Monday 11 April 2016

Farmer Hogget, the Limited God

Posted by Eduardo Frajman

One beautiful autumn afternoon not too long ago, my daughters and I were coming home from an errand. They ran ahead of me, headed for our front yard to climb our knobby, twisted tree, or jump headfirst onto a leaf pile, or some other such wholesome activity that would add a tiny brick to the edifice of their innocent, golden childhoods. 

As I reached them I saw my eldest had stopped. She was prodding at something with her foot, nudging it back and forth. Though half-buried, I immediately recognized it for what it was. “What is it?,” my freckled-faced cherub asked. I saw her little sister step towards us curiously, an expectant smile on her face. The thing was roundish, about the size of a plum. Two blade-like stalks protruded out of one end. Amid the black dirt, I could make out patches of fur and a rigid, unseeing eye. “It’s a rock,” I said. My daughter shot me an incredulous, accusatory look as she wailed “Then why does it have ears?!”

The aftermath of our encounter with the decapitated bunny head will be familiar to most parents. “What happened to it?,” was the first question, the easiest one to answer. “I don’t know. Maybe a dog killed it, or a fox. Maybe it got caught under a lawnmower.”

“That’s sad,” said my youngest. “Why did the bunny have to die?” That was the big one, the one most of us can’t satisfactorily answer to ourselves, let alone to the little children who are so ignorant as to believe that we know everything. Why do bad things happen? Why is there evil in the world?

Regardless of how I chose to tackle the issue among the fallen leaves that day, I don’t really remember, I indubitably cracked the foundation of their innocence with a brief but unavoidable lecture on The Way Things Are. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us, parents and children and bunnies, could frolic about, carelessly, eternally? But we can’t. That’s just not The Way Things Are. “But why not?,” my daughters insisted. That’s when I brought them inside, disinfected their hands, and slipped an old video about a lovable piglet called Babe (1996) into the DVD player.

In philosophical circles, the attempt to answer the question of evil is called “theodicy.” In its traditional Judeo-Christian form, theodicy aims to reconcile the existence of an all-powerful, loving, infinitely good God with the indisputable evidence that the world is awash with undeserved pain and suffering. This is what Babe is about. Yes, that Babe, the one about the talking pig. Babe, for those of you not in the know, is taken from among his brothers and sisters and becomes a prize at a county fair where he is won by Farmer Hogget. Babe meets the farm’s inhabitants: the sheepdogs Fly and Rex and their litter of puppies, Ferdinand the Duck, who is pretending to be a rooster to avoid being eaten, Duchess the evil cat (aren’t they all?), and the sheep, led by old and wise Maa. Babe gets into some low-key adventures until he is recruited by Farmer Hogget to help herd the sheep. This leads to some trouble with Rex, who besides being the alpha sheepdog is also the keeper of law and order among the animals.

Eventually, Farmer Hogget decides Babe is such a good sheep-pig that he enters him into a sheep dog competition, which of course he wins as everyone cheers deliriously. Everyone loves Babe, though it is often dismissed as just another flick selling the well-worn bill of goods to kids and their parents: “follow your star,” “be yourself,” “there is no secret ingredient.” It’s easy to see why this happens. The film follows the eponymous hero as he comes to understand the rules of Hogget Farm and, seemingly, challenges them by becoming a “sheep-pig.” But this is a misunderstanding based on inattentive watching. Babe never chooses to become a sheep-pig. The choice is made for him by Farmer Hogget – “The Boss,” as he is known to the farm animals. Babe is not a story about a young pig finding agency and thereby finding happiness. It is an allegory about the nature of God’s relationship with His creatures.

That the film is a theological parable is suggested in numerous details throughout. The young runt who will become Babe is “chosen” from among “thousands of pigs.” When Farmer Hogget and Babe first lay eyes on each other, they are said to share “a faint sense of some common destiny.” Later Farmer Hogget’s idea to turn Babe into a sheep pig becomes “the stuff of destiny” and Babe becomes the “pig of destiny.” The narration is inflected with Bible-like pronouncements – “a great flood came to the valley,” “there was only one fate for a creature that took the life of a sheep” – and the ancestry of both sheepdogs and sheep is treated as a marker of atavistic significance. On the night before the sheepdog trials, Hogget is shown watching a choir of children dressed as angels singing on television. And there is, of course, the matter of Babe’s parentage. The little pig, who seemingly has no father, boasts no fewer than three mothers: his biological pig mother, Fly the sheepdog who adopts him, and Maa the sheep who imbues him with moral sense.

