No One Sees God: The Dialogue Continues

By Dean Brooks After reading No One Sees God, a reader sent me the following e-mail that poses a very tough question. I will post my response to his question in the coming days.

I have read a vast number of apologetics and histories of religion over the years -- the specifically Catholic writers include Garry Wills and William F. Buckley, but I have ranged over Paul Johnson, Karen Armstrong, Billy Graham, Lee Strobel, Bishop Spong, C. S. Lewis, the whole gamut. In many ways, No One Sees God is well above the average, but it has a serious flaw in my view.

In my experience, Christians of all denominations uniformly misconstrue the most important atheist objection, casting it as "Why does God let bad things happen to good people?" Mr. Novak does this as well. It is a weak form of the objection and misses the point. In fact, the really divisive question is about authority and mystery -- the passages in the Bible where God actually orders good people to do bad things.

The slaughter of the Midianites would be one example. God doesn't simply watch while wicked men kill women and children. Nor does he kill human beings directly, as he did in the Flood. He orders Moses and the army to carry out the execution. He involves them in the horror. The army of Israel refuses the first time, and Moses has to order them again to kill all the women and male children, and to keep all the virgin girls 'for yourselves'.

I have searched concordances, old and new editions of the Catholic Encyclopedia, literally hundreds of texts over a span of 20 years. Most pass over this episode in silence. A few refer to it as "difficult" but then say nothing more. The closest I have come to a Christian defense of this story was a Protestant writer who insisted that the Midianite women were all wicked whores who deserved what they got, and killing the boys was a kindness as they would have died without their mothers. How it makes sense to kill whores (if they actually were such) but then make their daughters into concubines was not explained.

My reading of this passage is, I think, consistent with core Christian teaching -- but it is very disagreeable to most Christians. The Midianites were the people who sheltered Moses when he fled Egypt. They offered the Israelites shelter, food, and friendship, but they were outsiders, not worshippers of Jahweh. To respond to that offer of friendship by slaughtering them and their children is symbolic of a transcendent scale of values, far above compassion, reason, or human life. I take this episode as expressing the idea that God's authority is absolutely without limit, that there are no values apart from God's will, that man has no rights or dignity on his own account. If he wishes us to slaughter one another, we are in no position to question or disagree. The destruction of Midian does not make sense in worldly terms, but it is not intended to make sense. After killing children on God's orders, the Israelites have abandoned their humanity. They are united with God in a transcendent mystery, by a collective act that cannot be understood, or endured, or justified. They are beyond good or evil, into a realm of pure nihilism in human terms, one that only underscores the vast distance between God and man. It is meant to convey the idea that our humanity by itself is meaningless and worthless.

I have from time to time written to Christian writers and public figures to express my frustration with this episode and its evasive treatment in the literature. My record to date has been near-uniform failure.

The only exceptions have been a very well-respected seminary student who abandoned his studies when he read Ayn Rand, a newspaper columnist, and a street preacher. The seminary student by and large confirmed my interpretation. The columnist explained in very confused fashion that it was just symbolic, and I shouldn't take the Old Testament too seriously anyway. The preacher was very much taken aback by my question, saying in 40 years he had never had anyone raise it as a concern -- but then he said, "If God chose to throw us all into Hell, he would be right." Implying, I guess, that my interpretation is correct.

I don't mean to be impolite. I have experimented with different methods of asking this question over the years, prefacing it with longer or shorter explanations, and all have failed. It surely ought to matter. I cannot quite imagine how mass slaughter of children (followed by human sacrifice) can have been overlooked by so many for so long. But here we are.

I was particularly impressed by Mr. Novak's willingness to deal with the bleaker aspects of religious belief. I would class his arguments as among the most honest I have read. But it still does not go far enough, does not answer the basic question. It is not simply that we are in a dark night, where we cannot see God. If the Old Testament is in any way a reliable guide -- whether it is symbolic or literal is moot -- then this episode and others like it imply we must take the darkness into our souls. We must purge ourselves of all values, empty ourselves of humanity, become nothing but vessels of obedience to a God we do not understand even slightly. What lies on the other side of that act, we will only know after death.

Mr. Novak has a good reputation as writers go, he says some good things about the value of capitalism, and I wish him only the best. I am not trying to start a fight, to rant to Christians about how stupid and bad they are. Obviously, after 20 years of wrestling with this, I am also not a candidate for conversion. The theological argument involved fills me with nothing but horror, and I am not asking to be counselled, to be helped to embrace the faith. But we live together in this world, and unraveling this mystery is a project I find I cannot entirely let go of. I keep thinking that there might be one Christian somewhere who could answer this in an honest and straightforward manner, and break through the suffocating wall of denial and silence that I perceive. If Mr. Novak did, he would be doing the world a real service.

Really, I was touched by Mr. Novak's call for a dialogue. I am a sentimental man, and appeals to brotherhood never fail to attract my attention. So I thought I would try again.

Best wishes, Dean Brooks