Monday 7 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.


Anonymous said...

One book I've found tremendously helpful on this topic is Henri Blocher's Evil and the Cross.

Robyn said...

Thanks Ben for your considered reflections and insights on Sunday; they made a dire and depressing topic... somewhat palatable.

School of the Prophets will have you back any day!!!

Ben Myers said...

Yikes, I'm very sorry about this, but I accidentally clicked "reject" on a few comments... If your comment hasn't appeared, please accept my apology, and feel free to re-post it. (I'll try to get this commenting situation fixed up asap.)

Anonymous said...

Dr. Myers
Are they going to post the talk online? Is there another way to get a copy if they don't?

Ben Myers said...

I'm afraid I don't have any notes — but I think they might be uploading a video recording of the talks. I'll let you know if they do.

kim fabricius said...

It sounds like a great talk, with such a discerning selection of such assorted texts. I must see Antichrist. The problem of so-called natural evil is usually either shunted aside as of marginal importance compared to the problem of moral evil, or answered too quickly for my liking - e.g. by reference to the pathetic fallacy (Blocher), or the inevitability of the food chain (McCabe) - and unconvincingly in the sense that here too the argument takes away the disturbance of it all, as if I should be unmoved by nature bloodied in tooth and claw, or convulsed by tsunamis and huge death-tolls, or meteor impacts and mass extinctions. To riff on Wittgenstein: What is disturbing should be left disturbing.

Anonymous said...

Ben, a couple of questions:

1)If the Christian response to evil is not theodicy but struggle, where is the place for what the older translations called 'longsuffering', or are you assuming this in 'struggle'?

2) If evil is an 'ontological gravity that pulls each thing towards its own annihilation' (I don't find this completely persuasive as it seems to imply a certain passivity on the part of humanity, as if all that happens is that we're pulled down by something out of our control), then how do we frame a theological vision of time? Doesn't time itself kind of act like this gravity you speak of? Pulling each of us towards our own annihilation in death? Given that we look expectantly towards a 'new heaven and a new earth' is there a link here to be made between eschatology, the risen Christ, the defeat of death and a theology of time??

Any thoughts??

Mike E

Dan Hartley said...

As a non-theologian, I might sound pretty naïve in finding this shocking, but the following sentence was a revelation! '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.' Struggle, not theodicy - that's amazing, if retrospectively obvious!

Paul Tyson said...

Yes, one of the most persuasive rejections of theodocy I have read in recent days is Stanley Hauerwas’ now 20 year old book “God, Medicine and Suffering”. In the face of natural evil, such as the horrible illness and death of a child – Stanley has found that questions about divine injustice are a kind of luxurious academic irrelevance. It does not touch the agony of suffering, or the reality of God suffering with all suffering, or the responsibility of God for that suffering, nor the mystery of Christ’s triumph through death and injustice (which we are called to partake in). But to me the sense of deep and unanswerable revolt natural and human evil opens up does speak of the profundity of the doctrine of the fall and of the hope of the eschaton, were all of the groaning creation is finally redeemed. I worry a bit about the theological ease with which we tend to accept a ‘Darwinian’ conception of nature as a stasis of life and death, struggle and victory/defeat, in a way that occludes the narrative of ‘salvation history’. To me creation, fall, incarnation, cross, church and eschaton – as Real reality – makes a deeper ‘sense’ out of our experience of suffering than a scientifically objective acceptance of death, disease, transience and evil, as sort of good, even beautiful, in their own way. This is to me a bizarre inversion of the manner in which Christ makes death a pathway to life and suffering a road to justice and redemption.

Lee said...

I'm not sure we can get away from theodicy quite so easily. Even if "natural" evil is unnatural in some sense, and even if God will defeat evil in the end, the question still remains: why doesn't God do so now? (Or why hasn't he already?) I don't see how theology can forbid people asking this question, even if acting to fight evil and remedy suffering is the more important task. And isn't the answer that suggests itself that God, for whatever reasons, finds that evil "acceptable," at least for the time being?