This is not to say that Babe is a proselytizing work, looking to turn children into believing, unthinking Christians, along the lines of far inferior films such as the recent Little Boy (2015) or God’s Not Dead (2014). Far from it. Babe means instead to problematize belief, to highlight the very difficult questions raised by existing in a world with God in it. The pigs depicted at the start of the movie, for example, are shown lounging in their stys, waiting to be taken to the slaughterhouse. As they walk towards their deaths, they are said to believe they are headed for “pig paradise,” which is a “world of endless pleasures.” In other words, their religious beliefs serve them as consolation for the unavoidable fate that awaits them. There are plenty of followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition who use religion in this way. After all, God states in both the Old and New Testaments that He will reward those who follow His commandments:

“I will give the rain for your land in its season” (Deuteronomy 11:14)

and “rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in Heaven” (Matthew 5:11)

- promising that the sufferers in this world will be eternally rewarded in the next.

But the Bible also warns its readers not to accept this message uncritically, most explicitly in the Book of Job, its own stab at theodicy. Job is a good man, a blameless man, and thus deservedly prosperous and happy. Responding to a challenge, God allows Satan to make Job suffer, for no evident reason other than to see what happens. Satan takes away Job’s possessions, he kills Job’s children, he causes Job to endure great physical pain. Taken to his breaking point, Job lashes out against God. Why do I suffer?, asks Job. I don’t deserve to suffer.

God’s answer is meant to give pause to uncritical believers:

“Who is this who darkens my plans with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:1).

How do you know why I do anything?, asks God. Who are you to question Me? Who are you to pretend you understand how the world works, how anything works? You are nobody, says God to Job. You don’t know anything and you never will. And so, can I tell my daughters that it’s okay the bunny lost its head because it’s now hopping in the never-ending fields of bunny heaven? The Book of Job says no. It says that it is not in our capacity to understand why bunnies lose their heads, why pain and suffering pervade the world. It says only God knows the whys of The Way Things Are.

Likewise, it is not the animals’ place on Hogget Farm to question, let alone challenge, The Way Things Are. The only one who tries, Ferdinand the duck, finds only failure and frustration (though not, notably, punishment). Only The Boss can alter the rules. The film, of course, does not mean for Farmer Hogget to be seen literally as God. He and his wife are normal humans among many: they go to church and celebrate Christmas, they have children and grandchildren, she is the “assistant general secretary of the northeast region” for the Women’s Country Guild, he has “a long and honorable association” with the National Sheepdog Association. On the other hand, the beginning of the film goes out of its way to underline the couple’s specialness. Mrs. Hogget’s victory in a cooking competition is deemed “not a matter of luck” (she is later seen placing her trophy in a shelf stuffed with them). As the couple walk around the county fair, the image fades to black except for a small circle, which follows them around for a few additional moments, indicating their chosen status. Their power, such as it is, is mundane and earthbound, not supernatural. It is only in their own domains that each one of them lords. Inside the house, as made clear by Duchess the cat, it is Mrs. Hogget who is rules, while the farmer deserves only the status of “The Boss’ husband.”

To the farm animals, however, Farmer Hogget is god. His rule is unchallenged, and the animals all understand that their function in the world is to serve and obey him; even Ferdinand the duck, who doesn’t want to be eaten but still knows he must find a way to make himself useful. Hogget is a creator god. He is shown making a dollhouse for his granddaughter, a new gate for the farm, building the obstacles to train Babe for the sheepdog trials, lovingly placing the wool of a recently-shorn sheep on his wagon. He is a patient, loving god. He always has a kind word for his animals, “good dog,” “that’ll do,” and never ever loses his temper. He is a just but merciful god, as is shown by his actions after Maa is killed by a wild dog. The evidence points to Babe, and the Boss makes ready to execute the sentence he deems appropriate, but when he learns of his mistake he changes his planned course of action, like God does towards the city of Nineveh in the Book of Jonah.

Hogget is also a wise god. He is truthful, but is not beyond using slight subterfuge when it suits his aims. He follows his intuition because he knows “that little ideas can turn into the stuff of destiny,” as when he decides to spare Babe from becoming roast pork and turn him into the pig of destiny, but is willing to learn new things, as when he uses the fax machine he initially mistrusted. He realizes that Rex the dog, the Old-Testament prophet of the farm and the keeper of its laws, attacks Babe, the New Testament prophet of love, out of jealousy and fear of being replaced. It’s worth remembering that the only character with any stake in the outcome of the climactic sheepdog trials is Hogget himself. Fly articulates the most awful possible outcome: “The Boss will look like an idiot!” After Babe triumphs in the trials, after the animals in the farm and the crowd in the stands erupt in celebration, the camera shows the two of them standing alone, a ray of sunshine emerging from the clouds and shining down on the two chosen ones. It then shows Hogget’s face from Babe’s perspective, a halo of sunlight around his head, projecting gentleness and pride and love. “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.”

