Sunday, April 20, 2014

Gandhi, Theodicy, and Humanism

"We who have faith in God must cherish the belief that behind even this indescribable calamity there is a divine purpose that works for the good of humanity. You may call me superstitious if you like; but a man like me cannot but believe that this earthquake is a divine chastisement sent by God for our sins." ~Mohandas Gandhi, 1934
Earthquakes have long posed the problem of God’s justice in particularly stark form.  In all such disasters, God not only appears to deal out suffering to human beings, but moreover to inflict it indiscriminately and collectively, without regard to degrees of innocence.  Some might philosophize that the more familiar cruelties and exigencies of life are necessary in this "best of all possible worlds," but it becomes more difficult to apply the same logic to catastrophes on a greater scale.  The sight of children being crushed in their sleep by collapsing buildings gives even Pangloss pause.

Given the emotions involved in this issue, it is easy for the non-theist to adopt a censorious tone to her opponents.  Before going any further with this subject, therefore, it is worth emphasizing that many compassionate theists would not follow Dr. Pangloss.  When faced with natural disasters, in other words, many would simply assert that the God they worship had nothing to do with them and had no desire to see them happen, though that God remains omnipotent.  For our part, we may doubt whether such a position is fully self-consistent, but we cannot doubt the conscience of the people who offer it.  Their claim may call for intellectual criticism, but not moral condemnation, at least not of a passionate kind.   It is only fair that if we examine a person's heart, we should look more to what she explicitly believes than to what we take to be the unbidden and undesired consequences of her commitments.  The theist who simply cannot find a coherent explanation of why God does not prevent suffering in the world, but is sincerely convinced God wishes to do so, has only my sympathy.

But the situation is altogether different with regard to the bona fide Panglosses --  those thinkers of every age who decide to cut the Gordian knot of theodicy by claiming to find evidence of God’s justice in horrific events.  Toward these, we may let the cup of wrath overflow.  As Voltaire said at the time of the Lisbon Earthquake: “Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:/ ‘God is avenged: the wage of sin is death’? / [...] Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice / Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?” (McCabe translation).

Such at least, we may declare to the unfeeling pedants of Voltaire's day.  But what are we to think when an undoubted moral authority is found to make similar arguments-- as in the case of Gandhi, cited at the outset? Can we dismiss such claims with equal justice?

Just as the Lisbon disaster was a defining moment in the intellectual development of Voltaire, the 1934 Bihar Earthquake likewise posed the problem of theodicy to Gandhi in acute form.  Gandhi responded in a profoundly different manner, however, from Voltaire.  He proceeded to attribute the disaster to divine agency—in particular, to God’s displeasure at the practice of untouchability in India. In his newspaper Harijan, Gandhi elaborated on his stance and attempted to meet criticisms:
“Visitations like droughts, floods, earthquakes and the like, though they seem to have only physical origins, are, for me, somehow connected with man’s morals. [… I]t would be terrible, if [the Bihar earthquake] is an expression of divine wrath for the sin of untouchability and we did not learn the moral lesson from the event and repent for that sin.” 
In an indignant response to this claim, Rabindranath Tagore made many points that seem, to me at least, more or less unanswerable.  He pointed out, for one thing, that members of "untouchable" communities were among those killed by the earthquake.  The disaster, then, would seem a grotesquely inapposite means of instructing humanity about the evils of untouchability.  “If we associate ethical principles with cosmic phenomena,” says Tagore, “we shall have to admit that human nature is morally superior to Providence that preaches its lessons in good behavior in orgies of the worst behavior possible.  For, we can never imagine any civilized ruler of men making indiscriminate examples of casual victims, including children and members of the untouchable community, in order to impress others dwelling at a safe distance who possibly deserve severer condemnation.”

Tagore might have pressed this point even more firmly in light of Gandhi’s own methods and ideals.   In his dealings on the human plane, after all, Gandhi certainly rejected violent retribution of all kinds as a means of doing justice.  “An eye for an eye,” as I recall, was not a tenet of Gandhi’s ethic.  Yet his God appears to deal in precisely such retribution—to mete out suffering in proportion to human wrong and as a means of moral instruction.  Why Gandhi should hold himself and us to a higher moral standard than he holds God is anyone’s guess.

