Golf and Theodicy: Why Bad Things Happen to Good Golfers

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

The Golf Gods: Towards a Religious Philosophy of Golf

Golf and Theodicy:
Why Bad Things Happen to Good Golfers

One of the fundamental problems in any philosophy of religion is the problem of evil. Why is there evil in the world? What is the relationship between the sacred powers of the world and evil? What is the origin and nature of evil? How can evil be minimized or eliminated?

The theological term for this discussion is “theodicy,” which is derived from two Greek words: theos referring to “god” and dike referring to “justice.” A theodicy, then, is a justification of God or an accounting of God’s justice. Theodicies deal with the question as to why there is evil in the world if there is a God who is all-powerful (omnipotent) and totally good (omnibenevolent). It would seem that a totally good God would want the best to occur, and it would seem that an all-powerful God would be able to bring about the best. Why, then, does less than the best occur? There seems to be a contradiction among the following three statements:

1. God wills the best (God is omnibenevolent).

2. God can secure the best (God is omnipotent).

3. Less than the best occurs (Genuine evils occur).

Theodicy deals with how the contradiction can be resolved.

There are three basic solutions to the issue.[1] Firstly, one may argue that the evils humans encounter are not genuinely evil. There are, in other words, no evils without which the world could be better. The events that are labeled evils may be either illusory evils or apparent evils.

Golfers will give little consideration to the suggestion that evils are merely illusions. They will not tolerate the idea that Golf is an endeavor without reality and, therefore, without meaning or significance. The sorrows and the joys golfers experience on the course must be real; otherwise, there is little reason to even play the game. Besides, in the words of Augustine, a fourth-century theologian, “… either there is evil and we fear it, or the fear itself is evil.”[2] There is evil, or the illusion is evil. Either way, there is evil.

Apparent evils are evils which from an ultimate frame of reference (from a greater perspective) are actually judged to be the best of all possible occurrences. One may argue, for example, that what humans initially experience as evil may be required for one’s moral and spiritual development. One’s growth, due to these evils, may transvalue the evils into the best of all possible occurrences. Upon further consideration (from a more comprehensive frame of reference), these initial evils may be deemed merely apparent evils rather than genuine evils.

As for the suggestion that all evils are merely apparent in nature, golfers can be somewhat more sympathetic. As Peter Dobereiner writes,

One [good shot] can give a golfer a charge of exhilaration that will keep him glowing throughout a long winter. But the intensity of his triumph is the product of past misery. The shot would mean nothing if he did it every time; it takes 10 failures, 10 splashes, 10 high voltage shocks through the pit of the stomach, 10 lost balls, 10 violent burials of the clubhead into the turf, 10 grudging payouts of wagers and 10 howls of anguish of obscene nature to generate the full ecstasy that accompanies eventual success.

So we need misery in our golf. Uneven greens, bunkers, bad lies, impenetrable trees, cruel bounces, out-of-bounds and conditions the original Rules of Golf called ‘watery filth’ are necessary for the full enjoyment of the game. Likewise, it is absolutely essential for all of us to hit bad shots because it is only through experiencing fluffs and foozels that we can truly savor the good shots.[3]

Golfers know that in order to hit better shots more frequently in the future, they may have to hit some terrible shots in the short term.

While logically possible, however, the position that all evils are merely apparent evils does not seem very plausible. Yes, it may be that golfers learn from their mistakes or from the evils they endure so that, upon retrospect, they determine some of these evils to be the best of all possible occurrences. But for this position to be entirely satisfactory, it must be true that all the evils golfers have endured are the best possible. If this position were totally accurate, golfers could not look back and discover anything that was not the best possible occurrence for their development.

Surely, there has occurred one missed putt that contributed nothing. There has been at least one shank without which one’s golf game would have been better. There has been at least one ball that dribbled into a hazard, when, if it had not happened, things would have been more beautiful. There has occurred at least one gouge, one “thinny,” one sky ball, one roller, one slice, one hook, one poor shot without which one’s progress as a golfer could have been more perfect. In fact, for most golfers, there have been many such shots, and there has also been a lot of advice without which one’s game would be better as well.

Consequently, while golfers may acknowledge apparent evils, they cannot conclude that all the evils they have endured have been apparent in nature. In addition to whatever apparent evils there may be, there must also be genuine evils. One is left, then, with the task of trying to reconcile the occurrence of genuine evil (less than the best) with a God who is both omnipotent (and, therefore, could bring about the best possible) and omnibenevolent (and, therefore, is willing to bring about the best possible).

