Why Bad Things Happen

Why do bad things happen to good people?  Let’s ask the Puritans.  When it comes to the bad things of this world, they could always be counted on to have a neat, concise answer.

Sure enough, they not only had such an answer, they began inculcating it from the very beginning.  “In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all,” rhymes the New England Primer (1690).  Hence every Puritan child knew that any bad things that happen to us were richly deserved.  Indeed, the good days we lived in our lives were solely due to a munificent God benevolently withholding our just punishment for Adam’s sin.  When Adam fell, we fell.  As simple as that.

Being the absolutist types they were, they took it even further.  God made the world good.  But the entire world was tainted by Adam’s Original Sin.  After Adam this world became an evil place, full of death, disease, and a full complement of deadly sins.  Through some dark transformation, the good world of God’s creation became the enemy.  There was God on one side and Satan’s world on the other.  It made a neat dichotomy that answered a lot of questions.  (It should be noted that there is a strong minority who still find this perspective completely satisfying.)

Not a good enough answer?  Puritans a little too far from the mainstream?

Okay, let’s look at Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Dr. Johnson is a character so splendid that he ought to be pure invention.  He was something of a hack, but with no modesty in his ambition.  In 1747, at the ripe old age of 38, he decided to write a dictionary of the English language.  It took him nine years, but he created what became the first truly standard dictionary.  In the process, he stabilized the wild individuality of English spelling and sanctioned the oddities of its pronunciations (tough vs slough vs thought, etc.) to drive future generations crazy.

Thanks to his biographer, Boswell, we also know him as a wit.  It is Johnson we have to thank for such quips as calling a second marriage “A triumph of hope over experience” and the evergreen “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

The Restoration of the Stuarts (originally Scottish kings, remember) had brought a flood of hungry, avaricious Scots pouring South in pursuit of English jobs and English money.  The flood had not receded by Johnson’s day.

Johnson regarded this with a “there goes the neighborhood” testiness.   On one occasion, Johnson had somehow been persuaded to visit the Hebrides.  It didn’t soften him.  On his return, a friend, who should have known better, asked him what he thought of the country.  “That it is a very vile country, to be sure, sir.”  The friend, stoutly unwilling to accede to Johnson’s bigotry, retorted with what he clearly thought was a devastating argument.  “Well, sir.  God made it!”  Johnson, never to be outdone, replied, ”Certainly He did, but we must always remember that He made it for Scotsmen.  Comparisons are invidious, sir, but God made Hell.”

There are a lot of reasons for liking that story.  But I recall that when I first read it my amusement was mixed with shock.  It came from his bland acceptance of the idea that God had made Hell.  It seems the eighteenth century found that an easily acceptable notion.  Their God was a stern, just, and somewhat pitiless one.  To them God had explicitly created Satan to test us and Hell to punish those who failed the test.  Bad things happened to good people because of God’s inscrutable will.  Inscrutable, but just.

I am afraid most of us would have problems with Johnson’s explanation, too.  Today’s God, the one I was taught, is a kinder and gentler version.  Our catechism teaching tends to be that Lucifer fell because God let him express his free will.  It was somehow in Lucifer’s nature to go either way, up or down, just as it is in ours.  Hell?…Well, it just sort of happened when Lucifer fell.  Certainly today we don’t advertise the idea that Hell was a separate and special creation of God.

I suspect the Puritans and Dr. Johnson would both have really found the question of why bad things happen to good people a bit silly.  Such incidents were integral to their picture of God’s dominion over a sinful people in the thrall of Satan.

One can actually make a pretty good argument that this question only becomes relevant because we have redefined our ideas of God.  They accepted an arbitrary God and a fundamentally unfair world.  Not so for us.  Our world has moved on; science and logic have won the battle for dominance.  For us, this question neatly captures the difficulties in believing in an intelligent and equitably run universe.

Our modern western theologies reject both the calm acceptance of a God who would create Hell and the idea that Lucifer somehow rules over our world.  For a balanced duality reigning over our world, we have substituted a logical unity:  There can be only one uncreated Creator, and that is God.

This is pretty stark, but just to really screw things up, we also conceive God as both omnipotent and perfectly good.

I would argue that this last change introduced a whole raft of new contradictions that are beyond rational solution.  We may no longer see this world as dark and sinful beyond recovery.  But we still see it as flawed and capable of great darkness and great sin.  At the same time we have promoted God to such a level of power and virtue as to forcefully disconnect this deity from the nature of his creation.  To imagine a God that is both omnipotent and perfectly good is to believe in a deity whose only logical creation would be a perfect world.  Within today’s logic, it is impossible to conceive of a perfect Creator who created and creates this very imperfect world.

How do we handle this?

Simple.  We don’t look at it.

Instead, we imagine God as somehow separate from this world, but distantly responsible for it.  It is the stage upon which we play out our roles.  In that sense, we are more directly responsible for it than God is.  God allows us this space in which to act out our free will.  In order to do that, God keeps hands off unless acting in answer to our prayers for some sort of intervention.  We have redefined the dichotomy between God and the world.  Here, bad things happen to good people for two reasons: One, bad people exist and they do bad things to good people.  Two, there is a heck of a lot of pure chance in this revised playing field of ours, so accidents happen.  There are only a few folks nowadays who would attribute these lamentable events to “divine will” or call it “God’s punishment.”

