Andrew Sullivan has posted several more blog entries on the subject of theodicy. Here’s one written from a theistic perspective. It gets off to a bad start:
The emails you have received regarding the theodicy problem are, I think, very telling. Most striking to me is how few of your correspondents — and none in the set of notes posted just yesterday morning — seem interested in, or even cite with a measure of familiarity, any of the great Christian theologians on the matter: St. Augustine or St. Thomas, Luther or Calvin, Kierkegaard, or even a near contemporary like Reinhold Niebuhr.
Right. Because if you express in a blog post or in an e-mail the view that the problem of evil and suffering poses some problems for Christianity, you are required to discuss the musings of various long-dead theologians on the matter. As another of Sullivan’s correspondents pointed out, one wonders why Kierkegaard and Niebuhr had to revisit the issue if those early folks had already polished it off. I have read my share of what theologians and philosophers have said on this subject, and I am unimpressed (to put it kindly).
Later on we find this:
A non-fundamentalist, Christian account of evil will try to hold various notions in tensions with one another: human responsibility and freedom, sin’s inevitability but not its necessity, the goodness of creation and the idea that humans were tempted — in short, tries to take in our entire situation and see all the inflections and tensions in how we actually live. It tries to give an actual answer, however provisional and however couched in the language of myth, to a real human perplexity. Theology, in other words, is a set of concepts and terms, a language, that we use to make sense of our situation. To look for literal “truth” in it is misguided. Or rather, it may not be historically accurate but it is true in every moment of existence.
That looks like word salad to me. If theology only provides myths and concepts and does not possess “literal truth,” then how does it provide an “actual answer” or allow us to make sense of our situation? Science, and especially evolution, may not provide literal truth, but it certainly provides a good approximation of it. It tells us all sorts of things that are relevant towards understanding the human condition. Why should I turn to myths for guidance when I can have the facts of the matter instead?
I would respond further to this and to the remainder of this correspondent’s letter, but two other readers of Sullivan’s blog saved me the trouble. Here’s an excerpt from the first letter:
Your reader asks, what does Darwinism have to say about evil? The answer, of course, is that current evolutionary theory has nothing to say about evil – it is a scientific theory, not a system of morals. It just happens to be a correct scientific theory that seems to have ramifications for theories of human behaviour. If theology is merely “a set of concepts and terms, a language, that we use to make sense of our situation,” it is an incomplete and inaccurate set of concepts, if it does not take evolution into account, because the fact of our evolution is part of our situation.
Sounds good to me. Here’s an excerpt from the second letter:
You want a secular account of evil? Here it is. Evil does exist, like most other phenomena granted a label by human culture. It is what we’ve semantically converged on: a universally-understood though fuzzily-bounded descriptor of that which goes against our current moral framework. This framework contains some fairly absolute elements dictated by wiring in the brain that was selected for to maintain strong, cohesive communities (e.g., sharing is good, the golden rule), and some fairly relative elements developed through cultural evolution over time. Too relativistic for you? Consider this: isn’t it better to arrive at an account of morality through social consensus (in evolving popular opinion informed by expert ethicists as well as the changing realities around us), rather than through religious fiat based on interpretation of just those parts of millennia-old writings that happen to still remain relevant in modern times?
The religious accounts of good and evil, your reader would be wise to recall, have frequently demanded the persecution of outsiders and gays and had nothing proscriptive to say about the systemic enslavement of women (or anybody else). Throughout history, it’s been conservative, and usually more religious, forces that have clung to older notions of morality, while progressive, doubting voices have updated it, resulting in the First World formulation broadly agreed on today that prizes equality, compassion and individual liberty. I dare any critics of “moral relativism” to explain how their own absolute values weren’t improved via moral drift from the pro-slavery, genocide-neutral, anti-women’s rights precedents of the past. Where will it go from here? Nearly impossible to say, though with global society so interconnected now, there’s less inter-society selective pressure/freedom to drive drastic changes. But even abandoning that comfort of absolutism that enables us to imagine a distant future with morality totally like our own, I believe the humanist take on morality is enormously positive, wherein we as a society take responsibility to craft and maintain a consensus of good and evil that can feel right to each of us, is logically consistent, and allows us to make the best of our reality, rather than squabble over which antique scroll serves as an authoritative template for right actions.
But if you’re still looking for something that “redeems” evil by telling us that suffering isn’t really so bad because there’s some Grand Intentional Reason why it exists (though one which we can never know, and to which we can’t appeal for any measurable guidance), then I guess the secular account can’t really help you. But it seems to me the real vacuum is in your unwillingness to grant humanity its personal responsibility, not in the secularists failing to provide you with a poetic enough ghost story.
Again, sounds about right. Go read the full text of both entries.
What I found relaly interesting, though, was Sullivan’s response. Here it is, in its entirety:
And so the contempt deepens. I am glad to post these responses but have no desire at this point to converse with people whose utter disrespect for the religious life and contempt for people of faith is fathomless.
I was surprised by this rather snotty reply. The first correspondent did not strike me as contemptuous at all. The second letter was certainly strongly worded, but mostly because it was in reply to a letter which was itself contemptuous and condescending towards non-religious people (not to mention poorly-reasoned as well). Leaving aside issues of tone, both correspondents made solid arguments that deserve a cogent response.
Moving on, since when does Sullivan run from conversations with people who are disrespectful towards religion? He routinely mentions his friendship with Christopher Hitchens, and he was perfectly happy to engage in an extended blogalogue with Sam Harris. (You should read this exchange in its entirety, despite it’s being rather long. In my completely unbiased opinion, Harris slaughters him.)
Theologians continue to write about the problem of evil and suffering because to date no one has come up with a satisfying response to it. One suspects they never will. When you are done admiring the myths and concepts and lack of literal truth in theology, it will still be true that the general rottenness of nature and of human relations make notions of an all-loving God at the heart of it all seem a bit oblivious.
A final point. Sullivan has titled his recent posts, “What is Evil for the Darwinist?” What a bizarre title! He is essentially using the term “Darwinist” as a synonym for “atheist.” That’s not exactly reasonable. Furthermore, as I noted in this earlier post, evil and suffering are only a problem if you place an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God at the center of things. Under an atheist view of the world there is no mystery to be explained.