Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 1

suffer3I first met Richard Rice in Boston nearly ten years ago. He’s a brilliant thinker and a kind and generous conversation partner. I circle back around to his contributions in Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between Process and Free Will Theists (2009), especially Ch. 4 “Process Theism and the Open View of God: The Crucial Difference,” from time to time. He understands and appreciates Hartshorne but clearly sees the inadequacies of process theism. Just today I reread (I’m in reread mode this week) his Suffering and the Search for Meaning (2014), a book he published to summarize conversations and conclusions reached from having taught a class on suffering and theodicy to graduate students in the field of health sciences.

There are three reasons why I like this book:

The first is it seeks to explore the practical consequences our beliefs in God have for informing and sustaining us during times of suffering. The question it tries to answer is: How do we find meaning in suffering? And whenever someone honestly sets himself to address that question, count me in the conversation. Rice recognizes the value of purely philosophical arguments. They have their place. But in the end their usefulness is for life, for living well and meaningfully in and through suffering. So the practical-existential challenge of living is why we are even philosophically interested in such questions. A nice feature of his attempt to deal with the practical, ‘lived’, dimension of our beliefs is that each approach to suffering is worked out in terms of people’s actual stories. So you get to observe how somebody holding that particular view of God ‘world constructs’ or ‘makes meaning’ within the constraints of and resources provided by his/her view of God’s relationship to their suffering.

The second reason I like this book is that it gathers into a short volume helpful summaries of popular approaches to the question of suffering. Separate books have been written on each approach, but it’s nice to have the main options in a single volume.

The third reason I appreciate Rice here is that he doesn’t take a narrow, fundamentalist posture about the options. He has definite convictions, sure. But he recognizes there is something of value in each approach, something good that each approach recognizes and seeks to protect. He also recognizes the integrity of every person’s honest attempt to integrate suffering in a meaningfully and purposeful way. He is never condescending, insulting, or dismissive.

I’d like to briefly summarize the approaches Rice presents and then come back in Part 2 with some responses. I’ll also add an eighth approach to Rice’s seven. Here are his seven theodicies:

God Never Makes Mistakes | Perfect Plan Theodicy
Perfect plan theodicy is essentially that deterministic view of the world that sees every event of life as unconditionally determined by God. Whatever happens to us, however heinous the evil or devastating the loss, God specifically wills it, and nothing occurs outside God’s meticulous determination of things. Obviously how a person world-constructs within the framework of such a view is dependent upon the meaning-making options this view provides. One’s attempt to construct meaning and purpose, regardless of the suffering experienced or the nature of the evil behind it, can never step outside viewing such evil as unconditionally determined by God. There is no gratuitous evil, and whatever purpose God may have in determining suffering and evil for me, the fundamental truth that shapes my ‘meaning-making’ process in suffering is simply the conviction that nothing happens to me that is not meticulously decreed for me purposefully by God. There is, Rice notes, a certain appeal to this view of things. It appeals to our innate desire for order. We naturally want to fit the events of our lives into a purposeful narrative, and the ‘perfect plan theodicy’ eliminates all talk of risk, change occurrence, and capriciousness.

Let Freedom Ring | The Free Will Defense
The second theodicy Rice summarizes is the Free Will defense. It’s an explanation with a long tradition with different versions. From this view, God does not decree or will evil and suffering and so is not responsible for it. Rather, God has endowed us with a certain measure of ‘say-so’ or free will. And that, not some divine decree, explain the origin of evil and suffering.

Rice is aware that this brings up the question (for those views that view creation as a free act of God) of whether giving human beings such freedom to self-dispose is good and wise. It also leaves unaddressed (or very awkwardly addressed) the question of natural evil (animal suffering and suffering caused by natural catastrophes unrelated to any human moral agency). Nevertheless, a person seeking meaning and purpose in suffering within this view would world-construct very differently that the above ‘perfect plan’ perspective. One populates the world with agents exercising their wills in ways God does not determine or decree that they should, what suffering means to my life and purpose is viewed quite differently. I don’t look for some specific purpose in and behind every evil. Whatever meaning and purpose I construct within the context of my suffering, I do not begin with the assumption that God has decreed my suffering for me. God is responsible for the possibility of evil, but not the actuality of evil. For the perfect plan theodicy, suffering fulfills God’s purposes and designs. For the free will defense, suffering conflicts with God’s objectives.

No Pain, No Gain | Soul Making Theodicy
Soul making theodicies resemble perfect plan theodicies in some ways and the free will defense in other ways. Proponents of the “soul making” theodicy agree that we are free in a non-determinisitc way, but they integrate suffering purposefully in ways free will theists often deny. They believe evil and suffering have positive roles to play in shaping or ‘making’ us, but they don’t necessarily see God’s will behind every evil. John Hick is largely responsible for the use of the term “soul making.” Hick grounds his arguments in the views of the Church father Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202 AD) who argued that human perfection was the ‘end’ and not the ‘beginning’ of human existence. We were meant to ‘become’ mature, responsible, loyal, obedient, good, etc., and becoming this requires pain and suffering. No pain, no gain.

jobWhile there is a certain appeal to this approach as well, Rice questions its stand along adequacy. Do evil and suffering always achieve their ‘soul making’ objectives? It seems they do not. If the purpose of suffering is to perfect our character, where are the perfect people? So the question arises as to whether or not the benefits that come from suffering a worth the costs, particularly in the case of “horrendous evils” (Rice brings in Marilyn McCord-Adams work here). Some evil is so horrendous, so overwhelmingly definitive of one’s experience, leaving many permanently damaged for life, it’s hard to imagine benefits that would justify a divine soul making policy which exposes innocent children to evils far greater than their capacities to integrate.

