When “We Just Don’t Know” just isn’t good enough

Heather MacDonald, a well-known writer at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, penned a recent article for the American Conservative that has prompted considerable discussion in the Blogosphere, particularly at NRO’s the Corner. MacDonald’s point, in a nutshell, is to express frustration on behalf of conservative atheists and agnostics towards the overtly theological rhetoric that so often characterizes American conservative arguments. Her thesis: “The conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies [i.e., conservative atheists and agnostics].”

There are a number of issues to chew on in this essay (which I encourage you to read), but I don’t want to talk about MacDonald’s thesis, or the conservative movement per se, in this post. Instead, I want to focus on the following portion of her discussion:

[W]hen a potential tragedy is averted, believers decipher God’s beneficent intervention with ease. The father of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City girl abducted from her home in 2002, thanked God for answering the public’s prayers for her safe return. When nine miners were pulled unharmed from a collapsed Pennsylvania mineshaft in 2002, a representative placard read: “Thank you God, 9 for 9.” God’s mercy was supposedly manifest when children were saved from the 2005 Indonesian tsunami.

But why did the prayers for five-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her Southern California home in 2002 and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated? If you ask a believer, you will be told that the human mind cannot fathom God’s ways. It would seem as if God benefits from double standards of a kind that would make even affirmative action look just. When 12 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion in January 2006, no one posted a sign saying: “For God’s sake, please explain: Why 1 for 13?” Innocent children were swept away in the 2005 tsunami, too, but believers blamed natural forces, not God.

While I certainly don’t identify with professed conservative atheists or agnostics like MacDonald on every issue, I must confess I am largely with her here. Like MacDonald, I also don’t get the selective invocation of Deity’s magic hand by my co-religionists. I also can’t accept the Free Pass that God seems to get from my fellow Churchgoers when He doesn’t intervene in cases where He presumably could. I have always found the notion that I can give my wife a blessing to invoke God’s intervention and (maybe) cure her headache a bit presumptuous in a world where others could probably use some divine assistance more than my wife. I recognize that many people of faith deal with the seeming unfairness or randomness of God’s involvement in human affairs by proclaiming that we just don’t have enough information to understand God’s ways, and by just having faith that He has His reasons for His selective interventions. But I’ve never found this way of understanding things particularly satisfying. Thus, I prefer to imagine a hands-off Deity that, being no “respecter of persons,” lets the vicissitudes of life fall on the “just and unjust” without waltzing in to save the day whenever it tickes His fancy. I actually find this vision of God more comforting personally. In other words, just as Mormonism’s conception of a “finite God” who is not personally responsible for creating all the evil in the world is more comforting than the Classic Christian description of Deity as the ultimate author of suffering, so an even more “finite God” who actually can’t intervene (or who can, but at least has a consistent, nondiscriminatory policy of non-intervention) is more comforting that the traditional Mormon God of priesthood blessings and miracle seagulls.

Now, it may well be that I just haven’t experienced the sort of near brush with personal tragedy in my life that one needs to go through to understand first-hand the need to believe that God is intimately implicated in one’s travails and thus the will to seek the comforting spiritual assurances from God that my sufferings really are a part of some larger design that He has in mind for me. Maybe if I ever do experience such a tragedy (or near-tragedy), I’ll have an epiphany and my attitude will change. Until then, I remain skeptical. (And in any event, I will still probably remain perplexed as to God’s seemingly arbitrary policy of intervention).

But back to the ubiquitous “We Just Don’t Know” line … Like other Christians, Mormons occasionally invoke the “we just don’t know” response when faced with challenging theological questions or doctrinal conundra. The Problem of Evil in the world, and the question of God’s intervention to prevent such evil, is a prime example of an issue where statements about our limited knowledge (coupled with assurances that God Himself nevertheless does act in light of some greater plan) frequently get bandied about. But if “we don’t know” the answer to the question of why God doesn’t intervene to prevent this or that tragedy, than I submit it may be a bit presumptuous to claim to “know” why God has intervened to prevent our own tragedies (or that He has, in fact, intervened at all). “I don’t know” is often trotted out as the escape hatch when we get backed into a theological wall. But not knowing the answer to a question may necessarily have implications for our ability to possess “knowledge” on other questions, and saying “we don’t know” how to assess the relationship between our answers and non-answers to these two sets of questions is, I suspect, either sloppy thinking or downright disingenuousness.

Questions:

1. Do you believe that God has ever personally intervened in your life to prevent great tragedy?

2. If so, why do you believe he intervened in your case, but not in so many others?

3. Does your belief stem from the idea that God is constantly involved in the decisions and activities of your day, large and small, and so He must have been involved by definition, or does it stem from a personal spiritual manifestation you had which confirmed that He injected himself into your affairs to prevent certain tragedy in a particular instance?

4. If you believe that God intervened in a particular instance, are you sure your good fortune wasn’t just coincidence, or dumb luck? How? Please explain how you distinguish coincidence, or random good fortune, from the hand of Providence. Or do you think you don’t have to because, in your case, God is always micromanaging your life’s outcomes?

Aaron B

Comments

  1. Eric Russell says:

    I believe in divine intervention simply because the belief in no divine intervention is absurd. Why then would we pray for blessings? We may not “know” when divine intervention has occurred (except possibly by the spirit) but it doesn’t follow from that that it doesn’t happen.

  2. It is an established tenant of Mormonism that God does intervene in the lives of humans. I know that he has in my life and others close to me. Beyond the topic of theodicy, which I think you are conflating with the concept of such an interactive Deity, it would seem that the scriptures (e.g., Moroni) suggest that he intervene when the faithful ask him to.

  3. 1. Certainly.

    2. Because he likes me better.

    3. (less smart-alecky) Because God gets offended if we deny his hand in all things. Ah, but that would include the bad things as well, wouldn’t it?

    4. I don’t worry about it. If something good happens, God gets the credit. If something bad happens, I ask God to help those impacted by it to endure the bad thing.

