The problem of pain, or evil, or suffering (depending on who is presenting the problem and how they phrase it - it is all the same problem) has long plagued theists. It can basically be rendered thus:
These premises cannot all be true:
I. There is a being, called God, who is:
1. omnipotent (all powerful, able to do anything)
2. omniscient (all seeing, all knowing, able to see and to know, to perceive anything), and
3. benevolent (all loving, compassionate, willing the best for everything).
II. There is pain, or evil, or suffering in the world.
This problem is presented as a logical problem, a rational problem. A rational or logical criticism of the forms of theism which, in the face of suffering, in the face of pain, in the face of evil, still assert that there is a God who is unlimited and unchallenged in knowledge and power, and who wills the best for the created order.
In the face of such a presentation, theists fight a logical, rational problem with cold logic, pure reason. They craft theodicies, rational, logical, philosophic attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. These theodicies, these attempts to explain how God can know everything, do anything, and love unconditionally while still permitting if not outright mandating pain, suffering and evil. This charge, that either God does not exist at all, or is not omniscient and/or omnipotent, or that God is not benevolent in any way that we can relate to benevolence, is difficult to get around.
After all, if God is, in fact, all knowing, then nothing escapes God's attention. If God is all powerful, then nothing is beyond the limits of God's ability to act. As such, if God is both omniscient and omnipotent, then God's will would be, as Augustine and later Calvin assert, irresistible. Nothing could happen outside of the will of God. As such, if the traditional theist description of God's abilities is correct, then God is ultimately responsible for pain, suffering, evil. God must, in some way, will evil, which would keep God from being perfectly good or benevolent.
There have been many good theodicies advanced through the years, starting with the first theists. Some more recent ones, like those advanced by Richard Swinburne, the Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford and author of, among other books, Is There a God?, help shift the ground of the problem a little bit. Swinburne holds to a theistic description of God, while eating away bit by bit at what is generally meant by words like "omnipotent" and "omniscient."
Swinburne stands with the vast majority of Christian history in saying that God's omnipotence should not be in question just because God cannot, for instance, do contradictory things like "make a universe exist and not exist at the same time, make 2 + 2 to equal 5, make a shape square and round at the same time, or change the past." This is not, Swinburne argues, "because God is weak, but because the words - for example, 'make a shape square and round at the same time' - do not describe anything which makes sense." As such, Swinburne, standing well within the Christian and theistic tradition, argues, God can simultaneously be omnipotent and yet still be unable to do certain things, because those things are contradictory and are not even theoretically possible.
Where Swinburne begins to deviate from Christian theological tradition, and get particularly interesting, is when he applies that same mode of limiting God while still affirming God's fundamentally unlimited nature, to the question of omniscience:
Just as God cannot be required to do what is logically impossible to do, so God cannot be required to know what is logically impossible to know. It seems to me that it is logically impossible to know (without the possibility of mistake) what someone will do freely tomorrow. If I am really free to choose tomorrow whether I will go to London or stay at home, then if anyone today has some belief about what I will do (e.g. that I will go to London), I have it in my power tomorrow to make that belief false (e.g. by staying at home). So no one (not even God) can know today (without the possibility of mistake) what I will choose to do tomorrow.
This sets up what has often been called the "Free Will" theodicy. That is, much pain in the world is caused by human freedom, and it is logically impossible that even God should be able to predict the result of human freedom or to limit human freedom while simultaneously willing humans to be free. This theodicy rests on the assumption that:
a. human beings, and perhaps other creatures (though that is not necessary), are, in fact, free agents, and
b. human freedom (and free will in general) is a good which outweighs the pain which results from it.
It is not my purpose here to say whether or not this theodicy succeeds. That is ultimately a decision for each person to make for themselves. Free will may appear to be a self-evident good, but how willing are humans to limit their own freedom in order to obtain some measure of limited security in times of trouble? If freedom were obviously a good so great that it outweighs pain and suffering, then we would not be so willing to hand over civil liberties to our militant government in the wake of terrorist attacks.
