Providence

This tag is associated with 4 posts

“The Count of Monte Cristo” – Faith, Vengeance, and Destiny

I have decided to mix in some classics with my constant reading of sci-fi/fantasy, philosophy, theology, and biographies. In order to pick which classics to read, I have largely crowdsourced recommendations of which classic literature they have enjoyed, combining this with lists of major classic works. So yeah, pretty subjective, but we can deal. As I read through the classics, there will be SPOILERS, because I want to actually talk about them. Maybe it will encourage you to read them, or, if you have read them already, you can join in a deeper discussion of these great works. Feel free to recommend your favorites, as well.

The Count of Monte Cristo

Several friends had recently talked about finishing this book and how much they enjoyed it. I also recalled seeing the recent-ish movie several years ago (though, having finished the book, I threw it on hold at the library, so I’ll be watching it again!). Also, there’s a delicious sandwich that I at least assume got its name from this book, which makes it even better. But other than these fleeting glimpses, I knew pretty much nothing about Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo going in. The memory of the movie had faded, and I just recalled there was some guy who wanted revenge. Yeah, there’s a lot more to the novel than that.

The Count of Monte Cristo is, on the surface level, a novel of vindication and revenge. It’s an adventure that spans more than a thousand pages. Yet it remains a page-turner that demands to be devoured in sitting after sitting. But on the deeper level, it is a fantastically Christian look at the world and God’s action therein.

The set up for the plot involves the man who would be the count getting set up by several who wish him ill for various reasons. But throughout even that section, “Providence” is constantly in view. Providence is historically one way people talked about divine activity in the world, so the reader is led to see Dumas’s viewpoint as having a divine hand in many acts. And, indeed, as our lead character begins his quest for vindication and vengeance, bringing blessings and curses upon those who helped or hindered him, we as readers cannot help but associate his actions with those of God. We want the Count to succeed in his quest for revenge; it is so well planned, and he has become a man of almost limitless poise and focus. It is not until the count has one part of his vengeance go “too far” that he starts to have second thoughts.

These second thoughts translate into an awareness that our Count’s activity is not just the hand of God acting. Though we as readers have been rooting for him throughout, it becomes clearer that the assumptions we’ve made about how the story is going are wrong. It’s as though Dumas played into our expectations, allowing us to think that, perhaps, here is the kind of “divine vending machine” that we so often wish to turn God into. Here, in at least this story, God is working in the way that we want, dispensing a kind of hard justice on wrongdoing and giving great benefit to those who deserve it. But our Count realizes that this is not, in fact, what is happening. His own actions have been, well, his own. Has he been aided by God? Yes, in the sense that his endeavors could not have all succeeded without some acts of Providence. But he has presumed too much. Like Job in the Bible, he has questioned God; nay, he has gone farther and turned himself into the hand of God, dishing out vengeance and blessing as he wished. And his actions have led to a great wrong with the death of innocents.

So Dumas asks us to take ourselves back out of the shoes of the Count, to stop assuming that we know what is supposed to happen. Instead, he has lured us into this complacency, thinking we know how things ought to be, when instead we should be approaching the acts of God with fear and trembling, carefully avoiding the notion that we can make God act in the ways we desire. Hidden in plain sight within this apparent adventure novel, we have a serious theological commentary that forces us to re-examine who God is and how God acts. How often we make God into what we want, thinking we can control God! Yet here we see how foolish that is, and how we must once again evaluate the assumptions we have made.

So apart from this deep theological discussion, is there a good book? Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. The novel is so well written. I found it un-put-down-able. It’s a true page turner even at its doorstop-like heft. The story is full of beautiful description and overflowing with heart and depth.

There is far more that I could say about The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s such a phenomenal achievement. It definitely stands among my favorite works of all time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to you, dear readers.

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Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets

I have two general beliefs/feelings when it comes to life on other planets which are in conflict. Part of me is extremely skeptical. The probability of their being life on other planets given the extremely precise conditions needed to sustain life is exceedingly, vanishingly, absurdly low. Sure, there are unimaginably numerous planets in our universe, any number of which may be earthlike, but I just do not see why we should think that life is inevitable or even likely. On the other hand another part of me thinks that God could just as easily have brought life forth in various places throughout the universe, utilizing it much like an artist uses a tapestry. Our universe could be teeming with life, just waiting to be discovered.

