Sunday, March 27, 2011

If god created shadows....

I saw a person, presumably Catholic, with a t-shirt that said, “If God created shadows it was to better emphasize the light”. The quote was attributed to Pope John XXIII. In some ways this is a quite conventional "contrast" argument, but in other ways it is amazingly cynical. I guess I am not surprised that adherents don't see the difficulty, but to recovering former Catholics like myself, the glaring issue is the shadiness of the sentiment. In essence it is saying (if it is saying anything at all) that this pope believes god allows things like mass murderers who torture people to death, so that he can let us know how good we have it. It is saying that god wanted a little accent lighting, so he decided that he would unleash vicious evil upon us so that we could recognize the good things in the world, when we weren't being victimized by evil.

It seems a remarkably bad cop-out for the existence of evil to say that it was put there just to help us better see non-evil. From whom else would we accept such an excuse. What if a sociopath claimed defense against his crimes of raping and murdering a little girl on the grounds that he just wanted to show people how, by following the opposite of his example (i.e. not raping and murdering) that they could be better people? Would we accept that this psychopath or his crime were necessary in order for us to grasp how to be good.

Furthermore, couldn't we argue that there have been more than enough examples throughout history of badness so that allowing even more of these to happen on a continuous basis, is not necessary, and does not communicate any kind of new message that has not been already amply demonstrated.

However, what I like most about the quote is that the pope didn't even commit to whether god created evil. He only speaks hypothetically, and then presumes to know god's motivation for an action which God might not even have taken. Nobody does double talk more blatantly than theologians.


  1. Your post came up as I was searching for the source of this John XXIII quote. It would be very helpful to know the source. John XXIII wrote everything from seriously heavy encyclicals to his journal to lighthearted statements. I doubt that he was talking about the problem of evil in the grand philosophical sense of which you speak. No educated man would (or should) so easily shrug off that weightiest of all problems. My guess is that he was talking about the inner shadows we all encounter from day to day, the trials which, if endured can lead to greater light and joy. I mean things like studying for the greater good of learning, exercise for health, or periods of loneliness which by contrast bring the light of friendship and love. An "April showers bring May flowers" type of thing. Maybe, although I hesitate to go here, periods of depression which, if endured, lead to joy (I hesitate to go theere because I do not want to minimize serious, painful, clinical depression which may need drug treatment and therapy as opposed to a short bout of "the blues.") Anyway, I've seen only this page of your blog and I don't even know if you are still maintaining it, but I thought your comment deserved a reply. 50 years ago "Good Pope John" opened the Second Vatican Council which was the greatest opening of the lat half millenium to change and growth by the big, tired, but still hopeful institution. Peace and everything good to you!

  2. While this is certainly an older post, I am surprised, though gratified,to get a thoughtful reply. I was mainly reacting to the kind of person who wanted to extract that quote and put it on a T-shirt, and turn it into a shallow, pat answer to a serious problem. As a recovering former Catholic, I am aware that John XXIII single-handedly dragged the church, literally kicking and screaming, into the modern world and that his successors have been fighting against that ever since.

    That being said, J23 may have been enlightened compared to the dim-candles around him, but he was still a theologian, and the business of theology is making ridiculous excuses and employing dishonest verbal gymnastics to justify silly dogmas that don't pass the laugh test in the real world. That's why I've always said that the world "theological" should be pronounced "the-illogical". So, while I suspect that this pope was being sincere in looking for an answer, his profession and indeed his whole identity depended on him not finding an answer that would contradict 1600 years of orthodoxy. Therefore, by ruling out looking outside the box ahead of time, it is not surprising that he failed to find a very good answer inside the empty, but very elaborately decorated box of theism.