This is an essay I wrote for one of my university courses. The name of the course was “Evil, Suffering and Death”.
1.1. Purpose and Aim
The purpose of this essay is to explore the possibility of an ethical and non-explanatory response to the reality of suffering within Christian context – context here understood as both theory and practice, theology and life. I shall ask later whether this broader understanding of context as the unity of theory and practice might necessitated by the very issue at hand itself, but first I’ll delineate the shape of this essay in general.
I would like to consider the question of suffering not as a sub-species of the atheism/theism -debate – and hence not merely in evidentialist terms – but rather as a more broader, perhaps even more fundamental, question; suffering is ubiquitous and common to all humans in its various forms, whether they be atheists or theists. Hence, ‘theodicy’ is not a theist’s problem – it is a human problem. In a way, therefore, faith in the triune God – although it can be drawn into a crisis due to suffering – is something that is presumed here. Thus, the focus of this essay will be the possibility of a continued Christian existence amidst suffering, that is, the question of how one can live as a responsible Christian, holding onto the basic tenets of Christian faith (as they shall be outlined later), while acknowledging the reality of suffering – her own or other’s. Those who know the intensity of faith and suffering – the faith which draws us, calls us and cannot, despite all, be given up – will most likely know what would motivate an exploration like this. However, I do acknowledge that for some this approach may seem strange, especially if one is accustomed to approaching the question of suffering primarily as an evidentialist problem.
I will also – to the extent that it is possible – engage the theodicy/antitheodicy debate, especially as it comes to the antitheodicists’ charge that all theodicies are fundamentally immoral and fail to properly acknowledge the reality of suffering. Considering these charges, I will delineate – in a very rudimentary sense – a possible theological, but also ethical and nonexplanatory response to the reality of suffering. I have purposively chosen the word ‘response’ rather than antitheodicy or theodicy. I would also like to avoid the language of “problems and explanations” – a language perhaps native to the evidentialist discourse on the matter, which I wish circumvent here. Hence I prefer terms such as “reality”, “response” and “comfort”. Nevertheless, I wish to explore different aspects of the question of suffering as it poses a challenge to Christian theism and I will attempt to carry out this exploration under the following, rudimental framework: that an ethical, theological, but nonexplanatory response to the problem of suffering should be able to (1) have reverence for the human experience, (2) offer comfort, (3) allow beauty and (4) awaken hope, and in this sense – as John Bishop has put it – ‘maintain a hopeful commitment to virtuous living in the face of all that may undermine human fulfilment’. But first it is perhaps useful to try and specify the terms employed.
1.2. Definitions and Limitations
Strictly speaking, theodicy can be understood as “the attempt to understand, to explain, and to justify the co-existence of God and evil through reason and the formulation of theories”, i.e. as a theistic response to the challenge of the argument from evil. More broadly, theodicy can be understood as a form of evidentialist discourse that includes also the arguments against the existence of a perfectly good, omniscient and omnipotent God. Nevertheless, in its most basic form, theodicy can be seen as a problem that rises from the following premises:
- God exists, and is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
- Evil exists.
From these two premises, then, emerges various theodicies that seek to either prove that premises one or two – usually (1) – are untrue or that there is a way of reconciling the two without modifying either one. The argument can take a logical or an evidentialist form; in the former one would argue that the premises are logically inconsistent while in the latter one would argue that the existence of God is – as evidence is considered – improbable (or, vice versa, that the existence of God can follow logically from the premises or be probable). There is also a distinction to be made between theodicy as a mere defence and as a more full-blown solution. In the former – put forward, for example, by Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen – one simply argues that it is possible that God has good reasons (such as free will) to allow suffering. In a mere defence, thus, one does not claim to know exactly what those reasons might be and the goal of the argument is mainly to preserve theism as a live option, to make rational belief possible despite the suffering we encounter.
Despite the fact that “suffering is the locus or context of evil; whenever there is evil, there is someone’s (or something’s) suffering of some kind” the question of evil and the question of suffering are, although very closely intertwined, somewhat distinct questions. In relation to theodicy one should, hence, also ask what kind of suffering we are discussing and how is this suffering related to evil – be that evil of moral or natural kind, as the common distinction stands. In its strongest form a theistic response to the problem of suffering should thus be able to explain how perfectly good, omnipotent and omniscient God can have morally sufficient reasons to allow suffering that seems gratuitous, wholly unnecessary. It is this kind of seemingly gratuitous suffering – rather than evil or any other kind of suffering, such as suffering resulting from one’s own immoral actions – that is also the main focus of this essay.
