Some folks were grumbling and rumbling about this New York Times article by philosophy professor Peter Atterton.
I don’t think it’s such a bad article. In fact, I thought it was a good article. It was well written, clear and accessible. It’s the sort of article philosophers should write.
Philosopher Atterton basically concludes that the Western Christian concept of God is impossible because if God is morally perfect he cannot experience evil, but if he is omniscient then he would not only know, but experience moral evil. He summarizes thus:
It might be argued, of course, that this is precisely what distinguishes humans from God. Human beings are inherently sinful whereas God is morally perfect. But if God knows everything, then God must know at least as much as human beings do. And if human beings know what it is like to want to inflict pain on others for pleasure’s sake, without any other benefit, then so does God. But to say that God knows what it is like to want to inflict pain on others is to say that God is capable of malicious enjoyment.
However, this cannot be true if it really is the case that God is morally perfect. A morally perfect being would never get enjoyment from causing pain to others. Therefore, God doesn’t know what it is like to be human. In that case He doesn’t know what we know. But if God doesn’t know what we know, God is not all knowing, and the concept of God is contradictory. God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect. Hence, God could not exist.
Yes, but the underlying problem here is that philosopher Atterton is dissecting God according to human reason and logic. He concludes by bouncing back to Pascal who abandoned human reason for mystical knowledge of God.
It is logical inconsistencies like these that led the 17th-century French theologian Blaise Pascal to reject reason as a basis for faith and return to the Bible and revelation. It is said that when Pascal died his servant found sewn into his jacket the words: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob — not of the philosophers and scholars.” Evidently, Pascal considered there was more “wisdom” in biblical revelation than in any philosophical demonstration of God’s existence and nature — or plain lack thereof.
I like that. Sort of. Certainly mystics like Pascal and Julian of Norwich have shed much more light on the mysteries of God’s providence and power than the philosophers alone. However, just as philosophical logic chopping is not enough on its own, neither is mystical experience sufficient on its own. As Pope St John Paul the Great asserted in Fides et Ratio reason and faith work together.
It takes two wings to fly.
So what about this problem that God cannot understand sadism and is therefore not omniscient or if he does understand sadism he is not morally perfect.
Come now. Philosophy may be balanced by mystical experience, but it can also be balanced by common sense.
One can understand an evil best by fully understanding the good from which it is derived. If we follow Augustine and Aquinas’ understanding of evil, then all evil is, at heart, either an absence of good or the distortion and destruction of a good. Because God is morally perfect and omniscient he therefore understands goodness completely. That complete and full understanding of goodness includes a full understanding of evil just as a full understanding of light includes a full understanding of darkness.
Because God fully understands human pleasure and desire he also fully understands the distortion of that desire into evil. In fact, he understands the evil completely because he understands and knows the good.
Let us take, for example, a sadistic child murderer. Let us imagine a man who kidnaps, tortures, rapes and then kills little girls before slowly killing them. Let us imagine that this monster is sexually gratified in his depravity.
Philosopher says, “But to say that God knows what it is like to want to inflict pain on others is to say that God is capable of malicious enjoyment.”
This is faulty. To understand something is to know it most completely, but to understand something is not the same thing as experiencing it. God fully understands the desire in the murderer and he fully understands how that desire for something good (sexual fulfillment, the attraction of innocence, the beauty of a child, the proper love of power) have been distorted and twisted. In fact he understands it far more than the murderer himself does. This knowledge fulfills both his moral perfection and his omniscience at the same time.
Finally, Atterton ignore the incarnation of Christ:
(I shall here ignore the argument that God knows what it is like to be human through Christ, because the doctrine of the Incarnation presents us with its own formidable difficulties: Was Christ really and fully human? Did he have sinful desires that he was required to overcome when tempted by the devil? Can God die?)
It is hardly fair for Atterton to critique the Christian understanding of God if he is not prepared to consider the full Christian explanation. The incarnation is the ultimate answer to God’s sympathy with humanity. To criticize Christianity but avoid the very answer Christianity proposes is too easy a dodge. In the end he hasn’t criticized Christianity at all, but a concept of God which is no more than philosophical speculation.
Criticizing the Christian concept of God while tiptoeing around Jesus Christ is like criticizing Beethoven’s fifth symphony for not being a cheeseburger.