The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Problem of Evil (Briefly)



AG and I had another encounter with my favorite atheist last night, and I should say that I proved once again that I will do almost anything for a good bite to eat. So this time around, I had to listen to some of his objections to a theistic universe. One of the main issues that he has is the problem of evil, which you can read all about right here.

While driving home, what struck me again is how much of a distaste I have for most philosophical conversations. When you arrive at the discussion, you have to assume that your interlocutor is making the same assumptions about the world as you are, and this is infrequently the case. Once you get into the thick of it, you will find that all you are doing is flinging polemical if polite phrases at each other, and both sides of the conversation only build on the assumptions that they started out with in the first place.

Argue all you want about the problem of evil, but the main assumption of the one posing it is always the expectation that the universe does not live up to his expectations. In other words, he thinks that he deserves better. I think that if I were dictator of the universe, the only people who would be allowed to pose the problem of evil would be the saints. Everyone else has no excuse. If we would just look at the disorder within ourselves, we would understand completely the disorder outside of us.

I do not mean to belittle tragedies such as genocide or the deaths of children. These are tragic, and no barrage of syllogisms can ameliorate the pain that these events cause. But there is a modern smugness about posing the question on why God created this universe where evil things happens. When the people who pose it are members of the most powerful, prosperous society in the history of the world who have no fear of getting their lap-top snatched in a violent assault, this exercise for me seems to be pure mental masturbation. No sufficient answer could ever be given anyway since he could always pose a universe that is better than the one he is living in now. Things would spiral into a sort of inflation of expectation that even God could not pay out this side of the eschaton.

But what else can you expect in trying to look for an answer inside yourself for these things? If I want one thing for all that I come across, it is not necessarily that they agree with me on anything important. I would rather that they break out of the molds that they have sealed themselves in so that they can see things in a new light. And for me that means stepping out of yourself and into the skin of the Other. As I have said before, the Truth is not within, it is outside of you. Only when you leave yourself and detach yourself from your own assumptions about the world can you finally return to who you really are, and then give yourself over to the Truth. Anything else, in my opinion, is merely a self-serving rhetorical exercise.

I have the feeling that my session over the plates of dim sum was the latter, not the former.

21 Comments:

At 1:52 PM, Blogger FrGregACCA said...

Interesting. Sounds like conversations that I am usually trying to avoid, often with close relatives (or one of them anyway, but not about the topic in question).

You wrote:

"Argue all you want about the problem of evil, but the main assumption of the one posing it is always the expectation that the universe does not live up to his expectations. In other words, he thinks that he deserves better."

Motives, of course, are often hard to ascertain. In many cases, however, the atheism that proceeds from this is protest atheism: "the only excuse for God would be that He(She/It/They) does/do not exist". My answer, at least, is rather simple: "From whence does the notion come that the world is not what it should be?"

 
At 6:56 PM, Anonymous Hung Lo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 11:28 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

If I start talking philosophy or religion on Monday, please feel free to change the subject forcefully. :)

While I'm thinking about it, you should email me your contact info and address so that I can map my way to Berkeley. The place seemed pretty confusing the one time I went, so I'd like to make sure I know where I'm going.

 
At 6:36 AM, Anonymous Jimmy said...

Walking hand and hand with death
the Devil mocks our every step

 
At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Todd Anthony Shaw said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 5:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HMMMM now if there be too much evil and there is not Justice in this world would not that be attributable to the master plan including a correction, a Final Judgement, at the end of it all? Now if you can bring your atheist friend imaginatively to that final Judgement, do you think it'll be Justice he'll be asking for from the Dreadful Judge or Mercy?

 
At 9:34 PM, Blogger Patrick said...

Arturo,

Come now, I don't think that's quite fair. As I said, I don't think the Problem of Evil is a reason to disbelieve in a powerful and good God, but that it does imply some tension between the meaning of "good" in the moral sense for humans, and the "good" you attribute to God.

The one thing in your post I object to is the notion that, as a being myself complicit in moral evil, I have no standing to criticize the form of the cosmos. The moral evil in myself is part of what I criticize; even as I struggle to act with integrity and love, I can be aware that an omnipotent being could have granted me (or one such as me) success instead of failure.

I think (to be frank) it evinces a lack of imagination or an outright self-deception to assert that the good attributes of this cosmos could not have been made without the vast extent of that moral evil we see in ourselves and others. (Cf my argument over on my blog; I won't recapitulate it here.)

If there is a God of the sort you believe in, then He chose this cosmos in full detail, according to His own purposes; and you simply have to come to terms with that whenever you call Him good.

 
At 9:45 PM, Blogger Patrick said...

Fr. Greg:

My answer, at least, is rather simple: "From whence does the notion come that the world is not what it should be?"

On one level, the response is that the atheist needs not to believe in any sort of evil to discuss the Problem of Evil with a believer, since it is only an assertion that the believer's ideas of good and evil and omnipotence and God are in conflict.

But of course I do still in fact believe that the world is not as it ought to be, not only for the sake of argument, but in reality. But I don't believe that this moral sense has an objective justification, only that it is a presupposition of my human thought which I can't abandon without doing violence to the parts of myself I care for.

Anonymous:

I can't and won't speak for all apostates, but if I am mistaken and if after death I come to the Seat of Judgment before Christ, I will bow down before the Truth and confess having been unable to believe such good news. What He, in His justice and mercy, would decide to do with me is His matter.

In other words, I would do then only what I am doing now: bowing before the Truth, as clearly as I can see it, no matter the perceived consequences.

