Theodicy and the scandal of physical evil

Chris (“Maine Catholic“) wrestles with the implications of the earthquake that struck Iran several days ago:

It’s easy to question why a merciful God would allow such a disaster to happen and claim so many innocent lives. As a matter of fact, it’s events such as this that cause many to call into question the existence of God in the first place. The reasoning that “it’s all part of His plan” just doesn’t wash with many of us.

In light of the Christian perspective — that we reside in a fallen world, scarred and corrupted by sin — the presence of moral evil, though greatly troubling on an emotional level, is still something I can grasp and comprehend. Horrific as an event like 9/11 is, I can understand, intellectually, how and why it occurred — because it ultimately makes sense in the Christian scheme of things. Deplorable as it may be, human wickedness can be attributed to the product of fallen, yet necessarily free will — fallen, because of Adam’s sin; free, because God made us to love, and genuine love can only exist uncoerced. On the sensibility of human sin, G.K. Chesterton wrote:

The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do.1

However, it is this other kind of evil, these random accidents or natural disasters, occuring suddenly and without warning, whether resulting in a single fatality (the loss of a family member to cancer) or on a mass scale (the earthquake in Iran), which really get to me. It is these kind of events which, if anything, provoke questions of faith in a just, benevolent and loving God who cares for his creation. I think that anybody who has ever lost a loved one, a child or family member, to such an event wrestles with this paradox on some level.

* * *

In 1981 a young Rabbi named Harold S. Kushner wrote what would become a bestselling contemporary treatment of this question from the perspective of Reconstructionist Judaism, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. 2 The chief inspiration for the book was Kushner’s reflections on the death of his own son due to an incurable disease, and his subsequent realization that the platitudes that he had, up to that point, been dishing out to his own congregation were ultimately ineffective. He devotes several chapters to the book of Job, deriving three statements “which everyone in the book, and most readers” would like to believe:

  1. God is all-powerful and causes everything that happens in this world.
  2. God is just and fair, and stands for people getting what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.
  3. Job is a good person.

According to Kushner things appear fine so long as Job is healthy, happy and enjoying his good fortune. It is only when Job loses his possessions, his family, and his health, that the reader is confronted with the problem of evil: “We can no longer make sense of all three propositions together,” says Kushner, “we can affirm any two only by denying a third.”

If God is both just and powerful, then Job must be a sinner who deserves what is happening to him. If Job is good but God causes his suffering anyway, then God is not just. If Job deserved better and God did not send his suffering, then God is not all powerful. We can see the argument of the Book of Job as an argument over which of the three statements we are prepared to sacrifice, so that we can keep on believing the other two.

Rabbi Kushner cannot bring himself to attribute such tragedies to “acts of God”, be it bouts of illness and disease, mental retardation or malignant cancers, or natural catastrophes (like “an earthquake that kills thousands of innocent victims without reason”). To preserve his faith in a God of justice, of fairness, of compassion, Kushner concedes that nature may in fact be chaotic and morally blind, and that God limited in his power to control it.

While I do not agree with Rabbi Kushner’s ultimate conclusions, I nevertheless appreciated his provocative writing, especially for his adeptness in revealing the tritness of the cliches that are offered in times of trouble, his empathy for those who mourn and his wise advice on how to be of assistance (and what not to do or say). Those who are dealing with loss will take comfort in the recognition that he is an author speaking from personal experience.
* * *

Rabbi Kushner aside, many theological discussions of theodicy — the reconciliation of God’s existence with the presence of evil — come across to the average reader as dry, dusty, and hopelessly academic: a logical puzzle to be debated by intellectuals in a classroom environment. It is only when we face a personal tragedy, or encounter a disaster of immense proportions, that we are confronted by the seriousness of these questions and the challenge they pose to religious faith. 3 Many great Christian writers and theologians have tackled this subject, from great saints like Augustine and Aquinas to contemporaries like the English Protestant C.S. Lewis and the Russian Orthodox novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. 4

Turning to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church reminds us that the problem of evil is not so much a matter of philosophical speculation as a journey into the mystery and meaning of the Cross of Christ:

[309] If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil. . . .

