Faith, Theodicy, and the Best of All Possible Universities

Faith, Theodicy, and the Best of All Possible Universities October 11, 2016

As I’ve been talking with my students about the problem of evil, and their papers on the topic, it struck me that there is a parallel between the educational experience that I’ve been subjecting them to, and the idea of greater good emerging out of first order evils that is discussed and rejected by J. L. Mackie in his classic essay, “Evil and Omnipotence.”

What is my role as professor? I expose students to challenging readings and assignments, in the hope that the experience will lead to growth, both in students’ abilities and in their self-confidence in their abilities.

But the first-order evils I expose them to – among which is having to read and wrestle with Mackie – can lead not only to those second order goods, but instead to second order evils, if the students feel overwhelmed and despair.

Perhaps in “the best of all possible universities,” students would have individualized educational experiences. I could treat each student as an individual, find out what they have read thus far, and bring them along step by step on their way to reading Mackie, rather than simply assigning the same reading to a larger group.

But would that really be “the best of all possible universities”? If there are advantages to a one-on-one customized learning experience, there are things we only learn, or at least learn better, if we are in a context in which we need to interact with a diverse range of people. And so there is no abstract “best of all possible” worlds, or universities, or educational experiences.

That in itself offers important insight into the problem of evil. There is no reason to think that there is a “best of all possible worlds.” There may be an infinite number of possible worlds, but each one that is better in some ways may be worse in others.

But most importantly, thinking about the parallels between the problem of evil, and my course that forces students to wrestle with the problem of evil, helpfully highlights the place of faith in the discussion.

Those who define faith as believing without evidence or in spite of counter-evidence will avoid the educational experience, trying to simply affirm that God is good and all-powerful while evil exists and not genuinely engaging Mackie’s criticisms.

But those who define faith as trust in and seeking after God precisely because we are not God and do not see the whole picture, may lead one to take matters related to God seriously enough to read and wrestle with Mackie.

And the educator and student alike are also acting from faith – the hope that the end result of the experience of struggling with this difficult topic might be something positive rather than negative, overall.

This reminds me of John Hick’s argument for the eschatological verification of faith. Maybe history cannot be judged until it is over. Maybe the question of whether the hurt and heartache, the sorrow and suffering, were ultimately worth it, can only be answered ultimately, when history is over – just as the question of whether the educational experience was worth it cannot be answered fully from the midst of it, but only with hindsight.

The problem of evil, and studying the problem of evil in a first year seminar class, seem to me to have interesting parallels. Do you agree?

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  • “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,
    and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy,
    for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the
    writing be erased. Deny it.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

  • Concerning, “John Hick’s argument for the eschatological verification of faith. Maybe history cannot be judged until it is over. Maybe the question of whether the hurt and heartache, the sorrow and suffering, were ultimately worth it, can only be answered ultimately, when history is over.”

    The counter response of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky:

    “Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—
    that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?

    Tell me, and tell the truth.”

    • We read the “Rebellion” excerpt from the novel, and I’m not sure that the objection is decisive, although it is obviously not without force. We discuss whether they would create a cosmos in which everyone has a perfect life, except for one baby that is in eternal anguish. Most students say they would not. But in reality, we share the suffering among us, rather than one person bearing it all – although the inequity in how it is shared is itself central to the problem of evil.

  • John Thomas

    The problem of evil (or suffering as I would like to call) is one of the intriguing questions about reality. I have tried to look at it from the point of view of various philosophers.

