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

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Back, with evil

Apologies to my vast readership for the weeks of silence. At the beginning of September, I moved from NYC for a new full-time teaching job in Syracuse, which has turned out to be fairly demanding. At the same time, my father is terminally ill and my elder daughter is about to get married—in England. For reasons I won't explain further, my new job makes it much easier to deal with such family matters than staying in NYC would have. So I take this job to be providential. Even so, for the past six weeks I have been kept too busy for blogging. I probably shouldn't be blogging even now, but I can't help it. Another natural-theology issue keeps niggling at me.

I mean, of course, the so-called "problem of evil." I've written about that standard conundrum several times before, most notably here, and I'd love to write a book about it. My excuse for adding to the already staggering literature on the topic would be to show, rigorously, why most of said literature is irrelevant, and to tease out what is relevant. The main purpose of this post is to briefly explain why, and to state the appropriate lesson.

Last month, philosophers James Chastek and Alex Pruss made arguments that serve nicely as a point of departure. But only as a point of departure. First, Chastek's conclusion:
Christianity is utterly incoherent without the doctrine of original sin, which promises and insists upon the suffering and toil of the human race as a consequence of the divine goodness (namely, his justice). We can call this doctrine impossible or absurd, but we can’t very well say that we get the idea that God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent from Christianity and then turn around and say that we have no idea why the human race suffers. Omnipotence and omnibenevolence are a part of a package deal with original sin.
Next, Pruss' conclusion:
In the face of eternity, a finite amount of suffering is just a blip. But does it not beg the question to suppose eternal life in responding to the problem of evil? Not at all. The problem of evil is an argument against theism. Theism makes eternal life for any created persons very likely. Thus, if the problem of evil is to make a significant dent in the probability of theism, the problem of evil has to work even if there is eternal life, or else a good argument against eternal life is needed.
What's helpful about such arguments is their reminder that classical Christian theism, as distinct from a deracinated, generic philosophical theism, goes some way toward showing how an answer to the problem of evil is possible. Such an answer, I argued in the paper linked above, would be defense rather than theodicy. It would not explain how God is justified in presiding over all the unmerited suffering we find in the world, but it would show that his doing so is logically compatible with his being both all-powerful and perfectly good. And if my argument in that paper is sound, then defense is all anybody—theist and non-theist—has a right to expect.

But how, exactly, do Chastek and Pruss help? They invoke the Christian-theist doctrines of original sin and an everlasting afterlife, respectively. I want to argue that, in conjunction with certain other doctrines, that of original sin entails that God could not have prevented our first parents' sin from depriving their descendants of grace without trashing the created order of things. Now Chastek thinks the inheritance of original sin is required by God's "justice." But if that's so, it's only remotely, insofar as God's justice requires that he not trash the created order of things. For the descendants of our first parents did not deserve to inherit such a deprivation: none of us, prior to conception, did a thing to deserve anything, bad or good. But the inheritance of the deprivation is balanced out by the offer to all of an unmerited share in the divine nature. That entails everlasting life. None of us, of course, deserve everlasting life either. If we are all (with the usual few exceptions understood) conceived without grace, we are all called by grace to unmerited glory. That balance is itself just, even though neither end of the scale by itself is fair. This life isn't about fairness. It's about mercy.

Of course none of that shows that God had to set things up in such a way. Nothing could show that. Some would even argue that God is immoral for setting things up that way. Odd as that may sound, it's an argument worth taking seriously. But for the reasons Chastek and Pruss give, it cannot be plausibly argued that such a setup shows that divine omnipotence and omnibenevolence are mutually incompatible on a Christian account of those attributes. That takes the logical sting out of the problem of evil. Raising the problem is a lament and a question; its mere existence is not a logical demonstration of any anti-Christian conclusion.
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