Adventus

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

The problem of the problem of theodicy


This is as good an excuse as any to bring this up (that and my computer, for reasons known only to the latest OS I downloaded recently, now won't recognize my login to post comments, though I still login automatically to post on this blog.  It's the same account.  Go figure.  The upshot is I can only comment on my phone, and that's a pain in the....).  I mention it here because I can't mention it there, and besides, it would be too long as a comment:

I mentioned in a comment the other day a discussion I'd had with an atheist who brought up the great and all consuming "Question of Evil" why bad things happen to the innocent, why there is suffering, why the evil prosper, etc. if there is a God who is good.  I've got no more of an answer for that than the one that is given in the Book of Job, no one does.  But the answer to an atheist raising it is more basic, how does an atheist find a basis for defining something, including the suffering of innocents, why the depraved and cruel prosper as being evil out of the basis of their materialism and atheism and there isn't even as much of an answer to that as the person who wrote Job down had for the Question of Evil.  Atheism as a means of even defining something as being wrong and why people should not do evil if it benefits them or even if they feel like doing something evil shouldn't do it if they figure they can get away with it.
The biggest problem with the "problem of evil" and the "problem of suffering' is that, first and foremost, the Creation/Cosmos/whatever-you-call-it, is not about you.  Yes, your suffering may be terrible, or it may not be; that's your take on it.  Whether it is a sign of God's fecklessness or non-existence (or something in between) is up to you, too.

I know, I know, babies aren't supposed to suffer and it's terrible when they do.  But it's terrible when people suffer, and I've seen that.  I've seen people die of cancers, I've seen people literally turn grey as I watched; not from cancer, but from the cancer treatment.  Yes, suffering is terrible; but there are worse things.  In fact, if you've reduced the problems of the world to the irreducible and "suffering" is what you come up with, congratulations!  You must live in the first world, and be pretty comfortable, at that!

In fact, my favorite is the "why do babies suffer?" question, because it's always about babies with diseases, and that's always babies in first world countries.  And the question so seldom is:  why don't we do something about it?

Babies starving in "third world" countries are invisible to us.  Babies suffering disease and the effects of malnutrition are invisible to us, across the oceans or within our national boundaries.  Babies we could help go ignored while we wring our hands about how cruel God is.  It's not only intellectually incoherent, it's disgusting.  If we were trapped in a kind of hell where suffering was pervasive and inescapable and the means to relieve it were unknown and unknowable, where the materials to alleviate suffering were unobtainable and unimaginable, it might be true that any concept of "God" was simply more cruelty and illusion.  But we have the means; we just don't exercise them.  We don't try.  And then, if we think about it a second, we blame "God" for letting it happen, because we didn't! Except we did; we harm every person we could help, but whom we don't help.  The problem of evil is not the problem of God; it's the problem of us.

Which is a harsh condemnation if we end it there. But the end of the discussion is to realize that the "problem of evil" is a straw man construction based on the idea that God made everything good for me and mine, and when it isn't, God screwed things up.  I remember (vaguely, now) a Peanuts strip where Lucy learns something about the world is not going to provide the outcome that suits her (because Santa Claus?  Something like that....) and she ends shouting:  "Somebody sure screwed up in production this time!"  It's a funny line, but it's also about the basic selfishness of Lucy (and most of us):  the world is supposed to produce the outcome we expect.  When it doesn't, when we suffer, the world is messed up.  I've stood at the coffin of an infant as the mother asked me, decked out in my preacherly regalia, to explain why her infant died.  No answer is possible because that's not the occasion for answers, but I'm very personally aware of this particular instance of the "problem of evil."  But why does anybody die?  Infants are different because we cherish them, now; well, we cherish ours.  We don't cherish infants in other countries, as I said before.  We can chase this tail of ours round and round the circle, and get nowhere.  The question is really:  why are we asking the question?