    I’m not prepared to mete out exactly how much influence God has in my day-to-day life. AFAICT, it’s not nearly as much as it could be, because my ego keeps squeezing out the space he would need to be in to do more. I don’t generally consider it my place to determine how or how well God is doing his job, since I don’t even know what his job is, and have no way of telling where or how he does it. I would do better passing judgment on how well you clean your house based on how you post to the blog than I would at judging God.

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    Obviously, the scriptures do suggest that God is in some sense interactive with us, and to say that he just created the universe/world/whatever and then decided to sit on his hands doesn’t seem to jive too well with various aspects of Mormon doctrine (even though I often ind it more appealing). My post puts the issue in very stark terms, and it avoids this point. But if I grant some level of interaction, I still think there’s this huge question of when, where, why and how much intervention we should believe in.

    Blain says:
    “Because God gets offended if we deny his hand in all things. Ah, but that would include the bad things as well, wouldn’t it?”

    Yes, it would. And so what does it mean to deny, or not deny, God’s hand in all things? If you feel religiously or scripturally compelled to acknowledge God’s hand in your good fortune, it seems to follow you must acknowledge God’s intentional refusal to come to your aid in times of tragedy. And then this refusal requires an explanation. And there are no good explanations, in many cases, that make sense. Some thus throw up their hands, say “It’s a mystery,” and refrain from further theological speculation regarding God’s purposes. Personally, I find this impossible to do. That is, I feel the need to make theological sense of it all. And the easist way to do this seems to be to jettison the notion of a constantly intervening deity. The pros of holding such a belief don’t outweigh the cons, IMO.

    J.Stapely:
    “Beyond the topic of theodicy, which I think you are conflating with the concept of such an interactive Deity …”

    What does this mean? I would argue that the failure of Mormonism to provide a compelling theodicy (arguments of Sterling McMurrin, et al., notwithstanding) stems directly from the fact that Mormonism proclaims the existence of an interventionist deity. (This is a point that the late Peter Appleby tried to make against Mormon philosophers who were over-enthused about the alleged Mormon solution to the Problem of Evil. I find his point persuasive, and the rebuttals of Paulsen, Potter, etc., much less so).

    I’ll say more about this later when I’m less tired.

    Aaron B

  5. Aaron: If you come up with a good answer let me know, I personally don’t think there is one. I share Heather MacDonald’s frustration with the apparent contradiction.

    J. Stapley: I submit that just because “It is an established tenant of Mormonism that God does intervene in the lives of humans”, does not mean that it is true.

    The only way I’ve ever dealt with the question is to remind myself that God wants us to learn certain things; tragedy can be a thorough schoolmaster.

  6. MikeInWeHo says:

    Mormonism can accommodate a limited (intermittent?) Deism rather nicely. Maybe God steps in from time to time (the Resurrection, the Restoration, etc) and then withdraws. The Holy Ghost, while ever-present (at least to some) only inspires and comforts. He does not perform miracles. Or something along those lines. I suppose that most here didn’t see “Angels In America,” which is too bad. It addresses the topic of this post rather brilliantly. Wither God in times of grand tragedy??

  7. I read The Hiding Place recently. Why is it that a Christian woman in a Nazi concentration camp is able to see divine intervention and miracles everywhere? Just because we don’t get the “big” miracle, doesn’t mean we don’t get other miracles. If you are mad at God, you might miss them.
    You can feel God’s help in your life in many ways, even when things go wrong.

  8. These questions are too hard.

    Non-interference is the prime directive, but I can’t explain why some people are “helped” through their prayers and others aren’t. (The Elizabeth Smart thing has always shaken me — why/how could she have been taken after their family prayers that night???) I mean, I guess the prophet could pray that human suffering will end and all those who are mourning will be comforted, and maybe he does, but it doesn’t seem to work that way does it?

    To answer your questions: 1. yes. I’ve narrowly avoided auto accidents, and have felt it was not just luck, but that HF was watching out for me.

    2. Why does he intervene in my case? Because I pester him for safety all the time.

    3. My belief stems from a personal feeling that he intervened in those particular instances.

    4. I don’t think that HF micromanages me or anyone, but that he’s aware of what goes on all the time. I’m a mom and a classroom teacher. I’m pretty much aware of what goes on when and by whom in every corner of the room (at school or at home). I don’t often intervene unless asked, and then only if I feel it’s really necessary for some bigger picture reason (“Mrs. G., can you help me with…?” “No, you can figure that one out on your own.”) A lot of times I feel like I understand how HF works because I do things the same way and we’re modeled after him, right? Delusions of grandeur. . . .? Me???

  9. JKS: You can feel God’s help in your life in many ways, even when things go wrong.

    I agree!! Well, back to my auto accident thing. The one time I did get into an car wreck (it wasn’t my fault), I also feel that it was a blessing from Heavenly Father. I had a little baby in the backseat and was 7 months pregnant. Couldn’t have been a worse situation, right? However, I truly feel it was a blessing sent to us, because we had a teensy little 2-door, family-unfriendly car. Our car was totalled, but no one was hurt. The money we got from the insurance paid for a new car (4-door wagon) and gave us money left over that we really needed because I was having a baby!!

    It was a divinely inspired accident. I’m sure of it.
    And the other driver was a Japanese Buddhist monk. I’m not kidding. Those wooden shoes and robes are probably hard to drive in…

  10. I do believe that God intervenes in my life. I think our prayers and our faith and our love for him give him permission to intervene, without which he is absolutely bound (by the laws of physics, or something like that) to keep his hands off. Christ kept saying when he worked miracles that people’s faith was sufficient that he could heal them. Without our faith, he is powerless to help.

    He’s hanging there, watching every mistake, feeling ever pang, waiting and hoping for us to ask for his help, but he just can’t until we ask.

    I’m a convert who was atheist for all my adult life until I was around 36 or so. That’s how it worked for me, at least.

  11. Aaron,

    My response would have been too long so I wrote a responding post at the Thang.

  12. Brent Hartman says:

    Why has the Lord suffered afflictions to come upon some in this world? They have been afflicted in consequence of their transgressions.

