NPR’s All Things Considered did a deep thought piece on the problem of evil last night. All summed up in 3 minutes 48 seconds, including the reporter’s name check at the end.
When a human tragedy occurs on the scale of the Newtown shootings, clergy are invariably asked an ancient question: If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent, why does he allow such misfortunes?
There’s even a word for reconciling this paradox: theodicy, or attempting to justify God’s goodness despite the existence of evil and suffering.
And thus the stage is set – it’s this recurring problem, so recurrent that there’s even a word for it, but it’s not really a problem, it’s just a paradox, so don’t worry, by the end we’ll have shown why you don’t have to worry about it and can just go back to sleep until the next human tragedy on the scale of the Newtown shootings (that happens in the US in a particular way to a particular kind of people). There’s a word for reconciling this paradox, so listen while we show you how it’s done.
First he talks to a rabbi. (Yes, since you ask, this is one of those “a rabbi, a priest, and an imam” stories.)
“I saw a bumper sticker once that said, ‘God is good. Evil is real. And God is all powerful. Pick two,’ ” Folberg says.
“The idea was to say, if one accepts those three propositions as true, then they’re logically inconsistent. And how do you wiggle your way out of that issue?”
You cannot wiggle your way out, the rabbi continues. You have to admit that we live in a world that is, by turns, beautiful and shattered.
Folberg says he draws instruction from his own faith, which says, “I have a responsibility as a human being — and in my case, as a Jew — to look at what’s broken in the world, to mend it and then, using old Jewish language, to be a partner with God in completing the work of creation which is incomplete.”
Ah, isn’t that lovely. But notice how it doesn’t answer anything. Notice how it doesn’t get you anywhere. Notice how it doesn’t in the least “reconcile the paradox.” Notice how you don’t need god or “faith” for any of that – notice how completely compatible with secularism and atheism it is. Yes, we all have a responsibility as a human being to try to make the world better. What’s god got to do with that? Nothing. “Faith”? Nothing. So we’re where we were. Rabbi Folberg added nothing.
Next comes the priest.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and contributing editor at the Jesuit magazine America, says that for Christians, suffering, violence and death are never the last word.
“We believe in eternal life,” Martin says. “It does give people hope for those who are killed, for those who die, that they will be in God’s eternal rest.”
So what happened in Newtown is fine then. Is that it? It’s just not a problem, because they’re better off dead? So the more Newtowns the better?
That’s not what he means, but it is pretty much what he said. This is why theodicy doesn’t work, except for people who are determined to hang on to the hope while remaining blind to the brutality of the god who provides it.
Moreover, Martin says, God is not a theological abstraction; he is present in our suffering. He understands pain.
“Remember that God’s own son died a violent death,” Martin says. Jesus died horribly … but there is no easy answer — there is no adequate answer — to this question which theologians call the Mystery of Evil.”
And which philosophers call the problem of evil. Notice the difference. “Mystery” allows theologians and priests to just say “we dunno” without having to treat that as undermining the whole enterprise.
Notice the result. Nothing. We’re where we were. Rev. Martin added nothing.
And then comes the imam. (No points for originality here.)
Part of the paradox of theodicy is rooted in our very nature, says Imam Jihad Turk, religious adviser at the Islamic Center of Southern California and president of Bayan Claremont Islamic graduate school. Islam shares this belief with the other Abrahamic faiths, Turk says.
“Theologically, we would look at it from the point of view that part of what makes us unique as a creation of God is that we have free will,” Turk says. “And for free will to be meaningful, we have the choice between good and evil. And if we only had the choice to do good then it wouldn’t be a meaningful free will.”
And if we only had the choice not to shoot up classrooms full of young children and teachers, it wouldn’t be a meaningful enough free will.
Meh. God could jam the gun, and the shooter could be arrested and (in a better world) rehabilitated.
Finally at the end we get a wild card: a Sikh! Wo, I take it back about the points for originality.
But the Sikh is the one who goes the full distance and pins the blame for evil on atheism.
In August, an alleged white supremacist walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and randomly murdered six people. It’s believed the assailant mistook Sikhs for Muslims.
The wife of Balhair Dulai, director of the board of trustees at the temple, was one of three people wounded in the attack. Dulai believes the killers who did mayhem in his temple and in Sandy Hook school had something in common: They dwelled in darkness.
“Evil comes when there is no God,” Dulai says. “And when there is not God’s love, the conscience allows evil to creep in. When evil creeps in, then these things tend to happen.”
Oh no you don’t. You don’t pin that on atheism, you creep. God’s love my ass. “God’s love,” as we have just seen, is fully compatible with 26 people killed at a school and with all the other horrors that happen every day all over the world. You do not get to pin violence and murder on atheism.
The final word? A gem of banal emptiness.
So why does a good God allow evil? These four faith leaders agree on this: Beware of anyone who says he or she has the answer.
Then stop telling us there is a good god!