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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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