God vs. Judith: The Emotive Problem of Evil

God vs. Judith: The Emotive Problem of Evil

Pastor Robert Houghton got a look at “Judith” by A Perfect Circle three weeks ago, and his reaction-video has gone somewhat viral — amassing 283,000 views, 5,900 likes, and over 6,000 comments in that time (and this from a small channel, which had only a few thousand subscribers and two videos prior to the “Judith” reaction). This was followed up recently by a reaction to “Wings for Marie” (pts 1 & 2)

Robert comes across as a decent and supremely empathetic guy, but not so “nice” that he can’t enjoy a metal album or two. His take is an enjoyable glimpse into genuine empathy and grasping the emotion that underlies the lyrics, but it is also a fascinating look at the collision between ordinary human feelings — related to justice — and biblical theology.

In tandem, “Judith” and “Wings for Marie” are lyrical summations of the philosophical problem of evil. Both are named after Maynard James Keenan’s mother, Judith Marie Keenan, who suffered a cerebral aneurysm when Maynard was only 11. The aneurysm left her paralyzed for about 10,000 days (roughly 27 years) before finally passing away.

Maynard’s lyrics express the injustice of the illness, the admirable faithfulness of his mother, the contemptible hypocrisy of the church, and persistent silence of God the “savior.”

A passionate spirit
Boundless and open
A light in your eyes
Then immobilized
Wings for Marie (pt 1)

High is the way, but all eyes are upon the ground
You were the light and the way they’ll only read about
I only pray, Heaven knows when to lift you out
Ten thousand days in the fire is long enough;
You’re going home
Wings (pt 2)

It’s not like you killed someone
It’s not like you drove a hateful spear into his side
Praise the one who left you broken down and paralyzed
He did it all for you

Pastor Rob correctly points out that Judith was written first, and Wings 1 & 2 reflect a less angry, more loving and empathetic tone. But the conclusions he draws from this order are a bit dubious:

I pretty sure — correct me if I’m wrong, and I’m sure you will — but this is after Judith… either way, it shows some growth on his part, versus what he said in Judith, and it’s amazing. It really is. What a memorial to a seemingly wonderful woman. He even indicates that she had an impact on his faith.

Judith was released in 2000, while 10,000 Days was released in 2006. But along with Wings 1 & 2 in the album was The Pot (on which I’ve written elsewhere), a brilliantly composed and profoundly, viscerally anti-Christian song. Wings does not represent a change in Maynard’s spirituality from Judith. It is just a slight shift in subject focus, from the faith to his mother, and this shift in focus is reflected in the shifted tone — Judith and The Pot share a similar kind of vulgarity and almost taunting quality.

So what is Pastor Rob’s theological response to this lyrical and intensely personal rendition of the problem of evil?

So the main problem here — and I understand, if anybody who’s had a painful situation happen in life, anybody who’s lose a family member, or who’s had someone get sick, particularly someone who’s a Christian, it’s a confusing thing.

Interestingly, the concept of questioning the problem of evil is called theodicy. So it’s a common discussion among Christians and non-Christians about why do bad things happen to good people. So […] from [Maynard’s] perspective, his mom was a devout Christian, and she still fell ill. I mean, he said in the lyrics: “Oh so many ways for me to show you how your savior has abandoned you // F*** your God, your lord and your Christ // He did this, took all you had and left you this way // Still you pray, you never stray, never taste of the fruit // You never thought to question why.” So his perspective is that this bad thing happened to his mom that was good who gave all she had to Jesus.

The problem — the first problem; there’s two problems here we’re gonna talk about — the first problem is a misunderstanding of Christian theology and what is considered good to God. Right? So the first major problem we have here is that he thinks that his mom is good.

Now granted, Judith may have been an amazing lady, she may have went to every event at church, she may have given all her money to the church and helped orphans and whatever else,  but, according to the Bible, all have fallen short of the glory of God. All do not meet the standard that God calls good.

