It's been a long time since I've posted. Much has happened with Margaret's documentary since I wrote about it in January. The problem is that I've been extremely busy and haven't felt I could afford the luxury of visiting blogland.
But last night Margaret showed me a discussion on Times and Seasons about "the problem of evil," and before I knew it I found myself adding a comment. You can find the entire discussion via the following link: http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=4512
I'm copying my two comments here:
(1) First comment:
As I started reading this post, I had lots of brilliant points to make. As I've read the comments, I find most of my points have been made (and made better than I would have), and new problems have been raised I hadn't been thinking about. I'll still try a stab at summarizing my thoughts, including some that came as I read the comments.
1. As stated abstractly, the "problem of evil" and possible solutions to it are no match for the actual complexity and mystery of existence.
2. When we say "evil," we mean lots of different things, and some of our logical difficulties come from confusion about what we mean by the word.
3. I think some of the commentators have underestimated the power of LDS theology in addressing the problem of evil. (But I'm not sure "finitist" is the best word for LDS theology--I'd like to radically reinterpret the concepts "finite" and "infinite"--and I'm not sure I want to reduce the restored gospel to a "theology." I'd rather think of it as a set of revealed doctrines and glimpses of ultimate realities that we are in process of beginning to understand.)
4. As some have already noted, LDS theology (or any view that claims that God did not create "the whole set up" out of nothing) is helpful in understanding the existence of evil in several ways. One is that the possibility of evil may simply be built into the nature of things. But as some have pointed out, that doesn't explain why God doesn't prevent that possibility from being realized. Our growth and ultimate happiness (which God desires) must require our exposure to, our intimate involvement in, just this sort of universe. That this is necessary must also be inherent in the nature of things. A God with absolutely no limits, who makes reality in any way he wants, could achieve his ideal ends in any arbitrary way he might choose. And so our ultimate good could, in that case, be achieved without evil, without suffering, in fact, without the loss of a single soul. Either God is working with a reality that has certain built in features, or he has for some reason created it the way it is despite the fact that he could have made it differently.
5. What struck me especially, as I read the comments--and what I had not been thinking about before--is this: Even if we grant that evil and suffering are in general necessary for our ultimate growth, it does in fact appear that some people have far more than their share of trials and some have far less. I don't think our premortal progress can explain all the discrepancies. (I could give my reasons at length, but I'll forbear for now.) Of course, we don't know the deepest needs of others or even of ourselves, and so theoretically this very uneven distribution of trials could be suited exactly to each of our conditions. But again, that doesn't seem to me an adequate explanation of what I actually see. (For one thing, do all the hundreds or thousands who suffer and die as the result of a particular natural disaster have exactly the same need for that experience?)
Though a good deal of what we experience may be customized to our needs, I'm inclined to think that much of what we experience--especially the suffering and losses and limitations that result from natural causes--is not deliberately and exactly designed to meet our individual needs. In fact, some people probably do suffer far beyond what they need to for their eternal good, and some may suffer far less than might be required to give them needed tutoring. In fact, I don't think suffering and evil and loss make complete sense if we look ONLY at this life. But I believe that there is a larger framework of experiences beyond this life--including tutoring, healing, and whatever else is required for our good--that will compensate for all the imbalances of our mortal experience.
When I shared this thought with my wife (Margaret the good and wise), she added another compelling thought: that this experience of evil and suffering necessary, it appears, for our eternal growth is NOT simply individual but communal. We may eventually experience vicariously the horrors and the triumphs that others have experienced in mortality. We are all intimately connected and, unless perhaps we resist our connectedness and retreat into isolation, we will share the experience of mortality as members of one another, members of God's family. That may be part of what Dostoevsky was getting at when he had Father Zosima say, "All are responsible for all and before all."
This vicariousness--of empathy, compassion, charity, and responsibility--certainly connects with the atonement, which, as several have noted, must be at the core of our understanding of "the problem of evil."
(2) Second comment:
First of all, hello to Jim. I hadn't made the connection (JWL=my friend Jim).
Second, in response to some recent comments, I agree that dealing with evil as a purely logical problem is interesting but ultimately not anywhere near as important as dealing with it as a reality. As C. S. Lewis put it, in dealing with suffering, "a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all."
Craig V mentioned my desire to redefine "finite" and "infinite." I'll leave that project for another day except to say that my understanding of the words is influenced by the thought of Emmanuel Levinas.
What's relevant here is perhaps this: Is our faith in God based on an ontological definition of God or on our personal relationship with him and our sense of his moral character? In the first case, certain outcomes are guaranteed because they are built into the definition. In the second case, we have confidence in God's promises because we know he is good and loving and keeps his word.
The problem some have with the second approach seems to be this: Yes, we know God loves us and wants to save us (bless us, exalt us, etc.), but how do we know he has the power to do so, if that power is not built into an ontological definition of his nature? My answer is similar to David Paulsen's: I know God is good and trustworthy. He tells me he has the power. I believe him.