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April 30, 2017

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Showing That You Care
From The New Criterion February 28, 2005.
God shows an ancestor of Dan Rather's who's boss

One of the few pleasures to be derived from studying the media comes from watching the re-discovery by the hype industry and those who share its world-view of things known to the folk wisdom of mankind since time immemorial as if no one had ever thought of them before. They say that those who are really in love always think they are the first ever to feel that way, and maybe it is something like love — love of their own wisdom, or at least their cleverness — which produces the journalistic excitement of new discovery in each iteration of some timeless theme. The Boxing Day tsunami in southeast Asia gave rise to one new revelation after another, from the power of nature to the generosity — or lack of it, take your pick — of Americans to the victims of natural disasters. Perhaps the most curious of these stale epiphanies, however, was evident in the frequently-made observation that God, having failed to intervene to save any of the 150,000 or so who died, must either not exist or, if He does exist, must not be God in the sense of not having the attributes traditionally associated with God. He could not be omnipotent, for example, if He were a loving god, and He could not be a loving god if he were omnipotent. One or the other sort of god, if not both, had to go.

Well, you’d think that nobody had ever died before, and that no one among the living had ever thought to reproach the deity with his or her cruelty in allowing death and suffering to happen. Smart-alec columnists by the score seemed to be taunting religious believers of all faiths — Where is your so-called God now, huh? — as if imagining that the latter had never before realized what awful things could happen to people, and their belief was founded upon their ignorance. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, ever eager to be conciliatory to the enemies of religious belief, was prevailed upon by the Sunday Telegraph of London to acknowledge the damage his own faith had sustained from the tsunami.

Every single random, accidental death (he wrote) is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers. Faced with the paralysing magnitude of a disaster like this, we naturally feel more deeply outraged — and also more deeply helpless. . .The question: "How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?" is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren’t — indeed, it would be wrong if it weren’t.

Here speaks the voice of Christian liberalism, always striving to see the world as God sees it, sub specie aeternitatis, because it secretly suspects that it could do a better job than God. But what, we may ask, has the "magnitude" or "scale" of the suffering God permits got to do with our belief in Him? If one person is left by a merely personal tragedy to ask, as Macduff does when Macbeth slaughters his wife and children, "Did heaven look on and would not take their part?" is that a less significant datum in calculating the likelihood of God’s existence, power or love than if a million do? If so, it is hard to see why.

"Scale," that is, is a journalistic concept, and questions of theodicy arising from the sheer magnitude of misfortune are fundamentally journalistic phenomena. Scale and scale alone is the reason why 150,000 deaths on the other side of the world amount to a big news story and one death in the next parish but one does not. God, in the Archbishop’s view, is expected to look at the world like a hack. In place of the clockmaker-god of the deists — the only one, by the way, to emerge from the media theomachy with any degree of credit intact — we now have the editor-god, albeit mostly as a negative presence. If there were a god, that is, he would think like a network news operation. It would be OK for him, like any other editorial arbiter, to ignore a death here or there if it’s nobody famous, or nobody likely to be known to the viewers. But as soon as death becomes newsworthy, God had damned well better show up along with the network anchors and the producers and the camera crews and the satellite technicians and the boom mike operators, and he’d better be wearing his fabled "compassion" on his sempiternal sleeve.

For if Dan Rather cares — and by God you can see in those sad, compassionate eyes that Dan Rather does care — can God Himself care any less and still be God? To a certain kind of mind, the very idea is absurd. As a bona fide celebrity, Dan is more interesting than God anyway. He has feelings — and more feelings than just his compassionate ones. "It’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, from the outside to understand the conflicting undertows that go through you as a journalist," he told the New York Times, using a particularly appropriate metaphor. "Flying out, I’m saying to myself, ‘They’re talking about death tolls that are practically impossible to imagine.’ At the same time, you’re saying to yourself, ‘What a story.’ There is no place else I’d want to be," he went on, his words tinged with just the faintest note of melancholy on account of his approaching retirement as the Olympian anchor of CBS News. "I literally say a prayer of thanks every day in order to have this work. A story like this is why you get in the business." Well, at least God listens to him, it seems. Maybe that’s why it’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart.

