Towards a good creation theodicy

If, as I have tried to show over several posts, the Bible teaches that the creation as we see it today is not dysfunctional, either through sin or through evolution, and God is worthy of praise both for it and from it, it may seem odd to be thinking again about theodicy, the justification of God’s actions. But the undeniable truth is that we do not experience the natural world as unreservedly benevolent, and a number of “moral shortcomings” are also often pointed out in its workings over the last 4 billion years or so, before mankind ever came on the scene.

My first point is to remind you that whilst nature may not be fallen mankind is, according to Scripture. As I pointed out in an earlier post mankind’s role after creation was to “rule” and “subdue” the world. Maybe if we had not fallen into sin it might be very different now, as no doubt it will be after the second coming of Christ. Genesis also associates the original state of Adam and Eve (however they relate to the race as a whole) as having access to eternal life, represented by the tree in the garden. As far as human experience goes, natural evil is evil because it causes us suffering and death. If we were not subject to death or suffering (because of the life represented by the tree in the garden), natural evil would not affect us at all. And if it is true that, had we not fallen, our wisdom would have transformed the world along the lines for which we hope in Christ, natural evil would also not affect us.

In these two senses, then, nature is a cause of suffering to us, and is therefore an evil to us, though good in and of itself. Furthermore, the persistence and distribution of hardships from the natural world is said in the Bible to be a judgemental consequence upon us as a race, a function of God’s rule in the world both preventing worase evil and leading people to repentance. This is all classical Christian teaching, which is as much to say that the longstanding theological explanations of suffering in the world are as valid now as they ever were, and more sophisticated explanations worthy of discussion. But this should always on the understanding that we are not talking about a natural world suffering corruption, but a good world affecting corrupt humanity.

What then of the new aspect raised by the knowledge that the world of geological upheaval and biological competition has been going about its violent business since the Precambrian? As I have said more than once in this series, the core of my theodicy is that “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4.4). Nevertheless, it is a good thing to seek understanding.

And maybe one thing to consider in seeking understanding is Theory of Mind. For those not versed in psychology this is not a scientific theory, but a concept that every developing human being acquires – and of which no other animal, even the chimpanzee, has been shown to be capable. We really are unique, folks, however similar the genomes. Theory of mind is the ability to perceive that another individual is like us, with desires, feelings and intentions, and it begins to be demonstrable quite early in childhood. Not only is it the basis on which social intercourse, communication and speech can be gained, but it is the basis for our entire thought world – for imagination, empathy and even the existence of mind. How it is related to our human consciousness remains one of the great mysteries, but it is certain that without a theory of mind, there can be no conscious self-awareness.

This is important in a number of ways. For a start, morality (and therefore sin) are meaningless concepts in the absence of a theory of mind. Christ’s golden rule says the basis of morality is “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” That is simply meaningless for an individual without a theory of mind. He cannot even comprehend the words. For this reason, ideas about animal behaviour being “evil” or “selfish” are nonsensical. There is simply no comparison between a dinosaur munching up a tasty Iguanadon and a human, knowing that his brother senses and knows what he does, deliberately causing him harm. Knowing that his brother is deemed the sacred image of God, as he himself is, only compounds the difference.

The other, more mysterious, side of this is that it’s questionable, in the absence of any sense of self, what the Iguanadon actually makes of being eaten. It certainly objects violently, but we could program a robot to do the same in order to preserve its existence. In the robot’s case it has no sense of self, so cannot be said to suffer. In the case of a human, I know from experience that “I” suffer, because I am aware of being “I”. What do we know about an Iguanadon, or any animal, lacking a theory of mind?

What we can say is that our own theory of mind frequently misleads us, if for the most noble of reasons. We empathise with a character in a story, longing for her happiness, even though that person has no objective existence at all. I remember my brother (who has a rather unique take on life) drawing a grotesque cartoon character and feeling regret because he’d condemned it to exist… just lines on paper. And yet most of us will (at least at a superficial level) attribute feelings to teddy bears, broken down cars and indeed anything in the least susceptible to anthropomorphism. We are even keener to apply our theory to everything even than Neodarwinists.

But we can actually know nothing whatsoever about the inner life of any creature other than one of our own race. We may think we can understand God – but our analogies are worthless. Only by self-revelation can God give us some understaning of what analogies are valid, and they remain metaphors even then.

And, also, we think we can understand animals. Even in the science of animal psychology, the biggest pitfall is to read too much of ourselves into our subjects. But we can have no conception, in reality, of what it is like to live without a theory of mind – unless, of course, we are so mentally unwell that we’re unlikely to be able to consider the matter anyway. This is a good thing – it is the mark of a good man to treat animals well. But that would be so even if we knew that animals do not suffer. Why? Because if we get into the habit of suppressing our theory of mind, it will soon be not only animals that suffer. As it is, we cannot know. But equally, we are not being scientific to attribute to parasitic flies or parasitised grubs motives or feelings that belong properly only to our recently-arrived species.

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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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