20th century, Adolf Hitler, Augustine, Bhagavad Gītā, chastened intellectualism, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hebrew Bible, hell, Krishna, Mahābhārata, Mañjuśrī, Pol Pot, Rāmānuja, Sigmund Freud, theodicy, Vishnu, Xunzi
I once heard someone – I don’t remember where – criticize humanism (however defined) in the following manner: “The problem with humanism is it leads you to deify man, and the evidence seems to be that man is not worthy of being deified.” The point resonates with me as I think about chastened intellectualism, the idea – which I associate with Freud as well as Augustine and Xunzi – that human beings tend naturally toward wrong behaviour. Individually, despite good intentions, I find it a constant struggle to be a good and happy person; collectively, the history of the 20th century is a dark litany of what happens when – as is too often the case – people’s intentions are less than good. It is difficult to have faith in humanity when humanity has not earned it.
The argument to this point is, I think, in perfect sympathy with Augustine. Human beings for him are invariably and inevitably flawed, in a way that makes them unworthy of our trust. Instead, Augustine wants to argue, we must place our trust in a truly perfect being, God. Augustine’s argument here underlies a great deal of conservative Christianity: even if church institutions and/or biblical scripture appear wrong to us, they are a better guide than our own weak and easily misled intellects.
For the moment, let us leave aside the question of how we know Church or Bible embody God, or even whether God exists. I think there is a far deeper question at issue here: even assuming he exists, how can we trust God?
Most of the answer to the question will hinge upon how we define God. But let us assume that God has one characteristic attributed to him by almost every believer, even by deists: that he is the creator of all that is, directly or indirectly responsible for everything that happens except (perhaps) those events caused by human free will, and perhaps the will of other free beings like angels.
If that is so, the verdict is severe: God’s track record is no better than ours. Too often we think of the “problem of evil” rather than, more correctly and appropriately, of the problem of suffering. And then we neglect to think the problem through, and blame it all on human free will. For when we live so close to the twentieth century, the readiest examples of grave horrors are human-caused; the mere mention of the names Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot make it easiest to question God. But this version of the question is also the easiest to answer: the universe would not be as good if we were not free, and this freedom is worth the possibility of evil.
But how small this human-caused misery begins to look compared to the misery caused by God. In Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, the Asian tsunami we have plenty of recent examples of suffering not caused by humans. Smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, cancer have killed more than Hitler or Pol Pot ever did. The tortures of ALS make the gas chambers look humane. Crippling diseases, natural disasters, animal attacks: we didn’t do that. God did.
And that’s just a deist God, a God inferred from creation. The evidence against the God of scriptures is worse still. In the book of Exodus, God punishes every Egyptian family with ten “wonders” – diseases, crop failures and more – culminating in the deaths of all their firstborn children. They are punished not for their own actions, but for the actions of their Pharaoh – even though the text explicitly says that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” God deliberately caused the Pharaoh to do the very thing that Pharaoh is punishing him for. Later God sends horrible afflictions, including the death of his children, on his most faithful servant Job, just in order to win a bet with the Accuser (“the Satan” in Hebrew). Worse even than all this is the idea of a literal hell, not necessarily attested in the scriptures but widely believed in the traditions, including by Augustine himself. Whatever Pol Pot did to his victims, it always ended with death. God keeps going, tormenting people for all eternity, with no deterrent purpose whatsoever, leaving sheer vengeful retribution as an end in itself.
It seems to me the evidence against God is, quite literally, damning. Augustine, it seems to me, is right that humanity is fallen and sinful, not worthy of trust. The problem is that God is worse. (And let me stress again that it is not God’s existence I’m addressing here. Like Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, I would not trust a creator God even if he did exist. Maybe especially if he did.)
It is not only Western traditions that face this problem. These reflections came to me when I began reading Rāmānuja‘s commentary on the Bhagavad Gītā. Rāmānuja begins the text with a long homage to Vishnu as the creator of all things, who appears in the Gītā in the form of Lord Krishna. The purpose of life, according to Rāmānuja, is to reach knowledge of and devotion to this Lord. But Krishna always appears as a morally questionable sort of deity, from his childhood stealing butter, through his adulterous sexual affairs – to the advice he gives in the Mahābhārata itself. In the Gītā, Krishna tells Arjuna to kill his cousins and their armies because he should always do his duty (dharma) irrespective of the consequences. Even if one thinks this morally sound advice, the same Krishna later tells Arjuna to kill his rival Karna while Karna is fixing his chariot – an act that clearly violates all applicable rules of dharma – in order to achieve the consequence of winning the war. So too, it is Krishna who tells Yudhiṣṭhira to mislead Drona about Aśvatthāman the elephant, an act for which Yudhiṣṭhira later receives a karmic punishment – again, breaking the duty of truthfulness in order to bring about the best consequences. Krishna tells others to break the rules he himself sets out, and does so with impunity. Krishna’s bad deeds might not quite reach the scale of the Judeo-Christian God, but he is far from a moral paragon. He may be better than Pol Pot, but a human saint could surely outdo him.
So whether we are speaking of Vishnu or Jehovah, I do not think Augustine’s answer to human fallibility is acceptable. Perfect goodness is not to be found in men or in gods. But a chastened intellectualism without God seems to leave us with two unpalatable alternatives: a tyranny like Xunzi’s, or a life of miserable neurosis like Freud’s. I think this may be why Nietzsche and the existentialists view life without God as a terrifying (if perhaps ultimately fulfilling) “abyss”: if you don’t trust in God, you have to trust in man, and that’s not very comforting.
Or do you? I wasn’t thinking of it this way at the time, but I suppose all this might be part of the reason why, when I needed to pray, I turned to the bodhisattva Manjuśrī rather than to a God or Goddess as such. For Mañjuśrī, while perhaps omniscient, is not omnipotent. He lets much of the world suffer not because he chooses to – as God does – but because there’s too much he can’t prevent. A being who is omnibenevolent but not omnipotent – you can’t completely trust in such a being, because he might let you down; he can’t do everything. But if he exists – and maybe even if he doesn’t – he is at least more worthy of trust than either a human being or a creator God.