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?

best of all possible universities


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