Monday, March 5, 2012

Philosophy, literature, religion, and geology (Part III)

In Part I of this series, I talked about Voltaire's mention of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in his novella Candide.  In Part II of this series, I discussed a little bit about the geology of the earthquake itself.  To wrap things up now, I will reiterate how this natural disaster caused people to think very seriously about, basically, why bad things happen to good people.  Back, full circle, to our initial discussion of theodicy.

What were the reactions to the earthquake?  Well, as Voltaire amusingly rote in Candide:

After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.

Not so amusing in real life.  An "Auto-da-fé" ("act of faith) was a public ritual for those identified as heretics by the Inquisition.  It began with a Catholic mass (it was, after all, a religious ceremony), a public precession of those pronounced guilty by the Inquisition (often those people had no idea what they were even being charged with), a "trial" of sorts, and then the reading of the sentence.  Many would then be tortured and/or burned alive.  All done by people who considered themselves devout followers of Christ.

Anyway, the tens of thousands of deaths from the 1755 earthquake is no different from the hundreds of millions of deaths throughout history from natural disasters.  Just this week, we hear of little Angel Babcock, the 15-month-old toddler found in an Indiana field after a tornado killed her entire family.  She died in the hospital.

The obvious question that arises from such events is "Where's God?" Disease, famine, and natural disasters occur.  Either God allows innocent little babies to die miserable, painful deaths (which calls into question his or her omnibenevolance), or God is powerless to prevent it (which goes against omipotence).  Most Christian  theologians simply go with the the explanation that there are no good people (e.g. Romans 3:23), even "innocent" little babies are born in sin and we can't hope to understand what God is doing or thinking (e.g. Isaiah 55:8-9).  In other words, shut up and trust God.  Or, I suppose, you can rail against God.  Either way, it doesn't much matter.  The world is a shitty place because Adam and Eve ate the damn fruit off that tree and disobeyed God.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the great hymnist and leader of the Methodist movement said of the Lisbon earthquake "Sin is the cause, earthquakes the effect, of his anger."  Even today, this type of thinking persists with Pat Robsertson claiming that the 2010 Haiti earthquake was due to a Haitian pact with Satan.  Perhaps natural disasters a sign of God's anger and judgement?

The other option, of course, is atheism.  Why do bad things happed to good people?  They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Random dumb luck (or lack of it).  Winds blow, the Earth moves, and cancer cells grow.  Sucks to be you.  The problem, of course, with this idea is that it's profoundly unsettling when you think about it too much.

Anyway, many people date the real beginnings of atheism as a philosophical idea in the Western world to the Lisbon earthquake and the contrast between the writings of philosophers like Leibnitz and Voltaire.  One could spend a lifetime reading all that has been written about theodicy and I have no answers (although I certainly lean more toward the "random events in a godless natural world" camp).

But the whole thing is pretty cool, right?  Starting with the co-inventor of calculus, writing about theodicy and philosphical optimism.  Then a big earthquake in one of the most prosperous cities in Europe.  Tens of thousands die a horrible death - many while worshipping God.  Voltaire writes his satirical novella Candide mocking Leibnitz's optimism.  From this discussion develops both Christian and atheist responses to theodicy that persist to the present day.  Why learn history?  Why learn philosophy?  Why learn science?  Because it's all interesting!

1 comment:

  1. Well said and informative. I enjoyed reading Candide but never researched the historical events behind the story. However, I did enjoy Voltaire's jabs at Leibnitz.

    Thanks for the interesting posts.