A ‘Vale of Soul-Making’ (Part 2)

In my last post, I introduced the Problem of Evil and discussed two ancient theodicies that have endured down to present day. In this post I want to offer a brief review of two major philosophers of religion who both self identify as Christian and offer modern articulations that are compatible with the views expressed by Irenaeus.

I also wanted to mention that the intent of this post is to offer a brief outline and consequences of certain beliefs. I do not endorse either view (in fact, I’m rather hostile to both) but I do not intend to do full criticisms here. Readers are of course invited to make their own observations, but I wanted to stress that my brevity is not due to some kind of acceptance.

I’d first like to consider Richard Swinburne who argues that human freedom and moral responsibility are enough to justify God’s morally suffcient reason for allowing evil to not only exist, but seemingly flourish:

A world in which no one except the agent was affected by his evil actions might be a world in which men had freedom but it would not be a world in which men had responsibility…[1]

According to Swinburne a world with freedom is not enough; humans must also be responsible for reacting to evil. A world without evil would be tantamount to a world without any moral responsibility:

[T]he price of possible passive evils for other creatures is a price worth paying for agents to have great responsibilities for each other. It is a price which (logically) must be paid if they are to have those responsibilities [2].

This view naturally leads one to take an instrumental view on the suffering of others:

And when we have not ourselves had such experience we can freely choose to seek out those who have before coming to form a view about the moral principles involved. The suffering becomes the tool which we use for our growth of moral understanding, and so in yet another way the sufferer is of use to us in helping us to grow [3].

One last aspect of Swinburne’s views that I’d like to draw attention to is the fact that it appears our growth as human and spiritual beings is fundamentally linked to the suffering of others as well, giving us opportunities to put our faith into praxis:

A world without evils would be a world in which men could show no forgiveness, no compassion, no self sacrifice. And men without that opportunity are deprived of the opportunity to show themselves at their noblest. For this reason God might well allow some of his creatures to perform evil acts with passive evils as consequences, since these provide the opportunity for especially noble acts [4].

While not a perfect match, Swinburne’s ideas could easily be comported into an LDS worldview without too much tinkering. The use of human freedom to bolster moral responsibility and allow for acts of compassion and love appears appealing at first glance, but those who invoke such a theodicy along these lines run the risk of trivializing those who suffer, as Jonathan Swift so aptly reminds:

DEAR honest Ned is in the Gout

Lies rackt with PAIN, and you without:

How patiently you hear him groan!

How glad the CASE is not your own!

The second philosopher I’d like to look at is the recently deceased John Hick (requiescat in pace et in amore) who advocates a ‘soul-making’ theodicy that is often characterized as an outbound school of theology. Taking a track similar to Swinburne, Hick argues that humans require certain moral freedom to develop:

Thus the answer of the Irenaean theodicy to the question of the origin of moral evil is that it is a necessary condition of the creation of humanity at an epistemic distance from God, in a state in which one has a genuine freedom in relation to one’s Maker and can freely develop, in response to God’s non-coercive presence, toward one’s own fulfillment as a child of God [5].

Hick goes on to explore what possible motives God might have for creating the world we exist in now, and surmises that for God to achieve his ends, any world he deigned to create would have to be remarkably similar to the one we inhabit now:

It would seem, then, that an environment intended to make possible the growth in free beings of the finest characteristics of personal life must have a good deal in common with our present world. It must operate according to general and dependable laws, and it must present real dangers, difficulties, problems, obstacles, and possibilities of pain, failure sorrow, frustration, and defeat. If it did not contain the particular trials and perils that [subtracting the considerable human contribution] our world contains, it would have to contain others instead [6].

Personal suffering again becomes an instrument of character development, a necessary component for God’s creatures to reach the full potential they were endowed with:

And so the Irenaean answer to the question, Why natural evil?, is that only a world that has this general character could constitute an effective environment for the second stage (or the beginning of the second stage) of God’s creative work, whereby human animals are being gradually transformed through their own free responses into “children of God” [7].

