Speculative Theodicy

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Speculative theodicy is an enterprise with major intellectual ambitions and one that gives many hostages to fortune. It hazards assumptions about the weighing of good and evil, about their conceptual relationships and about the character of divine intentions. Our sample discussions of responses to the problem of evil will show that not all writers wish to go down this path. Many of the complications of speculative theodicy can be avoided if one of the divine attributes is sacrificed at once (see Plato on divine omnipotence below). Moreover some theological writers think the enterprise is radically mistaken. In the last section of this chapter we will look at versions of minimalist and practical theodicies which attempt to avoid the job of speculating about divine purposes and the economy of evil altogether. But first some sample treatments of theodicy in its speculative guise.

In the first example of such discussion which we shall consider, we find Plato simultaneously placing such weight on our moral perceptions and on our belief in the goodness of God, that he is prepared to sacrifice the omnipotence and even uniqueness of God.

Then the good is not the cause of all things, but of things that are well it is the cause—of things that are ill it is blameless.

Entirely so, he said.

Neither, then, could God, said I, since he is good, be as the multitude say, the cause of all things, but for mankind he is the cause of few things, but of many things is not the cause. For good things are far fewer with us than evil, and for the good we must assume no other cause than God, but the cause of evil we must look for in other things and not in God.

(Plato 1963:626)

Plato's view is thus very plain. If it comes to a choice between limiting or denying the goodness of God and the power of God, he would choose to question God's omnipotence. As we see, he spells this out very plainly in the Republic, and in the Timaeus he elaborates the picture of God as a craftsman who fashions out of pre-existing matter the world in the form in which we experience it.

God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the other.

(Plato 1963:16)

To put not too fine a point on it, Plato suggests that God did the best that he could ('good...so far as this was attainable'). The reasoning has the classical form which Hume used to tease the theologians:

1 God is good.

2 There are elements of the world which we experience which are less than wholly good.

3 God is the creator of this world.

4 God as good cannot be the cause of what is evil.

5 There must therefore be causes which are not dependent on God.

6 God is not therefore an all-powerful or omnipotent creator.

In Hume's terms God is willing to prevent evil, but is not wholly able.

Now whatever the plausibility of Plato's reasoning, there is no doubt that this element of Platonic thought has been present as an undercurrent at least, in the Western philosophical environment in which Christian theology as we know it developed. It resurfaced in various ways, and from time to time almost as a form of Manicheism, at the centre of whose philosophical position is a radical form of dualism which separated matter and spirit, such that even God is thought of as a stranger in this world. This religious movement, encapsulating elements from a variety of religious and philosophical sources, whose founder Mani was born in the second century, attracted the young, sceptical Augustine and was sufficiently vigorous as a proselytizing movement to be selected for specific polemical attention by the mature Augustine. (An interesting illustration of the undirected ebb and flow of ideas is that in his eventual rejection of Manicheism, Augustine drew upon alternative strands of Plato's thought which had for a time much greater positive influence in the development of Christian theology. These were the elements of Plato's thinking which provided the inspiration for the complex of developments grouped under the label neo-Platonism, and I shall return to this in due course.)

The possibility that God might be a God who is not omnipotent has been given a renewed currency in the last century and more by thinkers as radically divergent as John Stuart Mill and those who can be classified as Process Theologians. The one point held in common by Plato, Mill, and the Process thinkers is that some limitation to God's power is to be preferred either to the rejection of the goodness of God, or to the denial of the presence of evil, pain and suffering in the world. For example, Mill binds together the inheritance of Plato and the Manicheans in his own account of The Utility of Religion as follows:

One only form of belief in the supernatural—one only theory respecting the origin and government of the universe—stands wholly clear of both intellectual contradiction and moral obliquity. It is that which, resigning irrevocably the idea of an omnipotent creator, regards Nature and Life not as the expression throughout of the moral character and purpose of the Deity, but as the product of a struggle between contriving goodness and an intractable material, as was believed by Plato, or a Principle of Evil, as was the doctrine of the Manicheans.

(Mill 1874:116)

The role which this leaves for the believer is then that of 'a fellow-labourer with the Highest, a fellow-combatant in the great strife', hence justifying the claims of a utilitarian for the 'utility of religion'.

David Pailin brings out well how close in certain respects this is to the views of some Process thinkers when, in exposition of the views of some of those who belong to that group, he contrasts their view with that of a more traditional account of salvation, in which God is expected to intervene to prevent suffering:

It is blasphemy against the divine goodness, furthermore, to try to explain the fates of those who suffer and of those who do not as due to divine choice. Such an 'explanation' transforms the object of unqualified adoration into a monster. So far as handicap, want, disease, and warfare are concerned, theistic believers have to realize that it is their responsibility to find and effectively implement the remedies.

