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!


paul said...

Nice post, Kim, marred by the recycling of the long-discredited notion that the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin was a question of interest to medieval theologians. It was not. The first recorded instance of this old chestnut is a baseless jibe in William Chillingworth's The Religion of Protestants (1637). Extensive investigation has failed to find any echo of the query in the entire Middle Ages. Could we put his urban legend to rest?

kim fabricius said...

RIP, Paul! (Though I'm told that the Schoolmen did discuss questions like whether more than one angel could be at the same place at the same time, which sounds to me like a rather prosaic way of discussing the same question.)

By the way, over aperitifs I asked Professor Adams what she thought of Milbank's take on Duns Scots. She said something like "Xxx&$%^@+..."

Daniel Imburgia said...

Kim, did Adams mention anything by Hans Jonas. He wrote and delivered the essay at Tubingen called "The concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice." It's worth a look and he offers a important contribution. thanks, Daniel

roger flyer said...

"...the penal options (as she puts it) of 'liquidation or quarantine' are hardly a satisfactory quid pro quo for hell on earth..."

But what of Ivan K's great question: What about the brutalized innocent children? God's 'goodness and resourcefulness' doesn't quite cut it...Surely, there must be some tiny corner of liquidation or quarantine?

Ian Clausen said...

Interesting post, thanks for it.

I should be interested to learn to what extent M-Adam's universalism informs her theodicy. No doubt it does, substantially; but then we may wish to ask whether it can contribute to 'non-universalist' conversation about the justice and mercy of God. My hunch is such cross-pollination is impossible, which, if true, tempts all sorts of other questions. Any thoughts?

kim fabricius said...

But, Roger, it was Ivan himself who raged, "And what sort of harmony is it, if there is a hell?" Of course, Ivan rages against explanation as such, inclusive (I extrapolate) of universalism if it used as some sort of transcendental exoneration. And I do think that Adams does not avoid this trap. All theodicies finally suck. Williams is right (in his critique of Adams):

"Perhaps it is time for philosophers of religion to look away from theodicy - not to appeal blandly to the mysterious purposes of God, not to appeal to any putative justification at all, but to put the question of how we remain faithful to human ways of seeing suffering, even and especially when we are thinking from a religious perspective. Part of the task of a good theology and a candid religious philosophy is, I believe, to reacquaint us with our materiality and mortality. And part of that is the knowledge of suffering as without explanation and compensation" ("Redeeming sorrows: Marilyn McCord Adams and the defeat of evil", in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, pp. 271-72).

To be fair to Adams, she was much less lucid during the question-and-answer session following the lecture. I took this to be an intellectual virtue. In any case (a) as far as theodicies go, I think Adams' is one of the better ones - and (b) a vote of thanks was hardly the genre in which to offer a critique!

Rachel said...

This is probably wishful thinking, but is the lecture online anywhere?

rattin said...

Not that I'm aware of, Rachel. But the lecture was just a sketch of the argument of Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, which is a must-read for anyone studying theodicies.

kim fabricius said...

Oops - "rattin" was the "word verification"! Nice nom de plume though.

Ben Myers said...

For what it's worth, Kim, I think you're a fabrilicious ratter.

coucon said...

Kim is rattin us out!

Shane said...


I knew MMA wasn't all bad.

Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.