Reading a couple books recently, along with the recent exploration of Mars, have turned me to reflect on the implications of life on other planets for Christian theology. One book, Vast Universe [link at bottom of post], was on Christian theology of life on other planets. Here, I shall be setting aside my extreme skepticism about life “out there.” Instead, I shall consider the following statement: “If there is other life in the universe, what does that mean for Christian theology?”

Science and Christianity

The topic is so oft-discussed that I will not dedicate too much time to it. What would the discovery of life ‘out there’ do for science and Christianity?

I think that Christian theology already has the resources built in it to adapt itself to life on other planets. Although some would be disturbed by such a possibility or reality, I do not see how such a discovery would be damaging to Christianity as a whole. The real problem would lie with those willing to abuse the text of the Bible in order to try to make it say there is no possibility of life outside of Earth or that our planet is the focal point of all creation. Theologies which take such a path those would indeed suffer greatly.

Humanity’s Place in the Universe

The discovery of life on other planets would almost certainly remove the notion that humanity is some kind of privileged being in this universe. It was not all created by God for us. What would that mean for Christian theology?

Again, I do not think this would be very damaging. Although the notion that humanity has a special place in the universe has a traceable line throughout the history of Christian theology, it is hardly a necessary component. In fact, life on other planets would be a great illustration of another thread of Christian theology: the notion of God as a cosmic artist who delights in creation. On this view, God takes such pleasure in the creation of and interaction with various living species that He caused them to arise across the universe. Furthermore, our discovery of these other living creatures could be a reflection of His providence, having set up the world in such a way that we could discover other life and marvel at His creation.

Salvation

What about salvation on other planets? Did Jesus go to other planets in His incarnate form and save them as a human? Was there more than one crucifixion? Thomas O’Meara, in the book I mentioned above, reflects upon questions just like these. He argues that “All three persons can become incarnate because incarnation is one aspect of boundless divine power… The divine motive for fashioning a universe of galaxies is God’s goodness; the same motive brings incarnation” (47, cited below). He establishes the notion of more than one incarnation as a live option throughout Christian history (63ff).

It therefore seems as though other life in the universe would not destroy God’s salvation plan. The Bible tells us about God’s salvation history for humanity. We know God is good, and we therefore know that God would providentially interact with other beings at their own levels and needs.

Finally, one thoughtful reader pointed out to me one area I had forgotten to add in here. There is the possibility that if there are aliens, then they have not fallen. Perhaps they have lived in communion with God instead of in rebellion against God. The possibility is very real, and must be considered in this kind of speculative theology. Such aliens would possibly be corrupted by meeting humanity; but they may also have much to teach us. As O’Meara notes, they may be some kind of “Star Mentors” with spiritual insights we may miss in our fallen state.

The Sentient Alien and other faiths

What kind of challenge would a sentient alien present to Christianity? What of their faith, their religion?

As far as other sentient species’ religions, I think that Christianity could interact with them in the same way that Christian theology has considered other human faiths. Seek truth where truth exists, and critique where it is untrue. (For my fuller vision of world religions, check out my post on A Vision for Christian Apologetics to World Religions.)

Some could even argue that a Christian interaction with other sentient races should be open to their own incarnations and truth in their religion as revealed by God. What of an alien Bible? Again, it seems that a good God, as we know God is, would interact with all life in a way that reflects His omnibenevolent nature. God’s providence would extend to life across the whole universe.

Alleged Disproofs

Would life on other planets somehow discredit Christianity? What of panspermia? How should we treat the discovery of life in the universe, were it to happen?

The Bible does not seem to make any kind of statement about life outside of our planet. However, it does make it clear that there is a spiritual realm of angels and demons. Thus, there is at least life outside of our easily accessible realm. No verse in the Bible states that there is no life elsewhere in the universe. It seems that the possibility is certainly open.

Furthermore, I don’t see any reason to think that life on other planets would somehow justify belief in panspermia or some other pseudo-scientific explanation of the spread and origins of life. We would have to deal with the same questions about life on other planets that we must deal with on our own.

Created life and the universe

Overall, I think that as a purely rational standpoint there is reason for immense skepticism about life on other planets. Although many express optimism and point to the sheer volume of planets in our universe as somehow necessitating life elsewhere, I am not convinced that sheer numbers somehow increase the likelihood of life on other planets. To put it plainly, it is my opinion that the only rational way to hope for life elsewhere in our universe is to conjoin that hope with belief in a God who loves creating and interacting with created life.

