Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Second Thoughts about What Pat Robertson Said

What is wrong with what Robertson said is what is wrong with a great deal of religious thinking. Explaining wherein the fault lies is not easy.

William Blake, Job

I have some emendations to make to my previous entry, on Pat Robertson’s theological explanation of the sorrows of Haiti.

(1) In that entry, I observed that, for all the outcry against Robertson’s remarks, there has been almost no discussion of what exactly makes them so outrageous. Subsequently, I discovered a piece by Lisa Miller, published in Newsweek on line under the sardonic title “Why God Hates Haiti,” that addresses the question that I had thought neglected. After a brief account of Haiti’s history of misfortune, Miller comments as follows on Robertson’s remarks:
In his narrow, malicious way, Robertson is making a First Commandment argument: when the God of Israel thunders from his mountaintop that “you shall have no other gods before me,” he means it. This God rains down disaster—floods and so forth—on those who disobey.

But Robertson’s is a fundamentalist view. It’s so unkind and self-righteous—and deaf, dumb, and blind to centuries of theological discourse on suffering by thinkers from Augustine to Elie Wiesel—that one might easily call it backward. Every Western religious tradition teaches that mortals have no way of counting or weighing another’s sin.
I was heartened to read this piece, for two reasons. First, it goes beyond a mere emotional reaction to Robertson’s remarks to address issues of the nature and consequences of religious belief, as I think that one must do to bring to light what it is about those remarks that makes them deserving of condemnation. Second, it reminds us that Robertson’s remarks are deplorable even in a religious perspective—perhaps especially so. Not just any old religious outlook will lead one to the conclusion that Haiti’s afflictions are the consequences of Haitians’ having done things displeasing to God, not even if you throw in Robertson’s ignorant and bigoted identification of the Creole religion of (some) Haitians with a Satanic cult. No; it takes, in Miller’s apt word, a particularly backward theology to do that. (Ignorant, bigoted, backward, arrogant, callous, inhumane, smug, fatuous—one thing for which you have to give Pat Robertson credit is that he provides work for lots of adjectives!)

(2) It was rash of me to dismiss Robertson’s purported “true story” about a pact with the devil as “just more of the sort of lurid fantasy habitually extruded by the brains of right-wing religious fanatics like [him].” It is surely something more baneful than that. I offered the surmise that “in [Robertson’s] view any religious practice much different from the Evangelical Protestantism with which he is comfortable is Satanic worship.” That may be so, but it does not take account of the fact that the Haitians are of largely black African origin, as is the Vodou religion whose rites Robertson equates with Satanism. It is possible that Robertson’s bigotry is purely religious and not racial in nature, but, I think, not likely. The suggestion of an underlying racial bias adds to the ugliness of his remarks.

(3) I think that I was a bit glib about the relation between believing in God and the habit of attributing specific events to divine designs. I took for granted that the latter is separable from the former—that it is possible to believe in God while forswearing all judgments about divine intentions behind worldly events. Certainly the two are separable in principle. But the fact (assuming it to be a fact, as I think it is) that the vast majority of religious believers make such judgments is an indication of how difficult it is to have the one without the other. To believe that everything that happens does so in accordance with divine providence while making no judgments about how specific events bear a providential meaning would surely greatly reduce the comforts of religious life for most believers. On this point as on many others, the more that religious belief is purged of irrational elements, the less emotional appeal it can hold for most people.

(4) In my attempt to account for what was outrageous in Robertson’s remarks, I think I conflated two questions that require separate answers: (a) what principle led Robertson to such conclusions? and (b) what makes his conclusions so obnoxious? I would still say that his remarks rest on a presumption on his part of being able to identify God’s designs in worldly affairs. That presumption, combined with his bigoted assessment of Haitian history (see point (2) above), led Robertson to the conclusion that Haiti’s misfortunes are the return on a Satanic bargain, whether they are effected by Satan himself as part of the deal or by God in retribution for the original pact. The same presumption plainly underlies Robertson’s grandiose, politically opportunistic explanations of the September 11 attacks, the flooding of New Orleans, the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, and the incapacitation of Ariel Sharon by a stroke (all explained in the previous entry).

But what makes such conclusions obnoxious is something more. It is, as Lisa Miller points out in the passage that I quoted earlier (see (1) above), the presumption of being able to identify and weigh the sins of others—always, of course, with favor to oneself and disfavor to the others. Robertson embraces a religious doctrine according to which believers of said doctrine are deserving of God’s favor and non-believers deserving of divine retribution. To say that such a view is baseless, superstitious, or implausible (all of which I say it is) fails to touch on what is most deplorable about it, namely its self-serving arrogance and presumption. Robertson’s conclusions are certainly generated by faults of reasoning and judgment, but what is most objectionable in them is a matter of the human posture that emerges from his faulty reasonings and judgments. (I acknowledge that what I have written is not entirely clear; it seems to me that the question that I have been trying to answer—what is so outrageous about Robertson’s remarks?—does not yield to the familiar terms of either ethics or logic as commonly practiced.)

(5) A further point to be made about the evil done by Robertson and those who share his fondness for imputing earthly disasters to divine causes is that they reinforce a lack of interest in the demonstrable natural causes of such disasters and thereby reduce the likelihood of remedy. Elizabeth McAlister sums the matter up well in a piece for CNN titled “Why Does Haiti Suffer So Much?” (January 18, 2010):
For social scientists, there is nothing metaphysical about the question “Why Haiti?” Longstanding structural reasons have produced a dysfunctional system long in crisis. Beginning as a French slave society, the nation was founded at a severe disadvantage. France demanded enormous payment for abandoned property after the revolution, starting a cycle of debt that was never broken.

