Sunday, October 18, 2015

Too Late

I want to pick up a theme that I’ve already picked up many times, because it keeps gnawing at me: theodicy, or the justification of God. I can’t stand most theodicies, because unless you believe firmly in a world beyond this one, the suffering that fills the universe is so great as to make any effort to stand up for the its ruler disturbing and comical.

But these days, my distaste is not just restricted to theodicy. It stretches to cosmodicy—justification of the world itself. Not so many people I know believe that the world is in the hands of a fair and kind king. Many, though, believe that the world is a fundamentally comfortable and just place to live. And this is odd: it puzzles me that cancer that taken as a strike against God, but not as a damning indictment of the world itself. And not just hideous illness, but war, poverty, and death itself are each individually damning charges against the entire cosmos.

(This all presumes, by the way, that we’ve already made the decision to put the world on trial. Not doing so is a respectable choice. The only point I want to make is that if we do bring it to the docket, the world ought to be condemned.)

I myself inhabit a rare sphere of comfort—I’m well fed, I spend my time doing things I like, I have heat in my room—but I’ve learned not to take that accident as any meaningful evidence for the proposition that things are cosmically fine. If we allow pain its proper weight in our calculations, we’ll stop being able to consider just about anything else. But no one can really countenance the thought of an alien and evil cosmos, so we come up with softening half-truths, whether theistic or nontheistic, to insulate ourselves.

One of our insulations is hope for the future. Optimists, religious or otherwise, like to say that yes, we’ve suffered in the past, but humanity’s saving grace is its free will and its capacity to improve its own situation. “We cannot change the past,” it’s said, “but we can change the future.” In religious circles, this is interpreted as a spur to obey God’s demand for justice without asking any gifts of him beforehand. And Jews of the last century were fond of saying that, as if the founding of the State of Israel was a happy counterweight to the catastrophe of the Holocaust. The world is not ideal, one thinks, but it can become so if we work hard enough at it.

But everything is already broken beyond repair. I don’t mean that it’s impossible to banish suffering, or to build utopia. I mean that the world is irredeemable because so much suffering has already happened. No amount of future joy will be any comfort to the piles of ashes in Auschwitz. Time will move on, but the evil that occurs in time is engraved permanently onto eternity. An angel might come to spare humanity’s last sons and daughters, but billions will already have been sacrificed to Moloch before his arrival.
Sacrifice of Isaac-Caravaggio (Uffizi).jpg
An exception to the historical norm.

So what, then, if we have free will now, and if the future is undetermined? The past has already been determined by people endowed with free and evil wills. At least, they were once free—now that their crimes have been committed, their willed evil is as enslaved to reality as a falling stone.

And the past cannot be discounted. Now that the most horrible events imaginable have already happened, it is impossible to look at the world anymore without a sad grimace and a sigh of pity. This has been true since Cain killed Abel, and becomes truer each time a gazelle gets shredded apart by a lion, or the smallest insect is flipped over, unable to right itself. We can’t cover up God’s sins, and the world’s evil, by merely making a commitment to making things better. If a man loses his family in a fire, no matter what he does next, his existence will be blotted with evil and sadness until he dies. This goes for human history as a whole.

Thomas Hardy has a poem that’s worth quoting in full:
I
“O Lord, why grievest Thou? —
Since Life has ceased to be
Upon this globe, now cold
As lunar land and sea,
And humankind, and fowl, and fur
Are gone eternally,
All is the same to Thee as ere
They knew mortality.” 
II
“O Time,” replied the Lord,
“Thou read’st me ill, I ween;
Were all the same, I should not grieve
At that late earthly scene,
Now blestly past—though planned by me
With interest close and keen! —
Nay, nay: things now are not the same
As they have earlier been. 
III
“Written indelibly
On my eternal mind
Are all the wrongs endured
By Earth’s poor patient kind,
Which my too oft unconscious hand
Let enter undesigned.
No god can cancel deeds foredone,
Or thy old coils unwind! 
IV
“As when, in Noë’s days,
I whelmed the plains with sea,
So at this last, when flesh
And herb but fossils be,
And, all extinct, their piteous dust
Revolves obliviously,
That I made Earth, and life, and man,
It still repenteth me!”
Nothing that happens now—even the world’s destruction—can wash off the world’s existing sins. This does not mean, of course, that we should stop doing everything we can to ease suffering. And it certainly doesn’t forbid us joy. But we can be joyous without forgetting that the earth is an eternally evil place.

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