"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

God's doing OK in the polls!!!

You read that right. According to William E. Carroll—a Catholic philosopher currently ensconced as a good old Fellow at Blackfriars, Oxford—a respectable organization conducted a national poll a month ago showing that
...if God exists, voters are prepared to give it good marks. Voters approve of God’s performance by a 52% to 9% margin . . . When asked to evaluate God on some of the issues it is responsible for, voters give God its best rating on creating the universe, 71% to 5%. They also approve of its handling of the animal kingdom 56% to 11%, and even its handling of natural disasters 50% to 13%. Young voters are prepared to be more critical of God on natural disasters with those between 18 and 29 rating it 59% to 26%, compared to 47% to 12% among those over 65.
If such trends continue, God would be a shoo-in to beat Barack Obama next year. At any rate, nobody's confusing the latter with the former anymore.

Now Carroll does say much of what I'd say about this sort of thing, starting with the report's use of the impersonal pronoun 'it' for God. Even on that score, though, his critique should have gone further. How, I'd ask, can an 'it' be evaluated for its performance unless it's a machine (or perhaps a lower form of life), which very few people think God is? Even pollsters need to think through questions like that before asking people about their theological beliefs. Unlike the polling company's writeup, though, Carroll does get the very project's inherent irony. Surely, if there is a personal God, then he (yes, he; but that's another debate) is worthy of worship; granted such an analytic truth, it is God who should be evaluating our performance, not we his. Withal, the mere conduct of a poll asking people their opinion of God's job performance puts us in Monty-Python territory: entertainment, not theology. Our consumerist, democratic selves are ready grist for parody. Self-parody, one supposes, would be too much to expect; I'd be pleasantly surprised if that's what the pollsters were up to.

Yet the still-greater irony here is that, among a people still describing itself in the main as Christian, neither pollsters nor polled seemed to suspect irony.

The late theologian Herbert McCabe, OP, once pointed out: "It needs a kind of cosmic megalomania to suppose that God has the job of saving my soul and is to be given bad marks if he does not do that. Whatever he does for us, like creating us in the first place, is an act of gratuitous love, not something that is demanded of him." Now it is not megalomania to suppose that God has set himself the job of preserving the innocent from ultimate harm, whether the harm be from other people's bad choices or from the forces of nature. In fact, according to Christianity, our first parents were innocent and preserved from harm before their Fall, and we, their unfortunate descendants, are all meant to be blessed forever, free of death and all other harms. But in this in-between time, there is no reliable correlation between virtue and good fortune. The minority who admit to giving God bad marks give them largely for that reason. That may not be megalomaniacal, but I believe it manifests what the psychoanalysts term "infantile narcissism" in people of an age to know better. They're like seven-year-olds complaining "It's not fair!"

Well, so what if it isn't? If it hasn't dawned on you by the age of majority that life is not fair and never will be, then you haven't outgrown your infantile narcissism. The more sensitive and thoughtful narcissists just invest it, on humanity's behalf, in a bitter cosmic complaint against the Almighty. I for one have found that to be the most common cause of atheism. But the problem manifest in the complaint is not God's problem. If you think it is, the joke is on you and the complaint is your problem.

Creation and redemption are about gratuitous love. Hence life in this vale of tears is about mercy, not fairness—even granted that, in the age to come, the two qualities will be as one. When we who are ostensibly Christian fail to recognize that, we neither see nor appreciate the real ironies of life. We just stay angry with God—even when we call ourselves atheists. So long as we think we're in a position to evaluate God's performance, we expose ourselves to that and worse ironies.

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