A Theological Lesson Via Military History

In Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (J. B Lipincott, New York, 1966, p. 85), Bernard B. Fall describes the build-up which foretold the grim military disaster to unfold at Dien Bien Phu–the lack of adequate defenses and ammunition, the poor tactical location etc–making note, along the way, of that curious mixture of arrogance, complacency, and overconfidence that infected French military leadership. There were ample notes of worry too, of course, and finally, even of the grim resignation that is often the military man’s lot. The deputy chief of staff of the French commander General Cogny, Lt. Col. Denef had written in an assessment to his commander that “It is too late to throw the machine into reverse gear….That battle will have to be fought on the scale of the whole Indochina peninsula or it will become a hopeless retreat.” As Fall notes:

In transmitting this report…Col. Bastiani, the chief of staff added a note of his which was deeply significant:

I fully agree…in either case, it will have to be the battle of the Commander-in-Chief. I think he must have foreseen the necessary requirements before letting himself into that kind of hornet’s nest.

This was the ultimate excuse of a staff officer: the situation was hopeless, the action made no sense, but there might after all be higher reason for all of this. “The Führer must know what he is doing.” This phrase had been repeated a hundred times over by the German defenders of Stalingrad as they senselessly fought on toward catastrophe.

The analogy that may be drawn with theological responses to the problem of evil is inescapable and irresistible. There is, all around us, misery and suffering and disease and pestilence afoot, all apparently for no good reason. How is this reconcilable with an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God? One answer: evil is a ‘local’ disaster, the ‘badness’ of which vanishes when viewed from a broader, all-inclusive, synoptic perspective–the one God has.  From our epistemically limited perspective, we might be surrounded by catastrophes that suggest disorder and untrammeled badness, but zooming back reveals a larger plan within which these seeming disasters fall into place, directed onward and upward by a grand teleological scheme of greater order and good. (The chemotherapy kills healthy and cancer cells alike, but it heals the body. Trust the doctor; he knows best; he will make sense of your nausea, your hair loss, your weakened body. Or something like that.)

So if we are to ‘endure’ these disasters, we must reassure ourselves that someone, somewhere knows what time it is, what the score, the deal, is. Much like the determined soldier marching into battle, ours is not ask why, but to do or die. Our lot, of course, would be considerably improved if we knew why this was all necessary; after all, as Nietzsche had pointed out, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” For the theologically inclined and the militarily obedient, the ‘why’ is supplied by faith in the benevolence of the Supreme Commander. The rest of us are left to weakly reassure ourselves that this too shall pass. Or not.

Hume’s Atheism And God As Nature

The ‘freethinker’ Anthony Collins is said to have commented on Samuel Clarke‘s Boyle Lectures on the existence of God that “it had never occurred to anyone to doubt the existence of God until Clarke tried so hard to prove it.” (noted in John Clayton’s Reason, Religion, and Gods: Essays in Cross Cultural Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006, pp. 314.) I was reminded of this “mischievous” remark yesterday afternoon during my philosophy of religion class, as we discussed David Hume’s ‘Of Miracles‘–which carries out a systematic epistemic debunking of claims for the existence of miracles– for at one point a very bright student asked: Professor, what exactly were Hume’s views on religion? Was he an atheist? (This was her third encounter with Hume this semester, whom we had encountered before in two extracts from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions–against the argument from design, and a statement of the problem of evil.)

Hume scholars will recognize quite readily the can of worms being opened by such a query. (Googling ‘Was Hume an atheist?’ should provide some hint of the dimensions of said can.) Here, I just want to make note of a provocative remark that Philo makes in his rejoinder to Cleanthes in Part VII of the Dialogues–as part of the refutation of the argument from design:

How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature, or, according to your system of Anthropomorphism, the ideal world, into which you trace the material? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle?….If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humour which it is impossible ever to satisfy.

