Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Readings on God and evil

On Sunday I gave some talks entitled "God and evil: Christian witness in a damaged world", for a vibrant Sydney theological group, School of the Prophets. The three talks were:

1. The "problem" of evil
2. What is evil?
3. A tragic gospel
(If I had time, I would have included a fourth talk as well, on evil and eschatology.)

Here's an annotated list of the texts that I referred to:

  • John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667) – The classic statement of the problem of evil and the need for a theodicy.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880) – A compelling dissolution of the project of theodicy. It's a betrayal of humanity to render evil meaningful within any larger harmonious system.
  • Lars von Trier's film, Antichrist (2009) – An alarming portrayal of the self-predatory structure of nature; nature is like a fox lying in the grass, quietly disemboweling itself. Not only human agency, but even nature itself is tragically damaged.
  • David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Eerdmans 2005) – A very poignant meditation on natural evil, and on the fact that atheist protests against theodicy retain an authentically Christian insight (often strangely absent from Christian attempts to "justify" evil).
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, §50 (T&T Clark 2009) – Moving beyond the Augustinian idea of evil as privation, Barth sees evil as a kind of powerful negative gravity; it is poised in an undefinable zone between being and non-being, like a vortex that sucks created things down towards non-existence.
  • Terry Eagleton, On Evil (Yale 2010) – I referred to Eagleton's Freudian analysis of evil and the death-drive. His example of the alcoholic is especially good, since it illustrates the way evil manifests itself in a surplus of will (the alcoholic doesn't have too little will-power, but too much) directed towards self-annihilation. I used this as a rough moral analogy to Barth's idea of evil: evil is not a "thing" in the world, but the ontological gravity that pulls each thing towards its own annihilation.
  • Donald MacKinnon, "Order and Evil in the Gospel," in Borderlands of Theology: And Other Essays, (Lippincott Press 1968), 90-96 – A gripping and moving account of the gospel not simply as triumph, but as tragedy. Victory is the most tragic thing in the world, except for defeat. 
  • I closed by riffing on Barth's statement, that "to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world." A Christian response to evil is not theodicy, but struggle – the struggle of taking God's side against the world's disorder, and of refusing to treat evil as an acceptable part of a larger harmonious vision.
  • If I'd had time, I would also have talked (blending Barth and MacKinnon) about eschatological redemption: Christ's glorified body still retains the scars of crucifixion; the light of eternity does not erase history's tragic shadows. Even in eternity, "beauty is never free from melancholy" (Sarah Kofman).
A final note: When I was preparing the talks, I also enjoyed reading the new Herbert McCabe volume, God and Evil in the Theology of St Thomas Aquinas (Continuum 2010). It's really a study of theological language: his main aim is to dissolve the problem of evil by showing that it rests on a confusion of language. It's not the kind of book that I'd really use in my own teaching. But I reckon reading a good work of Wittgensteinian Thomism is like taking a bath: you emerge clean, fresh and invigorated – even if it's hard to see exactly what you've taken away from the experience.

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