Antitheodicy seems to be a term that is more difficult to define. If one thinks theodicy as an attempt – as John Milton put it – to “justify the ways of God to man”, then antitheodicy can be considered to be a “refusal and rejection of any such justification”. The heart of the antitheodicist project would then be to show how all theodicies are inadequate in their response to the reality of evil and suffering – that they fail to deliver what they promise, namely, a justification of suffering. More fundamentally, however, antitheodicy can be seen as a rejection of the whole project of theodicy, the whole “theodicist discourse”, because – as, for example, Kenneth Surin has argued – theoretical theodicy is “irrelevant to the real problem, immoral, tacitly an endorsement of evil, and undermined by the reality of evil”. Motivations for this kind of fundamental rejection vary and are, of course, interconnected.
In this essay I will leave aside the question whether antitheodicy is necessitated because of the inadequacy of the theodicist solutions, for there will not be room for such an extensive study within the limits of this essay, nor will it be necessary, for other a priori considerations related to the nature of the theodicist discourse might be enough to motivate an antitheodicist argument. Although, at least intuitively, it seems that an antitheodicist approach would be naturally connected to some kind of a priori metaphysical or epistemistemic considerations (for example, some kind of Kantian transcendental criticism and its cousins, such as wittgensteinian philosophy of religion of D.Z. Phillips) it might not be necessary to presume, say, some kind of anti-realism in relation to religious language or to completely reject evidentialism. Thus these epistemic considerations won’t be the main focus of this essay.
So then, “the actual antitheodicist arguments will unfold starting from the idea that theodicies are morally inadequate, or even immoral, responses to the evil and suffering.” According to antitheodicists theodicies can be immoral for various, intertwined reasons, such as that they fail in acknowledgment or recognition by, for example, calling into the question the sincerity of the suffering person or the very idea of God having morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil might be seen as immoral when the reality of evil is properly apprehended. One could also suggest that at least some – though many would argue that the problem is essential to the whole project – theodicies can be seen as immoral because they are instrumental in their nature: a person’s suffering, or – more strongly put – the suffering person herself, becomes a means to and end that is supposed to justify the suffering, this might so even if one would appeal to some “patient-centered good” as the good that justifies suffering. On the other hand, some have claimed that theodicies endanger the moral development of those involved in the theodicist project and thus keep us from becoming the kind of moral agents we would have to be in a world such as ours, that, in fact, theodicies are a tacit ‘endorsement of a world with evil’. There are also moral criticisms that have do with more specific aspects of certain kinds of theodicies, such as the criticism that appealing to some retribution in the afterlife – for example, in a form of beatific vision – would, in fact, undo the “evilness” of evil, and thus theodicies cannot really respond to evil in an ethical manner, but rather end up diminishing evil. Nor all convinced that such a retribution could be truly redemptive even if it did occur.
Many, often analytic, philosophers and theologians who wish to defend theodicies against such charges, have appealed to the distinction between theory and practice: they do not claim that their theodicies are meant to comfort the suffering – theodicy is a purely intellectual exercise which aims to defend theism. Some theodicist have also emphasised that “to explain suffering is not to explain it away”, for “no matter how successful a theodicy is, it cannot possibly alter the fact of suffering”. However, one could plausibly argue that at least in this particular issue such an approach is uncalled for; that the very issue at hand – suffering – is of such kind that it cannot be discussed as an intellectual challenge in abstracto – to discuss it as such would not be to address the issue itself, but rather to engage in a kind of “pseudo-discourse”. Hence one could also argue that a theological response to the reality of suffering should be inherently holistic, taking into account both theory and practice, theology and life.
In this essay, I cannot discuss all of the above mentioned charges against theodicies in a very detailed manner. I will, instead, focus on two them and consider a possible theological response to suffering in light of them: (1) that theodicies lack proper reverence for the human experience and (2) that the theodicy-project is detrimental to our moral development, making us unable to respond to other people’s suffering in an ethical manner. I will consider these charges within the boundaries and possibilities of Christian theism while suggesting that our response to suffering, for all that it’s worth, be it an antitheodicy or some kind of “ethically modified” theodicy, should be able to do at least the following: (1) have reverence for the human experience, (2) offer comfort, (3) allow beauty and (4) awaken hope. I will especially focus on theology of the cross and theological aesthetics as resources from which a possible theological response could emerge.