Only while writing this did I realize that there is something intriguingly Nietzschean about the Christian conception of the good contained in those last two sentences: God (the noble) is “good,” and what is “bad” is what is unlike God (mortals). The irony is kind of interesting, but what’s more pertinent is the kind of moral relativism that follows when invoking the scale of God’s greatness relative to humans. Saying that Judith “isn’t a good person” relative to the majesty of perfection is, for most people, an almost nihilistic evasion of immediate injustices, to the point of offensiveness. What do you mean my mother isn’t a good person?

Now I don’t actually believe that the problem of evil is as powerful of an argument as many believe, in terms of logic. The Christian is armed with at least two strong counters that really do take it down:

  1. God wants people to have agency in this world, and human agency requires a stable world so that we can understand it. Stability requires God not intervening most of the time, so that patterns can be identified and understood by humans. While the course of these patterns may sometimes have tragic consequences (relatively small, in the case of the circulatory system in the brain; relatively large, where plate tectonics are concerned), our agency and ability to think and act freely in the world, and to love of our own choice (ideally, God) is greater than the suffering is tragic.
  2. God is not actually omnipotent in the kind of control-freak manner that atheists (and even Christians) sometimes imagine, according to the Bible. He more closely resembles the architect of a grand simulation than some kind of million-tentacled puppeteer: capable of altering anything, but not necessarily choosing every outcome that comes from the interactions of his creation (as evidenced by his displeasure of certain things which exist). Much of the suffering in the world is the result of the Deceiver. Without such uber control-freak power (what Vox Day calls “omniderigence”), the logic behind the problem of evil falls apart.

So if the problem of evil isn’t really much of a problem, why is it so compelling? Why is it such powerful rhetoric against the Christian faith, leaving Pastor Rob repeatedly saying “wow,” and not in awe of Maynard’s bad theology, but in sympathy with where Maynard is coming from, and the meaning of the music?

The reason is this. While neither of these answers to the problem of evil rest upon condemning Maynard’s mother as “not a good person,” which was Pastor Rob’s path of explanation, which first, doesn’t resolve the problem of evil (returning to Nietzsche: is someone really “bad,” and worthy of torment, suffering, and death because they aren’t like God?), Christianity does require us to think that. No one is good, not even one. Something about this universal condemnation seems obviously wrong.

The Christian’s belief in God is often rooted in an innate sense that there are objective moral truths which can be violated. This sense is important enough to Christian theology that C.S. Lewis included it as a foundation at the very beginning of Mere Christianity:

Quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

From these kinds of objective moral truths, Christians deduce that there must be a “highest truth,” perhaps even a moral truth-giver of sorts. This highest truth/truth-giver is God.

But there is a problem: the God proposed by Christians who fulfills this descriptions often contradicts the very moral intuitions on which Christian belief in his existence is based. While the problem of evil is not the most dialectically compelling example of this contradiction, it is rhetorically persuasive to many because it is based in the truth of this contradiction. If God is so powerful, so good, so self-sacrificial, so loving, would he leave this faithful woman paralyzed? It takes the emotional conception Christians have of their God and flips it on itself, using exactly the justification they have for their belief to demonstrate his non-existence: if a morally perfect God exists, he couldn’t look like THAT.

Note that the usual Christian answer to this — that it is not our place to know or to judge God (see Job 38) — is not helpful because completely undermines the foundation for the faith itself. If it is not our place to say that God is evil, by what right can we judge God to be good? By what measure could we even see that God was good? Answering the appeal to mystery requires a kind of moral nihilism which is at odds with the self-evident truths about morality. And the two answers above to the problem of evil specifically do not answer the moral general problem of the Christian God contradicting self-evident moral truths.

Let me provide a few more concrete examples of these kinds of moral contradictions:

  1. Jesus requires us to hate our family:

    “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.”
    –Luke 14:26

  2. Jesus tells us to love our enemies:

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
    –Matthew 5:43-48

  3. Jesus tells us that we must abandon our identity and adopt a new one entirely:

    Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
    –John 3:5-8

The third point somewhat explains the first two, but all three are clearly wrong. It is not right to abandon our identity (including our family, and the threats to them (our enemies)) and to float around like the wind. The idea that a morally perfect God would require us to leave our family to follow him, to see all of humanity as bad because it does not match God’s perfection, and then — perhaps most insulting of all — to adopt the very language of family in a diluted, adulterated form in reference to the body of the Church (“brother” so-and-so, “father” such-and-such, perhaps even “sister” nun-over-there, and of course, all “brothers and sisters” in Christ, “children” of God, etc) is psychologically impossible, let alone morally perverse. My “true family” is my actual family, to whom I have a natural (i.e., of nature) obligation, and it is in this obligation to love my family that I am required to — and justified in — hating my enemies.