Well, that and the fact that Dan was Johnny-on-the-spot, as he has been at so many disasters before, while God was nowhere to be seen, except in providing us with Dan to show off his compassion in His place. Some defenders of God, it’s true, thought that He knew a story as well as Dan Rather did. A certain Rodney Hacking, the vicar of Wainfleet St Mary in Lincolnshire, spoke more forcefully even than his Archbishop for those inclined to be impressed by "scale" when he wrote in a letter to The Times of London that the disaster must eventually "come to occupy the place of greatest single event of spiritual significance since the Holocaust. The very idea of an interventionist God . . . has been seen most clearly for what it is: a children’s fantasy. Santa Claus religion died on Boxing Day. We have to grow up and faith has to grow up." The Rev. Mr. Hacking’s obvious contempt for his evangelical brethren and their "reports of God performing tricks in response to their prayers" was much greater than anything evinced by Martin Kettle in his thoughtful and measured disproof of God’s existence in The Guardian that launched the whole debate. But Kettle, too, made a silly comparison to the Holocaust, albeit implicitly, when he wrote that "it is hard to think of any event in modern times that requires a more serious explanation from the forces of religion than this week's earthquake." That kind of thinking almost makes the Archbishop sound like, well, an Archbishop.

And, to be fair to the latter, he does not stop with his obeisance to "scale." It is understandably easy to focus on how much he is prepared to concede to the enemies of his faith, but he goes on to write that

The extraordinary fact is that belief has survived such tests again and again — not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them. They have learned to see the world and life in the world as a freely given gift; they have learned to be open to a calling or invitation from outside their own resources, a calling to accept God's mercy for themselves and make it real for others; they have learned that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence.

This is a way of denying, after all, that scale is necessarily the relevant consideration here. Or rather, it is so only in a negative way, since the scale on which we are asked to understand the actions of God is necessarily the micro rather than the macro one — which is why we only get muddled up and involved in absurdity when we try to look too far beyond our own experience. Moreover, Williams recognizes that religion is vulnerable to the taunts of the secular moralists precisely because religion itself has taught them the preciousness of individual life, something they are often prepared to forget when it comes to matters of abortion or euthanasia. "Sometimes," he writes, "a secular moralist may say in contemporary debates: ‘Nature is wasteful of life; we can’t hold to absolute views of the value of every human organism.’ That is not an option for the believer. That is why for the believer the uniqueness of every sufferer in a disaster such as the present one is so especially harrowing. There are no ‘spare’ lives."

This is well said. And yet His Grace seems disinclined to share the credit for this high valuation of human life with the God who, so his faith avers, created it. The hard thing to explain is not why there are bad things in the world but why there is anything in the world, indeed why there is a world in the first place from which the exit of so many of us is a painful and untimely one. Evelyn Waugh’s comic clergyman, "Prendy" Prendergast in Decline and Fall lost his faith, we remember, because he couldn’t understand why there was something rather than nothing. But nowadays it seems there is no challenge to faith save that based on the perfectionist standard that, where the creation might not suit us, it can only be as a result of the Creator’s fault. "The ancient man," wrote C.S. Lewis in his essay, "God in the Dock", "approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock."

Even where God is acquitted, it is hard to see how He can remain God. Another man of religion, an Eastern Orthodox theologian called David B. Hart wrote in the Wall Street Journal that

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering — when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children's — no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God's inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God's good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms — knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against "fate," and that must do so until the end of days.

And yet what he says no Christian is licensed to do is just what any Christian must do, if he is not — as the skeptics unfortunately remind us — to be guilty of blasphemy indeed. The wisdom in the old view that natural calamity was an expression of divine wrath, whatever its many shortcomings, was this: that it recognized judgment as God’s prerogative, not ours. We cannot know the reason for such horrors, or even if there is any reason beyond what Hart calls "the imbecile forces of chance." But what we do know is that any God worthy our devotion can hardly be the slave to those imbecile forces that we feel ourselves to be when such tragedies strike. And if not the slave, then the master. In that case even the most horrible things that we are called upon to endure must be in some sense His will — which His Son in Christian belief instructed His followers to pray might be done. There is even a degree of comfort in that reflection, though comfort is one of the things the Archbishop tells us we have no business seeking from our faith, along with ready answers.

Years ago, I attended a debate at the Cambridge Union in England on the proposition that "The concept of God has failed to provide a remedy for evil in the world." I remember that George Steiner was one of those proposing the motion and that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, the saintly Michael Ramsey, was opposing it. He was seconded by the Methodist and Socialist peer, Lord Soper. Yet in the whole course of the evening all anyone talked about, barring a brief mention of "predatory capitalists" by Lord Soper, was not evil but suffering — which is not, as any competent theologian will tell you, the same thing at all. It is blasphemous to suggest that God might be responsible for evil, but the corollary is the distinctly unpalatable truth that suffering per se is not an evil, and must be in accordance with the will of God, precisely if indeed mysteriously to serve God’s good ends. This is what no Christian that I saw quoted in the media dared to say. The chief rabbi of Israel is supposed to have said that the tsunami was "an expression of God’s great ire with the world," and several Muslim religious leaders said similar things, but if there was any Christian with such robust views of the prerogatives of the Almighty, he or she was kept pretty well out of sight.

