No Thing Is Evil
I'm a philosopher. This means I get paid to think about the "problem of evil." I'm also a Christian. This means I take the Bible seriously. Finally, I'm getting older. This means I observe grief at firsthand more frequently than before. In a pastoral setting I've always said, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed by the name of the Lord." But can't we say more in a philosophical setting? Must we end with God's rhetorical response to Job? Shouldn't we seek a theodicy "justifying the ways of God to man"? Perhaps the book of Job should have the first word, but must it have the last word?
I used to give the last word to the "Free Will Defense." A universe with genuinely free people capable of both good and evil is better, I argued, than a universe populated with mere puppets incapable of freely responding to God's love. But doubts began to arise. If an unrigged coin is flipped, then it is "free" to land either heads or tails. And if it is "free" to land heads once, then it is "free" to land heads two times or two thousand times. Of course, the probabilities against the latter are astronomical. Yet the Creator of astronomy isn't going to stumble at the merely improbable. So why not create people who freely do good in all circumstances?
Besides, the human autonomy assumed by the free will defense was hard to reconcile with God's omnipotence. How could a mere creature act independently of the Creator? Finally, if evolution is true (as I believe), then there was a lot of pain in the animal world prior to Adam's sin and here the free will defense is as silent as Job.
Nonetheless, my search for a theodicy continued. A "soul-making" theodicy seemed untouched by such problems. Forget the libertarian freedom assumed in the free will defense; think only in terms of virtues and vices. Courage is of great value. But courage without real pain would be impossible—so also faith and hope. And if God created this world as a hedonistic paradise, then the virtues—both pagan and Christian—would be impossible. How can we hope for what already exists and how can we believe what we already see?
But once again problems arose. While pain sometimes produces virtue, other times it produces only despair. Beside, where's the morality in God deliberately creating a universe where one man is born blind so that other people can see his glory? Again, we are reduced to the silence of Job.
Brian Davies and David Burrell are both first-class philosophers. Both are working in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas and both have recently argued that the philosophical critics of Job's silence fail to take the doctrine of creation with sufficient seriousness. Burrell's book, Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering, is as short as the title is provocative. We'll begin with it.
Designers and craftsman make things; only God creates. This distinction, Burrell argues, ought to cause philosophers to think twice before "justifying the ways of God to man." All theodicies mistakenly assume that the creator and the creature inhabit the same space and time. Was Shakespeare born before or after Hamlet? The play's setting long predates Shakespeare's time. But knowing this doesn't answer our nonsense question. Shakespeare's "creation" of Hamlet is not a case of backwards causation, since Shakespeare and Hamlet don't share a common universe. Hamlet kills Polonius with a dagger; but Shakespeare doesn't (and couldn't!) kill Hamlet with Laertes' sword, though we must not push the analogy too far. Authors and their characters don't inhabit the same temporal realm; but they both experience events temporally. Yet even this is untrue of the Creator and his creatures.
Frequently, God's "timelessness" is the first step in a "free will" theodicy. And just as frequently, those defending a "soul-making" theodicy will object that a timeless God is aloof, remote, the very antithesis of the biblical God. However, Burrell is making neither of these points. Rather, he says we all "stand in need of metaphysical reflection to help invert our normal expectations attending a relationship with God [emphasis added]." The cure for metaphysical blindness begins with Job. There we learn to speak to God while avoiding Job's friends' damnable presumption of speaking about God. Paradoxically, our metaphysical puzzles dissolve when we take Job's practical approach to God instead of his friends' speculative approach. The Book of Job is "an adroit deconstruction of the very enterprise of theodicy," says Burrell, because it operates "in a performative rather than a propositional key."
Central to Burrell's argument is "speech act theory," as it is pretentiously termed. When a preacher stands before a man and a woman and says, "I now pronounce you husband and wife" or a woman breaks a bottle of champagne across boat's bow and says, "I christen thee 'Mary Lou,'" neither the preacher nor the woman is "operating in the propositional key." Rather, their words are essentially actions (performatives) which make the couple husband and wife or name the boat Mary Lou. When Job arraigns God and calls him to court (13:18); when he swears an oath before God proclaiming his innocence (31:7-12); or when he challenges God to make known the sins for which he is being punished—Job is not hoping to learn about God, but wanting (demanding!) to hear from God. Burrell endorses Wittgenstein's aphorism: "You can't hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being addressed." (Or, for those preferring songs to oracles: " 'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear").
Much to his friend's consternation, God responds to Job's demands. But how, philosophers will demand, is this possible? If God is metaphysically transcendent, how can he speak to Job? Once again, Burrell insists that the question is nonsense. Remember, taking creation seriously inverts our normal assumptions. We must not picture God as a Super-Being, unique because he is the most powerful, knowing, and loving being in the universe. No, the author of a play is not one of its participants. Neither do the Creator and the creature share something called "being," much less a being in the universe.
