Other Routes

An increasing number of philosophers and theologians find themselves uncomfortable with the ambitions of speculative theodicy. For Ivan's question about the morality of God apparently bringing about or allowing evil for the sake of greater, future good, sounds more forceful to generations brought up with the knowledge of the Holocaust and like tragedies made possible by the powers developed by twentieth-century humanity. One question raised by such events is how far speculative theodicy can see them as tragedies. For on its account they are unavoidable parts of a greater good and therefore redeemed. Thus, the God of theodicy foreseeing them, or at least foreseeing that this kind of thing could arise out of his gift of freedom to creatures living in an autonomous world, thinks they are overall worth allowing or creating. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that to God, and thus to the theodicist, it is overall good that they should happen, albeit that when taken in isolation from their role in providential economy they are evil.

It can be argued that what is revealed by Dostoyevsky in the light of further reflection is that speculative theodicy demands an alteration of our moral sensibilities—those bound up with our sense of the tragic, unredeemable character of much evil. As James Wetzel puts it, it 'has banked on truncating our sensibilities against the rationalization of evil (Wetzel 1992:361). We might balk at this endeavour to challenge moral perception and instead seek to abandon the ambitions of the speculative theodicist. Both minimalist and practical theodicists endeavour to do just that.

Minimalist theodicists deny the need for a full-blown theodicy altogether. They opt for a 'defence' against evil instead. (See Plantinga 1977 for the arguments that follow.) This distinction emerges from the precise challenge they see arising out of evil. For minimalists the only weighty intellectual difficulty for theology in evil lies in the possibility that the proposition 'There is evil in the world' is formerly incompatible with the key claims about God's omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. If this possibility obtained, then Christians would hold beliefs which were logically inconsistent with one another. The minimalist offers a defence designed to show that it is logically possible for the claims about God to be true and for evil to exist. But there is no need to show that it is plausible or likely that the God of theology should create a world with manifold evils in it.

Often this stance goes hand in hand with a rejection of natural theology as an important part of the theological enterprise. Philosophers in the Reformed tradition will draw upon exclusive reliance on revelation by some in that tradition and add to it the fashionable philosophical doctrine that there are no substantive standards of rationality independent of particular belief systems. Then it is open to the minimalist to claim that there are no independent criteria of plausibility or likelihood which enable a speculative intellectual problem about evil and God to be launched and which would, in turn, generate the need for a full-blown theodicy.

If the problem is one of intellectual consistency alone, then there are two ways for minimalist theodicy to deal with it. One is simply to appeal to the intuitively discerned possibility that there could be some way in which God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil in the world, for all that we cannot say what this reason might be (Pike 1990:47). Another route to the same goal is to offer a proof that 'Evil exists' is formally consistent with the claims about God. One way of doing this is to find a proposition which is known to be consistent with those claims and which, if true, would entail that evil exists. In Plantinga the proposition in question is 'Human beings have free will.' And so we have yet another use of the free-will defence, though this time in a different context of argument. It follows that this version of a 'defence' against the charge of inconsistency is open to the challenges from Mackie rehearsed earlier.

Minimalist theodicies exhibit a number of notable features worthy of reflection. In denying that there is any notion of plausibility or likelihood to be applied to theology's assertions of God's goodness and power in the light of evil, they are going to the opposite extreme to the anthropomorphism noted above. We can form no expectations of what purposes for evil a good God is likely to have that are based upon analogies with a good human agent, and so no such expectations can be compared with the reality we find the world to be. Moreover, if we are content with an intuition or proof of mere consistency, then any amount of any type of evil in the world should leave us untroubled about God's goodness and power, so long as it is logically possible that a world of this type is one that God has a morally sufficient reason for creating.

As Wetzel notes (1992:355-6), such a 'defence' against evil leaves totally unexplained why believers should have been puzzled and challenged by evil in the way they have. And it robs the theologian of the obligation and opportunity to use his or her faith to offer any insight into the character of evil and the purposes it serves. This protective strategy can succeed only at the cost of denying that theology has anything illuminating to offer in this area of human experience and reflection. Wetzel's picture of the limitations of minimalist theodicy must surely apply in equal measure to the practical theodicies of some post-modernist theologians. As represented by Surin in Theology and the Problem of Evil (1986), practical theodicy is a wholehearted attack on any Christian writing about evil which endeavours to offer an apology for it. It is not for this way of approaching the subject to engage in speculations about an economy of good and evil in which the latter might be seen to be redeemed. Surin eschews all such generalizing thought about evil and its purposes. Instead he offers a theodicy whose aim is at least twofold: first, to enable, via the resources of Christian reflection, an authentic appreciation of the reality of suffering; and, second, to suggest means of drawing upon those same resources for responding to and coping with that reality. It is the charge of the practical theodicist that speculative versions of the enterprise, in allegedly apologizing for evil, hinder these two vital tasks.

No theologian would deny the importance of the two tasks Surin sets a proper theology of evil. But the denial of proper interest in the intellectual conundrums arising out of evil's existence in a universe created by a good God can seem merely like an injunction to change the subject. Does the practical theodicist deny one or more of the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence? If he or she does, then of course the intellectual problem may well not arise, but then this denial should be clearly stated and its consequences for belief in God explored. Does he or she instead tacitly make yet another appeal to mystery, supposing that, though we must use the traditional formulations, we understand them so little as to be unable to draw any inferences from them?

The practical theodicist wants us to stop asking what appear to be important questions. We should be wary in general of such aims. We are left (as Wetzel notes, 1992:363) with another version of theodicy which denies that theology has anything to say about the purposes of evil in the world's design, and which has no insight to offer into the question of how this universe does or might function as a moral order. Existential and spiritual questions have been at the heart of believers' disquiet about evil and suffering, but so have searchings for an overall meaning which illuminates the function of evil in a providential world.

The burden of this chapter is that speculations about evil form an unavoidable part of theology and an unavoidable source of questioning about its presuppositions. It is of the essence of such questioning to make us ask how far our moral sensibilities are challenged by the injunction to respect and worship a God who finds it overall worthwhile to make a world like this.

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