Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Theodicy And Natural Evil

Will G

I suppose I should update my blog, as it's been lacking updates for about two months. I said earlier that I wouldn't update regularly until I get a significant readership (for most of this blog's life I have been getting 0-4 hits a day, and very few returning visitors) so I thought it wasn't worth it. However I now think that perhaps I should update it more often.

Now in the sidebar I've been mainly concerned with Christian soteriology. That is where many people experience doubt, including (in the past) myself, so I thought it should be my primary task to work that out. And I think I have done so. I've put a new spin on some old doctrines. So I don't consider soteriology a problem anymore. That leaves the problem of Biblical errancy (which I have not completely solved) and the problem of evil. So I think it might be worth talking about the problem, not as a formal essay but what I basically think about the issue.

First of all, I think that the entire exercise of theodicy can basically be defined in this way. 'To limit God as much as possible without undermining the basis of (in this case) Christianity.' The only reason theodicy is possible is because there are some things God can't do, such as make 2+2=5. If believers said (and I think they can) that God can do anything, absolutely anything including have God make 2+2=5, then the problem of evil would be very pressing indeed, as there could be no possible answer. But this logical limitation on God is a very minor one. Christians can limit God in this way and happily go to church, pray, take communion, read their Bible and be comfortable Christians without being disturbed in the slightest that God can't make 2+2=5. In that sense it is acceptable to limit God's omnipotence in this way - because limiting in that way doesn't really disturb or undermine Christianity in any way. And from this limitation theodicy becomes possible.

However there are unsatisfactory limitations of God's omnipotence. Process theology says for example that God is not omnipotent, that the universe is God's body, and that God, through his body, is in the long process of cultivating a perfect reality, but he cannot do it immediately because he is not all-powerful (think of it like tending or growing a garden). Therefore suffering exists.

It should be clear this is profoundly unsatisfactory. How did God cure people who were sick during Jesus ministry? Why doesn't he do much of that now? How can we know our prayers do anything? How can God guarantee a freedom from evil in the future, in our new society? Doesn't this contradict the scriptures which clearly state God can help us?

The next step I believe in discussions of theodicy, will be another limit on God's omnipotence, but one which, like the logical limit on making 2+2=5, doesn't post any hindrance of discomfort to Christians.

I was pondering the other day, about the idea that God could be limited in the sense that he could achieve the elimination of natural evil (in this case), but could only do so by sacrificing a greater good. We can easily put soteriology (soteriology = the study of Christian salvation) to use in a theodicy. I realised that one question soteriology answers is regarding divine hiddenness - or why God 'hides himself' to a certain extent from open displays of his power. I reason that if there was a good reason why God so hides himself, then conceivably, if some evil could be alleviated by God being divinely 'obvious', then that evil would have a sufficient explanation as to why it was not relieved.

First of all though, we need a good explanation of divine hiddenness, and we also need an evil God can only alleviate by not being divinely hidden. In the first sense, I already wrote a good theodicy for the deductive problem of nonbelief here. I very much recommend that you read this if you haven't already. In that, I detail how God's obvious existence is not necessarily implied under the hypothesis of Christianity. However that still leaves the technical problem of nonbelief which I haven't yet solved, which is about - instead of; is God's obviousness implied under Christianity, it is, is there anything logically incompatible about Him being obvious? I only lay out how it is not necessary in Christian soteriology that God is divinely obvious. I haven't posited a logical incompatibility though. Although I maintain it is reasonable based on my solution to believe there is one. In any case, if what I am about to write is true, then the cognitive dissonance of believing there is a solution both to hiddenness and to the evil is only as small as believing that my nonbelief arguments can be extended a little further, quite a small step.

In the second point, I dabbled a while back in the doctrine of panentheism, (it does not mean God is the universe, it means the universe is part of God but God is transcendent over it.) I have the feeling this doctrine is implied somewhat by scripture, and is certainly within the bounds of orthodoxy, but it makes me somewhat uncomfortable to support it nevertheless. Panentheism has a very good explanation for natural evil. According to panentheism, taking an Augustinian 'privatio boni' view of evil, natural evil in the world is simply the result of our bad relationship with God. If the universe is part of God, and we have a ruined relationship with God (via the Fall), then it stands to reason we would experience the universe (through our bad relationship with God) with negative traits. In this sense gratuitous, pointless natural evil would be everywhere - because our relationship with the ultimate foundation of the universe is marred by evil. In this sense there is no difference between a child dying of leukemia, a person being burned horribly, someone dying in a tsunami, or forest fires. They embody the same event of evil from humanity's lack of a proper relationship with God.

This actually does away with the problem of natural evil handily - but then again we run into the same problems faced by process theology.

But I maintain that it could be satisfactory for a Christian to believe in such a view, if we also believe that God is capable of alleviating natural evil, and the reason why he doesn't do so, is he would have to become divinely obvious to do it. (Let us say because to alleviate natural evil, God has to improve the spiritual condition of humanity directly.)

So in this sense we can believe that unlike the process theologian, God is omnipotent, and that God can in fact alleviate this horrible natural evil at any time. But we have inserted a greater good - the greater good of divine hiddenness. And if it so that natural evil is the result of a bad relationship with God, then maybe the only way to solve it would be to become divinely obvious. Therefore God allows us to suffer natural evil, because greater soteriological concerns are at hand. This can I think escape the problems process theology suffers in terms of undermining Christianity.

But one may reply a problem with this is that panentheism may be uncomfortable for many Christians. And I realise I need to provide doctrines that don't just cater to liberals or any one sect. In this case I believe non-panentheistic Christians can gain something from this as well.

The reason is that Christianity has always taught that natural evil is the result of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Even if one is a theistic evolutionist (which I am) it is dangerous to do away with this doctrine as the Fall is necessary to explain the first existence of evil. One therefore has to take a CS Lewisian/Catholic view that God allowed Man to evolve and put in us a soul, which then proceeded to Fall. But however one thinks about it, Christianity predicts the existence of natural evil from the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

The thing about panentheism is that panentheism gives Christians a mechanism of explaining how this is - the mechanism is that, Fall > Bad relationship with God > Universe is part of God > Bad relationship with the universe > Natural evil. But in a sense orthodox Christianity teaches the same thing without giving this mechanism, (simply 'the Fall led to natural evil.') So in this way a Christian can believe something like what I am saying, but also believe that the mechanism of the Fall can be explained in some way other than panentheism, but by something they consider more orthodox. In this sense the problem of natural evil can be solved for everyone.