Contra Pangloss et Oprah

Contra Pangloss et Oprah September 29, 2012

I recieved a comped copy of Glorious Ruin as part of the Patheos Book Club.

This may be a matter of taste, but I thought Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free was too peppy for a book on the theology of suffering.  I like small, tightly focused books, and I thought returning again and again to Job was an interesting idea, but there was a weird quality of breathlessness (and too many exclamation points) throughout.

The best part of the book contrasted the Theology of Glory with the Theology of the Cross.  In the former, suffering is an instrumental good (“no pain, no gain”) and in second the focus is on Christ with us through all things, good or bad.  Proponents of the first view (Tchividjian calls out Oprah specifically) end up sounding pretty Panglossian.  Every privation is really just an opportunity in disguise!  The price of this chipper approach to theodicy is stripping their theology of any explanatory power.  Everything that happens fits their narrative equally well.

And minimizing the bad means they’ve watered down the good.  The ultimate goal in putting on Christ is to find the place where our restless heart should rest.  One ought to keep striving for the good, but that feeling of resistance is itself evidence that something is very rotten in the state of Denmark.  Overpraising the struggle can leave us liking the feeling of exerting strength, instead of feeling a little regretful that strength was required.

You have to be a very gifted writer to talk about the redemptive power of suffering without sounding glib.  And I’ll bet it’s a little easier to do in fiction, where you can take the reader inside and through the experience of suffering.  Tchividjian gives a few examples from his life and the lives of his friends, but the stories are a little flat and move quickly to his gratitude for a quickly emerging lesson (Tchividjian tried unsuccessfully to win over a coworker and fell into resentment.  He later realized it was outside his power, as the other person saw him as competition for a promotion.  “God had used this admittedly low-wattage situation to teach me something important”).  These just-so stories sound more than a little like the Theology of Glory he rebutted well early in the book.

I think it might be easiest to address theodicy either in very academic works or in fiction.  In memoir, it’s hard to trust the author to both flay himself open and perform an instructive dissection.  So, ultimately, my advice is to skip this book and, off the top of my head, to maybe check out one of these instead:

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Problem of Pain – C.S. Lewis

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis

Mortality – Christopher Hitchens

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

More suggestions welcome

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  • Adrian Ratnapala

    Ok, not wanting to be *too* much of an Angry Atheis, but it still bugs me. What is Christian (or Jewish) the excuse for the Book of Job?

    Beyond “some of it is good poetry”.

    • Emily

      I would say three things: first, admitting that suffering actually, deeply hurts; second, declaring that we can’t escape it by being good; and third, not even giving a halfway decent explanation for it. I do not think I would trust a satisfying “answer” and I’d rather have none.

      • So, basically restating the completely obvious, with the added bonus that it makes god look like a sadist. I’ve always puzzled over why anyone would want such a story as part of their sacred texts…

    • If you actually want an answer, here are a few thousand pages on Job:

    • R.C.

      I don’t understand why an “excuse” should be required.

      First, keep in mind that the whole thing is poetry, and from an ancient perspective it’s easily on the level with Shakespeare’s best. It’s a major work; it ranks up there with Homer and the Divine Comedy.

      Second, keep in mind the Jewish sense of humor, which apparently hasn’t abated over the last several thousand years. You have a couple of hilarious scenes in God’s throne room with a bad guy we’re obviously supposed to boo and hiss: Satan with his “skin for skin!” remarks. We have three windbags with no functional compassion or bedside manner, who drone on and on sounding oh-so-pious because they have nothing better to say. We have an intense young whippersnapper who’s aware that the windbags are windbags but who, when he finally breaks cultural taboos and speaks up in the presence of his elders, turns out to be not much better at making his point.

