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An Age-Old Question: Why Would God Allow Notre Dame to Burn?

(Image via BBC.com)

“Ultimately, it seems to me that the Notre Dame fire may indeed prove that that particular place of worship is not the abode of God.”

The cult of relics was rampant in the Middle Ages, but, naturally enough, there were skeptics (not least because there were many objects contending to be the one real relic of a particular saint, and not all of them could be authentic). One common way of knowing whether or not a relic was authentic was by throwing it to the fire. Very much as in ordeals, the reasoning was that if the relic burned, then it was fake, for God would not allow a sacred object to be decomposed by fire.

Recently, the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame, in Paris, underwent massive damage. In the face of this event, the old superstitious reasoning made a comeback. Some on Twitter, for example, claimed that those particular sacred objects that were not burned, somehow enjoyed divine protection, for how could they have survived the flames? Yet, the reverse reasoning also seemed to be at play. Some ISIS spokespeople were delighted at Notre Dame’s destruction, perhaps also implying that somehow this proves that Islam is the one and only true religion.

Be that as it may, very few religious persons are in the superstitious business of appealing to fire ordeals in order to prove theological points. Yet, more sober religious minds will still be perplexed at the sheer destruction of such a powerful religious symbol. Why did God allow such a magnificent place of His own worship to be destroyed?

Presumably, this question will now be only asked by Catholics. But every time a big temple has been destroyed, adherents to that particular religion are disturbed by that particular religious question. In the 7th Century BC, Jeremiah likewise pondered the meaning of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Why, if Israel was Yahweh’s chosen people, and a massive temple was built in Jerusalem to honor that covenant, did God allow the Babylonians to sack it and destroy it? We may predict that the same question will be elicited by Muslims if the Great Mosque of Mecca is burned to the ground, or by Mormons if the Salt Lake Temple collapses, and so on.

Jeremiah and the Biblical tradition that he established (the so-called Deuteronomist school) came up with a ready-made answer: the destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylon was punishment for Israel’s sins. This way of reasoning has always found resonance in most people. We tend to believe that people deserve what they get; in fact, this way of reasoning is so enshrined in our mind, that psychologist Melvin Lerner called it the, “Just World Hypothesis.” Yet, as intuitive as it may seem, we know it to be false. Many a righteous suffers; many a wicked has a great time. Another Biblical author was fully aware of this and used Job as his mouthpiece to protest this great injustice, to which God never really provides a satisfactory answer. Perhaps God allowed Notre Dame to burn as punishment for the Catholic Church’s sins (corruption in the Vatican, clerical pederasty, and so on), but surely there is a huge number of Catholics who are good people and are deeply affected by this event. If God did not care about these innocent people’s suffering, then He is not a good God.

Perhaps God allows bad things to happen for a “greater good,” whatever that might mean. Presumably, the severe damage to Notre Dame will bring out the best in people to come together to rebuild it. Believe it or not, some prominent philosophers have said exactly the same thing regarding the Holocaust. According to Richard Swinburne, God allowed the Holocaust to take place in order to achieve the greater good of having people courageous enough to save Jews. To many readers, this may seem a monstrous claim; at the very least, it is deeply insensitive. Was it worth killing 6 million Jews so that a far lesser number would have the opportunity to exhibit some courage in their lives? Couldn’t God find alternative ways for courage to come about, without the brutality of SS officers? If I were a Holocaust survivor and ever came across Swinburne, perhaps I ought to punch him in the face and tell him that this is happening so that someone passing by can be courageous and take him to the hospital. (Okay, maybe I would not actually do that, but you get the idea).

In 1755, an earthquake destroyed the city of Lisbon (including many beautiful churches), and both theologians and laypeople found solace appealing to philosopher Leibniz’s idea that God allows bad things to happen because this is the best possible world that He could create. This has always seemed very odd. Isn’t God omnipotent? How, then, is He constrained in making a better world than this? If He has done so many miracles throughout History, why couldn’t He just briefly intervene to prevent the initial flame that almost burned Notre Dame to the ground? Leibniz would have said that, even if we don’t understand how, the Notre Dame fire forms part of the best possible world, because otherwise, God (being omniscient and benevolent) would not have chosen that particular world to become real. So basically, Leibniz tells us that whatever bad happens, God allows it for the greater good—because that is what being omniscient and benevolent is all about.

