Sunday, July 15, 2007

sketching a theodicy...

In my Philosophical Theology II class (which just ended), we spent a considerable amount of time discussing various theological approaches to the problem of evil. One of the things our prof. asked us to do was to sketch out a preliminary theodicy of our own. I am going to post mine here (edited a bit for space) in order to hopefully get some feedback. So, here we go... it's a bit long, so bear with me... :-)

As I begin to think through my own theodicy, I find that I have the most in common with the “free will defense.” The primary reason for this is my desire to hold onto three things: 1) Christian orthodoxy, 2) Rational practicability, and 3) Existential hope. I wish to remain logically consistent and biblically sound, recognizing that my hermeneutic will have a direct affect on my theodicy.

It is important, as Barth was fond of saying, “to begin at the beginning.” Therefore, I will begin my theodicy with a brief description of the problem of evil. God, as traditionally understood, is both all-powerful, and totally good. And yet, evil exists. While some have opted to respond to this problem by denying God’s omnipotence or God’s goodness (or God's existence!), I believe that both of these can continue to be affirmed without making God culpable for the existence of evil.

First, we must examine the traditional Christian understanding of God. God, in order to be God, must contain all God’s attributes in their totality. To be sure, we should, as Bloesch implores, always remember that God is not contained in attributes, nor captured by any human terminology. (Bloesch, Donald. God The Almighty, p. 34-35) Any sentence that begins with “God is…” necessitates a predicate that cannot be adequately expressed in human terms, because of God’s infinite and inscrutable nature. However, when we do attempt to speak of God, Christian faith must guard against dualism, which means we are caught in a contradiction: We cannot say, for example, that God is both “good” and “evil” because we do not believe in a God who appropriates those terms haphazardly. God is ultimately good.

So then, how can we describe God? We can say that “evil,” rather than being an attribute in opposition to “good,” is instead the absence of good. Without resorting to monism, I believe that it is possible to develop a Christian understanding of evil as the absence of goodness. This, I suggest, is the case with every Godly attribute – its inverse is not an equal but opposite attribute, it is a lack; the absence of what could have been. Of course, this begs the questions of how evil got here and who is responsible for it. If we say that God contains the totality of God’s attributes, then if God causes or permits evil, God seems to lack total goodness, which means that we have to come up with an entirely different definition of God.

Is it possible to maintain the traditional Christian concept of God without attributing evil to God? Yes; we need not assume that God is to blame for evil. This is, in my view, because of the nature of the universe. If the Christian view of God is correct, one very interesting question is, how can anything at all in the universe exist? Christians believe that God created ex nihilo a distinct universe which is contingent upon God, and that God did so as an outpouring of God’s love. But if God is all in all, wouldn't everything that exists somehow be an extension of God-self, making it impossible for a distinct universe to exist at all? The response is that somehow God has chosen to limit God-self, in order to create a universe that is distinct from God.

The downside to this is that creation is necessarily limited, finite, less than total. Creation can thereby be described as a divine “withdrawal” in which “perfection allows something other than itself to exist.” (Davis, Stephen, ed. Encountering Evil, p. 155) This withdrawal means that the opportunity, at least, for what we call “natural evil” is inherent in the universe. Scientific evidence indicates that our universe is very old, and very dangerous. In fact, there are a myriad of fine-tuned measurements that are necessary for life to exist on earth. It is difficult to grasp the true nature of the universe. But one thing seems quite clear: the world, as we know it, will not last forever. Eventually everything will break down, or burn out, or dissolve into the chaos out of which the universe was apparently formed.

Applying this to theodicy, what can we say? That the universe exists in such a way that it is “out to get us?” Is God to blame for creating this finite reality? Before we go down that road, it is worthwhile to remember that “natural evil” involves no inherent ill will towards humanity. In fact, without the existence of sentient beings, there would be no reason to classify the world as "evil," as the word would contain no significance. What we call natural evil is the inherent tendency of a finite creation to decay and return to chaos.

Here, I take an Irenaean, rather than an Augustinian, approach. The Genesis narratives are not literal accounts of creation; instead, they are allegorical sagas, which, though rooted in historical (and pre-historical) reality, should not be taken as word-for-word fact. While I do not abandon the concept of “original sin” entirely, I believe that it should be viewed primarily as an existential event resulting from our finitude and our human inability to respond properly to that finitude. I concede that some sort of spiritual “fallen-ness” afflicts humanity, but I do not presume it is the cause of the world in which we live.

Still, we must face the fact that evil does happen in our world. How is God not to blame? In order for creation to have a meaningful or genuine existence, that universe must be “other” than God. As such, it will be, in some way, a finite universe which will necessarily allow for the possibility of evil. So the question of why God would allow such a world is based upon the false assumption that there can be any existent universe which does not include the possibility of natural evil. It is pointless to ask why God didn't create a “perfect world.” Could I be "Geoff" in a universe that was already perfect and complete? I would, it seems, only exist as a feature of God, without any ontological capacity to respond to anything, including God. We might as well say that the universe shouldn’t have been created at all. Such a response is a non-answer, because how can we, as creatures, say with any consistency that it would be better if we did not exist?

