Posts Tagged ‘theodicy’

George MacDonald on animals and God

September 9th, 2010 No comments

George MacDonald was a minister and theologian in the mid-late 1800’s.  His wiki entry claims influenced C.S. Lewis and perhaps even Mark Twain.  That’s quite a combination.  I have my share of Twain’s, Letters from the Earth days.  I definitely have a lot of C.S. Lewis, “Problem of Pain” days.  If you’re interested in C.S. Lewis I recommend the article, in which Andrew Linzey does an excellent exposition of Lewis’ theology of animals, available online here.

Lately though, I find myself resonating with much of what MacDonald has written in The Hope of the Universe.  It looks like he could have been speaking into the vivisection debate at that time, though I’m not sure from this text.  I’ve been reading this for awhile now and have had a difficult time deciding which part to excerpt.  It’s all good. But here are my favorites pieces of his interaction with Romans 8.

To believe that God made many of the lower creatures merely for prey, or to be the slaves of a slave, and writhe under the tyrannies of a cruel master who will not serve his own master; that he created and is creating an endless succession of them to reap little or no good of life but its cessation–a doctrine held by some, and practically accepted by multitudes–is to believe in a God who, so far as one portion at least of his creation is concerned, is a demon. But a creative demon is an absurdity; and were such a creator possible, he would not be God, but must one day be found and destroyed by the real God. Not the less the fact remains, that miserable suffering abounds among them, and that, even supposing God did not foresee how creation would turn out for them, the thing lies at his door. He has besides made them so far dumb that they cannot move the hearts of the oppressors into whose hands he has given them, telling how hard they find the world, how sore their life in it. The apostle takes up their case, and gives us material for an answer to such as blame God for their sad condition.

MacDonald, like both Twain and Lewis, recognizes predation and animal suffering to be a serious theological issue. He takes Paul to have actually already provided the answer.   I’ve read quite a bit of natural evil/animal suffering theodicy.  It seems odd that we would read the bible in a way that requires post-hoc animal suffering theodicies.  If we weren’t reading it with selfishly anthropocentric lenses to begin with we wouldn’t have to defend it from the God-diminishing conclusions of reading it anthropocentrically.  On the other hand, if we weren’t reading it anthropocentrically, it would make claims on our behavior to non-human animals.  And we certainly can’t have the bible making claims on us that we don’t like.

What many men call their beliefs, are but the prejudices they happen to have picked up: why should such believers waste a thought as to how their paltry fellow-inhabitants of the planet fare? Many indeed have all their lives been too busy making their human fellows groan and sweat for their own fancied well-being, to spare a thought for the fate of the yet more helpless. But there are not a few, who would be indignant at having their belief in God questioned, who yet seem greatly to fear imagining him better than he is: whether is it he or themselves they dread injuring by expecting too much of him?

Believing that God cares about animals is certainly an insult the human ego.  Not only do we want confirmation of our own special-ness, we tend to want that to entail an added dimension of therefore-more-special-than (fill in the blank) because of (fill in the justification).

Do you believe in immortality for yourself? I would ask any reader who is not in sympathy with my hope for the animals. If not, I have no argument with you. But if you do, why not believe in it for them? Verily, were immortality no greater a thing for the animals than it seems for men to some who yet profess to expect it, I should scarce care to insist upon their share in it. But if the thought be anywise precious to you, is it essential to your enjoyment in it, that nothing less than yourself should share its realization? Are you the lowest kind of creature that could be permitted to live? Had God been of like heart with you, would he have given life and immortality to creatures so much less than himself as we?  … If his presence be no good to the sparrow, are you very sure what good it will be to you when your hour comes? Believe it is not by a little only that the heart of the universe is tenderer, more loving, more just and fair, than yours or mine.

This.  This.  This.

Had the Lord cared no more for what of his father’s was lower than himself, than you do for what of your father’s is lower than you, you would not now be looking for any sort of redemption.

