(For previous entries in this series)
Anguish, Pain, and a Distant God
As previously surmised, the Christian position is that human beings are separated from God by human action in the form of rebellious action. This action corrupts man totally, not that man is incapable of good, but that any good done by man testifies to his reprobate status which contaminates those deeds, thus leading to frustration.(42,43), The atheist, rejecting this premise, struggles to define what is good and what is evil without necessarily presupposing, unintentionally or maybe even deliberately, what the Christian takes as the necessary starting point for such discussions.(44)
The startling realization that man is alienated from his Creator, causes despair. Mankind must face the creation that we were charged to “subdue…and have dominion over,” without help, “by the sweat of [our] face,” a world that seems to produce “thorns and thistles” too easily.(45) It would seem to require a certain amount of hubris to then claim that God should do something about an environment that exists because of human pride and arrogance. Suffering, of some measure, is simply a state of affairs, deserved by all because of our condition made present where we live: outside of God’s presence. Any rejection of this premise renders any consideration of “suffering” that is “undeserved”, “unnecessary”, and “involuntary”, simply foolish.
The fact that man rebelled against God and persists in that rebellion through unbelief, indicates that God would only have a single moral obligation: to punish evil perpetrated by man. We will delve more deeply into this shortly, but is suffices to say that unless a man is willing to concede to the truth of revelation, there is no reason to continue any discussion.
An Obligation Exists
The heart of Maitzen’s argument lies in his question, “…where has God commanded us to prevent suffering?”(46) The question clearly assumes that some suffering is preventable. By his own example, in the illustration of the immunization of a child, a small amount of induced suffering at one time, serves to prevent a larger amount of suffering at another. One can ask, are they ways to reduce even that small amount of suffering that must be caused, and that should be explored. Indeed, one should strive to make one’s home safe by installing locks, and guardrails as needed, something that is found in God’s law. In fact, throughout God’s law there are instructions to prevent suffering of various kinds in various ways. So, the question seems to be somewhat pointless, and to the biblically literate nonsensical. It is this deliberate vagueness that gives a measure of power to Maitzen’s argumentation.
Maitzen assumes that an obligation that exists to prevent suffering. This obligation to prevent another’s suffering cannot come the one who might suffer, it has to necessarily exist outside of the person in an objective sense in order to be both real and true, else it is subjective and arbitrary. If this were not the case, one could argue that one has a obligation to person A, but not to person B. Further, to make the claim that one knows this in an a priori manner, a justification for that knowledge must exist.(47)
Such an argument might be attempted by appeal to a principle of negation: do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.(48) The argument would go, if one does not want to be stuck with needles, then do not stick others with needles. That necessarily assumes that there’s something inherently wrong with sticking needles into people in an unnecessary, undeserved, or involuntary method. That is to say, there is something inherently wrong with plunging a needle into someone unless some positive benefit can be gained, which itself means that it’s not necessarily actions that moral or immoral, but the intentions and motivations that lie behind the actions. Suffice it to say that would mean that an obligation exists to have morally good and sufficient motives and intentions that propel and thus justify one’s actions.
All of this assumes an obligation, morally, to do that which is “good”. If one is going to argue that it is morally “good” to prevent suffering and that obligation is real, then certain facts are assumed. This, of course, means that, “real,” must be defined.
If the obligation to prevent suffering is real, that means that it has an objective existence, that it occurs in reality.(49) The problem is that obligation is a concept. A concept is a mental abstraction, an idea.(50) Obligation, then, is not physical, so it cannot be “real” in that sense. So to insist that it is “real” then there must be something also non-physical to which one can appeal in order to ground such a claim. Maitzen insists in OM that such an obligation exists, and that this obligation rests on us; however, he fails to extend this obligation backward toward God.(51) That is to say that if Maitzen is identifying his god with the TLTGC, then there is something seriously deficient in either his understanding or his ability to represent such.(52) If the former is the case, then his argument is pointless. If the latter, then Maitzen is attacking a straw man.
This realization does not solve the greater problem of suffering; however, it does expose that there is a necessary assumption lying behind the claim that at least some suffering is preventable, and that there is an obligation to prevent that suffering at least. But that realization doesn’t help Maitzen.(53) I will argue hence that Maitzen’s argument does not as much prove atheism, rather it proves a particular type of theism. A theism that presupposes an active and sovereign God, the TLTGC, to not merely account for any moral categories in regard to suffering, but to justify any claim about any moral wrongness in suffering.
42. Here John Calvin notes, “In the judgment of the flesh man deems his self-knowledge complete, when, with overweening confidence in his own intelligence and integrity, he takes courage, and spurs himself on to virtuous deeds, and when, declaring war upon vice, he uses his utmost endeavour to attain to the honourable and the fair. But he who tries himself by the standard of divine justice, finds nothing to inspire him with confidence; and hence, the more thorough his self-examination, the greater his despondency.”
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge.Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids, MI. 2002. Book 2:1:3
43. Isaiah 64:5-6; Luke 11:13, ESV
44. I, and other theologians and philosophers of a reformed tradition, would argue that even the most well-meaning Christian philosopher fails to acknowledge this and dishonestly argues for morality and any adjudication for suffering without beginning with what is revealed in Scripture as a starting point for their theodicy.
45. Genesis 1:28; 3:18-19, ESV
46. Emphasis original
47. See earlier under the heading “The Reformed Concept of God in Christianity”
48. “Even as it is, no one supposes that making our neighbours happy means giving them all the same identical things or preparing for them all the same identical situations. It means giving to each man what he needs and preparing for him the kind of situations which make him happy. It includes taking into account the special wants of each man. Mr. Bernard Shaw’s remark “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different”is no doubt a smart saying. But it seems to overlook the fact that “doing as you would be done by” includes taking into account your neighbour’s tastes as you would that he should take yours into account. Thus the “golden rule” might still express the essence of a universal morality even if no two men in the world had any needs or tastes in common.” (Emphasis original)
Walter T. Stace. The Concept of Morals. MacMillan Publishing. London, UK. 1937. p. 136
The “Golden Rule” appears almost universally across cultures. Stace represents, as a moral philosopher, that it is widely accepted as a sound moral precept.
49. Webster’s dictionary
50. New Oxford dictionary
51. Maitzen constantly insists that theism somehow stands in the way of such an obligation; however, he never defines where this obligation arises from, only that it exists.
52. see note 17. I do not make this accusation lightly. However I recognize that Maitzen’s objections are aimed at a god as represented by philosophers which advocate a general theism, though they themselves may identify as Christians. As a Christian, I recognize that there is a need for a totalizing worldview that encompasses all realms of knowledge, which can only be known truly and meaningfully through the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as revealed in Scripture.
53. see note 16.