On Evil: Part 1, Staying in the Lanes

In reading Karen Kilby's article "Evil and the Limits of Theology" I had some notes and  thoughts I wanted to share in a few posts.

The first was her distinguishing between the intellectual, the moral and the pastoral responses to evil. These distinctions aren't new with Kilby, but her article made them new to me.

Well, in truth, I was aware of these distinctions, I'd just not see them so cleanly labeled and set side by side, accompanied by commentary about how we need to keep them in their lanes to avoid bad conversations about evil. 

Summarizing, the intellectual response to evil are all those abstract theological debates about why God permits evil to exist. 

The moral response to evil is how we should refuse to be reconciled to evil and should struggle against it in the world. 

Finally, the pastoral response to evil is how we come alongside those who are suffering or who are victims of evil.

Again, the point to be observed here is that we need to keep these responses distinct and separate or great damage can be done.

For example, pastoral damage can be done if we try to offer an intellectual response to evil by a graveside. No one needs to hear "the reason" why a child has died. People who are suffering don't need an intellectual explanation about "why" this pain, loss, or suffering has occurred. Unfortunately, this is a too common mistake, as people have felt that a theological "explanation" might help soothe and salve the pain of a sufferer. But as we (should) know, our pastoral response to evil shouldn't be logical or theological. We don't share a "reason" or "explanation." We simply share presence, tears, grief, and love. We shouldn't be doing a lot of talking and explaining around pain.

A second thing to monitor is letting the intellectual response bleed into our moral response. This concern gets less attention, but it's still a big issue. Specifically, any intellectual "explanation" of evil has the potential to lessen its force, weight, and impact. If evil has a "reason" we become, in some small way, reconciled to its existence. This weakens our moral response to evil, our absolute, undiluted antagonism towards its existence. 

And as Kilby points out in her article, some have even made this same argument about God's presence as a theodicy. That is, we don't know why evil exists, but we do know that God in Christ is "with us" in our pain. Some have argued that even this small bit of consolation, when offered to others, is an attempt to dilute or lessen the full force of evil. God's presence is a consolation, but any consolation in the face of evil is a lessening, a small reconciliation with something that we must remain 100% unreconciled toward.

Now, you may or may not like that idea. For my part, the conviction that God in Christ is with me in suffering is a bit of a lifeline. Still, I appreciate the point that any consolation has the potential to minimize the radical intrusion of evil into human existence, its wounding and primal scream. But I think the real issue here, again, is when that consolation is pushed onto others rather than claimed for oneself. Because I think it is also problematic to tell those in pain what they can or cannot do to find consolation and comfort. Yes, consolation can never be forced from the outside, but we should be allowed to take our own personal journey. 

Anyway, the point to be observed here is how there are three responses to evil--the intellectual, the moral and the pastoral--and that we have to pay attention for them to stay in their lanes. 

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply