Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 2


I don’t intend to respond to each of the seven theodicies Richard Rice surveys and which I briefly summarized in Part 1. There are, however, a couple of interesting points that Rice himself raises which I’d like comment on before I add an eighth approach to Rice’s seven.

As I emphasized this summer in reviewing existential arguments for (im)passibility (Parts 1-6), it’s difficult to evaluate how well particular beliefs help a person world-construct in healthy and transformative ways, particularly because what counts as ‘healthy’ is part of what is in dispute in existential arguments. At the same time, however, there’s no avoiding existential questions. Christianity is ultimately a life to be lived. As ubiquitous as evil and suffering are, it is precisely our living that throws us into the path of questions about the relationship between God’s goodness and providence (on the one hand) and evil and suffering (on the other). We are incurable meaning-makers who must integrate life’s experiences into a narrative that satisfies both heart and mind. Everybody has to sort this out for him/herself, of course, and Rice recognizes this.

We should distinguish between one of Rice’s seven theodicies and all the rest. The first approach he mentions (Perfect Plan Theodicy) maintains that all evil and suffering are unconditionally decreed by God. No other theodicy Rice lists takes this particular view of God’s relationship to evil, and for that reason I think we can draw our first distinction between Perfect Plan theodicies and every other theodicy that at least attempts to take creaturely freedom seriously. I respect the experience of those who find the Perfect Plan model meaningful and satisfying, but I don’t find it existentially viable on any level. There’s just no making sense of a God whose being is pure beatitude and holy delight exhaustively and unconditionally determining the evil and suffering of our world in the sense this theodicy maintains.

Of the other six approaches Rice describes, there are features I resonate with, so let me describe those features briefly.

First, there’s the integrity of the agency or ‘say-so’ God endows us with to determine ourselves in morally responsible ways. Whatever the extent to which one views created ‘say-so’ as having the power to realize evils not willed by God, it remains the case that created causes are real and do not collapse into mere occasions whose evil and suffering unfold in time the timeless will of God. This view of agency, or libertarian free will (not as the absolute unconstrained freedom to determine oneself without reference to transcendent goods and orientations), is an abiding feature throughout all the options Rice summarizes other than Perfect Plan theodicy.

Second, it was interesting to see Rice introduce the traditional understanding of evil as a privatio boni (privation of the good). Evil has no being or substance of its own but exists merely in a negative sense as a failure of what is to be all it was created to be. It is thus a diminished experience of the Good. It seems to me (as I’ve much argued the point on this blog) that the implications of this view of evil are vastly underappreciated, for once one admits evil as privation of the good, one admits a Supreme Good (viz., God) incapable of privation. And once this is admitted, it fundamentally guides and empowers meaning-making in a fallen and suffering world.

Burning Fiery FurnaceHowever we integrate our experiences of evil and suffering into a meaningful narrative that satisfies the mind and empowers our living for God, God cannot be viewed as willing evil or as willing his own privated forms of reflection within the world. Such willing would itself be privation. The essential point is that if there is privation of the good, there must be an undiminished and absolute Supreme Good. This has huge implications for meaning-making. Not only is evil not itself willed by God, but neither can the evil willed by us through our free choice manufacture within God or within our perfected forms (as contingent, embodied reflections of God) any sort of positive moment or contribution of beauty. Evil is in the strictest sense meaningless (or meaninglessness itself).

Interestingly, this understanding of God as the summum bonum becomes part of Rice’s argument against Protest theodicies (though it never takes center stage in his own understanding of how we meaning-make in the face of suffering). On what basis, Rice argues, does one ‘protest’ believing in the good in the face of horrendous evil if the conclusion of such protest is the eradication of the good needed to get the protest off the ground in the first place? Protest theodicies are self-contradictory because they seek to deny what their principled protest requires, namely, an undiminished and absolute Good to which the goodness of all things is related, from which all things derive their goodness, and by which all finite goods and claims are measured.

On a somewhat related note, I think the failure to understand the undiminished nature of the Good along concrete, existential lines is the fundamental mistake of all passibilisms. This has enormous implications for how we find meaning in suffering as well.