    One way to look at it would be whether evil just as good is a fundamental part of the reality and hence look at reality and say, ‘it is what it is’. Empedocles thought that reality is constant struggle between two opposing forces – love and hatred. In terms of physics, we can describe those forces as attraction and repulsion or force of gravity and entropy or in other words, a force that tries to bring order and opposing force that tries to bring disorder. Whatever that brings order is good and whatever that brings disorder is bad. It is better to bring order rather than disorder, but the disorder will always be there persuading us to work for order at all points of time. Even at the level of fundamental particles, there is an element of orderliness to it and there is an element of randomness to it. That is why we can predict an electron only to a point where it could be most of the time, but it could be randomly present in a point where we do not normally expect it to be. And this play between orderliness and randomness creates infinite realm of possibilities most of them being far away from order. So nature normally behaves in accordance with order (which we call natural laws) but once in a while one could expect random aberrations from the normal. One other intriguing thing that occurs to me while reading current physics is that if our current cycle of universe began in a point of singularity i.e. a state of least entropy and is expanding out from that point onwards towards the point of maximum entropy, it might come back to the state of least entropy from that point for next birth. So we shouldn’t be surprised of our own aging, suffering and eventual death due to entropy since universe itself is not free from that.

    One other way to look at it would be to see evil as ‘privatio boni’ as Plotinus (and later Augustine) did i.e. evil do not exist, only good exists and evil is just an absence of good. Just as darkness is absence of light. Since existence is good, anything that exists is good, because of the participation in existence. Matter is considered a potentiality with indeterminate of possibilities of actualization depending on the form it takes. In this framework, ultimate good is the One from which Nous, World Soul, individual souls and matter (body) as a sequence emanates out of. In each phase of emanation, because it cannot fully participate in every aspects of former, it is less perfect and good than the former. At each phase there is an effort to revert back to the earlier phase and ultimately to the One. That would explain the inherent imperfection in the material world compared to the One from which it eventually emanated out from. So ultimate reality can be considered the subtlest (with no parts in it and hence the most good) and subsequent phase of the realities are grosser manifestations (with parts and hence less good). The moral evil in this framework can be seen as falling short or absence i.e. the failure of the human in question to grasp the good so as to look at a situation to see what ought to be done. So humans could contemplate on their true ultimate nature (which is goodness) and realize it in their lives thereby by achieving ideal telos for a human being. Moral evil is thus a failure to do so thereby falling short of perfect rationality. Thus humans have the potentiality to do all kinds of things, but ultimately will be fully actualized only if we do philosophy and come to grasp the forms, to do good things and to come to close as you can to the perfection.

    I consider soul making theodicy as a good one in a different angle. It seems to me that evil might exist because it helps us understand what is good through our experience. Whatever is evil affects us in a negative way, whereas whatever is good affects us in a positive way, prompting us to search for what is good and following it in our lives. In the same way, various false understandings of reality help us lead towards what is truth (similar to finding the signal from background noise), because false understandings fail in grasping the workings of reality in proper way prompting us to drop the false understandings and move towards truer understandings which more corresponds to truth or has more participation in the Form of Truth. In other words, in the absence of evil, we wouldn’t know what is good from our experience just as in the absence of falsehoods, we wouldn’t know what is truth from our experience.

    One other way to view evil will be how Stoics viewed it. Stoics’ idea was to view all events rationally as events itself rather than assigning emotional judgments of good and bad to it. A Stoic sage (whom Stoics aspire to be) has the wisdom and understanding of how nature works (from the point of view of God, if you will) which they achieve through contemplation. Therefore sage is unsettled by any event that happens in his life, because he understands why that event occurred, recognize the event as such, and not attaching any emotion toward that event. For them, being virtuous in spite of what happens around you is the only real good, all the rest are indifferent because you don’t have much control about what happens around you as it occurs because of web of causation, majority of which you don’t have any control, only thing you can control is your reaction to the events that occur around you.

    Sorry for my long ramblings. 🙂

  • Robert Landbeck

    That the Promise of the Incarnation, “the idea of greater good emerging out of first order evils” has not been realized via any claim or teaching within the existing religious milieu, does beg the question: “if God and his actions are not in time, can omnipotence, or power of any sort, be meaningfully ascribed to him?” And the answer to this paradox is uncomfortable to anyone holding to a sincere religious faith. For either there is no God, or in spite of a theological founded ‘religious’ presence within culture, God is not active in the world as we understand it. Probably we cannot even know for certain what is true and what is not about religious claims, until the that Promise is delivered again for the ‘second’ and last time! And if that ‘event’ should happen from outside existing tradition and theology, expect gnashing of teeth to begin in earnst!