From If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways:
The Sendings of God
Daniel. Let’s see. . . On the same general subject, how would you
answer this question, which I’ve received in many different forms:
“Do you think God recognizes the danger we pose to the world and
therefore sends such things as AIDS, cancer, plagues, and natural
disasters to keep our population in check?”
Elaine [after thinking about it]. It strikes me as a pretty silly
Daniel. Yes, perhaps it is. But when an anthropologist sees people
doing or saying something that seems silly, he asks himself two
questions: “Why does this seem silly to me?” and “Why doesn’t it
seem silly to them?”
Elaine. Yes. Of course you’re right. . . Would you repeat the
Daniel. Do you think God recognizes the danger we pose to the
world and therefore sends such things as AIDS, cancer, plagues,
and natural disasters to keep our population in check?“
Elaine [after thinking for several minutes]. The questioner doesn’t
seem to realize that there is any causality at work in the world
except divine causality. He uses the term natural disasters but
doesn’t actually accept the fact that they are natural. He doesn’t
connect the tsunami that devastated South Asia with an undersea
earthquake, he thinks God “sent” it.
Daniel. Or “sent” the earthquake.
Elaine. AIDS, cancer, plagues—all these things have natural causes.
Daniel. Yes, that’s what you and I and probably most people think,
but you need to get inside this person’s head and understand his
vision of God.
Elaine. His vision of God. . . I’m not sure what to say.
Daniel. Talk about his God.
Elaine [after a moment's thought]. His God is, I’d have to assume,
omniscient and omnipotent.
Daniel. I’m sure you’re right. Go on. . . I’m trying not to lead you
too pointedly. You have to get behind the thought processes that
prompted this question. You have an omniscient and omnipotent
God, and . . .
Elaine. He sees that we’re overpopulating the world.
Daniel. And . . .
Elaine. And it’s within his power to send diseases and catastrophes
to reduce our population.
Daniel. Why does He need to do this?
Elaine. Ah. Because the world doesn’t regulate itself. Or you could
say that God can’t depend on the world to regulate itself.
Daniel. And because the world doesn’t regulate itself—or can’t be
depended on to regulate itself . . .
Elaine. God has to do it himself. He has to manage the world
Daniel. Otherwise it doesn’t work properly. At least not
Daniel. So He sends diseases and catastrophes in order to reduce
the human population. Or at least He has the option and the power
to do this. But . . .
Daniel. He has the option and the power to reduce the human
population by all sorts of means, but . . .
Elaine. He can’t manage to do it.
Daniel. So He created a world that can’t be counted on to regulate
itself and that He can’t seem to regulate either. What kind of a God
Elaine. What kind? According to who?
Daniel. According to the person who asked this question.
Elaine. I don’t know, beyond the obvious—beyond the things we’ve
already discussed . . . I mean, He’s omniscient and omnipotent. I
suppose I could add that He’s benevolent. That He exerts himself
on our behalf—or may be doing so.
Daniel. As always, I’m trying to get behind the words, back to
unvoiced assumptions and beliefs.
Daniel [after giving her a couple of minutes to think]. Let’s turn to
another of his sendings. He promised to send his chosen people a
Messiah. And this Messiah would do what?
Elaine. I’m not exactly sure what was promised, but the Jews
assumed the Messiah would restore their independence and put
them back at the pinnacle of the human race.
Daniel. And did He send them their Messiah?
Elaine. Well, not according to the Jews. According to Christians, yes.
Daniel. According to Christians, he was the Messiah not only of the
Jews but of the whole human race.
Elaine. That’s right. Presumably.
Daniel. But only Christians got this message. The Jews are still
waiting, and the Muslims consider Jesus to be just another prophet.
Elaine. Yes, that’s true.
Daniel. If Jesus was sent to save the entire human race, why is it that
only Christians got this message? If you were an omnipotent God, do
you think you could have managed to get this message across to the
whole human race? One way or the other—that Jesus either was or
was not the promised Messiah.
Elaine. I think so.
Daniel. Naturally, Christians believe that they got the message God
intended to send. They've got God's word on everything.
Daniel. So they've got the divine word on things like divorce, birth
control, abortion, homosexuality.
Elaine. Christianity's split into a thousand . . . what's the word?
Denominations. Each with a different divine word.
Daniel. If you were an omnipotent God, don’t you think you could
have made yourself absolutely clear on these issues?
Elaine. Yes, I think I could have.
Daniel. So I ask again: What kind of God is this?
Elaine [after some thought]. Strangely enough, I would have to say
that he’s an incompetent God. Which is . . .
Elaine. I suppose God has been called every bad name you can
think of for a ruler—tyrannical, vengeful, merciless, indifferent
to our sufferings, obsessed with rules and regulations, a spy who
peeks into every bedroom—but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him
Daniel. This is my career, uncovering the unvoiced beliefs and
assumptions of our culture. For example, it’s the unvoiced belief
of our culture that the world is a human possession, that it was
our divinely-appointed destiny to conquer and rule it, that ours
is the one right way for humans to live, and that we must cling to
this way of life even if it kills us. And it is the unvoiced assumption
of this questioner that God is incompetent.
Elaine. You’ll have to explain that.
Daniel. Consider the inadequate means this questioner suggests
that God might be using to reduce our population: AIDS, plagues,
natural disasters, and so on. Our population continues to grow
steadily in spite of such things, and has done so steadily for the
past ten thousand years in spite of such things. If He was competent
(and really concerned), an omnipotent God would be able to do
something really effective, wouldn’t he?
Elaine. I’d have to think so. Though it would, would have to be . . .
Daniel [after a moment]. What sort of thing are you thinking of?
Elaine. A vast famine . . . a plague like none we’ve ever seen.
Daniel. You can be more imaginative than that, even if you’ve just
had a few moments to think about it. Think of something that
wouldn’t cause a single death, either of plague or starvation.
Elaine [after a few minutes of thought]. He could strike ninety-nine
out of every hundred women barren.
Daniel. Of course. That would take care of the problem in a hurry,
wouldn’t it. In a single generation, our population would drop from
six billion to sixty million, without anyone dying of plague or
starving to death.
Daniel. If you’re clever enough to come up with that solution in
sixty seconds, shouldn’t an omniscient and omnipotent God be
able to do as well?
Elaine. You would think so.
Daniel. This questioner's expectations of divine wisdom are so low
that any reasonably intelligent sixth-grader would be able to meet