On theodicy and humility

Einstein quote of the day:

The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.

 It is indeed a wonderful and strange thing that naked apes can understand so much about the working principles of the Universe. But this may be one area in which the anthropic principle actually does operate. We have no reason to believe we can understand everything, and some reason to suspect we wouldn’t realise that we couldn’t perceive the unknown areas. Perhaps what we know of the Universe seems comprehensible only because of our incomprehension of the rest.

Paul Davies in The Mind of God gives some indications of areas in physics and maths that might be beyond human comprehension, including some that can  be proved to be so. If such areas were shown to block any of the main highways of science, demonstrating beyond doubt that we could never understand key questions like say, the origin of life or the reason for the fundamental forces, the response of scientists might range from amused acquiescence to extreme frustration, or even denial. But for the Christian scientist, it ought to lead to humility before the ineffable wisdom of God.

How often, however, we fail to exercise such humilty in theology, where the very subject matter is the God who surpasses understanding. Theodicy is one example of this, particularly in the area of “natural evil”. Broadly, the problem goes like this. Augustine attributed natural evil to the fall of man, and that explanation has weathered well. But we now know that  natural evil existed for billions of years before man, so Augustine’s theodicy fails. Where, then, will we find a replacement theodicy?

One common category of answers, within the BioLogos model of theistic evolution at least, is some form of Process or Open Theology, in which the freedom God grants to creation leads, somewhat inevitably, to animal suffering, tsunamis and so on. God is vindicated because he either does not know, or cannot (justly or actually) interfere with the liberty of his Universe. Fitting this to the overt claims of Scripture that God plans, foresees and brings to pass the events in the world is tricky, and is usually resolved at the expense of Scripture’s trustworthiness. The justification for this is, of course, to vindicate the loving God of Jesus Christ in the face of a cruel nature.

But let’s look a little bit closer at the theology of natural evil. It’s not a subject that the Bible addresses directly at all, with some exceptions I’ll mention later. Instead, the Bible is full of claims about God’s sovereignty, wisdom, love, righteousness, faithfulness and so on but says very little in explanation of the daily evidences against these attributes, least of all in the natural world. God sometimes uses earthquakes as examples, and sometimes sends them, but never apologises for them. This viewpoint presumably reflects the attitudes and concerns of Israel’s community of faith in the Old Testament period.

The concept of natural evil, in fact, first comes from the Greek philosopher Epicurus after the Old Testament period. He it is who first posed the conundrum that a good, omnipotent God would not allow evil. (Incidentally I wonder why polytheistic Greeks always appear to be philosophically monotheistic!) Augustine was first a Platonist, and then a convinced Christian. So the problem of evil interested him as a philosopher, it interested those of his ilk whom he wished to lead to Christ, and he saw in the Genesis fall both an answer to the philosphical conundrum and an apologetic for the Christian concept of sin. Naturally enough, given the prevailing cosmology, he supposed that the fall came near the beginning of world history.

Furthermore, it appears that, like all his philosophical predecessors, he saw natural evil as something relating to human suffering. To him, like Epicurus, an epidemic was a disaster because people or their livestock died. It is doubtful whether an affliction of penguins in Antarctica would have struck him as an issue. Likewise an earthquake was only an evil if it occurred where humans had their dwelling. On that assumption, the discovery of deep time does nothing to negate Augustine’s model, though the denial of a historic fall does.

My main point, though, is that the coincidence of a philosophical conundrum and a “young earth” cosmology made Augustine’s theodicy theory opportune, rather than essential. And if it needs to be abandoned because cosmology has changed, it is legitimate to question if we need a replacement at all, when our Jewish forbears managed for centuries without one. I’d go further by suggesting that the lack of such a theory is actually a strong point of Old Testament theology that we have lost, in our Western prioritisation of knowledge over faith.

The most complete examination of unwarranted suffering in the Bible is the book of Job. Interestingly it gives us some insight into Job’s suffering (the testing of his faith by the angelic accuser) that the protagonist never shares. Instead, the book rejects easy explanations through the arguments of Job’s friends, and the answer it gives to Job (and to us) is not a theory, but a direct encounter with God as he is: sovereign, wise, loving, righteous and faithful – yet also incomprehensible. Job’s arguments are silenced, not answered, by God to Job’s complete satisfaction.

Maybe that’s a lesson to us – and one that we could also learn from our less philosophical brethren across the world. For I have it on good authority from a pastor in Sri Lanka that the tsunami led to greater openness to God, rather than less. Likewise the Armenian earthquake of 1988, which caused churchmen in the West to say, “Sometimes God just isn’t there”, actually led to religious revival rather than widespread apostasy. To invert Deuteronomy 29.29:

The things revealed belong to us and our children for ever, that we may follow all the words of this law, but the secret things belong to the Lord our God.

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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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