Saturday, August 21, 2010

A few thoughts on theodicy

"I've also been struggling with Theodicy, the problem of suffering. I imagine that is something that you have studied before. Do you have any insights? These questions have really pushed me to examine and change some of my beliefs." A Query from a Friend

Boy, this is like the first question everyone asks in seminary or philosophy courses. One kind of person gives up on getting a good answer, and another kind of person writes a book about it. Half of those books suggest that there is no answer to the question of theodicy, and the other half quit on god, or turn to Nietzsche (Ubermann!!!)

Really, I think that the question of theodicy mostly baffles persons such as those that often find their way to Quaker meetings. We are a people who are looking for a pure place to stand in life, and when we realize how frustrating it is that we cannot find such a place, we become frustrated with the possibility that perhaps God or the gods may not be so pure as we would like them to be. This might sum the Hebrew Scriptures in a nutshell, which is a perhaps far more realistic portrait of deity than the Greek/Christian expectations of literal supernatural perfection. Did the Hebrews understand life to be tough, unfair, and violent, and that it is the innocent who are most prone to suffering?

Indeed, when your experience of life is such that you cry out to your god that the heads of your enemy's infants might be dashed against the rocks (Psalm 137), you most likely attribute some fairly ferocious if not schizophrenic attributes to the deity that is also representative of grace, forgiveness, mercy and lovingkindness. So, when Jesus comes along and says YHWH is full of love, we desperately need YHWH be loving in a way that rises above the impurities of our existence, and meets exactly those standards that we ourselves attribute to God. But certainly we must ask, is love pure?

My answer to theodicy, for what it's worth, is that when Eve (remember the story?) bites into the fruit of knowledge, we should really be referring to the event as the "blessing" of sin. Think of relationships, and what makes them worthwhile. Perhaps the challenge of making them work is enticing, and so is the physical intimacy that is often enjoyed, ranging from infant-mother touching to healthy adult sexuality. However, if we engaged in "relationship" without the ability to choose whether we wanted to respond to the “other” (whether comrade, lover, or cosmic force) with real and uncoerced or manipulated love, and without the knowledge that the "other" was freely choosing to love us, there would be no relationship, and we would never experience emotional or spiritual growth, let alone real love.

If a divine entity wants to engage in real relationship with humanity, then not only is the capacity of the created being to freely choose participation absolutely necessary for healthy relationship (which, by the way, benefits the deity as well as the creature), but the ability of the deity to restrain the divine-self from interfering with the creature's free will, and accept the (logical?) necessity of showing restraint in mandating outcomes as opposed to responding to human activity is of primary philosophical importance. I suggest that the only “answer” to evil and suffering is to eliminate the opportunity for emotional and spiritual maturation. It's a catch-22...If you don't experience surd evil and human evil, there is no potential for growth, and certainly no possibility of joy. It would be a life void of climax. If a divine entity does away with the possibility of evil and suffering, neither the creature nor the creator can possibly experience growth, and, more importantly, both are rendered incapable of relationship because of an insistence on purity.

So, the question I ask is: What is the most appropriate sacrifice in a religious context? Is humanity a colossal mistake, and humankind must assuredly sacrifice the narratives of the gods in order to understand the necessity of championing reason and utility over the lure of mythical cadence? Would the earth be better off without us in order that there be no human suffering? The latter question could be answered affirmatively, as at least we could not continue the present rate of ecological degradation that we seem bent upon. The former query, however, teeters on the brink of unintelligibility in the modern context of supremacy of the individual, as we might see humanity as a mistake in general, with perhaps the caveat that one might rather enjoy his or her own privileged existence.

Because I believe there is no ultimately reasonable, or at least quasi-empirical, answer to the question of suffering, we must view the facts of our existence, which are apparently randomness, violence, and meaninglessness, through the lens of religion. Corporate expressions of faith provide for meaning, and for an ongoing human narrative in which we might choose to participate in a manner that recognizes our potential for experiencing love and joy in spite of the truth of suffering. Thus, we have theology, which provides a sense of unity and intelligibility to our spiritual experiences of meaning and wholeness.

Facts, my friends, are meaningless without conversion experiences which allow for interpretation of facts (to paraphrase Foucault) and an opportunity to realize truths. Those experiences are not necessarily religious, but are almost entirely spiritual or philosophical in nature. Such spiritual or constitutional experiences of metanoia generally require a relationship with a deity, or at the very least, a community of privileged interpreters no matter how imperfect such corporate authorities might seem to be.