Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 2

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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.

390.-The-Three-Holy-Youths

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
or
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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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.