Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Back to Theodicy

While I'm sure I'm not done with my semi-permanent digression on race and culture, for at least this brief post I'm back to the more familiar ground of theodicy.

Ben Witherington has a wonderful new post on post-Katrina theodicy, a topic I've wrestled with here more than once. After posting some majestic pictures of the storm looming over Mississippi, he offers a few theological observations. Ultimately, I don't believe that any theodicy can successfully preserve divine omnipotence, but he does make good (and mercifully brief) use of free-will theodicy to argue that what appears to be a natural disaster, an "act of God," can also contain a great deal of human agency and responsibility:

There is another human factor in play as well. The over-heated waters in the gulf of Mexico contributed mightily to the magnitude of this storm. What caused the waters to be overheated? There are a variety of factors and several of them are human in origin: 1) the dumping of massive chemicals in the gulf; 2) the dumping of massive raw sewage in the gulf; 3) global warming which is in part attributable to human pollution.

This, connected with his use of Romans 8 to argue for the fallen state of nature, attributable also to human agency in that (in this view) sin, which enters into creation through human agency, corrupts the entire natural order, speaks powerfully to the kind of theodicy against "natural evil" offered by Augustine. You can see my own thoughts about that kind of argument here.

Witherington's tag stands as a challenge to my take on theodicy:

To what extent has God set nature in motion and allowed it to take its own natural courses, bearing in mind that there are various factors human and otherwise that affect eco-systems and ecological patterns? While I do not believe that God is absent or has simply wound up the world of nature and let it run, unless you believe in absolute divine determinism, you cannot simply assume that everything that happens in nature reflects God's hand or will, especially if you have a theology of the Fall that affects nature.

Implicitly embedded in my critique of the project of theodicy is the notion that, if God is truly all-powerful, then that which happens represents (of necessity) God's will for the world. This notion - despite my Methodist heritage - reflects a more Calvinist understanding of divine will and power, in which part of what it means to be all-powerful is to possess an (at least ultimately) irresistible will.

Here Witherington, like a good Methodist, implicitly preserves the language of divine omnipotence (never employed in the post, but embedded in the concept of God - for Witherington it makes no sense to talk about God as anything other than omnipotent; anything less would fail to be God) but challenges the necessary connection between omnipotence and irresistibility. God may be unlimited in power, but it is obvious that God does not have here a monopoly on agency. Human beings enjoy the freedom to act, even if such action mucks up the natural world, manufacturing a great deal of suffering - even the suffering that seems to be natural.

This is the essence of the free will theodicy. Its philosophic success rests on one's willingness to see freedom, human agency, as a good so great that it offsets any suffering created from it. But success can be measured in other terms, too.

While Witherington's reflections - even carried far beyond his brief post - may not be able to logically reconcile the traditional theistic description of God (omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent) with the fact of evil and suffering; in their emphasis on human agency in, human responsibility for, apparently natural evils, they serve a valuable purpose. Just as humans should not employ theodicies to let God off the hook for suffering, neither should we employ those same kinds of arguments leave God squirming alone on that hook, as though we ourselves bear no responsibility for our hand in apparently natural evil.

Hurricane Katrina was not a natural disaster. Humans made both the hurricane and the impact of that hurricane considerably worse through our sins of both commission and omission, our actions and our failure to act. We should, as Witherington implores us, "Think on these things."


PamBG said...

He said it so much better than I could have done.

I just believe that stuff happens and it's not necessarily God's will.

The thing is that so many people want to believe in a 'magical God' that that they see 'stuff happens' as a position of un-faith.

God walks with us in the 'stuff' but he doesn't create it.

Mystical Seeker said...

Just as humans should not employ theodicies to let God off the hook for suffering, neither should we employ those same kinds of arguments leave God squirming alone on that hook, as though we ourselves bear no responsibility for our hand in apparently natural evil.

I think that is a very good point, and I agree.

I think his point about human responsibility for Karina is valid, although I doubt that we can assign such a degree of human blame for every single natural disaster that happens. The idea that nature is "fallen" has never made any sense to me in a way that we can integrate with what modern science knows about the evolution of the universe.

Sandalstraps said...


I couldn't agree more with your comment about wanting a magical God.

Mystical Seeker,

I agree with you on a literal level, and have made much the same argument. This is an especially important point in light of the anthropocentric nature of Christian theology throughout history. Placing humans at the center of Christian discourse concerning nature, and having human concerns dominate nature, has at the very least contributed to our current ecological crisis.

At the same time, in light of that ecological crisis which stems at least in part from the anthropocentric nature of Christian theology (see, for instance, Lynn White's classic essay, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis), the Christian narrative of nature being fallen by through human sin is once again a compelling myth. That's the main point of this post.

OneSmallStep said...

** We should, as Witherington implores us, "Think on these things."**

Part of the problem with this would be that while we are told we bear responsiblity in this mess -- which is true -- we're also told that everything we do is sinful and less than good. We're told that we will screw up, yet God is there to forgive. So if you operate under the idea that you can't fully succeed in this "life," do you give it your all in trying to repair the damage?

Sandalstraps said...

Sorry I didn't post your comment sooner, OneSmallStep. For some reason, I didn't notice it in my inbox.

My bad.