Lastly, I want to register my interest in soul-making approaches. While I don’t agree that actual evils contribute positively to God’s purposes, I do think there’s something worth affirming in the claim that we cannot become all God designs and calls us to be apart from certain challenges. I suggest that there’s no getting around having to world-construct (toward full, hypostatic-personal being) in the face of the truth about our createdness, and that truth includes our finitude as created ex nihilo, and in my view that means mortality. Apart from the experience of mortality we have no way to comprehend the truth of such radical finitude and contingency. Our fullest personal being is our truest being, and the truth of our being includes the truth of our being created ex nihilo. That ‘nothingness’ is the one truth we have to world-construct in light of if we’re going to live a meaningful life. So in our view mortality is a grace when seen as an embodiment of the truth of our finitude, a way to experience ourselves as created ex nihilo.

This is not to say misrelating to mortality in despairing ways (when ‘mortality’ becomes ‘death’ as viewed theologically) is necessary. One has only to embrace the truth of one’s existence as unconditionally given freely and ex nihilo. As much as we talk about creation ex nihilo, I think we forget to figure it into our understanding of the structure of human becoming and perfection. We talk about creation ex nihilo a lot. We experience it very little. So while I don’t affirm soul-making in the sense that I think who we finally become is positively shaped by evil or that we come to embody a goodness that is inconceivable apart from evil, I do think who we are meant by God to become cannot be embraced by us apart from our perceiving and embracing the truth of the nihil out of which God unconditionally called us into being. I’m happy to describe seeing and embracing that truth as a “soul making” moment. But I don’t see anything evil about finitude or mortality per se, though it can occasion suffering.


In summary then, the key meaning-making resources I gather from the seven approaches Rice describes are as follows:

(1) The necessity of libertarian free will for human being. Properly understood, such exercise of the will is fundamental to our achieving God’s ends for us even if it is not the fullest expression of our freedom in Christ. However God is ultimately responsible for creating a world facing possibilities for both good and evil, he does not will evil and suffering as such, so the popular “there’s a purpose for everything that happens” isn’t a viable truth for meaning-making.

(2) Evil as privation. Understanding evil as privation of the good is inseparable from understanding God as the summum bonum (the Supreme Good) as well as inseparable from understanding the rational structure of aesthetic perception and volition as irrevocably oriented toward the Good. So if there isn’t a specific divine purpose for every evil that occurs, there nevertheless is divine purpose in or available to everything that occurs. Simply stated, no privation of evil can so diminish our lives that we become inseparable from God’s purposes. We may suffer evils God does not will, evil that does not lie within the scope of his purposes for us, but these evils cannot permanently foreclose on us all possibility of realizing our truest purpose and meaning. Again, this radically shapes how we perceive the meaning of our lives relative to suffering.

(3) Qualified soul-making. Soul-making approaches are right to emphasize that perfection is the end of human being, not its beginning. And the ends for which we are created have to be chosen, learned, and acquired. Human fulfillment is a creative achievement. Such choice requires a context in which we can responsibly choose in light of the truth of our finitude and the nothingness from which God calls us to be. Finitude must embrace the truth about itself, and that is a painful journey – though not necessarily an evil one.

To which I’d add:

(4) God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum. A qualified sense of apatheia, or God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum, is a fundamental truth for human meaning-making. Believing God’s triune beatitude is undiminished by evil and suffering provides a radically different framework within which we world-construct and process meaning. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of my difference with all the models Rice surveys. None of them takes time to contemplate God’s experienced triune beatitude as that about God which constitutes his being the summum bonum (the highest good and supreme value). But once the link between God’s experienced beatitude and God as the highest good and greatest value is made, one then finds meaning in suffering quite differently than any of the approaches Rice discusses. Evil does not come to mean anything. As I’ve argued often, our meaning is not the difference we make to God (i.e., the difference our suffering makes to God as he suffers as we suffer), but the difference God makes to us (i.e., the transcendent healing which God’s joy and delight provide in our suffering).

If I boil down points 1 through 4 into an eighth approach to suffering, I wouldn’t know what to call it. Perhaps:

Undiminished divine delight | Therapeutic theodicy
Participation in God | Theosis theodicy

I’ll end with a passage from Daniel 3 which should explain my choice of pictures attending this post, all depicting Nebuchadnezzar’s throwing the three Jewish men into the consuming fires of a furnace:

“Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego…were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace…Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Were not there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods’.” (Daniel Ch 3)

What’s the powerful imagery of this story have to do with the points I’ve here tried to express regarding suffering within the framework of God’s undiminished beatitude? If you have to ask, I’ve done a lousy job of explaining myself.


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