Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Problem of Evil

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.


myartisfashion said...

Wow, that was a long post. I didn't read all of that, but great job for posting another blog.

myartisfashion said...

I just read the entire thing this time around, and I loved it! I love that quote by C.S. Lewis, "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." That's a good one, I love that C.S. Lewis guy :)

Bruce Young said...

I just made this comment today on "By Common Consent" (http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2008/09/god-broke-his-covenant/#comment-191434.

As usual, my wife Margaret sent me a link urging me to read this. I've done so very quickly (so my apologies if I missed anything essential).

Just a couple of quick comments: (1) I'm still feeling troubled by comment #3 ("I’m waiting for the day somebody bears testimony that God lives and is just because He gives us what we deserve"). I believe God lives; I know he is loving and just. But isn't the whole point of atonement that he offers us MORE than we deserve? As Shakespeare had Hamlet put it: "Give every man according to his deserts, and who shall 'scape whipping?" Or as he had Portia put it: "In the course of justice [i.e., mere justice, untempered by mercy], none of us should see salvation."

(2) I find many of the comments insightful and thought provoking (even the ones some call "despicable"). It's pretty clear that none of us--including those with the most insightful or moving comments--fully understands this problem of suffering. In some respects, the problem appears to be an unfathomable mystery. Yet some of those who have commented reject out of hand certain explanations (such as that God might use suffering as a scourge or to help bring about some greater good) while not rejecting other explanations (that God is helpless, that God has abandoned some of his children, etc.).

Since all of us are in a state of relatively abysmal ignorance, I think we might do well to be more cautious in deciding what is possible and what isn't. I worry that we may cut ourselves off from deeper understanding by too easily dismissing anything we initially find offensive. As I read him, Ivan Karamazov had that very tendency: because he found the suffering of innocents so disturbing, he rejected God and God's world rather than humble himself enough to at least consider that it all might somehow make sense, or at least be truly and fully redeemable. He chose despair over redemption because he couldn't make sense of redemption.

On the other hand, I also believe any potentially "despicable" explanation should certainly be prefaced by a humble acknowledgement of uncertainty and an affirmation of charity--we take no delight in the destruction of our fellow beings (D&C 109:43), and all we understand about God would indicate that he doesn't either.

I've had more to say on the problem of evil at http://faceofother.blogspot.com/2008/04/problem-of-evil.html.

Caleb Sanders said...

Dr. Bruce, I deeply appreciate your blog on "the Problem of Evil." It was a very compassionate and sensitive post. I do wonder though, as a devout reader of Levinas, what your perspectives are concerning his short essay "Useless Suffering" in which he takes up the problem of evil in a very direct fashion. Levinas' primary argument is that any attempt to explain away or justify the suffering of another (i.e., any theodicy) is an inherently violent endeavor. Given the absolute alterity of the other we simply do not means of comprehending his suffering--and we do him an injustice when we seek to totalize his unknowable pain. In this way, Levinas sees in the useless suffering the end of theodicy.

How does your theodicy withstand the Levinasian critique?

Bruce Young said...

Hi, Caleb. I haven't read Levinas's "Useless Suffering" (and I should read it). But knowing much of his work, I could make some guesses as to his view. I'll approach the issue, though, by doing some personal pondering.

Obviously, theodicies (like explanations in general--but maybe more so) are of limited usefulness. I think we engage in these sorts of explanations because we want to understand, we want some kind of comfort when we feel threatened or confused. So maybe we engage in theodicies in part for our own sake--to make sense of our own suffering and to make sense of the suffering of others insofar as we ourselves are bothered or pained or confused by it.

I think we also want to come up with explanations so we can be of help to others: so we can comfort or alleviate confusion. And I think our explanations can be useful to an extent in accomplishing such aims. But of course any explanation is limited and imperfect.

What I suspect Levinas would want us to see also is that ANY explanation of the meaning of someone else's experience runs to risk of being impertinent and unhelpful because (as you've said) we simply cannot comprehend the other's suffering. We might be able to make some semi-accurate guesses about it. But even then, it is HIS suffering, not ours. Our attempt to understand it, to set it in a meaningful context, to explain it, runs the risk of seeming to "explain it away," trivialize it. And it runs the risk of our acting as if we have taken possession of the other's suffering--reduced it to an image or a concept (even if it's a complicated, multifaceted one) grasped by our consciousness. But of course such a "possession" (whether we realize it or not) is illusory: what we've reduced the other's suffering to is not the same as the other's suffering, which we could understand (if at all) only by experiencing it along with him. If we think we've actually comprehended the other's suffering, we are mistaken, and that mistake will impede our capacity to be of help. And if the person who is suffering sees us as trying to take possession of his suffering, he may easily feel that his experience is being falsified and trivialized in our rendition of it.

So yes, I see great dangers in our attempts to come up with explanations and rationalizations of evil and suffering. As C. S. Lewis says in a book that attempts something like this very sort of explanation: "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."

If explaining the "meaning" or "purpose" of suffering is thus fraught with danger, what should our response be? I think Levinas would say we are responsible to help alleviate suffering (even if we don't understand it or can't justify or explain it), to give comfort, to ease pain, to try to bring healing, to seek to help others move through and beyond suffering in such a way that their existence can be meaningful. Most of that service to others has got to be practical, and as we've all learned, just "being there" usually is more helpful than trying to say something helpful. People appreciate our presence and our compassion far more than our attempts to justify or explain what is happening to them. In fact, such explanations often fall flat and wound rather than help.

Nevertheless, theodicies (with all their dangers and imperfections) can perhaps be at times--in the right circumstances, if offered in the right way--a kind of gesture of generosity, an attempt to ease pain and to bring healing. And sometimes they do actually help.