Theodicy is the burden of Christianity, and it is a task caused by Christianity's own insistence on the primal goodness of God and creation. It is made even more challenging by the numerous insights which science has brought to cosmology. The cry of the tormented soul for some reasonable answer from the Almighty is found in Scripture and even in the mouth of the Son of God, whose experience of chaos and the seeming absence of divine justice issues forth in the cry, “Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani.” In the terror of the abyss of meaninglessness and evil, the appearance of moral order within the universe seems a facade undermined by the fundamental forces of violence and displacement that have operated within the universe. Even on a personal, psychological level, this meaninglessness threatens our psychological health against which faith can seem only carrion comfort.
“God, though to Thee our psalm we raise
No answering voice comes from the skies;
To Thee the trembling sinner prays
But no forgiving voice replies;
Our prayer seems lost in desert ways,
Our hymn in the vast silence dies.”
-From “Nondum” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
It is perhaps this challenge which stands as the most important challenge for Christianity, and is perhaps the most persuasive seed of doubt: the apparent absence of God in the world seems to challenge the claims both of God's omnipotence and His moral primacy. In the character of Voltaire's Pangloss we see a caricatured satire of a cold and unimpressive theodicy which sidesteps the problem of evil and replaces reflective thought with blind dogmatism. Versions of Pangloss' flawed arguments have often permeated popular and even clerical-pastoral attempts to understand divine justice in the face of unimaginable suffering. Other similarly flawed theodicies make their rounds, many of which can be summed up as follows:
1. A good God will not let anything evil happen without making something even better come of it.
2. God is a good God.
3. God will not let anything evil happen without making something even better come of it.
Besides more or less including the conclusion to the answer in the premises (since the entire issue of theodicy is whether God really is good), the assertions result in sometimes painful absurdities. I recently read an address that Pope Benedict XVI issued to a Japanese child in the wake of the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunamis. In it, the Pope answers the girl's questions about the suffering she must endure. The Pope, in what I believe to be a great sign of his wisdom, more or less answered that he did not know why she had to suffer. In the end, silence is preferable to the hollow assurances to the victim of some horrific calamity that “it is all for the best” or “God doesn't let anything happen that won't be for good.” A true theodicy is so difficult precisely because it must completely accept the meaninglessness of violence, and with the alien nature of what seems like moral evil, a disorder fundamentally opposed to the original intent of creation.
Greek mythology, like many mythologies, begin with primal violence. Chaos reigns in the depth of ancient Night; and amidst the eternal strife of warring seeds all peace and order must be superimposed. A god comes and arranges the Chaos, imposing order, although even this action cannot help but be an act of violence. Meaning and structure is super-added by intelligence, not present in the primal origin of things. Even the Biblical creation story follows in some degree in this vein, for although the differences outweigh the similarities the story in Genesis 1 begins with the void of the face of the deep and the Spirit of God moving upon the face of formless waters. While Christianity holds theologically to creation ex nihilo, the poetics of scripture require the story to be told as a series of steps by which God creates an ordered reality out of the void and perhaps meaningless deep of primal waters. This same poetic trope is found in Milton's Paradise Lost, as the poet sews together Christian and pagan imagery: Chaos reigns in the meaningless void of warring seeds, and Milton's Satan goes on a protracted journey through a primal Chaos seemingly identical to the Chaos of Greek Myth.
Meaninglessness and Chaos present themselves in these stories as the primal and original violence, antecedent to acts of ordered creation. The Christian doctrine of creation alters the fundamental relationship between chaotic violence and creation, indicating that creation in its original integrity is good, while the curse of violence is an alien disorder. This reversal, however, does not eliminate the strife which Chaos introduces, but rather imposes a heavy burdern on the Christian thinker: the burden of theodicy. If Chaos is primal, and creation is an attempt by some being to impose a livable and peaceable order, then there is no need to “justify the ways of God to man.” Violence and chaos can always be understood as the ordinary way of things, and peace is obtainable only through power; thus, any appearance of justice is reducible to power. There is no questioning such a god. Even if he is not like Zeus and does not sit with two jars to pour out on man, one of good and one of evil, his explanations of his actions, however seemingly good, would have no non-violent rhetorical force. In the end, such justice could only be the false mystery of might.
However, Christianity has through its conception of creation opened the door for the topic of theodicy. God is not an arbitrary force superimposing an extraneous order on primal strife (and thereby ironically confirming the rule of Chaos), but is rather the author of an ex nihilo order conceived in its origins as intelligible and good. The presence of evil and chaos in such a creation therefore introduces a tension that requires harmonization. The Greek hero may lament when the cruelties of fate and the arbitrary whims of the gods plunge him into deepest misery, but he has no real recourse to ask why it has happened. Zeus' actions are explicitly the arbitrary doings of a capricious god whose rule is founded on might and the thunderbolt, and to ask him why he does what he does can only serve to reveal the primal violence which underlies all apparent order (and will probably get you zapped). Job, on the other hand, seeks a fundamental and intelligible reason for why bad things happen to good people in a fundamentally good universe ruled by a good God, and even if his story's account of theodicy raises more questions than it answers it at least sets the stage and terms for a dialogue between God and man. That this dialogue is often conceived as wrestling only serves to further underscore the difficulties of conceiving primal peace.
