Fellow Pilgrims

Fellow Pilgrims

Continuing in the blog series on theodicy, based on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith

Chapter Four: Fellow Pilgrims

Philosopher J. L. Mackey, in his essay, “Evil and Omnipotence,” argues that if God can choose to do anything He wants to do, then He could “have created a world in which human beings could be completely free in their choices but would freely choose the good on each and every occassion” (Long).  Mackey writes, “Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.”

Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga challenges Mackey.  To piggy-back on the blog I wrote yesterday, let’s suppose that Plantinga is Facebook friends with Mackey.  Plantinga posts this on his Facebook page:


Then suppose that Mackey responds to Plantinga’s post with his “Evil and Omnipotence” argument.  Plantinga wants it to be a private conversation, but Mackey feels that it should be public.  Plantinga immediately deletes Mackey’s response and unfriends him.  The end.  That’s pretty counterproductive, isn’t it?  For more on the prevalence of censorship in Christianity read yesterday’s blog and/or Something Very DisturbingTest everything, hold on to what is good.Spiritual BottleneckYou Can’t Kill God’s Idea.

Anyhow, back to the theodicy argument…

Plantinga writes a response to Mackey’s essay called “God, Freedom, and Evil,” in which he counters that Mackey’s definition of omnipotence (meaning God being all-powerful) is flawed.  Plantinga’s idea of omnipotence is “not that there are no limits to God’s power, but at most that there are no nonlogical limits.  Plantinga cites a few classic examples: God creating square circles, married bachelors, or a rock so heavy that even He can’t lift it.

The danger here is to ignore the heavy heart of the person who just lost a dear loved one in a tragic accident as we charge headlong into a complicated, brain scrambling, philosophical debate on logic.  Long recognizes this and introduces a few more voices into the conversation:

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People comes to terms with theodicy not by defining the logic behind omnipotence, but by defining the concept of “power” in omnipotence.  John B. Cobb, author of God and the World agrees with Kushner’s views.  God’s power is less “being” and more “process,” and God’s power is “embedded in larger evolving systems.  God works in and with what is available, not coercing but luring the world toward greater and greater good” (Long).

I have a lot to say about this, but I’ll reserve it for another blog another day.  For now we’ll follow the trail Long leaves for his readers and examine a question raised by process theologian David Ray Griffin in his book, God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy.  Griffin asks if should have brought order out of chaos and holds God “clearly responsible” for evil, since God did.  But Griffin assures his readers that God subjects Himself to all the discomforts of evil.  He is with us.

Theologian Robert Neville points out that Griffin’s idea of God doesn’t satisfy the moral outrage people feel in the wake of evil.  If God is in the same predicament we are, what consolation is that?

Long changes gears mid-chapter and moves into the free will argument, in which the entire world is implicated in evil and there really is no such thing as “suffering that is innocent.”  Long claims that most American Christians plant their flag in this camp, but I disagree.  I think that the modern American Christian’s approach to Augustinian theodicy is what my late father-in-law would call a polished turd.  They have no idea what their shiny, pretty, sensible theology really is.  If church-goers actually studied the history behind and implications of their orthodoxy (see “statement of faith,” usually available on your church’s website), they would be surprised.  They might be outraged that an innocent child was tortured and murdered, but their theology says there is no such thing as an innocent child.  I urge readers to do their homework in this and other matters.

It’s that tired old argument again.  That if God didn’t give us free will, we would be robots.  That sin originated in humanity.  That we chose it. That God allowed it as part of His redemptive plan. I’m glad that Long addresses this – “If the world was [created] perfect, then from whence did [sin/evil] come?”  Long notes that the free will argument only addresses some forms of evil and that evil-for-the-purpose-of-redemption is an inadequate answer.  “Some forms of evil are absurd, beyond any rational ability to find redemptive purpose in them,” Long writes.  I believe that the most telling words in that statement are “beyond any rational ability,” particularly, the word “any.”  I’ll be writing more about this later in the series.

The problem of theodicy, as complicated as it is, can be boiled down to one simple question.  Can we trust God?

Long asks, “What gives?”  And then he restates the theodicy problem:

  • There is a God.
  • God is all-powerful.
  • God is loving and good.
  • There is innocent suffering.

Long writes, “Having explored the thought of fellow pilgrims, the best response, I would argue, is ‘all of the above.'”

How do you respond, readers?  Do you agree with Long?  Why or why not?  Please feel free to comment.

The links to each of the blogs in this series are Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Guest Blogger Mary Vanderplas)The Shaking of the FoundationsThe Impossible Chess MatchThe Climax of All MisnomersRoad HazardsThe Soul’s ComplaintAwakening, by Asia SamsonRunning a Thousand Miles for FreedomDavid Will Live Again.

The next blog in this series: Howl: Job and the Whirlwind

  • Lanny A. Eichert January 19, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    There is no such thing as “innocent suffering.”

    In their innocent state before they sinned, Adam and Eve never suffered.

  • Mary Vanderplas January 20, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    I agree with Long that the free-will argument is the response to the problem of evil that “seems to have most settled into the vocabulary of American Christians.” In my experience, the people I talk with about the subject of the problem of evil for the most part give some sort of free-will explanation. While Augustinian theology would say that there is really no such thing as innocent suffering, I don’t think it would rule out outrage at the torture of a child (or of any person, for that matter). To say that suffering and evil are the result of human (and angel) rebellion long ago is not to say that an atrocity committed against a human being here and now is somehow less than terrible or is morally justified. The free-will defense does not, in other words, entail positing that sufferers are morally blameworthy and deserving of the suffering that is inflicted upon them.

    I’m curious as to why you didn’t touch on what Long refers to as the “Irenaean” response to the problem of theodicy – the idea that the world as we know it, a world in which there is innocent suffering, is as it is because, in Long’s words, “[s]uffering is a required precondition for soul-making.” Judging from things you’ve said in the past, I would guess that this response is most reflective of your thinking on the subject. Perhaps you plan on getting to it in a future blog.

    I like what Long says about the claims in the theodicy problem being transformed by the Christian gospel. And I find helpful his explanation of how the different claims are redefined in the light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Most especially, I agree that any notion of the power, the omnipotence, of God needs to be understood not in terms of worldly power, but in terms of the power of noncoercive love, which Jesus embodied. I think he makes a good point, too, in saying that “tragic” is a more apt descriptor of human suffering than “innocent” – removing any sense that suffering is somehow inconsistent with our existence as human beings and emphasizing that it is part and parcel of the human experience.

    • admin January 20, 2013 at 7:49 pm

      Yes, you guessed it – I skimmed over the Irenaean response because it so closely represents my own views, and I plan to revisit his viewpoint later in the series. Right now I’m pretty much just writing chapter summaries and a few observations of Long’s book. My hope is to compare and contrast, to let all of the different views have a good long chance to convince me that my own views are erroneous or incomplete. It’s too important of a subject to just dig my heals in and assume I’ve got it all figured out.

  • Patrick Strickland January 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    Theodicy, what a tangled web that is. unfortunately it is a subject that I have not studied in depth as much as I want to as of yet, and I am not fully familiar with all of the intricacies involved. So I will start taking a deeper look and Maybe later I will be ale to share something meaningful in that area of discussion.

    Grace and Peace Patrick

  • […] Other blogs in this series: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Guest Blogger Mary Vanderplas), The Shaking of the Foundations, The Impossible Chess Match, The Climax of All Misnomers, Road Hazards, The Soul’s Complaint, Awakening, by Asia Samson, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, David Will Live Again, and Fellow Pilgrims. […]

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