Highanddry said...

As theodicy, in my reading, is primarily about the sovereignty and justice of God, I think the New Testament response is clear: The Cross. The ultimate struggle against death/darkness/evil etc. The kicker, is that we continue to live in a world hell-bent on annihilation. However, "...the Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten...They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them anymore." (KB) Evil is no longer to be feared, but to be approached in the awareness that its power over us wilts in the shadow of the cross. God's movement toward the cross and indeed, beyond the cross to resurrection remains God's response to evil even when we forget it, or as a the Church fail to realise it.

Aric Clark said...

Have you ever read any of Marilyn McCord Adams work? "Christ and Horrors" and "Horrendous Evil and the Goodness of God" are both superb on the subject.

kim fabricius said...

Theology does not forbid people asking the question of theodicy. Indeed, theology insists people ask the question of theodicy. But then a good theology will guide the questioner to see that to pose the theoretical problem of evil and suffering apart from the practical problem of evil and suffering betrays a conceptual confusion and a moral obtuseness; that the problem cannot be solved at a theoretical level; and that the problem is not so much solved as dissolved at a practical level, that is, through the praxis of stuggle and (I would add) compassion.

Actually, I think Adams' books are important not least because they are good examples precisely of the bewitchment of the intelligence and the trap of the totalising discourse that are endemic to theodicies. (See Rowan Williams' essay "Redeeming Sorrows: Marilyn McCord Adams and the Deafeat of Evil" in Wrestling with Angels [2007], and the Introduction to D.Z. Phillips' The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God [2004].) Coversely, Dostoevsky gets the point exactly in The Brothers Karamazov, in Alyosha's ultimate response to his brother Ivan's final, unanswerable question, "And what sort of harmony is it ...?": he takes up the cross and follows Jesus. That is the only answer to the "problem" of theodicy.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kim,

2 questions for you too:

1) It seems to me that Jesus more often suffers than struggles - he goes to the cross willingly, so again I ask, where does 'longsuffering' come into a Christian response to evil? Or would you say that longsuffering is the struggle?

2) In the resurrection of Jesus death is defeated through God's power in raising him from the dead. How do you imagine the relationship between the action of God and the action of [man] in a Christian response to evil?

Mike E

John Hartley said...

Dear Ben,

Thank you for this. I do feel the most important part of your talk was the close in which you "riffed on Barth's statement ...".

The most helpful thing I ever read on the problem of suffering was in a paperback book "Poverty and Christianity" written by Michael Taylor, a former director of Christian Aid. He said that the preoccupation with theodicy was a very western way of looking at things; and that if you went to Africa or other places where they really did encounter suffering, you'd find that they didn't ask "Why does God allow this?" but instead "How does God want this to be changed and how can I get on board with that change?" - a completely different focus. Despite the title and front cover, the book is actually a work of academic theology, and not what one expects (a description of Christian projects to help poor people).

I've Googled it and it is at:

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Lee said...

@Kim, I have to say that strikes me as something of a dodge. Of course, the practical problem of evil has a certain priority, but then, it has a priority over every form of theoretical musing.

But the point seems to stand - God created (and continues to sustain) a world that is a mix of good and evil; presumably God would've created just the good if s/he could have; therefore, the evil must be "necessary" (in some sense) to the good. Of course this doesn't address the practical problem of evil, but then, why would we expect it to? It's really about the basic coherence of the idea of God as creator.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Perhaps it would be better to begin, "Falling victim to the typical caricature of the Augustinian idea of evil as privation..."

George Hunsinger said...

Shorter Barth: IV/1, 408-13.

Blair said...

Hi Ben,

thank you for this blog - only came across it recently but I'm liking it a lot. Was wondering, is there any chance of you posting the texts / transcripts of the talks you gave?

Also wanted to say I think Herbert McCabe's essay on evil in 'God matters' is helpful (though I take Kim's point about natural evil), as long as you read it with McCabe's own caveat in mind (i.e. that he is limiting his scope to addressing things at the level of logic - he is not trying to render evil 'undisturbing' or deny the darkness or tragedy there is in the world).

in friendship, Blair

David Deane said...