These are wrong in the same way that C.S. Lewis’s observation about appealed-to moral truths in quarrels are true. They are self-evident, seemingly a part of human nature, or of nature itself. If the existence of objective moral good and objective moral evil is evidence of God (moral perfection, goodness itself), then advocating against self-evident moral truths (the very basis for our belief in objective morality in the first place) disqualifies the advocate from the possibility of being God.

In Maynard’s music, he embodies the correct choice where Christianity advocates what is objectively morally wrong. He loves his mother, and sees her as good, even when theology tells us she falls short, and is therefore not worthy of love (or, rather, is only worthy of love insofar as she is an image-bearer of God). He hates his enemies, the Church who tried to tell his mother that she, through her imperfections and sins, somehow brought the paralysis down on herself. And most importantly, he retained his connection and love for his mother, his identity in his family, and the obligations that come with that.

High is the way, but all eyes are upon the ground
You were the light and the way they’ll only read about

He did not leave behind his family to follow Christ. He did not love the enemies of his family (the Church). Nor did he wash away his old identity to become “born again.” The opposite, in fact. To quote Maynard’s bio on the website for Caduceus Cellars:

Having already dove headfirst into this venture, I found out from a distant relative that wine making is in my blood. My Great Grandfather, “Spirito” Marzo, had vineyards and made wine in Venaus, Italy, just North of Turino in Piemonte. My tastes in wine reflect this history. It’s even apparent in my choice of home. Clearly I and my fathers are one.

You can read more about my own spiritual beliefs in Letter to Anwei, as well as the way in which Maynard James Keenan seems to embody them (he gets a whole chapter; I swear I’m not obsessed, he’s just such an excellent example). Appendix C — “Identity and the Problem with Christianity” also lays out this argument in longer form.

The point is that even though the problem of evil isn’t as sound as it is often portrayed, it is rhetorically powerful because it rides on an emotional truth — the very same truth that leads people to belief in Christianity in the first place. There are objective moral truths, and there is such thing as evil, even if discerning which from which is often more complicated than it may at first appear. But while Christianity appears to embody many of these truths and rejects many of these evils — and attempting to claim exclusive authorship of the concepts in doing so — it also fails to embody others, and even advocates evils. Far from being merely “internal contradictions” that fedora-lord atheists loved to point out in the mid 2000’s, and autistically claim that Christianity was incoherent and illogical, these points of conflict are more serious. In summary, the emotive problem of evil, or the Christian rejection of self-evident moral truths, undermine the very basis of belief in Christianity, which is the connection between the personal experiences of believer demonstrating the reality of good and evil and the claims made by Christianity to God’s authorship of those realities and perfection by them.

For those logicians out there,

If the Christian God exists, then Judith is not good (Christian doctrine)
But Judith is good (self-evident moral truth),
Therefore, the Christian God does not exist.

If you want to challenge the second premise (i.e., maybe Judith isn’t good), then fill in the blank with your own family-member or hero of choice. The point remains.

If you want to say that just because someone isn’t good doesn’t mean you shouldn’t love them, do what you like, but don’t call it love around me. It isn’t moral to give or to accept the kind of sympathetic “love” which is owed to the murderer as much as it is to an innocent woman (or relatively innocent woman — Christians can be autistic too) who was suddenly paralyzed for 27 years.

In short, between Jesus and Judith, I think the latter wins. She is more worthy of worship (what else are such praising songs about a person to be called?), at least to immediate family like her son, than a dead and distant teacher who taught division and the inversion of love:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.

–Matthew 10:34-36

And the Christian’s brothers will be the enemies of his family.

I think I’ll pass.

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