    They were slow to hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God; therefore, the Lord their God is slow to hearken unto their prayers, to answer them in the day of their trouble.

  13. endlessnegotiation says:

    1. No. Nor do I believe he has ever intervened to cause great trajedy either.

    2. n/a

    3-4. About a decade ago I was involved in a severe auto accident. I suffered critical injuries and spent a week in ICU and another two convalescing on the Med/Surg floor. The accident investigator explained to me that by all accounts I should have died at the scene and that the only reason I am alive today is because the lower fixed mount on the seat belt failed. For me to believe that somehow God intervened to save me in this instance would require me to believe that two years before the accident the HG inspired some UAW member to do some sloppy work (and he/she acted upon that inspiration) and that God would ensure that I wound up behind the wheel of that car (a rental BTW) at that exact time– a series of events involving agency of actors. For me to believe that God somehow chose to help me out would, I believe, necessarily require giving up the idea of agency. Mormonism, I think, deals better with an uninvolved God better than the abolishion of agency.

  14. Last Lemming says:

    Brent Hartman,

    You are channelling Eliphaz the Temanite.

    Job 4:1,7-8.

    1 Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered and said,

    7 Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off?
    8 Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same.

    Please consider the following:

    Job 42:7

    And it was so, that after the LORD had spoken these words unto Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.

  15. I don’t think that HF micromanages me or anyone, but that he’s aware of what goes on all the time. I’m a mom and a classroom teacher. I’m pretty much aware of what goes on when and by whom in every corner of the room (at school or at home). I don’t often intervene unless asked, and then only if I feel it’s really necessary for some bigger picture reason (”Mrs. G., can you help me with…?” “No, you can figure that one out on your own.”) A lot of times I feel like I understand how HF works because I do things the same way and we’re modeled after him, right? Delusions of grandeur. . . .? Me???

    OK, but let’s say there is a fire in the classroom and you have the power to rescue all of your students and bring them to safety but you only rescue one or two, allowing the others to die an excruciatingly painful death as they are engulfed in flames. That’s closer to the tsunami/9-11/Katrina-type scenario, in which God apparently selectively miraculously saves some while letting many other innocents suffer and die.

  16. Christophe says:

    I do have to say that it was this issue that lead to me from Mormonism to my eventual atheism.

    As I grew up and received blessings and said prayers I found that I and those around me saw the ‘hits’ for thier prayers and ignored the ‘misses,’ or at least explained them away as God’s will.

    I would pray and find my keys, but when it came to terrible sickness, nothing changed.
    When ‘miracles’ of healing did happen it was always a sickness that could no be seen, cancer or something internal. No one ever grew back an arm or had a gunshot wound healed miraculously.
    So to answer your questions no, I have never really seen or felt god’s presence in the answers to my prayers. And having been both a believer and now an atheist I have not really seen a change in the frequency of random, almost ‘miraculous’ coincidences in my life. Maybe God just really likes me for some reason.

  17. It would be absurd to expect people to be totally predictable, right? So why do we expect God to be totally predictable? God has free agency too. He has His plans and His agenda and if we align ourselves with those plans and that agenda we will see more of His influence in our lives. If we choose to do whatever we want and take no interest in His plans and His agenda, then isnt just a little silly to expect God to satisfy our petty demands, just so we continue to believe He exists?

    1. God Personally? No. Yes ,by proxy (e.g., angels

  18. I think Aaron’s just jinxed himself into experiencing some personal tragedy.

  19. Steve Evans says:

    “it may well be that I just haven’t experienced the sort of near brush with personal tragedy in my life….”

    I think that while you’ve understated this point, it is central. I’m convinced that those who believe in an interventionist God are those who have witnessed miraculous events or tangible answers to prayers in their own lives.

  20. 4 — I think part of my answer to your continuing question was in the part of my comment that you didn’t address — the bigger part of it. I do not find the question of “why does God allow bad things to happen to good people” to be philosophically compelling because it ignores the purpose of the world. We were not put here to have it all be beer and skittles — we were put here to have a full mortal experience so we could find out for ourselves whether we will follow God or not.

    So difficulty is part of the plan — it’s part of what we need, just like a baby bird needs the hard work of breaking out of its shell, or a butterfly needs the hard work of breaking out of its chrysalis. God gives us weakness so that we have the option/possibility of being humble, because being humble is required if we are to gain from this experience what we came here to do.

    However, trusting God is not an easy thing to do. Pride is enmity with God, and it is natural (in a “natural man”) sense for us to resent God and to try to reject his plan for us, thinking we have a better plan. Humility, and accepting that God’s plan is better, don’t come easily to us — some of us never quite get there, because, when push comes to shove, we’d rather push and shove than to submit ourselves to God’s will.

    I don’t have a hard time accepting that God built the world to allow for all of the ugliness and suffering we could possibly choose to create. His hand is in it, but that doesn’t mean he created the ugliness and suffering. Could his participation in the good things in life be as arms length? I don’t know. Perhaps, but I think not.

  21. Aaron, first, there is the matter of theodicy, which I think Mormons are in an easier bind than traditional Christianity, becasue we reject creation ex nihilo. You,however, are asking about something else. You are asking why God hears the prayers of some (e.g., helping someone find their lost keys, or help a headache) when he doesn’t intervene on the needy and suffering of the world whose plight is far worse.

    I think that there are a couple of apsects to this that are important. 1) First, the world is in a fallen and chaotic state and 2) God doesn’t intervene out of his own volition, but only in concert with the faithful. Next we have to determine who the faithful are and we get into a situation whcih many here at BCC have trouble parsing: that God has better relationships with some more than others. That despite his great love for all His children, he lets some pass through great torment. I view this latter phrase as general theodicy and view a retreat from an interactive God as a copout.

  22. Many years ago one of my sons had strayed far from the straight and narrow path. It wasn’t just about him “not going to church”. He was actively engaged in a life that was in direct opposition to the things he had been taught throughout his life. It was a difficult time in our lives and my wife and I sometimes felt that God was not listening to our prayers. Then I ran across a statement attributed to the Prophet Joseph Smith in a book written by Elder Gene R. Cook that brought me some comfort. But when I shared the statement with a friend, who was experiencing similar despair with his own son, he chose to read the statement back to a small group in a meeting. As I listened to his words I had a spiritual witness like I’ve never had before or since, that what was being said was true. The words were “The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.”