And this.  Isn’t this the point of “not one sparrow?”  MacDonald gets to that here …

If the Lord said very little about animals, could he have done more for them than tell men that his father cared for them? He has thereby wakened and is wakening in the hearts of men a seed his father planted. It grows but slowly, yet has already borne a little precious fruit. His loving friend St Francis has helped him, and many others have tried, and are now trying to help him: whoever sows the seed of that seed the Father planted is helping the Son. Our behaviour to the animals, our words concerning them, are seed, either good or bad, in the hearts of our children. No one can tell to what the animals might not grow, even here on the old earth under the old heaven, if they were but dealt with according to their true position in regard to us. They are, in sense very real and divine, our kindred. If I call them our poor relations, it is to suggest that poor relations are often ill used. Relatives, poor or rich, may be such ill behaved, self-assertive, disagreeable persons, that we cannot treat them as we gladly would; but our endeavour should be to develop every true relation. He who is prejudiced against a relative because he is poor, is himself an ill-bred relative …

Moving into his discussion of vivisection … I wonder what he would have thought about modern day slaughterhouses and factory farms?   Compare this to contemporary apologists who claim it’s ok to “work on” animals.

Torture can be inflicted only by the superior. The divine idea of a superior, is one who requires duty, and protects, helps, delivers: our relation to the animals is that of their superiors in the family, who require labour, it may be, but are just, helpful, protective. Can they know anything of the Father who neither love nor rule their inferiors, but use them as a child his insensate toys, pulling them to pieces to know what is inside them? Such men, so-called of science–let them have the dignity to the fullness of its worth–lust to know as if a man’s life lay in knowing, as if it were a vile thing to be ignorant–so vile that, for the sake of his secret hoard of facts, they do right in breaking with torture into the house of the innocent! Surely they shall not thus find the way of understanding! Surely there is a maniac thirst for knowledge, as a maniac thirst for wine or for blood! He who loves knowledge the most genuinely, will with the most patience wait for it until it can be had righteously.  … Force thy violent way, and gain knowledge, to miss truth. Thou mayest wound the heart of God, but thou canst not rend it asunder to find the Truth that sits there enthroned.

He ends with

To those who expect a world to come, I say then, Let us take heed how we carry ourselves to the creation which is to occupy with us the world to come.


Thoughts on Instrumentalist Theodicies

July 14th, 2010 No comments

Here’s a blurb from Michael Lloyd, addressing some issues he sees with theodicies in which natural evil (including animal pain and suffering, predation – both inter and intra-species, etc. ) is addressed from an instrumentalist position, i.e. it’s bad but necessary.

Thirdly, the instrumental answers diminish the praise-worthiness of God.  It is one of the privileges of the church that ‘you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1Peter 2.9).  It detracts from those praises if it was God who put us in that darkness in the first place.  Could we muster wholehearted praise for a God who rescues us from a situation God had deliberately created from the outset?  The prophetic promise that the wolf will lie down with the lamb (Isa. 11:6-9) is seen as one of the grounds and causes of universal proclamation and praise (Isa. 12.1, 4-6).  But if it were God who set up the structures of predation and violence originally, how genuine would be the gratitude of creation?  Austin Farrer speaks of God as ‘our rescuer from that whirlpool, in which all things, whether good or evil, senseless or sentient, are sucked down’.  Yet if God created that whirlpool and placed us within it, how fulsome will be our praise?   T.F. Torrance can speak similarly of how ‘The purpose of the Incarnation … was to penetrate into the innermost center of our contingent existence, in its finite, fragile and disrupted condition, in order to deliver it from the evil to which it had become subjected, healing and re-ordering it from its ontological roots and entirely renewing its relation to the Creator,’ because he believes that we should not ‘regard evil and disorder in the universe as in any way intended or as given a direct function by God in the development of God’s creation’. What the instrumentalists have in common, however, is a belief that natural evil does have a direct function in the development of God’s creation.  They cannot therefore speak in the same way of God rescuing God’s creatures, and our praise of God the Redeemer must correspondingly be weaker.