      Thirdly, though, keep in mind that all this humor is overlaying the profound shock and mystery of suffering. The friends are blowhards because they can’t think of anything better to say. What is there to say? This horrifying thing has happened to someone who totally didn’t deserve it. We pretend this stuff doesn’t happen and shy away from thinking about it because if we allowed ourselves to think about it honestly and feel it to an appropriate degree at the same time, we’d become non-functional or absurdly-behaved in various ways. Some would despair; some would become cynical about the existence of beauty or goodness. Some react with Polyannaism. Folk with posteriorly-affixed broomsticks like Job’s friends drone on full of pious nonsense at the worst possible times. Some dye their hair weird colors and wear dark-colored skinny jeans and write bad poetry. If the world is spectacularly unlucky they set the bad poetry to music and make a career out of it.

      Now one really big assumption in the ancient world (and it crops up often enough in the modern world, too) was that if suffering happens to you, it’s because you did something to make it happen to you. Either you deserved it because you sinned and God is punishing you, or you deserved it because you didn’t work hard enough in school to get a job with better health benefits, or you made the mistake of marrying the wrong person and you should have known better, or you hung out with the wrong people and you should have known better.

      Notice that that’s the very perspective that Job’s friends are full of. They’re initially insinuating, then out-and-out insisting, that Job did something evil to make this happen. As the audience, we’re supposed to get angry about this, because we know it’s a false accusation. The dude was a decent fellow. He was well-to-do, but generous to a fault so you could hardly say he was withholding from the poor. He cared deeply for his family. He prayed for his kids all the time, so earnestly that he offered up sacrifices on their behalf every time they had a party just in case one of them got loose and did or said anything sinful. He’s innocent of the accusation; he doesn’t deserve any of this, and yet: There it is.

      Then, here comes this work of art and it tells us: Suffering happens. It happens to the evil and to the good. Sometimes the bad guys live well and die fat and happy in comfortable beds. Sometimes the good guys get crushed, and all their friends, instead of supporting them, make them feel worse. (And that’s just the ones who come visiting; all the other friends that a well-to-do and decent fellow usually has don’t know quite what to say to him, so they just stop calling.)

      And there’s another perspective that’s challenged by the book: The view that rich people always either obtained their wealth in shady ways, or became corrupted and debauched by it. Neither is true of Job. It’s not true at the start of the book, and we experience him going through this great tragedy, and by the end of the book when he becomes impossibly wealthy once again, he still hasn’t done anything crooked or debauched. So that view, which often is thinly-disguised envy and petty hatred, is challenged directly.

      But that’s an aside. Chiefly, this book is about the Mystery of Suffering and about debunking facile explanations for it. There are no facile explanations.

      This work of art throws this reality up in our face until we do — as we are supposed to do; it’s part of the intent of the work — the only thing left to do: We stand right with Job when he — even Job! even after refusing to curse God! — starts to get a bit uppity and say, “Why? Why, God? This is so unfair! What did I do? Why’m I getting treated this way? If You’re as fair and just as You claim, how is this happening? Explain yourself! Suffering could be borne more easily if it seemed that there was some purpose or meaning to it, but this suffering seems meaningless! I DON’T GET IT!

      And then God answers.

      And this is the brilliant piece of writing, right here, and another sign that the Hebrew style of humor breeds true: God’s sarcastic. He sounds snarky. In fact it sounds initially like He’s going to lay into Job even more than the three blowhards did. And of course if He did that He’d be the worst bully, the worst blowhard of all, because we know He let this stuff happen; we know all this stuff really isn’t Job’s fault.

      But when the criticisms come, we’re surprised to find that they aren’t about Job’s behavior after all. Instead, it’s a litany of all the other things that Job doesn’t get; all the things that nobody really understands. Job is dwarfed by an inexplicable cosmos which arches over his head and anchors beneath his feet in ways utterly beyond his comprehension, and God stands outside of all of this, having built the cosmos as a kind of temple, with all of its myriad inexplicable details being no more than the gold leaf and grotesque gargoyles on an architectural design which towers upward and downward and in every direction until it’s out of sight.

