In which Fat Martin comes for lunch, and a theological debate ensues

Fat Martin Luther came for lunch here in Rio the other day. I served vermicelli, as I always do for him. “Why do you always feed me this rubbish?” he asked, after pushing it around his plate for a while. “Oh sorry, Fat Martin,” I said, “I forget you’re not so keen on a Diet of Worms.”

He gave me a long stare. “Nearly five hundred years, and that’s still funny?” he asked irritably. “And why must you always call me Fat Martin?”

“Well to be honest, Fat Martin,” I replied, “it’s because I’m amused by the contrast between your obsession with sin and the overt evidence of extensive indulgence in at least one of the seven deadly ones.”

“Popish superstitious nonsense,” he countered. “We are saved not by our works but by our faith.”

“That sounds suspiciously antinomian to me,” I admitted, “but actually that’s kinda what I wanted to talk to you about. This whole sola fide and justification business.”

“What of it?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Euthyphro dilemma—”

“—The what?” he interrupted.

“Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know, Fat Martin. You did the scholiast stuff before you got all vernacular and protesty. Euthyphro, where Plato points out the definitional problem of an all-good omnipotent deity. Either good is defined by Him—that whatever He wills is necessarily good—in which case we can know nothing of Him, for His acts can be entirely arbitrary; or He simply always acts according to what is good, in which case there would seem to be something ontologically prior to Him—goodness—and His actions would appear to be bound.”

“Greek rubbish, fit only for the Schools.”

“Well you have to admit he has a point. And what I’ve been thinking is that your ideas about justification and freedom of the will seem to be somewhat inconsistent on this point: that as far as the workings of justification are concerned you sit on one horn of the dilemma, but as far as its distribution is concerned you sit on the other.”

“How so?” Fat Martin was interested now. He may not have time for the Greeks, but he loves a good wrangle.

“Well, the whole concept of being saved by faith alone kinda requires that we know that God will act in a certain way. That is, He has promised, through His Son (who is also Him—always confuses me, that bit), that He will save those who believe in Him and His promise. You bang on about this quite a bit, you know, and often emphasise the nature of the promise. He has promised something, so we can have certainty that He will do it. This only really works if we accept the secondary horn of Euthyphro: because otherwise God could entirely renege upon His promise, and that would be fine because He is God and if He reneges on His promise then this is necessarily good. For sola fide to work, and for us to be able to know it will, God must be bound by what is good, and what is good must be accessible to human reason.”

“And?”

“Well, there’s a problem, then, when we get onto the distribution of this. Because not everyone believes, not everyone will be saved. Fair enough, but you also insist—actually, quite correctly—in the absence of freedom of the will. You got into quite a spat about this. The saving belief in God is not taken by the individual as a freely-willed act, but is granted, by the grace of God. But then we come into a problem, because of the apparently arbitrary distribution of this. It seems resolutely unfair, doubleplus ungood, that people are not saved by their merits, or by their works, but by the whim of the deity. All people are necessarily equally deserving of hellfire, yet God selects some but not others to be given the saving grace of belief in Him. Doesn’t this require the exactly opposite view of the dilemma? We can only reconcile God’s goodness with this arbitrary allocation of grace if we accept that whatever He does is necessarily good, and that we should not attempt to reason about his acts using the human understanding of goodness. So which is it? If I cannot rely on God not acting arbitrarily then I can have no grounds to believe His promise; but if He cannot act as He pleases, how can we understand the random allocation of grace?”

Fat Martin was silent. He’s well known for his temper, and I worried he might be building up to a paddy. But eventually, slowly, he spoke. “I never thought of that,” he admitted. “You kinda got me there. I suppose I’d better take it all back. The whole shebang.”

“It’s a bit late for that now, you know,” I said as I passed him the bread.

He chewed it thoughtfully. And then suddenly gagged, coughed, and, red-faced, spat out two Brazilian coins which were buried in the dough. “What is this?” he shouted, perhaps relieved of an excuse to rant. “Are you trying to choke me?”

“They’re a gift for you,” I answered.

“Do you usually give gifts like this?” he inquired furiously.

“I’m sorry, Martin. I thought you were a fan of the Real Presents.”

Fat Martin stared at me again. “Fuck you,” he said, eventually. He does have a potty mouth on him, does Fat Martin.

Fat Martin is not amused

Fat Martin is not amused.

The Sunday Sermon

To get to the little casazinha in which I stay in Picinguaba, you climb some stairs from the beach to an old Catholic chapel. Constructed in the traditional style of Brazil, it had long been out of use—as the Evangelicals have something of a hold here—and was thus quaintly dilapidated, with rusty streaks and incipient lichen on the whitewashed walls. But in the two years that I’ve been away, it has returned to use—two Sundays a month—and has been spruced up and given a lick of paint. They are singing there, now, glorifying God; and it says something about the state of religion in this country that I am happier for them to do so there than in the rapacious Evangelical church down the road, with its smartly-suited unsmiling doormen and bottomless collection plate.

From the chapel, the quickest way to my house is across a small patch of grass, maybe twenty foot by ten. But during the day, at least, I will not pass this way, because it is infested with marimbondos, and they put the fear of God into me in a way that the brimstone preachers of the chapel will never achieve. Marimbondos are a type of wasp—though to make that claim to one who has never seen anything but the British variant of this genus is analogous to describing the ocean as a type of pond. They are two or three inches long, black as the devil, and aggressively protective of this small patch of grass. As well they might be, for below that grass, in burrows that they have built, their children are growing to adulthood.

And how! The marimbondos terrify me because their sting is notoriously painful, but what they do to another species—well that is something else again. The burrows under the grass contain not just marimbondo larvae: each larva has been lovingly, caringly deposited upon the inert but living body of a spider, paralysed—but not killed—by this same sting, and dragged into the burrow by the mother wasp, there to provide all the nutrients that her child needs. So sophisticated, so well-designed is this rearing system that the larvae even instinctively leave the spider’s vital organs to last, as they slowly consume it. The larva thus has the freshest possible food—for it is still living—for its entire infancy.

The marimbondos terrify me, indeed; but the God they are glorifying in the building next door to them terrifies me more. For He created this wasp, this creature whose act of supreme loving care for her offspring involves the prolonged torture of another creature. He saw fit to design a world thus, where the horrible slow demise of one being is necessary for the very survival of another. As His worshippers leave their church later this evening, having raised their voices in song praising his goodness and all-lovingness, I wonder how many of them will glance at that small patch of scrubbish grass to their right, and think upon the viciousness and sadism encapsulated there—not of the marimbondo, who is only acting as she must to continue her species, but of her Creator who designed her, and made her a torturer.

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