Free to disbelieve

A recent article in the LA Times reported that someone sawed through a tree trunk and found in the exposed wood an image of Jesus’ face. I didn’t see the tree trunk, or the article either – which is okay with me, because the whole I-saw-Jesus-in-a-household-article phenomenon strikes me as missing the point. It reminds me of an incident from the bad old days of the Soviet Union: a cosmonaut who had recently returned from orbit bumped into a Russian Orthodox priest, probably in a tête-à-tête staged by the authorities, and the cosmonaut said (wink, wink), “I just got back from a trip into the sky, and I didn’t see God up there.” The priest promptly replied, “If you haven’t seen him on earth, how can you expect to see him in the heavens?” I wonder the same thing about people who go around looking for patterns in material objects. Have you seen Him in that guy in the rear view mirror, or in that picky person three places in front of you in a long line, or in the troublesome neighbor?
Anyhow, I learned about the tree image by reading the letters to the editor in the LA Times. They published one letter about the tree article, from an exasperated gentleman who wanted to know why, if God was the all-powerful creator of the universe, He couldn’t give us better evidence of His almighty power than to meddle with the innards of a tree.
This is a very good question. It’s a question that beautifully illuminates the issue. The issue is free will.
Most people know, even atheists know, that we have free will. We can choose to get up or lie in bed. We can choose to marry or stay single. We can choose home fries or hash browns. More importantly, we can choose to do good or to do evil (let’s leave aside for now the question of defining Good and Evil, and agree that there’s a provisional difference between particular good and particular evil acts, and that we are free to choose one or the other). Free will is a fact about our lives. It’s why we have to deal with the problem of evil. If guns and knives darted out of our reach when we wanted to inflict unjustified injury, then our free will to do good or evil would be overridden. But they don’t, and we are faced with the painful consequences.
What the gentleman complaining about the tree apparently doesn’t see is that free will includes the freedom to believe or disbelieve. If God put on a fireworks display for all the world to see, then our free will to believe or disbelieve would be overridden. No one could fail to believe in the face of that demonstration. God, for whatever reason, wants us to believe as a result of some effort on our behalf.
Is this a good strategy for God to employ? When I was an atheist, I had a lot of suggestions for God: Evil is out of hand. People are confused about who you are, and that makes them disagreeable. Most of all, why are you hiding from us? Why don’t you just drop the disguise and make it easy for us to believe? As long as I continued to believe that God needed my advice, I remained an atheist. When I started asking why God, if he exists, should listen to me, instead of the other way around, things started making sense.
There are, I don’t know, say, 30 billion trees in the world. Odds are, if you cut enough of them down, you’ll find the image of Jesus. And if you cut even more of them down, and find even more images of Jesus, the LA Times will write an article about you. If that’s evidence of divine intervention sufficient for you, then I say, Amen. I see clearer evidence in the gentleman who, in this evidentiary vacuum, in this howling emptiness, is still asking the important question.