The Problem of Evil and Two Polls

In my Wednesday evening Theologia class at the Highland Church of Christ we are beginning a study of the book Christ and Horrors which I've blogged about before. Before starting Christ and Horrors I took a class to lay some groundwork. The class had two main sections. The first part introduced the class to theodicy. The second was an attempt to prevent hurt feelings as any theodicy study will be difficult and emotional. I've re-posted my class summary here along with two polls if you would like to take or share them with others.

Part 1: Introducing Theodicy and Poll #1

First, we noted that Christ and Horrors is a work of theodicy. Stephen Davis, in his preface to Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, defines theodicy narrowly and broadly.

Davis's narrow definition: A theodicy is a demonstration that God is righteous and just despite the presence of evil in the world.

Generally, this narrow definition is focused on reconciling the following propositions:

1. God is omnipotent (i.e., all-powerful)
2. God is perfectly good (omnibenevolent)
3. Evil exists.

The classic articulation of this perspective comes from David Hume: "Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Whence then is evil?"

But that is a narrow and logic-centric view of theodicy. Most theodicies are more existential in nature. Thus:

Davis's broader definition: "Any response to the problem of evil from the perspective of Judeo-Christian religious belief."

That is, theodicy doesn't have to focus narrowly on propositions but can be broadly construed as any attempt--existential, personal, epistemological--that confronts the problem of evil from a (for our purposes) Christian perspective.

Davis points out that different facets of evil create different kinds of problems. I'll simplify by calling these the problems of existence, degree, and surd evil.

The Problem of Existence: For some, the very existence of evil is the problem.

The Problem of Degree: For some, it is not the existence of evil, per se, that is the problem. Rather, it is the amount or degree of evil in the world.

The Problem of Surd Evil: For some, it is not the existence or amount of evil that is the problem. Rather, it is the senseless, random, and inexplicable nature of evil.

Overall, then, theodicies deal with these questions and problems. Christ and Horrors is a part of this strain in theology.

Part #2: First- and N-Order Complaint and Poll #2

Before beginning any study of theodicy we need to recognize the differences among us. Specifically, people are "satisfied" at different points in theodicy conversations. To illustrate this, I trotted out a model for describing people at church to describe how we deal differently with theodicy issues. I call the model First-, Second-, and N-Order Complaint. (Note, some of this is borrowed from an earlier post.)

To start, everyone, at some point, confronts the issues of theodicy. We all suffer and we need to understand. Sometimes our questions are acute and personal (e.g., personal trauma). Sometimes our questions are historical (e.g., the Holocaust). Sometimes existential (e.g., pain in the human condition). Thus, believers are particularly keen to hit upon a suite of answers to all these questions. How can a good and all-powerful God allow these things to happen?

The first round of these questions I call FIRST-ORDER COMPLAINT. Thus, the answers that arise to meet this first round of questions I call FIRST-ORDER RESPONSES. There are a variety of first-order responses. Typical ones include free will, human sinfulness, Satan, or how the relational potential inherent in love implies the dark side of possible pain.

At this point in the conversation people start to sort themselves into two different groups. One group is generally satisfied with these first-order responses. They see the first-order responses as, generally speaking, adequate. However, there is a second group that looks over the first-order responses and is partly or wholly unsatisfied. All these responses do is succeed in creating another round of questions. This second round of questions, in response to the first round, I call SECOND-ORDER COMPLAINT.

There are responses that can be offered at this second level of complaint. We can call these SECOND-ORDER RESPONSES. However, and I bet you guessed this, the process can continue. We can have another wave of THIRD-ORDER COMPLAINT with THIRD-ORDER RESPONSES. And forth-order. And fifth-order. And so on.

Thus, what I call N-ORDER COMPLAINT is round upon round of complaint-response. Generally, while some people can, eventually, find a theodic equilibrium, where the answers are roughly commensurate to the questions, N-ORDER COMPLAINT people never reach an equilibrium. The complaint remains a constant buzz in the background. It never goes away.

The point for community living is that there are different kinds of people in our classrooms. Some people are FIRST-ORDER COMPLAINT people while others are N-ORDER COMPLAINT people. And, if we are not careful, these two groups of people can quickly find themselves in the thick of misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Specifically, the FIRST-ORDER group will see the N-ORDER group as nihilistic and faithless. Conversely, the N-ORDER group will see the FIRST-ORDER group as pollyannaish and shallow.

This outcome is unfortunate and unproductive. So, we need to be alerted to these possible conflicts. As we go forward we need to allow room for people different from us.

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9 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil and Two Polls”

  1. Richard,

    I agree with you that people have different levels of need regarding explanation of evil.

