Monday, May 19, 2008

The Doors of the Sea

I’ve just finished what is probably the best thing I’ve ever read on the problem of evil: David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami. It’s a tiny little book, with a cover that suggested to me Max Lucado feel-good sentimentality rather than one of the most profound and beautiful theological books I’ve come across. This Eastern Orthodox theologian rips to shreds many of the standard theistic theodocies as well as atheist straw men, and proclaims in their place the Christian gospel. He does this with beautiful writing that verges on poetry, all in a mere 100 pages. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Rather than attempt to review Hart’s book, and thus summarize it, I thought I’d key in on a theme I found particularly striking. In dealing with deistic theodocies of the watchmaker God, Hart talks in great length something that most of us who have pondered the beauty and savagery of nature know:
The natural world overwhelms us with its splendor, its beauty, its immensities and fragilities, its incalculable diversity, its endless combinations of the colossal and the delicate, sweetness and glory, minute intricacies and immeasurable grandeurs. It is easy, and among the most spontaneous movements of the soul, to revere the God glimpsed in the iridescence of flowered meadows, the emerald light of the deep forest, the soft, immaculate blue of distant mountains, the shining volubility of the sunlit sea, the pale, cold glitter of the stars. This is a perfectly wise and even holy impulse.

But, at the same time, all the splendid loveliness of the natural world is everywhere attended – and, indeed, preserved – by death. All life feeds on life, each creature must yield its place in time to another, and at the heart of nature is a perpetual struggle to survive and increase at the expense of other beings. It is as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory, a single great organism nourishing itself upon the death of everything to which it gives birth, creating and devouring all things with a terrible and impassive majesty. Nature squanders us with such magnificent prodigality that it is hard not to think that something enduringly hideous and abysmal must abide in the depths of life.

Considered “from below,” from within the system of nature, the force that drives and animates and shapes the whole of the organic world seems to achieve an almost perfectly transparent epitome of itself in those lavishly floriferous but parasitic vines that – urged always upward by a blind, thrusting, idiotic heliotropism – climb toward the light of the sun by choking the life from the trees around which they grow, constantly struggling out of the shadows in their thirst for the light, extending one tenuous tendril after another toward the sun to swell and slowly suffocate the boughs they entwine, until they burgeon forth at the last in such gorgeous and copious flowers that one might forget what had to perish to make such a triumph possible.
Put quite simply, the world is clearly the beautiful, glorious creation of God, but it is bound inextricably to the forces of death and decay – so much so that we can’t even imagine a world without such ruthlessness. And here the deist theodicy says that this is as good as it gets. If you want the glory, you have to endure all the death and decay that makes it possible. True paradise is a logical impossibility, and you must simply resign yourself that this is as good as it can get – the best of all possible worlds. Take it or leave it.

Hart then takes from the pragmatic theodicy of the deist into the gloriously non-empirical vision of the Christian. He quotes Thomas Traherne, saying:
You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibiteth the wisdom and power of God; and prize in everything the service which they do you, by manifesting His glory and goodness to your soul. Wine quencheth my thirst, but to see it flowing from his love who give it unto man quencheth the thrist even of the holy angels. Your enjoyment of the world is never right till every morning you awake in Heaven: see yourself in your Father’s palace; and look upon the skies and the earth and the air, as celestial joys. You never enjoy the world aright till the sea floweth in your veins; till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the starts are your jewels; till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own; till you delight in God for being good to all. The world is a mirror of inifinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a temple of majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of light and peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the paradise of God.
Hart concludes:
To see the world as it should be seen, and so to see the true glory of God reflected in it, requires the cultivation of charity, of an eye rendered limpid by love.
I can’t easily express how deeply this moves my soul. So much could be said, and so much more had probably better be left unsaid. But one thing that really stands out to me is something that puzzles a great many people: the virtue of faith.

The saints Hart refers to seem to inhabit a different world than the one full of death and decay that we are familiar with. They straddle the line between Heaven and Earth, and walk in Paradise under our sky. And so they see the world not through the spectacles of empiricism but the eyes of faith. This really is virtuous, for acting in such faith causes a little bit of that reality break in to our lives.


i think i'll join you and leave much unsaid. it would only be noise anyway.

For what it's worth, here's something similar I read recently in Elisabeth Elliot's afterword to 'Through Gates of Splendor':

“What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can conceive. John Oman said that 'a true belief in Providence cannot be held either as an instinctive trust that God is kind or as an inference from life that He is benevolent, but only as the last and highest victory of a faith which has won a vision of a true and abiding good, which is not of the world, even while things in the world become a new creation to forward it' (Grace and Personality 126).

Lewis makes a similar point in 'The Problem of Pain.'

This line of thought is a great comfort to me, too... When I read things like this, I feel released from the feeling that I'm supposed to look at all the brutality of this world and see it as evidence of God's benevolence.

When I read things like this, I feel released from the feeling that I'm supposed to look at all the brutality of this world and see it as evidence of God's benevolence.

Indeed - or even worse, as the means of his benevolence, such that the evil is defended and justified.

