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When Good Things Happen to Bad People

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Every once in a while, when my life is going completely haywire, I do something I call “taking the week-end.”   What “taking the week-end” means is this:  from the time the mail arrives on Friday afternoon, until I wake up Monday morning, I just stop thinking about all the things I have to think about. 

If the writing is going well, I will write–but if it isn’t, I’ll let it lie.  I’ll listen to music.  I’ll read.  I’ll run DVDs if there’s anything I want to see.  I’ll even post a status on Facebook, although I don’t get over to Facebook all that often.

What I won’t do is try to solve the problems I have to solve.  That’s mostly because I’ve gotten myself into a psychological state where I couldn’t solve them if I worked on them for forever and a day.  The stress has set in to the point where it’s beginning to bleed into panic.   Once the panic sets in, I can’t do anything.

I bring all this up because I am, at the moment, in the middle of “taking the week-end.”   This means a lot of things, but what it means for this blog is that I’m likely to blither away on subjects that don’t have any direct connection to anything else I’ve been talking about.

Or, you know, not.  The theoretical point of this exercise is to let my mind float, to let it just do what it wants.  That was, I might unkink enough to think, and sometimes I manage to unkink enough to subconsciously solve a few of the problems. 

In that last case, though, the chances are good that I’d subconsciously solved them all along, and just hadn’t been able to access the information.

All that said, let’s take a look at this day for a moment.

First, the music that’s playing behind my head was written by a man named Francesco Geminiani, an Italian composer from the late seventeenth, early eighteenth century, the student of a man named Archangelo Corelli.

I know almost nothing about Geminiani except that I really like this CD set I’ve got, and I’ve got that by accident.  Years ago, I used to belong to one of those classical music of the month clubs,  and the Geminiani came as one of those selections I forgot to stop.

I know that the music on these two discs is supposed to have been written as a kind of homage to Geminiani’s teacher, but Corelli’s works seem not to have been preserved, except for one, and that in an “expansion” written by Geminiani himself.

I know that Geminiani spent most of the last part of his life in England, where he found the musicians so crude that he refused to have anybody play the harpsichord during concerts of his work except for Handel.

Which is, you know, a nice stipulation if you can get it to stick. 

It’s all chamber music for strings here, though, and no harpsichord that I can tell.  Part of me thinks I should to out and find more work by this person, and maybe find more harpsichords because of it.

Beyond that, I am, indeed, still reading Augustine–and when I’m done, I’m going to turn this book into a coffee table, because it’s big enough.

But the reading has brought up a couple of things that interest me.

Book XI, the first of Part Two, turns out to be a discussion of the opening chapters of Genesis, in an attempt to answer the objections to it from the neoPlatonists.

By neoPlatonists here, I do not mean what Augustine was.  Many Christian theologians of Augustine’s day and after were “neoPlatonists” in the sense that they say Plato and his successors as the closest the pagans came to Christian truth, and in the fact that they took over many technical philosophical terms and their definitions from the Platonic schools.

The neoPlatonists Augustine is debating in Book XI, however, are either pagans, or sort of quasi-pagans who believe that paganism is the best choice of religion for the common people of Rome.  They are all non-Christians, and some of them are anti-Christians.

And that’s how we get to Augustine explicating the opening chapters of Genesis.

The neoPlatonists, it seems, made exactly the same arguments as many people make now, so exactly the same that it can be a little disorienting to read them.

There is, for instance, the question of what a “day” was and how there could have been “days” when the sun and the moon weren’t created until Day 4.   I want to send the whole book–well, Book XI, which isn’t all that long–to the people who put up that Creation Museum in Kentucky.

I’d do it if only to prove that Christian have not “always” interpreted Genesis the way they do.  American “Bible based” churches notwithstanding, it has not been the case that it has everywhere and always been necessary for people to be either stupid or ignorant in order to be Christian.

But the thing that strikes me the hardest came in Book X, and it has to do with something I’ve never thought of in quite this way before.

It has long been a question of why bad things happen to good people–why people who are decent, hardworking, honest, honorable, and in all ways anybody can see upstanding end up getting awful diseases, losing children to accidents, seeing their entire life savings wiped out by a financial crisis they couldn’t have forseen unless they’d been God himself.

The Calvinists solved this by saying that only God knew who was among the elect, and the elect were forordained from all eternity, but that we could know who they were because they would in fact have blessings on this earth.   People who had all that awful stuff happen to them were not, in fact, good people, even if they managed to fake the appearance of being so in the limited vision of their fellow human beings.

I suppose I could go on at length about why that was always a minority point of view in Christianity–or any other Western religion or philosophy–but what interests me is what happens when you turn this upside down.

I’ve always said that although it’s impossible to prove that God does not exist, it’s not impossible to prove that the God of the Christians does not exist–that a God defined as all-good and all-knowing who always has our best interests at heart is almost certainly not true.

The old counter of “of course He’s true, you’re just too limited to understand the way the mind of an infinite being works” won’t wash, either.   It’s just a way of saying “I don’t get it either, but I’m going to believe it anyway.”

And in the Christian tradition with which I’m most familiar, such an argument one of the most basic elements of dogma–the idea that any person, even if he has not been made acquainted with revelation, or is in a state of invincible ignorance towards it–can come to the knowledge of God and His True nature and the basics of His moral law “by reason alone.”