Thus, secondly, one may move on to the argument that God is not ominbenevolent, that God does not will the best. Perhaps God, to some degree, is either immoral or amoral. Perhaps God is evil, or perhaps God is just as evil as he/she is good, or perhaps God is beyond good and evil.

Certainly golfers can understand the sentiment that God does not care about their game, and certainly they experience the sensation that God is either malicious or arbitrary with regard to their play. The God of Golf often appears random or capricious if not thoroughly demonic or evil. Sometimes the ball bounces in the golfer’s favor, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes the gods or goddesses of the trees cast balls out into the fairway, and sometimes they cast balls deeper into the woods. Members, regardless of whether they have paid their dues, find their balls rolling just beyond the out-of-bounds stakes on some occasions and just inside the out-of bounds stakes on other occasions. The deities of the water allow some balls to pass through their fly zones, and they allow other balls to skip across their surfaces. Then, at other times, inexplicably, they reach up and grab a ball that most assuredly would have cleared the water otherwise. The God of Golf and his/her lesser manifestations appear at times to have no sense of justice.

Yet, there is something in the experience of reality that motivates humans to believe in a meaningful and admirable aim for reality. Humans sense that reality has purposes, higher goals, greater goods to be obtained. Reality is moving toward greater complexification, higher harmonies, better worlds. Humans want to believe that God is omnibenevolent, that Reality-Itself carries within it an aim for the good and the beautiful. Believing in the goodness of God renders the pursuit of life more meaningful and valuable.

Thirdly, then, one may argue that while God aims for the best, God is not unilaterally able to secure the best. God wills the best, but cannot, by himself/herself, secure what is best. God, as Reality-itself, is the structure of reality, and the structure of reality necessarily inheres certain components. These components must be in order for reality-itself to be, and reality-itself, by very definition, must be. One of the structural components of reality-itself is a certain measure of self-determination or self-creativity. The measure of self-creativity that is manifest in humanity is great enough to merit the word “freedom” as a descriptor. In nature, though, the measure of self-determination may be negligible, and a descriptor like “spontaneity” may be appropriate. Humans can freely choose while rocks may merely react. Nevertheless, some measure of self-creativity is necessarily inherent to every expression of reality, and that necessity of self-determination owes itself to the very structure of reality. God’s aim for the good and the beautiful is experienced as a lure that can be denied by other centers of power with their own freedom or spontaneity. God wills the best, but God’s expression in the form of finite realities means that God’s aim can be perverted or thwarted. God cannot be construed as having the ability to violate or negate the will of finite realities, for, to do so, God could not be God.

Consequently, God cannot control how poorly golfers swing, how contorted their grips are, how badly their rhythms may be, how off plane their swings travel, how misaligned their appendages are, how nervous they become. God may lure golfers onward to more pleasant expressions of harmony, but golfers must make their own decisions. If they choose poorly or if they are not well informed, their decisions may take them down the wrong cart path.

God cannot unilaterally (i.e., through God’s power alone) prevent other golfers from clanking clubs or talking in the middle of one’s backswing. God cannot, by himself/herself alone, prevent another golfer from stepping in one’s line or leaving a bunker unraked. God cannot unilaterally thwart a greenskeeper who is determined to cut a hole improperly or soak a course to the level of a rice paddy. God cannot negate the freedom of others any more than he/she can negate the freedom of the one, and others certainly contribute to tragedies on the course.

Further, unilaterally, God cannot intervene to prevent one’s ball from going into the water or a bunker. God cannot prohibit rocks or trees from deflecting balls out of bounds or into hazards. God cannot inhibit the organic cells of a golfer’s body from manifesting maladies or diseases. Forces of nature must, by structural necessity, express themselves through their spontaneity just as humans must express themselves through their freedom. Unfortunately, natural spontaneity and human freedom often go awry. Thus, genuine evils arise, even though they do so against the aim of God.

Again, God’s negation or self-creativity is not a possibility. The issue can be explored by referring to often cited questions concerning God’s power. Can God, for example, create a square circle? Can God create a rock so big that he/she cannot move it? Can God hit a ball so far that he/she cannot find it? These questions reflect the juxtaposition of irrational or contradictory notions. Squares and circles are mutually exclusive, any rock can conceivably be moved, and any ball can conceivably be found. It is no more rational to ask of God whether God can do these things than it is to ask of anyone whether he/she can do these things. No one can create square circles. No one can make a rock so big that it cannot be moved. No one can hit a ball so far that he/she cannot find it? The questions pose logical absurdities, not measurements relating to the absence or limitation of power. No matter how much power one has, the goal of these tasks is not possible. It is more proper to say that these tasks cannot be accomplished or are logically absurd than it is to say that God cannot perform these tasks. These tasks do not expose a limitation of power; they expose limitations of language and logic.

