Monday, May 6, 2013

Theodicy, Morality and the Sparrow

I read an article by a fallen away Catholic explaining why he has left the Church. While a colleague of mine at Ignitum Today wrote a post directly responding to him, I took it upon myself to read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. In the article, he directly refers to the book as being instrumental in him finally taking the plunge to leave his childhood faith.

Spoiler alert: This book tells the story of the first Jesuit mission to an alien planet. Everyone on earth gets excited when we hear radio signals from a nearby world. While plans for a trip get lost in committee in all the various governmental bodies on earth, the Jesuits quickly get their stuff together and are the first to arrive on the new planet. It helps that they are spurned on by one priest in particular who thinks that it is his mission from God to make this trip.

In a couple of years, however, this trip goes completely to hell. All of the explorers except for the aforementioned priest are killed. Innumerable alien children are killed indirectly due to the explorers' actions. The priest is sold into sex slavery and he ends up accidentally killing an alien child who had become his closest friend. (And that's just the tip of the iceberg.)

The priest in The Sparrow has a lot more reason to sue God than this guy.

This story is a blunt exploration into theodicy. Theodicy is the attempt to rectify the existence of evil with the existence of a good and powerful God. In my opinion, the book leaves the question wide open. The priest ends feeling like he had been "seduced and raped by God." He feels as if God led him to this place, leading to the horrible deaths of many people and aliens, especially children. He feels as if it was God's will that the alien men rape him. He cannot rectify his belief in God with what he went through but, in the end, he wants to try. His fellow Jesuits want to help him in any way they can.

Toward the end of the book (pg. 401), two priests are discussing his experience. One of them explains to the other the idea of the "clock-maker God."

The other priest responds, "So, God just leaves?"

"No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering."

The other priest quotes Matthew 10:29, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them fall to the ground outside your Father's care."

"But the sparrow still falls."


But The Sparrow Still Falls

That is a very poetic way at looking at the issue of theodicy. God cares about us all individually, but bad things still happen. Surprisingly, this is not what the article writer, B. Sarmiento, was struck by.

The character that the fallen away Catholic most relates to is one of the older women in the group of explorers. In a conversation with the priest, she explains that she doesn't need God in order to do good. As the article says:

But that war soon ended. As the saying goes, everything passes. It ended when I found Maria Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow,” a book with a science fiction theme, about a Jesuit who lost his faith because of a tragic event in his life. A character in the book, Anne—a middle-aged American doctor in a Brazilian slum doing work for the poor, an atheist—really got my attention. In one scene, she says in effect: Just because you don’t believe in a god doesn’t mean you can’t do good.

It was as if a light bulb switched on in my head. And suddenly I was thinking: Do good for the sake of doing good, and not because you’re afraid of ending up in some hell.

First of all, Anne isn't an atheist. As her husband characterizes her, "She's a Catholic when you get her drunk enough." She believes in God, but God is not a huge deal to her.

Otherwise, Sarmiento's summary is accurate. After a long day adapting to life with an alien culture on an alien world, she shoots the breeze with the main character priest. They discuss all too briefly whether or not you can live a moral life without God before moving on to other topics.

It is entirely possible to live a moral life without God. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about "natural law." There are moral rules, like for instance murdering an innocent person, that can be reached purely through reason and experience. You don't divine revelation to tell you how to be a descent human being.

To take it a step further, the goal of Christians is to do good for the sake of doing good. We aren't supposed to do good out of fear of Hell. In Catholicism, that's called imperfect contrition. Doing good because you don't want to go to hell is a good enough reason, but it is not the best. The best is to do good out of love for God and neighbor; to do the right thing because it's the right thing. It pains me to see how poorly catechized Sarmiento was in this respect.

The Sparrow is a very good book. I would caution readers, however, that the end gets very graphic and disturbed me greatly as the killing and raping is described in detail. It is interesting in its exploration of theodicy and in its social commentary. I would recommend it, but not to the faint of heart.

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