Friday, May 23, 2008

Why bad things happen to good people

I’m actually fairly careful to keep to the theme of this blog, though it may seem to cover a lot. The theme is Christian humanism: the connection between Christian faith and human intelligence, and the argument that Christians (should) appreciate natural things more, not less, than non-Christians.

This post relates to that theme, first, by responding to an objection: the world is not absurd, and belief in a good God is not contrary to our natural experience. But this post will also relativize that theme by arguing that there are higher things than worldly success.

So here’s the standard question: why do bad things happen to good people? And here’s the answer: they don’t, as long as you know what “bad” (and “good”) means.

An illustration: When I was in fifth grade, I had a temporary fascination with an abstract art project. I would write a word, usually my name, in marker, usually black. Then I would trace around it in another color, and around that, and around that. What fascinated me was the way the sharp definition of the letters gradually gave way to increasingly rounded corners and the interaction of each letter’s tracings. By the time I reached the edge of the page, I had a strange interlacing starburst, neither random (since it followed from the strict pattern of the letters) nor predicitable according to any pattern I knew. This was my first intimation of the beauty of fractal math and fluid dynamics — but that’s another story.

One day in fifth grade, we had an assignment that gave me the chance to pursue this project. Probably we were just supposed to decorate name tags for our desks; I launched off on my abstract project. I used every color in my marker set (were there ten?), so I was a bit surprised when the girl next to me asked, “is brown your favorite color?” The ring I was working on was brown, ergo . . . .

Well, of course brown was not my favorite color. (I think blue was.) But to make the pattern come out in all its beauty, I needed to use every marker in the box.

So too evil. Does God will evil? No more than I was painting my nameplate brown. This is not to say that evil escapes from God’s grasp, or that God is less than omnipotent. But there is a bigger story. Evil has a context.

This is easy to see on a superficial level. We all know stories like, “When I was in high school, all I wanted to do was play football, but then I got hurt, and I ended up beginning this career as an engineer” or whatever. The evil of injury—and injury is an evil, pure and simple!—set the stage for something greater, something in light of which that evil seemed hardly less evil than having to stand in line to get into a concert.

The problem with this standard illustration, however, is that the evil remains gratuitous. It would be silly to argue that the concert is more fun because you had to stand in line, and there’s no reason you should have to dislocate your should in order to become an engineer. There are good consequences, to be sure, but there is no inherent connection between the consequences and their evil partial cause. The evil remains an absurdity.

Which is why we have to be careful to understand what “bad things” and “good things” (and “good people”) really are. I don’t think I can solve this in a blog post. But let us say that the only true “good thing” is sanctity, and the worship of God. And here the evils along the way become less extrinsic. The grace of forgiveness, the crying out for redemption, the acknowledgement that God is all in all—these are things that shine forth in greater contrast precisely through evils.

There is really no other backdrop against which to think about sheer evil: the death of a child, the horror of Auschwitz (and a thousand other persecutions), the enslavement of sin itself. To speak of any “good” coming from these, apart from the redemption of souls, is to show oneself less than morally serious. On the other hand, precisely because these things are inexplicably horrible, they drive us to the point. This, of course, is the heart of the Christian mystery. The Cross serves no other purpose but to drive our gaze upwards, because on any level but the divine, it is insupportably wrong.

That is why faithful Jews called their experience the Holocaust: a burnt offering. The holocaust offerings of the Old Testament, like the sacrifice of Isaac and the slaughter of the Hebrew children, left one with nowhere to look but upwards. In the fullest context of redemption, evil serves instrinsically to show forth the goodness of God — not as a mere extrinsic means, like an injury setting up a career in engineering, but as the very place where God is discovered. My brown marker brought the blues and yellows to light.

Still, we need to go a step deeper into the metaphor. That art project did not consist merely of brown lines next to yellows. The pattern was far richer, far more complex. So too I think we fall short—and fall far short of the potentialities of Christian humanism—if we accept those stark Lutheran polarities of a black world making us cry out for mercy.

The world is not sheer evil. The evils of this life course through a far more complex, and beautiful, tapestry. The browns and blacks are not just contrasts, but part of the pattern, part of the emanation of the name of God that is creation. Evil and good have natural causes, along with the supernatural. To accept them, to step back and see the browns as part of the scheme of the greater artwork, reflecting the super-intelligibility and overflowing goodness of God in the very reality of creation, is to see God not only as not-evil, but as the eternally Wise, the giver of life, the maker of the real and the culmination of intelligence.

The only truly “good” person is the one who sees this whole, in which bad things are bad, to be sure, just as browns are brown, but as part of a grander and more brilliant scheme.