Supposing retribution to be a permissible form of justice, however, there remains the question posed so adroitly by Tagore: why is God’s punishment apparently arbitrary and indiscriminate?  It was not only those who had refused water or food to a Dalit who were found mangled in the ruins of Bihar, but also the very Dalits they had snubbed and their children.  Supposing we thought it just that God should inflict suffering upon the callous and powerful (which I do not), must it also be just that their victims should perish alongside them? 

The justifications that have been offered for such “collective punishment” are admittedly many, but they are all equally dubious.  Even if we should go along with those high-minded souls who announce that every person shares in the sin of Adam, or that everyone accommodates injustice or tolerates evil and thus can never truly wash her hands of the world’s wickedness, there remains the problem of degrees of culpability.  It may sound noble to declare the absolute equality of human guilt, but if this is married to a retributive theory of punishment, the consequences are abhorrent indeed.  If the sin of Adam haunts us all equally, and God's violence is a fitting means of punishing wrongdoing, then the child merits suffering and death as much as the tyrant.  Can this be God’s judgment?  Abraham once asked the same question, and doubted that one could -- in conscience-- answer it in the affirmative.  The prophets of the Bible often ask questions of their God for which they would be branded heretics in later times, and this is one of them.  As Abraham begs for the sake of Sodom: “Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

It is important to understand that Gandhi has something rather different and more abstract in mind than the type of devastation that was rained down on Sodom.  He is appealing to a principle of moral causality here, rather than of deliberate and chosen punishment on the part of God, which should conjure a different image in our minds than that of a hairy-faced sky-god trampling down cities and nations in rage.  “God is not a personal being for me like my earthly father,” says Gandhi.  Rather, “He is infinitely more.  […] I believe that no leaf moves but by His will. […] Anything attributed to Him is not a mere attribute.  He is the Attribute.  He is Truth, Love, Law and a million things that human ingenuity can name.”

Gandhi is voicing here ideas derived from a non-dualist strain of Hindu philosophy: one encapsulated in the gnomic utterance of the Upanisads: “That art thou.”   It is probably bad form for me to quote a Western author at this point, but Emerson’s “Brahma” seems to strike beautifully at the depth of the consequences of this non-dualism:  “They reckon ill who leave me out/ When me they fly, I am the wings/ I am the doubter and the doubt/ I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.”  For the non-dualist, truly all things and features and qualities are God, and not simply God's creations.

One of the consequences of such belief is the stance that at some level of spiritual perfection, the distinction between good and evil breaks down.  The theological “problem of evil” therefore does not arise for the non-dualist, because God is not construed as being an exclusively good being. 

Yet Gandhi infused this philosophy with an unquestionably Christian character, and by so doing, he resuscitated the problem of evil.  Gandhi seems, for instance, to attribute moral qualities– and, in particular, deliberate benevolence -- to his God, even as he wishes to continue to regard that God as containing all opposites and contradictions within itself (presumably including both good and evil).  

Gandhi’s God may not be a “personal being,” but it seems inescapably to be an agent of some sort -- and, more importantly, an agent which means to do good.  And furthermore, because Gandhi also wishes his God to be omnipotent and omnipresent, he must attribute all events to God's benevolent will.  As he writes: “I submit that we do not know the Law or the laws fully, and what appears to us as catastrophes are so only because we do not know the universal laws sufficiently.”

This is in fact a wholly self-consistent solution to the problem of evil, just as the related position of non-dualism manages to solve the problem by never posing it.  For Gandhi, all the activities of nature are in fact good, and therefore consistent with God’s moral nature, even when they seem otherwise to us.  For the non-dualist, God was never assumed to be exclusively good in the first place, so no paradox arises.

The trouble therefore is not that either one of these is a self-defeating answer to the problem.  The trouble, rather, is that they both leave in place the one central doctrine that we most wish to escape, if we are compassionate theists: the doctrine that God’s own agency is responsible for natural disasters and the tremendous suffering they inflict.  If we are willing to accept this doctrine, and to worship the sort of being it describes, then either Gandhi’s or the Upanisadic answer will be wholly adequate for us.  But I suspect we are not.  I suspect that if this doctrine were held to be true, we should feel some grudging sympathy for the position of James Mill, as paraphrased by Bertrand Russell: "God, if He existed, would be a Being of infinite cruelty."  

