who like a watch-maker abandons his creation.  False gods do not exist.  But the God of Christian faith keeps us in existence from every moment and makes possible our re-creation in Jesus Christ.

GIL:

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is alleged to have coined the term in a philosophical treatise ”The Theodicee,” published in 1710, while he was engaged in the practice of “apologetics, . . . a branch of theology devoted to the defense of the divine origin and authority of Christianity.” By doing this he made inroads into the nefarious practice of combining theology and philosophy, thereby contributing to the corruption of both, although it is difficult to conceive of the corruption of theology. I say this because in my opinion, theology (like Seinfeld’s TV show) has as the object of its study . . . “nothing.” Imagine; thousands of people, many with doctorates, scouring the earth, its libraries, and all of the vast repositories of human knowledge, and every one of them is engaged in what they believe and proclaim to be a scientific study; to which I add . . . of nothing.

For thousands of years, believers and apologists, have attempted to convince Atheists and other freethinkers, beginning with Epicurus, that there really is no problem with the existence of a benevolent god in a world full of plagues, tsunamis, (and in modern times) Holocausts, and educated professionals, who fly fuel-laden commercial jetliners into hundred-story skyscrapers.

FATHER JOE:

The critic here really has no argument of his own.  All he can do is offer empty ridicule.  He calls theodicy “idiocy” because he gives no value to theological reflection.  He displays ignorance at many stages of his response, proving I suppose that schools give fools doctorates these days if they can parrot their teachers and pay tuition bills.  The word “science” is used in regard to theology and he mocks such a label, evidently unaware that it traditionally signified any field or branch of knowledge.  He speaks about Leibniz as a progenitor in the combination of theology and philosophy and yet Augustine much earlier used Neo-Platonism and Aquinas employed Aristotelianism.  This represented no corruption but truth building upon truth.  He impugns such work as the vast studying of “nothing.”  Again, he is very presumptuous, borrowing information he does not understand and criticizing that which by his own admission he deems as unworthy of study.  Such attitudes make for very dull-witted minds although they will sometimes masquerade as informed, plagiarizing those with bigger heads and thumbing excitedly through thesauruses.

While he contends that atheists and believers have been at loggerheads for thousands of years; the history of the matter is that most arguments have been among theists.  Atheism as we know it today is a fairly modern animal.  Epicurus would not be counted among them although the mythic deities of his age and culture were all too fallible and often more reprehensible in character than many men.

GIL:

For me, the problem came to light, again, in an after-dinner conversation recently with a Christian schoolteacher who described the wonderful experience of having had a student discover that some good might have resulted from the Holocaust. The student had come to the conclusion that the reason the concentration-camp inmates did not rebel against their captors, was that the energy they would have needed for such a daunting undertaking was consumed by their desperate daily obsession with food, water and survival. They did not have the luxury of exploring solutions to problems like rebellion. The teacher described this student’s enlightenment as an “epiphany” and said that it demonstrated that “some good had come out of the death of six million Jews, in the fact that a high-school kid in South Florida realized how lucky he was to not have to spend his entire waking life in the pursuit of safety, food and water!”

I protested that this was another example of apologetics, whereby the apologetic stretch for the identification of “good” in the face of unimaginable horror, is analogous to claiming that some good was derived from the San Francisco earthquake in April of 1906 because in a few places near the sea it formed cliffs for affluent twentieth-century Californians to build homes with an ocean view.

FATHER JOE:  The aside about a Christian school teacher and a partial apologia or rationalization of the Holocaust is aberrant to this discussion and ridiculous.  However, can good come from terrible evil?  The legacy of the early Christian martyrs is a point in favor.  Their blood watered the plant that was the early Church.  We are moved and inspired by those who witness for the Gospel as signs of contradiction in the world.  As for the Jewish Holocaust, we should never forget this terrible evil and the hatred and apathy of men that made it possible.  There is nothing we can do to change what happened.  However, we can work for a better world where there is understanding and toleration.  The reason why there is a museum to this mass murder in Washington, DC, is so that these deaths will not be in vain.  God did not intervene and stop it but the believer trusts that after our short sojourn in this world, there is an eternity that awaits us.  This world with our frightful freedom prepares us for what is to come.  Christians trust that even in the present, because of the passion of Jesus, God is in solidarity with the suffering, the oppressed and the poor.  God will reward faithfulness and punish disobedience, particularly the failure to love.

GIL:

Of course, it is always possible to redefine terms, restructure ideas and waffle on descriptive categories, as was done by one of the most eminent of biologists and free-thinkers, who unfortunately was also an apologist of sorts. Self-described “Jewish agnostic” Stephen Jay Gould, in arguing for the peaceful co-existence of science and religion, created his concept of non-overlapping magisteria, NOMA, in which each magisterium was a “domain of teaching authority,” and by so doing, in 1999, he arbitrarily established the existence of two universes, despite the fact that as a scientist he was obligated to live and study in only one.

He wrote, “. . . I have great respect for religion, and . . . I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving, concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA concept.”

