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Sunday, July 12, 2009

the problem of suffering

It's been said that the difference between theory and practice is this: In theory there is not a difference. In practice, there is.

A blogger who calls himself Stan offers a solution to the problem of suffering. His post illustrates the difference between theory and practice.

Stan begins with a bold statement:

The Problem of Suffering states that the theodicean attributes of God (omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence) contradict observation (the experience of suffering by creatures). Here is a solution.

The idea goes something like this: God originally had a desire to provide "maximal freedom and welfare" to all people, and a plan to achieve this. However, maximal freedom and maximal welfare are logically contradictory. We all, at times, use our freedom in a way that diverges from God's will. If God's will is perfect, acting against it yields less than desirable results.

So far, it all seems plausible. Now the controversial part:

According to Stan, God's plan is designed to take this into account. Knowing in advance that humans would not live up to expectations, God altered his plan to take all our failings into account, and thereby to produce the best possible world. Our freedom and our welfare are balanced and maximized to give us the best we can possibly expect under the circumstances. The suffering that exists is the minimal possible suffering necessary to give us the maximal possible freedom.

Now I could argue with some of Stan's assumptions, but there's a much more glaring problem here. As Stan acknowledges, the problem of suffering is that our theology does not match our observations. So his answer is destined to fail: No amount of philosophizing can ever reduce the suffering we see around us. The problem remains unsolved, no matter how many logical propositions we can string together.

Even if it looks good on paper, it will never sound right in a children's leukemia ward or a Darfur refugee camp. It will never sound right to a husband who has spent 4 1/2 years watching his wife battle a chronic illness, or to their six-year-old son who has no memory of his mother ever being healthy, or to the wife and mother who desperately wants to play a bigger role in family life, but can't.

But perhaps there is a solution to the problem of evil, after all; a solution that is teleological, not philosophical.

Weekend Fisher suggests that trying to solve this problem with logic is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

If the key point is how we defend God on paper, instead of how God defends us in the real world, then we’ve already conceded the most essential point.

The evil and suffering of this world will never make sense, and can never be logically defended. But it can be overcome:

No, make no mistake, the only thing that defeats the problem of evil is the world being set straight again. The meaningful defeat of evil includes not only the end of evil, but the restoration of any good that was lost to evil. That includes not only the end of death, but the reversal of death for those who have died, and their restoration to life.

So the solution is, in a word, hope.

I thought I was going to end there, but I've realized that this doesn't quite solve the problem either. In the midst of prolonged suffering, it's hard to find a reason to hope. The longer we struggle, the more superficial all this God-talk seems. I have no idea where this is leading, but at this moment the destination does not look like hope.

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At 7/13/2009 10:08 AM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

I think the destination is the cross, really.

Take care & God bless
Weekend Fisher

At 7/13/2009 2:34 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

Weekend Fisher -

I guess I'm not sure what you mean by "the cross". I understand the crucifixion as a past event, a part of Jesus' redemptive work. But he isn't done with us yet. Evil and suffering are still with us, and will be until he returns.

So in what way can the cross be called the destination?

At 7/13/2009 6:54 PM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

I wonder if it's one of those Lutheran things that needs more than just shorthand.

The cross is more than a past event. It's the focus of our lives, it's our destination, it's the goal and means of discipleship: Take up your cross and follow me. It's the means of our transformation: Those who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death; I have been crucified with Christ. It's the godforsaken place where God meets us, where God himself understands theodicy: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It's the only thing that makes suffering bearable: not that suffering has an explanation or justification, but that God is with us in our Godforsakenness, that our suffering itself has a unique manifestation of the presence of God: I strive to complete in myself what is lacking in Christ's suffering (bad paraphrase, I know, but I'm not stopping to check fine points of quotes at the moment).

I think one of the reasons I am Lutheran is that they understand the cross. Or how was it Luther put it, "The cross alone is our theology."

I'm curious, have you ever read The Crucified God? Or how about, On Being A Theologian of the Cross?

The God who was born as a human, lived as a human, died as a human, and rose as a human is the only thing in religion that seems to ultimately matter. The rest is words.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 7/13/2009 10:35 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

Thanks for the explanation. I attended a Lutheran college, but I guess I never picked up on the full meaning they attached to the cross.

But yes, I think I can see a connection between our suffering and God's own suffering. I still have a lot to work through on this issue. The problem of suffering is not an intellectual question for me, but a deeply personal matter, over which I have been wrestling with God for some time now.

I haven't read either of the books you mentioned, but I'll look for them. Thanks again.

At 7/14/2009 5:19 PM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

Oh I'm with you on that. "suffering" is not theoretical at all, but very personal. For me, "the problem of evil" came complete with injuries and nightmares among other things.

When I hear people discuss "theodicy" like it's a chess puzzle, it makes me wonder if they grew up in Disneyland. ;)

Take care & God bless

At 7/17/2009 8:49 AM, Blogger Stan said...

Hello, it's Stan. :)

You said,

"As Stan acknowledges, the problem of suffering is that our theology does not match our observations."

There's some tricky wording here, and I think it's the core of the disagreement you and I have with one another.

Let's take three claims:

1) Observation confirms X.
2) Observation neither confirms nor contradicts X.
3) Observation contradicts X.

"Our theology does not match with our observations" could be an expression of either #2 or #3, depending on how you read it.

The Problem of Suffering claims #3. My solution claims #2, not #1.

My solution proposes a possible framework under which the theodicean God could logically co-exist with the suffering we observe. But it does not claim that our observation can ever confirm that this framework is true. In fact, under the proposed framework, our observational capabilities are so humiliated that we're told not even to EXPECT to confirm it.

When I was 14, I watched my father suffer and die to leiomyosarcoma over six months. He was the greatest man I've ever known. He was a fantastic dad, and I loved him so much. What happened was horrible, and I'll never fully resolve the emotional problem of his suffering. But this is not the same thing as the anti-theist's "Problem of Suffering," a positive claim of God's certain impossibility.

At 7/17/2009 11:25 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

Stan -

First, I must apologize for my comment on your blog suggesting that you were not familiar with suffering. I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your father at such a young age.

But this is not the same thing as the anti-theist's "Problem of Suffering," a positive claim of God's certain impossibility.

I think we have been talking past each other. As far as I'm concerned, the "Problem of Evil" has nothing to do with anti-theism. It's a very real issue for believers who struggle to reconcile their circumstances with a belief in God's goodness and power.

For me, at least, the problem doesn't go away when #2 answers are offered. Maybe that's just me. I still consider the problem unresolved, and will for the rest of my life unless I can get a #1 answer.

On the other hand, it seems to me to be a copout to conclude that God doesn't exist if I don't get the answer I want.

I'm not convinced that all suffering is for a greater good; furthermore, if I could be convinced it were, I could no longer believe God is just. I'm not sure I have any more to say on this subject.

Thanks for your comment.

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