Something unexpected happened on a Sunday evening last winter on a trip into Chicago. My wife and I were driving east to a Lincoln Avenue restaurant. I somehow missed the left turn I needed to make on Lincoln, a street that runs diagonally northwest to southeast. No biggie. I took the next two left turns, planning to circle around so that I could return to the road I wanted. My car was traveling slowly down a dark and slippery side street when, from my right and barely ahead, another vehicle burst from an alley without warning.
I slammed on the breaks and braced for the crash. I couldn’t imagine not hitting the other auto broadside, given the speeds of the cars and the short distance. Time stretched so that I seemed to be going in slow motion, the moment distending as if it were taffy, but coming ever closer to the other driver’s vehicle. The alleyway intruder, a very young man, looked at us but never stopped. Somehow I missed him by a millimeter; and I still can’t understand how I could have.
Very possibly you’ve had an experience like this. A near miss, a close call, a catastrophe that seemed certain, but then didn’t occur. I had at least one other “time stretching” potential car collision. I was driving home from a concert down the Edens Expressway, a six-lane superhighway with a cement barrier dividing it in half, when I spotted a car coming toward me. He must have entered at an exit, thinking it was an entrance. I lurched left as he whizzed by on my right. The miscreant traveled another few seconds at high-speed, then abruptly made a brake-screeching U-turn to join the traffic going in the right direction.
Questions arise from situations like this. On the trip to the restaurant, should I have left from home a minute earlier, driven more slowly, driven more rapidly, concentrated more and thereby not missed the original left turn on Lincoln? Should I have somehow seen the young driver bolting out of the blind alley? Was he intoxicated or just in a rush or both?
But what if I did leave earlier or later? Might something much worse have happened?
And then the big question that some people ask: Did God save us?
And the questions that follow from that one: Should I be grateful to him? Is there some reason that we weren’t injured? Was one of us — perhaps even the driver of the other car — meant to be alive to accomplish something of importance? Or, was it all just pure luck?
I have written about the “luck” question before (Is There Such a Thing as Bad Luck?) and also about near misses: Near Misses and Near Mrs. Events like this are troubling because if it is luck and not God behind all these things, then life gets a little scarier. Or does it?
Actually, I think life can be pretty scary either way. If things “just happen,” like loose bricks falling from tall buildings, then we are in lots of trouble. But, if God decides which bricks, which buildings, and the precise wind speed to create a direct hit on your noggin, that doesn’t exactly make me feel safe either.
God is alleged to be all-good and all-powerful, which means that he can do anything he wants. Now you can say that he has given mankind free will and thereby absolve the Deity of responsibility for what one man does to another, like what my young driver-nemesis almost did to my wife and me. But that doesn’t explain natural disasters or bricks falling from tall buildings. In other words, God — if he exists — has some explaining to do.
If he is all good, but not all-powerful, then natural disasters cause no intellectual problem. God is simply a good guy who can’t stop them. Or, if God is all-powerful, but not all good, the scary world we live in also seems to make sense. But, if he is both omnibenevolent and omnipotent, then the idea of God no longer is consistent with the way the world works and with the fact that “bad things happen to good people.”
Most religious folks don’t spend much time thinking about troubling thoughts like this. They rely on faith and let the rest go. Some rationalize that God knows best and everything bad is for some greater good. But when the loose brick on the tall building hits someone you love, this becomes a little harder to live with, no pun intended. It is also one thing to think that your demise might be a random act, but quite another to fix on the notion that God decided that the world would be a better place without you. And you thought that the biggest rejection of your life came when your girlfriend Veronica dumped you! A person needs a strong ego to be thrown on God’s discard pile and live long enough to know it.
I’m not going to cover the “question of evil” or “theodicy” (the attempt to justify an all-good and all-powerful God in a world where there is pain and suffering) any more than what I’ve already said. But I do want to raise two perspectives on God’s “nature” that I’d never considered until recently.
The December 20, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books contains an essay by Lezek Kolakowski with the terrifically intriguing title “Is God Happy?” Unfortunately, it is not based on an interview with the Creator of the Universe or the results of psychological tests, which I’d be first in line to administer, by the way.
Kolakowski takes the idea that God loves us as evidence that God has emotions. He also accepts the notion that God is not indifferent to human suffering and therefore concludes:
If He is not indifferent, but subject to emotion like us, He must live in a constant state of sorrow when he witnesses human suffering. He did not cause it or want it, but He is helpless in the face of all the misery, the horrors and atrocities that nature brings down on people or people inflict on each other.
If, on the other hand, He is perfectly immutable (constant and unchanging), He cannot be perturbed by our misery. He must therefore be indifferent.
Either way, God is not a happy guy. Every day for the Supreme Being would be some sort of Hell under the first of these circumstances, and stone-cold detachment under the second, neither condition resembling the way God is described in Sunday sermons. Of course, neither is he a “guy,” you may answer, and therefore is not subject to human rules or understanding by we mortals. Perhaps God isn’t as we imagine him. To read Kolakowski’s full essay, go to: Is God Happy?
The brilliant writer Julian Barnes, a man closer to the end than to the beginning of things, has thought a good deal about his own mortality and the God question. His book Nothing To Be Frightened Of is very much worth reading, especially if you have your own set of questions about what might or might not happen after you check out. One idea that Barnes mentions is well-known, but he makes something new of it entirely. I’m referring to Pascal’s Wager.
As you will recall, Blaise Pascal was a 17th century mathematician and philosopher who believed that there was more to gain by betting on the existence of God than by being an atheist. Julian Barnes’s take on it goes this way:
The Pascalian bet sounds simple enough. If you believe, and God turns out to exist, you win. If you believe, and God turns out not to exist, you lose, but not half as badly as you would if you chose not to believe, only to find out after death that God does exist. It is, perhaps, not so much an argument as a piece of self-interested position taking worthy of the French diplomatic corps; though the primary wager, on God’s existence, does depend on a second and simultaneous wager, on God’s nature. What if God is not as imagined? What, for instance, if He disapproves of gamblers…?
Barnes also notes that it might just be possible that God would prefer an “honest doubter” to someone who would take Pascal’s bet. And, of course, there is also the chance that the Almighty might not value “belief” so much as living a “good” life.
All very interesting stuff, at least to me. As I said earlier, I’m in line to interview the Big Guy (assuming he exists) and report back. But I’m not hoping to have that opportunity any time soon.
The top image is called The Gods, downloaded by Otgo. The second picture is The Turtle is Protected From Falling Objects, created for the Office of Emergency Management ca. 1941-45. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Julian Barnes book cover, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, comes from Amazon.com.