Two Concepts Of God

Liberal columnist Richard Cohen, who, judging by his latest column, seems to be an atheist, had this to say in the course of criticizing the Pope’s comments at Auschwitz:

“Now, though, Benedict has actually said something. He said more or less what I did after visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau — and before that, Treblinka, and afterward, Buchenwald and Terezin. He said what I said after reading a shelf of books on the Holocaust and listening to the stories of survivors: “Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?” Only I put it differently. Where were you, God? I don’t think you were silent. I don’t even think you were there.

Religious people can wrestle with the pope’s remarks. What does it mean that God was silent? That he approved? That he liked what he saw? That he didn’t give a damn? You tell me. And what does it mean that he could “tolerate all this”? That the Nazis were OK by him? That even the murder of Catholic clergy was no cause for intercession? I am at a loss to explain this. I cannot believe in such a God.

This is a God who was away from his desk or something and did not notice the plumes of human ash reaching to the heavens themselves. Is that what the pope wants us to believe? No, I think it is something even worse: If God was silent, who could blame the church for being silent, too? Is that what Benedict is saying? If so, he is continuing the tradition of saying nothing.

I know Holocaust survivors who are religious. I don’t understand it. I know others who feel that Auschwitz is proof that there is no God. I understand that. I am sure there are people who feel that way about Biafra or Rwanda or even Hurricane Katrina. I can understand all of that, too.

I give Benedict some credit. Not from him do we get the inane god of American optimism, the deity of American politics who is always compassionate and on our side and will make everything just wonderful if only we put our faith in him.”

These comments were interesting to me because it actually made me wonder if liberals, particularly the legions of liberals who are hostile to religion, have a different concept of God than conservatives. Moreover, is it possible that these views might parallel our own views of government?

Boiling our ideologies down to their simplest form, liberals believe that the government should do things for people while conservatives believe that government should make it easier for people to do things for themselves.

In Cohen’s case, he seems to believe that God simply shouldn’t have tolerated Auschwitz. So, presumably He should have come down from heaven and put an end to the whole thing. Same goes for “Biafra or Rwanda or even Hurricane Katrina.” In other words, Cohen seems to be saying that he doesn’t believe in God because God allows terrible things to happen and therefore, at a minimum, He either isn’t merciful or more likely, does not exist.

While I would not presume to speak for anyone else on this subject, that’s not how I view God’s work. If God, who is omnipresent and omnipotent were to adopt the policies that Cohen would prefer, there would be no point of having a heaven because it would be right here on earth. Is somebody about to have a heart attack? No worries, God will fix it. Is someone about to get killed in a car wreck? No worries, God will step in. Did a kid fall off a bike and skin his knee? No worries, God will be there to kiss the boo-boo and put a band-aid on it. Where’s the testing, where are the trials, and how could men prove themselves worthy of entrance to a better place?

This is why I believe God seldom works directly, as He did at Sodom & Gomorrah or by dropping manna from heaven, and instead prefers to let things work themselves out with an occasional nudge or wind at the back of those He favors. We often pray for God to “fix” our problems with a miracle, but if God chooses to answer, it’s usually just by giving us a way to clean up our own mess.

Now some people, like Cohen, wouldn’t agree with the way God handles things, even if they did believe in Him. But, in my opinion, while it’s understandable that we mere mortals may scratch our heads and wonder why God visited so many horrors on Job just to prove a point to the devil or why He chose to use a whale as his instrument to teach Jonah a lesson — in the end, we just have to accept the fact that He moves in mysterious ways that those of us without his wisdom aren’t always able to understand.

That being said, let me add that perhaps it would be easier for us in some way if God chose to operate as Cohen envisions, but would it be better? If mankind were denied its share of toil and trouble, yes, there would have been no Auschwitz, no 9/11, no massacres, no poverty, no pain. But, we’d also probably have ended up as a planet full of imbeciles, sitting in the mud, eating berries, and living in caves. That’s because progress is made only because we human beings have strived to eliminate the problems, difficulties, and horrors that we’ve faced as a species. Take away all the pain and there will be no progress, which perhaps better explains God taking what appears to be, at least from our limited perspective, a laissez faire approach to world events.

Update #1: In the original piece, for some reason, I incorrectly credited the column to Richard Reeves instead of Richard Cohen. That has been corrected.

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