Further complicating the issue of theodicy, scientific insights have led us to a cosmological model of violence; this is most appreciable in the issue of our understanding of evolution, which requires us to accept the continuous suffering of countless organisms. The universe has seemingly been revealed as a morally indifferent space filled with warring seeds, and even the orderly physical processes of the universe are usually cycles of displacement and violent disjunction. Morality seems to be a form of imposed violence, and even if we accept, as I do, Socrates' pronouncements in the Republic that justice is really good in itself and that justice is something greater than the might of the ruler over the ruled, our observations of the world leave us with lingering doubts tending towards Thrasymachus' insistence that justice is merely the advantage of the stronger. We live in a world in which moral order must be accompanied by might, and even if a few are persuaded on rational grounds experience has demonstrated the necessity of coercion to give teeth to law.
There is another way in which science, or more precisely scientism, has made the task more difficult. While science brings us understanding and knowledge, scientism, the attempt to transform science from an empirically based methodological system of inductive reasoning into a fully fledged philosophical and metaphysical system, has done much to make theodicy, like any non-scientific philosophical endeavor, seem illegitimate. I have discussed this issue much in other places, and will only repeat firmly here that scientism only serves to undermine science and fails to satisfy its own requirements; we are not bound as rational creatures to expect every truth or belief to be discernible through induction from observations, and any such claim is itself unjustified by its own criteria.
I certainly cannot claim to know more than the Pope. However, I have a hypothesis, which may be rubbish or which may have some amount of truth to it. This hypothesis is not at all intended to be an answer to the question of theodicy or even a theory of theodicy at all. It has to do with what I believe is a confusion between moral good and the goodness of creation. In a way it is a groundwork for theodicy, because I believe that a great deal of effort has been wasted in attempting to justify God on strictly moral grounds. To be more specific, morality is only applicable to the actions of rational beings capable of discerning things under the categories of “good” and “evil,” along with any number of the host of subsidiary moral vocabularies which have attempted to understand the depths of those two realities. Within Christian tradition, the notion of natural law affirms that man is unable to lose the primary precept of the moral law, which by some formulations is simply that one should pursue good and avoid evil. Now, I have had many questions and doubts about natural law formulations, not the least of which is to what degree such a precept could ever really serve as a helpful basis for morality. It is overly broad, and it seems that when it comes to secondary precepts of natural law, which are the more content specific prohibitions or obligations, natural law theorists tend to indicate that such precepts may become completely lost. Nevertheless, implicit or explicit expectations for social behavior does seem to be universal, and morality seems strictly peculiar to humans living in groups.
In other words, morality is only one species of goodness, and a contingent one at that; if the universe contained no rational creatures capable of acting in accordance with prescribed moral precepts, it would be impossible to describe any entity in that universe as morally good or morally evil. The primal “goodness” of creation, then, is not a moral goodness, although it is related to moral goodness as genus is to species. Rather, the goodness here is a goodness of actuality, as opposed to potentiality; it is a goodness of form. This actuality is filled with a great deal of violence and strife as beings jostle against each other and sap one anothers' energy in more or less mindless pursuit of the fullness of its own being. The mystery of the universe's goodness is found in the apparent darkness of its moral ambiguity: what I mean by this is that the universe is filled for the most part by beings of complete moral indifference that serve as a neutral background for what is often called the drama of salvation. Earthquakes, tsunamis, animal attacks, disease, and so forth are all part of creatures' pursuit of the perfection of their own forms. Poetically, we tend to focus on the beauty of creatures perfection without dwelling on the path that those creatures must take to reach such perfection. Thus the lion is a type of Christ; though it is a sign of the moral ambiguity of creation that the lion may also be a type of Satan. This potentiality for creatures to be significant both in bono and in malo is not itself a product of evil; only its actualization by means of a rational mind capable of the knowledge of good and evil can make a lion tearing up its prey become a sign of the threat of sin.
But what can be said about the experiences of rational creatures, whose knowledge of good and evil make them morally liable for disordered actions and allow them to view the universe in terms of goodness and evil? Most entities in the universe cannot be described as morally good or evil, yet many times they result in suffering for man; furthermore, man's knowledge of moral categories allows him to view himself in primarily moral relationships with himself, other men, and the rest of the universe. How does this ability relate both to the Fall, Original Sin, and theodicy?
The Fall links together Original Sin with the knowledge of good and evil. By possessing a will undetermined with respect to future contingent actions, man is free to choose his course within certain biological and logical constraints. However, by virtue of his rationality man is also aware of moral categories that are not pertinent to irrational creatures. This knowledge results in a subjective difference in man's perception of reality that in some way embodies and constitutes part of the curse of Original Sin. We know from empirical research that the story of Genesis does not constitute a literal-historical account of our origin, and that our evolution within time and space was not marked by some sudden and unprecedented curse of death, work, or toil; but through knowledge of our moral nature, the natures of good and evil, and our recognition of our own guilt, our entire perception of reality is altered from that of the brute and amoral animal. We are conscious of the world as the object of moral actions, and we are able to act beneficently or maliciously.