    It would be another three years before my son turned his life around but I was prepared, at least on that night, to wait throughout eternity because I knew that if I remained faithful my son would return to me.

    I’m not sure why we were blessed to have things turn out the way they did. I believe it has as much to do with my son, who is now married and the father of a beautiful daughter, as with me. I think in my case I give thanks to my father in Heaven for giving me that witness and that assurance rather than the thanks being intended because of my son’s turn around.

    Likewise, when we give thanks to God for events turning out in our favor maybe we are just saying thanks for sparing us some adversity or sorrow. If we truly do accept Him as God, who controls everything that happens for good in the world, then we have to accept the tragedies with the triumphs.

    I have had to say goodbye to many friends and family that left this life pre-maturely. But I give thanks for the faith that I have that I will see them again someday and I believe in my heart that their passing served a purpose somewhere.

  23. And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil.Zephaniah 1:12

  24. POLONIUS. My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

    HAMLET. Odd’s bodikin, man, better: use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping?

  25. And lo, the LORD did smite those who did quote scriptures without context nor explanation, and did utterly destroy their blog.

  26. Kevin Barney says:

    This was an issue broached by Bob Rees in his Sunstone presentation on Mormon urban legends. That is, someone somewhere made up the story about how there was supposed to be a missionary zone meeting in the WTC on 9/11, but for variouis mysterious reasons not a single missionary made the meeting (alarms failed to go off, traffic was bad or cars wouldn’t start, etc.). Rees points out that whoever crafted this little story and first circulated it apparently didn’t stop to think about the nature of a God who would save 42 missionaries by innumerable small means, but let 3,000 other people die.

    It’s a hard issue. When I lose my keys, intellectually I know that it seems ridiculous to me to pray for help finding them, when there are children starving in the world who need real help from him. But I still pray to find them, and I still acknowledge God’s hand in the success when I do, whether he really helped me or not.

    I guess I do have some Deistic tendencies, but they are not absolute, they are inconsistent and imperfect, a fact I freely acknowledge.

  27. 1. I believe He has intervened in my life numerous times, for big and small things. He also has, at other times, let me and my life go along. Either way, I know He is involved. I don’t always understand why some prayers are answered right away and others may receive a ‘no’ or ‘not now’ but I know He is involved and cares about the details of my life.
    2. “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” (1 Ne. 11:17) Clearly, there is something of faith involved in many cases (nvoking the powers of heaven).
    I think it is important to remember that what we think “should” happen is from our mortal perspective. Faith still must submit to God’s will and plan and understanding, even when we don’t understand. Death and suffering are temporary, no matter how you slice it. I think it’s also important to remember that.
    3. I believe in the concept in general, and have felt the Spirit confirm His involvement — again, in both big and small ways.
    4. I don’t really believe in coincidence or random good fortune. I believe we are to acknowledge God’s hand in all things, even in trials. All things have a purpose. What we do with them is our test.
    I particularly use Elder Bednar’s words (from Conference last year) as a specific test for when the Lord is directly involved: “I testify that the tender mercies of the Lord are real and that they do not occur randomly or merely by coincidence. Often, the Lord’s timing of His tender mercies helps us to both discern and acknowledge them.” (emphasis added) That timing thing is something he mentioned three times (at least) in his talk. I think that is a really good key for recognizing clear tender mercies. That said, even if we aren’t sure, I think we should be grateful for everything in life, since even the fact that we breathe is a gift from Him. (Think King Benjamin.) Life itself, however that life may play out, is a gift because of its supremely important role in our eternal progress. Everything else that is good is a bonus. And all pain and trials can be overcome by the Atonement, so, in the eternal perspective, especially if if we are striving to follow the Savior, nothing can be permanently wrong or amiss or missed in our lives. (“Please remember this one thing. If our lives and our faith are centered upon Jesus Christ and his restored gospel, nothing can ever go permanently wrong.” – Howard W. Hunter)

    One more quote:
    “God, who oversees the interlacings of galaxies, stars, and worlds, asks us to confess His hand in our personal lives, too (see D&C 59:21). Have we not been reassured about the fall of one sparrow and that the very hairs of our heads are numbered? (see Matt. 10:29–30; D&C 84:80). God is in the details!
    (Neal A. Maxwell, “Encircled in the Arms of His Love,” Ensign, Nov. 2002, 16, emphasis added)

    I have a hard time comtemplating faith in a Being who is hands-off. I also think “we just don’t know” needs to be good enough sometimes, because we are mortal beings and simply can’t understand God. Knowing He is perfectly just and merciful sometimes has to be enough.

  28. Aaron Brown says:

    J.Stapley said:
    “Aaron, first, there is the matter of theodicy, which I think Mormons are in an easier bind than traditional Christianity, because we reject creation ex nihilo. You, however, are asking about something else.”

    No. My point (or at least one of them), in the starkest of terms, is that Mormonism is unable to provide a truly compelling theodicy because of its belief in an intervening deity. The issues are inextricably linked, in my mind. I evidently didn’t make the point explicitly enough, or perhaps my writing was simply poor. Let me explain, in quick and dirty fashion.

    “Theodicy” refers to the vindication of God’s goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil. A common Mormon argument has it that, because we reject creation ex nihilo, we don’t have to go through the intellectual gymnastics that traditional Christianity does in order to maintain simultaneous belief in the existence of evil and God’s goodness. In traditional Christianity, since God is the CREATOR (not “organizer”) of all evil in the world, it is
    fair to ask why an all-powerful being that is the epitome of all that is good would have created so much evil. Why’d He do it? This is a paradox that doesn’t lend itself to easy resolution.

