I recall reading a book Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? in my high school religion course. I’ve run into this question again and again over the years, touted often as one of ‘the biggies’ alongside “Why are We Here?” and “What is the Meaning of Life?” but to be honest I think the question is irrelevant at best. At the worst it is positively evil. The real million-dollar question is “what can we ascribe to the actions of the gods and what can we ascribe to the actions of man?”
How we answer this single question answers by implication so many other correlated but seemingly bigger questions. Questions like:
- Is there a god?
- Is there more than one?
- Does the divine concern itself with humanity?
- What are the ethical, emotional and spiritual qualities of the gods?
After all, the presupposition that there is a divine agency at work in the world is a hypothesis necessary just for the asking of this question alone. If there are events that can be ascribed to divine agency, then we can see if there is one or more than one based on whether the actions in total have a clear, organizing and self-consistent character to them.
The idea that there could be one god whose character is so various and incomprehensibly complicated that His or Her actions would be characterized by a self-contradictory nature is so horrific and maddening that I sweat just to entertain the notion. There is a reason that Loki, Bricriu, Tiamat and Evnissyen all have a role in mythology. The concept that divinity might be comprised of a collection of beings whose faculties and powers, insight and capabilities outstrip our own yet might be characterized by such a plurality of intentions and perspectives that they and their adherents could and probably would come into conflict with one another is doubtless the basis for many a monotheistic perspective. Nevertheless, every monotheistic view must then account for ‘why bad things happen to good people.’
Of course there are other immensely complicated ramifications of this question that go ‘the other way’ as well. What I mean by this is that there are certain presumptions bound up in this question that I actually think are quite misleading and false; most importantly, the division between humanity and divinity is overly facile and (I would argue) even artificial.
The truly wonderful (and I mean that in the literal sense) thing about a theology of immanence is that there is no escape from the divine, however much we may want to reduce ourselves to the status of ‘mere mortals’. This means that there is no separation of the rational faculty from divine inspiration; revealed religion is simply intuition taken to an absurd extreme and clinical science is simply common sense (never so ‘common’ as we would like to think) taken to the opposite extreme. Sequestering our nature into a human ‘nutshell’ and insisting that we do not take part in the glory that is the basic nature of all things demands that we debase some part or facet of the world.
Another way to look at this is to invert the typical accusation made by many a Christian against contemporary Paganism. As one particularly vociferous website puts it, “modern paganism is a philosophy that replaces a belief in the Almighty with a belief in the greatness of man, or the power of sorcery.” The premise behind this accusation is that paganism lowers divinity to the level of humanity, but this premise automatically lowers humanity. It only makes sense if you presume the Fall of Man. Intelligent Christians would be better positioned to accuse Paganism of insisting that divinity is not only perceptible but intimately bound up in the mechanisms of the world. At least this would be more accurate and allow for some semblance of genuine debate (which might lead to a meeting of the minds, which might lead to genuine understanding, which might — if the Christian paradigm is valid — lead to the Holy Spirit actually making a genuine conversion … again with the digressions.)
I advance that our very understanding of reality is currently warped, not because ‘we see through a glass darkly’ and will have the scales removed at some point in the future but because our history, informed by both human and divine action, has led to certain popular perspectives that bear little relationship to reality. Whatever might be said about them, I don’t think the gods really care about whether we deceive ourselves or not. In fact, I think asking what might motivate a god or goddess is not only potentially fruitful but right up there with ‘what actions may be ascribed to the gods and what to humanity?’