However, before these considerations I would like to outline some of these boundaries and possibilities set by Christian theism. Boundaries set by, say, confessions of faith set the limits within which one’s response to suffering should operate in order to retain to its integrity, that is, in order to still be a Christian response to the reality of suffering. In some ways, then, the issue at hand here parallels that between natural theology and ‘revelation theology’: there is, perhaps, a tension between public credibility and integrity. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this essay the relevant, basic boundaries could be stated – roughly – as follows: Christian response to suffering cannot dispense with the fact that (1) the world has an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent Creator, (2) that this Creator God has revealed Himself definatevely in the Jesus of Nazareth (3) whose death and resurrection are fundamental to our understanding of God’s plan to deal with evil and suffering, and that, indeed, (4) God is going to eradicate evil and suffering – they are not permanent realities, not as, if you wish, “ontologically established”’ as goodness, and that God will bring about (5) a final judgment where the world will be set right. One should also note that fundamental to Christian theism is a narrative understanding of reality, and of humanity, as created, fallen and redeemed. Taking seriously this meta-narrative means that a Christian response to suffering cannot ‘marginalize the beginning or the end’, the fall and the future judgment, for example. In essence, then, Christian worldview is what we might call ‘salvific’ and as such the question of suffering, as presented within that worldview, faces particular challenges that other kinds of worldviews might not face. Hopefully I will be able to – albeit in a limited way – show during the course of this essay how these basic tenets or “boundaries” do not merely acts as limits, but how they also form the basis of an ethical response to suffering – that the resources of Christian theism themselves make such a response possible.
2. On the Possibility of A Nonexplanatory, Ethical Response
2.1. Reverence for the Human Experience as a Precondition
There are evils that are so horrendous that they call into the question the whole positive meaning of one’s existence, rendering one’s entire existence incomprehensible. At the deepest, then, there seems to be this ineffable, incomprehensible quality to suffering, a silence around which all talk, all theodicies and theologies, swirl – and this silence, this incomprehensibility, is first and foremost the experience of the one who suffers. And as “each heart knows its own bitterness” (Pr. 14.10), so also our response to suffering should have reverence for this experience, for this incomprehensibility and ineffability. A response to suffering should start from reverence and silence that can allow for a sincere response.
Kant offered his own transcendental criticism of theodicies in On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy, arguing – roughly speaking – that theodicies fail not simply because they claim to have theoretical knowledge about God as such, but also because they are unethical due to their insincerity. Thus in his essay Kant sets Job’s sincerity and his friends attempts at explanation into a juxtaposition from which only Job emerges as vindicated before God. “Job speaks as he thinks, and with the courage with which he – – can well afford; his friends, on the contrary, speak as if they we being secretly listened to by the mighty one, over whose cause they are passing judgment, and as if gaining his favor through their judgment were closer to their heart than the truth. Their malice in pretending to assert things into which they yet must admit they have no insight, and in simulating a conviction which they in fact do not have, contrasts with Job’s frankness – -.” One must note that Job’s friends spend first seven days and nights in silence, “because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2.13), but apparently their own agony and desire for explanation grows too heavy, too much to bear in silence, and so they begin to speak and the painful theodicy-debate ensues. Perhaps we could argue then, that any proper ethical response to suffering should start from this silence which is reverence for the human experience: not to rush into explanations or possible solutions, especially at the expense of ignoring the claims of the suffering person himself. In their rush to offer explanations – to justify the ways of God to man, as it were – Job’s friends fail to be sincere themselves, but they also fail to take seriously Job’s experience: they fail to relate to Job’s suffering in an appropriate ethical manner by not acknowledging Job’s sincerity.
