Having summarized David Paulsen’s theodicy, I almost feel ready to begin a proper analysis of his ideas, but we must pay careful attention to what we say in our analysis. To discuss the suffering of others as merely some kind abstract evidence or data point that is to be marshaled in favor of our own thesis (the believer’s or the unbeliever’s) runs the risk of furthering the damage already done. I find the distinctions drawn between the logical and existential problems of evil to be spurious. Logic is rooted in the ultimate reality of the world and so to with evil, the logical problem of evil is fundamentally connected to the existential. To try and separate the two is to dehumanize, an all too grievous mistake.
In the Babylonian Talmud, there is a fascinating section called Tractate Berachot that deals extensively on the activity of prayer. It is fascinating how carefully and reverently the ChaZaL treated prayer, discussing all the instances where and when it is acceptable to pray and when to interrupt your prayer. For example, if you are walking home and you see the pillar of smoke that could only come from a house fire in your neighborhood, you are forbidden to pray that the house on fire is not your own. The reasoning is persuasive, if you are to invoke God’s intervention to save your property you are doing it at the expense of a fellow human being and is a selfish use of prayer that is abominable.
I think we should extend such caution and care in our discussions on the theological, philosophical, and existential problems of evil and theodicies. Evil and suffering are potent topics, and not paying attention to one’s words can inadvertently cause another person even more harm. Take for example this missionary who was serving as a missionary in Japan last year when the tsunami struck and wrecked disaster on the island nation on a large scale. In an e-mail from Japan, he wrote:
“We really have been protected. It’s hard when we can’t even go back to our own area,” [he] wrote. “We have been extremely blessed all the way through. All my stuff is still in Tagajo, but oh well. In Tagajo, there is water, nothing else. Wow!”
It is easy to see what is implicitly being said here, that those who did not survive did not have God’s protection, that those who lost more than some material goods were not blessed. I think it is safe to assume that this missionary had zero intention of implicitly saying such things and would immediately offer a sincere apology if it was brought to his attention. He just serves as an example of how just speaking about evil and suffering in innocent and even reverent contexts can lead one to be dismissive, cavalier, and even cruel to others. A mistake we all make.
A fair response to my warning above is the reaction that it could simply be the truth that a person’s misfortune could be the result of sin in their lives. In a comment on my third installment of this series, a gentleman by the name of Seth correctly points out that Jerry Falwell’s attribution of Hurricane Katrina to the sins of New Orleans may be unpopular, but that does not entail Falwell is wrong in his assessment.
In fact, I would argue that Falwell’s understanding of Hurricane Katrina is very biblical. Such conditionals are central to the relation between God and Israel in the Deuteronomic history that is preserved today in the Hebrew scriptures. My favorite poem from the Torah can serve as an example of this conditional theology :
So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked
You grew grew fat and gross and coarse
He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the Rock of his support
They incensed Him with alien things
Vexed Him with abominations
They sacrificed to demons, no-gods,
Gods they had never known
New ones who came but lately
Who stirred not your fathers’ fears
You neglected the Rock that begot you
Forgot the God who brought you forth
After a vivid description of the actions that had angered God, we get an equally vivid description of God’s judgment:
When I whet My flashing blade
And My hand lays hold on judgment
Vengeance will I wreak on My foes
Will I deal to those who reject Me
I will make My arrows drunk with blood
As My sword devours flesh
Blood of the slain and the captive
From the long-haired enemy chiefs
The poems ends in the next verse, and Moses advises the Israelites to inscribe the laws of God on to their heart, because faithfully following it will determine the conditions of their inhabitance in the promised land. This is Moses’ last warning before he ascends the heights of Mount Neob and dies. In light of this consistent theme it seems that Falwell isn’t doing anything more than following a model laid out in the scriptures, should it come to any suprises that this draws the ire of the world?
There is a biblical response to Falwell, namely that he is making the same mistake as Job’s three friends, by insisting calamity is being used to punish sin. When Job finally confronts God in the whirlwind the answer is disappointing, but the major take away message from the confrontation is that unless one is a Prophet, you cannot divine God’s intentions in who is blessed and who is cursed.
It is with Job in mind that I move on to my next post about the instrumentalism of evil in Soul-Making theodicies like Swinburne, Hick, and Paulsen. We must exercise care and not commandeer another person’s story of suffering for polemical or rhetorical purposes, to do so is a crime against philosophy and your fellow human beings.
ChaZaL stands for “Hachameinu Zichronam Lebracha” a Hebrew phrase that can be literally translated as “Our Sages may their memory be blessed”. It is a term that refers to the rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew Bible that is now largely seen as authoritative, such as the Talmud.
 The ‘Song of Moses’ or chapter 32 of Deuteronomy. I’m using the JPS translation of verses 15-18 and 41-42. I urge readers to read the entire poem (verses 1-41) entirely, it is truly an ancient literary accomplishment.