Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The last two NCBC evening services have been café style services with the aim of introducing and discussing intellectual conundrums relating to Christianity. Rev James East has done an excellent job of presenting this series and has managed to cover a lot of ground succinctly and clearly. Last Sunday’s café service was on Theodicy. Below is a copy of the handout we received.

(Click to enlarge)

My Comments:
The need for theodicy arises out of the seeming inconsistency in positing a loving, just and almighty God who creates and sustains a world containing evil and innocent suffering. Are we to conclude that God is neither loving nor almighty? Or perhaps He simply doesn’t exist? A “Theodicy” is an attempt to resolve this paradox.

The Augustinian theodicy probably ranks as the de-facto folk theodicy of suffering and evil: “It’s not God’s fault; it’s all those creatures of His who keep abusing their free will”. This theodicy attempts to shift the responsibly for suffering and evil from an all almighty God to His created subjects. This answer, however, begs the question of why God should be absolved of any responsibility when it is He that creates and sustains free-will; surely an almighty God could do a better job of creation? If free-will is bound up with a strong likelihood of evil choice making, is it, in fact, right to claim that it is ‘free’? Should God have created it at all?

The other problem with this theodicy is that it obliges the view that all innocent suffering is ultimately sourced in human, demonic or Satanic activity. Thus, suffering found in natural disasters has to be somehow causally linked with creaturely willfulness somewhere; a point of view that can be tricky to maintain given our modern understanding that the natural world seems to conform to its own patterns and logic rather than the fiat of inscrutable freewill. Sometimes there are attempts to see suffering as an obscure ramification of the fall or may be construe it as a righteous judgment visited upon sin. There is a strong resemblance between this folk theodicy and the pre-scientific weltanschauung of a capricious nature ruled by malign spirits; a view well symbolized by the green man one sometimes finds depicted in medieval churches. The invention of agriculture lead mankind into an even more up and down existence; it offered very great winnings and yet at the same time the risk of disastrous famine.

I’ve never been impressed with the Augustinian theodicy. Trying to link every daily aggravation to the choices of humans, demons or Satan requires the same kind of paranoiac mentality that is able to support the intrigues of conspiracy theory. Moreover, as far as I am aware the Biblical writers expressed no similar sweeping opinion that all suffering traces back to the willful choices of God’s creatures.

However, the Irenaean Theodicy and the comments of Dostoyevsky and Clayton (see handout) lead us down an entirely different avenue. To be sure all three have an important commonality: They weigh suffering and evil against virtue and whilst they may not dare to suggest that virtue outweighs the former they leave us on the horns of a dilemma. One might ask, however, why isn’t it possible to have virtue without an offset of pain and evil? But the trick employed by this class of theodicy is that they make suffering and evil logically inseparable from an accompanying virtue. The Irenean theodicy points out that the virtues of courage, forbearance, hope, spiritual growth and above all the grace of Christ’s sacrificial love are best observed in a world of suffering and evil. Like stars they shine all the more brightly against a background of darkness.*

The underlying idea here is cost; some beautiful things come with an inevitable cost. Dostoyevsky invents a rather contrived situation in order to help us appreciate this truth, but there is, I believe, logical necessity behind it. God has chosen to reify the story of our contingent world, a world selected from who knows how many other possible worlds residing in the platonic realm. He could have reified a story of perfection and angels, but he didn’t; instead He choose to tell our story, a story of a world where our very existence is inextricably intertwined with the presence of suffering and evil – get rid of that suffering and we cease to exist; our existence is conditioned on it. Thus, I face a dilemma: Do I say ‘yes’ to life with all its suffering and evil? Or do I say ‘no’ and wish for annihilation or that I never was? For surely if God had created a world of perfection I, a saved sinner, would have no part in that world. Dostoyevsky is weighing suffering against existence itself: What is to be one’s choice given that one’s existence is being weighed against the suffering and evil inevitably entailed by this existance?

According to Clayton the dilemma here should be met with silence. But perhaps we know the answer in our hearts: Even Nietzche, the atheist, via the intellectual device of the so called “eternal return” answered with an affirmative ‘yes’ to life; to him sentient existence was worth all the pain and evil of this world. Something inside us puts a very high premium on conscious existence, come what may.

However, Clayton is right in one sense: In the face of real suffering silence (if not rage) is the most eloquent and empathic response. Clayton also alerts us to the ultimate cost of our painful yet beautiful world, namely, Divine suffering on an unimaginable scale. He tells us of an empathizing God who takes creative responsibility for His world and who, above all, identifies with it emotionally; a world only He can witness and feel in all its heart rending entirety. Thus, the gift of existence is given to our world with the deep love and tears of God. The picture is of a suffering God who reifies, maintains and identifies with our contingent world at profound emotional cost to Himself. What more powerful, enduring and inspiring symbol of that love and suffering can we find in the history of time than the cross of Christ? Given the grace that our world should receive the gift of existence, then once this choice is made there is a binding logic of divine suffering from which even the Almighty has no escape.

The Divine Predicament

* The notion of weighing evil and suffering against virtue may have some biblical support from St. Paul when he says: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Roms 8:18)

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