Monday, December 19, 2005

Some Untimely Responses to My Commentors

I think I have told you before, dear readers, that I do some of my best thinking in confined spaces. I haven’t spent enough time psychoanalyzing myself to really know why I do; most likely I am just too cut off from distractions to do anything else.

Since arriving on the West Coast, I have not had a whole lot of time to reflect well on some of the discussions I have had in the comments thread here and elsewhere on Robert’s blog: The Argument Clinic.

Now that I am flying North, I have thought about little else than two problems posed by two different readers: Sean and Robert.

Let me address an analogy the Sean used in his apologia for God’s seemingly cruel behavior toward humanity: that is, God’s failure to act and save us from the evil of others or natural disasters. Sean masterfully launched into a defense of God, free will and the innocence of any human life born in a debate over my post on Plan B and Catholic Hospitals.

What I want to focus on is Sean’s analogy of God's behavior toward us as akin to the role of parenting. I am not stranger to this particular theological move, since I have attended three Jesuit Universities, and I was required to take a great deal of theology courses. I also just finished grading a round of papers on the problem of evil and, unsurprisingly, many of my students defended God’s apparent failure to act and rescue us from evil as akin to parents choosing to let their children make mistakes and learn from them, with the ultimate goal of teaching personal responsibility and self-sufficiency.

Sean’s particular example depicted parents of a newborn, who want to teach the baby to sleep alone throughout the night. The parents are pained at the howling cries of their infant, yet they know that to teach this lesson to their child, they must refrain from answering her desperate cries.

A colleague of mine once made a similar argument when he tried to explain to me God’s inaction in the face of evil. He argued that as a father of three children, he has wondered why, many times, he had children when he knows that he cannot control how they will turn out, that their wills may oppose his own. His children, for example, may grow up to reject all of the values and talents they inherited from their father.

Ok, so I think this analogy to parenting is rather compelling, especially to people searching for a way to maintain their faith in the face of disasters or trauma. But, this analogy never does its magic on me. Part of the reason why it fails to convince me that God does not neglect us in times of tragedy—either by his failure to rescue us or by his silence—is that I don’t have a profound need to maintain my faith in God’s omnipotence, omniscience and wholly good nature. I also don’t find myself requiring God’s existence for morality; I think we can figure out what is good without God.

Yet, there is something else that really gnaws at me about this analogy and that is how poorly it actually captures parent-child relationships. While yes, in principle, most parents do aim to make their children personally responsible and self-sufficient, it does not follow that parents choose not to rescue their children from harm or evil.

In fact, any parent who had the power to rescue his or her child from future evil or harm, and did not do so, would be swiftly morally condemned by their community, church and peers. Let me take an example to illustrate my point.

Let’s say that a single mother remarries a man, and then discovers that he has a history of child abuse, which he successfully hid from her during the courting phase. The mother then catches her new husband hitting her young son because he sullied the DVD player. The mother walks in on her husband’s cruel and unnecessary behavior and witnesses the whole event. She watches her child scream and howl and beg for her help. She does nothing, fearing he will next turn on her.

When he finishes the beating, she then sends her child up to the room and chooses to pretend that it didn’t happen. She does not report this violence, nor she doesn’t remove her child from the environment. In fact, she spends hours trying to justify it in her own mind. She determines that her new husband is a disciplinarian and it will be good for little Johnny. She remains with her husband and for years he continues to torture her son.

Would we decide that her non-intervention was ultimately the best route to promoting little Johnny’s autonomy and self-reliance? Was she right in allowing this evil to happen, since, after all, her son could decide how to react to this pain and suffering.?

Moreover, would this woman’s son be likely to worship his mother for giving him this free will to deal with the evil of his step-father?

The God as parent analogy is limited in its capacity to bring those who suffer comfort.

Now, I want to briefly address a comment that Robert made on his blog about pregnancy and prevention. In response to my question of whether or not a mother should be compelled to raise a child when she had taken every precaution to avoid getting pregnant, he responded: “Nobody who is pregnant who voluntarily chose to have vaginal intercourse took ‘all precautions to avoid pregnancy.’”

I am disturbed by this reasoning. If we accept that the premise that anyone who has sex failed to prevent pregnancy, we must therefore assume that all sexual activity is ultimately about getting pregnant. For, if we were to assume that getting pregnant was one possible by-product of sex, then we would not conclude that engaging in the activity was a failure to prevent getting pregnant.

To demonstrate this point, let me consider an analogy to eating. If I engage in the activity of eating everyday and find that I have gotten food poisoning, do I conclude that, well, that’s what you get for eating since if you didn’t want to get food poisoning, then you should have abstained from eating? Getting food poisoning, when you take all precautions to avoid it by carefully preparing your food, is unfortunate, sad and traumatic. However, not many people are likely to force you into this misery, since you did voluntarily choose to eat.