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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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Karl Rahner's Ecclessiology

In an article in the March 2009 issue of New Black Friars Karen Kilby explores Rahner’s ecclessiology and argues that his methodology, rather than explicitly his content, is germane for theology today. This she takes to be in Karen Kilbyopposition to current theology trends that bracket Rahner out of the picture because he is now retrospectively viewed as having accommodated too much of the culture and ideas of his times. Rahner recognized during his lifetime that the church was in a state of transition and beset by much confusion. The impact he made in this transition Kilby notes was so successful that his ideas are now considered insipid and redundant (e.g., the ‘anonymous Christian’). In examining the relationship between the church and society Rahner recognized the fall of Christendom; the world was no longer allied with church in the same manner it was previously. In this situation Rahner predicted Christian faith would steadily become more inward and private. In other words, more individualistic. On this matter, Rahner was rather optimistic, albeit uncertain. This pithy overview of Rahner already anticipates why he is increasingly dismissed by theology students. But Kilby makes this interesting remark,

Something that again and again comes through in Rahner’s writings on Church and world is not so much that the world is such a wonderful place that the Church ought to embrace it, as that the Church in fact, whatever it might suppose to the contrary, has no option about engagement with the world… The Church is always already there, always already worldly, always in the midst of things, and only deceives itself if it thinks otherwise. The choice, then, is not over whether or not to engage with the world, but over whether to take cognizance and some measure of responsibility for the engagement, indeed the embeddeness, that is inevitably already a reality

Our situatedness in the modern world is inevitable. To think we have an option about engaging the world is a misconceived start. We are worldly beings by birth. “So we can criticise particular things in our world, but we cannot step outside our world so as to be able to criticise it all at once.” At least coming to terms with this will help us avoid living schizophrenic or double-lives. While Kilby does not offer any practical directions from this platform, she does take a quick jab at some of the ‘new traditionalists’ who are united in their antagonism towards liberalism and come across as sectarian. Revealing in her vagueness Kilby penultimately closes with this,

We do have to decide some things; at particular points and in particular ways we need to be subversive, to be different, to resist, to live otherwise. Yet this will always be against a background of being inescapably worldly, and in many more and subtler ways than we can consciously grasp

Kudos to Karen Kilby for offering a healthy and sustainable way to engage the world.