Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thoughts on Theodicy

No one can can prevent all misfortune from happening to loved ones, nor can anyone make anyone else do the right thing all the time. But no person is omnipotent. So, what's God's excuse? It is Epicurus who is usually credited with first formulating the perennial "problem of evil" that theologians and many philosophers have had to confront ever since:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

The above paradox is often used as a refutation of the existence of God. Nonetheless, believers do not just fold their cards and say, "I am defeated by your paradox." They tend to wrestle with the problem. Many even come up with solutions. For example, Leibniz argued that we live in the "best of all possible worlds," with emphasis on the word possible. (It's a phrase that should be familiar to any reader of Voltaire's Candide in the character Dr. Pangloss, a parody of Leibniz.) Leibniz even coined the useful term "theodicy" as a reference to the philosophical attempt to defend the inherent benevolence and/or existence of God despite all the evil in the world.

Personally, I do not find Leibniz's solution satisfying. The idea that we might live in a bargain-basement moral universe, but that it's also the best God can do, is pretty depressing. Or maybe it's just dark humor. H.L. Mencken did say the best way to explain all existence is to think of God as a low comedian.

My real question, though, is this: Has anyone ever resolved the paradox of evil in a satisfactory way?

For starters, the atheist response cuts out the paradox by removing "God" from the whole business. Fine. But that does not necessarily resolve why there is evil in the world. One atheist response is deterministic, another existential. Neither of those make the universe and the misfortunes that befall humanity seem any less absurd. Then again, maybe evil isn't supposed to be anything but absurd.

For those of us who like to wrestle with paradoxes, I would offer the following four explanations of evil as some of the best that religious philosophy has to offer. They are not airtight explanations, but what is? They are all, at the very least, great thought-experiments. This is also not an exhaustive list. I may add to it in a follow-up.

1. The Gnostic. If Leibniz's overly optimistic theodicy rests at one end of the believers' spectrum, the ancient Gnostics exist at the other end. In the early centuries of the Common Era, Gnosticism in several varieties sprung up around the Mediterranean as a fascinating combo of Christian theology and Hellenistic mysticism. The Persian mystic Mani (third century CE) was another major exponent of a gnosticism that might have had an influence on the medieval Cathars and Bogomils in Europe. There was even a Jewish gnosticism in the medieval Kabbalah. What almost all these sects shared was a dualistic view of the universe to explain evil: physical reality was created not by a loving God, but rather by an imperfect and perhaps evil demiurge. The real, ethereal God is totally separate from all empirical phenomena but can be accessed through mystical ritual and practice. Knowledge (a.k.a. "gnosis") of the real God will lead to liberation of the soul. Christian Gnostic sects obviously viewed Jesus as the embodiment in some form or another of the real God.

2. The Pagan Neoplatonist. Plotinus was a philosopher in ancient Alexandria in the third century CE. He was a Neoplatonist by our modern standards, in that he sought to apply the teachings of Plato, especially Plato's theory of forms. Simply put (perhaps too simply), Plotinus merely saw evil as imperfection. The material world of Being could never measure up to the ideal world beyond Being. Therefore, anything here that we consider evil, from human cruelty to rotting plants, is really a kind of ugliness that we know would not exist in the ideal world of forms. The One that is the source of all things (i.e., the Prime Mover and Sustainer that is beyond Being and non-Being) contains no such ugliness or blemish. This all implies a kind of mysticism similar to that of the Gnostics because perfection is beyond rational comprehension. All we know is this world, except for what we might see in some mystical union with The One, which Plotinus was reported to have done four times in his life.

3. The Existential Christian. Nicolai Berdyaev was a former Communist (in Russia, no less) who, some years before the Russian Revolution, converted from atheism to Russian Orthodox Christianity. He eventually relocated in Paris and developed a fascinating Christian existentialism in which humanity enters a relationship with the Divine through creativity. Like any good existentialist, he theorized about the meaning of freedom. "Freedom is God," he wrote. As for evil, then, God is still omnibenevolent and reigns supreme over all existence, but God has no control over one thing and one thing only: nothingness. Evil as it appears in the world is simply that which comes out of chaos. I find this the most novel Christian approach to evil, as it removes from the equation confused leftovers of dualistic mythology about Jesus battling Satan in some weird cosmic war in which we in our remote corner of the universe somehow play a central part. Instead, evil remains an absurdity, and God remains worthy of worship. Berdyaev has his cake and eats it, too. What I like even more is that evil is not a consequence of freedom, as the free-will version of theodicy puts forth. Berdyaev had a positive view of human freedom.*

4. The Rational Optimist. Marilyn McCord Adams is an Episcopal priest and philosopher. Unlike Mani, Berdyaev, and Plotinus, she is a modern contemporary. She is alive! In a nutshell, she circumvents the whole paradox of theodicy and avoids asking why is there evil. Instead, she emphasizes that evil exists, and how can we respond to it? She says that the rational response to horrendous evil is pessimism. We should not expect a witness to genocide to be Dr. Pangloss. However, if one should wish to have an optimistic view of life despite horrendous evil and still remain rational, one needs to believe in some transcendent good (or God himself). Only an ineffable transcendence that is good can offer a rational reason for a human to see life's glass as half full. You could view this as a mere reworking of the old "God works in mysterious ways" rationalization of evil. But what I appreciate about it is that she doesn't justify suffering and defends pessimism! That seems quite compassionate. To live a good life, neither the pessimist nor the optimist should waste too much time wondering "Why me?"

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*The one big drawback to Berdyaev's idea is that a god who cannot control nothingness might be a limited god. As Epicurus would ask, "Then why call him God?"

1 comment:

klatu said...

The logic of the Epicurus statement is flawed for two reasons, for it presumes 1)religion and its claims of understanding the mind of God are true. 2)That the reality of God is active in the affairs of men. Both these underlying presumptions are false, setting up the obvious contradictions. God is only now getting started! http://energon.org.uk