    In Mormonism, so the argument goes, since God is merely the ORGANIZER (not “creator”) of the elements, since we mortals have always had some sort of separate, uncreated ontological status, and since we all have agency that exists independent of God, we have something of a resolution to the paradox of God’s goodness co-existing with Evil in the world. Since God is not evil’s author, for it exists independent of Him, He is not responsible for it in the same way that the traditional God of Christianity inevitably must be. (Describing God as less than omnipotent in the traditional Christian sense, or “finite,” is one way of making this point). Thus, here we have the makings of a Mormon theodicy. Mormonism’s God is not responsible for the evils of the world in the same way that the Classical Christian God may be.

    This is all fine and good, but not quite good enough, in my opinion. How can we have a truly compelling theodicy (i.e., a vindication of God’s goodness) if we believe in an intervening deity? For if God is ABLE to intervene in the affairs of men to prevent tragedy (either by saving a Jewish baby from the Holocaust, or saving Indonesian children from the Tsunami, or Pakistani children from an earthquake), and He CHOOSES NOT TO, then aren’t we more or less back where we started? Inquiring as to why God allows terrible things to happen (which isn’t that different of an inquiry from asking why he CREATED the terrible things), and having to throw up our hands and declare His ways mysterious?

    I guess I like a strong theodicy better than I like the notion of a mysterious deity who does or not does not intervene in the affairs of men, based on criteria I can’t seem to fathom. That’s my point. I actually don’t hold this belief as militantly as one might think from reading my post. I am open to persuasion. I recognize (and already wrote) that my own lack of experience with real tragedy may deprive me of the life experience necessary to grapple with the notion of God’s intervening hand in a way that might cause me to modify my view. Nonetheless, the Aaron Brown of 2006 appears to view the theological trade-offs differently than many of his fellow Church members.

    Aaron B

  29. Jothegrill says:

    1. yes
    2. He did intervene in the others as well. We have no idea how horrible the world would be without God because most of us have never seen it.
    4.I suppose it’s always possible that things are different than I believe them to be, So it could be just coincidece or dumb luck, but that just seems utterly rediculous to me.

  30. Aaron, is seems in other words that you just don’t like mystery, and want to clearly delineate what God can and can’t do. May I suggest that if that’s your goal, you are in the WRONG PLACE. Mormonism does not answer these questions, and your strong theodicy contradicts or explains away much of the Restoration.

  31. Jothegrill says:

    Here’s a story in a nutshell for you: in high school 3 of my friends were in a car accident, one was killed, one permenantly paralyzed and the driver ended up in a coma for a time but made a full recovery. I can tell you that this hurt a lot of us tremendously. But nevertheless I see God’s hand. The one who was paralyzed is in a wheelchair but is living a happy and fulfilling life. The driver got amnesia and so cannot remember what happened that night. The one who died had a miracle too. Her family went back to church… they decided that what happens after this life is important and they decided that God was important.

  32. Mark Butler says:

    Aaron, the problem with that argument is that it assumes that God can do anything in any amount of time for zero cost. The Atonement comes at effectively infinite cost already, causing God himself to suffer beyond measure.

    So God presumably could make the necessary effort, and expend the necessary resources to stop the tsunami in Indonesia. However, as long as no one’s salvation is imperiled, why is that a better expenditure of effort than the other things he might do. In fact he might very well have a good reason for letting the tsunami proceed unimpeded.

    As long as one does not suffer in hell (which is where we would eventually all end up if God didn’t lift a finger – see Hobbes), isn’t suffering in temporality a small price to be paid if it is requisite with God’s eternal purposes in the salvation of virtually all mankind?

    Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks;

    Waiting patiently on the Lord, for your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament—the Lord hath sworn and decreed that they shall be granted.

    Therefore, he giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled; and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good, and to my name’s glory, saith the Lord.
    (D&C 98:1-3)

    God can grant virtually any righteous desire. However he cannot grant it on our time table, only on his.

  33. OK Aaron, I think that there several potential responses, but I will recapitulate my previous response to better address your outline:

    1 – God doesn’t intervene in human affairs, except:

    2 – He intervenes in concert with the will of the faithful and

    3 – He intervenes to mediate His covenants (for blessing or cursing).

    As to why he doesn’t intervene in human affairs, there are again many potential answers; but, I prefer, right now, the idea that God sent us here to make a go of it in the fallen world. His ellimination of natural and human tragedy, would be to perpetually subvert natural law and proscribe agency.

  34. Brent Hartman says:

    Last Lemming,

    You got the wrong channel. I was tuning into D&C 101 the rock. Bringing you the gospel since 1833.

  35. Mark,

    First of all, I don’t see why Hobbes is any sort of authority on whether or not we are all going to hell. That he is right merely reflects consensus.

    Second, do we believe that God is limited by the energy expenditure involved in stopping disasters? I don’t see that.

    In any case, I think that you are right that God’s primary concern is our spiritual welfare. Our physical welfare is not nearly as important to him.

  36. Mark’s explanation (33) solves one problem while bringing up another: if God is a great economist, and we presume that God is omniscient (or at least enough to know the consequences of the events that he puts into motion), then why would he ever intervene? An omniscient God should not have need of course correction.

  37. #32, (oops)

  38. I don’t believe that God intervenes very often if ever. And though you don’t like this answer, Aaron, I’m also willing to let it be something I can’t see/understand.

    However, I have found it makes me better, kinder and more full of faith to thank God for the good that comes into my life. I choose to do that, knowing that I actually do not believe that He intercedes. I guess I do not thank Him for interceding but I thank Him for the good in my life. I also consciously make an effort to not attach him to a light turning green, or a train coming quickly, or me finding my keys because it cheapens what I think of God.

    I believe in God, desperately, fully. Beyond that I feel completely clueless. So I thank Him for God, sometimes even curse Him for the bad but because I believe in Him, however He is involved, I think this connects me to Him.

  39. Mark Butler says:

    As a rule, I think an absolutist conception of God is self-contradictory, incomprehensible, ridiculous, and contrary to the very first principles of the Restoration, starting in the Book of Mormon.

