Friday, September 5, 2014

Things I’ve Learned about the Problem of Evil

I spent two weeks this summer in the archives of Swansea University, a tiny provincial college in the western corner of South Wales. I had a feeling of loss there that I’ve only had before in the Roman Forum. Here was the cradle of one of the most powerful ways of thinking ever devised, and there was nothing left of it but boxes of notes in the library. The philosophy department has been disbanded, and its two most prominent members are buried—both alone—across the bay.

Most importantly to me, the Swansea philosophers meditated on an ancient religious question: If God is both loving and powerful, why is there evil in the world? Why does it fall so heavily on innocent people? My thinking—summarized here— rests on their thinking, especially that of of D. Z. Phillips.

Religious apologists tend to founder on this problem. But it’s important to stress that the difficulties involved are not primarily logical: at a certain point, logic will not force our hand in any one direction. Thinking through evil logically, which this post meagerly tries to do, can help us clarify the issues involved, but it cannot ultimately tell us that we must make peace with heaven—and just as little should it necessarily throw us into revolt.

The difficulty, rather, is spiritual. It’s hard to imagine a religion accounting for suffering; rendering it understandable, without becoming callous to the real human experience. It’s one thing to moan, like Hector, and fatalistically accept that unturning Fate will do her will. It’s another to claim that God has the whole world in his hands, to love him, to rest in his bosom, and to have a calm soul amid sickness and death.

So I make only one, non-logical demand of religious responses to evil: that they face the unbearable suffering that the world consists of. For the world is, in fact, evil, and that’s the starting point of any humane discussion of this question. Auschwitz is a horrible reminder of this. It still sits on the face of the earth, cynically laughing at anyone who praises God’s goodness.

I will give two examples of what I consider inappropriate attitudes. One common response, rooted in the Old Testament, is to say: “what do you expect? God promises evil to sinning men!” This approach doesn’t violate logic, but it’s repugnant enough to our concept of God that it’s not a real option. If God were really one to kill infants for the sins of the community, it would be an awful religion that continued to worship him. His only qualification over Satan would be his immense power over our lives. I would accept eternal suffering before I showed my face to him.

The second is to attempt to construct some framework in which God is justified for filling his world with awful misery. Perhaps the world is simply a training camp for our souls: the hardships that come our way are meant to strengthen our moral fiber. That’s why we get sick, for instance: so that we can appreciate our health in an attitude of humility. Or: if we didn’t have free will to do evil, we couldn’t enjoy any of the credit for doing good. Or: if there were no evil in the world, we wouldn’t know what goodness meant. Here’s what Rush Rhees has to say to that:
What is the value of suffering like that in King Lear
What was the value of the degradation that belonged to the sufferings in the concentration camps? When, for instance, a man is going to pieces morally and knows it. ‘Joyful acceptance’???. . . If I could put my questions more strongly, I should do so. For I think that religious apologists have generally been irresponsible and frivolous in writing about this matter. 
In other words, the evils of the world are so gross that any God in charge, even if he had an abstract plan of justice in his mind, would be sadly, laughably off track. Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov couldn’t accept the justice of God if it involved the suffering of a single child. We, meanwhile, have to live in a world where children are slaughtered daily for being the wrong kind of Muslim; where a decent, loving 40-year-old gets killed in car accident, leaving her young children to grow up as orphans.

At a certain point, atheism begins to seem like the only response that preserves some kind of respect for humanity. Either atheism, or a Promethean hatred of heaven.

Drop your bucket into this well, and you’ll draw up gleaming wisdom.

I. Christ

But modern Christianity—Christianity in particular—has an answer to the problem that strikes me as one of the only adequate religious attitudes to evil. Tolstoy was the first modern to think this way, but he is not alone. It begins with this insight: yes, the world is evil, but Christ insists that my kingdom is not of this world. God will not remove pain from this world, because it does not belong to him. God, in fact, when tempted by Satan, explicitly let Satan have all of it.

As if to show how futile all trust in the world is, Christ came to earth and suffered just as much as we do: both physically and spiritually. (Spiritually? My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?) Meanwhile, the onlookers at the foot of the cross mocked Jesus: “He trusted in God; let Him deliver him now, if He will have him: for he said, I am the son of God.” They suffered from the same confusion as many a modern believer: they did not understand that the fate of God’s children is to suffer, not to be rescued by the world.

Now, a Christian of this type believes that God suffered to show us divine love. The Sermon on the Mount, not any mystical eternal life, was the full delivery of this love: he showed a way for human beings to reach beyond their depraved selfishness and live instead for the sake of God. Not for any reward; earthly or otherwise, but for love itself. Loving other people is not a prelude to inheriting the Kingdom of God. Practicing love is what it means to live in the Kingdom.

So we suffer; sometimes horribly. But to a certain Christian, that does not cut us off in the least from God’s love. As long as we love each other, we can live beyond the awful world.

This picture of religious belief, as I fully realize, seems to depend on nothing. I am amazed that there are people who live by it. They exist, nevertheless. Martin Luther King, if I understand him, was one: he fully understood that a transcendent God is absent from human affairs, but he had unshakeable faith in the power of human love to do God’s will.

II. Job

Judaism, which has none of Christianity’s eschatology, has no answer. It had no answer when Babylon dragged the Jews into captivity, it had no answer when God crushed Job because of a stupid wager, and it had no answer after Auschwitz.

What it does have—haltingly and intermittently—is reverence for heaven. There were survivors of Auschwitz, as well as many who were murdered there, who were able to love God until the end of their lives. This seems to make no sense. But just as certainly as there are Christians who can live in love, there are Jews who can bend their knees. This is the man in Isaiah 53. He lives with God—the arm of God has been revealed to him—and he lives a stale life of meaningless pain.

One of the strangest texts I’ve read is the last chapter of Job. After Job suffers unimaginable torment, and then spends days meditating on his fate, God finally appears to berate him. How could Job dare to presume that he could know God’s ways, let alone judge Him? And here is Job’s answer:
I know that Thou canst do every thing, and that no purpose can be withholden from Thee.
Who is this that hideth counsel without knowledge?
Therefore have I uttered that which I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.
Hear, I beseech Thee, and I will speak; I will demand of Thee, and declare Thou unto me.
I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth Thee;
Wherefore I abhor my words, and repent, seeing I am dust and ashes.
This is even more perplexing than God’s boast in the foregoing chapters. It expresses a kind of piety whose existence is a riddle. But it does exist, even today. It’s not mine.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I offer another view on good and evil. Not acceptable, I know - but the evil probably is not acceptable at all.