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The Problem of Evil

Anti-Theodicy: Is Theodicy Itself Evil?
Barry Whitney ©

Several recent books advocate an anti-theodicy protest as an alternative to traditional theodicies, indeed to the entire enterprise of theodicy as the seeking of rational justification for reconciling belief in God and the world's immense suffering and injustice. A fairly recent book by Sarah Pinnock is an example. This book, Beyond Theodicy (State U of New York P, 2002), focuses on continental existential and political Jewish and Christian writers, all of whom advocate practical responses to sufferings rather than seeking to explain or justify God's reasons for causing or permitting suffering in "theodicies." Pinnock discusses also some of the "contextual" theologies which Pinnock regards as extentions of the aforementioned existential and political responses.

The strength of the book is its informative exposition and analysis of some of the main responses to the Holocaust in major representatives of Jewish and Christian thinkers--the existential responses of Gabriel Marcel and Martin Buber, the political responses of Ernst Block and Jürgen Moltmann, the "theodicy-sensitive" response of Johann Baptist Metz, and the work of "contextual" writers who reject conceptual or propositional theology in favour of the view that all theological language is situated in particular historical circumstances. Included in this group are post-holocaust, liberation, feminist, womanist, mujerista, African-American, and Latin American writers, all of whom seek to bring the existential and political approaches "into conversation."

All of these practical responses eschew theodicy, as does Pinnock, despite admitting that there are problems internal to these responses, that they are at odds with one another in various ways and, indeed, "do not provide adequate practical alternatives" to theodicy. One of the main merits of these alternatives, nonetheless, according to Pinnock, is that they "explore objections to theodicy." The "contextual" approaches to suffering in particular, she claims, promise to provide more adequate responses to evil and suffering "without theodicy comfort," responses which take on seemingly endless configurations "appropriate to different religious communities."

The weakness of this book is its repetitive and cavalier dismissal of traditional theodicies, all of which Pinnock (wrongly) implies are modeled on those of Leibniz and Hegel, a model which prompts Pinnock's condemnation of theodicy as intolerant and irrelevant to individual instances of suffering. In response, I would point out that rational reflection on God and suffering can be distinguished from the Leibnizian-Hegelian formal theodicies (which are emulated by very few contemporary theodicies). Rational reflection is essential to the enterprize of theology, of course, an enterprise we can only assume Pinnock is not rejecting entirely. It is not clear this is the case, however, since she seems to confuse "theodicy" with rational reflection about God and suffering and condemns as arrogant all such intellectual musings, claiming that they produce nothing but detached theoretical speculations, irrelevant to living faith and to suffering individuals in their unique and personal contexts. Pinnock's position implies this absurdity, contending that theodicies -- and presumably all theological reflections on God and evil? -- are epistemologically absurd (Kant), "morally scandalous," and "harmful," insofar as they "condone evils by ignoring their social dimensions."

While there is obvious merit in and need for practical, personal responses to suffering by means of various coping strategies, the author's claim that this is all that can be done in response to evils and suffering should cause us pause. Surely this is not an either/or choice. Nor is there convincing evidence in this book or elsewhere to support such a radical position. As such, I see no reason to follow Pinnock's "advice" to jettison "theocentric" theodicies and replace them with "anthopocentric" practical responses. The author seems unaware that her view of theodicy is a caricature: theodicies are hardly the arrogant, abstract justifications of all evils as part of God's plan, irrelevant to the individual sufferer. Theodicies, rather, are legitimate and necessary rational theological reflections on suffering and its relationship to God. Such reflections are far more humble and tentative in their claims than the author's caricature suggests. The theodicists, moreover, who devote large portions of their personal and academic lives in pursuit of this major theological and practical problem are hardly the indifferent and irrelevant gamesters that the author suggests. Neither are they engaged in an immoral activity, in "amoral . . . rationalistic caricatures of practical faith struggles." Is the author aware of the seriousness of this charge, the implications for the enterprize of theology as a discipline of rational reflection, and the lack of evidence for her position?

Pinnock follows closely the views of Surin, Tilley, Ricoeur and others who represent a movement which rejects the grandious Enlightenment theodicies of Leibniz and Hegel as particularly objectionable. Such theodicies claimed to fully justify evil and suffering in a cold-hearted, insensitive and purely theoretical manner that is all-but-irrelevant to individual sufferers in their particular situations. Worse yet, they "effaced" the social causes of suffering and render protest and other practical coping methods meaningless. Yet, in my view, this condemnation assumes that Leibnizian-Hegelian theodicy is the model of contemporary theodicies. I hardly think it is. Theodicies are theological reflections which make no claims to rationalistic definitiveness. Indeed, unlike many of the practical responses advocated by Pinnock, rational reflection about God and suffering is based largely on interpretations of biblical texts. It is a serious matter to advocate otherwise in a quest for practical responses. Jewish reflection on the Holocaust, I would add, have not been restricted to practical responses in the handful of anti-theodicies but, rather, have engaged in a wide variety of theological reflection, none claiming absolute certainty nor callously ignoring the victims of suffering. Nor do they render a vast theocentric scheme of justifying God's ways to us, a scheme which renders irrelevant the suffering victim.

One could be unkind and reflect back on anti-theodicists the very accusation they levy against theodicists, namely, that anti-theodcy contributes to evil and suffering by its recommendations as to how to approach suffering. A far better case can be made against anti-theodicy than against theodicy as causing evil and suffering despite trying to explain or alleviate it. Anti-theodicists can justly be accused of denying explanations to the sufferer who seeks not just consolation but explanation, however humble and tentative the explanations may be. Theodicists have the important task of seeking to eliminate bad answers from good ones, for example, and those of us who use a biblical basis (rather than a smorgasboard of non-Christian resources) as our primary resource seek to provide biblical Christian answers for Christian sufferers. As a theodicist, I object to those who accuse our long and dedicated work of a lifetime as being insensitive, morally repulsive and irrelevant to the sufferer. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that anti-theodicists (like Pinnock, whose book led me to write this response) seek to supersede theology with practice, while claiming apparently that they are working within the Christian framework. Such a disregard for biblical and theological tradition seems to me nothing short of another step in the postmodernist rejection of an absolute Truth in favour of pragmaticism (seek what method works, regardless of whether or not it is true). Theology, furthermore, cannot be disregarded or suspended, even in pragmatic attempts to console the sufferer. Theology is unavoidably implicit and inescapable. The real question is how valid the theology is. Part of its valuation is its correspondence with biblical truth and part is its practical effects on sufferers. And there are other considerations as well. (I've elaborated and defended these and other related points elsewhere.)

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This essay is based on a review published in the Canadian journal, Studies in Religion, 2003.
Barry Whitney was Professor of Christian Theology and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Windsor, Windsor ON Canada from 1976 to 2013. He is now retired but active in Ottawa, Canada. He was Editor of the journal, Process Studies, for 14 years (1996-2009). His research has focused largely on the problem of evil and issues in the Philosophy of Religion and Apologetics.

BARRY WHITNEY, 2005. Please request permission from the author at DrBarryWhitney@mac.com to use this publication in whole or in part in web publications or in other forms of publication and dissemination.