There are, thus, many ways in which a theodicy might fail in recognition. However, according to Levinas, the reason we must abandon theodicies is not merely that we should not offer explanations for suffering, but rather that we cannot offer such explanations. Suffering is itself inherently inexplicable, it is “an excess, an unwelcome superfluity, – – penetrating – -, the dimensions of meaning that seem to open themselves to it, or become grafted onto it”, “suffering is a pure undergoing” and as such, the least one can say about suffering is that it is “for nothing”. Hence, for Levinas evil does not simply resist theodicy, but opposes it: suffering is not something that human beings can comprehend, nor can evil be truly comprehended, not even as some kind of dialectical negation of good. Many other antitheodicists also appeal to the fundamental incomprehensibility of suffering, for example Kenneth Surin: “Evil and suffering in their innermost depths are fundamentally mysterious; they confound the human mind. And yet the goal of theodicy is, somehow, to render them comprehensible, explicable.”
In some ways, perhaps, the incomprehensibility of suffering rises from Levina’s fundamental question – question which Levinas thought to be even more fundamental than the ontological question of ‘why there is something rather than nothing?’: “Why there is evil rather than good?” If one presses upon Levina’s question – if one takes it to its very core – one is inclined to agree that suffering is incomprehensible. Here examples of “useful suffering” – such as that which the child experiences at the dentist – aren’t of much help: even then, if one presses the question, one cannot fully understand why we live in a kind of world where even some good things seem to require suffering. It’s the question that parallels that of Lila in Marilynne Robinson’s novel of the same name: “Why things go the way they do?” Why this kind of world, and not any other kind? Why suffering rather than not suffering?
Perhaps there is, then, behind this profound question, a denial of one of the most fundamental axioms of most theodicies: the necessity of suffering, i.e. that there is some good that is essential to us and can be achieved only through suffering and that good will outweigh the suffering experienced, and hence God has sufficient moral reasons to allow such suffering. Many have argued that horrendous evils, such as the Holocaust, call into question this axiom, but even more fundamentally, that asking the whole question is itself immoral. However, even some theodicists, such as Eleonore Stump, agree that “for some evils, the grief and the pain are so great that – – those evils are not fit subjects for academic exploration of the problem of evil”. For Stump the Holocaust is that type of evil: to the Holocaust the only appropriate response – besides making sure that nothing like that will ever happen again and so on – is “stricken awe in the face of it”, that is, silence.
Thus at this point, it might be useful to attempt to draw some distinctions between different kinds of antitheodicist stances. First, one could argue that (1) it is immoral to form theodicies that attempt to justify suffering, i.e. that would attempt to make visible even the possible reasons why God would allow suffering, rather than fall silent on those reasons for ethical or epistemic reasons (while still leaving open the possibility that (a) such reasons might exist, or even asserting that (b) such reasons – all things considered – must exist). Slightly distinct from this would be the stronger argument that (2) we should deny that any such possible reasons could exist (instead of merely denying our knowledge of such reasons – the epistemic argument – or refusing to engage in a discussion of such reasons – the ethical argument) since entertaining even the possibility of such reasons existing is immoral.
Nevertheless, we might conclude that theodicies fail in recognition at least unless they manage to make room for reverence and silence in the face of suffering, because suffering, by definition, is something that cannot be explained, at least not from an outsider’s perspective. So then, reverence for the human experience of suffering in all of its terrible, life-shattering awfulness – reverence that does not explain the suffering away, that refuses any explanation that would belittle the suffering – is perhaps the first prerequisite for an ethical response to suffering. However, a theological response cannot, in my view, remain in the “unavenged and unassuaged indignation”; refusal to ‘forgive’ must not be considered as the only option available for those who wish to have “love for the mankind”. Since Christianity makes claims on the salvific nature of reality and the ultimate triumph of good over evil, antitheodicy in Ivan Karamazov’s ‘moral atheist’ sense seems unsatisfactory. And although we should take seriously and learn from ‘Jamesian-like sick souls’ who refuse to ‘throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil’, we should also ask for the possibility of a kind of ‘deep, serious joy’ (1Ts. 5.16, 2Cr. 7.4) amidst suffering; we should be “perplexed, but not in despair” (2Cr. 4.8). A theological and ethical response should thus ask for the possibility of meaning, beauty and hope – the possibility of comfort – despite the often incomprehensible nature of suffering while keeping in mind the constant danger that our attempts to offer comfort become explanations that explain the suffering away.
