Recompense And Limitations

There are two further classic responses of theodicy which should be noted and which are often put forward as supplementary rather than alternative to the free-will defence. They are both well encapsulated in St Paul's haunting expression of human mortality: 'Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face' (1 Cor. 13:12). The two elements are the possibility of recompense and justice in the life to come, and the limitations of human beings in grasping eternal perspectives and strategies, for we can but 'see through a glass darkly', poor temporally bound creatures that we are. They are different faces of the same coin. Each makes play with the contrast between the short-sightedness of those who live life here and now, finite in space and time, and finite in perception, and the perspectives of eternity.

The idea of 'seeing face to face' is both rich and beguiling. Its richness is seen in part by the comfort which the related myths and stories about a life to come provide, via both consolation and hope, to bereft and grieving human beings. In part also it is seen in the many philosophical arguments which have been generated by the possibilities respectively of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. It is also intellectually beguiling, for it can maintain religious sensitivities about human finitude in the face of the eternity of God, while (and indeed by) postponing the possibility of an adequate theodicy until we 'see face to face'.

There are, however, two sorts of difficulty which confront this version of theodicy or its evasion. The first would distract from the main theme of the argument, and I have discussed it elsewhere (Sutherland 1967-8). The issue in question is whether we can speak intelligibly of 'surviving death'. In fact, as I have argued, I think that we can; but that does not solve the problem before us. This brings us to the second sort of difficulty. It is all very well reminding us of our finitude, but this is not a claim that is without moral import. Let us recall the quotation from Dostoevsky which is at the head of this chapter alongside quotations from Boethius and Hume:

Listen: if all have to suffer so as to buy eternal harmony by their suffering, what have the children to do with it—tell me please? It is entirely incomprehensible why they, too, should have to suffer, and why they should have to buy harmony by their sufferings. Why should they, too, be used as dung for someone else's future harmony?

(Dostoevsky 1968:250)

This is taken from one of the seminal encounters in The Brothers Karamazov

in which Alyosha, the novice monk, talks to his elder brother, the atheist Ivan. The argument, as these two brothers get to know each other once again after many years apart, is about what one can 'live by', that is, about one's most fundamental beliefs.

Ivan accepts all the implicit intellectual modesty of realizing that he has only a 'Euclidean' mind not fit to grapple with eternal questions. He accepts, that is to say, that now we 'see through a glass darkly'. He even accepts, at least for the sake of argument, that there might be a God whom we shall see face to face—perhaps even that there is a great cosmic plan at work to bring about, after this vale of suffering, some future harmony and recompense. Even granted all of that, however, there is still a difficulty—the children. In the novel, Dostoevsky gives in graphic detail examples of extreme cases of the abuse of children by adults, which sadly could be replicated very easily from the newspapers of today. The point is no less and no more than the issue raised throughout this chapter: the theodicy, the explanation, the justification of the ways of God to man is being purchased at the cost of dulling the sensibilities of our moral perceptions. If the presence of this suffering, the horrific suffering of young children, is to be justified in the light of some future eternal harmony, would we not in any analogous human plan reject it as flawed, or as a tragic consequence of human fallibility? If we do not follow a comparable line in the case of theodicy, then we are allowing our wish for a consistency in our theology to overcome deeply rooted revulsion at the suffering of small children. Ivan accepts the corollary to this, in what Camus called his 'even if'.

I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am a honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.

(Dostoevsky 1968:251)

And so in one of the most famous utterances in European literature, Ivan Karamazov throws down the gauntlet to theologians inclined towards comprehensive theodicy. It is a challenge recognised by Plato, Augustine, Boethius, Hume, and many others before and since. It is the challenge to ensure that one's theology, if one has one, and the theodicy which is implicit in it, are commensurate with the facts of evil, pain and suffering, and the power of human moral perception (surely one of the greatest gifts any creator could bestow).

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