Tuesday 21 April 2015

Teaching theodicy: a sketch

Tomorrow I will be guest-lecturing on theodicy for a colleague’s class on pastoral care and theology. Knowing the problem of evil to be one of those prevalent digressions in the theology classroom, I agreed to teach a whole unit on theodicy some years ago with great reluctance. But it has since emerged as one of my favourite topics to teach, blending the theological and the pastoral as it does. Particular suffering of the sort encountered in pastoral ministry problematises theology’s preference for neat answers.

The best resource I have found for teaching theodicy is Rowan Williams’ essay “Redeeming Sorrows” (found in Wrestling with Angels). While I have only once set this essay as reading for a class, I always keep it in mind while teaching on suffering. In the background of tomorrow’s class will be his line from the essay, “I suspect that it is more religiously imperative to be worried by evil than to put it into a satisfactory theoretical context, if only because such a worry keeps obstinately open the perspective of the sufferer” (p. 272). Throughout, Williams is attentive to the “uncomfortable question of who theodicy is being done for” (p. 271).

Together with Williams, my classes on theodicy tend to be a mix of Simone Weil, Marilyn McCord Adams, John Hick, James Cone, Sarah Coakley, G. K. Chesterton, and lots and lots of Augustine. A serious theological discussion about theodicy will always dip into Dostoyevsky, reckon with memories of tsunamis, and include the silence of unspoken personal horrors, but I find that the emerging discussion always tends towards certain important emphases. I’ve attempted to lay them out here:

  • Suffering is mysterious, which is why we should pay attention to it and talk about it as much as possible
  • Evil is [sic] actually evil, which is why it is never covertly good
  • God is not a finite agent, which is why we cannot expect God to respond to suffering the way we would
  • Christ’s suffering is real and particular, which is why it does not provide a general principle that confers meaning upon all experiences of suffering
  • In theodicy, the temptation is to justify God to ourselves, which is why we need to question our motives in attempting to provide a theodicy
  • Christianity does not provide a theoretical answer to the problem of evil,  but particular responses to the experience of suffering
  • The life of prayer is the best stimulant of compassion, which is why Christians pray “deliver us from evil”


Unknown said...

Thanks for this post, mate. I like the way you're approaching the problem [sic] by keeping the pastoral front and centre, as well as your summary "important emphases". As for other works to consult (though I'm sure I'm taking coal to Newcastle):

Susan Neiman's Evil and Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (2002) is a useful resource.

D.Z. Phillips' The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (2004), with its Wittgensteinian take on the subject and its ample debt to Weil and reference to Rowan Williams is a must-read.

And, of course, David Bentley Hart's The Doors of the Sea (2005) is a little modern classic.

Steve Wright said...

Thanks, Kim.

The last time I taught theodicy, I had the students read Augustine's Confessions alongside Hart's book. It's probably Hart's most accessible book, and provided a nice counterpoint to Augustine.

Anonymous said...

With your second-to-last bullet point in mind, I might add John Swinton's Raging with Compassion.

Brian said...

Astute comments. I second the recommendation of Hart's book.
I read it at least once a year. I'd like to also recommend the thought of William Desmond, but I'm not sure where best to locate his thoughts on evil. The last chapter of Being and Between, Perplexity and Ultimacy, some sections in Philosophy and its Others.

Anyway, he's a philosopher congenial to rich theological reflection and it seems to me he doesn't cheat the complexity away.

Heidi said...

Dear Mr. Wright --

'Christ’s suffering is real and particular, which is why it does not provide a general principle that confers meaning upon all experiences of suffering.'

As a layperson -- sincerely not meaning to be rude -- I can't believe that pastoral compassion would be able to fill the gap you've created here by diminishing Christ's sufferings (if I understand correctly) to insignificance with regard to mine.

Ecclesiastes is right when it pronounces futility over suffering -- if we are looking at the world outside of the revelation of Christ. It is only in light of Christ's resurrection that the futility comes into a focus of hope (Romans 8 -- see v.20), where not even suffering can separate us from the love of God -- specifically in Christ.

Wherever God's people have cried out in pain, even in a sense of abandonment, Christ has been with them. Their real and particular experiences (like the Psalmist who first penned Psalm 22) find their most real and particular depth in communion with Him.

I don't mean to argue -- and might not be able to find the page again. I was searching for something else and came over this post. What you've presented above seems to put the burden of suffering entirely on the shoulders of a humanity already crushed with its pain, trapped in its own futility, for your statement suggests that there is no one to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows (Isaiah 53). Pastoral compassion is just more weight in the burden of futility, if Christ's suffering provides no meaning for mine.

brian said...

Honestly, I passed right over that bullet point.
Yes, I have to agree with Heidi. Some clarification is needed.

Steve Wright said...


Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Of course, I agree with most of what you say here. I don't suggest (nor do I mean to) that "there is no one to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows."

Perhaps "meaning" is not quite the right word to use. What I mean to say is that Christ's suffering does not provide the moral answer to the problem of evil. Indeed, if anything, it intensifies the problem, since we find that the incarnate Son of God also cries out in despair and grief. If Christ knows what it means to suffer, then all the more reason for God to do something about it! But in pastoral care we encounter people suffering deep despair over the apparent absence of God and the lack of moral balance in the world. It might be that the suffering of Christ enables a person to persevere through pain, but we should be hesitant to demand that they see their suffering as morally intelligible.

Brian said...

I think Balthasar's theology of Holy Saturday is helpful in this regards as well.

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