If you're looking to distance Barth from an Augustinian account maybe his Romans 7 evoking section on the 'Lordless forces' from The Christian Life could help? I've always found this section fascinating and offered a quirky read of it in my Nietzsche and Theology p164 & following.

I like the way you frame Barth's difference from Augustine (or a typical reading of Augustine) above and I think you're right about him moving beyond him.

That said, because he viewed it primarily through his doctrine of reconciliation, its power, he tells us, is like the empire of the Egyptians - it is no more (or words to that effect). And so, I don't think he's a million miles from Augustine. For Augustine (and for Aquinas for that matter) God is real, the extent of the reality of a thing is the extent of its relationship with God and so evil, as the Godlessness of a thing, is also the nothingness of a thing as only God really is. I'm not sure that Barth doesn't offer a, wonderfully Protestant, christocentric version of this in his doctrine of reconciliation?

Paul Tyson said...

Yes… perhaps Augustine’s understanding of evil as ‘deprivation’ is more nuanced, powerful and strangely positive than is readily recognized. Perhaps Barth’s understanding of evil is not at odds with Augustinian notions of goodness as participation in God and hence has considerable synergies with Augustinian understandings of evil. Perhaps, then, Barth’s ‘going beyond’ Augustine in relation to evil may in fact be going in much the same direction as Augustine without being an insult to either of them?

Ben Myers said...

Yes, I definitely take the point about Augustine. And it was just a sloppy colloquialism when I said Barth "moves beyond" the Augustinian theory — I'm pretty sure I didn't use this language in the talks, since I usually start foaming at the mouth whenever I hear someone talk about history in that way.

Anyway, in the talks I gave a brief explanation of Augustine's view, then described Barth's account as a revision within the same basic tradition, placing greater emphasis on the positive energy (so to speak) of evil. I definitely think Barth's view has to be understood against the backdrop of Augustine — but Barth thinks of evil as infinitely more powerful than creation (just as God is infinitely more powerful than evil), and at that point you can see the divergence between Barth and Augustine.

Edwardtbabinski said...


1) What keeps people in heaven from committing evil, or making someone else suffer in some way? Anything preventing people in heaven from doing that? Or can Christians in heaven later commit evils, create suffering, maybe even wind up damned?

2) Does God have free will? If so, then can God choose to do evil? If not, why not?

A related question, is the free will of human beings to do evil, something that even God lacks? And if so, doesn't that make human free will something new, in a category by itself, something even God does not possess?

3) Are there other things that God lacks? Can God "suffer?" Did any "suffering" ever exist inside God before He created the first sentient being that "displeased" Him? Or is "suffering" something new that only arose after God created sentient beings?

4) Did God create solely out of His own will, intelligence, power and love? Then how could anything that came SOLELY out of perfect intelligence, power, and love, wind up as imperfect as this cosmos?

Life in this cosmos is only possible on a tiny sliver of one planet's shaky surface, with life eating life, mass extinction events, and all living things eventually dying. Life, at best, is in equilibrium with death in our cosmos, that's what we know for sure. We do not see people popping out of graves after being dead for three days, nor people rising into the clouds, nor cities (like the "New Jerusalem" mentioned in the last few chapters of Revelation) descending out of heaven above.

5) What's the point of arguing with HELL-BELIEVING CHRISTIANS OVER THE PROBLEM OF EVIL? According to Christian orthodoxy, THE PROBLEM OF EVIL/SUFFERING is writ even larger in the next life than in this one. And since so many Christians take for granted eternal suffering and are willing to justify it as part of what they are taught "in the Bible," then what's the point of arguing about suffering with a Christian like that? They already justify eternal suffering in their own minds, so no tsunami or mass extinction is going to sway them otherwise.

Maybe Christianity is like Chinese handcuffs, i.e., people are attracted by the outward love and trappings, and then once inside, they can't get their minds out again, because of fear of eternal suffering. Doubt itself becomes a sin. So they wind up justifying every pain and evil, including eternal suffering.

