The best world possible?

I attend a Baptist church.  And being a Baptist church, we do not meet just on Sunday morning: we also gather on Sunday nights.  Rather than having our pastor conduct what amounts to, at least in structure, simply a rerun of the morning service, but with fewer people, some years ago we decided that we—the members of the congregation—would take turns leading an informal seminar, a Bible Study of some sort, for short, five to ten week sessions. At the end of each series of seminars we have a potluck where the next topic and “volunteer” gets chosen. For whatever reason, I have ended up doing more of these sessions than anyone else. 

Recently we had another potluck.  Once again I “volunteered.”

      The topic?  A phrase attributed to Gottfried Leibniz, the seventeenth century philosopher and scientist, who, together with Sir Isaac Newton, gave us calculus.  Leibniz believed that if God is good, loving and powerful, any world he created must be “the best of all possible worlds…given human freewill.”  Voltaire disagreed with Leibniz so strongly that he wrote the book Candide in response.

For the next six Sunday evenings I attempted to demonstrate why I thought Leibniz was correct and Voltaire was not.

The author of the Book of Job puts these words into the mouth of Eliphaz the Temanite, one of Job’s friends:

 “For hardship does not spring from the soil,

nor does trouble sprout from the ground.

Yet man is born to trouble

as surely as sparks fly upward.”  (Job 5:6-7  NIV)

All of us experience bad days; some of us experience bad years.  Sometimes bad decades.   Sickness, financial reversals, unemployment, disaster, and emotional heartache fall upon us.  Life is often very, very difficult.  We crawl into bed at night exhausted and awaken the next morning just as tired.  It seems as if there is no comfort to be found anywhere. It’s just one bad thing after the other and we wonder if we can make it even for one more hour.

Is this really the best that God can do?  Does he care?  Does he even exist? Is there some key to life, some playbook we can get, some list we can follow, some formula we can memorize that will get us through this world in one piece, with ourselves and our families living long, productive and prosperous lives?

            The patriarch Jacob’s story in the Bible is a sad one. He and his mother Rebecca had conspired together to defraud both his father and his fraternal twin brother.  When he had to leave home out of fear that his swindled brother might actually kill him, Jacob went to live with Laban, his mother’s brother who made him work seven years for his daughter Rachel, his true love.  But Laban switched Rachel with her older sister on the wedding night and when all was said and done, poor Jacob wound up with three extra wives. After years of infertility, Rachel finally gave birth to Joseph and then died giving birth to Benjamin.

            Jacob’s obvious favoritism to Joseph, the first-born son of the one woman out of the four that he had actually loved, did not endear Joseph to his other ten brothers.  The fraternal resentment grew to such an extreme that the ten brothers determined to murder Joseph.  But at the last minute, rather than kill him, they sold Joseph to some passing traders.  Then they took the fancy clothes that Jacob had given Joseph and dipped them in goat blood.  They told Jacob, “look what we found, do you suppose this means that poor Joseph has been torn to pieces by a lion or something?”

            Decades passed.  Famine came to Jacob’s world. So Jacob sent his ten oldest sons down to Egypt to buy food so that they wouldn’t starve to death.

            When they arrived back home, they told Jacob a tale of woe: Simeon had been thrown in jail, the governor made accusations and demanded to meet Benjamin.  To say the least, Jacob was not pleased.  The one true love of his life was dead.  Joseph, his favorite, the oldest son of his beloved, had been dead for twenty-five years.  And now Simeon had been taken from him.  Worse, that monster in Egypt was demanding Benjamin, the last link he had to his beloved!  Beside himself with grief, Jacob’s reaction appears in Genesis 42:36:

“You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!”

From his perspective, from the perspective of his sons standing around him, Jacob’s complaint that everything was against him was reasonable and self-evidently true.  And yet, he couldn’t be more wrong!  Joseph was not only not dead, he was that monstrous governor, and second in command in Egypt.  The reality of Jacob’s existence is opposite of what he is certain of.  Everything is actually wonderful.  His favorite son is alive, prosperous, and powerful. Poor Jacob simply doesn’t know this yet.  His perception, his perspective of reality, is simply incorrect.

We, the readers of the biblical tale, can do nothing to adjust Jacob’s perspective or to alleviate his suffering. God didn’t immediately do anything about it either.  Another year passed before Jacob learned the truth of what his life was really like, in contrast to his perception of it.  For twenty-five years he has mourned for someone who was not dead.  He bemoaned his impotence and poverty, though his family was powerful and prosperous.  I believe that the critics of Leibniz’s position, like Jacob, lack a complete picture of reality.  In fact, as human beings living brief lives, it is impossible for us to ever see the whole picture: to have a God's eye view.  All we ever manage is a glimpse of a few pixels out of the millions that make up the display.