What then can we believe -- again, supposing that we are compassionate theists?

We might be tempted to declare the whole problem a mystery and to assert that God is not bound by the principles of human logic.  Thus, we might say, it can at once be the case both that God never wishes us harm and that God wills our suffering through natural disasters.  This may seem to contain a contradiction to our reason, but all things are possible for God, even the reconciliation of logical impossibilities.  

This may be a viable solution, but the problem arises that even within it, one of the two truths we must accept remains the doctrine that God’s agency is responsible for our destruction and pain.  The compassionate theist has still not escaped this claim. 

There is another proffered solution, for which Tagore indicates his sympathy above: that of proclaiming “the inexorableness of the universal law in the working of which God himself never interferes.”  Thus we are to imagine a God who must look on with pity and sorrow as we are caught in the toils of physically necessary laws -- laws which God himself is helpless to emend.  

This solution only delays the inevitable problem by a stage, however.  After all, did not God create the natural laws?  If so, his omniscience could easily have foreseen their likely consequences for the human and animal life subjected to them.  And if God did not create the laws of nature, then God was either born into a world created by another God, of whom we might ask the same moral questions, or else God came into being in a universe that operates with complete indifference or even outright hostility to its inhabitants (including toward God, whom that universe compels to look on helplessly at the suffering of life while also having endowed him with compassion for what he sees).

All such attempts to escape the problem of evil by attributing “tragic necessity” to God will eventually result in the same difficulties.  If God is bound by the laws of nature or by the principles of logic, then God’s freedom, his capacity to will and do all things, is profoundly abridged.  In fact, if God has freedom only so long as he remains within the realm of natural law and reason, then does he not have precisely the same sort of freedom that we are commonly supposed to have?  We too, after all, can act as we choose, at least according to proponents of the freedom of the will.  The only limits on our actions are the seemingly law-like features of the universe and the logical principle of non-contradiction.  And yet we know that with all this freedom, there is actually not much we can actually do.  Is that God's freedom?

Suppose instead we were to assert, with Augustine and countless of his inheritors, that God is good because God's sovereignty is itself the source of the concept of "good."  God is thus demonstrated not to be the author of evil, in this argument, by nothing more than the savage tautology that "good" is here is defined as "that which is characteristic of God"!  Such a solution may satisfy logic, but it does not satisfy conscience, which will continue to incline toward the view of James Mill: that any such God must be -- to us at least -- "a Being of infinite cruelty."

And yet any religious monism, whether it takes the form of a Christian faith in an omnipotent creator God or a non-dualist devotion to a cosmos that ultimately dissolves the distinction of good and evil, seems to end up at a similar destination.  A solution, then, finally presents itself: why not simply break the chains of monism?  If the world seems to us to ultimately be divided between good and evil, then perhaps it is.

I don't ultimately think there's any way to may ethical sense of the world that would entirely avoid this conclusion.  It seems to me that we have to recognize in conscience that the world around us is not entirely good, and that a great many things take place in it that are utterly irredeemable  -- things for which the only response that can carry conviction is one of supreme sorrow, accompanied by supreme indignation.  This is an anger not necessarily against particular and unfree people who may have been constrained by circumstances-- but against the universe itself.  To the extent I have religious emotions, they invariably take these forms, and reading, say, the "Prometheus" of Goethe amounts to a devotional exercise in humanism.  More than in any hymn to God's majesty, I feel for myself a religious impulse behind such words:

"I should honor you!  What for?
Have you ever assuaged the sorrows
Of the over-burdened?
Have you ever stilled the tears
Of the afflicted?"

Is this not a prayer-- a sincere prayer-- but one offered against the cosmos, and on behalf of its victims? It seems so to me.

It also seems to me that if there were truly a God worthy of worship, it would have to be a Being that itself feels the impotent indignation and pity conveyed by these lines.  It would have to be the God we briefly pictured above-- the imprisoned God, forced to try to heal the wounds of human and animal life, but incapable of ever finally stanching them-- a God who is ultimately as powerless and as indignant and as sorrowful as we are.  

But then, wouldn't such a God be very much like humanity?


