God, mighty and small

Saturday afternoon, T mentioned to me that a man had rung the doorbell earlier wanting to talk about God, and that he had had a good conversation with him.  "We talked about the problem of evil," he explained, shrugging.  "I don’t get to have that sort of conversation very much anymore."

The problem of evil, is of course, how can a just God allow terrible things to happen to good people.  A few hours later, I read Phantom Scribbler’s post about the Belarussian beekeeper whose answer to the problem of evil was that God is weak, powerful enough to strike with lightning cows left to graze in the Jewish cemetery, but not powerful enough to prevent the Holocaust.  (Go read her post, then come back here.)

Baylor University released a study a few months back about Americans’ religious practices and attitudes toward God.  Among other things, they divided believers into four groups based on whether or not they believe that God is angry and will punish sinners and whether or not they believe God is active in their daily lives and the world in general.  Given those options, I fall into "type D" those who believe in a distant God — one who set the world in motion, but does not intervene and is not particularly judgmental. 

Looking at the crosstabs, I see that Jews are the religious group most likely to believe in a Distant god (41.7 percent).  I’d guess that is in part because of the problem of evil — it’s hard to explain how an involved and just God could have let the Holocaust happen.  But the survey also found that ZERO percent of Black Protestants believe in a Distant god, and I find it equally hard to explain how an involved and just God could have let slavery happen.

One obvious question if you believe in a Distant god is why pray?  The survey found that nearly two-fifths of those who believe in a Distant god don’t ever pray, the same fraction as atheists.  I pray because I believe that the act of prayer is healing, even if it doesn’t cause God to intervene in any way.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but T’s right, we don’t get to talk about these things enough.  And I’d rather talk about them with Phantom and with you than with the guy who rings our doorbell.

7 Responses to “God, mighty and small”

  1. University Update Says:

    God, mighty and small

  2. Phantom Scribbler Says:

    There’s a lot to chew on in that Baylor report. Thanks for the link.
    I guess I would have to ask how we’re defining prayer, first. Saying the brachas? Asking God for outcomes? Addressing cranky commentaries to the ether with the sense that they are, somehow, being heard? All of the above?
    I don’t ask God for anything. But if cranky commentary counts as prayer, then I am another praying member of the Distant god faction, I guess.

  3. Jennifer Says:

    I’ve been trying to respond to this for 20 minutes but as I’m not Jewish it’s not coming out right. Let me just say that I’m a D (Distant God) too. Prayer for me is not about asking for intervention, but rather is a way of connecting with what I believe to be sacred — of keeping it within my awareness, never forgetting, never becoming careless. It’s also calming.
    I haven’t taught my children about prayer yet. I hadn’t thought of it, before now.

  4. Jody Says:

    Lately I’ve realized that every time I come close to touching these issues, even with my pinky finger, I end up making a hash of human relationships and only reveal how confused I am about all the questions at stake anyway.
    Join me in being shocked that 3/5ths of atheists pray?
    I’ve always suspected/believed that most people in Christian churches on Sunday don’t really think most of what their church teaches. Not in a malicious way, partly because of ignorance (few people attend Bible studies and know more than the basic story details, not even fellow Sunday school teachers of mine) and mostly because so much of the teaching doesn’t really fit the modern worldview.
    I think the problem of evil was probably less of a problem before the twentieth century, not just because the evils of the twentieth century were so much greater, but also because everyone dealt with them day-in, day-out. Rare was the parent who didn’t suffer the death of a child. Rare was the woman who didn’t seriously confront death every time she approached childbirth.
    Laura Ingalls could find it a genuine comfort that life was fleeting, that the suffering on earth we experienced was an eye’s blink in the span of eternal life, and that God’s will was being done even in the worst moments. She could imagine a God who willed suffering and pain on his children, that early death could be “God’s will,” and not be sad or angry about that.
    In general, speaking broadly, to suggest now that a child’s premature death or a person’s infertility or a family’s extreme poverty was God’s will for the greater good would be to invite the furies of all society down upon you. Only the most rigorous old-style Protestant evangelicals would dare suggest such a thing.
    Every time I watch a movie set much before 1875, I am reminded how profoundly the social mindset has been changed since the beginning of the twentieth century. Between Darwin and Freud, we have almost nothing in common with all the generations of people who came before us. It’s even more true when it comes to our understanding of our sexual selves than our religious selves, I think.
    Ack. Time to get back to the dissertation.

  5. Jody Says:

    Sorry! Editing errors….
    “Don’t really think most of what their church teaches is true.”
    And one of the reasons why Laura Ingalls could be lacking in anger toward God was because she, along with most people of her social status and time, sublimated every feeling and emotion they had. One of the fascinating subtexts of her stories is her attempt to account for the profound, world-altering changes she witnessed in her lifetime. Consider just the fact of her own daughter’s divorce, set against the social expectations for marriage in her childhood….

  6. Jody Says:

    I really should re-read twice BEFORE posting….
    The reason why movies prompt these thoughts is because, no matter how meticulously the film-makers re-create Georgian English manorial life or pre-Revolutionary French fashion, they always give their characters profoundly modern internal lives. They can’t help it. When was the last time a historical film actually re-created the internal mindset of the book on which the movie is based? Never.

  7. dave s Says:

    Yes, exactly right: not enough talking about the problem of evil. Or whether the minimum wage is at the right level, or how to get my kids to treat each other decently. And the guy who comes to the door is not my chosen interlocutor. My college dorm was good, there was almost always someone in the cafeteria to talk with, since then, not so much. Blogs are a good replacement of the dormitory cafeteria – people put out fun issues, and if one is interested, one can chime in. Better than the dorms some ways – if I’m not interested, or have nothing to say right then – can come back a week later and chew on it some more.

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