Evils and the Limits of Theology

theodicyIn perhaps the best theological piece on theodicy I have ever encountered Karen Kilby shows that “Christian theology ought neither construct theodicies, nor ignore the kinds of problems theodicies try to address” in ‘Evils and the Limits of Theology’. Theodicy, the problem of evil and suffering, deals with the quandary of how/why evil exists if God is loving and all-powerful. It happens to be a leading argument against theism, even if a relatively new one (a product of the Enlightenment when God-talk became abstracted and separable from tradition). Her basic thesis, even though not a “particularly gratifying one”, is to recognize theological questions regarding evil and suffering as legitimate ones but also recognize that we have no legitimate answers. Her reasoning behind this is due to the influence of Theology and the Problem of Evil and The Evils of Theodicy written by Kenneth Surin and Terrence Tilley respectively. Their argument is that by constructing theodicies we are essentially explaining evil away (reconciling ourselves to it) rather than deal with particular evils in their fullness. By shifting our gaze to the abstract theoretical level we are ignoring particular kinds of evils – explaining it makes it not so bad – especially if we think God permits it for the greater good (best of all possible worlds argument). The “moral dimension” to this is that we become complacent and apathetic towards particular sufferings and evil.

Kilby goes on to elucidate the uncomfortable argument of Marilyn McCord Adams in her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God who states that there are some evils that are so horrendous that they cannot conceivably be for a greater good of the individual or the globe; such as the suffering and death of children, genocide, rape, disfigurement, mutilation, torture, betrayal, incest, cannibalism, and the use of nuclear weapons on innocent populations. (We might also add that those who go through the “furnace of discipleship” don’t always come out with improved characters. Soul-making goes both ways). Even justifying evil by citing that at least the creator is suffering along with us is unhelpful for those who are actually suffering. It is just another theory attempting to get God off the hook and “diminish the scandal of evil”. Provocatively put by Kilby,

If I mistreat my children, then the fact that I mistreat myself as well does nothing to make it acceptable

As Christians we believe God will ultimately redeem evil and that good can come out of it, but this does not work as an explanation – primarily because it doesn’t always work that way. As shown, the mystery of God and the mystery of evil reveals how limiting and pathetic our explanations are. Why there are ‘answers’ out there, they end up doing more harm than help.

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3 responses to “Evils and the Limits of Theology”

  1. Matt Martin says :

    With all due respect to Kilby, she is not fully appreciating the work of such theologians as Adams or Moltmann when they do broach the question of the existence of evil. There are two basic approaches to theodicy: (1) to explain evil and defend God and (2) to provide hope. Kilby is caricaturing all theology as (1). She is obviously right to question the crass and dangerous ‘pop’ theodicies so fashionable with those who actually do not seriously engage with either Scripture or theology. To argue that ‘everything happens for a reason’, or that ‘God works in mysterious ways’, is to trivialize the tremendous and senseless evil that takes place every day in God’s Creation.

    However, it is precisely the insustainability of such an argument that leads Moltmann, throughout his work, to argue that theodicy is a critically important question for theology. Rather than engaging in a post-Enlightenment ‘philosophy of religion’ approach of turning theodicy into an abstract mental exercise or a ‘defense’ of God, Moltmann uses it rather as a crucial tool in the pastoral and doctrinal working of the Church. Against Kilby, Moltmann’s (and Adams’) theodicy is not a means of explaining evil away or defending God’s righteousness but of providing (1) a pastoral theology for those who are suffering and (2) a means for raising critical questions about problematic yet persuasive ways of conceptualizing the nature of God.

    Regarding the first point, Moltmann would, ironically, criticize Kilby for overly-conceptualizing and abstracting the theodicy debate outside of concrete cases of suffering and death in the world. Moltmann, who served with the German armed forces in 1944-45, witnessed the horrors of the closing years of WWII before surrendering in 1945 and living in a POW camp for three years. It was these experiences, and his being introduced to the works of C.S. Lewis, that set him on the course toward his theology of hope and his discussions of theodicy.

    In this theodicy, Moltmann attempts to provide hope, through a clear emphasis on the crucified God, for those who have suffered. Against this, as you quote above, Kilby writes:

    “If I mistreat my children, then the fact that I mistreat myself as well does nothing to make it acceptable”

    Kilby’s point is that God’s suffering and death on the cross does nothing to alleviate the experience of suffering in the world. God’s suffering does not make one feel better after experiencing his daughter’s rape and murder. However, this is a crass simplification of sophisticated theodicy arguments. Moltmann, Adams, and others engaging in serious theodicy cannot be reduced to saying ‘See? I suffer and abuse myself too, so it is ok if I do/allow it to/for you!’ This is a crude straw man of their theodicies.

    Zizioulas writes that death and suffering, which are inextricably linked, are key problems that cannot be avoided either in some theological agnosticism ala Kilby or some comfortable reappropriation of death ala Derrida:

    “Death is the ‘natural’ development of the biological hypostasis, the cession of ‘space’ and ‘time’ to other individual hypostases, the sealing of hypostasis as individuality. At the same time it is also the definitely tragic ‘self-negation’ of its own hypostasis (dissolution and annihilation of the body and of individuality), which in its attempt to affirm itself as hypostasis discovers that finally its ‘nature’ has led it along a false path towards death.” (1985, 51)

    For Zizioulas and for Moltmann, Christ’s suffering does more than provide a ‘sympathetic companion’ who has experienced suffering and can relate to our pain. It is about more than God being able to ‘understand’ or ‘relate to’ us. Rather, Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection taken together bring about a fundamental change in Creation. Zizioulas talks about this in terms of creating a new hypostasis for the individual:

    “The constitutional make-up of the hypostasis should be changed–not that [of] a moral change or improvement…but a kind of new birth for man….although neither eros nor the body are abandoned, they nevertheless change their activity, adapt themselves to the new ‘mode of existence’ of the hypostasis, reject from this activity of theirs which is constitutive of the human hypostasis whatever creates the tragic element in man, and retain whatever makes the person to be love, freedom and life. This is precisely what constitutes that which I have called the ‘hypostasis of ecclesial existence.'” (1985, 51-53)

    For Zizioulas and Moltmann, this is what Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection has accomplished. It has defeated death in Creation. What this means for suffering is that it is never final. Suffering and death will never have the last word, for Christ, in his suffering, death and resurrection, has broken open the grave and emptied hell.