2.2. Offering Comfort: Reconsidering and Relativizing Explanations
It seems that human beings have a natural tendency to explain things teleologically. When it comes to suffering, these explanation can take various forms. In this essay I will focus on those that presume the axiom I called ‘the necessity of suffering’. These explanations often take, approximately, the following form: “God caused/allowed one to suffer ‘x’ in order that ‘y’.” What is essential here is that the relation between ‘x’ and ‘y’ is understood as a logical necessity where ‘y’ is some kind of essential good that will outweigh the suffering ‘x’ and cannot be gained without it. An explanation would then make explicable the (possible or actual) relation between ‘x’ and ‘y’ and thus also justify the suffering. Depending on one’s epistemic position one could claim this justification either as an actual (a strong theodicy) or as a possible (a mere defence). Both of these solutions would then assert that (1) God does have sufficient moral reasons to allow suffering and that (2) we can have some kind of epistemic access to these reasons. If, as many antitheodicists have argued, the very act of explaining suffering in these terms explains it away, then – in order to fulfill the precondition of reverence and recognition – an ethical response to suffering should deny at least (2) and thus refuse to offer an explanation of suffering.
However, it seems also true that many people find comfort in their suffering through some kind of explanation. Is it possible to relativize these explanations by understanding them in terms of comfort and thus modify (2) in order to fulfill ‘the precondition of reverence’? Also, if ‘the foundational problem of evil’ is understood as that of “dealing with, coping with, or coming to terms with evil”, then one could plausibly argue that a proper response to suffering should also be able to help us ‘deal with’ or ‘cope with’ suffering – and comfort might be necessary for this.
So then, let’s presume that, in reality, the relationship between ‘x’ and ‘y’ – suffering and its consequences – is contingent: suffering ‘x’ doesn’t necessarily lead to ‘y’ nor does gaining ‘y’ necessarily require suffering ‘x’. This would not be a denial of the possibility that ‘x’ might lead to ‘y’, but it would deny that there can be an absolute, necessary explanation for ‘x’ that would justify it. Hence there could be comfort, not as a justification, but as a recognition of suffering that would also allow for relativized explanations. In fact, it seems that recognition of suffering in its fullest sense should also include a recognition of the explanations that the suffering person gives to her suffering.
How, then, could an ethical, theological response to suffering offer comfort? When it comes to relativizing explanations we must ask about the relation between our own and other’s suffering: explanations – or comforts, as I would like to call them – should be “patient-centered”, i.e. they should be a comfort, first and foremost, to the suffering person herself. Also, as I noted earlier, Christian response to suffering should take into account the central belief that “the Creator God has revealed Himself definatevely in the Jesus of Nazareth whose death and resurrection are fundamental to our understanding of God’s plan to deal with evil and suffering”. It is in the theology of the cross that Christian faith has often found its richest comforts.
Through the cross – Christ’s death and resurrection, our mortificatio and vivificatio – the incomprehensibility of suffering becomes an inter-personal mystery, for to it is added the reality of mutual participation: that ‘in Christ God participates in my suffering and I in His victorious suffering’. For the cross is followed by the resurrection: via participatio Christi the suffering person is caught up in the divine drama of redemption. This comfort is not something that is brought forcefully from outside, and as it is with mysteries the question of causality, of a definitive explanation, becomes almost obsolete. At the same time the cross reveals the compassion and care of the mysterious God: through this inter-personal mystery, an identification with the Crucified One, is made available ‘a second-person address’ – an encounter – which can yield ‘non-propositional, personal knowledge’, and which as such is ‘not the sort of thing to be true or false’; not an explanation, but comfort.
From a theological perspective the cross of Christ is the ultimate reality of “suffering for the useless suffering of the other – – which opens suffering to the ethical perspective of the inter-human”. The cross is thus not a sanctification of suffering as such that would deny “suffering its quality of contingency within divine providence” – would require that ‘x’ necessarily precedes ‘y’, as I put it earlier – but rather it makes it possible for us to become ethical agents capable of responding to other people’s suffering, able to ‘comfort others with the comfort we ourselves receive’ (cf. 1Cr. 1.3-7). Suffering or the cross cannot be converted into a principle: suffering is a mystery, ‘not a method’. The cross is, hence, not an explanation of suffering, but quite the opposite: the cross of Christ is a comfort that reveals suffering as incomprehensible but not indissoluble, that is, as a mystery, while at the same time beckoning us to become people capable of responding to suffering in an ethical manner, opening up a horizon of hope.
