Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Parable Re-Told

I love David Berman's work as a Rock Star (e.g. this and this), but judging from his blog post, "Theodicy 101", his presentations on theology could stand some improvement. A recent instance begins, as any parable might as well, with a rather doltish visitor to a farm:
A man who knew nothing about agriculture came to a farmer and asked to be taught about farming. The farmer took him out to the field and asked him what he saw. "I see a beautiful piece of land, lush with grass and pleasing to the eye," the visitor said. He then watched aghast as the farmer plowed the grass and turned the beautiful green field into a mass of brown shallow ditches.
And so it goes, the farmer taking the visitor from horror to relief and back again as the transformations continue:
More time went by and the stalks were fully grown. Then the farmer came with a sickle and chopped them all down. His visitor watched open mouthed as the orderly field became an ugly scene of destruction. The farmer bound the fallen stalks into bundles and decorated the field with them. Later, he took the bundles to another area, where he crushed them until they became a mass of straw and loose kernels from the chaff and piled them up in a huge hill. Always he told his protesting visitor, "We are not done; you must have more patience."
The parable concludes where no one except everyone reading it could have predicted:
At last the farmer opened the oven and took out a freshly baked bread- crisp and brown with an aroma that made the visitor's mouth water. The farmer place the loaf on the table and took out a long knife.
The visitor watched horrified as he proceeded to cut the beautiful loaf into multiple sections.
The farmer took a single slice, buttered it liberally, and served it to his guest.
"Here" he said, "now you will understand."
This goober-meets-farmer tale holds serious shortcomings as a theodicy, notably in the way it ends, but in recounting that, I will not overlook the profound flaws of its middle.

It ends by presenting the visiting goober with a delicious slice of bread, whereas this is precisely what's missing from human life in the (alleged) Light of Gawd's Love. We see the equivalent of chopped stalks and ugly shallow ditches everywhere we care to look -- especially if we happen to be looking toward Haiti -- but the bread is nowhere in sight. I am willing to imagine god as a taciturn farmer -- why not? -- but within the terms of that analogy as applied to the world as it actually is, it would end at one of the farmer's cryptic demands to be patient. We have no 'bread' to show the horrors we see and experience routinely -- we have claims of unspecified greater goods delivered only in a vague hereafter, or worse, observed only through an unreachable perspective.

Worse, this theodicy falls short in balancing the transitory damage done to fields, seeds, and grain against the bounty of warm bread. If we re-imagine the parable to balance the pain and death of human beings against the bounty of a Soylent Green meat loaf, the problem becomes blindingly obvious: people are not wheat stocks, and there is no plate of casserole -- of any sort, figurative or literal -- great enough to cancel the Holocaust, cancer, malaria, floods, slavery, and any of a thousand more natural and unnatural miseries.

The mouse has a French horn, David Berman is a fine singer and lyricist, and attempts to construct theodicies fail. (On a related note, see Eli.)

(image above via LOLCats)

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