We may have moved on, but we still seem, pretty universally, to embrace this dichotomy: On one side there is the divine.  On the other, the mundane.  What is interesting is how we handle each side of that dichotomy.  In the old days, we strove for the divine and rejected the worldly as inherently profane.  Today, having raised our view of the material world to a logical existence addressable by science, that option is closed to us.  We now insist on seeing both the divine and material worlds as worthy.  The material world could use some improvement, but it is still worthy.

Let’s look at America.  In this country, we have managed to coalesce many different aspects of the mundane (i.e. our fellow man) into a remarkable synthesis.  We accept and to some degree adapt ourselves to multi-generational Americans, just arrived Vietnamese, we-were-here-first Amerindians, we-didn’t-want-to-be-here African-Americans, and every differentiation in between with what seems to be a pretty low level of emotion.  When we come to points of disagreement, it is part of our social contract to try to compromise our way to a settlement that is equally just to both parties.

Not so the sacred.  When disagreements about sin and the divine become public, all bets are off.  In contrast to worldly matters, it is part of our view of religion that compromise is out of the equation.  Theological questions are matters of right and wrong.  Period.

What the heck are we to do about such mutually exclusive approaches to problems?  It seems to me that  the only sensible conclusion one can draw from the last two paragraphs is that we must bend every possible effort to keep the divine out of our communal arguments.

As a demonstration of the sheer cussedness of human nature, we often fail to observe that simple rule.  There are even those who feel that this idea is precisely what is wrong with America.  They are the ones (clearly blind to the feedback that life provides) who are arguing that what we need in public life is not less religion, but more.

Call me crazy, but I find that to be a notably stupid idea.  We have only to look at the abortion controversy to see how the injection of a religious issue into public life excludes compromise and therefore precludes a solution.

But what, I can almost hear them cry, about matters of right and wrong?  Surely the recent sins of our public officials show them to be lacking in the most basic concepts of right and wrong.

True, but here I think our language shows a certain paucity.  The problem is that we only seem to have words to use for public conduct that are borrowed from religion.  Words like right, wrong, good, bad, etc., carry an enormous burden of divinity.  They immediately push us towards the no-compromise-is-possible mind-set.

Let me offer, as a partial solution, one of my favorite special definitions.  Although the words have overlapping meanings in the dictionary, I like to separate “ethics” and “morality.”  Specifically, let me suggest that “ethics” should be used to govern the relations between people while “morality” be used to cover that between people and God.

There is a real difference here.  Looking across the world’s peoples, there are thousands of common rules about things that are not done because they harm other people or the relations between people.  They are the sorts of things we make illegal or (though I hate to say it) the subject of lawsuits.  For instance, it is a crime to rob a bank because it undermines society, harms a business, and takes money belonging to one’s fellow citizens.  Such conduct is many things, but it is almost universally regarded as “unethical.”

On the other hand, there is precious little agreement across humanity on exactly what offends God.  Having “strange Gods before me” seems to offend the Judeo-Christian God.  The polytheistic Hindus seem to feel that the more, the merrier.  Bigamy (or polyandry) is believed by some to be just awful while others seem to regard it as quite acceptable to God.  Over a surprisingly wide range, what is immoral to some is moral to others.

Of course, there is considerable overlap.  It is a crime to rob a bank, but it is also (in all religions, as far as I know) a sin.  Punching your neighbor may land you in court, but most cultures also regard it as an act offensive to God.  I don’t think this should surprise us.  For most of our history, God’s laws have had to govern both the divine and the mundane.  Honed by time, they were often pretty darned useful in creating polite, prosperous, and cohesive societies.

But when you jam those “societies” together and insist that they be one big “society,” you run into trouble. In our pluralistic nation and in the growing “world community,” the crunch comes on those issues where ethics and morality clash.  Let me return to my favorite example of the issue of abortion in America.  As a moral question, many people believe passionately that abortion is no different from murder and is offensive to God.  However, as an ethical question, our courts have decided that privacy is an essential ethical value and that society should not intrude in a woman’s private decision to bear a child nor on that woman’s relations with her physician.  Hence, as a practical matter,  we treat as ethical a matter that a substantial proportion of our society believes to be immoral.

One could argue that this is a nice, pragmatic solution.  We have trouble seeing it that way.  Our confused rhetoric so mixes the terms we use in talking about abortion that the moral issues get tangled with the ethical issues to the point that they simply cannot be usefully talked about.  Both sides inevitably feel the other is missing (or deliberately evading) the essential points.

For me, the bottom line is that my notions of morality do not belong in the public sphere.  If I am going to live in a society with people whose religious views differ so radically from mine, the moral argument will simply invite tyranny for those whose moralities differ.  It could be me, if I am in the overruled minority, but it might be more corrosive to my soul if I am the one who gets to overrule others.

So, although it is an unpopular notion in our current political climate, my conclusion is this:  Morality has no place in public life.  My moral ideas should govern my private conduct only.  It is our shared ethics that  should govern our shared public life.

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