    1 Ne 9:6 does not teach that God has absolute power, it teaches that he has power unto the fulfilling of all his words [in the process of time]. Alma 42 teaches that at a minimum God has internal constraints on his character, that in no possible world can God be God without being both merciful and just. Alma 34 teaches that the At-one-ment is only possible if God himself should suffer. Joseph Smith taught that God could not create matter out of nothing, that God himself could not create himself, nor any other spirit-intelligence.

    Absolutism is basically either a retreat to the God of the philosophers or a descent into inanity, irrationality, or a cult of mystery. That wasn’t Joseph Smith’s religion. It is not even the religion of the New Testament. Read Heb 2:11.

    So yes, I am more than certain that there is an economy in heaven that regulates how much divine power can be expended and at what cost. I do not think God is a magician. Economy seems to be his middle name. Sin is so serious in part because it is so un-economical – take the sacrifice, sweat blood and tears of others and make them a thing of naught, if not destroy them completely.

  40. Aaron, I agree with you. Not that this puts you in the sort of company you would like to keep, I think.

    If there is a God (and I’m not sure there is: a true agnostic, I am) then I think God is utterly uninvolved in human affairs. For example, I suffered almost no personal damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina. I even got new carpet! Many, many people who are much better Christians, Saints and People than I am suffered far more than I. Why was I spared? Location (inland), vegetation (no trees fell on my house), and dumb luck.

    I also think it’s remarkable that a God who does intervene in human affairs would so often choose not to interfere on behalf of the weak, poor, and powerless, while at the same time bestowing blessings of wealth and power upon those who are already wealthy and powerful.

    Does that mean we stop praying or seeking out God? No, because even if the hypothetical God doesn’t stop tsunamis or find lost car keys, humans can still experience connection with him/her. Faithless apostate though I am, I still experience that connection occasionally. That’s what keeps me engaged with my church community.

    After reading this entry on miracles at the excellent economics blog “Marginal Revolution” two years ago, I pretty much stopped thinking so-called miracles were anything special. One per month per person sounds about right.

  41. I think one of the reasons that God does not intervene, is that from his perspective, much of the horrible tragedy that occurs in this world is inconsequential.

    That being said. I believe in God, but I also believe in coincidence.

  42. As others have noted, this is a very difficult problem. I often find myself approaching Ann’s (#40) take on the issue.

    J. Stapley (#2, #33), I’m curious as to exactly who the faithful are in your mind. Are they TBMs only? Faithful Christians? Faithful monotheists? Anyone with a respect for the spiritual?

    Nate W. (#36): If history is any indication, I am not so sure that God is a great economist.

    The image that this post and some of the comments bring to mind is of God as playing the ultimate game of Whack-a-Mole. Such a less-than-omnipotent God is stretched to the limit trying to beat down mankind’s problems that keep popping up but He is somewhat overmatched, so that many or most problems don’t get addressed. Prayer by the faithful is like a faint noise accompanying the problems that pop up which may or may not draw His attention towards their (the faithful’s) particular concerns. In such a “model” we should be properly grateful when God does help us with our problems and prayer is useful to a limited extent. How such a God brings about the salvation and exaltation of mankind is another matter.

    (For anyone taking issue with the previous two paragraphs, note that they were written in the spirit of jest that befits such a difficult problem.)

  43. I’m curious as to exactly who the faithful are in your mind.

    First, let’s dispence with the message board-style acronyms; but to respond to your question I tend to like Moroni’s discourse on faith and miracles. It is the day when faith in Jesus Christ wanes that miracles cease. Beyond that, I think general faith in God would be sufficient for his intervention. I know of many non-Mormons with abiding faith in Christ, more than many Mormons. I believe, as well, that the restoration allows for an increased measure of faith.

  44. Aaron (#28): For if God is ABLE to intervene in the affairs of men to prevent tragedy and He CHOOSES NOT TO, then aren’t we more or less back where we started?

    I think the first thing that must be agreed upon is what is evil and what is not. Is there a reason why we should assume temporal tragedy = evil? (One of my earliest posts at the Thang dealt with this question…)

  45. Mark Butler says:

    I tend to think God accurately anticipates all the moles he will need to whack, but more to the point I will take a whack-a-mole God over an impotent, atemporal God like the God of the philosophers any time.

    The renewal of the doctrine that God actively intervenes in history was one of the major theological changes from classical (Thomist) Catholicism to Protestantism. The Calvinists took this to an extreme, but they were definitely echoing a principle well testified in the scriptures. For example:

    O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.

    At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.

    And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.
    (Jer 18:6-10)

  46. Mark Butler says:

    Of course, the key point where the analogy differs is that the clay is alive, making the potter’s task, if he wishes to mold good vessels, that much more difficult.

  47. 1. Yes

    2. I don’t believe I have recieved preferntial treatment. While I do believe God will intervene sometimes, I do not expect every time and therefore do not believe that I or anyone else is immune from tragedy. God will and does intervene in the lives of all His children- he just doesn’t prevent every tragedy nor is each intervention blatantly conspicuous.

    3. It was a clearly defined spiritual manifestation. My life is incredibly boring moment to moment and I doubt the Lord is heavily involved in the minutua of my life.

    4. This is dramatic, but I was told by doctors I would either die or have severe lung damage requiring an oxygen tank the rest of my life. I fully recovered as made manifest in some experiences I had. Most spiritual manifestations are far less dramatic.

  48. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 41 I’m not sure that makes sense. If horrible tragedy is inconsequential to God, why does so much of scripture and prophetic teaching address the questions surrounding it? Why are we taught to pray about these things at all? That notion just seems to go against the grain of the whole of Christianity.

    That said, this thread is really highlighting to me just how Deist I have become in my thinking over the years. Anybody else realizing something similar?

  49. Isn’t touching our perceptions — be it peace, a moment of clarity, a feeling of communion, a change in perspective — intervention?

    While my pleas to have God change the actions of others or external conditions (including those of the physical body) may go “unanswered,” year after year I feel the act of prayer — of seeking — altering the way I view people and my commitment to them.

  50. Matthew M says:

    AB,
    I think the first two comments to your post were oddly simplistic given the complex issue you raise.

