Karen Armstrong and Herbert McCabe debate the proposition: “There is evil; therefore, there cannot be a God”

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11 Responses to Karen Armstrong and Herbert McCabe debate the proposition: “There is evil; therefore, there cannot be a God”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    My thanks to Tom Belt for bringing this video to my attention.


  2. I’m just going to comment on the parts of Armstrong and McCabe here: Armstrong seems to suggest that the traditional idea of God makes it so we don’t want to reflect on our own evils but rather we pour it out on others. Two problems: 1) the traditional idea of God (in the Christian tradition at least), demands self-reflection about how we don’t live up to the standards of the all-good God and 2) even the Buddhists have terrorists within their midsts–a great (but rather disturbing) book we had to read for my problems in religious studies class was Terror in the Mind of God. Mark Juergensmeyer documents some of his interactions with different religious people known for having committed acts of terror and reflects on why this goes down. No one was surprised while reading it to hear about the Christian terrorists and the Islamic terrorists but as soon as we heard about Jewish and Buddhist terrorists, we were like “What the…?!?” So laying the blame for the traditional idea of God being to blame for all of the world’s troubles is just simply the fallacy of guilt by association.

    McCabe’s comments about Auschwitz hit the hammer on the nail in my opinion–what makes Auschwitz so disturbing and earthquakes not so disturbing? It’s the descent into nothingness that humans took at Auschwitz. Of course, some might dispute that natural disasters are no less disturbing. I’ve been asking though about really scary horror films recently and I’ve heard The Shining is really scary because it’s about a man’s descent into insanity. I’ve seen scenes from Sinister (SPOILER ALERT!) as well and some claiming that the “Lawn Work” scene is the scariest to which I disagree–the scariest scene is the “Extended Cuts” scene where it is revealed that the demon has used children to commit the acts of murder. Once again, the descent into nothingness for humanity. Humanity, in Catholic and Orthodox thought is created in the image of God–true humanity is reflected in godliness–we are born with benevolence, although the effects of the Fall have damaged us (compare to Protestant orthodoxy where we are totally depraved because of the Fall). Jesus was the truest human. Not “like us but without sin” but rather entirely human (also God). So I must concur with McCabe that when we lose that humanness, it is more disturbing for us than a natural disaster. As Mencius said, “The great man is he who does not lose his child’s heart” (Bk. 4, Pt. 2, Ch. 12). Underlying premise for Mencius is that humanity is born naturally benevolent.


    • Dante Aligheri says:

      Although I disagree with Luther on many things, as I am a Catholic fairly optimistic regarding human capacities in nature, never minding super-nature, I think it’s worth remembering why Luther, regardless of what Protestants have done to him over the years, speaks of Christian freedom as passionately as he does and yet sees depravity as integral to that. Really, in my opinion, it’s some quarters of the Reformed tradition – with its sometimes utopian “Puritanesque” pretensions, complete with anxious benches, if I may indulge the stereotype – rather than authentic Lutheranism that represents a far more bleak outlook on human life. If human beings possess moral freedom, then the responsibility for our own perfection falls on us. For Luther, in the “glorious exchange,” admittedly a grave distortion of the biblical meaning of divine righteousness/justice (per N.T. Wright), Christ’s “alien” righteousness becomes our own. We are not, therefore, responsible for our own righteousness before God except insofar as we grab hold of it through faith. Therefore, especially in the legalistic contexts of the late medieval period, where we became responsible for satisfaction after penance and moral effort, Luther would say we are free from any need for satisfaction except insofar as we return to faith – the joyful flip-side of depravity. The moral center shifted from us to Christ. In fact, it is that “self-reflection about how we don’t live up to the standards of all-Good God” that for Luther was so debilitating, of the Law rather than the Gospel, since he wanted the reflection not on us but on Christ. Christ makes us free from this “self-damnation.” Indeed, Luther might respond to Armstrong by saying we should not pour it out on others because, and here he is with the Apostolic Tradition, precisely because all are perfectly sinners, the “pouring out” as already having been accomplished.