A final disclaimer

I realize that many of the points I wrote about in this post are likely to be extremely contentious. What I want to say is that this has been an exercise in speculative theology. I have been writing about something which is a mere possibility and offering possible answers to a number of questions from a perspective which takes this possibility seriously. I am quite possibly wrong on any of these. What I have tried to do here is offer a number of things for Christians to think about when they consider life on other planets. For a great post on the possibility of life on other planets, check out this guest post by Greg Reeves on that very topic.

Source

Thomas O’Meara, Vast Universe (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Providence and the Problem of Evil” by Richard Swinburne

“In order rationally to believe that there is a God, despite [evil], we need either strong positive evidence for the existence of God, or a record of discovering with respect to many apparent bad states that a theodicy works with respect to them, or a theodicy for each kind of bad state which seems to count against the existence of God.”[1]

The problem of evil is considered by many to be the greatest challenge to theism.[2] Richard Swinburne offers a defense against this problem in his work Providence and the Problem of Evil.[3]

Swinburne first develops an account of goods within creation. His account includes beauty, actions, thoughts and feelings as various goods. Given the existence of God, he also argues that worship is a great good.[4] Human freedom is necessary for many goods. With freedom, humans can bring about all types of great goods.[5] The freedom of persons also allows for great evils. These goods are not just goods for people, but they are states which God would be expected to desire to bring about.[6] By developing this account, he is able to turn towards various types of evils.

First, there are moral evils. Moral evils are essentially those bad states of affairs which persons bring about. Swinburne argues that some moral evil is going to be necessary, because it is simply a fact that there are good states of affairs which are logically incompatible.[7] Second, there is natural evil—evils which occur without direct causation by persons.

These sections of the book are largely made up of background, yet Swinburne interweaves his theodicy into the chapters on evil. Central to Swinburne’s account is the idea that for every evil, there is some reason that it occurred. There is, in other words, no evil which is superfluous, no evil which is gratuitous. For every evil mentioned, Swinburne provides a possible reason for God’s allowing it to occur. What reasons could God have for allowing evils like the holocaust, or animal pain? Swinburne sums up his view concisely as follows:

“Every moral evil in the world is such that God allowing it to occur makes possible… the great good of a particular choice between good and bad… Every pain makes possible a courageous response… and normally the goods of compassion and sympathetic action… And all animal pain gives knowledge and opportunity for compassion to animals and humans if they know of it.”[8]

Swinburne’s view is that for every evil, there is a reason. The reason can be knowledge: when people (or animals) observe animals dying in forest fires, they learn to flee from the fires, and thus save themselves and others.[9] Choice is a great good, but in having choices, people can choose to bring about great evils. Horrendous evils like the Holocaust are not just the result of choices in the present, but are the consequences of a long series of evil choices.[10]

Importantly, Swinburne also argues that God is under no obligation to make everyone’s life equally good. “[I]f [God] gives to some ten good things, and to others twenty good things, no one is wronged; nor has he failed to be perfectly good. He has been generous, and, more so, he has made it possible for us to be generous.”[11] God’s providence is good to everyone. There is a level of inequality in the gifts received—but to any and all, gifts are given. The way people choose to use their gifts is what leads to extreme inequities.

Finally, Swinburne argues that God has the right to allow evil, largely due to the extreme dependence people have upon him.[12] Not only that, but God has brought about a world in which every person has the possibility of the nearly infinite good of being with God forever. Thus, Swinburne concludes that God has provided people with a choice between the good and rejection of the good. The responsibility for that action is upon the person, not God.[13]

Throughout Swinburne’s account are several theses many readers may find implausible. He rejects original guilt [he does not deny that there was an original sin and instead holds to an Eastern Orthodox view–thanks to a reader of the original review (linked below) for this point][14] and denies that God knows the future free actions of creatures.[15] These theological points do not undermine his main theses, however. It is undeniable that Swinburne has provided a lucid account of a “greater good theodicy.” He does provide possible reasons for allowing any type of evil to occur.

The key point of divergence with readers will be whether they are willing to accept these reasons in conjunction with his later conclusions. God has reasons for allowing every evil, and he provides for people to have extraordinarily good lives with the afterlife, but there remain those who will reject these goods. Swinburne’s account is cumulative: the reasons provided for allowing evils do not stand on their own. Rather, they stand together and in unison with God’s providence and direct goodness to all persons through maintaining the world, creating them, and providing them with choices.