      And the point, beautifully, is left unstated, but it’s something like this: Job moans, “God, I don’t understand!” …and God answers, “Hush, now, and be satisfied, because you have spoken correctly: You don’t understand. Be satisfied with knowing that you’re right: You don’t understand. Your mourning is correct, even if you don’t understand.”

      And that’s a reassurance to us, if we take it right. The world is not on our shoulders. We don’t understand. Suffering is a mystery. There are no facile answers to give. Our response is not supposed to be to explain pain to the hurting, but to have compassion on them, right up to and including feeling the inexplicable injustice of it all.

      Which is why God then turns to Job’s three friends and says, “You guys were saying all this pious nonsense and pretending that if a man does what is right he’ll always wind up healthy and wealthy and that Job’s misfortune is a sign of him having done some evil thing. You Jackasses Have Not Spoken Correctly About Me. My servant Job has spoken correctly about me. You’re in the doghouse, but go ask Job, who spoke rightly about Me, to pray for you, and I will be merciful to you because he asks it.”

      And then it ends by saying that Job’s fortunes were in many ways restored. But you’re not supposed to think that that makes up for everything bad which happened to him. Who would say such a thing? Does Job not still remember the faces of his children who died? Of course he does. Time makes the wounds close over, but scars remain. The end is a trifle unsettling in that way, but only because to end any other way would lose the whole point: We don’t understand. We should be unsettled. If we get settled, we’ll forget to be compassionate; we’ll start acting like the three blowhards again. Suffering is a mystery as well as a tragedy. It sometimes falls on the good when they don’t deserve it. We should not criticize them in their suffering, or be pious blowhards accusing them of deserving it, or pretend like people who get wealthy and who stay healthy are thereby proven to be righteous and deserving.

      That’s how to read Job.

      I think that frustration or irritation with the book generally comes from not reading it correctly. Some folk think it’s a theology textbook, that it’s trying to say something about how God manages terrestrial affairs. It isn’t; if it were you wouldn’t have these throne-room scenes written the way they are. They’re caricaturish and unrealistic because they aren’t to be taken as statements of high theology. Some folk even get the idea that we’re supposed to treat the statements made by Job’s friends as dogmatic declarations! No, no, no. That’s not what the book is about. It’s more about what is unsaid, what is left unexplained.

      Which is admittedly difficult on us modern readers, who can’t even read it in the original language, let alone absorb the humor and pathos in quite the same way as the original hearers.

    • Ted Seeber

      Can I at least point out that the Book of Job is at best pre-Christ Science Fiction?

      • Alan

        And Catholicism is post-christ science fiction, they both have there place so you shouldn’t take either too seriously.

  • I would have to concur with your choice of The Brothers Karamazov. I haven’t read the others, but thanks for the suggestions.

  • I find any theology of pain that doesn’t reference mystery pretty heavily deeply unsatisfying and more than a little problematic. There are some situations where suffering appears to be so senseless, meaningless, and degrading, that wondering why is the most appropriate response. I think this is reflected in many of the Psalms (“Oh God, Oh God, why have you forsaken me?” comes to mind), and while these Psalms usually end in hope, that isn’t where they start. They start with a question, and a pressing question at that.

    You also have the issue that if one views all suffering as an opportunity, then the next logical step is to condemn anyone who doesn’t take that opportunity. After all, if you always can make suffering redemptive, then shouldn’t you? Certainly some suffering can be redemptive, but there are also situations that are simply unfortunate and degrading, and people who find themselves in such situations shouldn’t feel bad about themselves for feeling unfortunate and degraded.

  • Elliott Scott

    Try David Bently Hart’s The Doors of the Sea.
    Actually, anything by Hart is worth reading. He’s a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy and lots of fun.

  • jose

    So what would happen if Jesus came down tomorrow and said hey fellas, I have decided to abolish suffering. From now on it’s all good times. You’re now immune to hunger and disease and you have all the time in the world to spend with your family and friends doing that thing you enjoy. You’re welcome!

    Philosophical implications of that.

    • Doragoon

      My first thought is, “Wait, so God abolished the second law of thermodynamics? I can finally make that perpetual motion machine I’ve always wanted!”

