Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Heather Mac Donald won’t give up

She responds to Michael Novak, who will doubtless at some point respond to her.

I’ll just note a couple of things in passing. The bulk of her response has to do with God’s apparent justice or injustice, evidence for which is, she assumes, exhausted by empirical data. An unjust God, she assumes, would not let an innocent person die, or, for that matter, come to any harm. Well...I know plenty of Christians who don’t believe that anyone is, strictly speaking, innocent (see Genesis 3), not to mention plenty who don’t look for God’s justice in this world, but rather in the next. The assumption that this world can, or ought to, or might, be perfectly just is, I should say, Promethean (which is to say modern--shared by Marxism and some strands of classical liberalism). An alternative is to look for perfect justice only in the City of God, which is not of this world.

I realize that many ordinary folk respond (inconsistently) to horrible events in the way Mac Donald describes--thanking God for saving them and not thinking about others who were lost. But again, Christians are supposed to pray to God that His will be done and aren’t supposed to assume that that will is transparent and fully available to us here and now. This is no easy task. It’s impossible not to be thankful, for example, when you don’t lose or aren’t lost to a loved one after a close call. And it’s hard to find comfort after losing a loved one. We’re so constructed as both to love this world and to look beyond it. (I’m giving a paper that touches on this subject at the upcoming APSA meeting, drawing my inspiration, such as it is, from Tolkien.)

Let me now treat Mac Donald on the anthropological grounds she clearly prefers. Here are two statements she makes. First:

An elementary definition of justice is treating like cases alike and treating unlike cases differently. If a judge has two plaintiffs before him who are each suing for restitution under a contract, and each has met the conditions for restitution, we expect that he would award each plaintiff the remedy that he seeks.

Second:

Religious institutions and beliefs are, however, human creations. They grow out of man’s instinct for system and order, as well as out of the desire for life beyond death and a divine intervener in human affairs. Our striving for justice is one of the great human attributes. Far from imitating a divine model, man’s every effort to dispense justice is a battle against the randomness that rules the natural world.

I’ll go along with the rough-and-ready definition of justice (with certain caveats regarding what the relevant considerations are), but I nevertheless regard it as hard, if not altogether impossible, to achieve in this world. Perfect justice requires philosopher-kings whose vision is never clouded by the partiality born of love.

But I’m not sure how she can hold even this definition of justice if she seriously believes that "randomness rules the natural world." In a random natural world, "justice" is a human construct and is humanly imposed. If justice is altogether conventional (not guided by nature, which is, after all, random), then why should it necessarily be proportional in the way she suggests earlier? Why couldn’t "justice" be defined in any way we please--above all, preferring my good to anyone else’s? And in a random world, how would we single out "striving for justice" as "one of the great human attributes," rather than, say, "looking out for number one"? Does Mac Donald really not believe that nature is random? Or is her emphasis on justice evidence of a certain kind of "will to power"? Or of a certain kind of faith?

Update: There’s more at the AmSpec blog, provoked by Hunter Baker.

Discussions - 19 Comments

"The assumption that this world can, or ought to, or might, be perfectly just is, I should say, Promethean (which is to say modern--shared by Marxism and some strands of classical liberalism)."

Mac Donald doesn’t assume that this world can or should be perfectly just. She is posing a problem for believers: If you believe that events in this world are controlled by a God who is omniscient, all- powerful, and perfectly good, then you cannot escape the expectation that such a being will superintend (to borrow her word) a perfectly just world.

The problem of evil hasn’t gone away, lo these many centuries, for the simple reason that believers have never found a way to make it go away. Surely you will grant Mac Donald this rather obvious point.

Believing in a just God doesn’t require me to believe that He will make this world conform to my imperfect conception of justice on my timetable. God’s justice might be fulfilled in the next world, might it not?

"God’s justice might be fulfilled in the next world, might it not?"


Yes, it might. But believers who thank God for his justice (mercy, protection, etc.) in this world do not hold that view, at least not consistently. That is Mac Donald’s point.

Joe...sigh...essentially you are saying that whatever happens is God’s will. I’m sure religious people see it that way, but it hardly makes good public policy. Moreover, why are God’s "words" more important than His "actions." If Nature works a certain way, surely it is His way. And if people have a sense of justice, surely He gave us that sense...yes? And so if we judge Him according to the standards that He laid down for us, why should He be angry when we notice that He’s damned scarce in hard times, that Nature is damned bloody, and evil seems to be as "normal" as good?

I made much the same point about our gifts from God in an earlier response to Mac Donald, but nothing requires me to regard God as a deus ex machina, making everything right by my lights on my timetable. Yes, God made us to be impatient and fallible, and God made us to love our lives and the world in which we live them. But we’re also taught not "to set [our] hopes on the uncertainty of riches" (1 Tim. 6:17 ff.).

Joe, that seems a bit oblique to me. We aren’t talking about timetables, we are talking about the very structure of life. It’s as if God were saying listen to what I say, not what I do. Maybe that’s acceptable in a frail mortal, but He can’t create a being that naturally questions all things and then turn around and eternally damn that being for drawing lessons from His other creations.

Or, perhaps He can. But it makes me wonder what kind of sadistic God he is.

First, pride is a big-time sin. Questioning isn’t the problem. Thinking you have all the answers is.

