Theodicy (just a little bit)

PNGarrison makes some nice comments on theodicy in response to the final part of my essay on theistic evolution and design. He is, of course, absolutely right to suggest that the interest in some kind of theodicy is normal to humanity: “Why does God…?” comes even from the lips of babes and sucklings. So my main aim in devoting a section to it in the essay was to object to its becoming a controlling factor in theology. There are good reasons for the predominant attitude in Scripture, which is in essence, “Who are you to talk back to God?”. Amongst them maybe the most important is to guide us to a classical kind of theism in which God is not “just like us, only more so,” but the One who dwells in inaccessible light.

Still, theodicy must exist if only because anti-theodicy exists, and since the latter has become one of the “undeniables” in the origins debate, it’s worth at least showing that it can be denied, at least in part.

I used to wonder why God stuck with King David after such heinous crimes as stealing a soldier’s wife and having him killed in battle. Grace comes into it, of course, and David was certainly punished too. But a key point is that the sins of kings, like their good deeds, are inevitably greater than those of common people. David was expected to have multiple wives and concubines, and was legitimately sending whole armies to war and possible death. It went with the job. Most of us couldn’t sin as David did even if we wanted to.

I experienced this in a small way in my medical career. Someone once said that doctors are the only people for whom young ladies take off their clothes without moral implications. Arguably artists share that distinction, but it’s also quite unusual for an unimpeachable profession to include sticking needles in babies, cutting people open, learning secrets that people wouldn’t tell their spouses – and even in some cases withdrawing treatment in the knowledge that the patient will die. On the other hand, whereas for most people gossiping might damage relationships, for the doctor it could end his career. A lapse of concentration by a clerk that might send out a faulty invoice could by a doctor – very easily – kill.

This is worth bearing in mind, particularly when death in any form is blamed on God. God has far greater things to manage than us – even if we’re a king or a doctor. “Why did God allow death?” is an unanswerable question. But since he has built death into the system of life’s renewal, we cannot as Christians complain that God both gives and takes it. In Psalm 104.27-32 the Spirit presents it as his glory, not his shame, to control both life and death.

It’s surprising, then, that death is still the subject of scandal almost as much as the existence of suffering. I’ve just been reading Etienne Gilson’s study of final causation in relation to Darwin, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again. A difficult translation, but essential reading to show the futility of pretending that efficient causation can ever be a sufficient explanation of life. But on one page, he sympathises with biologists by raising their typical scruples about attributing final causation to the Christian God:

…nature abounds with disconcerting failures and flawed workmanship: sickness, the destructive ferocity of beings who live only by the death of others, the colossal mess in the reproduction of plants and animals in which seeds perish in their billions without this prodigality corresponding to any intelligible necessity.

I would suggest that in most of these cases, at least, the lack of “intelligible necessity” comes mainly from insisting on adopting the viewpoint of an organism’s individual interest. This is inevitable if ones science only sees life in terms of an individual Darwinian struggle. In the human arena, we’d never think of adopting such a narrow perspective: tax decisions benefit the body politic at the expense of the individual, and even vaccination causes the individual discomfort and risk for the greater good. Only teleological explanations cast light on these things.

Sickness is only a “failure” or “flaw” if it serves no purpose. Yet the viral genome has been considered by some to be the major source of genetic innovation, and studies have shown parasitism to be more important than predation to the maintenance of ecosystems.

Regarding that predation, one man’s “destructive ferocity” is another’s “maintaining species health”: I’ve written recently about the benefits observed by reintroducing top-level predators to Yellowstone National Park. In any case, does not the whole of the biosphere “live only by the death of others”? As one writer said, most predators are really just rather impatient scavengers. Plants do the same job at a more relaxed pace.

Do we really accept that the prodigality of much reproduction is a “colossal mess”? I once treated a schizophrenic whose mantra was “It’s all a complete mess!” and it was no more unreliable or subjective a viewpoint. The “wastage” of Pacific salmon spawning (and the adults’ death) is the primary source for replenishment of nutrients in forests on the US east coast. The prodigality of the plankton bloom in oceans wordwide forms the basis of their biodiversity. All this is only a “waste” if the plants and animals see the death of a seed as a personal tragedy – for which evidence is lacking! Objectively, it’s no waste at all if it is essential for the ecology. One might be critical of God if all this reproductive activity failed to maintain the species, but we don’t see evidence of that either. Everything has been recycled successfully for 3.5bn years, and what hasn’t stayed in the bisophere has been recycled in the lithosphere. That’s a successful economy!

PNGarrison, in his comment, writes:

I’m not too disturbed about the insects that get their guts eaten since I have serious doubts about how much insects experience anyway.

He’s absolutely right – some insects don’t even have nerves in their abdomens. This example is a classic, going tight back to Darwin’s correspondence with Asa Gray about the parasitic Ichneumonidae:

There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.

Darwin wrote this in 1860, so maybe he had some excuse for not knowing that the insect nervous system is segmental, not centralised (as Brandt explained in 1876). But given his close observation of nature, it would be surprising if he hadn’t observed that:

…[a]n insect with a damaged foot doesn’t limp. Insects with crushed abdomens continue to feed and mate. Caterpillars still eat and move about their host plant, even with parasites consuming their bodies. Even a locust being devoured by a praying mantid will behave normally, feeding right up until the moment of death.

It seems as if the “misery” he discerned was more anthropomorphic or aesthetic – it was the yuck factor, rather than the uncovering of a harrowing reality. Darwin’s “explanation” of such phenomenma was this:

“[T]o my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as… ants making slaves… not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

But does the conclusion follow the observation? Wasp parasitism or ant slavery is nothing to do with strength or weakness, but with unusual strategies more comparable to cunning (despite a segmental nervous system!) than strength, if we have to anthropomorphise at all. But of course, we don’t – or at least we shouldn’t, if we are approaching this in any kind of scientific way.

Comparable examination such as this article can help temper anti-theodicy regarding other animal groups too. One might say that even a small amount of suffering is a problem to theodicy, and that’s true. But accurate analysis of the issues is an important first step. And what so many of such investigations show is that complaints of suffering, inefficiency, waste or bad design are in many cases demonstrably based on failure to consider every aspect. For the skeptic that necessitates a “blame of the gaps” – “OK, insects don’t suffer… but how do you know antelopes don’t?” or maybe even “Evolution doesn’t do teleology, so ergo this suffering is purposeless.”

For the believer, though, such knowledge ought to give one a certain amount of confidence that, since God says he cares for everything he has made, maybe he’s not lying. That may at least, to continue PNGarrison’s argument, encourage us to pray without too much fear.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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