    What this means for the father who sees his daughter raped and killed is that this suffering and death will neither triumph over nor define her life. It is powerless before her. Equally importantly, however, it will not define the relationship either he or she has with the rapist and murderer, for life defeats death and love defeats enmity and healing defeats suffering.

    Yet, this is not to say that the suffering and death she experienced does not matter. Quite the contrary, in fact. In God’s suffering, death and resurrection, God gives Her absolute judgment against evil. Neither Moltmann nor Adams attempt at this point to explain evil, to justify it, to make it ‘not so bad’. Rather, they affirm its absolute horror and senselessness by affirming God’s absolute and certain judgment against it. They are not inventing stories to defend God–they are testifying to the absolute judgment we have witnessed against it! This is a judgment the author of Job could only hope for, but which for us we can testify to. We no longer need to say that God works in mysterious ways. Regarding theodicy, we can point clearly to God’s work, on the cross of Christ, the Crucified God.

    This brings us to Moltmann’s second point above. In constructing a theodicy, we are able to in turn explore our assumptions and idols regarding God. For Moltmann, the cross of Christ provides an example by which we are forced to recognize and renounce our construction of God in the image of who we want to be. This idolized god, in most Western non-Christian theologies, is unchanging and incapable of suffering. These in turn influence how we think about God’s omnipotence. Yet, for Moltmann, the Crucified God turns all of our understandings on their head, for now we must understand power as weakness, and weakness as power. Nietzsche understood this, though too few Christians do. This is one of the Christian inversions of the secular order, for the one who is victorious is the one who does not partake in redemptive violence but awaits and, tragically, suffers in hope.

    Rather than portraying suffering as a ‘refining of the soul’ or a trial of faith, this presents suffering as Evil’s judgment against righteousness. It affirms the essentially evil and tragic nature of suffering. Yet this judgment is futile; it is without power, for Christ in his suffering weakness on the cross brought true power against suffering and death, so that it would be no more.

    This allows us to cry, with Christ, ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ This is a theodicy question at the heart of the Gospel, and in crying it, we can bear witness not only to the 22nd Psalm’s opening lines, but also to its closing ones:

    “They will proclaim his righteousness
    to a people yet unborn—
    for he has done it.”

    Telling the victims that evil, and God, are mysteries beyond the limits of our understanding, while in part true, are scarcely better than telling them that ‘everything happens for a reason’. In fact, the two are strangely compatible. Only when suffering and death are confronted with the absolute judgment of the God who suffers and dies will the pastoral theologian be able to provide any hope for renewed life and for reconciliation.

    • Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

      Fine comment. I think you are absolutely correct in noting that there predominately exist two kinds of approaches to theodicy: (1) explaining it and (2) providing hope. While Kilby limits herself to the topic of the first (1), her strength is in showing the limits of the first (1). In other words, by unraveling and exposing the limits of explaining evil and defending God (1) she effectively shows that providing hope (2) is all the pastoral theologian is left able to do. Where she would go from here (2) I do not know. Looking at her other writings it is apparent she tends to stick with criticizing and revealing the limits of our finitude and immanence. Therefore, in my opinion, Kilby is as good as it gets when it comes to clearing the table of illusions and becoming aware of the self-canceling character of our inconsistent theories. What Kilby really needs is someone to come after in her wake of freedom for a new beginning – someone like a proto-Moltmann/Zizioulas

  2. Matt Martin says :

    I should add one point of clarification regarding (1) above, but before I do I should state in advance that I have read little of Kilby’s work on theodicy. Rather, I am mostly interacting with it from what you say above. However, in that light, I am somewhat skeptical of the usefulness of Kilby’s work on theodicy, apart from being a corrective for those doing bad theodicy. For theologians like Moltmann and Adams, Kilby’s work in this area seems perhaps to be rather unnecessary? Nevertheless, it remains important for dismantling common misconceptions about what theodicy is and what it seeks to accomplish.

    It is important to note that even when theodicy is done in the fasion of (1) above, it is valuable when done properly. Contrary to what seems to be popular protest to theodicy today, evil can be explained, if we are clear by what we mean by “explaining evil.” I do not mean we can justify why it happens. I do mean we can explain why it happens. The former, as we see in Job, is never attempted. The latter, however, is revealed throught Scripture, but nowhere so clearly as in Genesis and the Gospels.

    Furthermore, it would be a logical fallacy to say that an explanation of evil is a justification of evil. In fact, we absolutely must be able to explain why it happens in an ontological and cosmological sense for the incarnation and crucifixion to make sense. The above arguments of Moltmann and Zizioulas make sense only after we have diagnosed the cause of cosmic and personal death, and the steps that God has revealed in God’s saving work in history.

    Finally, regarding proper theodicy, there is no attempt to defend God. Medieval proofs of God’s existence were not about proving God’s existence–everyone took that for granted. Rather, they were an intellectual and meditative exercise in faith and reason. Proper theodicy should be seen in teh same way. It is a valuable theological exercise as well as a necessary pastoral one. Academically and pastorally, theodicy plays an important role in Church life and thought

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