  1. A couple of quick thoughts on this:

    (1) I don't think I understand your response to the compassionate theist who claims that we can't see how God's infliction of suffering on us is morally good because of the limits of our finite human reason. You say that such a theist is still committed to the view that God deliberately causes our suffering through the exercise of His agency. However, he or she would presumably respond that the reason we recoil from that view is that we don't want to attribute evil to God and that this solution manages to avoid doing that. Is your thought just that the intentional infliction of avoidable suffering is just so clearly wrong that any view which legitimates it has to be mistaken? I basically agree with that (at least in this context), but given that this type of compassionate theist leans heavily on the idea that we can't reliably apply our intuitions to an infinitely good being, it seems like you need to carry the argument a few steps further to adequately answer him or her.

    (2) What do you think of the view espoused by many Christians that the Incarnation and crucifixion are in themselves an adequate response to the problem of evil because they show that, regardless of how things might appear to us, God cares so deeply about our suffering that He's willing to share in it by living a human life and submit to an extremely brutal and painful death in order to free us from it? This would perhaps be an answer somewhat like the one you point to at the very end and which you also suggested in an earlier post.

  2. Hi Ajay-- thanks for the response. A couple of thoughts:

    1) My point in this post was that the problem of evil as a purely logical problem can in fact be resolved, perhaps by Gandhi's means, or by Augustine's sovereignty argument, or by declaring the problem to be fundamentally beyond the scope of human reason. Any one of these can resolve the logical difficulty of how God's goodness and the apparent injustice of the world can be reconciled. However, I think the reason that the "compassionate theist" cares about the problem of evil is not solely this logical difficulty. Rather, the reason it presents itself to her as a "problem" is also the fact that she does not want to attribute human suffering to God's will. And none of these solutions manage to avoid doing that.

    2.) This is beautifully put and very appealing. However, I think for this to work would mean abandoning the belief in the perfect omnipotence of God-- and abandoning the sort of monism I think inevitably follows from this view. That doesn't mean it couldn't still be an identifiably theistic view which results. I haven't read her book all the way through, but I think the theologian Dorothee Soelle offers something like this solution in one of her works:

  3. Thanks for replying! As usual, though, I'm not completely satisfied:

    (1) But isn't the reason that the compassionate theist doesn't want to attribute human suffering to God's will that she sees the intentional infliction of suffering on humans as a great evil? And isn't this precisely what the mysterian solution denies? If, as I suggested before, your thought is that the compassionate theist treats the idea that intentionally inflicting suffering on humans is wrong as such a clear, obvious moral intuition that any view which conflicts with it has to be mistaken, then this is enough to rule out the Gandhian, non-dualist, and Augustinian solutions because they all appear to make substantive moral defenses of God’s infliction of suffering.
    However, the mysterian solution (or "skeptical theism" as I believe it's known in contemporary philosophy of religion) doesn't do this, but instead claims that our intuitions about the morality of inflicting suffering are unreliable guides to the moral assessment of God because of our finite nature.

    Sorry if I'm being too pedantic in dwelling on this at length, but it matters to me because (a) I accepted the mysterian solution for a long time and therefore think it's important to get clear about its strengths as well as its weaknesses and (b) I think it's somewhat relevant to issue (2) for reasons that will, I hope, soon become clear. For what it's worth, I think we should reject the generalized mysterian view because it's too difficult to give a satisfactory account of why we're still allowed to rely on our moral intuitions as they apply to ordinary suffering, or ordinary cases generally if we're not supposed to apply them to God.

    (2) Thank you, but I don't think that's right. I guess I see this view as using a similar strategy to the mysterian or skeptical theist one, but in a more effective way. The thought, as I understand it, is that we don't have a well-worked out abstract account of why it's morally permissible for God to inflict suffering, but we know on independent grounds that He has the morally correct attitude toward suffering (i.e. abhors it and cares deeply for each afflicted person). Thus, we're able to still affirm His omnipotence and infinite goodness just because we know that whatever is motivating Him to permit suffering is not morally blameworthy. I certainly don't think this is an ironclad argument, and it works much better as a supplement to a more substantive theodicy (such as maybe the preexistence version of original sin I made up that one time). Also, it obviously depends on a plausible theological and perhaps historical account of the Incarnation which is mainly why I don't actually accept it, but I think it is compatible with divine omniscience.