I know I promised an explanation about the law school thing. But it’s going to have to wait. I’m studying for an exam and don’t have a lot of time. I was just thinking something and I wanted to quickly jot it down. Here goes.
Consider Lot’s wife. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her I’ll give you a little run down. In the biblical story, Lot and his wife live in the city of Sodom. Sodom is a city full of sinners who steal, kill and of course, perform acts of sodomy.
God decides to destroy the city, killing all of its inhabitants except for two: Lot and his Wife. As the destruction begins in the form of fire and brimstone raining from the sky, Lot and his Wife are led out by two angels. The angels warn Mr. and Mrs. Lot not to look back, lest they be consumed. Lot’s wife looks back anyway and is turned into a pillar of salt.
This seemed interesting to me. People often think of the cause and effect relationship between sins and punishments in the Bible as sort of akin to Karma. That is, you do something bad and you get punished for it, you do something good and you get rewarded for it.
It seems that Lot’s wife’s “sin” was basically being human. She was asked to pick herself up and leave behind everything she’d ever known. Her home, her friends, her children, all destroyed. It is possible that she was born in Sodom. It is possible that she had never been outside of Sodom. Now in a moments notice she’s told to start her life anew, that everything she knew was gone and on top of that she can’t even look back.
Of course she looked back! You would too!
Now we don’t know why she looked back (and ostensibly God does), but one plausible reason is compassion. Maybe she knew that the people there were rotten, but they’re still people that she knew. Even if you come from a bad place it’s very difficult not to have some reverence for it. And even if people are bad, it’s hard not to feel bad for them when they’re being burned to death.
Now this leaves us with a problem. Compassion is generally speaking considered to be a good thing. So how (in our Karma view of god) can she be punished for it?
An easy answer is that it wasn’t a punishment. The angels weren’t threatening her not to look back. Rather they were warning her, kind of like a parent warning his child not to look at the sun. Whatever’s going on back there is harmful to look at and the result of looking at it is being consumed.
This leads to a very bureaucratic understanding of god. It’s not about good or evil. God is just doing stuff and once he starts doing it he’s got to follow it through. In this model God didn’t mean to kill Lot’s wife. It just sort of happened.
This model is very problematic because we like to think of God in sort of human terms. We like to think of Him as kind and compassionate and all kinds of good things. Sometimes we also like to think of Him as jealous, vengeful and angry and all kinds of bad things. We also certainly tend to think of Him as omnipotent.
So if God is this sort of humanish thing that is omnipotent why didn’t he just change the rules for Lots wife and let her live? I mean come on, he was planning on saving her anyways right? And we see examples of him getting involved and changing the rules for other people at other points in the story. So why not Lot’s wife?
I really don’t know the answer and it’s not that important. What I do wonder is how we can reconcile these two seemingly conflicting ideas of God.
I think as Jews we’re always sort of straddling a fine line between bureaucratic God and anthropomorphic God. It seems sort of hypocritical. When we want God to seem cool we describe him in terms of human emotions and reasoning. When we want to get him off the hook for being an asshole we think of him as this force of nature like a storm that we can’t understand or control and that obviously can’t be held accountable for Its actions.
I think a lot of atheists are very aware of this hypocrisy and it bothers them.I can understand it because it bothers me too. And although I can’t really reconcile it, I can say that it’s not really unique to religion.
In science we tend to take an etiological approach to understanding things. Causes cause effects which become causes of other effects and so on. For the most part this works great and has helped us understand things like Physics and Chemistry.
It gets a little trickier when we get into fields like Biology. Although, we have a sort of general understanding of the way living things interact, there’s always a pretty wide margin of error. Often times living things behave in ways which are entirely opposed to the way they’re “supposed to”.
When we start looking at human behavior it gets even murkier. Since Psychology is just a subset of Biology which is subset of Chemistry which is a subset of Physics, we should be able to quantify human behavior the same way we do the vectors of falling objects. In actual practice however, Psychology is just a little less accurate than Physics conducted by blind people. Its predictive power outside of the laboratory is all but non-existent. That being said, we tend to use it to hypocritically straddle the same fine line we use when describing God, only in science we use it to describe man.
When people do great things like acts of kindness or achievements of great creativity we tend to think of them in human terms. We refer to them as compassionate and amicable or creative and imaginative. We attribute their good deeds to their conscious choices made out of their own free will.
Conversely, when people do terrible, horrible things that we can’t really understand, we tend to think of them in more mechanistic terms. We think of people who murder their children as mentally ill. We attribute their misdeeds to some sort of error in their production that causes them to behave in a fashion outside of the way they’re “supposed to”.
We would never think about calling the works of Beethoven or the kindness of mother Theresa or the wisdom of Gandhi the result of some unlikely combination of neurotransmitters in their brains caused by some random fluke of physics. That would be disrespectful. But we easily use this type of reasoning to describe behavior we deem undesirable.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not passing judgement. I just want to point out that people with very different worldviews seem to suffer from very similar biases. Religious people are willing to forgo their human understanding of God when he seemingly behaves inhumanely. Humanists are willing to suspend their belief in free will when people use it to do unimaginable things.
Likely these biases are the result of an incomplete understanding of the situation. We seem to use them to fill in the gaps where we don’t have sufficient knowledge to come to more logical conclusions.
As brain imaging technology improves, we are likely to see a more unified theory of behavior that encompass both the positive and the negative sides of the human condition. It will become increasingly more difficult to argue in favor of free will. That being said, I think it’s unlikely that we will see a great deal of change in peoples acceptance of free will.
As for Lot’s wife we will probably never know the real “truth” about why she looked back. But even if we did, I doubt it would change our view of God. We would still find ways to see God as good.
Like it or not, we are all hypocrites.