The compatibility of Swinburne and Hick’s theodicies to Dr. Bokovoy’s understanding of human agency should not be missed by readers. I’m always intrigued by the idea of God creating humanity not ex nihilo but by fashioning from preexisting material, creating a scenario where God must carefully set universal parameters in order to give his creatures a proper environment where they can reach their full potential in this brief existence.

While unorthodox, this idea is not totally without some scriptural support. In Genesis 2 the second account of creation takes a decidedly radical shift from Genesis 1, where God does not create from some divine act of speech, but rather takes on the role of craftsman. While in Genesis 1 the rare verb bar’a is utilized in the creation of the first humans, Genesis 2 makes use of another word yatsar which conveys the image of a craftsman putting an object together, fashioning humans from clay and rib, breathing life into their nostrils.

The ideas considered so far are not without their shortcomings, but I’m withholding further scrutiny until my third post, where I’ll examine Mormon philosopher David Paulsen making use of these ideas in a distinctly Mormon context and where we’ll have more grist for our philosophical mill.

[1] The Problem of Evil’ by Richard Swinburne in Reason and Religion edited by Stuart Brown and published by Cornell University Press 1977, page 100

[2] ibid, page 101

[3]Providence and the Problem of Evil’ by Richard Swinburne, published by Claredon Press 1998, page 23

[4] ibid, page 161

[5]Philosophy of Religion’ by John H. Hick, published by published by Prentice Hall 1990,  page 45

[6] ibid,  page 47

[7] ibid, page 47


A ‘Vale of Soul-Making’ (Part 2) — 4 Comments

  1. Very interesting, Patrick. I wasn’t aware that Hick made use of this theodicy. To be honest, I’m a little surprised. He’s usually more outside-the-box.

    I was particularly intrigued by your characterization of this theodicy as a rejection of creatio ex nihilo. While I don’t think the theodicy necessarily requires full-fledged creatio ex materia, I agree that the idea of creation as constrained by some kind of causal logic does rather fly in the face of the ex nihilo view.

    Have you ever heard Blake Ostler speak on theodicy? I heard him recently at a seminar on B. H. Roberts, and I was actually quite impressed.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to Part 3!

  2. Thanks for another interesting entry, Patrick. I am curious about this phrase: “creating a scenario where God must carefully set universal parameters in order to give his creatures a proper environment where they can reach their full potential in this brief existence.”

    Now, I am rusty on my LDS theology, but it has always been my understanding that God works within a framework of eternal law. I am not sure all LDS thinkers view it that way, but I believe some do. In any case, I am curious about your view of the “scenario” God is creating, and the amount of leeway He has in creating it, if it all occurs within a framework of already-existing law.

  3. Hi Chris,

    I hope I didn’t imply that the theodicies I mentioned imply a rejection ex nihilo, I don’t think either of them do. Swinburne is by confession part of the Greek Orthodox Church, so he affirms ex nihilo for sure. Hick actually ends up using his theodicy as part of his justification on universalism.

    As for Blake Ostler, I have read a paper he jointly authored with David Paulsen on this subject, but nothing as recent as the B.H. Roberts seminar you’ve just mentioned.

  4. Hi Trevor,

    To answer something like that is going to depend on how an individual Mormon constrains the modality of “eternal law”. What I mean by that is, if the conception of eternal law is sufficiently broad enough to be understood as logical possibility, then just about anything that is conceivable by us is possible.

    Another example would be that a perpetual motion machine is metaphysically possible, because cosmologists can create and run simulations on hypothetical universes with alternate physics. Such a machine is physically impossible in our universe because it violates certain fundamental physical laws.

    Is the divine eternal law in Mormonism a logical, metaphysical, or physical law? I’m certainly not in a position to speculate, but I would wager that what most Mormons conceive the eternal law to be is metaphysical.