Thursday, November 17, 2005

Embracing the Mystery, Unraveling a Riddle

Can a mortal asks questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask - half our great theological and metaphysical problems - are like that.

- C.S. Lewis, from A Grief Observed

One of the biggest theological problems with traditional Christianity is the problem of suffering. It points out that our description of God is logically incompatible with the fact of suffering. It says that these statements cannot all be true:

1. There is a God.
2. God is all powerful.
3. God is all seeing or all knowing.
4. God is benevolent, or all loving.
5. There is suffering in the world.

Surely a God who loves us (and all things), and who knows all things (including what will lead to suffering), and who can do all things, would not allow suffering in His world. And yet we experience suffering, and this is, to us a mystery.

C.S. Lewis wrote two books which attempted to deal with this problem. The first book, The Problem of Pain, attempted to rationally reconcile the idea of a perfect, all powerful God with the fact of suffering. The second book, A Grief Observed (from which I have quoted), was, I think, a way for him to distance himself from much of the content of the first book. This is because, as he experienced the overwhelming suffering which followed his wife's death, Lewis realized that the problem of suffering is not, after all, a purely rational, logical problem. It is an existential problem. We do not mind that our idea of God is challenged by the fact that we suffer as much as we mind that we suffer at all.

Lewis can, in the quote above, be excused then for brushing aside one of our greatest theological puzzles by implying that it is probably just a nonsense question, a category error caused by human limitations. After all, if we hold that God is a mystery incapable of being completely comprehended by the human mind, then why should we be too disturbed if our ideas about God cause a few logical problems. But by brushing aside a very real problem as though it were an inconsequential gnat after making a rather lucrative career offering simple answers to complicated questions, C.S. Lewis may have once again unintentionally given serious skeptics of his religious views some ammunition to use against him and his view of the Christian faith.

Modern, rational Christians usually deal with the problem of suffering the way Lewis initially tried to deal with it, by using the tools of modernity. The problem is presented as a logical problem, and so some appeal to logic or reason must be employed in dealing with the problem. If it is said that the above statements are logically incompatible, and if one believes the above statements to be true, then one has to demonstrate, using the tools of reason and logic that the statements can be made to fit together. This attempt to solve the problem of suffering by reconciling irreconcilable statements is called theodicy.

A theodicy usually works in one of two ways. It either attempts to explain away suffering by appealing to some overwhelming good which comes from it, which could not happen if suffering didn't exist, or it attempts to get God of the hook for suffering. If suffering is not such a bad thing, or if somehow God is not responsible for it, then perhaps our concept of God can be reconciled to the fact of suffering.

A particular kind of appeal to human free will is my favorite theodicy because it actually employs both methods at the same time. This theodicy advances two main arguments which work together to reconcile an unlimited and good God to the fact of suffering:

1. God is not responsible for suffering because suffering comes not from any act of God, but rather from the free actions of human beings. As such, suffering is a product of human freedom and not the will of God.

2. This human freedom was given by God because God did not desire that people serve God out of necessity, but rather by their free choice. This freedom is a good which overrides the harm done by the suffering which comes from it.

I was once very persuaded by this kind of argument. So persuaded, in fact, that I tried it out on one of my philosophy professors, who happened to be an atheist. "Wouldn't you," I argued, "rather be a free agent and experience a little bit of suffering than be a determined automaton who never suffered?"

He replied, very honestly and with much more regret than condescension, "No, I really wouldn't, and I don't think that anyone else would, either. Look at what happens every time we feel threatened, every time we feel unsafe. We voluntarily give up all of the liberties we claim to cherish if only some Big Man, the president or whomever, will give us back the illusion of safety."

This professor didn't want a God who exchanged suffering for freedom and called it a fair deal, and he didn't think that anyone else really wanted that, either. He saw the theodicy for what it might really be, an unintentional act of self-deception designed to preserve the integrity of beliefs we don't really hold anyway.

Theodicies fail in two very important ways. They fail philosophically, and they fail religiously.

They fail philosophically because the arguments they advance don't really work. They don't really let God off the hook for suffering, they just push it back a step. If suffering is, for instance, caused by human freedom rather than an act of God, who was it that made humans, and made them free? Who was it that put them in an environment in which they would have the ability and opportunity to cause and experience so much suffering? Who was it, if it was not God? And could not this God, who is described as being all knowing and all powerful, not have been able to see that giving humans this freedom and power would lead to suffering, and be able to do something about it? There is no escaping the fact that, if God truly is unlimited, then it is only the will of God which rules the universe. Everything which happens, however it happens, happens (if God is unlimited) according to God's will. Whatever happens, be it good or bad, is God's fault.

They fail religiously because they present us with a God who is more concerned about explaining suffering away than actually doing anything about it. This view of God reminds me of some of the criticisms leveled against the current American president and his administration, who spend more time doing PR than solving the problems created by their policies. This God, like the Bush administration, would rather have you believe that the suffering you experience is either a good thing or someone else's fault than to help solve the problems which have created the suffering in the first place. This may be an unfair criticism of both God and the administration, but it is a criticism made possible by those who would presume to speak for both.

The view of God provided by something known as Process Theology tries a different way of solving the problem of suffering. Rather than by trying to explain away the logic of this problem, it embraces the logic but says that some of the original premises are flawed. What if God were not unlimited? What if God were not all powerful or all knowing? Wouldn't that solve the logic of the problem without resorting to bad arguments or bad religion?

In process theology God is not unlimited, but God is good. And this good God is aware of the suffering in the created order, and is working within that created order to help alleviate the suffering there. This, of course, takes a great deal of time, because the problem is a large one, and God is not all powerful. But, rest assured, God is at work, and calls you to work, too.

This theology makes good use of the reconciling work of Christ. After all Christ represents God work in the world. In Christ, God doesn't just stand apart from the world, deaf to its cries. Rather, God enters into the world and does things to make the world a better place.

The main knock on process theology is that it diminished God. After all, process theology denies the traditional view of an unlimited God. Instead process theology presents us with a God who cannot do all things, a view which appears particularly limited when placed against the view of God's omnipotence. And, isn't placing certain limits on God at least insulting to the divine if not outright blasphemy?

This reminds me a bit of an argument in astrophysics. Is space infinite, or are there some boundaries at some point? This is a question which can probably never be answered. If there were limits on the size of space, how would we experience those limits? Could we go to the edge of space? Of course not. Space represents an expanse so large that we can't even comprehend it. In light of the vastness of space, whether or not space is infinite is a moot point. It is, at the very least, unfathomably large.

To say that there are theoretical limits on God is much like saying that there are theoretical limits on the size of space. To claim that God is not all powerful is not the same as claiming that God is weak any more than to claim that space is finite is to claim that space is roughly the size of my backyard. And since claiming that God is entirely without limits creates such serious logical problems for our theology, why should we cling to the human idea of an unlimited God?

But, to claim that the description of God which creates the logical problem of suffering is a bad description of God does not make the existential problem of suffering go away. It is that existential problem which is our real problem. We are bothered by suffering not because it creates logical problems but because we suffer, and we wish we didn't. What process theology does is place God inside the problem of suffering, working with us and for us to solve the problem not by explaining it away, but by working for the cessation of suffering.

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