Thank God

I just figured out why, contrary to the arguments of certain atheists, it makes complete sense and is not contradictory that people thank God for good things (say, that their daughter survived a dreadful disease), but don’t blame God for bad things (that someone else’s daughter died from the same disease).

The kinds of beneficial events for which people tend to thank God are those that go against the normal course of things. Accident and disease are (or at least so they appear) part of the normal course of this material world. When good events happen that mysteriously escape the general cause and effect trend of matter, that appears to people as a manifestation of something from beyond this world—God’s providence, God’s grace. But when bad things happen that are in keeping with the normal (or least the apparently normal) laws of accident, disease, and death, that does not strike people as coming from God, it strikes people as part of the ordinary mess of life on earth. So they don’t blame God for it.

For example, when the wind remained northerly for two days following the battle of Long Island in August 1776, preventing the British ships from sailing up the East River and trapping Washington’s demoralized and hunkered-down army on Brooklyn Heights, and so enabling the Americans, hidden by a fog on the East River, to escape back to New York City, when by all rights the Americans should have been surrounded and captured and the American revolution destroyed on the spot, the event was so remarkable, so contrary to what ought to have happened, that it deeply impressed Washington, who was not a particularly religious man, with the thought that Providence had saved his army. Repeated such experiences during and after the War of Independence—beneficial, salvific events that by all normal expectations should not have happened, but did happen—made Washington a profoundly convinced believer in what he called Providence. When Washington devoted almost half of his First Inaugural Address to America’s dependence on the “Great Author of every public and private good,” he was not going through pious motions; he was giving voice to the most profound experience of his life.

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Anna F. writes:

Your comment on thanking and not blaming God makes sense. What I have always found disconcerting are public statements attributing, with special thanks, the survival of a relative/friend as God’s answer to their prayers. This is particularly prevalent after a air/train disaster with some survivors. The implication truly bothers me. Those who did not survive did not get enough or good enough prayers. Oh, well.

The intercession of prayers (human intervention) is acknowleged and lauded as possibly the prime cause of survival. Due and grateful thanks is given to God. Never in the sadness/joy is ever any positive attribute of God, or life itself, acknowledged for those who did not survive.

This truly bothers me. God’s grace is also with those who did not survive.

LA replies:

I don’t watch television, so I’m less aware of the kinds of things people say in such situations, but if that’s what people are doing nowadays, I agree with you. It seems to me that if one or one’s loved one has been in a disaster and survives, while many others have died, to spout out that God has answered your prayers, while all those other people are lying there dead, would be the height of crass selfishness. Heather Mac Donald’s horrendous error is to take such bad behavior as expressive of Christianity itself, rather than as bad behavior.

I would venture to say that such behavior is to Christian behavior what a rock-blaring mega-church is to a traditional church.

In fact, there’s a typical liberal dynamic at work in liberal anti-Christians’ attack on Christianity over such behavior.

Modern liberalism has taken over our culture. Modern liberalism tells people that there is no higher truth, that everything is about the self. This sensibility affects Christians along with everyone else. Then when non-Christians see Christians acting like self-esteeming liberals instead of like humble Christians, they attack Christianity for its crassness and say that Christianity ought to come to an end. But the real solution, of course, is not for Christianity to cease to exist; the solution is for Christianity to cease to be liberal.

We could also substitute the word conservatism for Christianity in the above paragraph.

Laura W. writes:

When we make petitions to God, aren’t we recognizing God’s power to do anything, even to intervene in what might appear to humans to be an unfair or non-egalitarian manner? It is crass to express publicly one’s thanks to God for answering prayers for the safety of a loved one in a disaster in which others were killed. But, it’s not shameful to express the thought privately. We should pray selfishly. We’d be expressing indifference to God’s tendency to look at us as individuals if we didn’t.

I remember Primo Levi saying in one of his memoirs of Auschwitz that he refused to pray in the concentration camp and that his belief that praying was unfair helped turn him into a hardened atheist. How could I pray for my own welfare, he said, when it might mean God would spare me and not the person starving in the next bunk? But, prayer for our own sake is not indifference to others. It is recognition that God sees us as individuals, is just in all decisions and is attuned to pleas of the faithful. Besides, Primo Levi and those who express thanks publicly for the sparing of their loved ones make an erroneous assumption: that death is the worse that is. The person starving next to Levi may have died, but met incomparable glory.

(By the way, Primo Levi was, despite this logical error, an eloquent, thinking atheist. The fact that he committed suicide may have been tragic proof that he could not bear intellectual dishonesty.)

LA replies:

That is a profound thought about the validity of praying for oneself.

Laura continues:

And, that connects to my comments on unthinking belief. You’ve spoken eloquently on Darwin and atheism. But, the influence of those Jews who survived the Holocaust and said, “This has destroyed my belief in God. This has proven that God does not exist” has been perhaps equally powerful in determining the course of atheism—and the overall downturn in the conversation on faith—in the last 50 years. Believers never really adequately responded. We were in awe of these survivors. Worse, we were guilt-ridden and, in some ways, rightly so. But, the theological answer was supplied centuries ago. For sadly human suffering was not invented in Auschwitz, only magnified.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 04, 2007 03:20 PM | Send

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