I think you'll find that those Christians who DO come to doubt the logic of eternal suffering are the ones most likely to turn to some version of Christian annihilationism, or universalism, or at least a broader, more inclusive hope for salvation, and find those types of answers more comforting than belief in an orthodox hell of eternal suffering in which a jealous God punishes people for eternity.

Highanddry said...

@ Mike E.

'Longsuffering' but more often 'patient/ce' which holds more of the nuance of a people who, while still experiencing evil and suffering, have been born to a truth that transcends those things, and so live proleptically in expectation of the full revelation of that truth. Not aloof from evil but in whom evil is transformed. Or in the words of Paul, "sorrowful yet always rejoicing" 2 Cor. 6.

Anonymous said...

Nota Bene: Herein a Repositioned post of mine, which had wandered into another F&T post about rhymes and puns (this post with some notations and revisions).
Nature is where we exist and live, for better or worse, although this is not entirely accurate; we experience the paradoxical status of living both within Nature, and above Nature.
E.g. we can observe and talk about Nature as phenomenon. We are "creatures" (Harvey Cox; i.e. except for Jesus Christ, we are not comensurate with the Deity; we are NOT thereby "animals" however). We are responsible for our creatureliness, so to speak. It has been said that Robertson Davies' novels describe our human condition as a "middle passage", a kind of, but not exactly Purgatory, albeit within Creation, where our choices and actions matter. Once brought into Creation, we have no particular way out of it, apart from the choices and decisions we make (Robert Lowell once asked to be "anywhere, but somewhere else", but knew this was not possible). The degree of Free Will that we have may be up for debate, but we perceive our "Free Will" as the reflection of the Deity's freedom, and so what we perceive that we have represents His gift to us.
The "question of Evil" (theodicy) always poses the risk that we shall attempt to locate it outside ourselves. Ben Meyers, you are wise to reference Freud's conceptualization of the "death instinct" and its link to the issue of evil. Freud retained all of the basic categories necessary for integrating his project into a Christian worldview (although I imagine he did not think of his discoveries in this particular way). Death instinct, Id, and ideally "Where Id was there shall Ego be" (not as soteriology, perhaps, but as a first step).
Genesis is remarkably existential about theodicy and man's role in it. In a classical interpretation of "Original righteousness", Man's (Adam's) fatal choice (initiating thereby both the Death instinct and the Id) brought down both Man and Nature. Both were corrupted simultaneously. Apparently Gerard Manley Hopkins focused on this question, though I've yet to read up on this. The "Christ-event" undid Adam's Original Sin, but the question remains, is only Man redeemed by Christ, but Nature as well? Put another way: once Nature was corrupted by man is this a permanent condition? Perhaps this is what D.B. Hart in a recent interview meant when he said that we live in a "damaged reality", though I could only speculate what his thoughts may be. Augustine's vision of the City of God could be read as the charge to Man to redeem Nature as well--a tall order by any reckoning, or, his vision may only hold out hope for humankind. [Your student researching "Sin and the Greater Powers" may want to look into P. Ricoeur's "The Symbolism of Evil"] DWL NYC area, (will post name when I've figured out how)

Anonymous said...

I must disagree, somewhat, with DWL's (NYC area) characterization of Free Will in this post. Basically it contains some interesting ideas, or perhaps, beginnings of descriptions of some aspects of a phenomenological account of our perceptions of our own Free Will, but, recent discussions of Free Will, including those found in the New York Times Book Review (who would have thought?) bring into higher relief the really critical and basic aspects of the whole issue of Free Will in Western culture generally (now there's a gloss). I think we invariably intuit that are Free, and, thereby, have Free Will (again, a reference to Genesis would not be irrelevant here). We cannot perceive, or think of ourselves otherwise. Why this should be is another matter, and certainly requires a more thorough explanation. Undoubtedly, at least two- dozen grad students are working on this as we (I)speak. DWL NYC area, i.e. DWLindeman

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