And so, Babe’s happiest state manifests itself in a moment of service to his god. And yet, just the night before, Babe had sunk into a deep crisis of faith. In preparation for the trials the Boss had modified The Ways Things Are. While hitherto only dogs and cats had been allowed in the house, Babe was invited in to partake in the best food and the warmth of the fireplace. Duchess the cat was livid at this unwanted invasion onto her turf. She tried to scratch at Babe, but this only earned her temporary banishment. On her second try, she went for the more subtle approach. “Why do you think you’re here?,” she asked the pig. “Why are any of us here?,” he parried. All creatures have a purpose, Duchess told Babe. The dogs herd the sheep, the cow gives milk, the cat looks beautiful. “What do you think your purpose is?” Babe didn’t know, so Duchess told him the truth, that a pig’s purpose is to be eaten. Babe could not believe it. He ran to his adoptive mother Fly and asked her whether humans ate his biological mother, the rest of his family. “Yes, dear,” said Fly. “Even The Boss?” “Yes, dear.” Babe was inconsolable. He wouldn’t eat or move. The other animals were heartbroken. Babe had lost his innocence. He had learned the awful implications of The Way Things Are. Even Rex, his former nemesis, could not stand to see him like that. “The Boss needs you!,” he pleaded.

Why does God allow for such things to happen? Why does Babe have to lose his family so we can put bacon in our burgers? If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He just create some bacon trees, or make bacon taste like dirt for that matter? One of the most famous answers to the question was proposed by Leibniz in 1710, in the only book that he published in his lifetime, called the Essays on Theodicy, in the process introducing the new term.

It’s obvious, according to Leibniz, that God is all-powerful, as well as infinitely good. It stands to reason that if evil exists, it does so because God decided that a world with evil in it is better than a world without evil since God, being all-powerful, could only create “the best of all possible worlds.” Imagine a painting that contains all the possible colors. Some colors are gorgeous and pleasing to the eye, others are dreary or unpleasant to look at. Would the most beautiful painting use only the most beautiful colors? Or is it possible that, by judiciously using the ugly colors, one could enhance the impact of the beautiful colors and thereby achieve an even greater result? For example, anybody would agree that compassion is a great thing, and that a world where compassion exists is better than a world in which it doesn’t. But, in order to feel compassion, a person needs to witness someone else suffering. No suffering, no compassion. The same is probably true of most positive emotions, many of which are magnified by being preceded by bad emotions. Consider the pleasure of eating something after an extended period of fasting.

Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” theory was criticized by many for being, at best, too na├»ve and, at worst, willingly blind to the mind-shattering levels of bad things that actually exist in the world. Voltaire famously satirized Leibniz in Candide (1759), a novel in which a young man’s suffering of tragedy upon tragedy is played for laughs not unlike those elicited by Willie E. Coyote’s travails in Looney Tunes films. Imagine that, early on in your life, you discover that your parents, siblings, everyone like you, is being raised as food for a “superior” species. Imagine that, any day, you could be killed and eaten by your “owner.” Would you conclude from this knowledge that the world you live in is the best possible world?

As David Hume put it in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, you can only get to Leibniz’s conclusion if you start out by assuming an infinitely good, all-powerful God exists. If you start by looking at the evidence, however, you might conclude something else entirely. You might conclude that God doesn’t exist, that the world is just the random consequence of an immeasurably complex series of natural laws and events that led us to a state of affairs in which I love my daughters so much that I find it necessary to shield them from grief by explaining away a decapitated bunny head. Or perhaps, as some have argued, God does exist but He’s just plain nasty. Hume didn’t find this likely, since just as there are plenty of terrible things in the world, there are plenty of wonderful things in it as well. Perhaps God is just like us, only more so. This is essentially what the ancient Greeks believed.

In the film, though, Babe chooses a different option. The same one that, curiously, Rabbi Harold Kushner proposes in his now-mostly-forgotten bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner begins with the problem of evil as seen by Job as well as Babe. Since there is no doubt that evil exists, how can it be that an all-good, all-powerful God also exists? He then examines the evidence available to him, in defiance of God’s admonition at the end of the Book of Job. Kushner rejects the idea that God does not exist, and he cannot bring himself to suggest that God might be evil. It follows, therefore, that God must not be all-powerful. God is in charge, but not fully in charge.

The same is true of Farmer Hogget. He has all the qualities one wants in a god: he is capable, wise, merciful, full of grace. But he is not fully in charge of what happens. He cannot prevent his sheep from being stolen, or Fly to lose her puppies, or Maa from being mauled by a wild dog. He cannot make a world in which pigs and ducks are not eaten. And so, when Babe the pig is lying in his house, refusing to eat or to budge, about to die of dehydration, Farmer Hogget can do nothing but sing the plaintive song of the limited god:

“If I had words to make a day for you/I’d sing you a morning golden and new/I would make this day last for all time/Give you a night deep in moonshine.”

