The Right Coast

January 12, 2005
Tsunamis, Blade Runner and Anger with God
By Gail Heriot

My friend Jeff Jacoby, conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote a column entitled "Angry with God," which offers a few thoughts on an age-old question: If there is a God, how can he permit tragedies like the Indian Ocean tsunami?

One possible answer, of course, is that God does not exist and that efforts to detect his hand in the tsunami or anywhere else are doomed to failure. Such an answer has the virtue of being simple, even abrupt, and of settling the matter for all time. But many (and I will confess I am one of them) find it unsatisfying.

Another answer, popularized by Harold Kushner in his 1990 self-helper When Bad Things Happen to Good People is that God exists, but that contrary to tradition, he is not omnipotent. Preventing the death of yet untold thousands was simply not within his power. Call it the "lowered expectations" version of the God story; this explanation too is in many ways distinctly unsatisfying, maybe even annoying.

Jeff chooses a third not-completely-satisfying alternative–that God is indeed omnipotent and thus is the force behind the tsunami and everything else, but that we simply do not know or understand his purpose. Perhaps such an answer is a cop out–yes, there is a God; yes, he is omnipotent; but no, there is no chance that you will ever understand his purpose, so you might as well shut up and go back to your knitting. In its own way, Jeff’s answer is like the atheist’s answer--simple, abrupt, and potentially settling the matter for all time.

But Jeff doesn’t leave it at that. He is understandably (and in my view touchingly) angry with God. And that is what I found interesting about his column:

"But what is so bad about being angry with God? Why shouldn't we challenge him to make sense of the injustice and cruelty that he himself has taught us to hate? Isn't it better to angrily question a God in whose universe we are sure nothing happens without a reason than to resign ourselves to a God who can do nothing about a world that kills and lays waste at random?"

Jeff is, of course, in good company when he directs his anger against God. In turn, Abraham, Moses, and most famously Job have railed against a seemingly unjust God. "‘I speak out in the bitterness of my soul,’ Job cries to God. ‘Tell me why you contend with me.... Does it befit you to plunder?’" Only the most hard-hearted of human beings could fail to sympathize with him and to condemn the frivolous game that God appears to be playing as the story is told.

But anger with God is a theme that doesn’t always play well these days. Non-believers are baffled by it. Believers, whether they feel it from time to time or not, often regard such anger as a betrayal of the faith and hence don’t like to talk about it. Yet it is hard not to feel it at times. Jeff himself recounts Elie Wiesel’s story of "the three rabbis at Auschwitz who convened a court of law and put God on trial for allowing his children to be slaughtered. And the end of the trial, which stretched over several days, they pronounced him guilty of crimes against humanity." Who can blame them?

Modern writers sometimes bury the anger beneath layer under layer of ...well... local color. Take the popular 1982 movie Blade Runner. Is it best seen as a late entry in the film noir private eye stories a la Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett? Or an early entry into the science fiction dystopian genre sometimes called tech noir? Is the point to warn us of the dangers of creating a race of androids? Or are we supposed to sympathize with the androids?

I believe that Blade Runner is fundamentally the story of man’s anger with God over his own mortality–except, of course, that it’s getting hard to get an actor who can play a plausible God (especially now that Charlton Heston is unavailable). So the story is told one level down: Instead of a story about how God created man, but gave us life spans of only 80 years or so, it’s a story of how man created a race of android replicants, but gave them life spans of only 4 years. The android replicants–who turn out to be more human than the humans–quite reasonably object to such a short time in the universe. They finally turn their rage against their Creator, Eldon Tyrell, President of the Tyrell Corporation, killing him.

But 4 years or 80, what’s the difference in the grand scheme of things? If the replicants have a legitimate grievance with their Creator, why don’t we mere mortals have one with ours? Either way, our life on Earth ends too soon. Much too soon.

But enough of all that for now. Mortality, whether caused by tsunamis or just by old age may seem like a unkind trick by God, but, if so, there is little to be done about it. You might be interested to know the end of Elie Wiesel’s story of the Auschwitz rabbis: According to Jeff, after declaring God to be gulity of crimes against humanity, "one of the rabbis glanced at the darkening sky." " Now, he said, it is time for our evening prayers."

Maybe it's time for me to return to my knitting.