      Oh wait, you wanted philosophical implications, not engineering implications. My answer is the same as whenever anyone asks me what a post-scarcity society would look like: Everyone and everything would be so different from us and our world that we wouldn’t be able to relate to or understand them.

      • jose

        You mean what makes others relatable is that they can suffer just like us?

        • Doragoon

          No. What makes us able to relate to someone is the ability to understand their motivations and empathise with them. My point was that in order to remove suffering, you’d have to change human nature so much we couldn’t understand their motivations or emotions.

          AFAIK… In catholic theology humans are flawed, fallen creatures. It’s not until after we are perfected that there will be no more suffering. If we could understand a perfected human, then we wouldn’t be flawed.

          • My point was that in order to remove suffering, you’d have to change human nature so much we couldn’t understand their motivations or emotions.

            To me that sounds like a total cop-out answer, not to mention an incredibly dismal definition of what it means to be human. (Also, by that definition, Adam and Eve while still in the garden weren’t human — what were they, then?)

      • Ted Seeber

        If we didn’t have the second law of thermodynamics, why would a perpetual motion machine be valuable?

  • Phillip

    I would second the recommendation for The Doors of the Sea by Hart. It’s the best thing I’ve read on a truly Christian understanding of the problem of evil and suffering. A profound and beautiful book, like everything else he writes.

  • Jacob
  • Tom

    What about Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl? I think he has the best claim to having lived suffering.

  • Tim Lambert

    I might be missing something – how does Brideshead Revisited deal with suffering as a main topic?
    I can see grace as being a focal point of Brideshead, but not really suffering.

    Not that characters didn’t suffer – but I didn’t feel that it was that suffering alone that made them open to God’s grace.

    • leahlibresco

      From here:

      I am convinced that Waugh intended the Church to look like the “kiss of death”, not out of perversity but because he understood it to be a “sign of contradiction”. The sufferings that it seemingly inflicts, because of its laws and absolute claims, are the bitter herbs through which the disease of sin is purged. On closer inspection, the lives that the characters lead at the end of the novel, while not “happy”, are in many ways “blessed”. Sebastian is a holy fool, a drunken porter for a monastery in North Africa. When he learns of this, Charles asks Cordelia: “I suppose he doesn’t suffer?”

      “Oh yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering might be, to be maimed as he is — no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him… I’ve seen so much suffering in the last few years; there’s so much of it coming for everybody soon. It’s the spring of love.”

      • Ted Seeber

        Thanks for that. I was in an e-mail debate on the difference between happiness and joy over the weekend. This is it!

  • Scott Gay

    Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters ( Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic) Terence E. Fretheim, Baker Academic , 2010. For his critique on Job, and,,,,,,,searching for a word….subversively more.

  • J. H. M. Ortiz

    On this matter of the Deity in face of our sufferings, I reckon highly apropos, and even basic, what Raïssa Maritain wrote in her essay “The True Face of God, or Love and the Law” (quoted by her husband, the essayist Jacques Maritain, in his book Peasant of the Garonne):
    “If [God] could transform [a suffering human] nature into His own by abolishing the law of suffering and death, He would abolish it — because He takes no pleasure in the spectacle of pain and death. But He cannot abolish any law inscribed in being.” (The French: “Mais il ne peut abolir aucune loi inscrite dans l’être.”)

    • So, not all-powerful after all then.

      • J. H. M. Ortiz

        In the view of most monotheists, the divine omnipotence means that the Deity can do anything doable, anything not intrinsically impossible in itself. Accordingly, since a Euclidean square circle (for instance) is reckoned impossible in itself (because self-contradictory), it is reckoned utterly undoable or unmakeable. So Raïssa Maritain says (in the same page), “God Himself cannot abolish [the absolutely necessary link to suffering and death, of the kind of transformation she describes], just as He cannot produce the absurd.” (“Dieu lui-même ne peut l’abolir, comme il ne peut produire l’absurde.”)