      Armstrong is right in another way, though. In certain quarters of Protestantism, like the Radical Reformation, the Elect are positioned in such a way that they are already recognized as possessing the Spirit, fully and irrevocably, against the Non-Elect (something Luther protested against vehemently – for example, against Thomas Munzter and his army of “peasant terrorists”). Honestly, I’m studying Muntzer for a project right now, and his Commentary on Daniel finishes off in such a way that I could not help but think of the Islamist terrorists. Thus the church became the apocalyptic community of the saved (although maybe St. Augustine should also take the part of the blame by emphasizing the Church as “perfect society” in addition to his better motif, that of the wayfaring Church) rather than the hospital for sinners. It is here that contempt is poured out on others and on those who are in the “middle zone,” i.e. not “assured” of their salvation by experience. This, to me, is where the truly noxious forms of Christianity rear their ugly heads.

      All this being said, where Luther goes wrong, among other places, I think, is a lack in a strong sacramentalism. He, unwittingly perhaps, makes such a sharp divide between Sacrament as symbol of grace through faith that he cannot envision the actual potency of the Sacrament in infusing real grace into the human heart, which Peter Lombard called the Holy Spirit (here Aquinas would disagree with Lombard and wanted a type of intermediary “created grace/habit” merely reflective of the Spirit but I agree with Lombard against Aquinas), the divine Person of Love by which we learn to love God in Himself. In a Sacramental model, there is a real change in the human person which necessarily involves a reorientation of the self after the rebirth in Baptism, a working out of salvation with Christ. Now, this does entail a calling to a new form of Law, love through faith. Working through charity, accomplished in faith, is the focus and truly is salvific, becoming more like Christ. It is not an acceptation. To be sure, this type of ascesis can become legalistic, and I think there is healthy balance to be managed. At times, I wonder whether we Catholics and Orthodox all need a little bit of healthy Luther. I hope that does not seem heretical, but there is a real confidence in the efficacy of Sacraments (to put an Orthodox-Catholic twist on Luther’s language perhaps) that I think we all need. I can’t help but think Philip Cary’s wonderful essay that Fr. Kimel posted awhile back – and I probably debt this partially to him.

      I apologize this got so long, and meandered off topic, and sort of impugned some types of Protestantism (and I know very good, Christian people who come from the Reformed tradition).


      • Dante Aligheri says:

        Thinking about Philip Cary again, I should probably qualify my statement insofar as Luther retains a kind of quasi-Sacramentalism insofar as faith acts like a anti-Donatist Sacrament. We do not need to reflect on faith in order to grasp it, or possess a content of faith or “believe in” (in an experiential way – that is where Muntzer went so badly wrong) faith, but simply have confidence in faith – like how we can have confidence in the efficacy of the Sacraments.


      • “In certain quarters of Protestantism, like the Radical Reformation, the Elect are positioned in such a way that they are already recognized as possessing the Spirit, fully and irrevocably, against the Non-Elect (something Luther protested against vehemently – for example, against Thomas Munzter and his army of “peasant terrorists”).”
        I always find it odd how people think that one who is a Christian is somehow this perfect, super-human creature myself with the fullness of the Spirit available. It reminds me of what Soren Kierkegaard said about becoming a Christian and how it is easier to become a Christian when I am not one than when I think I am one. Perhaps the mentality that we should focus on killing is not so much our traditional understanding of God as Armstrong proposes but rather the pre-supposition that we are in fact Christians. I have heard of the saying that we are the Church of the striving, not the Church of the already saved. Many of the Orthodox ascetics had this right in my opinion–always self-reflecting on their own failures.

        I’m not entirely certain as to how much the distinction between Catholic ideas of salvation and Lutheran ideas of salvation really are though. I think you might do well to look up more details on Lutheran sacramental theology as many Lutherans do in fact believe that baptism confers a sacramental grace.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I understand that the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 widely and seriously disturbed people – people who, among other things, knew about what Eric Voegelin calls the dogmatomachies of the preceding two centuries and more. If people previously had not found earthquakes (etc.) so disturbing, and did then, what changed to facitilate this? And if people have since come to find earthquakes less disturbing, what has changed to facilitate that?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        My apologies for the metathesis!


