“The illiterate peasant who comments on the death of a child by referring to the will of God is engaging in theodicy as much as the learned theologian who writes a treatise to demonstrate that the suffering of the innocent does not negate the conception of a God both all-good and all-powerful.” – Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy
In “Road Hazards,” chapter three of Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, Long takes readers on a tour “down the pilgrim road” with the “best” thinkers of the last two centuries. Considering the nature of the quote that introduces the chapter, it surprises me that Long doesn’t look to an equal number of ordinary thinkers (“illiterate peasants”) to learn more about how humanity engages the problem of theodicy. Perhaps the reason for this is that ordinary people don’t usually have their writings (if there are any) published or preserved for future generations. Nevertheless, we will travel “down the pilgrim road” with Long as our guide.
Long begins by showing the reader two important warning signs:
1. Speaking the Truth, Speaking in Love
A well-intended person could offer the suffering person “some abstract theological explanation”, but should he/she? Words, “in the context of actual human suffering” can become “cruel mockeries” even if there is truth in them.
2. What God? Whose Understanding?
To the believer, “God’s existence is not a question up for grabs but the undeniable reality that gets all other questions going,” and consequently, “all theological questions are forms of prayer.” To the unbeliever, the paradoxical theodicy question is just another way that believers avoid entertaining serious doubts about the existence of God.
With this in mind, I’ll give a brief synopsis of Long’s “thinkers” along “the pilgrim road,” and what they had to say, in my own words:
David Bentley Hart, author of The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? – We should never discuss the theological implications of theodicy with someone who is grieving.
Terrence Tilley, theologian cites Cardinal Charles Journet’s The Meaning of Evil – Journet believes that if evil should ever get out of hand, God will destroy His “earth experiment.” Tilley finds this idea repulsive and of no comfort whatsoever to someone who is grieving.
Kenneth Surin, author of Theology and the Problem of Evil – Theodicy should not be approached exclusively as a theoretical, scholarly problem, and to do so would be a “tacit sanction” of evil.
William Sloane Coffin, a preacher whose son died – Biblical passages were rendered, for him, “unreal” in his grief. When his grief became more bearable, these passages began “once again, to take hold.”
Jeffrey Stout, author of The Flight from Authority: Religion, Morality, and the Quest for Autonomy – Any evidence of God’s existence is dependent upon the so-called “divine authority” of certain people or writings.
Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything – Religion is man-made and doesn’t allow coexistence.
Thomas Paine – Religion destroys morality, peace, and happiness.
Thomas Jefferson, in reply to Adams – The world would be better off without religion (if religion = “sectarian dogmas”), but it would be Hell without the “true religion” of Jesus of Nazareth.
Walter Kasper, author of The God of Jesus Christ – People have made God out to be a perfect and glorified version of themselves.
E. A. Burtt, author of The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science – God is a “cosmic conservative” confined to “temporal housekeeping.”
Terry Eagleton, author of Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching – God created because He wanted to, not because He needed to. God may regret His handiwork.
Long writes in response to some of these thinkers:
1. There is a God.
2. God is all-powerful.
3. God is loving and good.
4. There is innocent suffering.
But the “God” who shows up in this equation is the God of theism, the God of the Enlightenment, the mathematical First Cause of the philosophers, and not the God of Jesus Christ. Thus, the only answer possible to the theodicy problem, when it is posed this way, is a mathematical, philosophical “solution” involving an abstract conception of God, a view unknown to Christian faith. Indeed, contemplating the theodicy question in this way is playing poker against the house, since this whole philosophical casting of the issue is stacked, as people like Bart Ehrman have discovered, toward the elimination of the claim, “There is a God,” toward atheism.
I’ll continue with my brief synopsis of Long’s “thinkers” along “the pilgrim road,” and what they had to say, but this time, in their own words:
Paul Tillich, author of The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion – “God cannot be reached if he is the object of the question and not its basis.” (Long restates this for clarity, “…for Christians, all theological questions are forms of prayer.”)
Anselm, describing his quest for God – “faith seeking understanding” (Long explains, “an activity begun not in one’s head, but on one’s knees”)
John Caputo, philosopher and author of On Religion – “Where are you, Lord? If I have wandered far away from home and gotten lost, I ask where my home is. I have no doubt that it is there.”
Even if someone were to solve the theodicy problem, it probably wouldn’t matter to atheists, according to Long. He quips, “People fall in love with God, not with mathematical solutions.” But Long isn’t throwing in the towel in chapter three, he’s just getting started. Long writes:
First, “the impossible chess match” is, in fact, the way that many thoughtful Christians today ponder the question of suffering in the world, and as preachers, we do not have the luxury of avoiding the question. […] Second, I am not convinced that, when twenty-first-century Christians pose the theodicy question, they are suddenly reverting to the Age of Reason and the posture of Enlightenment philosophers.
Long introduces readers to one last thinker in the chapter’s conclusion, that is, Peter L. Berger, sociologist and author of The Sacred Canopy:
Every nomos [a person’s sense of order of the world]… implies theodicy. Every nomos confronts the individual as a meaningful reality that comprehends him and all his experiences. It bestows sense on his life, also on its discrepant and painful aspects… In consequence, the pain becomes more tolerable, the terror less overwhelming, as the sheltering canopy of the nomos extends to cover even those experiences that may reduce the individual to howling animality.
Berger’s view of theodicy, according to Long, is much closer to the way believers view theodicy. Believers aren’t trying to “solve a logical problem in philosophy but instead repair a faithful but imperiled worldview.” The danger in this is, according to Berger, “theodicies provide the poor with a meaning for their poverty, but may also provide the rich with a meaning for their wealth.” Long cautions his readers against becoming like Job’s friends, who tried to blame Job’s tragic situation on Job himself, as if God were punishing Job for some secret wrongdoing.
In a way, the first three chapters of the book don’t really even deal with theodicy, but address the worst and best ways to engage in theodicy-type thinking.
Next blog in this series: The Soul’s Complaint