 
At 8:06 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

"The one thing in your post I object to is the notion that, as a being myself complicit in moral evil, I have no standing to criticize the form of the cosmos."

You can criticize all you want, but the idea that you in the end are the supreme arbiter of what constitutes a just cosmos is something that I object to. The very belief in God evokes the idea that I am fundamentally unable to make a definitive decision about what this universe ultimately means. Given our position in this universe (weak, mortal, ignorant of many things) this for me is a very rational presupposition to make.

Your problem is not a rational problem. It is a problem of surrender. It is the same type of surrender that renders us obligated in the things of love. You are unable to do it. But to wonder why there is evil in the universe and then to fail to posit a universe that is "good enough" to have been made by an all-benevolent God is just avoiding the real issue at hand. And I speak from personal experience on this one.

"I think (to be frank) it evinces a lack of imagination or an outright self-deception to assert that the good attributes of this cosmos could not have been made without the vast extent of that moral evil we see in ourselves and others."

I never argued that in my post. But I suppose God could have made the universe without traffic jams or in-grown toe nails? Would that have made the universe worthy of an all-good God?

"If there is a God of the sort you believe in, then He chose this cosmos in full detail, according to His own purposes; and you simply have to come to terms with that whenever you call Him good."

Yes, and if I have chosen my significant other and she does things that I might not understand at the moment, then does that mean I have to break off the relationship right then and there? Does that mean that she is not what I think she was, that she is a fraud, and that I have been deceived all along.

The same principal applies with God Himself. Yes, we don't understand His ways. Things happen that are very tragic; I have had my share of those experiences. But for the believer, this does not pose a threat to his faith. We don't have the expectations of God that you seem to think are the logical ones that theists should have.

We don't expect God to make us "optimally happy" in the here and now, just as you shouldn't expect to have marshmallows for dinner or to drive a Lamborghini. Such expectations are childish. What makes us truly happy? What constitutes our absolute Good? What we want? What we expect? And if God doesn't deliver, that means He isn't good? That sounds like a tantrum of a four year old.

And as for real tragedies in life, the cosmic catastrophes that really do make us question the existence of God, all I can do is reiterate that the profound knowledge of the world and our place in it may help us understand why these things happen. Even our small remarks of unkindness or our little acts of covetousness, if examined closely, are seeds of weed of human evil that can easily spiral out of control into genocide and murders if put in the right circumstances. Thus, I don't regard these questions as something outside of me, as things that as a completely rational person I would never do. I rather regard them as threats inside of me, as things that I as a person with free will am perfectly capable of committing myself. In this way, I can say with Our Lord that, "only God is good", and I mistrust my judgment enough to pose the question otherwise.

If you want to seal yourself in your own mental shell of an empty cosmos, that is your prerogative as a modern man. I can't force you to believe, nor would I want to. But your ideas are just as "irrational" as mine, and in the end, I think they are due more to personal issues than you would care to admit.

 
At 7:36 AM, Blogger the Cogitator said...

I was always fond of W. Hasker's argument about evil which went a little like so:

1. An objector to the sovereign goodness of God descries, and then decries, evil in the world God created.

2. The presence of such evil renders this world more bad than good, more of a divine goof than a vessel of glory.

3. But if the world is in fact so non-optimal, the objector should be willing to opt for non-existence over existent evil. This is because non-existence is utterly free from all evil and therefore implicates God in no evil whatsoever.

4. Seeing as the objector, however, opts for existence over having never existed, he indicates sheer existence, even in a fallen world, is a good that outweighs all evil in that person's life. Being as such is a supreme good in se, and therefore the evil which 'complicates' it can only be a minor complaint in contrast to the fundamental 'gratitude' which persisting and indulging in being exhibits.

Of course, suicides are a touch issue in this line of reasoning. But the thrust of the argument is for the interlocutor himself to look at the world on balance in his own eyes. If life in this world fundamentally outweighs having been 'spared' it, then God is not so morally scurrilous. Truly: life is a gift; it's a wonderful life; etc.

M. Liccione has written a fine paper about the "problemS" of evil, and his Thomistic case basically comes down to what I'll call "covenantal actualism'. His point is that God does not create 'people in general'; He creates YOU and ME and HIM and HER as concrete persons in real space-time. Being actual persons entails having actual histories. Sad as it may be, the actual production of YOU as YOU is wrapped up with a host of previous evils which interlocked historically, biologically, culturally, etc., to produce YOU YOURSELF. The dark mystery of evil is thus but the shadow cast by ourselves as we stand in the light of the greater mystery of sheer love. God, for no reason but utter grace, chose to create YOU and ME, and called us to partake in His glory; this sheer act of love was of such value in His eyes that He not only saw fit to 'bypass' other potential beings so that you could be created, but also deemed it worthy to create a 'non-optimal' world just so that He could delight in your sharing in His Being and, further, could delight in calling you to eternal glory in His Son. Choosing to draw a certain, actual picture entails NOT drawing countless others, and it entails making numerous strokes in all manner of 'disorderly', 'imperfect' ways.

 
At 7:17 PM, Anonymous Lancelot du said...

MERLIN

At your service, sir.

ARTHUR

Then answer me this. For years peace has
reigned in the land. Crops grow in abundance,
there is no want. Every one of my subjects
enjoys his portion of happiness and justice,
even those whose tiresome misunderstandings
we must resolve here each day. Tell me,
Merlin: have we defeated evil, as it seems?

MERLIN

Good and evil; there is never one without the
other.

Arthur is taken aback.

ARTHUR

Where hides evil, then, in my kingdom?

MERLIN

Never where you expect it

 
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