Saturday, July 19, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and The Problem of Evil

In recent months I have been intently studying The Problem of Evil, and so as I've seen the news reports about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 I've been naturally disposed to view the horrific event through the perspective of theodicy.

To clarify, the word theodicy comes from Greek and literally means "God (theos) Justice (dike)."

 Theodicies are attempts to justify God in the face of the evil we encounter on earth.  Every theistic religion has theodicies, developed by theologians.  We might say that theodicies are keys that attempt to unlock the box of The Problem of Evil.

The Problem of Evil can be succinctly stated like this:

    1. If God is omnipotent, God could prevent all evil.

    2. If God is perfectly good (omnibenevolent), God would want to prevent all evil.

    3. Evil exists.

The problem, formulated thusly (there are more complex formulations), lies in the question of how these three assertions can coexist.  If God is all-powerful and all-good then God would
have the ability and desire to prevent evil.  Yet our world, throughout history, is filled with evil.  The implication is that either, (A) God is not omnipotent; or (B) God is not omnibenevolent; or
(C) Evil does not exist.  To put it another way, if evil exists then an all-powerful, all-good God does not.

With the unfolding tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 we are witnessing a cornucopia of evil; the fruit of humanity at our worst destroying humanity at our best.  What we know so far is that a commercial flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down on July 17th by a surface-to-air missile while passing over a "conflict zone" near the Russian-Ukraine border.  All 298 passengers (including 80 children) and crew were killed.  Many of the passengers were HIV\AIDS researchers and delegates on their way to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.  All the lives lost were precious and meaningful and irreplaceable.

The natural inclination when an event like this occurs is to ask, "How could God let this happen?"  It is a question as old as humankind.  The question might have been even more complicated had there been survivors: "Why did God spare some and not others?"  The survivors and their families might publicly thank God for saving them, leaving the families of the dead to grapple with the meaning of the loss of their loved ones.  This is The Problem of Evil in tangible form.

Christian theologians--from Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Calvin to Barth and beyond--have wrestled with this Problem of Evil.  These men forged a chain of thought that stretches from the early centuries of Christianity, through the Middle Ages, to modern times.  Their theological and philosophical constructs are the infrastructure of what we now tend to think of as Christian doctrine.  Most Christians, I would venture, are unfamiliar with these men's writings, yet have received their thoughts through sermon and song as being intrinsic to Christianity. 

The writings of these theological luminaries are voluminous (Barth once quipped  "I haven't even read everything I wrote.").  Yet it is possible to sift through and distill the essence of their answers to The Problem of Evil.  They are surprisingly consistent, having each built upon the formulations of their predecessor (for a detailed analysis I recommend David Ray Griffin's book God, Power, & Evil).

To summarize in very simplistic terms:

On the assertion that if God is omnipotent God could prevent all evil, these theologians agree that God is indeed omnipotent and that God could indeed prevent all evil.  Augustine wrote that "nothing happens other than what God wills to happen" while Aquinas added that "God's [omniscient] knowledge, will and causation are identical, so that for God to know events is for God to will and cause those events."  Luther likewise surmised that all power belongs to God and that therefore everything that occurs (including the destructive decisions and actions of humans) is predetermined according to God's will.  Calvin wrote, "If one falls among robbers, or ravenous beasts; if a sudden gust of wind at sea causes shipwreck; if one is struck down by the fall of a house or a tree; if another, when wandering through desert paths, meets with deliverance; or, after being tossed by the waves, arrives in port, and makes some wondrous hair-breadth escape from death — all these occurrences, prosperous as well as adverse ... are governed by the secret counsel of God."  The great 20th century Protestant theologian Karl Barth likewise maintained that everything, down to "the slightest movement of a leaf in the wind," occurs because God wills it.

On the assertion that God is omnibenevolent, these five shapers of modern Christian theology likewise agree that there can be no question that God is absolutely and perfectly good.

So then, how do they answer the question of why evil exists?  When you sift and distill to get to the essence of their thinking they all agree--from Augustine in the 4th century to Barth in the 20th--that, to put it bluntly, evil does not really exist.  That is to say, what we perceive as evil is actually willed by God and therefore must be good.  Each of these theologians wrestled with how this could be, using ingenuity and nuance, but the bottom line they all reached is that, based on their presuppositions regarding God's goodness and omnipotence, evil must be an illusion;  what appears to be evil to us is not genuinely evil but only apparently evil--willed and allowed by God for the purpose of bringing about greater good.  

