A New Take on Theodicy

Here’s a primer from Wikipedia, just to bring the discussion up to speed:

The term theodicy (/θiːˈɒdɪsi/ from Greek theos “god” + dike “justice”) has no universally agreed definition, but usually refers to the attempt to resolve the evidential problem of evil by reconciling the traditional divine characteristics of omnibenevolence, omnipotence and omniscience (an all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing God) with the occurrence of evil in the world. Although some arguments existed previously, the term “theodicy” was coined in 1710 by German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in his work, Théodicée.

A variety of theodicies exist. The Augustinian theodicy suggests that evil does not exist, except as a corruption of good, and occurs because of the free will of humans and angels. According to this tradition, evil occurs as a punishment for human sin. The Irenaean theodicy proposes that human suffering exists for human development. The theory proposes that humans are created imperfect, and that moral perfection is only attainable through the experience of suffering. The Holocaust has prompted reconsiderations of theodicy in Jewish philosophy; some philosophers have proposed alternative responses to evil. Similar to a theodicy, a cosmodicy is an attempt to justify the fundamental goodness of the universe in the face of evil and suffering.

Though I’ve personally run up against the seeming injustice of life in recent years due to the extremity and number of Jenn’s health issues, I generally don’t struggle a lot with “the problem of evil” on a philosophical basis (though I’m sure I did at one time). I think I’ve generally fallen into the camp of Irenaeus, thinking of growth through life as necessarily painful, much as a woodcarving doesn’t become beautiful without a lot of painful paring away of extraneous bits and pieces. But I’ve never thought of it as “necessary suffering,” per se.

I do understand how some people really have a problem with God over the issue of suffering, though.

In my Spiritual Formation reading yesterday, I came across the following rather remarkable statement:

We experience trials. We say they are tests, and so they are. Not that God is playing games with us. Far from it. Instead, as our love deepens and our capacities grow, he lets us share in the very reality that lies at the center of things. And we sense this growth as a cross. The stretching is painful. But in the letter of James, we are told not to think, ever, that evils are sent to us from God. Yet God lets us stand toe to toe and face to face with the evil that there is. He lets us be confronted by it, fight with it, flee from it, feel the pain of it. Somehow, in ways we don’t understand, God is attacking those same evils in a different way, twisting and bending them till they mean good for us.

I like that. I like the sense of adventure and partnership in the idea that God doesn’t feel like he must shield us from evil, that we are somehow so ill-equipped that evil would destroy us if it were not sequestered.

I still get the skeptic’s objection that God has stacked the deck by allowing evil to exist in the first place, that at a certain level the free will argument is chicken-and-egg sophistry. And I have a lot of sympathy for that.

But let’s face it: regardless of one’s philosophy of choice, we can accept that humans are drawn to challenge and adventure. We like roller coasters in the dark precisely because we don’t know what’s around the next speedy bend.

So from where I sit: thanks be to God for the chance we have, on a daily basis, to go toe-to-toe with evil, brandishing love instead of a club.

(Source: Clinging: The Experience of Prayer, by Emilie Griffin, p. 56.)

About Greg Wright

I have worn many hats as a writer and editor over the years. Unlike my scholarly and journalistic work from the "old days" at Hollywood Jesus, Past the Popcorn, or SeaTac Blog, the writing here is of a more overtly personal and spiritual nature. I hope it provokes you as much as it provokes me.
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