On Evil: Part 2, It Doesn't Make Sense

The classic problem of evil is how to resolve the logical consistency of three propositions:

  1. God is all-powerful.
  2. God is loving.
  3. Evil exists.

Most theodicies tend to work the power angle, placing some limit on God's power, even if it's a self-limitation to allow space for human freedom and responsibility. 

Regardless, the main stream of theodicy is to make these three propositions all hang together so that some sort of logical consistency is obtained. 

But in her essay "On Evil and the Limits of Theology" Karen Kilby goes in a very different direction. Specifically, Kilby suggests, why not just admit it all doesn't make any sense? Kilby summarizing her position:

My proposal, then, is that these questions, these concrete and theological versions of the so-called 'problem of evil' ought to be acknowledged as completely legitimate and as utterly unanswerable. Christians believe God is working salvation and trust that ultimately God will bring good out of all conceivable evils, but this does not make these evils goods, nor render their presence explicable, nor allow us to understand how they can take place in the good creation of a loving and faithful God. Sometimes of course we can already see, and must look for, good coming out of evil - suffering can bring growth, sin is an occasion to turn back to God's forgiveness with trust, dependence and gratitude. But we cannot turn these things into explanations, in part because suffering can also, through no fault of the sufferer, bring about degradation and corruption, and sin can build on itself and perpetuate itself. When we see good coming from evil, we can see this as the beginning of the hoped for work of God, but not the beginning of any kind of explanation.

I have said that questions arise which should not be pushed aside and cannot be answered. Another way to articulate this is to say that it is of the very nature of Christian theology to make affirmations about the goodness, faithfulness and creative power of God on the one hand, and the brokenness of creation on the other, that it cannot co-ordinate or make sense of. There are points, then, at which systematic theology ought to be, if not systematically incoherent, then at least systematically dissonant. Just as believers may have to live with evils they cannot make sense of or integrate into any larger positive picture, so too theologians may have to live with points of systematic incoherence that they cannot make go away, not even by dismissing the problem and changing the subject, and that we cannot resolve, not even by saying that God suffers.

Standard discussions of theodicy set up three apparently incompatible propositions: God is powerful, God is good, evil exists. What is at stake here can be summed up with a variant on this trilemma. One might say instead that there are three features of a Christian theology, all of which are desirable, but not all of which can be achieved: a theology ought to provide a fully Christian picture of God; ought to give, or at least leave room for, a full recognition of the injustice, terror and tragedy that we participate in and see around us; and it ought to be coherent. I am suggesting that not all of these can be achieved. Something has to be sacrificed. Process theology sacrifices the traditional picture of God to achieve a coherent system that allows for evil. I have outlined how theodicies tend to sacrifice the full recognition of evil to hang on to what is at least thought to be a traditional conception of God while maintaining coherence. The option I am recommending is to sacrifice neither the picture of God, nor the recognition of the range and depth of evils in God's world, but instead the possibility of a manifestly coherent theological vision.
Basically, give up trying to achieve logical consistency. Accept the dissonance. 

The "win" here is twofold. 

First, we don't have to distort God or the experience of evil. We don't have to squeeze God into a box, and we don't have to minimize the full horror of evil. If we accept the dissonance we can say everything we want to say, and say it boldly. 

A second win, at least for some, is that this view privileges the moral response to evil over the intellectual. That is, we don't let a desire for neat, clean, tidy, and logical arguments minimize a full confession of the horror and assault of evil. By confessing the mystery of evil we allow evil to be fully and bewilderingly evil.

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