Saturday, 26 January 2013

The problem of Evil

A friend of mine is doing an Edinubrgh Adult education course on the problem of evil and asked me for my opinion. I once (about 15 years ago) at the invitation of a friend of mine who was a unitarian minister gave a sermon on the subject at his church in Manchester. As my friend found it helpful I publish it here, despite my deep antipathy to traditional religion I do have respect for liberal religious people such as Quakers and Unitatrians, anyway I publish the Sermon in it's entirety here as it was given back in 1996 so some of the historical references may be a bit dated. I think it still more or less encapsulates my views. I feel that the Arts by articulating the problem of evil does a much better job of articulating the issues than either traditional theology or philosophy.

The Problem of Suffering A Non Theistic Approach


The so called problem of suffering raises severe questions for any one who is in any sense religious or spiritual. How can we who are such believe that the world shows itself to have some underlying harmony in the face of the barbarism and brutatility shown by such disasters as the Holocaust, the world wide famine, the endless wars in the world and the death of innocent children most recently shown by the massacre at Dunblane. or the James Bulger case.

It is clear that those who believe in the concept of God as an ‘Active agent’ or as all powerful are faced with a serious challenge. If God is all powerful and mighty then why does he or she let such suffering happen. Alternatively if God intervenes in the world the why aren’t all the evil dictators who cause such misery struck down by lightning. This is not so ridiculous as it may seem, some of you may remember that when David Jenkins was enthroned as Bishop of Durham York Minster was struck by lightning and there was no shortage of people ready to blame it on God intervening because he was displeased with the Bishops view on the virgin birth. Clearly a God who is prepared to intervene to correct a Bishop’s theology is capable of intervening to stop madmen like Stalin or Hitler.
Over the centuries there have been a nuimber of so called theodocies which attempt to address the problem in my opinion these responses have ranged from evasion, farce or have made such a God more of a monster rather than some one to be respected or worshipped.
To give a few examples:
  1. The Free Will argument
  2. .: This basically says that it’s all our fault, God gave us free will, to enable us to become fully human we needed to exercise our choice between ‘right and wrong’ and hence suffering is an inevitable consequence. This evades the issue what we wish in the face of our and others suffering is some way to remedy the hurt and pain which we all feel. This argument essentially blames the victim and does not show any way forward.

  • God’s Answer to Job:
  • This essentially says that you are unable to understand my ways I am ultimately mysterious and more powerful than you will ever be. In the fullness of time all will be revealed until now you will have to wait and see.

  • ‘Sufferings Good for you’
  • Whilst it’s true that an awareness of suffering prevents us from being complacent and reminds us that ‘This is not the best of all possible worlds ‘ as Leibniz argued. This argument if taken to extremes turns God into a tyrant I cannot believe that it was good for the Jews to suffer in the holocaust. or the children of Dunblane to be massacared, or for people to suffer long and slow agonising death.

    The traditional arguments are summarised in John Hick’s book ‘Evil and the God of Love’ unfortunately I find this type of argument just leaves me cold and in the light of these and many other explanations along similar lines there really is no justification for the traditional concept of God who is all powerful and attributing natural disasters to such a God just turns him into a tyrant.

    Does this mean that there is an end to theology or for those of us who reject such a concept of God is that the end of the matter. I would say not because we are still faced with the problem of injustice, tyranny and ‘Mans inhumanity to man’ and any theology or philosophy which brushes aside such problems as meaningless can be accused of indifference and is probably just as callous as many of the traditional arguments.

    Much of great Art and Music has suffering or tragedy as an undercurrent running through it. The novels of Thomas Hardy have as one of their themes the act of a Malevolent fate which destroys everything in its path. The song cycles of Schubert, the Music of Mahler and the tragedies of Shakespeare to name just a few examples are able to articulate in ways which transcend any rational analysis the deep dilemmas associated with the human condition.