I think the statement “Could we muster wholehearted praise for a God who rescues us from a situation God had deliberately created from the outset?” gets at my biggest problem with instrumentalist approaches.  That’s Stockholm Syndrome.  I can see evolution by itself leading to the psychology behind empathy and morality but evolution is a thing that you can’t put a tri-Omni God in front of as a literal first cause.  So far, it looks to me like this is the one place where you actually destroy the tri-Omni concept of God when you insert him as a causality.  When you add a conscious causality to evolution, when you say there was a choice to use evolution, that causality becomes a monster.  On that model, a conscious being, something we refer to as a person, uses not just some people but the whole of creation as mere means.   That’s selfish and I’ll give you that that’s how people can be.   In fact, we consider people who embody that fully and completely to be monsters and we call them psychopaths and sociopaths.  The people who most fully  “manifest instrumentalism” if you will, are monsters.  We can’t say that people, much less anything about the rest of the world, are inherently valuable and deserve to be treated as ends and then at the same time say we get that from God.  By definition instrumentalist positions posit God as a being who uses everything as mere means.  If we treat other people, other creatures as ends in and of themselves, and if we value that as a good, then it seems that we don’t get that from an instrumentalist God, we get that in spite of an instrumentalist God.

Fourthly, the instrumental answers drive a wedge between creation and redemption.  Either predation and pain were, and remain, God’s eternal purpose for creation, in which case redemption is unnecessary, undesirable, and impossible; or they were part of God’s temporary purpose for creation, in which case creation and redemption seem to point in worryingly different directions.  C.W. Formby draws out the problem with this latter position: it implies, he says, that ‘God, having continued the organic process as a purely constructive method for countless ages, upon the self-centered principles of ruthless competition and instinct-control, sought in later stages to unmake what He had made, by spiritual influences, by recourse to the moral teaching of the Bible, and by the power of the Incarnation’. ‘Thus,’ he concludes, ‘the method attributed [by this position] to God amounts virtually to self-contradiction.’

Michael Lloyd, “Are Animals Fallen?,” in Animals on the Agenda: Questions About Animals for Theology and Ethics, eds. Linzey and Yamamoto (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 152-153.

Theodicy, Animal Pain, and Pathetic Cyclopsian Hordes

March 9th, 2010 No comments


Here’s a page with a couple of good entries on the problems for theodicy presented by animal pain and suffering, from the online journal of philosophy and animals Between the Species.  The two articles I found most interesting are :

Theodicy and Animals, by Joseph Lynch.  This is a good short summary of the problems animals pose for traditional theodicies as well as some of the general attempts by theists to address those issues. Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, by Michael Murray would be a similar treatment in book length.

Darwin’s Doubts and the Problem of Animal Pain, by Eric Kraemer.  This one touches on a few points of interest, Plantinga’s use of ‘Darwin’s doubts’ and whether evolution is in fact reconcilable with the propositions of traditional theism.  I appreciated the example of the Cyclopsian Hordes in response to framing the significance of animal suffering in terms of human character building … honestly … could there be anything more selfish than explaining someone else’s suffering in terms of yourself?

To claim that animal suffering is required for human character building, free will, etc. not only ignores the huge amount of animal suffering in nature which has no effect on humans at all.22 To avoid this last problem, suppose we try to justify animal suffering in terms of requirements involving another kind of creature, for example a very large number of idiotic giants, modeled perhaps after the Cyclops, who live on other planets but are obsessed with observing all nonhuman suffering on Earth through powerful telescopes, so no bit of animal suffering ever goes unobserved. If there are enough giants on other planets and if every bit of animal suffering goes towards improving the moral situation of these pathetic giants, the theist might claim that earthly animal suffering was counterbalanced by creating greater goods elsewhere in the universe.23 However unlikely this situation might appear to us, and even if we accept the crude Utilitarian calculations it presupposes, the Cyclopsian scenario faces a standard problem confronting most theistic attempts to explain away the existence of evil.24 This is the problem of making it plausible to believe that God, an all-powerful and all-knowing being, really had no better method available for the moral improvement of the Cyclopsian race than to permit the huge amount of animal suffering we find on Earth. Since we can, with no apparent difficulty, imagine God making video tapes of animal suffering, or showing movies of animal suffering to produce the same good extra-terrestrial effect, to think of God’s ingenuity being defeated by the mental limitations of the Cyclopsian hordes is a possibility that is hard to take seriously.