Wednesday, 22 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”


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