Saturday 28 December 2013

Suffering, pain and the goodness of God

Antony Flew's challenge to religious people: if you can show what might possibly falsify a religious statement such as "God is a loving father," that statement can be considered meaningful. If not, it is simply meaningless.

When a child is sick, his father goes out of his way, and will do all in his power, to try to cure him. We call such a father a 'good father.' He would be a bad father if he were not to do all in his power to cure his child. But God? How can we call God a loving father, when he seems not to do all in his power - and he is all-powerful - to help his children? What is the meaning of calling God a loving father? If the goodness of God is compatible with any and every state of affairs, what is the meaning of 'good' here?

A statement is meaningful only if we know what would have to happen to falsify it. So: what would have to happen to falsify the statement that God is a loving father?

Flew's challenge is formidable. Hare and Mitchell try to answer him in thier own way, but Flew makes short schrift of their answers. What I love is I.M. Crombie's answer, and to the best of my knowledge, Flew has not responded to it.  Here is the final part of the answer:
"There are three main fortresses behind which he goes. For, first, he looks for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come; he believes, that is, that we do not see all of the picture, and that the parts which we do not see are precisely the parts which determine the deign of the whole. He admits that if this hope be vain then we are of all men the most miserable. Second, he claims that he sees in Christ the verification, and to some extent also the specification, of the divine love. That is to say, he finds in Christ not only convincing evidence of God's concern for us, but also what sort of love the divine love is, what sort of benefits God is concerned to give us. He sees that, on the New Testament scale of values, it is better for a man to lose the whole world if he can thereby save his soul (which means his relationship to God); and that for that hope it is reasonable to sacrifice all that he has, and to undergo the death of the body and the mortification of the spirit. Third, he claims that in the religious life, of others, if not as yet in his own, the divine love may be encountered, that the promise 'I will not fail thee nor forsake thee' is, if rightly understood, confirmed there. If, of course, this promise is interpreted as involving immunity from bodily suffering, it will be refuted; but no reader of the New Testament has any right so to interpret it. It is less glaringly, but as decisively, wrong to interpret it as involving immunity from spiritual suffering; for in the New Testament only the undergoing of death (which means the abdication of control over one's destiny) can be the beginning of life. What then does it promise? It promises that to the man who begins on the way of the Christian life, on the way that is of seeking life through death, of seeking relationship with God through the abdication of self-sovereignty claimed by Adam, that to him the fight will be hard but not impossible, progress often indiscernible, but real, progress which is towards the paring away of self-hood, and which is therefore often given through defeat and humiliation, but a defeat and humiliation which are not final, which leave it possible to continue. This is the extra-parental nurture of religious belief of which I spoke earlier, and it is the third of the prepared positions on to which the Christian retreats, claiming that the image and reflection of the love of God may be seen not only hereafter, not only in Christ, but also, if dimly, in the concrete process of living the Christian life.
     One final word. Religion has indeed its problems; but it is useless to consider them outside their religious context. Seen as a whole religion makes rough sense, though it does not make limpidity."
(I.M. Crombie, in Antony Flew, Richard M. Hare, Basil Mitchell, and I. M. Crombie, "Theology and Falsification," New Essays in Philosophical Theology, eds. Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre  [London: SCM, 1969] 129-30) 
In his use of Christian language and belief - and especially in his appeal to the resurrection - Crombie reminds me of John Milbank. The links need to be explored.  

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