Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Supernatural help - and when it is refused...

In the modern era (although, apparently, not much before this) Western people often express confusion and anger over the lack of supernatural help in response to prayer; or that the difficulties and sufferings of our live are not pre-empted. And this is a reason for rejecting Christianity.

For example, God is both loving and extremely powerful; yet a person prays for help or relief and none comes. This 'failure' is taken as evidence that God does not exist, and that 'therefore' Christianity is a lie.

What people fail to realise is that this common scenario and its rationale contains the basic and false metaphysical assumption that a loving and powerful God would have created us in order to be happy and not to suffer during this mortal life on earth!

Since the reality is that we indeed suffer and are sub-optimally happy here on earth; then, logically from these false premises, the idea of such a God must be fraudulent. Either God made a mess of creation, or God is not loving; or God is not real...

The error, as usual, is in background and baseline assumptions: specifically, 'during this mortal life on earth'.

My understanding is that God is indeed loving and also extremely powerful (although not 'omnipotent' whatever that mind-numbing absolute-abstraction might mean in real-life...)- and that therefore help is always available during our mortal lives.

But the proper question is 'help to do what?' What does God want for us?

Given that we are immortal beings whose souls live eternally after 'death'; clearly God's ultimate goal is Not going to be restricted to optimising happiness and minimising suffering during this relatively brief mortal life, here on earth...

Our mortal, physical well being is surely of concern to God, but is not the only concern, and not the primary concern. God's primary concern is not with finite mortality but with our post-mortal eternity, and not with our time-limited bodies but with our souls, which survive the death of our bodies.

Indeed, one primary reason for our mortal lives on earth is precisely that this life will (if done properly) benefit our eternal souls.

We are God's children, so to understand the issues we can imagine how we regard our own children as the grow up to adulthood.

Childhood is extremely important, and we want our children to be happy and do not want them to suffer - and we often give or offer help... But we do not give absolute primacy to the short-term feelings of the child, and we do not always give help when asked; because we are thinking of the long term, and we wish growing children to learn to help themselves.  Children need to learn by trial and error, by doing their best and discovering the consequences.

Indeed, a good parent will only respond to requests for help when this help does not undermine the child's responsibility. This is, indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of being a parent - to refuse help, or even deliberately to inflict suffering in the short term because we believe it will be of greater benefit to the long term.

There are many examples: any form of behaviour discipline that contradicts the child's current desires, deliberately inflicting valuable but unpleasant or painful medical and surgical treatments, confining children to schools for long periods...

The point of these examples is not to justify them specifically; but to demonstrate that saying No to requests for help, failing to optimise here-and-now happiness, and indeed 'inflicting' suffering (intending ultimate benefit) are a necessary part of normal and good parenting; indeed a necessary part of the most ideal parenting.

Since help is always available in God's creation, and God is an ideal parent, part of faith is to trust that help will be given when it is good for us - 'good' in terms of the ultimate reason for our mortal lives here on earth.

In other words, unless we know that there is indeed A Reason* for our mortal lives here on earth, and have some understanding of the nature and fulfilment of that reason; then we are not in a position to appreciate why God sometimes gives help... but more often withholds it.

Note: That Reason is, very briefly: we incarnate into bodies in order to enhance our agency/ free will; we live on earth in order to have experiences from which we may learn - if we use our agency well; and our incarnate bodies die in order to be resurrected to everlasting life.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

The idea of "omnipotence" is the problem here. If God is omnipotent (so the reasoning goes) he shouldn't have to make any trade-offs. Whatever his larger goals for us may be, he should be able to realize AND keep us optimally happy all the time. But most moderns take it for granted that God is omnipotent "by definition," and that any non-omnipotent being would not "really" be God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Yes indeed. When the early Church fathers decided to import into Christianity the pre-existing abstract concept of omnipotence from the pagan Greek and Roman philosophers, they made a deadly error. With omnipotence came a whole package - including strict monotheism, and creation ex nihilo - which have also caused continual trouble ever since...

As you say, an omnipotent God would not need to make creature that needed to learn. We would simply be created in the state we needed to attain. Also, Christ's history would be unnecessary, since that linear-sequential contingent rigmarole of divine conception, birth,, complicated life, death and resurrection could be shortcut - and the final desired endpoint attained instantly and with certainty.

I do find it extraordinary that so many mainstream Christians are more fixed on the omnipotence of God than on his goodness, lovingness, human agency... or any other attribute - they will sacrifice almost anything (theologically) to retain that omnipotence!

And I really don't find it acceptable to deal with stark contradiction by declaring 'a mystery'.

(Of course, we both got this insight from Mormonism.)

Lucinda said...

This morning I was considering how envy doesn't enter my feelings when I am in the mode of trusting that God has already given me everything needful for me to move forward toward my good long-term desires, and that should any need arise, it would be given.

I think sometimes the lesson that needs to be learned has to do with our ability to recognize our own needs also, which I think is part of why we should learn to ask, rather than just accepting whatever currently is. So trusting has both elements of gratitude for what we already have attained, as well as the righteous striving for more. But this is entirely different from envy, which I consider to contain ingratitude and spiritual stopping.

Which is why I find your emphasis on metaphysical assumptions so valuable. Trying to stop myself from envying by kicking out envious thoughts was insufficient for me. I needed to recognize that envy was a symptom of the deeper assumptions and motivations and attack envious feelings by challenging their foundations.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Lucinda - I'm glad you find it useful. I mostly blog on what I myself find useful, or want to remind myself of.

My observation is that people to often jump to asking 'why' God does this or doesn't do some specific thing (often matters dredged from the media, subject to spin and distortion, and only vaguely comprehended) - without pausing to remember what is the basic purpose of creation, and what God is aiming-at.

I'm not sure the extent to which this tendency is spontaneous in people, and to what extent it is a deliberate demonic strategy: i.e. getting people to ask endless questions why, implicitly expecting instant, simple and 100% convincing answers to be fired back at them - and them assuming that the failure to do this is conclusive evidence that all religion is lying nonsense!