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.
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?