        • Ted Seeber

          Not all monotheists. This is the primary difference between Christianity and Islamic theology in general, and between mainstream Christian theologies and Health and Wealth gospelers in particular (whose answer to the problem of evil is “evil can’t touch me if I send my life savings to the guy on TBN”).

  • > The price of this chipper approach to theodicy is stripping their theology of any explanatory power. Everything that happens fits their narrative equally well.

    This is equally true of the theodicy that “God moves in mysterious ways”, which some other commenters appear to think is a better one, for some reason. Sure, it is less offensive than telling someone their friend died of cancer to teach them humility, or whatever, but the “mystery” explanation has the same explanatory fault as you’ve identified here.

    • It”s a bit odd to suggest that saying “I don’t know” is an explanation with the flaw that everything is consistent with it; this seems to fail to take into account what agnosticism about particular kinds of explanations really is.

      • Using “God moves in mysterious ways” as a theodicy is not merely saying “I don’t know”, it’s implicitly assuming knowledge of a bunch of stuff (that there’s a God, that he cares whether we suffer, and so on) in the teeth of the evidence against that idea (the existence of great suffering). The “I don’t know” position here is agnosticism.

        Skeptical theism, the more sophisticated “moves in mysterious ways” theodicy, relies on saying that we’re not in a position to know that God would have prevented the Holocaust, say, though oddly we are in a position to know a bunch of other stuff about God. See Lovering’s “On What God Would Do”,

        • I find this response extraordinarily puzzling. “God moves in mysterious ways” is nothing other than an expression of agnosticism about a certain kind of explanation. That it presupposes other things is simply irrelevant — whenever we say we don’t know something we are presupposing something else, on the basis of which we are able to make the judgment that we don’t know in the first place. Similarly, what it means to say that one does not know, or that one doesn’t think one can in principle know, obviously depends on what, precisely, you claim not to know — it’s simply not possible to claim that limited agnosticism is impossible, since we are capable of doing it all the time in any area of life. If someone were to express agnosticism (for whatever reason) over whether we can ever actually know some kind of detail about the Big Bang, for instance, it would be nonsense to claim that their position on what happened at the Big Bang is not “I don’t know” simply because it implicitly assumes there was a Big Bang. Likewise it would be nonsense to claim that such an expression of limited agnosticism is an explanation of what happened at the Big Bang.

          Conflating skeptical theism, which is a technical position arising within a particular approach to analytic philosophy of religion, with “God moves in mysterious ways” is, I think, a definite mistake. The particular issues arising in skeptical theism arise not in terms simply of an expression of agnosticism, but in terms of the particular epistemological framework in which this limited agnosticism is developed. Limited agnosticisms about any position have to be assessed in terms of the details of why it is claimed we don’t (or can’t) know enough. If I do something that seems puzzling, and you say that you are not sufficiently acquainted with details of my private life to give any explanation of it, it would be utterly absurd to claim that somehow this on its own meant that you couldn’t know anything about me — this could only follow if the reason you claimed you didn’t know were itself of a particular sort. Questions arise about whether skeptical theism burns down the store solely because skeptical theism is not “God works in mysterious ways” but a general claim that we cannot know certain things based on a general reason that people worry is too general to allow anything else in; it doesn’t arise from the fact that skeptical theism is skeptical about one particular kind of thing.

          I find, in fact, the implication of your last paragraph completely baffling: obviously we are capable of knowing many things about someone (or something) without knowing everything about them, and obviously we are capable of having principled reasons for claiming that we don’t have enough information to say much about this or that point in a given domain without being committed to saying that we know nothing at all about the domain. Rational inquiry itself would be impossible if this were so: it depends on recognizing, on the basis of what we know about a particular topic, what it is we don’t yet know about the topic. And the bleed-through for agnosticism about God’s existence, for instance, would be astounding — it would mean agnostics couldn’t be agnostic about whether the universe was caused to exist by a God without being skeptical about everything we think is true about the universe, since that would involve saying that we can’t know something at least potentially important for understanding the universe despite knowing a lot of things potentially important for understanding the universe. Throwing over skeptical theism on the mere basis that it attempts to be a form of limited skepticism or agnosticism is an absurdly high cost to pay for getting rid of skeptical theism; our ability to say “I don’t know” obviously involves an ability to say “I don’t have any means of knowing whether P is true, despite knowing Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z about the same subject”. There is nothing “odd” about it; it’s a standard feature of inquiry. And, again, the questions that arise about skeptical theism do not arise from this but from the particular framework justifying the claim that we lack what we would need to know in order to answer certain questions.

