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Bewildering Stories

Santa Claus Died in Lisbon

by Don Webb

You’d think some questions would be settled once and for all. However, as Michael Murry’s poem in this issue and newspaper headlines remind us, the problem of reconciling a belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God with the reality of evil is a Tar Baby; it’s been around since before the time of Job and shows no signs of going away soon.

The minute one starts talking about any universal principle such as God, the question immediately arises: whose God? Michael Murry takes aim at a particular concept prevalent in contemporary politics and popular culture. A modern theologian once defined it very neatly: he cited a faithful church-goer who asked him whether he thought her petitionary prayers went unheard. I don’t remember what he told the lady, maybe he didn’t say, but he told his audience that he considered petitionary prayer as typically conceived to be adult letters to Santa Claus. And that is the concept that Michael Murry calls into question.

Santa Claus? My apologies to St. Nicholas, but put simply: if one thanks God for good luck, is God then a kind of cosmic bestower of gifts and favors? If so, what must be said when bad things happen? Does evil or misfortune make this concept of God merely incoherent, or is it fatalism in fancy dress?

Postulating God rationalizes existence in human terms. Any religion that is heavily into “holiness” rules and regulations will presume that the world operates according to a kind of moral rationale: since good fortune implies sanctity, then misfortune must somehow be a punishment. At an extreme, physical handicap or even gender might bar one from a place of worship. Small wonder, then, that the alienated might rally to someone who assumed the authority needed to overturn that rationalizing principle and release them from unearned guilt. They would have good reason to consider the cure miraculous.

And yet, individuals and even cultures become inured to states of depression and come to consider them normal. The horrors of the Black Plague and the Hundred Years War depressed the European spirit mightily. Where else could people turn but to traditional beliefs? As historian Barbara Tuchman asks in A Distant Mirror, at the end of the 14th century was anybody really sane?

We have to wait till the 18th century for an alternative to putting up with the inexplicable moods of a deity that seemed by turns either vindictive or benevolent. The Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755 came as a catastrophic event in philosophy as well as in natural and human terms. It shattered Europe’s complacency once and for all and assured the triumph of the Enlightenment. After Lisbon, the idea of God as Santa Claus became an intellectual embarrassment.

One might think that the lesson has indeed been learned. Today, shuttle disasters are followed by investigations and technical analyses; hurricanes are predicted by weather reports; geologists can explain earthquakes and are working on ways to predict them. But that’s the easy part. It’s been much more of a struggle to redefine human beings in terms of their decisions rather than accidental conditions. The idea of equal rights for women has at last begun to take hold, and who knows, even the poor may some day be seen as unfortunate rather than as morally infirm.

One may pity the clergy of today. Not those who exploit ethnic or other particularisms; they are beneath contempt. Nor the authoritarians who exploit structure as a vehicle of power. Rather, what do clergymen or -women who know better say to someone who still sends adult letters to Santa Claus? Would they dare say, “Go see the gory medieval Passion play that Mel Gibson made into a film. Do you think you deserve a better fate than the one it portrays? The real question is not ‘Where is God in all this?’ but ‘Where is man?’”

Copyright © 2004 by Don Webb

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