Turn around that thing, though–why do bad things happen to good people?–and you get, “why do good things happen to bad people?

And that question is, in its way, considerably more infuriating than the first one.

It’s not just that God, if He exists, allows good and decent people to get cancer, lose their life savings, or be drowned in tsunamis. 

It’s that, at the same time, He allows violent thugs to win multi-million dollar lotteries, child molestors to rise in the ranks of corporations, and complete jerks to sail through life without so much as a bad cold while nice people die young of cancer and generous people get hit by busses when they’re twenty-two.

All this is perfectly comprehensible if the universe is a place of chance and circumstance, and luck is truly random.

But I think it also is a perfectly good argument against intelligent design of any kind, unless the intelligence doing the designing is either a sociopath or a victim of ADD so bad He can’t concentrate for longer than a nanosecond on any one thing.

 You can put that down next to dental caries in the list of things that make me believe–about God and the nature of the universe–what I believe.

Written by janeh

February 5th, 2011 at 10:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'When Good Things Happen to Bad People'

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  1. There may be some confusion here. The old gentleman who went around at mid-day with a stick, beating everyone he found not carrying out his orders was not God, but an early king of Prussia–Frederick I, I think.

    Believers have been noticing that the wicked flourish and that virtue is no defense against catastrophe since at least the Book of Job, and Jesus specifically points out to His followers that the tower which recently fell in Jerusalem did NOT land on the wickedest people in the city–and I suppose not having a tower land on you counts as a Good Thing.

    Augustine and Aquinas would both have observed your point. Do they speak to it?

    For myself, as Christians, we were told that God loves us–meaning everyone–and to do certain things, and that our reward would be great in Heaven. Miracles were performed to demonstrate that He who promised this knew whereof He spoke. No one promised it would all work out here, though it often does.

    It is generally a mistake, half-way through a detective or science fiction story, to chuck it in the belief that the author doesn’t know what he’s doing. If the author’s any good, those “mistakes” will look very different at the end. I once more recommend Sayers’ THE MIND OF THE MAKER in this context.

    CS Lewis observed once that we were never entirely comfortable on earth, or not for long–always there was the reminder that this was not home. Niven and Pournelle made a very similar point–only they were talking about Hell. This may mean something.

    As for proof I don’t understand the entire plan, I always use mosquitoes, but cavities will certainly do.

    (Incidentally, are you any relation to the Jane Haddam who wrote a blog about people who couldn’t handle lottery winnings? I don’t dispute your observation, but the whole good thing/bad thing business is not always obvious.)


    5 Feb 11 at 3:55 pm

  2. Did Augustine give a solution to the problem of Evil?

    Speaking as someone interested in Physics and Engineering, I’m glad to have a universe which has laws of nature. I like having conservation of energy, conservation of angular momentum and hot air rising and cooling as it rises. In the right circumstances, those laws generate hurricanes.

    I’d say that a universe in which God was constantly intervening to stop the laws on nature would essentially be one which wasn’t predictable.


    5 Feb 11 at 4:39 pm

  3. I have to agree with what Robert says about Christianity not promising great things here on earth – and in fact, warning that terrible things happen to many people. I know some Christians get this wrong and think if they are good Christians they’ll be rich and happy here and now, but I think they’re making a serious error in their understanding of Christianity.

    I’ve always liked the ‘you can’t understand’ response that Jane rejects, even though it means ‘I believe even though I don’t understand’. I suppose that’s for two reasons – the first is that if I ever thought I understood all God’s reasons for everything, I would be certain that I’d invented some kind of mini-god limited to the extent of my understanding. Yes, I think that I can gain some understanding of God by study, thought, prayer, worship … the usual routes … but I don’t think it would ever be complete. Secondly, it doesn’t bother me that much that I can’t understand God entirely because there’s so much else I can’t understand either, ranging from the current scientific understanding of the nature of the universe to human behaviour. And believe me, I’ve tried, and I’ve often had to resort to ‘Well, I don’t understand WHY, but I’ll note my observations that X happens.’

    John, I think Augustine believed that evil was something that blocked us from God, as a barrier of some kind blocks us from light. He was reacting strongly to the Manichee idea that evil was as real as God, and that it pervaded the physical human, leaving only the human spirit with the ability to be good and not evil. But I’ve only read a little of Augustine’s work.

    The problem of evil is such a nasty one. I can niggle at it a bit…so much evil is due to human agency, from the ordinary thieves and liars to the corrupt officials who allow substandard housing in earthquake zones – or take bribes to allow terrorists to travel unchallenged to their destinations, as in Russia. And the world is itself not perfectly safe by nature, as is shown by earthquakes and such. But once I have niggled away at all of this, there’s still the suffering of innocents to deal with, and no, I don’t take the Calvinist view. All I can do is say ‘I don’t understand’ and move on. Deal with the situation as best I can. Maybe turn it to some advantage by using it as an opportunity to help others in spite of my own sorrow, personally or by raising money for research.

    But it’s never enough, is it? It seems like sorrow and grief over unwarranted suffering is just part of life. And I don’t understand why.

    I do find that what’s becoming the standard secular response, especially to physical suffering and disability – is far less satisfactory than the religious one because it often amounts to little more than allowing – or encouraging – the victim to die, thus removing the suffering, and the suffering of the healthy people observing the victim in fear and trembling.


    6 Feb 11 at 8:22 am

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