          In any case, the original problem was not that you reject the “God moves in mysterious ways” but that you claimed that it was an explanation when it is obviously instead a claim that we lack the ability say anything definite about what the relevant explanation would be.

          • > you claimed that it was an explanation when it is obviously instead a claim that we lack the ability say anything definite about what the relevant explanation would be.

            Note that I never claimed that limited agnosticism was in general impossible. You’re closer in the bit of your reply I quote above: my objection was specifically to the use of “mystery” as a theodicy.

            Aside on the point of “mystery” being merely a claim that we don’t know: I read some of the comments here as not merely saying “we don’t know” but as seeing “mystery” as a good thing. Some people like mystery for it’s own sake, I think. But it’s not a good stopping place (I’ll avoid “explanation” for now) because it allows you to stop whenever you feel like it and bask in the mystery instead.

            But suppose everyone is just saying “well, we don’t know” and not “Ooh! I love that feeling of profound mystery!” You’re right that we can look at whether limited agnosticism seems reasonable in context. I claim that in this context it is not reasonable. I said that skeptical theism is a sophisticated development, so I wouldn’t say I conflated the simpler “explanation” with the full philosophical paraphernalia of CORNEA and all that jazz. Anyway, skeptical theism seems to fail because the distinctions Christians would want to preserve about what we can know and can’t know don’t seem to be well motivated (I hope we agree that “we can’t know for definite something which would be good evidence against God’s existence” is not a well motivated distinction) so they end up undermining many arguments for God’s existence, as Lovering points out. A fortiori, I think the less sophisticated “I don’t know” claim fails as well (at least if it is a claim that other people can’t conclude that God doesn’t exist on basis of the evidence of suffering).

          • In fact, none of your original comments are relevant to the matter except under the assumption that there is something problematic about limited agnosticism itself; you had originally counted the mysterious-ways approach as an explanation exhibiting the explanatory flaw of being consistent with everything. It is in fact consistent with everything, but since the mysterious-ways approach is a limited agnosticism approach, this could only be the case if limited agnosticism were capable of having such a feature as an explanatory flaw; it is not, since limited agnosticism is not an explanation but an assessment of the availability of grounds for reasoning. You then said that the mysterious-ways approach was not limited agnosticism, because it presupposed knowledge about a lot of things, which is true, but is true of all limited agnosticisms; and then raised the issue of skeptical theism, whose appeal to limited agnosticism you characterized as being “odd”, despite the fact that whether it is odd would depend entirely on the state of available evidence, not on the particular topic; and despite the fact that the problem with skeptical theism is not that it says we don’t know why God would permit serious evil X despite knowing lots else about God, which is just limited agnosticism, but the framework justifying it in this case, which doesn’t generalize to mysterious-ways approaches generally. I agree that ‘conflation’ was probably not the right word; but even if you were only running an a fortiori (as you seem to be confirming here) or an analogical argument, the inference from problems with skeptical theism to problems with mysterious-ways approaches would be qually problematic, and for exactly the same reason — the only thing that mysterious-ways approaches share is their limited agnosticism on various theodicial topics, so it would only generalize on the assumption that there is something wrong with limited agnosticism itself. (This difficulty of a fortiori and analogical generalization is arguably also common to limited agnosticisms generally; it’s one reason why philosophical discussions of skepticism about certain topics get so complicated and keep philosophers busy writing journal articles.) There just seems to be no way to make this line of attack work in general.