“I love you”, says Farmer Hogget to Babe with his song, but certain things even I can’t make happen. “I can’t make a perfect world. I can’t take away your pain. Are you still with me?”


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

This is an excellent portrayal of a major theological stream in Christianity, which is of course present in Judaism as well. It has been popularised in the church above all through process theology and narrative theology. Christians would be advised to read this, to understand what is implicit in so many sermons they hear.

In this post, however, major alternatives to Farmer Hogget are missing: that evil in the hands of God works redemption, so doing away with the need for a perfect world, or that evil works an eternal reward. Samuel Johnson wrote, "Let us ... consider our sufferings as notices mercifully given us to prepare ourselves for another state." These are supernatural options to be sure, but then so is the Farmer Hogget approach.

But there is something for me, of deeper concern. With similar presuppositions about suffering, Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Necessarium est ut scandala eveniant” (it is a necessary scandal). This might seem an elegant solution in developed countries. However, as one who has experience of thousands of counselling sessions in Africa, if one were to try Farmer Hoggett on desperate people, it would be very cruel.

Further, it is cruel to counsellors where they adopt this view, and it is a major cause of dropout. I visited Skid Row with a group of MA students, many of whom held the postliberal or Farmer Hogget perspective. They were then required to interpret this theologically. From my experience in Africa, it seemed like just another day. To Americans, it was a moment of deep despair. To the extent that I left the class. I could deal with Skid Row, but not with Farmer Hogget.

Perig Gouanvic said...

"Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us, parents and children and bunnies, could frolic about, carelessly, eternally?"
"And so, can I tell my daughters that it’s okay the bunny lost its head because it’s now hopping in the never-ending fields of bunny heaven? The Book of Job says no."

and I say yes :)

I am like others who have been in front of the dying, and I've also read quite a bit about the passage to the other side, and the communications that happen between us and this other side: I tend to view the great plan by including what is after "death" (and before "life") in it.

You say:

"As they walk towards their deaths, they are said to believe they are headed for “pig paradise,” which is a “world of endless pleasures.” In other words, their religious beliefs serve them as consolation for the unavoidable fate that awaits them. There are plenty of followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition who use religion in this way. After all, God states in both the Old and New Testaments that He will reward those who follow His commandments:

“I will give the rain for your land in its season” (Deuteronomy 11:14)

and “rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in Heaven” (Matthew 5:11)

- promising that the sufferers in this world will be eternally rewarded in the next."

I think that it is quite exactly what happens, and that it is the only possible explanation to pain; that there is a process at work with pain that is beyond our understanding in the details, yes, but that participates in the grande scheme of things which includes the after life and the collective soul.

This looks like a cheap, ad hoc, consolation, but I surmise that once the afterlife is seriously considered (not taken with the ambivalence of the thinker who is certain that there will never beproof if its existence), it makes some sense. In particular, the opposite of pain is not delight as many think but more un-paining -- consolation. This takes many reincarnations and work on the other side.

Unknown said...

I agree with Thomas that the theodicy proposed in the article would not offer much consolation to those who are truly desperate. On this point I think Schopenhauer is hits the nail on the head:

"The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other."

docmartincohen said...

That's a great quote, Eduardo - one I'd never come across and I'm speaking as a bit of a Schopenhauer-enthusiast (if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms!)

Actually, I already tried to comment on this post, saying it was in its own way a 'classic', combining successfully contemporary culture and traditional philosophical concerns - something many people try (including myself) with only sporadic success.

Alas, due to the mysterious way the internet moves, my comment disappeared somewhere including in my brain and sure ain't there now.

One thing I was saying thought was that both the particular story and the broad issues reminds me of the tragedy of pigs - surely our most gentle and wonderful relatives in the animal kingdom - and yet treated so cruelly. If any animal highlights unconscienceable and needless suffering, it is the poor pig. And a large part of the blame for this must lie in attitudes - of which so many religions have played a thoughtless and ignorant part.

It's not often that Hollywood is wiser than the great theological scholars, but on attitudes to pigs, I think it is. Anyway, great piece!

Unknown said...

Thank you, Martin, for your comments.

Perhaps it's a little ironic that, by declaring the pig "unclean," Judaism and Islam have prevented significant amounts of pig suffering.

docmartincohen said...

You're right! I hadn't thought of it that way. It bears about Leibniz's optimism, maybe...!

Unknown said...

It may not be in our capacity to know the whys of The Way Things Are, but it is equally probable that the exploration into the realm of the hows of The Way Things Are will lead to the ability to investigate the whys.

One might even consider this form of inquiry to be undermining the need for an all powerful God. If there exists a God to look over his creations, the actions of the human race indicate that we're taking over his role. In any case, why would God allow for an ability to question and rationalize if we existed to serve and admire him?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Is rationalising in itself a mistake? Have we drifted from our true nature? What is rationalising? You ask a big question which opens up many things.

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