Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Let's Be Candid: On the Panglossian Response of the Christian Right to Haiti

When news broke of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, I imagine that those with some knowledge of the country's history in the last half of the last century were struck by the terrible and tragic irony of the situation: on the world stage, this is the worst kind of irony. John Lee Anderson, in a recent article for The New Yorker, both concisely and graphically summarized the recent past of Haiti, describing it as "a great human slum, governed by a succession (mostly) of thieves and despots" where "cruel military men…sometimes cut the faces off people they killed and left them in the mud of the streets of the slums to terrorize others." Hence the earthquake was, for me and, I believe, many others, a stunning reminder that there cannot possibly be any overarching and transcendent source of justice guiding our world: in short, there cannot possibly be a beneficent divine intelligence immanent in a world where this could happen to Haiti of all places.
That is why, after hearing of the response (and that is not really the right word, because I do not believe he gave any true human sympathy or attention to the situation—'inhumanity' is perhaps more just) of Pat Robertson, I couldn't help but be reminded of Voltaire's great novella Candide. So I took the opportunity to reread this short classic, which I hadn't read in a couple of years, and also to escape from the overwhelming pictures and video footage of the earthquake for a while.
A devastating earthquake figures in Voltaire's masterpiece, and it is not mere fiction. There was a massive earthquake in Lisbon on November 1, 1755 in which thirty to forty thousand people died. Voltaire's description could be used to describe the current disaster I'm sure: "Whirlwinds of fire and ash swirled through the streets and public squares; houses crumbled, roofs came crashing down on foundations, foundations split; thirty thousand inhabitants of every age and either sex were crushed in the ruins." Now, Pangloss, the Leibnizian philosopher of Voltaire's novella, responds thus to the carnage: "all this is for the best, since if there is a volcano at Lisbon, it cannot be somewhere else, since it is unthinkable that things should not be where they are, since everything is well." Candide is in fact a humorous and, at times, vitriolic satire aimed at the German philosopher and polymath Gottfried Leibniz, who formed a totalizing philosophical system in which the world operates under a pre-established harmony because God created "the best of all possible worlds." Pangloss, therefore, sees everything—even the terrible earthquake at Lisbon, even the ravishes of war, even his own hanging and partial dissection—as contributing in some way to God's plan for this, the best of all possible worlds.
I don't think that Pat Robertson has heard of Leibniz or has probably even thought much about theological or philosophical questions, but he—and other mouthpieces of the Christian Right (recall Jerry Falwell's response to 9-11)—nonetheless reacts in a Panglossian way to current events. Everything is reduced to a totalizing worldview in which God is immanent. The good is God's mercy and kindness, the bad—or even catastrophic, as in the case of Haiti—is divine retribution for human transgression. I believe that it is time that we rejected this "metaphysico-theologico-
cosmoloonigology," as Voltaire labeled it, as the pernicious and otiose doctrine that it is.
For centuries humans have been giving their ignorance a name: God. Or Horus, or Mithra, or Zeus, or Jove, or Yahweh, or Krishna, or Allah, etc.,—the list could go on ad infinitum. When humanity didn't understand natural phenomena such as the nature, composition, and behavior of the sun, moon, and other celestial bodies, the weather (and we haven't advanced too far on this front), the failure or success of their crops, and natural disasters, they explained them through the use of anthropomorphic gods: gods that were fickle and emotional like human beings, gods that had human jealousies and concerns, and hence had to be propitiated through sacrifice and rigid adherence to rules of conduct. This is convenient for the parties of god, for human beings will almost certainly lack an explanation for certain things. On the other hand, when science or philosophy makes advances in knowledge, such as Galileo's discovery that our solar system is heliocentric, Darwin's discovery of natural selection, and the discovery of DNA by Crick and Watson, the theists say, "Ah, look how ingenious our God is!" Or, "Look how incredibly complex the composition of life is! There must be an intelligent designer!"
Now, apropos the first ruse of the theists—that of deifying ignorance: I wouldn't mind if some people wanted to call our ignorance God, or Allah, or whatever, as long as they were content to admit that doing so gives us absolutely no new knowledge. But they are not: they first give our ignorance the name God and then presume that they have proven the existence of some sort of beneficent bearded man in the stars who is immanent in our everyday concerns. A God, for example, that will suspend the natural order to help Billy Bob recover from heart surgery because he has indulged in far too many dollar burgers from cows raised on what was once the South American rainforest, but then turns around and kills 50,000 people in Haiti because of a pact they made with the devil; or a God that rewards suicide bombers with 72 virgins in heaven; or a God that demands genital mutilation.
As to the second ruse,—that of giving God the credit in absentia, for our advances in knowledge,—all we need is Ockham's razor: where we already have an explanation, we don't need another entity in the equation, much less a supernatural one. That would only complicate things and add more questions to be answered (how many a good scholastic mind was wasted on the myriad questions of Christian theology?).
Philosophy has, since Leibniz's time, deconstructed its own extensive—labyrinthine at times—systems and has had the humility not to attempt to rebuild over the ruins, but merely to admire them; and, while a unified theory serves as the ideal end for many scientists, it certainly isn't necessary as a means to the functioning of our everyday scientific practice; but most importantly, both philosophy and science have discarded the hubris that keeps the Panglosses of our world from calling our ignorance what it is. After all, naming a marmosyte "Tullia's ape" or a swan "Leda's goose" is a gratuity: they are after the naming no less a marmosyte and a swan.
So, I say, let's be candid, and let's remember Cadide's response to the dogmatic Pangloss: "we must cultivate our garden." There is no divine intelligence that is going to right the world's wrongs and protect us from the immense challenges that face us, now a decade into the twenty-first century. If there is going to be any justice in the world, if anyone is to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the poor; if there is ever to be anything like paradise, it must come from us: to paraphrase the great American poet Wallace Stevens, divinity must live within ourselves and our being in the world—and being sensitively attuned to the world. It is, it would seem,—with us and all the other myriad and beautiful variations of life,—a singularity in a largely empty and dying universe.
As for the present, there remains—and likely will remain for many years to come—much cultivation required in Haiti. I don't think God will lift a finger, so let us take the responsibility upon ourselves.

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