But, it might be argued; surely God could have made a world with less natural evil? Perhaps, but this assumes a world requiring an incredible amount of cosmological “fine-tuning,” given that the world in which we live is already one of astounding distinction. And, it should be mentioned, one of astounding beauty. Our world is already better suited to life than any world known to us (as opposed to “the best possible world”). This also raises the additional question of just what kind of a world would satisfy us. At what point do we agree that there is “the right amount” of natural evil? How is this not simply an infinite regress to the “perfect world?” And, how would we be able to make any decisions necessary to moral, or even rational, growth if there was not some type of natural evil? Would a world without the law of gravity, for example, make any sense?

Even if such a world were possible, how can we be sure that our actions would not influence it in such a way that further natural evil would be the result? But now we are moving from natural evil to moral evil. How much of our exposure to natural evil is entirely unrelated to our decisions? It is impossible to say with any amount of precision, of course, but we must not avoid the question. Was hurricane Katrina primarily to blame for the deaths in New Orleans, or was it poor planning on the part of those who built the city? We must tread very carefully here; I do not for a minute want to minimize suffering or blame any victims, innocent or otherwise, for a tragedy in which they have experienced loss. But human freedom does play a role, I think, much more than we like to admit.

It is here that I find Davis’ "free will" approach to be most helpful in explaining the problem of evil. The basic idea is that human beings have genuine freedom which, although not entirely independent from God’s sovereign will, is nevertheless the type of freedom which allows for an authentic response of the human will. God does not coerce human beings; God’s will is carried out through free human responses. So, does this mean that when we do not seek God we frustrate God’s will? Only inasmuch as we lengthen the amount of time between God’s initial creation and God’s final revelation. God is not caught off guard or perplexed by our human decisions. God recognizes every decision we make and accounts for it, not only in patient love, but also in preparation for a final judgment and restoration.

Humanity, in its finitude, has succumbed to its own potential for evil. Christians do accept a spiritual element of reality which has been affecting the creation since its inception. To what extent those “powers and principalities” are responsible for natural or moral evil we can only speculate. What cannot be denied is that human beings made, and continue to make, bad choices, based upon our inherent sinful attitudes. These attitudes, I would suggest, are both individual and collective, and may be properly classified as a “fall.” But Christian thought insists that it didn’t have to be this way.

It is important to carefully parse out what is meant here. On the one hand, the reality of finitude made it extremely unlikely that human beings would not sin. On the other, Scripture indicates that there was, and is, an intimate connection between God and people – a connection centered in the event of Jesus Christ – which provided, at least initially, the promise of a world in which humanity would not succumb to temptation. Should we call it “innocence?” I am not certain, but what seems clear is that, very early on, humanity failed. But this was not a failure for which God was unprepared. In fact, God knew the inevitability of human failure and planned, before the creation, for the salvation of humanity and the restoration of all creation.

The free decision of humanity to reject God’s offer of intimacy and live on their own terms has resulted in thousands of years of ever-increasing moral evil. This is not simply a matter of personal evil; the moral evil of humanity long ago reached a level at which it might easily be called cultural or national evil. Evil now permeates our existence as humans to such an extent that it is difficult to say where good ends and evil begins. The “knowledge of good and evil” has turned on us and is now showing its true nature: Such knowledge cannot be contended with by anything short of that which already contains complete knowledge, that is, God. Since we are not God, we are trapped in a reality in which we cannot avoid doing some evil, no matter how hard we try.

So, if we say, “God created humanity, so isn’t God responsible for their actions?” we are minimizing our own freedom in an effort to shift the blame. But shifting the blame for moral evil onto God provides little consolation, because this means that either God is evil or impotent, or human beings have no genuine freedom. In either scenario, we lose. However, by accepting our freedom, and the responsibility that goes along with genuine freedom, we actually find ourselves inhabiting a world where there is an actual possibility of a positive outcome. All of this is, of course, contingent upon God’s ultimate redemption of creation, and God’s deliverance and restoration of all that has been affected by evil. If we do not believe that Scripture is correct when it says that God is going to reconcile everything in Christ (which is not to be necessarily equated with universalism), then any attempt at a theodicy is an exercise in futility.

Much of what I have said here may seem of little value to someone who asks about the suffering of even one innocent child. What can be said in response to the gratuitous evil which falls upon those who least deserve it? To this I can only say that any response to the vast expanse of the experience of suffering in our world must be treated with the utmost care, recognizing that, in Christ, God apparently experiences suffering equal to if not greater than human suffering. The flaw in Karamazov’s claim is that it equates any suffering with torture. But torture is moral evil caused by humans, and should not be simply equated with evil in a cosmic sense. If so, we can only say that God is torturing us in simply giving us life in a less-than-perfect world. Such an anthropomorphized view of God inevitably leads to nihilism (any anthropomorphizing of God is a grave error!).

As Christians, we can offer compassion and shared sorrow in relationship with others, as well as the hope of God’s final restoration of what has been lost through evil. No, this does not change the fact that evil happens, but it does mean that we believe evil does not have the last word. No matter how difficult it may seem, we can continue to believe that God is both almighty and good, because to do otherwise is to settle for a God that is, in the end, no God at all.

1 comment:

Johnny-Dee said...

When I was an undergraduate, we used the Davis, et al, book Encountering Evil, for the portion on the problem of evil in my philosophy of religion course. It looks like you took out of it the same things I did. I lean strongly on the free will defense, and I have drawn on an Irenaean view of creation as well. Since then, my views haven't changed very much on the problem of evil. I'm glad to see you're learning quality stuff from your classes as well!