            On the issue of whether mystery is a good thing, I don’t think you’re doing justice to commenters like, say, Reluctant Liberal above, who is quite clearly insisting on the importance and value of the mystery point as part of rejecting the quick appeal to facile explanations. Conceivably you disagree with his assumption that people tend to facile explanation on this subject, but assuming such an assessment, insisting on the importance and value of caution, considered suspension of judgment on a matter, and recognition of the limits of your evidence is hardly to be considered a bad thing, although you are right that it raises questions about how much is too much and about how far such an approach spreads. But all limited agnosticisms raise this question.

            I don’t actually understand your argument in the second-to-last sentence; this does not seem to me to be a plausible reading of Lovering’s argument, which turns on very specific formulations of skeptical theism and their relation to very specific forms of argument commonly found in analytic philosophy of religion, not on general issues about whether Christians can make well-motivated distinctions in this area; but this may just be due to its compressed form.

          • So, I’m going to change my mind. Go me! (Oh, and, er, thanks for helping, obviously)

            Merely saying “I don’t know about that” can’t be usefully classified as an explanation and so it’s be a category error to judge its explanatory virtues. I agree that if “I don’t know about that” exhausts what some people mean by “mysterious ways” statements, those people aren’t using a faulty explanation, because they’re not making an explanation.

            Two linked worries about “mysterious ways” statements remain, however, and were probably at the back of my mind when I confusedly referred to explanatory virtues.

            One is that those statements may function as semantic stopsigns: if we’re satisfied with mystery, we won’t ask the obvious next questions (like “why don’t I know?” or “why doesn’t God turn up/send an angel and explain why he let all those people die in that earthquake?”, say). Even if all that a person means by such statements is “I don’t know”, if they’re psychologically satisfied with that (because they like the feeling of mystery, or for some other reason), the epistemically bad effect is similar to that of the explanation that explains anything (even though “I don’t know” is not in itself an explanation or an argument).

            Secondly, there’s the possibility that “I don’t know” doesn’t exhaust the meaning. By offering “mysterious ways” in response to the question of why God let all those people die in the earthquake, the responder might be telling the questioner to stop asking questions themselves, or implying that the questioner cannot know. The former is bad for the same reason I gave in the previous paragraph. The latter is heading towards skeptical theism (using the IEP’s definition, say), assuming the thought behind it is that no-one can know because God’s ways are not our ways etc. and not merely that the questioner is especially stupid.

            I hope this now makes more sense.

        • Ted Seeber

          Isn’t it more “We are in a position to know that God could not have prevented the Holocaust, because to do so would have required turning the entire human race into a bunch of slave puppets”?

          • ACN

            So the universe with a loving god who allows the jews to be mass exterminated in order to respect nazi’s right to murder people looks exactly the same as the universe where god can’t intervene because he isn’t there.

            Weird, right?

          • Alan

            I don’t know, if he could impregnate a virgin to sacrifice the kid you’d think he could impregnate a virgin to have someone take Hitler out.

          • > Isn’t it more “We are in a position to know that God could not have prevented the Holocaust, because to do so would have required turning the entire human race into a bunch of slave puppets”?

            No, because that’s the free will defence, not an epistemic claim (and as you’ve phrased it, it’s obviously false: God could merely have turned some Nazis into slave puppets, say, and arguably would have done if he existed).