Augustine's life was transformed when he realized that all things have "the same message to tell, if only we can hear it, and their message is this: We did not make ourselves, but [the One] who abides forever made us." No matter how far we run; no matter how much we disclaim, nothing we do can stop us from being our father's son or daughter. So too, nothing can sever our (metaphysical) relation to God. As Aquinas says, our "very existence is an existence-to-the-creator." Being forever present to Job as his creator, God speaks. But what Job hears is not answers and explanations for his problems—what he hears is that God is his creator. "Whatever understanding may be forthcoming," Burrell insists, "is thoroughly operative, as in Wittgenstein's 'knowing how to go on,' a quality of understanding that one might relate retrospectively to oneself, without ever proposing that it could assist another prospectively."
Though a person in the grip of grief wants nothing more than "knowing how to go on," philosophers who are not grieving want answers. How, they query, can it be true that (1) an all-powerful and good God exists and (2) evil exists? Isn't it obvious that one negates the other? Well, not really. X always negates not-X. But we cannot know that X negates Y unless we know what X and Y are. "Heavy" and "light" cannot coexist; "heavy" and "blue" can. The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil fully exploits this simple truth of logic: until we know what God is, what goodness is and what evil is, nothing significant can be said about "the problem of evil." Like Burrell, Davies explicitly rejects all attempts to "justify the ways of God to man." But he also explicitly rejects claims that evil makes God either impossible or improbable.
Put bluntly, Davies' response to God's critics goes like this: Fred says, "The dry ice was so cold that it burned like fire." Sally replies, "That's impossible—fire and ice cannot coexist, so it is impossible for anything cold and to burn like fire." Fred shrugs his shoulders and says, "There must be something wrong with your logic because the ice really did burn like fire." Likewise, Davies argues that a universe without God is like a story without a storyteller—if there is a story, there must be a teller; if there is a universe, there must be a God. So there must be something wrong with a logic proclaiming that evil negates God.
No thing simply "poofs" into existence. We have no clue as to the cause of many cancers, yet we have no doubt that there is such a cause. On the other hand, there is no cause of 7 being the next prime number after 5 since this is part of 7's essence. What 7 is and its being the next prime number after 5 are one and the same.
The universe, however, is not like the number 7. There is nothing about the universe or its parts where we can say that knowing what it is and knowing that it is are one and the same. For example, we know a good deal about the essence of dinosaurs, but such knowledge tells us nothing about their current existence. We also know that unicorns are one-horned, horse-like animals, and chiliagons are thousand-sided regular polygons. But that doesn't mean they exist. And it is not only Thomistic philosophers who distinguish between a thing's existence and its essence. Black holes are collapsed stars whose gravitational fields are so strong that even light cannot escape; that's their essence. And this is something scientists knew before discovering evidence for their actual existence.
Since nothing about the universe even suggests that its existence and essence are one and the same, it is irrational to suppose that it simply "poofed" into existence. The only alternative to its "poofing" into existence is that it has a Creator whose existence and essence can be distinguished, but never separated. (This is Aquinas' notion of "divine simplicity.) While Davies rather quickly considers all the standard objections to this old argument—from Hume's claim that things might "poof" into existence to Kant's objection that existence is not a predicate—his greatest concern is not with the argument's foes but with its friends. While this argument demonstrates that there is a Creator, too often its defenders assume that it also tells us what or who the Creator is. The problem goes back to Descartes.
The essence of humans, Descartes argues, is our immaterial mind. Our bodies are mere tools we use the way a violinist uses a violin. Violinists exist apart from their instruments, and people exist, according to Descartes, even when they have no bodies. From here it is easy to conclude that God and people are really quite similar. Both are essentially spirits; both have knowledge; and both are able to "make a difference" in the physical realm. Philosophers who take this position, like Richard Swinburne, have no particular difficulty imagining what God is like.
Davies, on the other hand, argues that "the oddness of God" is impossible to exaggerate. Any attempt to image what God is (as opposed to that he is) reduces the Creator to another part of the universe, even if God is the biggest, strongest and smartest part of the universe. (Remember Job: God is not like the Leviathan; God is the creator of the Leviathan.) Philosophy can only tell us what the Creator is not, but this is no small matter since it keeps us from making serious mistakes about God and evil.
One serious mistake is to look for evidence of God's action in the world. If we are commanded to pray, then mustn't our prayers "make a difference"? If we believe that God made everything, then shouldn't there be evidence of his craftsmanship in the things that he has made? Like Burrell, Davies argues that we must invert our metaphysical assumptions. It is not the intricacies in a book's plot that point to an author; it is the book itself. The notion of a book without an author (even a simplistic and poorly written book) is incoherent. So too, it is not God's interventions ("answering prayer" or "guiding evolution") that point to God. "Something can only intervene by entering into a situation from which it is first of all absent, while God," Davies argues, "cannot be thought to be absent from anything he creates." It is not God's aloof transcendence that renders "intervention" metaphysically puzzling; rather, it is his immediate presence to everything that makes talk of intervention conceptually incoherent. I can intervene in your actions; I can't intervene in my own actions.
