Sunday, 18 February 2007

Ten propositions on theodicy

by Kim Fabricius

1. Unde malum? Primers on theodicy easily put the question: God is supposed to be both all-loving and all-powerful, yet evil and suffering demonstrably exist. Therefore either God can do something about it but won’t – in which case God is not all-loving; or God wants to do something about it but can’t – in which case God is not all-powerful. Gotcha! Or so it would seem.

2. It is quite astonishing that Christians have allowed themselves to be set up in this way – or at least post-Enlightenment Christians. For as Kenneth Surin points out, “It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every contemporary discussion of the theodicy question is premised, implicitly or explicitly, on an understanding of ‘God’ overwhelmingly constrained by the principles of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophical theism.” And Surin goes on to observe that the ‘God’ this discussion seeks “to justify is the very ‘thing’ that the adherent of a properly Christian ‘understanding’ of God will find herself being disposed to abjure.” Of course pre-modern Christians wrestled with the reality of evil and suffering, but their faith was not intimidated by it, nor did it throw their belief in the divine goodness into a crisis of coherence. Unde malum? Rather Quis Deus! Not the god of theism who is discussed remoto Christo, but God the Trinity, the Deus incarnatus et crucifixus, who is known in worship.

3. Alas, many Christian theologians themselves do not seem to know this God. They think God requires an apologetics, and their defence takes the form of accusation and explanation. First, they are Job’s comforters, resembling “a circle of police around a suspect” (Girard), reading a list of the charges to the suspect from Uz; and then they are attorneys for God in the dock, arguing the case of their client in absentia with cool calculation and untroubled conviction. The irony is that in explaining evil and suffering, theodicists inevitably explain them away. Wittgenstein said that “What’s ragged should be left ragged,” but the post-Cartesian theodicist, intent on “reducing the muddy and mixed to the clear and distinct,” not only “idealizes the reality of evils” but also, in his theoretical detachment, connives in the conditions that give them purchase (Terrence Tilley); and in making a pact with death in order to defend the deity, he unwittingly turns God himself into a capital criminal.

4. Process theologians are the greatest explainers. Their strategy turns on free will. Evil, they urge, is the inevitable risk of human agency, and if it results in free-fall and its attendant wreckage, well, (a) we can’t blame God; and (b), still, this valley of death is also a vale of soul-making (i.e. suffering has pedagogical or therapeutic value). But even apart from the question “How real is our freedom?”, can bad choices alone account for the sheer scale of suffering, and therefore can the buck be so easily passed? And can so-called second-order virtues bear the burden of vindication that is placed upon them? Marilyn McCord Adams declares that, given “horrendous evils” – the physical agony, the eclipse of meaning (what Simone Weil called “affliction”) – this putative god would be paying us “an inappropriate respect,” and indeed “would not thereby honor but violate our agency by crushing it with responsibility for individual and cosmic ruin.” And D. Z. Phillips refers to the argument from character development as “the outward-bound school of theology,” and suggests that “to rescue sufferings from degradation by employing cost-benefit analysis is like rescuing a prostitute from degradation by telling her to charge higher fees.”

5. Calvinists are the greatest defenders. David Bentley Hart writes of a Calvinist minister who, “positively intoxicated by the grandeur of divine sovereignty, proclaimed that the Indian Ocean disaster – like everything else – was a direct expression of the divine will, acting according to hidden and eternal counsels it would be impious to attempt to penetrate, and producing consequences it would be sinful to presume to judge” (with chapter and verse, of course). More extreme still are the false prophets who thundered that the denizens of the Sodom of New Orleans only got what was coming to them when the whirlwind of Katrina tore into the city. I admit to finding this whole track of retributive thought so unbearably desolate that I will only say, in answer, that here we see the dead and deathly end of late medieval nominalism, see that potentia absoluta is at best a theological solecism, and at worst sheer satanic power. It is also the inevitable result of the deity known in abstraction from the concrete reality of Christ. God cannot will evil and suffering, either directly or indirectly.

6. And here we come to the nub of the matter. The divine nature is the grammar of the divine will. “God’s action has been held, in orthodox Christian thought, to be identical with God’s being – that is, what God does is nothing other than God’s being actively real” (Rowan Williams). And in being and act, God is love – all the way down and all the way out. The conundrum of the divine love and the divine power that theodicists accept and then attempt to resolve is thus a false one. God is not all-loving on the one hand and all-powerful on the other: no, the only power of God is the power of love:

Here is God, no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain.
(W. H. Vanstone)

7. Rejecting, then, the Calvinist collapse of secondary into primary divine causality, shall we say that God permits the evil that is contrary to his will? Philosophically (with Aquinas) it would seem to be a necessary distinction to make, but I remain uncomfortable with the language of permission, and for two reasons. First, because it suggests that God has a psychology like ours only bigger, conjuring up an image of one who has to make allowances for the world to be other than he really intends it to be, “on the lines that the poor fellow couldn’t help it, he’s only God after all” (Herbert McCabe). And, second, because we are still playing the game of explanation. Evil, we must insist, cannot and must not be explained. If the language of permission still seems inescapable, then continuing to insist that the free-will defence is a busted flush, we must confess that we don’t have the faintest idea why God permits evil. Ultimately we can only gaze at the iconic image of the crucified and, like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights, freeze at the mystery of iniquity – and then, in faith, be drawn into the more unfathomable mystery of a love that is stronger than death.

8. We must also be modest with the discourse of eschatology. Certainly we must hold fast to the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1, 4). But two points. First, hell. Whatever the Bible says to the contrary – and the Bible actually says many things to the contrary of the contrary – it beats me how an eternal Auschwitz (under a righteous commandant to be sure) could provide an adequate retributive balance to the temporal Auschwitz. If for some the idea of hell performs a successful operation in the theatre of theodicy, for me it kills the patient. And, second, children. When we speak of the glory of ultimate, we must not out-shout the cries of the penultimate; we must speak softly and tenderly, and never say anything that we could not say, paradigmatically, in the presence of parents who have watched their child torn limb from limb by a pack of hunting dogs, or tossed to and fro on soldiers’ bayonets.

9. The images, of course, come from Dostoevsky’s unsurpassable The Brothers Karamazov, as Ivan challenges the faith of his little brother, a novice monk, with a rending litany of human depravity, and then declares that “It is not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket,” i.e. to the slaughter-house of history. Mark well that Ivan is not an atheist, he is a rebel. He has been to the house of God and knows its liturgies better than many a believer – but he cannot kneel and he will not pray. And also mark well that Alyosha accepts Ivan’s argument that human freedom, ultimate victory, everlasting punishment, all finally fail to persuade: he concedes the case that the universe is not morally intelligible. Theoretically, nihilism triumphs…

10. … But, practically, nihilism fails. It can be thought, but not lived: Ivan himself becomes a monster, twisting the mind of his half-brother Smerdyakov, turning him into a patricide – and he himself finally commits suicide. But Father Zosima presents Alyosha with an alternative – not an alternative explanation but an alternative praxis, presupposing conversion, issuing in awe at reality (Job) and compassion for others, and mediated by the church, the harbinger of horror-healing. It is participation in God’s own triune love overflowing in the cosmos, and in the universal salvation wrought by the atoning death of Christ. It is “joy over the abyss” (Barth). The logical problem of evil and suffering is not thereby solved, rather it is dissolved in the existential narrative of discipleship. As a hymn of mine concludes:

Answers aren’t in explanation,
answers come at quite a cost:
only wonder at creation,
and the practice of the cross.


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