    But for what it's worth, I have stated my take on theodicy on this blog before: that is, regardless of how nuanced or subtle it is, it is inevitably a failed enterprise. It does no justice to God and it (ultimately) adds to (or ignores)human suffering. It's a form of the "have you stopped beating your wife" question made theological.

    Matthew Condon says it better than I: ". . . the task of theodicy is to rationalize suffering, since it seeks to identify and define, by a logically informed philosophical defense, God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil. However, any attempt to reconcile evil with a powerful, good God glosses over the existence of real suffering and misfortune and serves merely to diminish the real plight and vulnerability of the sufferer. In other words, theodicy, in both its theological and secular forms, is the temptation to find some sort of justification to reconcile ourselves to useless, unbearable suffering. The purely intellectual exercise of theodicy, therefore, commits a kind of transgression, because it does nothing to diminish or address suffering – in short, theodicy sins. It hopes to order that which not only lies outside of any order but is also irreconcilable with all order. Intellectual honesty demands, then, we concede that the practice of theodicy is over and dead.

    I will further argue that what makes us human is our capacity to respond in an ethical manner to the suffering of others. If we fail to respond, we succumb to the law of evil. But we can respond – not by gaining more refined knowledge or by thinking more or better about evil – in the only way that is adequate with the suddenness of suffering encountered: in the moment in which we recognize responsibility for the suffering other." (From "The Suffering Goat and the Death of Theodicy," Colloquium on Violence and Religion, July 2007.)


    George C.

  2. I just wanted to note that after reading your posts on Christ and Horrors, I read it myself, and I really found it interesting. Which is saying something, because I have a long history of starting theology books and not finishing them. (Though I confess I skimmed over some of the incarnational metaphysics, which bored me.)

  3. I've found Alvin Plantinga's book God, Freedom, and Evil to be a helpful resource for dealing with this topic. I think you should add another option to the first quiz that gives the option of "other". I don't really find any of those things to be the most troubling problem for the Christian faith. I do find it interesting that "the randomness of evil" is winning at the moment. It seems that if evil must exist then the just way of distributing it would be random. Of course, for those people who require a meaning for everything that happens I can understand why that would be troubling.

    I've been reading your blog for a few weeks now and I find it quite interesting. I came in through your posts on Stoicism. I've had many of those same thoughts over the years, but I haven't been able to articulate them as well as you did.

  4. Fascinating stuff! You have a great way here in this last section of describing the difference between Job and his friends. Job is an N-Order person. His friends are 1st-Order people.

    I agree to a certain extent with George Cooper up there about Theodicy being a doomed enterprise. It's doomed the same way that objective knowledge of God is a doomed enterprise, or writing the perfect poem is a doomed enterprise. It will never fully succeed at what it sets out to do, but it still seems a worthwhile endeavor to me. For example I'm a big fan of protest theodicies like Nicholas Wolterstorff's "Lament for a Son". There is something therapeutic and right about confronting our belief in a good God in the face of evil. At the very least, we must justify to ourselves why we go on doing so.

  5. Ditto what Camassia said - I read the book because of your reviews, and quite enjoyed it (although confess to being bored by the medieval Catholic metaphysics).

    It was very clear and methodical, and helped me think deeper about what it would mean for God to be good to every person.

  6. George,
    In the end, I agree with you and aric about the hope of a final and closed theodicy. However, I do think people need to find answers that are commensurate with their questions. Otherwise, they would feel that their faith stance was a lie. Thus, I don't theodicy is an intellectual product. For me, it is a deeply personal one. To use the metaphor from my post, my religious beliefs must be in some kind equilibrium with my experience. This search--a holistic enterprise--is a theodicy. It has no conclusion, per se. It is simply an attempt at reconciliation. Otherwise my experience is fractured.

    Camassia and Daniel,
    I'm so excited that you read the book and liked it. I, too, skipped the parts you mention! I think she could have written a tighter and more focused book.

    I don't know Plantinga very well, but what I do know suggests that he offloads a lot of the theodic burden on human freedom. In contrast, Adams in Christ and Horrors works intentionally with a "chastened agency." It is this move on her part for which I think she needs to be commended. As a psychologist, my notions of human agency have weakened over the years.

    I've just recently discovered the protest theodicies and I really like what I see in this position. Thanks for the point to Wolterstorff. More for my reading list!

  7. George,
    I understand. But I wonder if theodicy is not a form of lament (a theological lament) for some. I know it is for me. Thus, I fear in shutting down theodicy we would be shutting down, to use a coping metaphor, a legitmate way of processing our human experience. In the face of loss some will weap and others will seek information. We all cope in different ways.

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