2.3. Allowing Beauty and Awakening Hope: the Desire for Goodness and Justice Satisfied
Presuming as contingent the relation between suffering and its consequences and hence refusing explanations draws us into the mystery of suffering (which, when theology of the cross in considered, might be more appropriate term than incomprehensibility). Christian theology, however, cannot leave it to that, for – as I put it earlier – we cannot dispense with hope, with the the fact that “God is going to eradicate evil and suffering and that God will bring about a final judgment where the world will be set right”. In addition, the comforts that are available to the suffering should not merely assert that God is present in one’s sufferings (theology of the cross), but also, in some sense, be able to heal the deep wound inflicted by the double-edged sword of suffering – the questioning of God’s goodness and justice.
In addition, if we agree that – pace O’Connor – the very reality of suffering requires a rejection of the ‘theory/practice -distinction’ in the responses we give to suffering, then, at least to some extent, “the measures of success and failure [of our responses] are subjective, existential, and pragmatic – – we succeed – – to the degree we cope”. But cope in what sense? We should cope in a way that allows us to become capable ethical agents, “maintain a hopeful commitment to virtuous living”, as Bishop put it. It is my intuition that Christian hope – including hope of the beatific vision in God’s new Creation – is essential here, but first I’d like to consider whether the question of goodness and justice could be reformulated in aesthetic terms.
For in many ways the question of God’s justice and goodness comes down to this: even if God would have some ‘morally sufficient reason’ to allow horrendous suffering, should we want such a god? Would such a god be beautiful? For “beauty is a splendour of the true and the good” and “in it man senses the attractive power of all that is good and true”. In other words, is there “something in God, the God of all the perfections, which justifies us in having joy, desire and pleasure towards Him, which indeed obliges, summons and attracts us to do this”? Is God, despite all the horrendous suffering in this world, still the origin of all things good, true and beautiful, someone we should want as the summum bonum of human existence? Is He lovable and desirable? Or should we, rather, choose Ivan Karamazov’s “protest atheism” and “return our tickets”?
God’s simplicity, His Oneness, is that which ultimately calls for a unity of justice and goodness in beauty, and in mystery. It is ‘a permanent mystery’, that is, not “an epistemic matter alone – – [for] God is not mystery because we cannot know enough or comprehend what we know”. This is to say, “Divine mystery is not a sign of our failure in knowledge, rather our success”, since “radical oneness, radial uniqueness, demands thought beyond any class, any universal, any likeness”. Thus to know this God, “is to be taken up in into an unparalleled ineffability and ignorance”, it is hence knowledge that can never be “fully proper or exhaustively third-personal knowledge of the Lord’s Oneness”. That is, in relation to the question of suffering, the ‘answer’ we are looking for might never yield to the kind of third-personal, distanced arguments that the evidentialist are looking for. It might be that these arguments remain unpersuasive precisely because, due to their very nature, they cannot convince one of God’s healing beauty, i.e. they do not make Him attractive.
So then, the question of God’s justice and goodness can be reformulated as a question of God’s beauty: is God beautiful? One must note that to answer ‘yes’ to this question is not necessarily to claim that some future, transcendental good of a beatific vision would eventually ‘engulf’ or ‘defeat’ the horrendous evils we encounter – it would not necessarily be an explanation, a kind of aesthetic theodicy such as that of Marilyn McCord Adam’s. Rather, beauty is something that transcends “the realms of profit and utility”, it transcends explanation and calculation and thus makes room for an ultimate mystery: God’s beauty revealed at the cross, in the suffering servant, the man of suffering (Cf. Ish. 53.2-5). The inter-personal mystery of encounter and identification with the Crucified One is hence also an aesthetic experience: theology of the cross cuts through theological aesthetics and offers a vision of God as a mysterious, even dark beauty – beauty which can, in a mysterious way, comfort the suffering person and satisfy the desire for justice and goodness in the present by drawing us towards the future. For, within the eschatological narrative of Christian faith, beauty allows for a satisfaction in hope – if one can conceive God’s beauty as the attractive, mysterious, complex harmony of His goodness and justice as displayed in the face of Christ, the man of suffering (cf. Heb. 1.3). This might be a kind of modified, cruciform version of classical arguments like those of James Kellenberg or Paul Draper – who both seem to argue, essentially, that the ‘epistemic weight’ of the creation’s beauty would allow us to trust in God’s goodness despite suffering and evil. The problem with these arguments is that they are subject to critiques like that of C.S. Lewis: on the basis of creation one might as well conclude that God is “quite merciless and no friend of man”. However, if we can conceive beauty as mysteriously revealed in Jesus Christ at the cross, and as an eschatologically open possibility proclaimed in His resurrection, then we might be able to begin to imagine a true unity of goodness and justice, begin to trust. Trust, that is, that the God of the cross is also the God of creation.