The notion of God negating human freedom or natural spontaneity is similarly contradictory, for it would entail God negating God, or Being-itself not being. Since God is Reality-itself and since reality-itself necessarily involves a measure of self-creativity, this self-creativity cannot be nullified. God cannot prevent or negate that of which God’s very being consists. God or Reality-itself “cannot not be” [sic], and if freedom or spontaneity are structural elements in reality-itself, then they “cannot not be.”

At times, human freedom and the spontaneity of nature may be construed as blessings for existence. At other times, though, in the cases of genocide or tsunamis for example, they may constitute curses. Even when they are beneficial, human freedom and natural spontaneity should not be construed as “gifts” of God. If self-creativity were a gift of God, then God could and, at times, should take that gift away.

The notion of freedom being a retractable gift of God is reflected in the divine acts recorded in traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Every miracle story involves the contravention of human freedom or natural spontaneity. For example, in the Jewish tradition, God thwarts the freedom of King Nebuchadnezzar II, of Babylon, when he freely chooses to burn Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in a fiery furnace (Dan. 3). Nebuchadnezzar’s fire burned, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego remained untouched. Nebuchadnezzar’s freedom to burn his three victims was violated by God.

If, however, freedom were a retractable gift of God, then one must ask why the same God did not revoke the freedom of Hitler when he freely chose to burn Jews at Auschwitz and the other death camps of the Holocaust (“burnt offering”). Why does God not contravene the actions of people, like Hitler, who have far more freedom than they should? Or, why does God not bolster the power of people, like the Holocaust Jews, who have far too little freedom? If human freedom and natural spontaneity could be manipulated or controlled by God, then there are plenty of cases to count against an omnibenevolent God, plenty of cases in which God should have intervened.

On the contrary, self-determination is a requisite for existence, not a retractable gift of God. While self-determination may be broadened or restricted to one degree or another by other centers of power, it cannot be totally controlled or negated, not even by God. God, then, cannot be understood as unilaterally having the power to bring about the best possible. God requires that finite centers of power express their freedom or natural spontaneity. God aims at the best possible, at the highest form of beauty on each occasion, but to obtain the best possible, God’s creatures must follow the divine urge or the sacred lure. Other centers of self-creativity must conjoin to exercise their self-creativity in the best manner.

God is the power of being-itself, the power of being always and everywhere. God is omnipotent or all-powerful in the sense that the power of God is expressed in all that is and for all time. The power of being-itself, however, requires that every expression of being-itself has, to some degree, its own power. God may be described as omnipotent, but God’s omnipotence dictates or guarantees that every finite expression of being has its own measure of power. Bad things happen to good golfers because there are powers beyond God’s unilateral control and because other agents of power do not act or react in a manner that brings into existence the best that can be.


[1] For a more thorough discussion of this issue see R. Maurice Barineau, The Theodicy of Alfred North Whitehead, pp. 3-30.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin, bk. 7, sec. 5.

[3] Peter Dobereiner, “Let’s Do Away with Rough,” Golf Digest, March 1985: 18

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ursula April 10, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Brilliant. Actually makes more sense than Thomas Aquinas.

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Roy M. Barineau, Ph. D. April 10, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Thanks Ursula. I’m very proud of this one. Hope others will read it.

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Education May 22, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Golf and golfers that metaphorically relate to God — it’s almost sad.

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Roy M. Barineau, Ph. D. May 22, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Thanks for your comment at my website. I am curious as to the substance behind the comment. Is it “almost sad” that golf and golfers can metaphorically relate to God,” or is there something else that bothers you? Everyone who believes in “God” relates to God through language which, by its very nature, is symbolic. Is it your opinion that golfers should not relate to God? Is it your opinion that golf should not be used as a metaphor for life? Or, do you find that golfers and the metaphors of golf trivialize life and one’s experience with God. The third opinion I can at least understand, particularly if it comes from a non-golfer. That golfers cannot relate to God metaphorically or that they cannot utilize golf as a metaphor for life I do not understand. Religions function as frameworks or symbol systems by means of which humans understand the world around them. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, the Baha’i faith, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, et cetera all function as symbol systems by means of which followers comprehend the world around them. I see no reason why golfers cannot utilize Golf as a means by which they understand their world.

Thanks again for your intriguing comment,
Roy M. Barineau, Ph.D.

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