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I’m going to have to add “dogmatomachy” to my vocabulary! Now I just have to figure out how to work it into an ordinary conversation. 🙂


      • Grant says:

        I’m not entirely sure people have found natural disasters less horrifying, we only have to renewed the tsunami in the Indian Ocean or the one hit Japan with such destructive force that they are still recovering from it now.

        Lisbon through in particular destroyed a form of easy-going assumptions about the balance of things for good and ill by the deistic idea of a god that had taken hold of the West at that point and demolished the easy answer to the problem of evil it had given.

        I’d quote at length from David Bentley Hart pieces ‘Tremors and Tsunamis’ that developed into the book ‘The Doors of the Sea‘ on this point:

        “The locus classicus of modern disenchantment with “nature’s God” is probably Voltaire’s Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, written in response to the great earthquake that—on All Saints’ Day, 1755—struck just offshore of what was then the resplendent capital of the Portuguese empire. Lisbon was home to a quarter million, at least 60,000 of whom perished, both from the initial tremor (reckoned now, like the Sumatran earthquake, at a Richter force of around 9.0) and from the tsunami that it cast up on shore half an hour later (especially murderous to those who had retreated to boats in the mouth of the river Tagus to escape the destruction on land). An enormous fire soon began to consume the ruined city. Tens of thousands were drowned along the coasts of the Algarve, southern Spain, and Morocco.

        For Voltaire, a catastrophe of such indiscriminate vastness was incontrovertible evidence against the bland optimism of popular theodicy. His poem—for all the mellifluousness of its alexandrines—was a lacerating attack upon the proposition that “tout est bien.” Would you dare argue, he asks, that you see the necessary effect of eternal laws decreed by a God both free and just as you contemplate

        Ces femmes, ces enfants l’un sur l’autre entassés,
        Sous ces marbres rompus ces membres dispersés

        “These women, these infants heaped one upon the other, these limbs scattered beneath shattered marbles”? Or would you argue that all of this is but God’s just vengeance upon human iniquity?

        Quel crime, quelle faute ont commis ces enfants
        Sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglants?

        “What crime and what sin have been committed by these infants crushed and bleeding on their mothers’ breasts?” Or would you comfort those dying in torment on desolate shores by assuring them that others will profit from their demise and that they are discharging the parts assigned them by universal law? Do not, says Voltaire, speak of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in the hand of a God who is Himself enchained by nothing.

        For all its power, however, Voltaire’s poem is a very feeble thing compared to the case for “rebellion” against “the will of God” in human suffering placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by that fervently Christian novelist Dostoevsky; for, while the evils Ivan recounts to his brother Alexey are acts not of impersonal nature but of men, Dostoevsky’s treatment of innocent suffering possesses a profundity of which Voltaire was never even remotely capable. Famously, Dostoevsky supplied Ivan with true accounts of children tortured and murdered: Turks tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs, impaling infants on bayonets, firing pistols into their mouths; parents savagely flogging their children; a five-year- old-girl tortured by her mother and father, her mouth filled with excrement, locked at night in an outhouse, weeping her supplications to “dear kind God” in the darkness; an eight-year-old serf child torn to pieces by his master’s dogs for a small accidental transgression.

        But what makes Ivan’s argument so disturbing is not that he accuses God of failing to save the innocent; rather, he rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He grants that one day there may be an eternal harmony established, one that we will discover somehow necessitated the suffering of children, and perhaps mothers will forgive the murderers of their babies, and all will praise God’s justice; but Ivan wants neither harmony—“for love of man I reject it,” “it is not worth the tears of that one tortured child”—nor forgiveness; and so, not denying there is a God, he simply chooses to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom. After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable?

        Voltaire’s poem is not a challenge to Christian faith; it inveighs against a variant of the “deist” God, one who has simply ordered the world exactly as it now is, and who balances out all its eventualities in a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Nowhere does it address the Christian belief in an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths, and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy remnant of the world God intends, and enslaved creation to spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God. But Ivan’s rebellion is something altogether different. Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the actual history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoevsky sees—and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his Christian view of reality—that it would be far more terrible if it were.

