Once again, my long promised magnum opus — a shotgun fired at a flea, actually, yet another salvo in the eternal war against stupid at The Atlantic — is delayed to deal with more pressing matters.
This time it’s Andrew Sullivan, and he’s not being stupid — for unlike some of his stable mates he’s not at all slow. Rather his intellectual wounds are self-inflicted. I’ve blogged before (and I can’t quite remember where) and no doubt I will again about his tic of dubbing any political act or judgment with which he agrees “conservative,” no matter what its provenance or effect.
But this time, the cuts are deeper, and are much more damaging. To try to keep my tendency to prolixity under control, I’m going to break up my critique into three bits. Herewith part one.
Sullivan gets himself into trouble in the midst of a perhaps overly familiar issue, hardy perennial source of bad reasoning, the theodicy problem: why would a God worth worshipping (or believing in) permit the evils of the world to exist; why so much human suffering if we are the creation of a loving deity?
Sullivan started this latest effusion of heat-not-light with this post, in which he responded to a reassertion of the problem of evil by saying, in essence, my faith teaches me that suffering is useful, as it opens the believer up to the possibility of surrendering one’s self to God. Which is fine, as a statement of personal belief. It is not, however an argument; rather, to those unblessed or cursed by Sullivan’s brand of faith, it reads like a kind of theologically infused experience of the Stockholm Syndrome.
But my goal here isn’t snark. Bottom line for Sullivan himself on the first part of the sequence of posts on this matter: I do believe that each individual, subject to the don’t mess with me/do no harm constraint, is absolutely free to find spiritual comfort or exaltation by just about any act of faith.
But Sullivan gets no pass when he then tries to reason his way through the argument with Jerry Coyne in which he said, in effect, that the allegedly distinctively human capacity to “rise above” suffering (Sullivan’s term), as distinct from mere animal endurance of pain or woe, “is evidence of God’s love for us.”
In fairness to Sullivan, taking the view that one must argue against the best construction of someone’s argument, he spends most of this post recounting the source of his personal credo: his own suffering brought him to the point of Jesus on the cross: “…why have you forsaken me,” and then to a more emphatic restatement of that murdered Jew’s final, ambivalent resolution. For Jesus, it was “it is accomplished.” For Sullivan, his faith tested by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the personal losses he suffered, it the path he found in the midst of sorrow/anger unto death, on which “God lifted me into a new life…”
All of which is, again, fine. His response to his pain is his; it’s real, and if it is not universalizable — that is, if it has no more standing as a response to the problem of God amidst evil than another person’s experience of the humanist’s revelation, that there is in this world only that good we are capable of creating ourselves — still, Sullivan gets to experience comfort and more as he can.
But where he goes astray, of course, is exactly in the attempt to universalize a particular, subjective, and wholly interior process. He writes,
For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world.
I do note, as Sullivan rather waspishly enjoins his critics to do, that he qualifies his universal claim with the phrase, “For me…” But his intent is clear when he speaks of “human capacity,” or “why we are here” or “God’s love for us” (italics added)…for us, and not simply for Andrew. This is a claim made for humanity, and not simply for the one man recounting his story of despair and redemption amidst the plague.
The issue, beyond the fact that this is an example of the argument by analogy, with all of its pitfalls — I, Andrew, am human. I, Andrew, experienced the love of God through suffering; therefore, by analogy, all humans encounter God through suffering — is that he makes a specific empirical claim, one that can be interrogated not by logic chopping, but by observation and experiment.
That is, Sullivan asserts that the evidence for God’s love despite the existence of evil, of undeserved suffering, lies in the fact that human beings experience the horrors of existence and mortality in ways that animals do not.
With that, Sullivan has fallen into a very old trap for apologists. This is mutton dressed as the lamb of God (sorry — couldn’t resist). What you have here is the old God of the gaps argument all decked out in an invocation of the allegedly bright line between human beings and animals.
Except, of course, that the line isn’t bright, and there is a library full of work in evolutionary biology, molecular genetics, and much more, especially ethology, that has exposed the close kinship not just at the level of base pairs, but in what has validly been called culture in both animals and human. (See, e.g., this landmark of a book, The Evolution of Culture in Animals, published all the way back in 1983.)
Animals have ethics — as the study of altruism in animals demonstrates. Animals possess technology. They experience the teacher-student relationship that no less than Jesus recognized as primary among human bonds.
And so on: the notion that there is an unequivocal divider between animal experience and human has become increasingly blurred over the last several decades.* It is certainly true that the emotional life, and certainly any inner spiritual experience of a chimpanzee, say, is closed to us, opaque. But so, at some level, is that of even those closest to us, the beloved next to whose body we conform our own each night. To bet your God on the claim that an animal does not merely endure (Sullivan’s word in a later post) but retains some transcendent goal — perhaps the care of one’s young — is a sucker’s wager.
Centuries ago, another devout Catholic, Galileo Galilei, wrote a letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina in which he counseled her on the proper relation of faith to science. In 1615, defending the notion that he had uttered no heresy in his observations of the moons of Jupiter, and in support he thus derived forf the Copernican heliocentric universe, he wrote:
It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words.
That is, to modernize the argument: no claim of God is secure when it rests on some claim about the behavior of the natural world; whatever someone may experience as sacred resides — and Galileo certainly, profoundly believed in the existence of divinity — in its own realm. But inexorable and immutable nature does not permit the claim that within what we do not know about, say, the inner life of animals, therein lies God.
Image: Henri Rousseau, “The Sleeping Gypsy,” 1897