Job asks the question, but he doesn't ask why he's suffered.  When his wife, early in the book, tells him to "Curse God and die!," he rebukes her, asking if we accept good from God, can we not accept ill, too?  The Book of Job really isn't about evil or even suffering; it's about justice.  Job insists he is innocent (he is); his friends insist he can't be, since God can't act unjustly.  Basically they are right, but neither is God bound by their ideas of justice ("Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?"  It's a thunderous rebuke of presumed privilege, not a reasoned argument leading to a logically validated conclusion.).  In fact, "logically validated conclusion" is the issue, here.  Formal logic establishes the validity of statements within a given system; what it does not do, is prove those statements true.  And, per Godel, any formal system can generate questions which it cannot provide the answer to.  To raise the "problem of evil" is to assume it is unanswerable because a logically validated conclusion is presumably unavailable.  But it is the question itself that is the problem, not the answer; and not because it is an impertinent question, but because it proves the incompleteness of the logical system which creates the question.  Just as God thundered at Job's friends that God was much more than their experience could comprehend, their minds understand, even their sense of justice encompass (God is still just, but not in the ways humans are limited to knowing; and so is God just?  That's the issue at the heart of "Job".), so the "answer" to the problem of evil is not to say God is, or isn't, enough to reach it (the Marcionist heresy), but to say the question is only answerable in another system.  Is God unjust in the book of Job; or is our idea of justice itself unjust when we accuse God (there are a number of times God presents for a trial on the question of God's justice, effectively putting Israel as the prosecutor)?  Is there a "problem of evil," or is the problem our understanding of "evil"?

Humanity, the book of Job tells us, is born to suffer as surely as sparks shoot upwards.  Is suffering then a design flaw ("somebody sure screwed up in production!")?  Is it a failure of the Designer to oversee the function of the machine?  Is it a failure of our expectations?  Or even a failure of our understanding?  We all agree slavery is evil now; well, most of us do.  But when slavery was more common, was that God's fault; or ours?  We agree hunger is bad, but if we sat and waited for God to provide the crops and the mills and even the rains, we'd starve to death rather quickly.  Is labor evil?  We agree illness is bad; should we simply pray disease away?  No, we generally agree we should do what we can to alleviate suffering.  But the suffering we can't alleviate:  is that God's fault?  Why?  Upon what presumption, what reading of the Scriptures, do we find that the world was perfect, and then it became corrupt and imperfect?  Milton's version of paradise lost?

The innocence of Adam and Eve in Genesis is metaphorical, not descriptive.  It's a parable, not a history lesson. Maybe we would be better off without the knowledge of good and evil, but we wouldn't be human without it.  Being human, we can do evil, or we can do good.  We are responsible, and formulating a "problem of evil" that leaves us irresponsible, is a denial of our humanity.  We can help each other bear suffering when it comes, or we can leave each other alone in our suffering, and make it worse.  When we even consider "suffering" in the context of the "problem of evil," we mean very specific forms of suffering we haven't alleviated yet.  Diseases we can cure, headaches we can alleviate, pain we can dampen, we remove from the list of charges.  Those things we can't do, we blame on God.  Narrow it down to the irreducible, and what do you have?  The deaths of infants?  Maybe Donne was right, and soonest our best with Death do go, rest of their bones and soul's delivery.  I don't know, but it certainly leaves suffering in its wake.  How do you deal with it?  By cursing God, or by trying to be grateful for whatever brief life the child had?  It's not a dichotomy, but discussing the problems of theodicy at graveside is not much of an answer, either.

Does the problem of evil eliminate God?  It may eliminate certain concepts of God, but it doesn't erase God.   I love my daughter, but I know she needs to face negative as well as positive consequences of her actions; or even just face negative as well as positive experiences in her life.  How she copes with her suffering is more important to me than the fact that she suffers.  Life is not a garden party, but neither does it have to be a torment.  If I focus on the problem of evil, all life could seem evil to me.  If I focus on the goodness of God and humanity, it doesn't make me a Pollyanna.  Like most theology, the problem of theodicy, of evil, doesn't tell me as much about the nature of God, as it does about the nature of me.  Jesus' disciples asked him to teach them to pray; Jesus' response was what we call the Lord's Prayer; the Our Father; the Pater Noster.  If you read it carefully, pray it carefully, it is not a prayer about God and changing God's nature or concerns so they align with yours; it's about changing your concerns, even your nature, so they align with God's.  What God wants for humanity is what is best for humanity; it's a vision more of justice between all people, than of pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye.  The "problem of evil" is really a problem of perspective, of our concerns, rather than the concerns of others.  Consider:  do you help someone by telling them how badly they are suffering?  Or do you help them by your concern, by sharing as much of their humanity with them as you can?

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