The word ‘conceive’ might be vital here, for – to return to the question of God’s ‘ineffable, permanent mystery’ – can we conceive such a Beauty? Can we be comforted by such a Beauty? To answer this question we would have to make an extensive foray into epistemology of theology for which there is no room here. Instead, I’ll be satisfied to suggest this: a sanctified imagination – pneumatically orientated, refined through spiritual practice and encounter with the Crucified One – can already in hope imagine and sense that which is possible: a harmony of goodness and justice, perfect, complete and effortless, ultimately ineffable. Such a sanctified imagination may be essential for those wish to ‘retain a hopeful commitment to virtuous living’: hope can form us into the kind of ethical agents we must be in a world such as ours.
An experience of God’s beauty can thus comfort the troubled soul that asks for justice and goodness in this life, and in the life to come – for in beauty one tastes the future glory of God’s new Creation, the final eradication of evil and suffering. This beauty that will eventually satisfy in the ultimate, eschatological vision doesn’t act as an explanation, but as comfort, since as a mystery it won’t relate to suffering and evil in neat categories, in fact, it does not necessarily relate at all – necessitating suffering in some way, making suffering its necessary precondition. This beauty then – and its infinite value – is something that would not justify horrendous suffering: it would bear no such relation to it, it would not yield to theodicy. Rather, it might simply be something that weighs more; something heavier (although it is lighter), something more fundamental, more important. Parentheses of love, closing us in, comforting without an explanation, a satisfying mystery, an answer without answers.
1 Cf. for example, Trakakis (2018): ‘The Problem of Evil for Atheists’.
2 Here I have in mind, for literary examples, accounts like those of C.S. Lewis’ in A Grief Observed, the Book of Job, Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest or Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which all explore the unyielding tension between faith and suffering.
3 This choice is partly motivated by the fact that what exactly constitutes a theodicy (or an antitheodicy, for that matter) seems to be a matter of debate. Those advocating for an antitheodicist stance (such as Trakakis 2008, Pihlström and Kivistö 2016) seem to understand ‘theodicy’ more broadly than many theodicists (such as O’Connor 1988, Stump 2010), including within it also “mere defences”, or, in fact, the whole ‘theodicist discourse’.
4 Challenge here understood mostly as an existential, personal challenge to one’s continued Christian existence, rather than a public, intellectual challenge to the credibility of Christian faith, although these two aspects can be seen as interconnected.
5 Bishop 2018: 42.
6 O’Connor 1988: 62.
7 McCord Adams (1989).
8 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 2ff.
9 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 4-5.
10 Stump 2010: 4.
11 Trakakis 2018: 97.
12 As characterized by O’Connor (1988: 62).
13 Cf. for example Pihlström and Kivistö (2016: 5-6) and Trakakis (2018: 97-98).
14 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 5.
15 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 5.
16 Trakakis 2008: 6, 13ff.
17 Trakakis 2008: 16.
18 Cf. Levinas 1998: 91ff.
19 O’Connor 1988: 63.
20 Trakakis 2008: 22.
21 Cf. for example, O’Connor (1988) or Langtry (2008: 4-6).
22 Stump 2010: 16.
23 Cf. Bruce Marshall’s Trinity and Truth (2000, Cambridge University Press).
24 However, these attributes – taken individually or together – may of course be understood in various ways and the conversation on the topic is immense and ever-continuing. Here I simply wish to draw some very general boundaries.
25 Cf. for example Wright (2007). N.T. Wright has offered an understanding of Christian hope as it is shaped by the Biblical narrative. In this narrative can be found resources for hope that can also guide the Christian church into hopeful living in the midst of suffering. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of space, in this essay I’ll only be able to briefly address some aspects of this narrative (the cross, beatific vision).