Deep and abiding racism prevented the U.S. and Europe from recognizing Haiti for 60 years. Trade was never established on even terms. The military ruled the state, culminating in the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, which the U.S. supported.

No robust civil society developed—there’s no vigorous tradition of PTAs and town planning boards. A brain drain evacuated top talent from the country, while the U.S.-subsidized farm industry sent surplus crops to Haiti, undercutting local prices there. Farmers abandoned their lands, flocked to the capital, and built the shanty towns that have now collapsed into rubble, burying the innocent and vulnerable, strong and powerful alike.

The suffering Haitians are enduring is a natural disaster worsened by human-made conditions.
Robertson cited the disparity between the comparatively good fortunes of the Dominican Republic, on the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, and the terrible ill fortunes of the Republic of Haiti, on the western half of the same island, as evidence of the supernatural causation of Haiti’s misfortunes—as if no natural explanation were possible. The more that people embrace this kind of superstitious thinking, the less likely it is that anything will ever be done about the actual causes of suffering. (Chances are bad enough; that is no excuse for making them worse.) An earthquake is an uncontrollable natural event; the substandard building construction that makes an earthquake fatal to tens of thousands of people is not. Heavy rains are an uncontrollable natural event; the deforestation that makes such rains result in deadly landslides is not. And so on.

(6) Finally, no discussion of religious responses to the disaster in Haiti can be complete without some consideration of the Book of Job. Lisa Miller’s piece opens with the sentence: “Haiti is surely a Job among nations.” Subsequently, she quotes Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Anchor Books, 1981), which is among other things a meditation on the Book of Job. (What Kushner is quoted as saying, by the way, is: “I think that it’s supreme hubris to think you can read God's mind.” I was struck by the fact that the rabbi chose the Greek “hubris” rather than the Hebrew “chutzpah.” But on reflection, I saw the justice of the choice: only the Greek word denotes a transgression upon divine prerogatives, the Heberew word signifying only a transgression upon human ones.) Plainly, if Haiti is a Job, then Robertson is a Job’s comforter of the worst sort. Kushner in his book provides a useful schema for understanding what that means:
To try to understand the book [viz., Job] and its answer, let us take note of three statements which everyone in the book, and most of the readers, would like to be able to believe:
A. God is all-powerful and causes everything that happens in the world. Nothing happens without His willing it.

B. God is just and fair, and stands for people getting what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.

C. Job is a good person.
As long as Job is health and wealthy, we can believe all three of those statements at the same time with no difficulty. When Job suffers, when he loses his possessions, his family, and his health, we have a problem. We can no longer make sense of all three propositions together. We can now affirm any two only by denying the third. . . .

Job’s friends are prepared to stop believing (C), the assertion that Job is a good person. (42–43)
A characteristic of the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People that impresses the reader from the beginning is his humanity—a characteristic not universal among bearers of clerical titles, as recent events remind us. In the first chapter of the book, titled “Why Do the Righteous Suffer?”, Kushner disposes of the familiar attempts to reconcile the sufferings of the innocent and the just with belief in God—“They did something to deserve it,” “It’s for their own good,” “It’s for the best in the long run,” “God will make it up to them in the next life,” and so on—not so much for being unconvincing answers to a theoretical conundrum (though he does find them to be that) as for failing to offer the afflicted a possibility for reconciliation with God. His alternative solution is that God does not cause or allow all of our suffering: some things really do just happen, for no divinely providential reason at all. In terms of the schema above, Kushner gives up statement (A). In theological terms, he gives up the doctrines of divine omnipotence and providence: “God can’t do everything,” he says in the title of his seventh chapter (although, he adds, “he can do some important things”).

As strongly as Kushner’s ethos appeals to me, and as humane as I find his theological view, his attempt to derive the latter from the Book of Job seems to me to have little textual foundation. To me, the view implied by the Book of Job is just the view that Kushner attributes to Job himself:
Job sees God as being above notions of fairness, being so powerful that no moral rules apply to Him. God is seen as resembling an Oriental potentate, with unchallenged power over the life and property of his subjects. And in fact, the old fable of Job [i.e., the folk tale posited by biblical scholars as the antecedent of the scriptural text] does picture God in just that way, as a deity who afflicts Job without any moral qualms in order to test his loyalty, and who feels that He has “made it up” to Job afterward by rewarding him lavishly. (46–47)
This is, in fact, the only view of God that I find in the text. To me it seems that God figuratively picks Job up by the scruff of the neck and thunders at him, “Can you compare your powers to mine? No, you can’t! So shut up!” (38:1–40:2 and 40:6–41:26); to which Job meekly replies, “Yes, Sir; I will, Sir” (40:3–5 and 42:1–6). The theological lesson taught by God’s answer to Job, so far as I can tell, is either that divine might makes right or that God’s power is so far beyond our comprehension that it is senseless for us to apply our notions of justice to God. If any of the three propositions in Kushner’s scheme is to be given up, it must proposition (B), that God is just—not because it is false, but because when we attribute justice to God, we really have no idea of what we are talking about. Kushner takes the passage about Leviathan (40:25–41:26) to mean, literally, that God is only able with great effort to subdue the giant sea serpent, and thus to mean, figuratively, that “even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check and limiting the damage that evil can do” (49–50). Rabbi, you’re a mentsh for trying to find such a humane view in scripture, but I just don’t see it there.

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