Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Familiar Problem

Over at the Episcopal Cafe yesterday, there was this interesting post,Happy Monday morning. Let's discuss the problem of evil. I thought that was an interesting title - just the sort of thing that happens at my house. (No, really, it does! That's a tribute in many ways to My Best Beloved; but that's a story for another time.)

That post was stimulated by The Problem of Evil by Sr. Bernadette Reis, fsp. I can commend both her article and the responses at the Cafe. It is, after all, a subject that will never go out of style.

At the Cafe article, one of the respondents wrote of finding an understanding of the problem of evil that was "satisfying." My own response to that was, "I don't think anyone can or should find an understanding of the problem of evil that is "satisfying." I have the one that I can live with, but I take no pleasure in it, nor am I "satisfied" by it. It's simply the one that allows me to stand with integrity and still believe what I do believe about God.

I do get the question often. As a chaplain it's part of my stock in trade. As I said, I have the answer I can live with; and while I first want the patient to come to an answer the patient can live with, if asked I will share it. I preface it, though, admitting that it doesn't "satisfy" me. It's just what I can live with."

I do mean what I wrote about "what I can live with." I have an understanding that is as much about preserving my understanding of who God is, as it is about logically making sense of why bad things happen to good people - or at all. My response is a conscious compromise. It is, in the classic definition of theology, "faith seeking understanding," and not considering logical constructs hoping to find God.

Another respondent asked about whether the term "evil" applied to the lion hunting the zebra. I'm not sure it does; but I'm sure the related concern about "pain" does apply, and so I had to find an understanding that at least took that seriously. I don't want to anthropomorphize, but I do want to take seriously that other creatures are sensate, if not sentient.

And so I came to the conclusion that God withholds God's self and cries a lot. That is, God loves and wants us to love. However, to love - to really love - requires free will. However, that's not enough. I'm not sure what I want to say about the free will of a middle sized fish to eat a smaller fish. Rather, it's about the context that allows for free will - about what we see as "fallenness." We can imagine a creation within which "there is no pain or grief but life eternal;" but within that creation, is there really freedom to love - which is to say, freedom not to love? We would say that in perfection God is compelling, in the sense of being so wonderfully loving and attractive who could resist? However, if God is compelling in the other sense - or even in that sense - is the love real?

So, God has to leave room within creation for things not to be perfect - as animals after the Flood became carnivores, and we became omnivores (whether you take the Flood literally or metaphorically). God does indeed allow randomness and failure and pain, because without that latitude there is no real capacity for love. We can't love God and we can't love one another if there's no room to fail.

This is why I'm not "satisfied" with my understanding. I don't like the idea of God withholding God's self, especially when I continue to believe in what God can do even when it's not what God does do. On the other hand, I can believe in not giving children everything they want or preserving them from all pain. I've made that decision in my own life. So, I can imagine God making that decision in a context of love.

Now, there is some accountability, at least for us. Jesus said of the man born blind, "It's not about who sinned. It's about our opportunity to do good." I don't know about fish or zebras or lions, but I do believe we are accountable for the pain we cause or relieve, for the evil we do. I hope God is accountable, to God's self if not to us; and I believe that God suggested that by choosing to be one of us and accept just those limitations we have and those pains that we have. Indeed, if God truly loves us, God is in some sense accountable to us. I just don't quite know how I'm qualified to hold God accountable.

So, God has a creation within which stuff can happen. God doesn't enjoy it - indeed, God feels pain in it. God stands back to give room for us to love and to fail, and to show love for others. And God cries a lot.

As I said, I don't find that "satisfying." It's just what I can live with.


June Butler said...

Marshall, are you talking about me? Here's what I said at the Café:

Sister Bernadette's answer is the same as the most satisfactory explanation I had worked out myself.

June Butler

Marshall Scott said...

Great minds, June; great minds....

June Butler said...

I don't see a great difference between "the most satisfactory explanation" of the problem of evil and "an understanding...that I can live with." And "the most satisfactory explanation" is not quite the same as "finding an understanding of the problem of evil that is satisfying."

Not only do you misquote me, but you misunderstand me, Marshall. I didn't use the word "satisfying", nor would find understanding the problem of evil satisfying in the sense that I might find a good meal satisfying. A satisfactory explanation is one that is all right, adequate, in other words, one that I can live with.

Marshall Scott said...

Actually, June, I was quoting Jeffrey Shy. The concept of "an explanation that 'satisfies'" was central to his response at the Cafe. I can also appreciate an important distinction between "satisfactory" (in the sense that I understood him to use it - one that would leave one feeling satisfied, settled - and "most satisfactory" - the one that covers things as well as one can. I think I did understand you, but was responding to him.

I personally avoid the word "satisfactory" for precisely the reason he gets to: I don't want to make any claim that my own explanation leaves me feeling "all's right with the world." I think you can appreciate how in a pastoral situation that is more honest and more in tune with the person I'm serving.

Now, as to what you said in your first comment here: yes, I did misunderstand you. Because you and I are (I think) in agreement, I made that comment about "great minds." Thanks, though, for letting me know. I'm open to correction.

June Butler said...

Sorry, Marshall. I didn't get from your "Great minds..." that you were not talking about me. I think we come quite close to agreement then.
The problem of evil will always be a problem, and we must try to find a way to live with it.

In your role as hospital chaplain, you are called on much more often than I to articulate an understanding of evil that you hope will bring a degree of31 ldidat comfort and peace to the suffering and their families and friends.

June Butler said...

Sorry. I did not mean for my word verification to appear in my comment.

Marshall Scott said...

Yeah; I fear that's a familiar problem, too.