    In describing his famous painting the Scream the painter Eduard Munch says:

    "I was walking along a path with two friends, the sun was setting, I felt a breath of melancholy. Suddenly the sky turned blood-red. I stopped and leant against the railing, deathly tired lookiing out across flaming clouds that hang like blood and a sword over the deep blue sea fjord and town. My friends walked on, I stood there trembling with anxiety and I felt an infinite scream pass through nature"

    Within the context of the Christian tradition there has always been a strand of theological thinking which has stressed the empathy of its major figures with the suffering of all mankind. For example the Catholic tradition exemplified in the Stabat Mater elevates the individual sufferings of Mary to a universal plane. Similarly the concept of Jesus not as a miracle worker but as the man of sorrows and the suffering servant to my mind speaks more meaningfully than any concept of God as powerful and mighty.

    Since the 2nd World War there has been a strand of Modern theology starting with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and continuing with Jurgen Moltmann which has rediscovered this aspect of the Christian tradition. In Bonhoeffer’s last work ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’ he writes

    ‘God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics or science has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion. For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped…..
    And we cannot be honest unless we recognise that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. (as if God does not exist)….God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering’

    These seeds are developed further in the theology of Jurgen Moltmann in his book ‘The Crucified God’ which attempts to place the cross at the heart of Christian theology. In themselves the individual sufferings of Jesus have no more or less significance than the many other victims of injustice or tyranny. However for reasons essentially to do with social. cultural and accidents of history the Christian Church has placed the sufferings of Jesus at the centre of its worship. In the traditional approach this is linked with views of the atonement. I myself find great difficulty with this approach. The idea that a capricious tyrant God needs appeasing by the blood of innocent victims is to my mind abhorrent. On the other hand if the death of Jesus is seen as representing of all suffering in the world then the Christian hope as exemplified in the resurrection myths is that in the end despite all evidence to the contrary love is able to triumph over evil.

    Ultimately the answer to the problem of suffering lies with us, there is no active agent out there who will wave a magic wand and make it better. Yet in our own lives by seeking a more compassionate, just and fairer society and by giving comfort and support to those who suffer then this vale of tears will be transformed. Just as each individual act of suffering has a dimension which has an almost metaphysical dimension. So I believe each individual act of love and kindness has a universal significance which ultimately will help to heal the suffering and pain which pervades much of our world today.
    Suggestions For Further Reading/Study 


    Voltaire Candide. Voltaire was shocked by the Lisbon Earthquake and wrote this book as an attack on the optimistic views of Liebniz here caricatured as Dr Pangloss who believed ‘That this was the best of all possible worlds’

    Dostoevsky ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ This famous book includes a dialogue between 2 of the brothers one of whom is a monk and the other a sceptical intellectual about the problem of suffering.

    Thomas Hardy Jude the Obscure


    John Hick ‘Evil and the God of love’

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’
    Jurgen Moltmann ‘The Crucified God’


    Mahler’s Symphonies especially Nos 6 and 9
    Schubert’s Songs especially the song cycle ‘Die Wintereisse’.
    and of course the passions of Bach, Mozart's Requiem and the Stabat Maters of Pergolesi and Vivaldi.
    Sermon given at Manchester Unitarian Church June 1996.

      To the above references I would also add D. Z. Philips book 'The Problem of Evil and The problem of God.' a scating attack on the traditional arguments. Also I would encourage people to read the book of Job even if they aren't particularly religious. One of the problems with traditional religous people hijacking texts like the Bible and claiming that it is the infallible word of God is that it's merits as literature tends to be missed by agnostics or secular liberals. The book of Job considered as a dialogue in the spirit of say Plato is a literary masterpiece even if the final answer is somewhat unsatisfactory. Again even though I'm not particularly religious I can still appreciate the theology of people such as Bonhoeffer or Jurgen Moltmann, indeed The Crucifued God was influential in my thinking when I was a liberal Christian. It's combination of radical theology and drawing insights from the Frankfurt school is still relevant to today's problems as it was when it was written 40 years ago,

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