Theodicy Without God

December 14 marked the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting where Adam Lanza fatally shot twenty school children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

In the aftermath of that horrible day, and this year as we collectively remembered and revisited those tragic events, I noticed how much of the media conversation was engaged in the task of theodicy.

But this was a theodicy without God. It was a secular theodicy, but a theodicy nonetheless.

It swirls around the questions:

"How could this have happened?"

"Why did this happen?"

And a host of answers come, each attempting to answer those questions. It was mental illness. Parental failure. Gun ownership. Childhood trauma or abuse. Violent video games. Pure evil.

And then we move on to all the ways society at large is implicated in those causes. Not caring for the mentally ill. Too many broken homes. Not enough gun control. A media that valorizes violence.

We even want answers to acts of nature. Loss of life in storms and tsunamis is due to global warming, lack of advance notification and systemic poverty putting people at risk.

We all, passionately, want an explanation. An answer.

Why? How?

More, we want a single answer. What we'd really like is a scapegoat. Someone or something to blame.

Because if we had someone to blame we'd have ourselves an answer--a nice and tidy explanation. The reason.

And then the world would make sense again. Moral sense.

Watch the media in the aftermath of tragedy.

We ache for a theodicy.

Everyone is a theologian.

Even if we don't believe in God.

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9 thoughts on “Theodicy Without God”

  1. I don't even begin to hope to explain or understand the "why" of what happened... I gave up on that 6 years ago with the early death of my mother, reinforced 3 years ago with my abrupt entry into the world of unemployment, and finally giving it over completely 1 year ago with the diagnosis of stage IIB breast cancer for my wife (age 39... yes, early). Not everyone can travel that journey.

    But, for me, what I look to find is not "why" it happened... but how can we "overcome evil with good." My in-laws lead pastor was THE first minister on the scene that morning a year ago so this is not something coming from an uninvolved distance... it has deeply impacted my inlaws, their church, and their community.

    As a sign of hope, I offer up this video that came to my attention recently. Get the tissue box ready... but be ready to rejoice at evidence that evil did not win... and that evil was overcome by good.

  2. Personally, I just ache. The last thing I want is a theodicy. As an anti-theodicist I resist yet another explanation of evil/ suffering and defence of the deity that, inevitably, is either detached and theoretical, crass and superficial, or - worst of all - that turns God into a moral monster. We must love God as God loves us - gratuitously; we must love our neighbours in concerted protest against human wickedness (not to mention stupidity) and with the cruciform practice of compassion; and we must look at the universe with dumbstruck wonder. Yes, I too cry "Why?", but the grammar of this lament is such that it does not expect or desire an answer. If there were a fourth temptation in the wilderness, it would be: "If you are the Son of God, and if you want the world to believe, go on, give us a theodicy.

  3. This post made me think of this quote I came across in a book by Olivier Clement, attributed to Leon Bloy: "The face of god is streaming with blood in the shadows." Not a theodicy, but an acknowledgement of where god is in the midst of evil: "evil flies in the face of god, like the scourging of the blindfolded Jesus."

  4. I agree. Most of the theodicy I've seen is either pat answers or elaborate theological systems that both fail to really CONNECT with the pain felt by the victim. Job's friends did well when they sat with him. They started to do poorly when they tried to theodicize. But it's tough to say those three little words: "I don't know."

    I agree with Irving Greenberg when he refers to the Holocaust and says: "No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children."

    The true scandal may be that neither the Bible nor Christianity has a good answer as to the "why" of these things. All we have is the imperative to go and BE with the suffering. To sit with them. To suffer with them. To help them stand up under the suffering.

  5. I don't understand how a Christian/theist can be anti-theodicy. Surely you are logically committed to the claim that there are reasons which morally justify God in allowing all the evil which occurs in the world, even if those reasons are not discoverable or understandable by us. Is that your view? i.e. that there must be such reasons but we can't discover or understand them or would you not even agree with that? When you say we must love God 'gratuitously' does that mean we must love him even if he is evil?

  6. @ Chris: Rather than give you a short(ish) answer, you might want to check out my "Ten Propositions on Theodicy" at Ben Myers' blog "Faith and Theology" (18/2/07); or just google it. For further reading, see (inter alia) Terrence W. Tilley, Evils of Theodicy (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2000).

  7. I may strongly agree with that last paragraph. My wife and I have very different theological views. I'm pretty wide open (raised Catholic, embraced Buddhism, now I attend a UCC church, but I'm likely to end up Episcopalian); my wife on the other hand (also raised Catholic) had a "born again" experience and is now Pentecostal. So while I tend to shy away from defining and personifying evil, the devil to her is very real and very personal. Sometimes she takes this as me "not believing that evil exists" or something similar, but the truth is that my real answer is: I have no idea why there is evil in the world. And trying to define things beyond that is essentially a theological trap.

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