A Progressive Approach to the Problem of Evil

A couple of weeks ago, a blogger identifying herself as TXBlue08 had a post on CNN titled Why I Raise My Children Without God. It went viral, and it’s now approaching 10,000 comments. You can read it for yourself – you probably already have – but it mostly boils down to the classic argument from evil: how can you believe in an all powerful and loving God when there is so much suffering in the world.

Of course, no argument from evil could be complete until a progressive Christian shows up to tell us we’ve got God all wrong. Enter Ellen Painter Dollar, a neighbor in the Progressive Christian wing.

Any Christian who tells you that God orchestrates or allows terrible suffering for some grand purpose is lying. The notions that “everything happens for a reason” or that “God just needed another angel” or “God gave me cancer so I would become a better person” are not from the Bible. They are bullshit.

What a joy it is to finally have someone who can set us straight.

There are some standard moves in the argument from evil. In response to the question of suffering, Dollar mentions free will. But when the question of natural evil shows up, we get this:

If God is fair, then why are some babies born with heart defects, autism, missing limbs or conjoined to another baby? Clearly, all men are not created equally.

Here, she seems to be confusing the Bible with the Declaration of Independence.

I’m a big fan of snark, but let’s not mistake it for an argument. This is the standard next step in the argument, and Dollar seems to miss it.

Heart defects and other natural problems cannot be the fault of our free will. Why was the universe created in such a way that even those who have had no chance to use their free will must suffer? If you don’t believe that God created the universe, then why does an omnipotent being allow the innocent to suffer the effect of disabilities and disasters? Free will may explain Sandy Hook, but not the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

I think that Dollar wants TXBlue08 to shift away from the classical model of God, where omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence are necessary to be worthy of worship. Instead, she wants a shift towards a more progressive model of God, but that is much harder to define. This would solve the problem of natural evil, but it’s not easy to see how one is supposed to grasp this new model.

Partly, her God seems like a mental construct. We create an idea of God and believe in that idea to inspire us and make ourselves feel better. Dollar admits that honest Christians don’t know how or if prayer works, but use it as a way of coping, “When I tell God how sad or angry I am, when I lean on God, I feel better. I feel less alone.”

Fair enough. But even as an idea her God seems to be conflicted. Dollar says that we don’t understand prayer and we don’t understand how God works. She invokes Job to say that, “God is God and we are us.” Alright, so as one interpretation of Job explains, God is beyond our mortal categories. As God told Isaiah, His thoughts are above our thoughts as heaven is above the earth.

So God is above human ideas and we don’t understand him – except to say that he is “loving, just, merciful”. Here we end up with a Karen Armstrong style contradiction: God is beyond human understanding, and we know that He loves us. It leaves me with the feeling that God’s ineffable nature only applies when it is convenient for the argument. All other times human categories can be attached to God with absolute conviction.

It makes sense to say that if you are going to define your own God, why not make it an upbeat one. But then why the retreat to vagueness whenever God is called upon to be more than an invisible friend? It seems that this God can do little more than a supportive friend or a therapist could, so why tie yourself into these mental knots worshiping Him?

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