Following the string of natural disasters affecting Australia at the moment (the floods all across Eastern Australia, Cyclone Yasi in Queensland, fires in Western Australia) and the 2nd anniversary of our Black Saturday (Feb 7, 2009) fires, there has been some reflection in the print and online media in recent days about the vexed and perennial question of Theodicy. If this is a new word to you, here is how Wikipedia defines and explains the term:
Theodicy (from Greek theos – “god” + dike – “justice”) is a theological or philosophical study which attempts to justify* God’s (largely in the Monotheistic/Abrahamic sense) intrinsic (or foundational) nature of omni-benevolence (all loving), omniscience (all knowing) and omnipotence (all powerful), despite the existence of evil which would otherwise stand to refute God’s existence.
[* “justify” is probably too loaded a word for this definition; theodicy is not only about the “justification” of God’s justice, but also about the discussion of the problem as a whole – whatever one’s conclusions.]
As an example, you might want to listen to this discussion on ABC Radio National’s Sunday Night program. As a fairly standard but well expressed response, you might to read this piece by a local (Queenslander come South) ACU theologian Joel Hodge. Joel’s piece is, as I said, fairly standard. There is nothing particularly new there. C.S. Lewis dealt with the same problem and gave much the same answer in The Problem of Pain.
Well, don’t expect me to give you the answer here, but I do want to make a short reflection, and give an indication of how I approach the whole matter of “Theodicy”, especially in relation to natural disasters.
A few bits of background reading/listening might be in order. First I would suggest listening to a rather good Radio National Encounter program (you can listen or read the transcript here) with Tim Flannery and Paul Collins. I do not endorse the thinking of either speaker entirely – especially Flannery’s almost religious sense of “Gaia” and Collin’s use of Thomas Berry’s notion of the “geologian”, but I do see their thinking pairing up a little with mine on this subject. Another (perhaps surprising) source I would point you too is Anne Rice’s (pre-Catholic period) novel “Memnoch the Devil” (see here for the plot).
Rice does a particularly sterling job in the novel of portraying theodicy as the chief reason for Lucifer’s fall from heaven. The Devil (in her novel) is fascinated with the beauty of God’s creative work. He is entranced by the beauty and delicacy of a flower, and praises God’s handiwork. But then the flower dies and decays (a masterstroke of Rice’s approach is that she does not see death and decay as something which entered God’s creation with the sin of Adam, but something that God worked into his creation from the very beginning – ie. it was intentional). This infuriates Lucifer. How could God create such a flawed thing? And more than that – because obviously the cycle of death and life are foundational to the creation she describes – why could God not simply have created a world in which everything endures for ever in static perfection? He becomes angry with God, and rebels, and falls from grace.
There is a connection here then with Flannery’s idea of a “commonwealth of virtue”:
Tim Flannery: I was trying to find an expression for what Gaia actually represents, and it’s clearly, our earth is clearly not as competent at regulating its temperature or its chemistry as a living organism is. It’s somewhat below that, and yet is perhaps arguably more competent than individual eco-systems, simply because it’s the sum of all eco-systems averaged if you want, around the planet. And we need a new term for it, so I think the Commonwealth of Virtue was the best way that I could explain the result of these accumulated win-sins that give us stability.
Bill Bunbury: How do you define virtue in this context? Because it’s often seen simply as a human concept of human behaviour. Does virtue enter the ecological domain in this way?
Tim Flannery: Well it does in a sense. Perhaps I was using the word rather idiosyncratically, but to me, the virtue is that it has created a system that allows all to exist. Without that virtue we simply would not be here. As I say, in a world where only the fittest survive, no-one survives. And just to explain that, imagine a football league where only the fittest survived, only the winning team survived each year. You wouldn’t have football any more. And the same is true for eco-systems, winner-take-all approaches to life just don’t work.
What he means by “the virtue is that it has created a system that allows all to exist” is, I take it, that the entire system – death and decay on the one hand and life and harmony on the other – is precisely integral to the perfection and beauty that we all discern in God’s creation.
The interviewer, Bill Bunbury, says at one point in the Encounter program:
We look at nature, we see beauty in it, and we have to reconcile that with what Tennyson describes and what Dawkins describes and in a sense, what Darwin recognises. There is that tension for humans, isn’t it, to look at nature and see it as beneficent, because after all, it provides us with what we eat and what we love and what we paint or photograph of celebrate in song or poetry or painting.
The Medieval theologians in particular marvelled at how beautiful and harmonious the world was, and saw in this the finger of God. Yet they, perhaps even more than us, were perfectly aware of the suffering that exists in creation as well.
The question then, as I see it, is this: Are you a glass half empty type of person or are you a glass half full type? Do you, like Memnoch the Devil, focus on the one minute part of creation that is suffering, and, because of this, see all creation as soured and flawed; or do you, like the Scholastics, see the suffering that is inherent in our created existence, and yet nevertheless see how the whole is beautiful?
Personally, I marvel at the fact of (as the Monty Python boys put it) “how amazingly unlikely is [my] birth.” In the whole immensity of the cosmos, here is a planet of molten rock hurtling around its violently burning star, on which there is a thin layer of solid (but constantly moving) earth surrounded by another thin layer of stable (but equally violent at times) atmosphere. And between these two layers, we exist, we live, and we thrive. To me that is nothing short of a miracle.
It seems to me that there is a “commonwealth of virtue” not only in creation, but also in human society, as the Sunday Night program pointed out. In that program, the speakers told how the predominant reaction of those caught in the floods and cyclones was not “Why did God let this happen to me?” but rather “I have been overwhelmed by the help and generosity of others.” Where there is suffering, there is also great virtue. Just as a dying flower provides compost and nutrients for the next plant that will grow on that spot, just as the lamb that is eaten allows the lion to live and care for her lion cubs, so, as it says in the Scriptures, “God works all things together for good to those who love him.”
Here is something I read in Peter Kreeft recently:
If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then “in everything God works for good with those who love him”. Even in persecution, torture, and death! For although “for thy sake we are being killed all the day long”, yet “in all these things we are more than conquerors.” Why? Because these tortures, like everything, serve the one single end of the single-minded and single-hearted God who wills only our good. He practices what he preaches: purity and simplicity of heart, 100% love.
Now that is, of course, an expression of faith. But it is the kind of faith that in Rice’s novel, the Devil lacked. God could have created a world without suffering, without change, with what we would call “full perfection”, but would it have been so? With all its capriciousness, is this not (possibly) the most perfect of all worlds if we had the eyes of God to see it? In other words, is our idea of a perfect world really that “perfect”?
Of course, for me this raises questions of our hopes for the “world to come”, in which there will be no more suffering at all. I don’t know how God intends to do that, and I am willing to be entirely surprised! But I think one way in which it is possible is that the New Creation will be entirely “in God” himself, in a way that the present cosmos is not. Unless you are a thorough-going pantheist, we have to recognise that this world is not “wholly in God”. In a sense (as explained by Hodge in his piece) this is necessary for the time being. One day, when God will become “all in all” as St Paul’s says, things will be different. But VERY different. It will not be like this world at all. Then the problem of theodicy will no longer trouble us.