Augustine wrote, "If it were not good that evil things exist, they would certainly not be allowed to exist by the Omnipotent Good."  Aquinas believed that God's creation is perfect and that nothing could take away from the perfection of God's creation.  A beautiful painting has both colorful parts and drab parts (which serve as contrast to the colorful parts); in the same way a perfect world requires evil, which is intentionally placed there by God and, therefore, serves a good purpose.  For Luther, whatever God does is good and right and since nothing happens apart from God's will, evil is somehow good and right in the greater scheme of things.  It is difficult for us to grasp from our limited human perspective how this can be.  As Calvin wrote, "In a wonderful and ineffable manner nothing is done without God's will, not even that which is against His will. ... Yet, God's will is therefore not at war with itself, nor does it change, nor does it pretend not to will what he wills.  But even though his will is one and simple in Him, it appears manifold to us because, on account of our mental incapacity, we do not grasp how in divers ways it wills and does not will something to take place."  In other words, we are incapable of understanding why God wills things to occur (such as airliners being shot down by missiles) and we ought not to question why or argue with God about it.  We simply don't understand the good purpose of evil in God's larger picture.

An important question to ask about theology (or philosophy) is this:  Does the concept match our lived experience?  Or must we engage in cognitive dissonance and denial of reality in order to embrace a concept?  Is a given concept both doctrinally and empirically consistent?

The problem with the theodicies of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Barth is that they are built upon certain presuppositions which came to them from Greek philosophy (specifically Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus).  Just the other day I heard on the radio Hank Hanegraaff, the self-designated "Bible Answer Man," describe God as the "unmoved mover" and I wondered if he knew we was quoting Aristotle.  Aquinas purportedly said that "philosophy is the handmaid of theology"--in other words philosophy has been brought into the service of theology.  

Early Christian theologians were Gentile philosophers, educated in Greek thought.  They merged elements of the Jewish theology they received from scripture with elements of the Greek philosophy they knew from their upbringing to form what became Classical Christian doctrine.  From Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus they incorporated the view that God is immutable (unchanging and unaffected) in contradiction to the Hebrew God who reacts to the choices and actions of humans.  Immutability is related to omnipotence since to affect God (such as making God angry or sad or pleased) implies having a modicum of power over God.  Griffin writes, "But when the Aristotelian unchanging God was combined with the Biblical God who knows the world, it became necessary, in order to achieve a self-consistent position, to deny all genuine contingency. ... For if God knows everything that occurs in the world, and knows this infallibly and unchangeably, without any additions to the content of divine knowledge, then the total truth
about reality, including what is future for us temporal beings, must be completely determinate." 

From Plotinus (the father of Neoplatonism and a massive influence on Augustine) the idea was incorporated into Christian theology that evil is necessary in order to form a complete and perfect picture.  Thus evil is ultimately in the service of good and therefore only appears to be evil.

But what if one starts from a philosophical basis other than Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus?  What if one replaces omnipotence (meaning that all power resides in God) with omni-relationality (meaning that God is utterly and intimately connected to every aspect of creation)?  It would mean that God is affected by the choices and actions of beings--as the Hebrew scriptures clearly depict.  But if creatures have the power to affect God--to make God happy or angry or sad--then that implies that God is not omnipotent and immutable in the Greek philosophical sense.  Further, the New Testament clearly states that God is love, and love requires reciprocity.  Jesus is the ultimate Imago Dei, the image of God, and Jesus was utterly relational and quite affected by the choices and actions and situations of those he was in relationship with.  The Gospels repeatedly depict Jesus as encountering persons and being "filled with compassion."  Aristotle's immutable God could not experience compassion or love towards humans.

A relational God is a God that does not coerce but instead persuades.  It is a God that not only allows but requires free-will on the part of creatures.  Love that is unilaterally mandated and
pre-programmed cannot truly be love--it is a sham, like taking a robot for a spouse.  Love requires choice--freedom to not love, to respond, to be vulnerable.  A relational, non-omnipotent God is also a creative God.  It is the God of jazz, constantly interacting and responding and improvising along with creation.  God is a poet and visionary and risk-taker, rather than a puppetmaster.  Can God be perfect, yet not exercise (or even be able to exercise) coercive absolute controlling power?  I believe so, if we think of perfection in terms of relationality rather than power.

But this means that evil is real.  Evil occurs not as a result of God's will but in contradiction to God's will.  Evil is a potential by-product of freedom, and freedom is a requirement for love.  Evil is not necessary, but the possibility of evil is.  We can choose to love God and live according to God's intentions, or we can choose not to.    We are co-creators with God of what our world is and what it becomes.  God is constantly speaking to us, wooing us, luring us, calling us towards goodness and wholeness and beauty and harmony.  The inevitable trajectory of the universe is towards shalom, but we can choose whether or not to participate in that movement or go against it.  God is able to creatively guide and transform us all incrementally as we journey together with God towards what God envisions the universe can be.  It is a dance rather than a script.

So, was the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by a Russian missile evil?  Absolutely and truly and emphatically it was.  Was it God's will?  Absolutely and truly and emphatically it was not.


Anonymous Jim said...

Thanks, Danny. Wonderful post.

2:32 PM  

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