Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Problem With Pain is That There is Pain (The Koan of Faith and Suffering)

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.


Brian Cubbage said...

I think you're generally right, Sandman, in that the problem of evil, if evil = pain, has an intellectual and an existential dimension to it. However, I would describe things a bit differently than you do here. I would say that pain raises intellectual and philosophical questions, but its meaning isn't exhausted by those questions. While we undergo intense suffering, we don't much need to have the questions answered; but once the suffering is done, the questions don't go away, and they need some sort of answer. The people who you criticize for treating others' suffering as a problem for rational philosophical analysis aren't necessarily talking about things that don't matter at all; they just misjudge when such a conversation is worth having. (Perhaps also they misjudge what an answer to the intellectual questions raised by evil are supposed to do for us, too, but that's a slightly different answer.)

P.S. Congrats on the blog makeover-- I think that it looks wonderful!

Sandalstraps said...


I think that I agree with you, in that I find theodicies very philosophically interesting. I just don't find them pastorally helpful, and they are far too often used pastorally.

Reading through Swinburne's stuff this morning, for instance, was both intellectually stimulating and quite helpful. But, as you note, if I were currently going through acute suffering I would find Swinburne's attempt to reconcile his ideas of God to the fact of my suffering to be, well, monstrous.

When theodicies are employed in the face of suffering, they are employed in the wrong spirit, and do considerable harm. They act almost like God's PR firm, trying to spin the event in God's favor.

Incidentally, I don't think that theodicies really work the way that they are supposed to work. The problem of pain/evil is a lasting one because the fact of suffering is in fact imcompatible with a omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God. What makes Swinburne interesting is that, instead of denying that, he denies omnipotence and omniscience as we generally understand them. While he holds to the words, he does in fact place limits on God. Those limits, I think, do in fact help reconcile the problem.

Liam said...


A beautiful post, and not one I can add too much to. I think you're right about the pastoral limitations of any "rational theology": that's not what they're for, really. They may be necessary and beautiful, but they have another use.

I second Brian's compliments on your blog's new look, and I have to say that Brian himself is looking quite dashing in his profile photo.

I finally did the book meme, by the way.

Troy said...

No doubt, Brian does look good.

Today in Am. Lit. we read Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative; she was abducted during the massacre of colonial Lancaster and held captive by Native Americans for eleven weeks. Her own child, six, died in her arms in captivity. She watched her sister-in-law and many others die in the raid. Amazingly, she was eventually ransomed and returned to her husband.

As a Puritan, she assumes that God was using the Indians as his tool to improve the spiritual committment of the Puritan communities, herself included. Most events in the narrative, big and small, are seen as God's direct will, or at least allowed by God to serve God's purpose. What appears to be evil is really God's plan.

Here's my two cents:

While some suffering does in fact increase character, make us more able to support others as they suffer, improve our spiritual committment and depth, some suffering is purely denigrative: emotional trauma can have lasting, if not permanent, effects on the brain; cancer, or meningitis, has nothing to do with free will, and both kill children, painfully and with no purpose, every year. Frankly, we seem to live in a biologically random universe. I believe C.S. Lewis said the universe is "no friend to man." In the woods behind my house countless cedar saplings begin life; very few become full-fledged trees. Humans share fully in the random death and suffering we find in the plant and animal world; we just know it's not right or fair. We ask, 'Where is God?'

I have a hard time believing significant pain, the loss of loved ones, serious physical illness, schizophrenia, have anything to do with God's love. Candide, without offering much alternative, satirizes the 'best of all possible worlds' view comically but effectively.

Why then do we suffer? Where is God?

I don't know. I admit I can't know God's level of knowledge/awareness or power over humans or the universe of matter. I also admit, as he is Mind, if he has a plan there's no possible way any human could understand it. What I do know is that Christ in the gospels healed others constantly, mind and body; that he shared in our sufferings in an acute fashion; that, if the NT writers are right, his entire mission was grounded in the loving desire to remove our suffering permanently.

Why God doesn't heal widely today I have no idea. I wish he did.

