I had the pleasure of meeting one of my readers this week. His name is Edgar. He wrote me the longest response I ever received for my article, Irreligious. That started a brief email exchange which culminated in a book exchange and a pleasant chat over coffee.
Edgar is a Christian.
In one of my emails, I mentioned: “I do not reject the idea that God is good, just and compassionate. It’s just that if he really is all that, then that’s not the God being described in those books because the God there seems like a petty, immature spoiled brat who goes on a rampage if things get too much for him.” In this sentence, I was referring to several instances in the Old Testament where God goes on killing sprees (think Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho, Saul and the Amalekites, etc.)
Edgar responded by giving a hypothetical situation where I’m in a safari, looking at some magnificent elephants when suddenly I see a couple of people shooting and killing them with high-powered rifles. Of course, I get outraged and demand that they stop what they’re doing.
It turns out, however, that one of these people is the park master, who explains to me that they are practicing a system called “culling” which balances the ecosystem in the park. The elephant population has become so large that it was endangering many of the other species in the park. It was a drastic measure and one they found no pleasure in doing, yet it had to be done for the good of the park.
The point then, was that God may have reasons for doing what he did, but I just don’t understand them, that I don’t know enough to judge the situation. In his words, “our perspective is limited. We don’t see enough. We don’t see the whole story, the larger perspective, the bigger picture.”
I am not unfamiliar with this line of thinking. I call it the “The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways” argument. Its flaw, however, is that it doesn’t really explain anything. It can be used as sort of a magic formula answer to every possible situation.
Why did God, at certain instances, command the Israelites to wipe out an entire race — including the women, the elderly, children and infants? The Lord works in mysterious ways. Why does God allow natural calamities to wipe out entire families and deprive people of their lives and livelihood? The Lord works in mysterious ways. Why does God allow charlatans to preach in his name and amass wealth by spreading lies? The Lord works in mysterious ways. Why does God allow supposed faith healers to do real harm to people by promising healing and giving false hope instead of offering actual, life-saving medication? The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Saying that we can’t really understand how God works doesn’t really improve the situation much. In other fields of study, we do not accept that answer. Science strives to always understand more and more. Not knowing enough is not an excuse not to work towards knowing more, or inventing reasons and preaching them as fact, which is what some do.
In the given example, the park master was on hand to give an explanation, which calmed me down and made me understand. Yet, where is the divine “park master” to explain what is going on in the world? I do not hear any explanation save from secondhand sources who have themselves not heard from the park master himself.
A better example, perhaps, that more closely matches our reality, would be that I see the elephants drop dead one by one. So I don’t know why they’re dying, and neither does anyone else who sees them. Some of the observers offer conjectures — for example, that there is a hidden park master shooting the elephants with a silenced rifle for the reasons given in the original example. Some of these arguments are silly, but I also grant that some are intelligent arguments worth considering (and I do consider them seriously, which is why I even have conversations with people like Edgar, otherwise, why bother?) — but however intelligent these arguments are, they are conjectures nonetheless, and I have yet to hear from the sniper (who may or may not exist and who may or may not be the park master — who knows?) himself.
Yes, there are many things we do not know, and many things our reason can’t grasp, but that doesn’t mean we shut it down and stop trying to understand. History will attest that reason, logic and the scientific method are by far the best tools we have developed to ascertain truth and reality.
As we were about to part and shake hands, Edgar told me about how C.S. Lewis (best known for the Chronicles of Narnia as well as being a stalwart Catholic apologist) described his own conversion: “I was dragged kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God, eyes darting left and right for some means of escape.” What he meant to say was that at the end, he was seemingly left with no choice. He didn’t want to believe, but he had to, because for him, that was the only logical thing to do.
I have not yet reached that point, and still see some logical and reasonable alternatives worth pursuing and worth attacking to see if they will really stand the test of reason. And if I am to once again recover my faith, it will most likely in a manner similar to Lewis’ own kicking and screaming. My commitment to truth demands no less than an honest and brutal appraisal of the best arguments on either side.
What will happen in the end, I wonder? Who knows? The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Originally appears in Sunstar Davao.
Also published in Filipino Freethinkers.