A Different Kind of Telling

In his next section of The Doors of the Sea, Hart starts with a discussion of Voltaire’s “exquisite savagery” in his famous poem that made fun of certain popular theodicies in the wake of the devastating Lisbon earthquake.

“If indeed the theodicist would have us believe that the present order of the world is a ‘great chain of being’ whose intricate calibrations and balances are so delicately and cunningly poised that not even God dare alter any detail of its arrangement, then it is obvious to Voltaire that the theodicist is speaking risible nonsense” (p. 21).

Not only is it obvious to Voltaire, it is obvious to Hart, and to me too.

“Voltaire’s poem is not directly concerned with the God of Christian doctrine. Rather, it concerns a God who directly governs a cosmos that is exactly as he intended it (or as he had to intend it), balancing out all its many eventualities and particularities in a sort of infinite equation that leaves no remainder — no irredeemable evil, irrecuperable absurdity — behind” (p. 22).

And it begins to become apparent where Hart is slipping up in his representation of Christian doctrine. I believe that he is right, as Voltaire is right, to reject this “best of all possible worlds” approach — if the world is understood as a mechanism. If the world and all its heartache and resident evils were a clock, then the only sane conclusion would have to be that the clock is broken. If someone postulates that the world, Lisbon earthquake and all, Asian tsunami and all, is ticking away serenely on the mantlepiece, then let us all respond with a horselaugh.

But the world is not a clock. The world is a story.

Is The Lord of the Rings broken because it has Nazgul in it? Is Pride and Prejudice broken because Wickham is a chump? Is Beowulf twisted because Grendel was twisted?

If the world is thought of as a deistic clock, then I am with Hart. I would rather believe there are absurd remainders and irredeemable evils than to believe that the clock is running smoothly when it clearly isn’t. Clocks are supposed to tell time, and no friend of truth will pretend the clock is telling time when it is not. But story tellers are supposed to tell stories, which is quite a different kind of telling. God is a master storyteller, and He does not put absurd remainders, pointless dead-ends and irrecuperable absurdities into His story. He will bring all the threads together in the last chapter, no strays and no remainders, no oddities that the editor missed. All things work together for good in the story — not all things are good right this minute as the second hand sweeps majestically ever on. Wise storytelling is quite a different thing than having every cog doing the right thing at every moment, keeping perfect time. Hart really is the victim of ill-chosen metaphor. Gollum makes the story go, and Gollum would completely gum up the internal workings of a clock.

And so Hart’s failure here is at bottom a failure of imagination. And those who find his approach to theodicy at all compelling are doing so either because they don’t understand stories and storytelling, or for some reason they are not applying what they do understand of stories to this question.