Was George Carlin Right About God?
(Meditation For a Socially Distanced Sunday)
George Carlin was a famous, astute, funny, and very profane comedian-commentator on the human condition. For a Christian person, listening to one of Carlin's presentations will present a challenge rooted in ambivalence. The man is really quite funny as he rages against the ironies, absurdities, habitual stupidities and plain old badness of human existence. One cannot help but laugh. Yet, everything is sliced and diced with rampant profanity, scatological references, cursing and accusation. Can truth be communicated in such a manner? Even if so, should a Christian's ears tune in?
Recently I came across a YouTube video of Carlin in which he swerved into comments on God. Carlin asserted that the notion of God was unbelievable, absurd beyond belief. His reason for this was that things in the world were way too "[messed] up" for it to have been created by God. "If this is the best He can do, He should have been fired long ago!" What is the world like? It's full of disease, death, war, pain, tragedy, accidents, injustice, and untold maladies. The commentary was, as you might imagine, accompanied by Carlin's characteristic use of modifying language employing words that begin with "F" and "S."
Although the audience was laughing at all this, the plain reality is that Carlin was expressing nothing new. Only his manner of saying it was unique, and the use of gutter language to express a philosophic perspective seemed to give these unoriginal thoughts an illusion of original insight. But as thought, it was all rather unimpressive, for Christians have always known the truth of that famous bumper sticker we often see: "Shit happens." Here is an immediate example, by the way, of a biblical truth communicated in low and common language. I've always thought that the slogan in view, here, has profound theological significance, and have fantasized about giving a pulpit presentation with that title. I doubt if that would fly in any church bulletin, but one can dream, I guess.
In truth, Carlin was giving voice to nothing more original than the historic "Problem of Evil" that has been laid down upon the church door by skeptical philosophers past and present, and which has been taken up forthrightly by Christian theologians and philosophers over centuries. George Carlin's complaint gained its force from two false assumptions: (1) that his "insight" was something new, a brilliant truth never before acknowledged, and (2) that the realities of the world disconfirm traditional understandings of the work of God and the world derived from the Bible. Neither premise holds up under examination.
Have we not always known, from the Bible's own account, that the world is a massively "f……..ed up place?" We use different language for it while ending up in the same recognition. We call it "the Fall." Indeed, there is nothing in the world that disconfirms the Bible's perspective on the human condition. Yes, the creation was judged by God to be "good." But, as Paul Harvey used to say, there is "the rest of the story." Things go array. That nasty concept, "sin," comes into play. Man's heart is twisted, distorted with a tendency toward all sorts of evil, often influenced by forces and powers beyond mere Nature. The entire creation has been "subjected to decay" and mortality. Assuming that the Bible in the Word of God, we can see that it is, in fact, true to what we see. There is nothing about humanity as presented in the Bible that does not play out before our eyes day after day after day. On this score, we must assume that God is telling us the truth.
But again, appealing to Mr. Paul Harvey, we need to see the rest of the story, and indeed here is where the real problems arise for George Carlin and all others who might, in knee jerk fashion, credit intellectual strength to his alleged insight. For if, as the Problem of Evil concludes, there is no God (owing to the prevalence of bad things in the world), why should we even think of these realities as bad, or as "evils" at all? Why complain about them or rage against them, as if there is something "right" by which they are judged? Beyond that, however, is the obstinate fact that even amidst the most pressing disasters that afflict the world and human life, something strange happens. Beauty is expressed. Love is generated. Hope is affirmed, and Resolution is envisioned. Where and how, if everything we know is born out of chaos and meaningless "collocations of atoms" (Bertrand Russell) do such impulses come from? They are part of reality too, and an intelligent person will ponder why they are there. Again, the Bible has a realistic and most plausible treatment of these realities. They come to us in the form of Promise, rays of Hope against the raging darkness, offered as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." These realities, observes Fr. Thomas Dubay in a most remarkable book*, have "evidential power" of an ultimate Goodness that, however strayed we are from it, continues to exert its presence and reality in the human mind and heart. Now there is real mystery for you, the real question to be posed.
George Carlin was right, as far as he went. He just didn't go far enough.
- Richard Terrell (sequestered and distanced, March 22, 2020)
*The Evidential Power of Beauty, Thomas Dubay, S.M., Ignatius Press, 1999