The poverty, perversity, and pointlessness of purpose »« The problem of purpose

The paradox of purpose

In my last post, I looked at the problem of purpose: when you say that suffering has a divine purpose, you create confusion as to whether or not it’s ok to oppose that suffering, since doing so risks opposing God. But there are other problems as well. Today I’d like to look at the paradox of purpose (hey this is starting to sound like a 3-point alliteration sermon!).

The thing about purpose is that it necessarily involves a person who (a) has a choice and (b) knows the consequences of that choice. If I accidentally fall off a very tall bridge, there’s no point in asking me what my purpose is in accelerating downwards at a rate of 32 ft/sec2. I have no purpose in doing so, because I have no choice. Likewise if I dial the wrong number and wake up a stranger in the middle of the night, it’s meaningless to ask me what my purpose was in waking them up. Yes, I did deliberately dial the number, not knowing it was wrong, but I did not realize that my actions would have that consequence. Waking the stranger was something I did not do on purpose.

That’s important, because it means that whenever do you have a legitimate purpose for something, it means you necessarily bear the moral responsibility for what happens. You had a choice, you knew the consequences, you knew the alternatives, and you deliberately made the choice that you knew would create the suffering. Otherwise, it’s not really purpose.

The paradox of purpose, then, is that when you claim that there exists a divine purpose for all suffering (as the Bad Catholic does), you are necessarily giving God the moral responsibility for all suffering, thus making Him not a loving God, but a cruel one. He did not have to choose the suffering. He had alternatives that did not involve the suffering. He had complete aware of the exact consequences that would result from His choices. And yet He still chose the suffering.

Christians have various ways to get out of this paradox—or at least to try to. Unfortunately, these ways all involve denying God’s purpose for suffering. For example, they may say that God had no choice, that suffering must necessarily happen in order to prevent an even worse evil of some kind. Well, ok, let’s suppose that’s true. Let’s suppose that some power greater than God Himself is forcing Him to choose to involve His beloved children in the kind of suffering we see in the world. That would reconcile the suffering with the notion of a loving God, but it means that God’s purpose is nullified. As a loving God, He’d prefer not to inflict leukemia on a young couple’s new, frail baby, but He has no choice. The leukemia happens, not because God selected it, but because He was forced to by some greater power. It’s meaningless, in that case, to talk about God having a purpose for choosing the disease, since He had no choice.

This is particularly true if you believe that God is the only self-existent Being, because then there can be no higher power forcing God to choose evil—unless that higher power resides within the nature of God Himself. The cruelty that chooses suffering when other alternatives are possible is a cruelty that must necessarily spring from God’s own nature, which again makes Him a cruel God rather than a loving one. Somehow I don’t get much comfort from the notion that suffering is the purpose of a cruel God, do you?

But if there is no higher power forcing God to be cruel, then His purpose for choosing suffering instead of one of the kinder alternatives must be that He wants to make the crueler choice—that His cruelty is not a matter of necessity, but of preference. So again, He’s a cruel God, not because He hasto be, but because He wants to be. Either way, you’re screwed: the whole point of presuming purpose is to give the sufferer the comfort of believing he’s in the hands of a loving God, yet ascribing divine purpose to suffering makes God either weak or cruel, neither of which is particularly comforting.

In the end, this notion of divine purpose boils down to being some rather muddled, wishful thinking. We’d all like to think that when we’re in trouble, when we’re afraid, when we’re in pain, some kind of relief and/or reward is waiting for us just around the corner, in the hands of a “daddy” who can never disappoint us. But wishful thinking isn’t reality, and denying reality for the sake of fantasy is like taking drugs. It may have some value in terms of numbing down our minds, but it’s of no use in discovering the truth about why we suffer.