[314] We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of his providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God “face to face”, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth. 5

On a similar note, Chris (“Maine Catholic”) advises his readers:

“. . . God does not think, act or behave in a manner that we as humans can even begin to understand. His will, His almighty plan for each soul He created, just simply cannot be put into a human frame of reference. It is useless to even try to do so, and thus leads only to frustration and confusion. The best thing we can do is TRUST. He will never, ever fail those upon whom his favor rests. Take comfort in the understanding also that, while not impossible, it is very hard to shake the favor God holds for each of us as His children.”

In Introduction to Christianity, Cardinal Ratzinger mentions situations in which the believer finds himself “threatened with the uncertainty which in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him.” He mentions Saint Teresa of Lisieux, who had “grown up in an atmosphere of complete religious security,” and conveyed the sense in her writings that religion was a “self-evident presupposition of her daily existence,” who for all appearances was a rock of unwavering faith — and yet, admitted in her final days to being “assailed by the worst temptations of atheism,” catching a glimpse of the abyss.

Ratzinger then mentions an image of the poet Paul Claudel, which seems to me to capture another potential of suffering — the hope that through the time of trial and suffering, one might precisely because of that suffering draw closer to the cross of Christ:

A Jesuit Missionary, brother of Rodrique, the hero of the play (a worldling and adventurer veering uncertainly between God and the World) is shown as the survivor of a shipwreck. His ship has been sunk by pirates, he himself has been lashed to a mast from the sunken ship, and now he is drifting on this piece of wood through the raging waters of the ocean. The play opens with his last monologue:

Lord, I thank thee for bending me down like this. It sometimes happened that I found thy commands laborious and my will at a loss and jibbing at thy dispensation. But now I could not be bound to thee more closely than I am, and however violently my limbs move they cannot get one inch away from thee. So I really am fastened to the cross, but the cross on which I hang is not fastened to anything else. It drifts on the sea.”

Fastened to the cross — with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss. . . . only a loose plank connects him to God, though certainly it connects him inescapably and in the last analysis he knows that this wood is stronger than the void which seethes beneath him and which remains nevertheless the really threatening force in his day-to-day life. 6

* * *

Please pray for the souls of the 25,000 victims of the recent earthquake in the ancient city of Bam, Iran, and the “tens of thousands” of those left homeless. Material support for this and other disasters can be given to the International Response Fund of the American Red Cross.

  1. G.K. Chesterton. “The Maniac”, chapter II of Orthodoxy: The Romance of the Faith.
  2. Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Here is a guarded but appreciative review by Norman R. Adams (Theology Today, October 1982), who concludes: “Kushner is surely right about the will of God. I, too, am horrified when someone says it must have been the will of God that my own son was killed by a drunken driver. I want no part of such a God. But neither do I want a limited God. Western theology is going to have to do a better job in solving the problem of evil than Kushner has done.”
  3. Walter Sundberg, reviewing Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, observes that the philosopher Leibniz defended a view of evil as “the just consequence of the imperfection of all created things — a metaphysical necessity.” Coincidentally, “The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 exposed Leibniz to ridicule and discredited the effort to explain natural evil as part of a rational scheme. The earthquake . . . shocked “western civilization more than any event since the fall of Rome.'” [“The Conundrum of Evil” First Things 129 (January 2003): 53-58].
  4. For Augustine & Aquinas, see the substantial entry on “evil” in The Catholic Encyclopedia [1908 edition] for a detailed history of this exercise.

    For an interesting take on the theodicy of Dostoyevsky (Ivan’s tale of “The Grand Inquisitor” in the novel The Brothers Karamazov), see Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake, by Ralph C. Wood. First Things 128 (December 2002).

    C.S. Lewis’ writings on theodicy are The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. Both have their good points, but I think that the latter carries more force, precisely because of its context — the calm and reserved veneer of an Oxford prof that dominates Lewis’ other writings is stripped away, revealing the emotional honesty of an anguished husband wrestling with God over the loss of his wife to cancer.

  5. Sections 309 – 314 of the CCC deal with “Providence and the Scandal of Evil”, with a summary of Christian responses: to physical evil (“God freely willed to create a world ‘in a state of journeying’ towards its ultimate perfection”) and moral evil (“God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it”).
  6. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, pp. 18-19. Ignatius, 1990.
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