Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Augustine's Theodicy Redeemed

This will be a shorter post - perhaps only a fragment of an idea - because I have to get started on a paper for one of my classes. This post, then, is my pre-writing activity, a way to jump start my theological thinking so that it can eventually be applied to something that will get graded.

Most of you know by now my opinion of theodicy. I don't mask it very well. I think that by and large the product of theodicy is a flawed one, seeking to explain suffering away rather than entering into it and responding both compassionately and constructively to it.

Theodicy is an attempt to rationally reconcile an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, perfectly good God to the fact of suffering and evil. As a friend of mine once put it, something's got to give: God, or suffering. Noting this, early attempts at theodicy tried to make suffering give way.

One of Augustine's theodicies - a theodicy so ingrained in our theological heritage that many people who know both it and Augustine still fail to connect the two - was a kind of ontological theodicy. That is, it attacked the ontology, the being, of evil. Augustine argued that evil was not a thing in and of itself, but rather a privation or perversion of being. A wound that fed on the festering flesh of being.

This was an important argument, because it kept a single, good creator God from being directly responsible for the creation of evil. Why? Because evil wasn't created, nor was it, properly speaking, a thing. In fact, ontologically speaking, it didn't exist at all. Yes, evil could be experienced, but only as a kind of contingent thing, existing in and feeding off that which God created to be good.

When I first encountered this theodicy, I was immediately impressed by it. I remember, at 18 or 19 years old, walking through a church parking lot meditating on this concept of evil as a privation of being. Deep in thought, I stared down at my feet and noticed that I was walking past the decaying corpse of a sparrow. Then it hit me that this might just have been what Augustine was talking about.

The evil, the suffering, that up until that point I had pressed hard against, was death. Now, staring into the face of death, I realized that death was not a thing at all, but the absence of a thing, the destruction of a thing. The sparrow was the created good. The sparrow had an existence of its own. Death, while it had overtaken that created good, was not, properly speaking, a thing, and so did not find its origin in God. God wasn't responsible for it, and God hadn't created it. It merely existed - to the extent that one can say it existed at all - in a good thing that had been created.

But that kind of thinking only puts the problem back a step, and doesn't really address our concern at all. While I got an intellectual high from contemplating the mysteries of suffering and death in that moment, that contemplation provided no defense against the deeper existential problem. You see, whether or not God gets off on a technicality because we declare evil to be a privation of being rather than an instance of being, we still experience evil, we still experience suffering. In my case, the suffering caused in me by the loss of loved ones, and the existential suffering buried deep inside me by the anxiety of my own anticipated death, did not go away just because some clever theologian "proved" that such suffering wasn't really God's fault.

Theodicy, then, could be a distraction from rather than a solution for the problem posed by evil.

But, it turns out, that doesn't mean that we can't make some constructive use of Augustine's concept of evil as a privation or perversion of being. In my Resistance and Reconciliation class I just read a marvelous essay in Stone and Stivers' text, Resistance and Theological Ethics. Mark Douglas' "Resistance, Affirmation, and the Sovereignty of God" looks at resistance from a Reform perspective. That perspective is heavily influenced by Augustine - so much so that Douglas presents Augustine's concept of evil as though it were the Reform position, without even referencing Augustine. He writes:

If God has created all things and all that God has created is good, it follows that the Reform tradition takes a radically anti-dualistic view of the universe and all that inhabits it. Evil has no separate, alternative existence over against that which God has created but can only exist as a perversion or privation of what God has created.

That view is Augustinian, through and through. But, where Douglas goes next redeems the Augustinian view of evil for, rather than using it to explain evil away, he employs this concept of evil as a way to enter into and engage evil, with both compassion and humility:

It follows not only that we ought to treat what we are resisting as somehow related to God - even if that relationship has been significantly warped - and capable of being redeemed by the same God that created it, but that no person or group is ever in the position of declaring its opponent either wholly evil or, for that matter, wholly wrong. Reformed resistance is tempered by the humility that comes from thinking of one's opponents as created by God, no matter how far from their creator they mat appear.

The rest of the essay is about engaging suffering, and using our shared experience of suffering as a tool for engaging the problems we see in this world. Here, then, the notion that evil exists only contingently, and as such does not find its origin in God, is not used as a way to explain how evil came to be in some abstract sense. Rather, it is used to engage evil where it exists, in created beings who were made good and can, thus, be remade good.


crystal said...

it is used to engage evil where it exists, in created beings who were made good and can, thus, be remade good.

I wonder how this would work for natural evils like floods, etc.

Even if I can get past the idea that God created evil, I'm still stuck in trying to understand why he doesn't intervene to fix evil.

Sandalstraps said...


Mark Douglas' essay is pricipally about resistance, and as such there are some things that it isn't designed to deal with.

On the question of how this applies to natural evil, he writes:

[This is not] to assume that all forms of suffering are the same and that resistance is, therefore, always an appropriate response to suffering. Some forms of suffering - e.g., from natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods - need response; however a response of resistance would, in such cases, be counterproductive and nonsensical.

In mentioning evil in created things in the context of a theological ethic of resistance, Douglas is encouraging us to see something that Bonhoeffer noted in his Letters and Papers From Prison:

There is nothing we despise in another that is entirely absent from ourselves.

The reverse, I suppose, also might be true from this perspective:

There is nothing we admire in ourselves that is entirely absent from the Other.

My point in calling attention to Douglas' use of Augustine's concept of evil is that it need not be used as a traditional theodicy. Here we see it used to help build up a theological ethic of resistance, which is far more constructive than the standard project of theodicy.

In the face of natural evil, we are similarly called to engage suffering rather than to explain it away. And, I think as Christian we are called to see our actions as part of a divine response to suffering and evil. It is quite possible that God is intervening to "fix evil," and that we are in fact the tools of God. We - with all of our flaws and failures - are God's response to evil.

crystal said...

We - with all of our flaws and failures - are God's response to evil.

I like that idea :-)