Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Problem Of Evil

Cambodian Sex Slaves
In this June 8, 1972 file photo, 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, runs down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack. (AP Photo_Nick Ut)

Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp

Armenian genocide
The world is a mess. It is filled with evil and brokenness. From the dive motels in San Diego to the backstreet slums of Mumbai, from the policy makers in Washington DC to the God Emperors of red dirt African countries the world is like a meat grinder feeding on humanity. Embracing chaos and futility we have become a serpent eating its own tail.

You have seen the films of people being beaten, you have heard the 911 calls of children screaming in fear that their daddy was coming and then silence, you know the reality of rape, the living death of slavery, and the indifferent retribution of institutional murder. This is all real. Don’t hide. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t pretend that it is not happening right now as we sit comfortably by. This is the world we live in. This is the world that we allow.

Now, lets talk about the problem of evil.

First off, let us recognize the obvious: evil is a problem. It is first a problem for those who experience it. It is second a problem, at least a discomfort, for those who see it. It is third a problem for belief in a wise, powerful, loving deity.

Now, allow me to disabuse you of a stupid vile lie. Evil is not a concept. It is an historical, existential reality experienced to one degree or another by the totality of humanity. This is an important point to make. The natural habitat of discussions regarding the "problem of evil" is academia. Theological and philosophical journals. University seminars. Faux intellectual gatherings in coffee houses. Timidly poked at by youth groups and bible study groups. The discussions are generally engaged in by people sufficiently free of the grosser effects of concrete evil to have the leisure to have such discussions. And, having had my own time in such situations, the discussion is much simpler to have if actual evil as experienced by humans is reduced into a semantically contained term that can then be logically manipulated to explore different theories. The problem that should be obvious it that what is being discussed is a concept and not the actual evil that is the actual problem in the actual lives of the actual humans.

Keeping that in mind, if you forget just go ahead and remember that somewhere in your neighborhood a child probably is being molested as you read this, let us look at the discussion.

Evil is a practical problem and it is also a philosophical/theological problem. There is a strong sense in which the philosophical/theological discussion of evil is a stupid waste of time. By far the dominant witness of Christian scripture is that evil is something to be resisted, attacked, fought, and overcome rather than discussed. Discussion does not actually feed starving people or protect someone from being hacked to death with machetes. Nonetheless, we have the book of Job, which is entirely devoted to discussion of the problem of evil. Also, our actions in this world are significantly affected by our understanding of reality. So there is a place for and value to discussion. However we must always remember that we are actually discussing babies being raped and not an abstract concept.

The theological problem of evil arises when we see the evil in the world and try to believe in a powerful, wise, and loving deity. If we drop one of those three factors the theological problem disappears. Either God is not powerful enough, or not smart enough, or not loving enough to stop Pol Pot from killing most of Cambodia.

There are classic Christian traditions that have gone for each of these options depending on which factor they were most willing to lose. The absolute sovereignty, "God is in control" tradition lets go of a loving God. The free-will position significantly modifies the power of God. There is even a tradition that God is figuring it out as he goes along. Interestingly enough, that third is by far the minor position historically speaking. Christians have been more comfortable giving up God's power or love than giving up God's wisdom.

Briefly, here are some of the basic problems with the first two (the third is so rare that I don't really care to address it.)

If God is in control then all that happens is the effective will of God and every particular about the actual happenings of this world are his intended actions, thus his responsibility, thus God does evil. The response to this is that from God's perspective it is not evil. And to that I reply, from Hitler's perspective Auschwitz was not evil. This reply is more rhetoric than substance but it points in the direction of substance: if God's perfect will is done now then what is there to look forward to in heaven where his perfect will will continue to be done?

If evil is the result of free-will then we are completely responsible for all of it. Not just the bits we have individually done but all the bits that we have allowed to be done and implicitly endorse by the products we buy, by the people we walk past, by not going to the danger zones and stopping it. As far as this goes I am more amenable to this position than to the first. But, it does not really let God off the hook because it was him who gave us free-will to start with and thus implicitly endorses our free-will.

I think that the theological problem of evil presented in the classical mode is intractable given the actual incidence of evil in the world. I believe that part of the reason for this is the conceptual playing ground. It places an abstract model of God, humanity, and evil as primary. It implicitly rejects these as primarily concrete historical realities. (Here is quite a decent post on both the value and the practical inapplicability of models. It is specifically dealing with scientific modeling but the same principles apply here.)

I think that one of my biggest problems with the classical approach is the way it seems to be attempting to justify evil, that is to give it an acceptable place in this world. One should never justify evil. Evil is always evil and never good. And as such attempts to justify it should be regarded as supporting evil.

The writer of the book of Job essentially concludes that God doesn't do evil but that the situation is just too complex for us to fully make sense of. However, that author does paint an interesting picture of God fighting mythical chaos monsters as an illustration of God's will toward the world and humans. I think that the key thing here is the fight. It is the historicity of fighting.

As I have indicated elsewhere, I tend toward the position that God has formed this world out of chaos and commissioned us to participate in the completion of this forming. I mean this in a historically concrete way. Out of chaotic dissolution God has brought a significant degree of order and has brought us into being to be his means of completing this ordering. The key here is that this is ongoing in concretely historical terms. It is a project not yet complete. The classical modeling of the problem of evil assumes a steady-state philosophically abstract/eternal structure already in place. It is lodging livability complaints about a building that is still an active construction site.

Evil really is evil. This world is still a mess. But we have been commissioned and empowered by the master builder to participate in his project, to realize his master plan. As we do this in the concrete historical actions of our daily lives, in the shit and the blood of this incomplete earth, as we bring light and life and set both the slaves and the slavers free and bring true reconciliation between rapist and raped and both feed the hungry and create the systems that keep famine from happening, then we are actively solving the real problems of evil.

Some further thoughts on some of the things I have said in this post can be found here.

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