For most Christians have made their peace with the media culture to which religion is at best an exercise in sentimentalism. They are like the newspaper columnist I once quoted in this space and cannot resist quoting again who purported to disprove the existence of Hell because, if God was even as nice a guy as he himself was, He would never send anyone there. How hard it is for even those most committed to their Christian faith not to assume, like this scribbler, that if there is a god he must be, ex hypothesi, the ultimate Nice Guy. Yet even the most cursory reading of the Bible must show us that that God, at least, is anything but a nice guy. As Randolph Churchill said after reading the Bible all the way through to win a bet: "Isn’t God a shit?" And so He would be, too, if He were what the theological sentimentalists both inside and outside the major religious denominations imagine Him to be. That’s why none of them any longer put much emphasis on submission, obedience or humility, the qualities that would once have been expected of believers in the face of tragedies such as the tsunami.

The media are by contrast full of romantics for whom God is, like earthly authorities, only there at all in order to be questioned and defied. Thus another columnist, William Safire, celebrated the Biblical character of Job in a book-length treatment as The First Dissident. Naturally, Safire too saw the tsunami as confirming his views of the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. "The point of Job’s gutsy defiance of God's injustice — right there in the Bible," he wrote in The New York Times, "is that it is not blasphemous to challenge the highest authority when it inflicts a moral wrong." Of course we could quibble and point out that He could hardly be "the highest authority" if He were indeed guilty of "injustice" or capable of inflicting "a moral wrong," but that would be to miss the point that authority itself is pointless to the journalist except as an excuse for rebellion. God is not really taken seriously either as Presence or as Absence. He is tolerated for the sake of a few liberal sentiments, as they have lately come to be seen, in favor of the poor or the meek or the peacemakers, and because He comforts the bereaved with the hope that death is not final, but He is expected to take a good deal of ribbing for being lazy and uncaring, and for His presumed attachment to outmoded ways of thinking about the world.

Rather like President Bush, in fact. So it was no coincidence that the second most remarked-upon absence from the world stage at the time of the tsunami was that of the President. Or, in Britain, of the Prime Minister. As John F. Harris and Robin Wright put it in the Washington Post, there were to be heard "complaints that the vacationing President Bush has been insensitive to a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions." And who were these complainers? For the most part, they were unnamed "skeptics" who "said the initial aid sums — as well as Bush's decision at first to remain cloistered on his Texas ranch for the Christmas holiday rather than speak in person about the tragedy — showed scant appreciation for the magnitude of suffering and for the rescue and rebuilding work facing such nations as Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia." Of named "skeptics" Harris and Wright cited only two, and those two were only mildly critical. The former ambassador and foreign policy éminence grise, Morton Abramowitz, thought the administration’s response "does not seem to be very aggressive," while Leslie H. Gelb, the former New York Times reporter and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations said that "when that many human beings die — at the hands of terrorists or nature — you've got to show that this matters to you, that you care."

Ah, yes! Showing that you care is what the celebrity culture expects of all those who occupy the public stage, and few indeed are the failures and shortcomings that have the power to disgrace our celebrity presidents and celebrity gods apart from the failure to show that they care enough. Feelings in our time are the guarantee of authenticity and the warrant of authority, intellectual as much as moral or political. Thus her New York Times obituary told us of Susan Sontag who died, perhaps of a surfeit of compassion, the day after the tsunami that "She laughed readily, and when she discussed something that engaged her passionately (and there were many things), her dark eyes often filled with tears." The New Yorker enlarged on this delightful capacity for emotion, revealing that "When she talked, her eyes would well up with tears over such things as the Burmese government or Hilton Kramer or ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’" Doubtless her fine feelings in the case of Hilton Kramer were like the tears shed in heaven over the fall of the brightest angel of them all, and they elevate the late Miss Sontag to the empyrean occupied by our rich-feelinged TV news men and women and our game show and talk show hosts. Like Dan Rather, all of them must breathe a little prayer of thanks from time to time for the opportunity God has vouchsafed them to show God how it’s done.




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