Those interested in the problem of evil would do well to read Providence and the Problem of Evil.  Usage of the “greater good theodicy” is on the wane. Many theists today only provide versions of the “free will defense” in relation to the problem of evil. In doing so, they cast aside a powerful philosophical tool for theism. While the “greater good theodicy” will not convince everyone, it can at least provide a strong cumulative case when joined with other defenses against the problem of evil.


[1] Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (New York, NY: Oxford, 1998), 29.

[2] See Swinburne’s thoughts on this on pages 4ff.

[3] He also believes that we have strong positive evidence for the existence of God, but he focuses upon theodicy in this work. See his The Existence of God for a case for the existence of God based on positive evidence.

[4] 111ff.

[5] 105-107.

[6] 45.

[7] 125.

[8] 217.

[9] 176ff.

[10] 151-152.

[11] 149.

[12] 223ff.

[13] 251.

[14] 36-41.

[15] 127ff.

This review was originally posted at Apologetics315 here: http://www.apologetics315.com/2011/11/book-review-providence-and-problem-of.html

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Is God just lucky?: Possible Worlds and God’s Providence, a Defense of Molinism

Knowing all the possible circumstances, persons, and permutations of these, God decreed to create just those circumstances and just those people who would freely do what God willed to happen. (William Lane Craig, 86).

I’ve argued previously that molinism allows for human freedom and God’s perfect knowledge of the future. One objection which has been raised to my argument is that, granting all of it, it would seem that God is just really lucky that the world He wants to actualize is possible. Looking back, we can see that the argument flows from the logical priority of God’s knowledge. Central to my defense was the notion that the possible worlds are full of the free choices of creatures. The objection therefore argues that God must simply “get lucky.” There must be a possible world which God actually wants to actualize.

The argument would look something like this:

1) God can only create that which is possible

2) The set of possible worlds covers all possibilities.

3) Therefore, if there is a world which God wants to create, He would have had to be simply lucky–there would have had to be a possible world that contained the outcomes God desired.

The objection is quite thoughtful. It is not easy to resolve. Before rebutting this objection, it is important to note that the set of all possible worlds is the same whether one is a determinist, open theist, or molinist. Granted, open theists deny that this set would include future contingents, but for now that is irrelevant. All the positions agree the set of possible worlds includes no contradictions. Thus, any position must account for the “God got lucky” objection.

I believe that molinism offers a way around this difficulty, and it does so by again focusing upon logical priority. William Lane Craig’s  quote above illustrates this. God’s will is at the forefront. I suggest that God’s will is logically prior to the set of possible worlds. Consider the following argument, which focuses upon the redemption (as one of the outcomes God would desire):

1) God only wills what is possible
2) God wills the redemption
3) Therefore, the redemption is possible (modus ponens, 1-2)
4) Whatever is possible exists in the set of possible worlds (tautology)
5) Therefore, the redemption exists in the set of possible worlds (3, 4)

From this argument, it wouldn’t be too difficult to draw the inference that God isn’t lucky in regards to the possibilities–God’s will would have some kind of determining power over the set of possible worlds, because anything God wills would have to exist in a possible world. In other words, God’s will is logically prior to the set of possible worlds. That which God’s will must be possible, so it is not the set of possible worlds that determines what God can will, it is rather God’s will which determines the set of possible worlds.

A potential objection I could see is that this argument just moves the debate up another level–does God will things because they are possible or are they possible because God wills them? My response would again point to logical priority, and I would say that God’s nature (will) is logically prior to the set of possible worlds.

An objection could then be raised: “Why doesn’t God will for a world without evil?” Answer: Free will defense would work here also. God could clearly will for a world to have the redemption without destroying free will for all persons, but to will a world without evil would (possibly) impinge on all persons’ free will.

Therefore, it seems that only molinism can adequately account for both human free will and God’s omniscience and providence. Whatever God wills will occur. God is not lucky, rather, God is sovereign.

SDG.

Sources

William Lane Craig, “God Directs All Things: On Behalf of a Molinist View of Providence” in Four Views on Divine Providence ed. Stanley Gundry and Dennis Jowers, 79-100 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).

Image Credit: I took this picture at Waldo Canyon near Manitou Springs, Colorado on my honeymoon. Use of this image is subject to the terms stated at the bottom of this post.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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