    (#1) “the belief in no divine intervention is absurd. Why then would we pray for blessings?”
    I think it’s easy for us to believe in a God that intervenes on our behalf when we are healthy, fat (wealthy), and sassy. But if we then apply the evidences of intervention to say, persons living in Africa in the midst of extended civil war, famine, disease, etc. (all at the same time), those arguments largely dissipate. [which is different than suggesting arguments for a belief in God disappear, or that arguments for hoping that God will intervene disappear.]

    (#2) “It is an established tenet of Mormonism that God does intervene.”
    J.S., I’m not sure how this comment furthers the discussion. Do you mean to suggest that therefore AB shouldn’t ask the question? In any case, I disagree with you. I would say the “established tenets” are say, “faith, hope, repentance, …” None of those necessarily include intervention in physical events on our behalf. I would agree that it is common for Mormons to believe that God does intervene, or that many Mormons choose to use interventionist rhetoric when discussing current events, but, that’s very different.

    Having said that, while I agree heartily with A’s points, let me add that I pray for divine assistance in human affairs, and I believe that intervention sometimes occurs–through the individual and group acts of humans. So, for example, while I pray that conditions will improve for the people in a specific foreign country, I don’t expect God to directly intervene. Instead, I hope that through my individual efforts and the like efforts of many others, our distant neighbors may have their burdens eased.

  51. Mark,
    In #39, I am not following your argument’s behind God’s “economy” at all. I frankly have no idea what you are talking about. Could you clarify for those of us slow on the up-take? In particular, I don’t see how the random verses quoted add up to “God is an economist”. You may have a good point, but because your commentary is mostly internal, I can’t make any sense of it.

    Also, faith is, by definition, irrational. You can develop a rationality from it, but it is not something one comes through by means of rational inquiry or logical progression.

  52. HP: Also, faith is, by definition, irrational.

    Not all of us are are fideists like you HP. I and lots of Mormons think rationality and faith are quite compatible with one another.

  53. greenfrog says:

    Questions:

    1. Do you believe that God has ever personally intervened in your life to prevent great tragedy?

    (a) No. It seems I’ve collided with the tragedies that were headed my way, gotten glancing blows from a few that were aimed toward, but not at me, and avoided altogether some that were pointed elsewhere.

    (b) If the question, however, is whether I’ve perceived the influence of God in my life, the answer is yes, certainly.

    2. If so, why do you believe he intervened in your case, but not in so many others?

    (a) N/A
    (b) I think that we can be relatively more open to what Joseph described as “pure intelligence” and I think that we can be relatively more closed to receiving it. I think that our actions and mindset can significantly affect how open we are at any given point in time.

    3. Does your belief stem from the idea that God is constantly involved in the decisions and activities of your day, large and small, and so He must have been involved by definition, or does it stem from a personal spiritual manifestation you had which confirmed that He injected himself into your affairs to prevent certain tragedy in a particular instance?

    (a) N/A
    (b) I think that we can all benefit from pure intelligence at every point in our lives. I don’t think that God is engaged in dabbling in some places, but not in others.

    4. If you believe that God intervened in a particular instance, are you sure your good fortune wasn’t just coincidence, or dumb luck? How? Please explain how you distinguish coincidence, or random good fortune, from the hand of Providence. Or do you think you don’t have to because, in your case, God is always micromanaging your life’s outcomes?

    (a) N/A
    (b) As I thought about the question last night, here’s what I wrote:

    What is divine?

    Is it definitively not the arthroscopic surgery performed on my right shoulder last week?

    Is it clearly not the mind-and-body-soothing touch of my yoga teacher in a practice the evening before the surgery?

    It is obviously not the way my mind steers me through therapies to increase the post-surgery shoulder’s strength and flexibility?

    Is it certainly not the mind-resting narcotics I take at the end of the day to hasten sleep through the pain?

    It couldn’t be the union of mind and body that happens each morning as I work the night’s stiffness out of the shoulder, bringing the day’s new prana.

    So what is it? How do I distinguish God from the entire field of Existence?

    Not sure that helps advance the discussion…

  54. Steve Evans says:

    Geoff, I think you misread JDC.

  55. What Steve said.

  56. My apologies JDC.

  57. Aaron Brown says:

    Am hopefully having a baby today, and would like to respond to people’s comments when I get a minute (here, at also maybe at New Cool Thang). Don’t hold your breath though…

    Aaron B

  58. Steve Evans says:

    Oh please Aaron, you’ve been having this baby for a week now. Does your procrastination know no bounds??

  59. Kevin Barney says:

    Geez, Aaron, if you’re having a baby today, God must intervene in human affairs. (Nyuck, nyuck.)

  60. Deborah wrote:
    Isn’t touching our perceptions — be it peace, a moment of clarity, a feeling of communion, a change in perspective — intervention?
    Not if God is passive in the process. We are the actors in such experiences, not God.

  61. We know you are a non-believer, Ann. Mormonism proclaims belief in the Holy Ghost, which you are controverting. The Holy Ghost represents intervention.

  62. J., Ann could be correct. We often fail to distinguish simple internal peace with the feelings brought by the Holy Ghost. And I don’t know that Ann’s a “non-believer” the way you’re labelling her; she may be a mormon in name only but that doesn’t make her some kind of atheist.

  63. Hen Pecked says:

    How about where God has intervened and brought about great personal tragedy for me?

    Like where He answered my wife-to-be’s prayer about whether I was the one for her to marry?

    (He said yes.)

  64. Ann: Perhaps, but I believe that the divine can interact with our souls. And because I want help and refinement, I keep praying. Sometimes the change that comes — particularly finding the patience or love to deal with an external situation — feels greater than my own ability. When I don’t reach out to God, I feel . . . smaller. It’s no hard proof, but it keeps me looking for the divine in my own life and the lives of others.

  65. Aaron Brown says:

    Maybe God is punishing my wife for my faithless post. We keep thinking she’s going into the final stretch, but then she doesn’t.

