Dear Michael:
Thank you again for this exchange, Michael; I am grateful that you took the time to teach me with such patience and tolerance.
In all honesty, I can’t follow your subtle discussion of the relationship between natural laws and Divine Providence. The fault is mine. I think you are saying that miracles and divine intervention are consistent with the laws of nature. In any case, I am perfectly happy to grant you miracles for the sake of argument. The question I have been trying to pursue is rather an epistemological one: How do we tell a true act of God from a false one? Do you, Michael, approach the claims of other faiths with the same expectation of plausibility as you would a non-religious claim?

I take it that you don’t, that you reject other unusual or supernatural claims on the basis of religious orthodoxy, not because they are patently preposterous. Christians reject astrology and witchcraft, you say, because they “are told that such things are sinful.” But someone standing outside a faith has no such priesthood guiding him. Thus my question, again: how would you counsel the nonbeliever to approach the claim, for example, that a resident of upstate New York in 1827 decoded a buried runic gospel with the assistance of magic stones from Old Testament breastplates. How much proof or basic concordance with science and common sense may a disinterested observer rightly demand of such a claim?
In your latest post, you punt on whether God intervened on behalf of the Americans in the Revolutionary War; in No One Sees God, however, you seem to agree with George Washington that God did so interpose himself, thus bringing America “into line with God’s purposes” (73). Most Brits, presumably, despite possessing an equally deep familiarity with Christianity as the colonists, did not see things the same way. How could they have been so mistaken? You will have noticed that victors in war tend to claim divine approbation. This July, signs on a Lebanese highway read: “God’s Achievement Through our Hands. A Sign for Freedom, Victory from God.” These banners commemorated Israel’s release of five Hezbollah prisoners in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. You will say that it is patently obvious that God could not possibly have affirmed such an outcome, but it’s not so obvious to millions of people in the world. I’m sure that skeptics strike you as frustratingly and pettily materialistic, demanding proof for God’s will in ways that misunderstand divinity and that limit the human spirit. But if it matters whether religious claims are true or not, and not simply a matter of taste or prior commitment, the not-yet-committed need some way to distinguish among them short of going to war or making a blind leap of faith.

I have more objects of gratitude for the unmerited benefits of my life than I can possibly contemplate. Thousands of human geniuses and entrepreneurs figured out how to conquer the disease and famine that is our natural lot by creating bridges, calculus, antibiotics, computers, clean water, and sanitation, among the millions of wonders that daily pervade our lives. Thousands of other human geniuses–Mozart, Sargent, Chopin, Van Dyck, the list is endless–created beauty that crushes us beneath its grandeur. I give thanks to all those human beings who have striven so hard to improve and to grace the human condition.
What I cannot do, however, is to attribute my privileged life to God’s solicitude for me. Doing so would require me to explain why I deserved in God’s eyes to receive every possible benefit while some other child was born with a genetic defect that will painfully consume her nervous system before she is ten. I am not narcissistic enough to even contemplate such a grotesque exercise. Don’t tell me that both children are equally blessed. No human father would wish on his daughter the second fate. I prefer to attribute my extraordinary fortune to the loving efforts of my parents to shower on me every advantage that human ingenuity has devised and to sheer dumb luck.
There is no suffering so unmerited and agonizing, however, that will ever convince the bulk of Christians that they are not superintended by an all-powerful, all-knowing “loving Friend,” as you term him, Michael. Skeptics are amazed at this, but also grateful that such remarkable double standards do not apply in the main to human judges and caregivers.
The multiplicity of meanings that pervade our lives emanate from the fecundity of the human spirit, in my view, they do not proceed from a single divine source. If I see the good as God’s creation, I would also have to see undeserved pain and catastrophic natural cataclysms as his creation–unless I become Manichean, which I take it you would view as heresy. This August, a seven-year-old girl was swept to her death in a flash flood at a New Hampshire campground. Her human father tried desperately to rescue her. Her purported divine father either did not care to save her or could not do so.
As for what started the universe, I don’t have a clue, and neither, in my view, do you, Michael. God is a placeholder for ignorance. Perhaps one day we will penetrate that mystery with verifiable knowledge, but it just may lie outside the limits of our intelligence. I am willing, however, to stipulate that God is that first cause which we feel compelled to posit as a logical matter but that we have otherwise been unable to verify empirically. The qualities that attach to that placeholder God, however, would be quite minimalist; they would certainly not include personal love and justice.
I do not spend much time wondering about things that I have no hope of answering; I will wait for others with a greater capacity than I to do so. This may be a point at which, Michael, we can distinguish where believers and nonbelievers start to diverge. Perhaps if I had more of a metaphysical bent, I would be closer to your position. But in any case, we do agree that the world is a wonderful place of strange beauty that human beings will always try to make better. Thank you again for our discussion.
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