A reader writes:
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. As far back as Augustine, Genesis was being interpreted in a non-literal or allegorical manner! So to argue over the precise timing of Adam and Eve "eating an apple," as your one correspondent did, is nothing short of bizarre -- its genuinely a world of discourse thousands of years out of date. You know this, of course. But its striking how many of your presumably secular or at agnostic correspondents imagine a religious response to evil and suffering only through the terms set by fundamentalists. They counter a stilted argument proffered by fundamentalist theology then go on as if their work is done. This not only is pretty cheap intellectually, but incredibly impoverishing for our public discourse. The best word for it, I think, is ignorant.
I recently spent a great deal of time re-reading Niebuhr (and thus, by extension, Augustine and Kierkegaard) on the problem of sin and evil.
What was most striking was the way theological language ultimately was descriptive for him, that the account of the Fall was not a literal history of origins but a delineation of the nature of sin and evil. 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.
One final point: it is very easy to constantly question a positive vision that someone else puts forward. The non-Christian, the non-theist, can ask question after question about the Christian response to the theodicy problem. But none of your correspondents have give their own account that I find persuasive (in most cases, they give no account of evil). The advantage of the Christian account, so far as I can tell, is that it actually calls evil what it is, and seeks to put it in a larger framework that redeems it. What is evil for the Darwinist? Simply an externality of the struggle of the fittest? For all the pretensions of science, and all their discounting of the mythical understanding of man, do they really expect us to believe that thousands upon thousands of years of evolution -- that is, making us fit for this world, adapting to this world -- ends in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (or Auschwitz)? If you question the scientist, or the atheist, or sarcastic agnostic who doesn't like Jerry Falwell, I think they would have some problems too. Maybe, ultimately, they simply think evil is a non-sense word. Fine. But after the 20th century I find this the least plausible answer of all.
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