But there are no quick responses to this problem, Chris is right. Natural disasters, the death of children, accidental death, ravaging disease...all this is with us. Christianity, I think, promises an eventual release of all suffering and freedom even from death, a renewed body and mind, and in the meantime, demands I get off my ass and do what I can for those who are hurting. This was the other part of Jesus' message: I am responsible for my brother.

Belief and the inability to believe to me are subtly different. This is a very complex question. Sometimes I think faith is drawn out from some trait already in a person, but this far from answers the problem. Why did some disciples leave Jesus in John 7 but Peter and the others stick around? I don't know. Need? Humility? Strength of will?

There is something about atheism and agnosticism which sometimes rubs me the wrong way: an unwillingness to view oneself as a humble, and very fragile, piece of the cosmos. An unwillingness to admit limitation and need. An unwillingness to be open to the non-material. It is also very true that some say they want to believe and can't; and for some, lack of belief seems intellectually honest. I think that belief/unbelief are very complicated personal positions. May God work in all hearts, including my own.

Another great post, Chris, and I didn't even address koan (because I need to look up the word).

Sandalstraps said...


Good to see you here again. I saw your book list, but didn't comment on it because I simply couldn't come up with anything worth saying.


I'll have to respond to your comment in more depth later, perhaps as its own post (some of what I'm reading in Teilhard responds directly to your concerns, particularly in his reconciling of the biological randomness of our world with the will of God). Now, however, I have to type one-handed, as my son has taken to eating breakfast on my lap as I do my morning computer ritual. Also (speaking of biological suffering), I'm getting ready to take my dog to the vet for something which looks quite serious.

However, I do need to define koan. It is a Japanesse word which comes from Zen Buddhism, and is perhaps best defined for lay people by Sean Murphy, who defines it thus:

apparently paradoxical question or statement, used as an object of meditation during zazen (that is, sitting meditation - CB) practice; at more advanced stages, a dialogue between practioners, demonstrating one or more points of the dharma (that is, teaching of the Buddha - CB) used as a "case" to be examined deeply during the practice of zazen.

The key to understanding a koan is that it does not have a rational answer. To answer a koan you don't just think about it, you live with it.

There are many absurd stories in Zen about the answers to koans. One of my favorites involves a master whose student grows more and more frustrated with his inability to answer the koan he has been working on. Finally, in a fit of rage, the student grabs his master by the throat, picks him up off the ground, and starts to choke him to death. The student eventually, exhausted and embarassed, drops his master, who calmly collects his breath, as says

"Right answer, wrong koan."

A koan is a problem which, while it is presented in words, demands more than mere abstractions from its answer.

Brian Cubbage said...

You're right; I DO look rather great, don't I? I'm thinking of asking Eva Marie Saint out on a date. Think she'll say yes?

Troy said...


oh my god I am laughing out loud. Eva Marie Saint. She will surely go.


thanks for defining koan. I have heard of that, but I've never thought about it. The more I think about it, the more it seems, to me at this moment at least, paradigmatic for much human experience.

Ecclesiastes, for some reason, comes to mind.


crystal said...

Hi Chris, Jeff told me you had an interesting post on theodicy. I recently posted an article and an interview giving David Bentley Hart's eastern orthodox theodicy-ish views. If you get a chance to read either of them, I'd be interested in what you think. They're ... the interview, and the article.

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks. I'll have to check those out.

Anonymous said...

I found the thoughts expressed here very refreshing and supportive.

At a logical level (PWP), I find no comfort from faith for the pain in my life.

At an emotional level, I find no comfort from Christian friends and relatives. There is no direct empathy or sharing. All interaction occurs through a third party that buffers them from my pain. Their arrogant "one solution for all" leaves me diminished and alone in my anguish. A small part of pain is the pain; a larger part is the response from others to one's pain.

It is convenient to give God responsibility for managing pain. It is much harder to take on that role for ourselves. I find it refreshing that there are open minded people willing to consider that suffering is real and that (perhaps) we all are responsible.