26 Bishop 2018: 44ff.
27 McCord Adams 1989: 299f. Cf. also Job 3.1-26.
28 Kant 8:255ff; 8:266.
29 Kant 8:266.
30 Pihlström and Kivistö 2006: 5-6.
31 Levinas 1998: 91-93.
32 Bernstein 2006: 260.
33 As quotes by Trakakis (2008: 20).
34 Bernstein 2006: 261.
35 Be this ‘outweighting good’ either transcendental or non-transcendental, of which the former would constitute, in some theist’s opinion, a stronger argument (cf. McCord Adams 1989).
36 Cf. Stump 2010: 13.
37 Stump 2010: 16.
38 Also, this approach might not require a rejection of the axiom I called ‘the necessity of suffering’.
39 Or – if one wishes to retain to some kind of “ethically modified theodicy” – should not be explained unless this precondition of sincerity and reverence is fulfilled. I’ll leave open the question whether such an explanation is possible.
40 Trakakis 2008: 23.
41 As characterized by Trakakis (2008: 23).
42 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 260.
43 de Cruz 2014: 148. (The Enduring Appeal of Natural Theological Arguments, Philosophy Compass 9/2 (2014)).
44 For now I’ll leave open the question whether an ethical response would also require a rejection of (1), that is, the question of how these epistemic and ethical aspects relate to each other.
45 Bishop 2018: 42.
46 This would, of course, challenge most if not all soul-making theodicies (cf. Speak 2014), not to mention appreciation theodicies or counterpart theodicies (cf. McBrayer 2014), all of which – in some essential sense – depend on the axiom of ‘the necessity of suffering’. Without wanting to make too comprehensive claims, it does seem that most theodicies depend, in some way, on this axiom and hence presuming, instead, as axiomatic ‘the non-necessity of suffering’, would lead us into a nonexplanatory direction and leave room for responses other than explanation.
47 Intuitively, it would seem that this contingency or ‘non-necessity’ would result from the fundamental incomprehensibility of suffering (cf. above): “Why there is evil rather than good? Why suffering rather than no suffering?” This is the question, the mystery of suffering, that cannot be answered in any absolute sense.
48 For classical examples Luther often comes to mind first, but ‘theology of the cross’ has its deeps roots in the Biblical tradition itself (cf. for example 2Cr. 2.14-6.12) and it has provided rich resources for creative, Christian rearticulations of hope during the modern period, too, for example in various forms of liberation theology (for example in Jürgen Moltmann’s or Gustavo Gutierréz’s theology).
49 Cf. McCord Adams 1989: 307-309.
50 Cf. Stump 2010: 192f.
51 Levinas 1998: 94.
52 Bonhoeffer 2013: 808.
54 O’Connor 1988: 63.
55 Bernard Häring in Theological Aesthetics: a Reader (TA 2014: 338). Italics mine.
56 Cf. Karl Barth (TA 2014: 318). Italics mine.
57 Trakakis 2008: 23.
58 Here, besides theological aesthetics, I have in mind the classical doctrines of transcendentals and Deus simplicitas: God’s justice and beauty come together in His utter Oneness, they are His beauty. I don’t have the space here to go into detail, but I think it should be noted that, from a Christian, theological perspective, an answer to the question of suffering should also address metaphysical questions, i.e. God’s being and relation to creatures. (See also Navone TA 2014: 355.) One could also argue that a kind of Kantian, a priori separation of aesthetics from ethics might not be necessary (Tallon 2011: 17), that, indeed – when the classical doctrine of transcendentals is considered – it might be uncalled for.
59 Sonderegger 2014: 23-27.
60 Tallon 2011: 41.
61 See McCord Adams (1989).
62 Häring (TA 2014: 341).
63 Tallon 2011: 39-40.
64 Cf. Sherry 1992: 86-91.
65 In this way one might also, in some sense, be able to avoid the criticism that appealing to future retribution or beatific vision would somehow “undo” the ‘evilness of evil’ by making an experience of some evils a necessary condition of a refined, beatific vision. It is, perhaps, possible to conceive beatific vision without such appeals to necessity of suffering, appealing instead to a “non-relating”, absolute mystery.
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