There is another side to rationality. Complementing our ability to view the world under moral categories is our ability to understand it, and not only to understand it through perception but to understand it logically, systematically, and rationally. The universe of matter and energy operate according to regular principles which can be grasped and understood; its neutrality is guaranteed by the rule of a set of natural laws which we have come to know better and better. Natural disasters are part of the universe as it is, the effect of the working out of various physical constants and relationships some of which are still beyond and may always be beyond our complete comprehension. They cannot be construed as being caused by human sinfulness.
Perception is an act in which the perceiver and the perceived unite, and as such perception is always subjective even though it is not groundlessly relativistic. As moral creatures we tend to see in the events of the world hints of morality which may not be actually present in the events themselves, or are not present in the events in the way in which they are perceived. Color is like this, as the color green truly does not inhere in grass but is available as a perception only in the mingling of the grass' chemical structure, the interplay of light on that structure, and its reception and process by our eyes and nervous system. This allow for the possibility that our perceptions of morality and meaning in what are otherwise morally neutral events are not mere constructs or delusions; just as the perception of the color green is related to an objective reality lying outside our minds, so also the perception of moral meaning in the otherwise indifferent events of nature are indeed related both to those objective events as well as our own moral constitution.
As such, in considering theodicy we must be constantly aware that our perceptions of the universe will naturally tend to see the moral significance of an otherwise morally indifferent universe. Natural disasters, as the working out of indifferent moral laws, are not moral evils and thus do not pose a problem to theodicy in themselves (although they will prove to be part of a larger set of problems for theodicy which I will discuss in the next paragraph). Furthermore, because man has a tendency to reject the precepts of morality, regardless of whether these precepts are human conventions or divinely revealed law, our moral perception of the universe is tainted by the desire to exploit and dominate. Thus, the knowledge of good and evil brings the possibility of spiritual death, in the sense that only as creatures in possession of such a knowledge and the corresponding perceptions it allows can we engage in sin. The actions that we take in the course of acting out sinful desires will have effects governed by the morally indifferent laws of the universe, which may or may not result in suffering. It is one of the curses of sin that it tends to multiply the suffering man experiences during his life, and as such theodicy can somewhat readily account for whatever evil directly and indirectly results from sinful action.
Nevertheless, this is not the most problematic part of theodicy, because the primary question is why God created a universe in such a way that such suffering might even be possible. Why should the universe be construed in such a way that natural disasters occur, even granting that due to the moral indifference of entities bereft of rationality and will these events cannot be classified as morally evil? Why should the goodness of creation, understood as the gift of actuality granted by God to creatures and by which they are themselves and act according to intelligible principles, result in suffering? Why would a morally good God allow this?
My initial hunch is that this arrangement is necessary in order for a will to be free. In order for a creature to make free and uncoerced choices he must exist in an environment which is morally indifferent to the choices he makes; if his environment is conformed in some way that prevents the execution of his actions based upon their morality, he no longer is a free agent, at least in the sense that he would not be free to actualize his choices. Such an environment would have to operate according to laws and intelligible, but morally neutral, principles, and the working out of these principles would and in fact do cause countless events over which moral agents have no or limited control. Thus, a universe in which natural disasters, understood as a deleterious event not directly or indirectly caused by human action or sin, occur seems to be required in order to allow a creature to make truly free choices.
Now this “answer” may still be unsatisfactory, because it means that the universe in its foundation and creation carries with it the seeds of suffering apart from the commission of any moral evil. But I do not mean, as I mentioned, to offer a theory of theodicy, but only to offer the suggestion that in order to “justify the ways of God to man” it is necessary to be extraordinarily clear on what this justification should look like. I think that any decent theory of theodicy must accept that the potential for suffering and strife is in some sense built in to the universe and perhaps even constitute part of its overall goodness; that, even if the Greek mythology is flawed in its representation of the relationship between chaos and order that there may yet be a grain of truth in the notion that strife may be an integral part of this universe. The real theodicy, I propose, is to demonstrate that this potential for strife is the deep mystery of the goodness of creation. We must face the reality of the universe as Leviathan, a creature of vast power and might unfettered by moral concerns and indifferent to our attempts to place it within our schema, yet still part of the unbridled and wild goodness of creation.
“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
Will it make an agreement with you
for you to take it as your slave for life?
Can you make a pet of it like a bird
or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?
Will traders barter for it?
Will they divide it up among the merchants?
Can you fill its hide with harpoons
or its head with fishing spears?
If you lay a hand in it,
you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
Any hope of subduing it is false;
the mere sight of it is overpowering.
No one is fierce enough to rouse it.
Who then is able to stand against me?
Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
Everything under heaven belongs to me.”