As the case of Plantinga demonstrates, theologians can never be accused of being unimaginative.

Not very convincing. There is no way we can ever refute this line of thinking. Every time we doubt that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds and point out the multiple ways the world can be improved, someone like Leibniz might say, “Oh, God must know what He is doing, so just be quiet and endure hardship.”

So far, French authorities have ruled out a terrorist attack in Notre Dame. But in case there were actual arsonists, we may wonder, why would God allow such wicked people to burn down such a beautiful piece of art? Theologians have a field day replying to this. Ever since St Augustine, they have delighted in arguing that human beings have free will; and for there to be freedom, God must allow people to act in wicked ways if that is their choice. One particular theologian, Alvin Plantinga, even claims that this is the very reason why God may allow natural catastrophes to happen; those catastrophes may be the result of demons’ deeds, and God respects their own free will. As the case of Plantinga demonstrates, theologians can never be accused of being unimaginative.

Having a libertarian bone in my body, for years, I bought this argument. Freedom is so great, I believed, that I would really despise having a big guy up in the sky intervening every time I was about to indulge in something he might object to. But then, as even the staunchest libertarian will agree, when it comes to harming other people, some freedoms must be curtailed. If you are a libertarian, you may agree that the State should not intervene if you are about to snort cocaine, pay a prostitute for sex, or any other act in which nonconsensual parties are not harmed; but if you are about to kill or rape someone, then the State should definitely intervene to stop you. This kind of intervention would still preserve meaningful liberty. The same reasoning applies to God, yet somehow theologians are content with a non-interventionist God who just lets a rapist be free to inflict damage; you might call it a gung-ho sort of “divine laissez faire.”

In my mind, the final nail in the coffin of this argument was brought about by reading philosopher J.L. Mackie. He famously claimed that God could, very well, have created people so that they would freely always chose to do good. Most people are perplexed by this claim. In their view, if someone is always determined to do good, then they are not truly free. But it seems to me that I could be free in the sense of not being forced to do particular actions, yet at the same time determined by my own nature to do them. Perhaps free will and determinism are not at odds, and in fact, this view (called “compatibilism”) is quite popular among many academic philosophers.

Consider a simpler argument made by Mackie. In Heaven, people do not have the possibility of doing bad things (that is what heaven is all about, as there is no suffering in that place). Are those people free? We would like to think so because we would not want Heaven to be a dictatorship. So, it seems that in Heaven, people will never do bad things, and yet they are still free. Mackie’s question is simple but penetrating: why, then, didn’t God create on Earth solely people that are determined to always do good things and yet remain free?

The more reasonable theologians, I believe, are the ones who shrug and, unable to find answers, simply repeat the old cliché: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” That is very close to admitting the unreasonableness of God’s existence. Ultimately, it seems to me that the Notre Dame fire may indeed prove that this particular place of worship is not the abode of God. I would not come to this conclusion on the basis of the Medieval superstitious mindset that claimed that relics that burn are unholy. Rather, I would come to that conclusion on the basis that a God as defined by the great religions (omnipotent and benevolent) is likely not to exist, given the amount of evil in the world.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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Robert Landbeck
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Robert Landbeck

I’m surprised ‘He’ didn’t let tit burn down centuries ago. However Notre Dame may appear as a histoprical and cutural monument for the modern French state. Its origins remain in an eccleciastic authority and tyranny over the French people that the world would have been much better without. And it remains a contradiction, that the church, even all of Christology, must maintain a vast, material facade to buttress its claims to a spiritual authority that has long since gone with the wind. But as a symbol, it remains as if the spirit of Christ remains a captive by the material… Read more »