"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, November 05, 2007

Theology to go

At his New York Times blog "Think Again", Professor Stanley Fish has done the religious blogosphere a small but important service. It is rare to find, under the auspices of the secular press and the newspaper of record no less, a discussion of the deepest theological issues that is both digestible and intelligent. That's just what his post is, and it's badly needed as a way of getting a wider audience to think clearly. The combox shows that, in about one in five cases, he actually succeeds—a better percentage than usual. I want here simply to focus attention on the two most important issues he got people thinking about.

After the sound intro focusing on the idea of original sin, his post is mostly a summary compare-and-contrast of the divergent paths taken by two prominent secular thinkers: religious-studies professor Bart D. Ehrman and philosopher Antony Flew. The former lost his youthful faith in face of the problem of evil; the latter lost his youthful atheism in face of the question why the world exists at all. Those are the two issues on which I spent the most time when I taught the philosophy of religion. I've written about the former issue here; and I adumbrate my philosophical case for God's existence largely as an answer to the latter question. In each case, I find the chief intellectual obstacle to theism to be conceptual, and I find that observation confirmed by Fish's post and combox. What do I mean?

As a logical conundrum, the problem of evil hinges on what one takes the concepts of omnipotence and perfect goodness to entail. If one takes omnipotence to entail that any statement of the form "God can _____" is true, then the problem of evil is logically insuperable. If one takes perfect goodness to entail that a perfectly good agent would eliminate, or at least reduce, undeserved suffering if and when they can, then likewise the problem of evil is logically insuperable. But those facts by themselves are no evidence that classical theism is logically indefensible. For if either Judaism or Christianity is true—Islam being a separate case—then the concepts in question need not and should not be taken to entail either. The question then becomes what they should be taken to entail. That's where the discussion ought really to begin, and that's where each religion must be understood on its own terms, with full and respectful attention to religious experience and ordinary praxis as well as theological propositions.

My own conclusion is that theodicy—i.e. a satisfying explanation of why God presides over so much undeserved suffering—is neither possible nor desirable given the principles of divine revelation itself. Some people agree but conclude that that is a reason for rejecting classical theism. I respond that they are mistaken about the possible scope of explanation. In my article I make clear why, and conclude that while theodicy is a non-starter, defense is quite feasible. One can show that the problem of evil is not logically insuperable; for the concepts of omnipotence and perfect goodness need not, and should not, be understood in such a way as to generate a logically insuperable problem. Our limitation is that we cannot explain why the facts constituting the problem of evil jointly obtain in the first place. But that should not be considered a defect of classical theism. It is simply a limitation that any finite mind runs up against.

I said that people who reject theism in face of the problem of evil are "mistaken about the possible scope of explanation." What I mean is that they expect explanation where there is no reason to believe that the sort of explanation that would satisfy them is either possible or desirable. In the case of arguments for God's existence, the intellectual problem is also about explanation, but the mistake is the opposite one.

People cannot help asking the question why the world exists at all. Even the postulated Big Bang does not answer that question. One can always ask why the primal explosion occurred at all and why there was even a supremely dense primordial bomb to explode in the first place; and someday, physics might be able to answer those questions. The real question is why there is any totality of contingent entities at all; and that is not a scientific question. If there is any answer to it, that answer would have to cite something not of that totality, something supremely intelligent and purposeful that exists purely a se, "of itself." That could never be an object of scientific inquiry, which is why the taunt "Who made God?" is just silly. But the taunt shows what the problem here is: many people's idea of what could count as an explanation of the world's existence is too narrow, just as many people's idea of what would count as an explanation of evil is too broad. The problem in the case of establishing God's existence is scientism: the assumption that only what can explained scientifically is ultimately explicable at all. Needless to say, there can be no scientific argument for scientism itself, and scientism leaves the question "Why does the world exist?" unanswerable in principle. That is a needless constraint on explanation.

It is this peculiar juxtaposition of equal but opposite errors about the scope of explanation that accounts for most intellectual rejection of classical theism. In the case of the problem of evil, explanation is demanded where none is available, even in principle; in the case of arguing for a Creator, explanation of the needed sort is ruled out on shaky epistemological grounds, leaving a natural and vitally important question unanswerable in principle. I believe the explanation for that peculiar juxtaposition is spiritual pride and immaturity: the effects of original sin, which is the topic Fish opened with. That's what we need to be talking more about.
blog comments powered by Disqus