My purpose here is to state that, whether or not any theodicy works, it answers the wrong question. While pain, suffering and evil are presented to theists as logical, rational, theoretical problems, the real problem which arises from pain, suffering and evil is a very concrete existential one. The real problem with pain, suffering and evil is one which cannot be addressed by any theodicy. The real problem is that we experience suffering.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been reading through Jacques Maritain's 1942 lecture to the Aristotelean Society of Marquette University, later published as Saint Thomas and the Problem of Evil. When I first read it I was stunned by the clear thinking which Aquinas and Maritain brought to this great theological/philosophic riddle. But, of course, when I first read it I was a 19 year old boy, clinging to a way of experiencing God which has long since stopped working for me. Reading it again, these eight years later, I expected to be almost offended by such a rigid and dogmatic approach to a deeply human problem. After all, that is the nature of theodicies.
Maritain begins his lecture with some metaphysical notes, relaying that Thomas borrowed from Augustine the notion that "evil is neither an essence nor a nature nor a form nor an act of being - evil is an absence of being; it is not a mere negation, but a privation: the privation of the good that should be in a thing."
This is a way of saying that while evil does exist in things, it does not have an independent existence, and so does not need to have been created, and as such does not need to have been created by God, who created all that is. Of course, while this may or may not work on paper, it would be cold comfort to anyone who reaches out to God for help removing the evil which exists in them, creating so much suffering as it robs them of their very being.
Maritain's lecture is filled with many other rational ways of arguing that evil ultimately represents a kind of good, the best possible arrangement of things. He employs both the "Free Will" theodicy and the Medieval hierarchy of goods ("Without fallible freedom" [note: that is, freedom with the possibility of error, of sin] "there can be no created freedom; without created freedom there can be no love in mutual friendship between God and creature; without love in mutual friendship between God and creature, there can be no supernatural transformation of the creature into God, no entering of the creature into the joy of his Lord. Sin, - evil, - is the price of glory.") to argue that the permitted bad in the world leads to a good even greater than the good of a world without anything bad.
But even he and his beloved St. Thomas are aware of the pastoral limitations of this. He places Thomas as diametrically opposed to Leibnitz, anticipating the objections that some readers will have to the apparent callousness of all theodicies:
In the optimism of Leibnitz we are bound to see a rationalistic deterioration of Christian truths: the author of the Theodicy justifies God as Job's friends did, and the Scriptures warn us that God holds such advocates in horror.
A philosopher like Leibnitz adopts the truths contained in the text from St. Thomas... in a merely philosophical sense, and as a satisfactory answer given by pure philosophy; this philosopher, then, will tell us it is a good thing for a mother to bewail the death of her child, because the machine of the world required it in order to be more perfect.
That is exactly what I hear every time I read a theodicy. In reconciling the evil, the pain, the suffering in the world to the perfect goodness of God, theodicies cannot help but say that which is obviously false (that there is, in fact, no suffering) or that which, worse, is patently absurd (that bad is really good, if you understand it properly).
This is what I felt as I read the recent posts by JE Holman and Matthew at Debunking Christianity. They both wrestle with the existential crisis of being in some way unable to believe what they wish they could believe. Making the inner turmoil of their painful divorce from faith public, rather than being greeting with the compassion that any decent human being would feel for someone who has suffered so, they were greeted with the cold, rational theodicy of Scholastic and even Modern Christian theology. Many of the Christians who commented on their posts did not follow the example of Christ and enter into their suffering. Instead they followed the example of far too many theistic philosophers, and stood outside of their suffering, looking down with cold, rational judgment, trying to explain how their experiences could not have really been as they experienced them.
Perhaps we look at the Problem of Pain all wrong. Perhaps, instead of treating it like a logical puzzle to be solved with the "right" rational answer, we should treat it more like a koan, a mystery to be lived with and meditated upon existentially rather than rationally. Such a treatment would not, of course, persuade the many atheists, agnostics and skeptics who see Christianity in particular and theism in general as being unable to come up with a satisfactory answer to their very rational question. But it would be a more human, compassionate, and ultimately Christian response to a problem which is less rational and more existential.
Ultimately, if you ask someone who is suffering, the problem of pain is that we feel pain, the problem of suffering is that we suffer, the problem of evil is that there is, in fact, evil all around us and inside us. The answer, then, is not to say that down is up and bad is good. The answer is, instead, to address the problem, not by answering it, but by working to solve it. To end suffering. Of course that is idealistic and impossible. But if we all vow to work to alleviate suffering, taking perhaps a kind of Christian version of the Bodhisattva vow, we could at the very least make the world a much better place to live in.
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