Aside from that you have sparked my interest with this book - which I intend to pursue - the quotes you put down after the set up of this book defeating the atheist's "straw man" and the deistic theodicy, left me quite underwhelmed as you yourself seemed to be setting up your own straw man.

Alas, my high hopes from the beginning of this post were flattened. Like I said though, I intend to read the book.

Hi Royale,

Care to be more specific? How is it a straw man, and how should it be corrected?

My highlighter is not working, so I can't cut and paste. So, I'm basing this on memory.

For starters, one strange thing you wrote at the beginning was:

"[the book] rips to shred the standard theistic theodacies"

Christianity offers a 'standard theistic theodacy', in my opinion. But that's grammatical.

The straw man is your mis-characterization of the deistic theodacy in your middle paragraph. I agree that SOME Deists would say that this is "as good as it gets" as the "best of all possible worlds." I first read the latter in Voltaire, which I assume to be oft-repeated phrase of the enlightenment. But that's a description of the reality of the world, and not the ideal - but unattainable situation according to the laws of the universe as we know them to be. (quick aside, I think the phrase BOAPW is actually quite consistent with the Garden of Eden, or at least how that was meant to be understood).

However, Deism and deistic philosophies do not fit cleanly into any one category. If there is group in charge of keeping a consistent dogma, then people would extrapolate each to himself. For starters, many Deists or deistic-inclined people might believe in an afterlife, even a Paradise one. The vast majority I would assume would reject an (Jonathon) Edwards-esque Hell, but a peaceful afterlife? Au contraire, it's a vast overstatement to say that it's a logical impossibility.

Christianity offers a 'standard theistic theodacy', in my opinion. But that's grammatical.

Yes, and he rips such Christian theodicies to shreds. You read it right.

The straw man is your mis-characterization of the deistic theodacy in your middle paragraph.

Royale, to say that I made a statement about "Deists" that only applies to "most Deists" is certainly not a straw man. It would be more correct to say its an over-generalization. A straw man is a light weight, but my characterization of such Deistic theodicies is not that - it's very much what many intelligent people will tell you. If you'd like, feel free to assume an implied "95% of the time" in front of all my statements.

See, I don't even think most, and certainly not 95% of Deists would agree with what you say they believe. We can't exactly poll them as it is fluid philosophy with spectrums of various ideas.

Either way, your logic let me down.

Not all deists believe this to be the best of all possible worlds - that is correct. But not all deists attempt theodicies either. Do you have another deistic theodicy you would propose?

Now, I'll grant I didn't specify that in that particular sentence - I was assuming the larger context of theodicy.

As far as deistic theories on the problem of evil in the material universe, no, I don't know of any other.

As for whether Deists believe in the afterlife, and hence whether "this is as good as it gets," that question is impossible to answer beyond 'some do.'

OK Royale, I changed "deist" to "deist theodicy". Is my site now officially clear of straw? ;-)

Yes ;)

OK, side thing that this made me think of....

one thing that just doesn't make sense me, wasn't death and decay part of the Garden of Eden?

Some Biblical literalists try to scoot around this by saying that Adam & Eve were vegetarian and point out there was no animal death. Why animal death is important, whereas plant, bacteria, fungi, etc...death is not is beyond my comprehension.

But in short, if plants died in the Garden of Eden, then there was death, which was blessed by God as "good." For after all, the apple dies when it is eaten.

(proof that a conservative would respect - apples are tree embryos, thus if apples are not "alive" since they are embryos, then human embryos are not "alive". but if human embryos are 'alive' at conception, then apples are 'alive' at conception. thus, death must have existed in the Garden of Eden by the textual description of them eating fruit).

My extrapolation from this is actually a convergence of Christian and Deist thought - that material death is necessary for the universe to exist as we know it.

Is this the best of all possible worlds? Yes and no.

Yes. In the sense that it's the only way that I think life can exist, without a drastic reordering of the laws of gravity, entropy, enthalpy, such an extent that the creation thereof could not be described in Genesis 1-2. For after all, Adam and Eve were humans gravitationally attracted to the planet - thus, I conclude the laws of the universe applied.

No. In the sense that God is waiting for us to join him in another universe, where those laws do not apply, but solely that of the spirit.

No. In the sense that God is waiting for us to join him in another universe, where those laws do not apply, but solely that of the spirit.

I don't know, Royale - Deism and Gnostic Dualism seem very strange bedfellows. I have some respect for both, but to try to combine them without dealing with the intrinsic tension therein strikes me as creating a rather shallow picture. I am very resistant especially to too much dualism assumed in Christianity, that sees creation as something God is going to just throw into the trash can (and thus we might as well pollute it or exploit it as we will to save souls - it's all polishing brass on the Titanic).

The classic Christian view is that of a fallen world, where the glory of God is present but hidden, and whom God will set free from its bondage to decay. Thus our salvation lies not in an escape from this world, but in its transformation. This, in my view, does a good job of doing justice to the good in both deism and dualism. The world is a creation of a wise and good God (deism) but it is corrupted by sin (dualism). It is not currently as God intends it to be (contra deism) but God is working to put it right (contra dualism).

Thanks for stopping by my site. this is a great review. I appreciated how you let the book speak for itself.

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