FATHER JOE:  Stephen Jay Gould writes about a collaboration of believers and secularists.  The critic contends that such falsely creates multiple universes where there is only one.  (I guess he is not familiar with string theory and possible overlapping universes, but this takes us to another subject.)  He fails to fathom that there may be many roads to approach some of the same truths and values.  The Church focuses upon natural law as a means by which believers and non-believers might hold similar views about human dignity, behavior and life.  He sees religion and God as a joke, not even as something which enriches human society and culture.  His way is no way at all.  It leads to persecution of believers and the marginalization of faith and values.

GIL:  So it is possible not only for theologians and philosophers to play the game of “apologetics,” apparently even prominent scientists are not above this attempt to circumvent logic and common sense in an effort to placate the gods. But over two thousand years ago, Epicurus, in a mere few sentences, refuted for all time, the pious, misguided meanderings of theologians, philosophers, scientists and ordinary people, . . . including my erstwhile dinner companion. . . . Yet none of them have the slightest clue that they are attempting to define “truth” as ideas that are in accord with their own distorted reality.

*The Catholic Encyclopedia also referred to today as the Old Catholic Encyclopedia, is an English-language encyclopedia published by The Encyclopedia Press. It was designed to give “authoritative information on the entire cycle of Catholic interests, action and doctrine.”

FATHER JOE:

The distortion of reality belongs to the critic here.  It is no wonder that such a closed-minded person cannot begin to appreciate the complexity of the question about God’s existence and the problem of pain.  It amazes me that while we cannot even make a basic seed from scratch, that we would presume in two or three short sentences to refute the existence of the very Creator who ordered the universe and gave us the seeds we plant.  There is one word that summarizes the feigned mastery and pathetic argument of the critic here:  HUBRIS.

God could have created a world void of evil.  The Church contends that God allows evil as a result of the fall and as the price for human free will.  He could have made us like ants or robots.  Christians also believe that divine providence will ultimately prevail.  This challenges us to acknowledge that we only see a small part of the whole situation.  God does not view creation in a sequential fashion, but all at one time.  As all powerful, he is above it all.  The very fact that God can make right what we see as so many wrongs is a demonstration of his authority.

Christians are realists in regard to the presence of evil in the world.  God’s passive or permissive will tolerates and even uses quantitatively limited evils for long-term eventual goods.  There is no denying the possibility and the subsequent occurrence of evil; however, God does not directly will evil in itself.  Christianity gives great weight to divine providence but it would not be catalogued as a form of determinism or fate.  It is precisely because God desires for us to know the greatest good of love that he has given us free will.  Divine omnipotence is not compromised by the insertion of such freedom into the human equation even though it includes potency for evil or sin.  There is also the potential for faithfulness.  Indeed, the divine response to iniquity is the passion and death of Christ.  The absurdity of the Greeks (Epicurus) becomes the wisdom of God.  The God that they cannot fathom to exist, by the implementation of his almighty power, traverses the infinite distance between the Creator and the creature in becoming man and subjects himself to the punishment of suffering and death which we incurred by sin.  In the course of salvation history, God in Jesus Christ conquers evil and the devil.  Goodness itself shines all the brighter against the backdrop of evil.  We see this in the courageous witness of martyrs and saints.  Indeed, suffering or sharing in Christ’s Cross brings us into a closer relationship or affinity with God.  The Christian resolution to the mystery of evil and suffering is our Lord’s solidarity with us in the dark things of life.  He gives them a transformative meaning and does not abandon us as orphans.  We are promised a share in his risen and glorified life.

Catholic thought about evil or sin and suffering in the world is heavily informed by an Augustinian theodicy.  Reading Genesis, it is apparent that what God created was good but sin came into the world because of the primordial rebellion of our first parents.  Suffering from a fallen nature, moral evil is perpetuated by human beings who have distanced themselves from God and have disobeyed him.  This fall also brought about a disharmony in the world or natural evil.  Evil is either a deviation from the path given us by God or a privation of goodness.  Evil does not exist in itself.  While God is all-good, there is no such thing as an all-evil entity.  The devil is a fallen creature but not the parallel opposite extreme of God.  Thomas Aquinas would echo Augustine and speak of metaphysical, moral and physical evil.  There are some things we regard as natural evils only because human beings are involved, like living next door to an active volcano or caught in a raging fire storm or flood.   Evil is thus seen as a relational concept.  Thomas would write that the created universe would be less perfect as a whole if it contained no evil.  The example is given of the wood which gives warmth as it is consumed by the fire.  Similarly, we eat other creatures to survive.  However, the evil of sin is permitted but finds its source in men and not in God.  It is the result of the abuse of free will.

Christian anthropology will sometimes speculate about what might have been had man not fallen.  Perhaps the final consummation would have taken place at the beginning of human history instead of at the end?  Maybe death would have been like our casual walking through a doorway from one room to another, not true death at all?  But men sought to return to the bestial, denying their high calling.  Sin and death entered the world.  God brings good from our evil.  He does not abandon us.  The priest or deacon sings in the Exultet on Holy Saturday, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”