Second, acquiescence or quiescence isn’t the only conclusion one can draw from the "facts" as I’ve stated them. God could be said to have given us reason, which we are to use, but with an appreciation of its fallibility and our finitude. Prayer or prayerful waiting aren’t substitutes for policy or political deliberation.

First, pride is a big-time sin. Questioning isn’t the problem. Thinking you have all the answers is.

You know, Joe, I’m not trying to fence with you. What astounds me is that "knowing it all" is precisely how many Christians (and other religious people) approach the world. They know all the truth that matters because God has revealed it to them. I realize that "rationalists" are also often arrogant, but at least the epistemology they purport to follow relies on deduction from observed facts. Religious people seem to reject empirical evidence (in my experience), and grow pretty hostile if you question the basis of their faith.

It just astounds me that God gives us five senses and then (supposedly) we are condemned for believing what they tell us. Is God so small that He gets his jollies by insisting that we grovel before Him and deny our own minds, the minds that He Himself created? He surrounds us with myriad empirical facts, and yet withholds that which could save us (true divine revelation...not someone’s say-so).

Yes, yes, I know...God works in mysterious ways. But you know...I wouldn’t treat anyone I loved in this fashion.

Believing in a just God doesn’t require me to believe that He will make this world conform to my imperfect conception of justice ....

[N]othing requires me to regard God as a deus ex machina, making everything right by my lights on my timetable.


Joe, you’re making wonderful hay of straw men. I think we can all agree that it is logically possible for anyone to ascribe to the beliefs you mention above. Mac Donald’s point is that, as a matter of contingent fact, believers do [I]not[/I] ascribe to such beliefs. When they are spared some calamity -- earthquake, terrorist attack, or what not -- they thank God for showing them love as they understand love, justice as they understand justice, mercy as they understand mercy. When facing the prospect of such calamities, they pray for God to show them love, justice, and mercy as they understand those terms.


But when calamity nonetheless strikes -- a child is raped and murdered, terrorists kill thousands at a blow -- those same believers still insist that God is loving, just, and merciful. But they revert to the view that God’s love is not love as they understand it, God’s justice is not justice as they understand it, etc. God suddenly becomes an inscrutable puzzle.


This is not a coherent belief system. That is Mac Donald’s main point. Why do keep dancing around it? Why don’t you just grant it?

I just read Heather Mac Donald’s original piece. Perhaps I am far behind the curve on this (and others have addressed it), but she makes the claim that those who invoke God and those who believe in "natural law" are somehow the same, or similar.

This is perplexing. Can we not have a reasonable understanding of the law of nature? Cannot reason grasp the natural law? No less than Aquinas (who, if Strauss is correct, was defending reason and reason’s ability to know before the tribunal of the theologian), and Jefferson believed in reason’s ability to know such mataphysical things.

David,

Yes, a lot of people do (rather inconsistently, as you indicate) hold the position you describe. But that people of faith hold a flawed position, and that one can poke holes in that flawed position, is not an argument against faith. Mac Donald is arguing against that particular straw man, as if that made religiosity somehow suspect altogether. I’d rather see her try to take on a more consistent and robust position, like Novak’s, for example. (She continues to deal with her caricature of the simple prayerful believer down the street, my grandmother, for example, rather than the serious religious thinker. Her response to Novak ignores his substantive points and focuses, once again, on my Oma.)

Erik,

Yes, absolutely, she doesn’t really understand natural law.

Well, you know Joe, in another thread I asked the following: So, if "natural rights" are not predicated on metaphysical assumptions, what ARE they predicated on? And please, don’t say "reason." This is basically an epistemological debate, and if you say "natural rights" are deduced from empiricism then you have reduced "natural rights" to science and sociobiology (which is ok with me, but it doesn’t leave any need for theology).

No one answered me on that thread. Would you care to now?

dain: It’s perfectly reasonably to ask why it make sense to say that people have natural rights. And "reason" in the abstract, you rightly add, is not a sufficient answer.

Yes, a lot of people do (rather inconsistently, as you indicate) hold the position you describe. But that people of faith hold a flawed position, and that one can poke holes in that flawed position, is not an argument against faith.


No, but it is an argument against their faith, and "a lot of people" hardly does justice to the number. All the believers I ever met accept both of the following:


1. When good things happen, I thank God because I believe that He is a just and loving God.


2. When terrible things happen, I still believe that God is just and loving, but I cannot comprehend His love and justice in those circumstances.


Those two statements, together, capture the inconsistency that you acknowledge. You, Joe, say that you’re not entangled in it. So which of the above statements do you reject? 1 or 2?

David,

Think about this passage from St. Augustine’s City of God (IV.33):

[God] gives earthly kingdoms to the good or the evil so that his worshippers, who are still children as regard moral progress, may not desire these gifts from him as something great.

If I have faith that God is perfectly just, I also need humility not to measure his justice by my meager conception of it.

I’m not sure how that answers my question. Do you reject 1 or 2?

Why do I have to accept either one? Neither God’s love for me nor his justice is demonstrated by his giving me a trinket, bauble, or empire in this world. His failure to give me such things is not evidence of his injustice or hatred.

You don’t have to accept either one. You may reject both. But if you are to avoid the inconsistency that I described and you acknowledged, then you must reject at least one.


So, for the third time, which do you reject?

Evidently our "serious religious thinker" is stumped. Why am I not surprised?

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