Another serious mistake concerns God's goodness. "Aslan is good, but he is not safe" says C. S. Lewis. So too, Davies says that God is good, but he is not morally well behaved. Not, of course, because God is morally ill behaved, but for the same reasons that God is not a good bicycle rider. Only people can be morally good or bad. And while God is personal (since he knows and wills), he is not a person; he is the Creator of people.
Davies urges us to forget the word "moral" in connection with the Creator and simply think about goodness. Many philosophers argue that this a fool's errand, since "goodness" refers to so many different things. As Davies sarcastically notes, "Good knives are things that can cut bread into slices while good motorcars are hard to get into the kitchen. Good motorcars help us to travel long distances while good knives would make for an uncomfortable ride." But this hardly means that "goodness" resides only exists in the eye of the beholder.
"Goodness" is no more subjective than "knife" and "motorcar." While goodness in a knife and goodness in a motorcar do not name the same property, they both point to what knives and motorcars are (respectively) meant to be. A knife is good when it does what knives are meant to do; a motorcar is good when it does what motorcars are meant to do. This means that "there is a serious connection between goodness and being."
A knife which lacks a sharp edge or a car which lacks a motor are both bad, while ones which have sharp edges and motors are good, at least in one respect. A perfect knife or car is one which has everything it is supposed to have. In this world, it is undoubtedly true that such perfection doesn't exist; we can always think of ways that knives or cars can be improved. But try to think of ways in which the Creator of all that exists can be improved.
What about the world God created? There is another sense of perfect, according to which a thing is perfect if it is complete; that is, if it has everything that it is supposed to have; no more and no less. A perfect "middle C" on a piano is neither the note with the highest pitch nor the lowest pitch; a perfect pentagon is a figure which has five equal sides, not four equal sides nor six equal sides. So in what sense is the world God created complete (or not)? To answer that question, we would need to know the Creator's intentions. But if God is as odd as Davies says he is, that's not a question we can ask of God. Or, better, it's a question we frequently ask of God, but the answer is not one we can understand. It's beginning to seem like all philosophical roads lead to Job!
There is one more point to pursue—what's evil? It is clearly incoherent to suppose that God might have created a world with the greatest possible goodness. (Is the goodness of a perfect middle C greater than the goodness of a perfect pentagon?) But couldn't he at least have created a universe with no evil? It depends on what evil is.
Everyone (except Descartes) agrees that God can't make logically contradictory "things" like a square circle, although it is better to say that there is no such thing as a square circle, either real or imaginary. Nor can God commit suicide or created a second being whose existence and essence are one in the same. Since God and God alone is perfectly complete and lacking in nothing, it follows that anything God chooses to create will necessarily be less than perfect, i.e., there will be "things" that it lacks, "metaphysical holes" so to speak.
Now, in one sense, a "hole" is literally nothing. The hole in a donut is not composed of some super-fine donut dough; it's "composed" of nothing. But in another sense, some holes are absolutely real and mean the difference between life and death, like a two-inch hole in my chest.
Given these philosophically profound platitudes, we can now define two radically distinct understandings of "evil." The first defines "evil" as the opposite of good. Evil is to good as black paint is to white paint. On this theory, good and evil are both substances, but they have opposite attributes. The second definition of evil goes back to Augustine and Aquinas. It's the one Davies defends. On this theory, good and evil are not two substances with opposite properties. Rather, they are related like light and dark. Light exists; "darkness," while real, does not exist. It is only the absence of light. Humans can make a flashlight; not even God can make a flashdark. So too, according to Augustine, Aquinas, and Davies, evil is a privation. Its existence is wholly parasitic on the good.
On the dual substance understanding of evil, it makes perfect sense to ask: Why did God create a universe with so much evil? But try asking this question on the other theory: Why didn't God create a universe where everything lacked nothing? First, a universe which lacks literal nothing would be absolutely complete, but then, the universe would be God. The notion of "two absolutely complete beings" is as incoherent as the notion of "two greatest presidents of the United States."
Second, multiplicity of things is itself good. While each day of creation was pronounced "good," the whole of creation was "very good." Likewise it is good that arteries should be soft and rocks should be hard. Good arteries (the kind that keep people alive) have "softness"; good rocks (the kind that make dams sturdy) have "hardness." So it makes no sense to ask for a universe of diverse things, none of which lacks anything.
When my grieving friend cries to God for answers, I have no answers. I only cry with him. And neither do I have answers when a philosopher worries (or argues) that evil negates God. But I do have a question: "Exactly what kind of God is it that you think might not, or cannot, exist?"
Ric Machuga, author of In Defense of the Soul: What It Means to Be Human (Brazos Press), teaches philosophy at Butte College. He is completing work on "Big Questions: A Robust Philosophy for a Scientific Age."
1. For an excellent and more historically oriented consideration of the argument's foes, see Ralph McInerny's Gifford Lectures, Characters in Search of Their Author (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2001).
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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