(Pailin 1989:203-4)

What gives legitimacy to discussing each of these otherwise disparate thinkers together is their refusal to allow the unambiguous assertion of the goodness of God to be displaced from centre stage, even if the price has to be the acceptance of a degree of limitation in the power of God.

My own comparatively bold thesis is that much of the response of Christian theology to the problems of evil and suffering can be read as an attempt to avoid such an evidently heterodox conclusion without compromising belief in the goodness of God. The strand of Plato's thought which I have exposed and compared with a very specific passage in John Stuart Mill's writing implies a form of dualism. By that I refer to the very basic point that if there are limits to God's power, then these limits must be set by what lies outside that power, or what in that sense is 'other' than God. Now, we are other than God, but that claim is not thought to compromise the uniqueness of God in Christian theology, for we are creatures, created by God, who are thus expressions of God's power rather than limitations to it imposed upon God.

This brings to light a most important issue for Christian theology, if that theology is to attempt to grapple with the most far-reaching issues thrust upon it by the presence of evil and suffering in this world. If we do not wish to develop a form of dualism in accounting for the presence of evil in the created order, then what account can we give of the relation between God and his creation? Ironically, the source of the most comprehensive theory to be developed in this context is the same Plato as the author of the Republic and the Timaeus upon whom we drew to formulate the question in the first place. In his extant writings there is no formal reconciliation offered between the Plato who for good educational reasons did not wish to imply that God or the gods were to be held responsible for evil, and the Plato who distinguished between the ideal world of the Forms and the world which we perceive, and who claimed that absolute being or reality belonged only to the world of Forms, of which this world is but a pale and insubstantial imitation. The idealism and monism of Plato the metaphysician was what was preserved in the various legacies which Augustine encountered in neo-Platonism, and which he used to construct a theological and metaphysical system with which to counteract the forms of dualism to be found in the Manicheism of his youth. The presuppositions of the metaphysics upon which Augustine drew are not immediately clear and comprehensible to those of us who are separated by a millennium and a half from then, a period which includes the development of the empirical sciences and their refinement through the Enlightenment. The implications for theology in all this as well as for the theological response to evil and suffering are very great, and they demand elucidation.

A foundation stone of empirical thought and scientific enquiry is that the world in which we live and which we investigate with increasingly sophisticated techniques is the real world; and it is a world of many distinctive and distinctively existing things, be they tables or chairs, planets or galaxies, molecules or microbes. In the end, Plato the metaphysician believed that what was real was not this empirical world, but an ideal world, and that ultimately what was real was unified and unitary in form, rather than plural. Anything which did exist did so only in so far as it was an expression, or instantiation (or in later thinkers an 'emanation') of what existed in ideal form; and it was even the case that what existed in such ideal form did so only as it drew for its reality on the ultimate source of being, the Idea of the Good.

In such a pattern of thought, things encountered in our experience did not exist in themselves independently, but only as expressions of, or emanations of, what did exist absolutely and independently. Things existed only up to a point, or to the degree to which they participated or shared in the being of what existed ultimately or in itself. The implications of this for Christian theology were very great, not least in the account which was given of evil and suffering. If what we experience exists not absolutely but only to a certain degree, then it was important to discover to what degree evil, pain and suffering exist. Augustine's bold answer, adopted thereafter by Aquinas and many others, was that evil came at the very bottom of the order of degrees of reality: indeed, so far down that order that its existence was marked and indeed 'constituted' only by the absence of something else—privatio boni, or the absence of good. It was in itself 'no thing'. It had no reality or actual existence to any degree whatsoever. Such a view had a number of significant advantages. On the one hand, since evil did not exist, there could be no question of holding God responsible for it. Thus there was no immediate danger of compromising the goodness of God, or of questioning the omnipotence of God. Nor by implication was there any reason to undermine the foundation stone of this view by opening the door to dualism. By incorporating this, as it now seems to us, 'abstruse' metaphysic, Christian theology had reconciled once again the goodness of God with his omnipotence. Historically, however, there was a price to pay, and as metaphysical presuppositions changed so the whole implicit theodicy came to seem implausible.

The difficulty facing those who would seek to reconcile the goodness of God with the omnipotence of God and at the same time accept the reality of pain, suffering and evil in this world, reasserted itself as the plausibility of the metaphysics of neo-Platonism was questioned and finally rejected. A number of alternative strategies were devised and tested, and I shall consider the most influential of these in the remaining part of the chapter. The first of these combines two related elements, each of which is important. The first element is to assert very firmly that much pain, suffering and evil in this world is the consequence of human action. The second is to stress that the laws under which the natural world is perceived to operate are constant and that if they were not so, then, minimally, human life would be so much the poorer, and, more radically, inconceivable.

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