  • grok87

    Hi Leah,
    I love your inclusion of Brideshead Revisited. One of my favorite books. I loved the original BBC series.
    Another book to perhaps consider is Silence by Shusaku Endo
    And from today’s Divine Office, St. Polycarp (quoting Luke?)
    “Blessed are the poor and they that are persecuted for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
    Somehow that means even as we are persecuted we are given the kingdom of God- i.e. it is not a promise about the future but about the present.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Hi Leah,

    It’s important to remember that the problem of evil isn’t an argument against God, per se. Or even against the idea that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, who died to redeem us. It’s an argument specifically against orthodox Christianity. One can avoid the problem of evil by denying one of the premises of the argument, either by saying that there are some limits to God’s power, or that God is in some sense beyond good and evil. The Zoroastrians and Manichaeans (as well as some Christian heresies like the Albigensians) did the former, while the Calvinists did the latter. Obviously, you’re a Roman Catholic, so neither of those options is open to you. I bring them up just because 1) I want to stress that even if the problem of evil is insoluble, that’s not an argument for atheism; 2) I’m a not-always-that-orthodox Christian myself (I’m a convert, to the Episcopal Church) and have strong sympathies for some of the dualist answers to the problem of evil, and 3) it’s good to know about some of the alternative solutions that Catholic Christianity is arguing *against*, before you turn to what it’s arguing *for*.

    Like I said, I’m not that convinced by the orthodox arguments myself, but in essence, one of the ket arguments is based around the idea of free will: moral evil exists because in order for virtue to exist, we need to freely choose the good, and the act of free choice implies the option to choose evil alternatives. (Natural evil, to a large extent, can be attributed to the fall of the rebel angels, and thus reduces to a special case of moral evil, thus there really isn’t any distinction between the two). An alternative explanation of natural evil (and some moral evils as well), revolves around the idea that virtues are perfected through the struggle against evils, or through our response to evils, and that without evils to struggle against and triumph over, true virtue would be impossible. This is a corollary to what our Lord said to his disciples, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should give up his life for his friends.” A world without death would also be a world without the opportunity for total sacrifice, and thus a world where love could not be perfected.

    The meaning of the Book of Job, I think, boils down to the whole “free will, and virtue, necessitate the existence of moral evil” thing. The poetry in the middle of the book is beautiful and inspiring, and the emotional struggles fascinating to read about, but the prologue really explains what the book is about. The devil lays it out: if Job does not suffer, if he is rewarded for goodness, then how can we logically separate self-interest from virtue? “Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face….” It’s more or less the same thing that Plato lays out in the Republic, where if you really want to know what a just man looks like, you need to picture him being tortured and impaled, and maintaining his virtue in spite of it. In order for true goodness to exist, suffering and evil (at least the possibility of them) must exist too, in order that goodness may be perfected through struggling against them, through responding to them, or through avoiding them. And this boils down to a restatement of the two arguments given above.

    Personally, one of the texts I’ve always found most useful to reflect on, as we reflect on the problem of evil, is the story of the Raising of Lazarus in the Gospels. It points us to the reality that the ultimate answer to the problem of evil is eschatological, and will be found not in this life, but in the life to come. And the answer that people ask today, as they ruminate on the reality of pain, suffering, evil and wickedness in the world, is hauntingly put into the mouth of the spectators. “Could not he that opened the eyes of the blind man, have saved this man from dying?”

    That being said, Miss Libresco, I’m happy to hear about your conversion. I’m not part of your same church (though there’s a lot about it that appeals to me), but as a fellow Christian, welcome to the faith!

    • The problem of the existence of evil is not the same thing as the problem of the existence of suffering.

      …virtues are perfected through the struggle against evils, or through our response to evils, and that without evils to struggle against and triumph over, true virtue would be impossible…

      The problem I have with this is a logical one. One can certainly argue that a person who endures suffering can turn it to good, or make something good out of it — many examples of this exist. However, if one tries to argue that suffering is inherently good (or at least useful, which is what your statement seems to imply), then rather than trying to combat poverty, hunger, domestic abuse, etc. we should be rejoicing in them and encouraging them all we can, because it’s making every one of those sufferers a better person. That would make for s a pretty unattractive world, IMHO.

    • Ted Seeber

      Have you read Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the University of Regansburg? Roman Catholics are not Islamics, and God limits his own power by being a *reasonable* God.

  • Wright

    Probably the best work exploring the whole problem of suffering/pain/whatever from the inside is A Grief Observed. It’s a deeply troubling book, but a deeply rewarding one.