An Enemy Hath Done This | Cosmic Conflict Theodicy
With this explanation of evil and suffering, the material created order is viewed as the stage upon which a cosmic war is being waged between God and fallen angelic agencies led by Lucifer (Satan, the devil) who are in active rebellion against God’s creative purposes. Rice develops the main lines of this view nicely and notes the relevant proponents, focusing on Greg Boyd’s work (in addition to Ellen White) as a recent good example of this worldview.

This view has certain advantages. It’s able to take the biblical narrative about spiritual agencies working at cross purposes with God seriously without dismissing it as so much mythology. Very little of the serious work being done on theodicy even takes time to mention the reality and role of malevolent spiritual forces. Cosmic conflict theodicies essentially do away with the distinction between ‘moral’ and ‘nature’ evil (moral evil being evil brought about through the moral choices of responsible moral agents; natural evil refers to suffering caused by natural evils – tornadoes, tsunamis, mud slides, earthquakes, tree limbs falling on passers-by, etc.) presumably unrelated to the choices of any moral agent. Boyd argues it’s false to view natural evil this way, that in fact all such events are ‘moral’ in the sense that they are caused by the choices of malevolent spiritual agencies perverting the natural order and orchestrating matter toward destructive ends.

A proponent of cosmic conflict theodicy like Boyd would of course make use of the resources within the free will defense and open theism. But cosmic warfare theodicy adds an element not explicitly a part of these other approaches, for now even natural events are to be viewed as the effects of choices being made by innumerable spiritual agencies (causing tornadoes, pushing tectonic plates, orchestrating mud slides and forcing lava from volcanoes). This would certain redefine the explanatory resources a person suffering from natural disasters would have. If I suffer the loss of someone I love due to a flash flood or a tornado, I needn’t suffer the additional pain of wondering why an omnipotent, loving God would not stop such events if doing so would interfere with no one’s free will. On this view, all events in the nature order are the consequence of a host of competing wills (divine, angelic, human). Spiritual agencies promoting and contesting God’s will are at work behind all natural events. Everything is contested.

Love Makes the World Go Round | Openness of God Theodicy
Open theists argues that the relationship between God and the world, as it regards providence and outcomes, is very interactive. They share the essential commitments of the free will defense and may enjoy the perceived benefits of both the soul making and cosmic conflict theodicies. The unique contribution that open theism makes to a person’s ability to explain evil and integrate pain and suffering into a meaningful and healthy narrative for living is its claim that God does not eternally foreknow future contingencies, that is, divine providence is not the unfolding in time of an absolute blueprint of precisely how the world’s events occur. Whether the blueprint is conceived as determined by the will of God (perfect plan theodicy) or simply foreknown (timelessly or otherwise, along classical Arminian and even Orthodox lines), open theism argues there is no one blueprint in God’s mind or will that maps out exactly how the world’s possibilities will as a matter of fact unfold, certainly nothing that would be providentially useful.

The perceived existential benefit here is that a person suffering from some evil isn’t attempting to reconcile their suffering with the fact that God eternally knows this specific evil shall occur as it does and that God determined to permit such evil on the basis of such foreknowledge (as some traditions argue). That explanation of my suffering isn’t available to the open theist. I may seek to integrate evil and suffering in the construction of an existentially viable worldview based on God’s foreknowing such evils as a possibility, but there’s no place for an understanding of providence that includes a blueprint worldview.

Even God Can’t Do Everything | Finite God Theodicy
Process theism offers resources for world-construction and meaning-making which are radically different from other approaches here described. On the immediate surface of things, Process affirms generally what other Christian approaches affirm, i.e., that God cares deeply about the world, that God involved in and responsive to the world, that he wisely and lovingly pursue the world’s highest good. “But,” Rice summarizes, “there is only so much God can do. God doesn’t have the sort of power that enables God to achieve everything God wants just by willing it to be so, or by directly, unilaterally, acting within the world to accomplish it.”

From the Process view, the idea that God wills or permits all events and omnipotently brings all things to pass is mistaken. Power as coercion, or as unilateral determination, of any created entity is out of the question on the Process view. God lures, convinces, draws, influences, yes. God cannot determine things. This is so because some measure of creative self-determination is the sine qua non of creation’s integrity as non-divine. But as clearly as Process theists insist upon the reality of every Created entity’s distinction from God, they are as passionately committed to the belief that the God-World relationship is necessary and mutually determining of both God and the world. God suffers fully and essentially in and with the world and both God and world are in a process of mutual becoming.

Obviously theodicy follows the contours of such a view of God, the most serious considerations (in my view) here are eschatological in nature. With few (vague) exceptions, Process theologians do not hope for the permanent survival of personal existence beyond the grave, nor are no ultimate or final guarantees regarding temporal outcomes in the near future nor for the defeat of evil in the long run. God is present suffering with us, grieving as we grieve, and always offering the world creative aims for future possibilities, but we are “on our own” outside of these provisions. God cannot offer metaphysical closure to the question of evil.

Rage Against the Dying of the Light | Protest Theodicies
Protest theologies, as the name suggest, represent a fundamental rage against attempts to reconcile the world as it is with the existence of a loving and competent Creator. These needn’t be thoughtless or uninformed viewpoints. Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov represents as thoughtful and penetrating a protest imaginable (perhaps the only protest really imaginable). But one can find a range of less carefully thought out reasons for protest. Rice has some very good observations in this chapter about the weak foundations upon which atheism and protest theodicies are built, but since they don’t represent a version of faith enduring suffering, I’ll leave things there.

Back in a few with Part 2.

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