    Of course, if God is punishing my wife, doesn’t that violate the “Stina will be punished for her own sins, and not for Aaron’s trangressions” rule? What is this, collective punishment? Outrageous. It’s not like God did this sort of thing in Old Testament times, or anything. Oh wait …

    Aaron B

  66. “We often fail to distinguish simple internal peace with the feelings brought by the Holy Ghost.”

    Are we so certain there’s a always distinction? In many traditions, such internal peace *is* a communion with God, chi, spirit, universe, etc.

  67. J., Ann could be correct.

    Sure, if everything we believe is bunk.

  68. (Including our own tradition, I should note!)

  69. geez, Stapley, you’re exaggerating.

    Deborah, I fully admit that the lines can be pretty fuzzy, but not every case of teary eyes is the Holy Ghost.

  70. Nope. But I do agree that emotion is often conflated with the Holy Ghost.

  71. Thus, I prefer to imagine a hands-off Deity that, being no “respecter of persons,” lets the vicissitudes of life fall on the “just and unjust” without waltzing in to save the day whenever it tickes His fancy. I actually find this vision of God more comforting personally.

    I’d agree, except I’ve seen and participated in real, tangible, miracles. Life is a lot easier if God is not a god of tangible miracles, especially since God is not a cosmic vending machine.

    On the other hand, I remember mistaking burning metal for burning plastic (vastly different heat conductivities, the one is very safe to pick up, the other dangerous) and hearing a voice tell me to be more careful. The only burn I received was on a part of one finger where it wouldn’t get in the way, and I got the distinct impression, as that happened and as I dropped the burning metal, that I was going to get a burn on that spot so I’d remember.

    Or the time I caught a kick in the face hard enough to pick me back up and change the direction I was going from forward to backward (an unfortunate martial arts accicent). Not even a bruise.

    I’ve had miraculously bad luck as well, some of which I was warned was coming well in advance, even if I didn’t understand the warning clearly, but God told me that Courtney was an optional child and we didn’t have to have her and the hardship that would come with her. Looking back I’m glad we decided to have her as a part of our lives, though I sure underestimated what God meant by hardship. I should have asked, I guess, though I’d rather not have changed my mind, so maybe not.

    I’d also be happier if miracles were more common, even just the room filled with light, display of the Spirit in the Temple sort of event. I’d find it easier to go more often is those events were normal instead of unusual.

    But, I’ve just blogged on what I think life is, at http://ethesis.blogspot.com/2006/08/pain-experience-joy-life-what-is-god.html and I think that seriously affects my thoughts about why God intervenes and why he appears not to some times.

  72. When I lose my keys, intellectually I know that it seems ridiculous to me to pray for help finding them, when there are children starving in the world who need real help from him.

    Mormons sure seem to lose their keys a lot. Has anyone done a stusy on the relative incidence of key-losing among Mormons versus those of other faiths? Perhaps a study of how long it takes an atheist to find her keys after losing them versus how long the typical faithful Mormon takes to find hers after prayer and fasting could be conducted.

  73. Two questions for Aaron:

    1. Do you pray?
    2. What things do you pray for?

    I don’t mean to imply that you don’t pray nor that you don’t seek a relationship with God, but most prayers ask for some sort of Divine intervention. Are your prayers vastly different?

    I am interested to know how your views shape your communication with God.

  74. Last Lemming says:

    Anybody who is still paying attention should check out the August 19 edition of Tom the Dancing Bug. It has already appeared in print in the Washington Post, and should appear at the following link tomorrow.

  75. Last Lemming says:

    Dang. The link didn’t show up.

    http://www.gocomics.com/tomthedancingbug/2006/08/19/

  76. Thomas Parkin says:

    “based on criteria I can’t seem to fathom.”

    You’ve got this right, mein droog. I’ve got to say that I’m a bit disappointed, and a little surprised, to see you shuffling and wresting around like this. Only saying it because, if you recall, you invited me to.

    “my own lack of experience with real tragedy may deprive me of the life experience necessary to grapple with the notion of God’s intervening hand in a way that might cause me to modify my view.”

    There is a solution to this – and in that solution is possibly an answer to your question. ;)

    My experience is that we look too much for signs and portents, for benevolent coincidences, and for modifications in our outer circumstance as answers to our prayers, and are not nearly aquainted enough with the voice of the Spirit – through which our prayers and questions, with clarirty, with increasing clarity, can and will be answered, if we have lived to and struggle to find ourselves in that way.

    The question isn’t why did the Lord do or allow this or that thing to happen, – all tragedies, and they can and will be horrible to the nth degree, are a part of living in the kind of existence we now find ourselves. The questions is: how will I respond personally? What is this going to make of me, and what am I going to make of it? These questions, it very much seems to me, put the focus correctly on our personal responsibility, on our development and that of our fellows, and off the conditions of the test (one of the primal Satanic mistakes – one can almost hear the venomous, adolescent wail about fariness echoing down from before the foundations …). I’m not saying we shouldn’t inquire into justice – I’m saying that while being tested under Telestial laws, we will find very little.

    In these conditions, it seems to me and Pres Kimball, at least, said, The Lord most often helps us through other people. And, following, mostly helps us when can entice those people to respond to His voice. When there is no one to respond to His voice, then, following, there is very little help – and that is an awful state of affairs – one that we might collectively find ourselves. I suppose the elements will respond, hence ‘after your testimony comes the testimony of thunderings and lightnings and the sea overreaching her bounds’ (quoted incorrectly). My question for you, and for me, is whether or not we are men who can respond to His voice – or whether we want to be, and hence will be, something else.

    How are ja, Aaron.

    Life in Puyallup is wonderfully quiet, if a little rednecky. This being a public forum, I won’t say too much about my preferences – except to say that Seattle 1 is an exceptional ward, and I hope you’re getting the most you can out of it while you can. And that I do indeed feel very blessed for some new things that I have to struggle with.

    T

    ~

  77. Jothegrill says:

    Re: 72 No studies on faithful mormons finding their keys but apparently video gamers are quicker than non-gamers.I googled it and that’s the only study I could find.
    I think that mormons loose their keys more because so many of them have their church keys (those used for their calling, I mean the physical ones,) and their other keys.

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