It seems to me in these closing sentences that two claims are present: a) Hume suggests that ‘rational’ approaches to proving the existence of God are destined to fail in that they push beyond the bounds of experience and thus, transgress the limits of what can be known or claimed to be true, and b) if there is a referent for the term ‘God’ then the most reasonable thing would be to identify it with the ‘principle of order [of] the present material world.’ The former reasserts Hume’s empiricist biases in metaphysics and epistemology; the latter, more interestingly, supplies another conceptualization of the term ‘God.’ (Hume’s further claim that ‘the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better’ suggests that the longer the chains of reasoning to arrive at the conclusion of God’s existence, the more susceptible they will be refutation.)

So for Hume, the best way to make sense of ‘God’–the only kind of ‘God’ whose existence we could reasonably claim to believe in–is as the principles that underwrite the sensible world we experience. The laws of nature, for instance. God, then, is not the Author of Nature, God is Nature. If ‘atheism’ is defined as the rejection of the standard theistic conception of God as all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful–then Hume was an atheist.

No Atheists In Foxholes? Plenty of Atheists In Cancer Wards

In writing about Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old cancer patient who has scheduled herself for a physician-assisted suicide on November 1, Ross Douthat asks:

Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?

This question will predictably be answered by some variant of the usual Douthat analysis. To wit:

Because liberals misunderstand the American soul, if not the human condition, which is offered more soothing, palliative balm, more existential comfort, by the religiously infused conservative spirit, the true heart of America, and really, perhaps all of humanity. This Godless, cold, uncaring cosmos of the liberal imagination–where it ultimately fails is in being able to address La Condition Humaine

With that in mind, let us press on.

It does not take us too long to encounter Douthat’s current version of the answer I supplied. Here it is. ‘Liberalism’, in the context of the assisted suicide debate, is:

[A] worldview ill equipped to make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, or that does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed-writing recovery at the end of it.

Thus, unsurprisingly, in the Maynard case:

[W]hen it comes time to make an affirmative case for what she actually has to live for, they [liberals] often demur. To find that case, you often have to turn to explicitly religious writers — like Kara Tippetts, a mother of four currently dying of her own cancer, who wrote Maynard a passionate open letter urging her to embrace the possibility that their shared trial could actually have a purpose, that “beauty will meet us in that last breath.

But perhaps liberals demur because they don’t think they can articulate a rationale for continuing a life of pain and discomfort, with no possibility of relief, one that saps the soul of those left behind, without descending into dishonest turnings away from the suffering at hand. I’ve read Tippett’s letter. It reminds me of theological solutions to the problem of evil that I often discuss in my philosophy of religion classes: they don’t work; they only do on those already convinced of the theses the suffering find inexplicable.  Tippett has found her solution to her crisis; she should respect Maynard’s.

Douthat continues:

The future of the assisted suicide debate may depend, in part, on whether Tippetts’s case for the worth of what can seem like pointless suffering can be made either without her theological perspective, or by a liberalism more open to metaphysical arguments than the left is today.

I have news for Douthat. Assuming that what he means by ‘liberalism’ is just ‘atheism’ or ‘secularism’, as he so clearly seems to, he should realize it is a metaphysical platform: its ontology is bereft of a Supreme Being, of a non-human scale of value, of a purpose that  somehow transcends human strivings and value-construction.

Let me offer my answer to Douthat’s question: Because political debate in this country, one in which an atheist will never be elected president, is still, all too often, susceptible to, and hijacked by, the religiosity on display in Tippett’s letter, one which infects all too many of our political representatives. Where the ‘landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction,’ it has done so in those spaces where its progress is not so impeded. The legalization of marijuana is a good example; the abortion debate shows the limits of American ‘individualism’ in a domain where religion and sexism rule the roost. (Gay marriage is a notable exception.) Perhaps too, physician-assisted suicide is a complicated issue in a country where healthcare costs–especially end-of-life ones–are astronomical, where the terminally ill, besides not being mentally competent to make such decisions, might feel the pressure to end their lives to not be a financial burden on those left behind. It is in these issues that the real complexity lies. Here, the theological will have little to contribute, transfixed as it is by a vision of a purpose to human suffering invisible to all too many.