Thursday, 9 July 2009

Marilyn McCord Adams and horrendous evils

by Kim Fabricius

Marilyn McCord Adams presented the most recent Theological Society Lecture in Swansea, on the theme “Horrendous Evils: A Theological Problem of Evil and Its Solution.” After the lecture, Kim gave the following vote of thanks.

When Nigel told me that Marilyn McCord Adams was coming to lecture I jumped for joy. Firstly, because we were going to get something we haven’t had here for a while – a proper English accent. And then I thought: what’s the topic? As a medievalist who knows that Occam’s razor is not a product from Gillette, perhaps she would do the sums on how many angels can fit on the head of a pin – or at least show us that this question is not the idiotic one it’s proverbially taken to be. Or as a member of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and a critic of the Windsor Report, perhaps Professor Adams would lecture on human sexuality, or Anglican polity – with a title like, say, “A Dog Collar’s Breakfast”. But as one who devoured her books Horrendous Evils and Christ and Horrors, my money was on the theme of theodicy, and it turns out that I won that little bet with myself – and I dare say that none of us here tonight feels short-changed either!

Mind, I wondered if Professor Adams knew just how away she was playing, lecturing at the university where the inimitable D. Z. Phillips held a chair; knew that she would be speaking to some people who will remember Professor Phillips’ lecture on God and evil five-and-a-half years ago. Dewi had problems with what he called Professor Adams’ “theorising” about evil. So too does another Swansea boy named Rowan Williams. And, as an adopted Abertawean, I confess my own concern when the title of Professor Adams’ lecture was announced: talk of “a solution” to the problem of evil suggested that we might be in for an evening of theological hubris. I’m glad to say that’s not quite how it has turned out.

Professor Adams, firstly, fully acknowledges the irreducible horrendousness of horrendous evils, the meaninglessness as well as the pain. Second, she knows that a moral taxonomy is insufficient to account for the sheer intensity and scale of suffering, and she knows that the free-will defence fails because of its overblown account of human agency (not to mention its competitive account of divine and human freedom). Third, if Professor Adams speaks of the participatory suffering of God, it is, quite unlike the process theologians, only in connection with a robust two-natures Christology: it is the crucified and risen Jesus who is the horror-bearer and-defeater. Finally, Professor Adams consummates her theodicy with a robust faith in universal salvation, not because all must win prizes but because God is good and resourceful, the maker and re-maker of meaning, and because the penal options (as she puts it) of “liquidation or quarantine” are hardly a satisfactory quid pro quo for hell on earth. And all so tightly argued: Professor Adams is, after all, a philosopher in the analytical tradition.

Perhaps not all of us will now think, “Ah, QED!” But then Professor Adams would not want us to. On the contrary, as she says at the end of her book Horrendous Evils, she would fully expect to “have said something to offend almost everybody.” She has certainly said enough to disturb any pious complacency, and to rouse us to rethink our own intellectual, pastoral, and personal “solutions” to the problem of evil.

Finally this: I checked out the website of Professor Adams earlier today. It has a click-on for “Recipes”. It is empty at the moment, but she has certainly cooked us up a feast tonight. Thanks, Chef!


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