        Christians often find it hard to adopt the spiritual idiom of the New Testament—to think in terms, that is, of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, of Christ’s triumph over the principalities of this world, of the overthrow of hell. All Christians know, of course, that it is through God’s self-outpouring upon the cross that we are saved, and that we are made able by grace to participate in Christ’s suffering; but this should not obscure that other truth revealed at Easter: that the incarnate God enters “this cosmos” not simply to disclose its immanent rationality, but to break the boundaries of fallen nature asunder, and to refashion creation after its ancient beauty—wherein neither sin nor death had any place. Christian thought has traditionally, of necessity, defined evil as a privation of the good, possessing no essence or nature of its own, a purely parasitic corruption of reality; hence it can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness. Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God had no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent—though immeasurably more vile—is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature.

        There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

        I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

        As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

        As an aside I might also ask, is the keeping of one person in everlasting misery and torment, trapped in self-delusion and de-humanizing conditions worth the price for the world of justice to come, is it worth the price of some demand of freedom separated from nature in some abstracted sense (even though I think that concept is impossible, as you cannot I believe separate an act or decision from a prior nature of person, their being and the freedom it has to them think and act in the first place), worth this, even it could some how be possible.

        Is the concentration camp in the middle of the lovely garden really a price that justifies this, to me such is an abhorrent evil and horror, one offering no freedom, how could any be happy with that or okay with it, how could God be all in all? And the same is very much the case with the idea that in the completion of the resurrection of the dead some will be fixed in experiencing Christ’s unveiled glory and love as a torment and keep exposed to it in pain forever with the possibility of change or healing, denied any freedom and keep in torment among everyone else (the concentration camp concept seems more merciful in the end).

        No, such cannot be justified and it is a freedom that is no freedom but an abhorrent prison and twisted concept of freedom or love with a terrible cost being demanded of it, one that seems manifestly unjust and truly horrific, and not the promise of that in which God is all in all.”


        • Grant, it’s hard not to want to just quote the whole book! 🙂 I especially love the two consecutive paragraphs in your excerpt beginning, “I do not believe we Christians are obliged–or even allowed–to look upon the devastation . . . “


  3. I wish David Bentley Hart had been there. From The Doors of the Sea:

    “. . . It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universal rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.

    “Or, to phrase all of this somewhat differently, words we would not utter to ease another’s grief we ought not to speak to satisfy our own sense of piety. In the New York Times this morning, on this the lat day I have set aside for the writing of this book there appeared a report from Sri Lanka recounting, in part, the story of large man of enormous physical strength who was unable to prevent four of his five children from perishing in the tsunami, and who–as he recited the names of his lost children to the reporter, in descending order of age, ending with the name of his four-year-old son–was utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping. Only a moral cretin at that moment would have attempted to sooth his anguish by assuring him that his children had died as a result of God’s eternal, inscrutable, and righteous counsels, and that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history, and that all of this was completely necessary of God to accomplish his ultimate design in having created this world. Most of us would shave the good sense to be ashamed to speak such words; we would recognize that they would offer no more credible comfort than the vaporings of the most idiotically complacent theodicy, and we would detest ourselves for giving voice to odious banalities and blasphemous flippancies.

    “And this should tell us something. For if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say the; because what would still our tongues would be the knowledge (which we would possess at the time, though we might forget it later) that such sentiments would amount not only to an indiscretion or words spoken out of season, but to a vile stupidity and a lie told principally for our own comfort, buy which we would try to excuse ourselves for believing in an omnipotent and benevolent God. In the process, moreover, we would be attempting to deny that man a knowledge central to the gospel: the knowledge of the evil of death, its intrinsic falsity, its unjust dominion over the world, its ultimate nullity; the knowledge that God is not pleased or nourished by our deaths, that he is not the secrete architect of evil, that he is the conqueror of hell, that he has condemned all these things by the power of the cross; the knowledge that God is life and light and infinite love, and that the path that leads through nature and history to his Kingdom does not simply follow the contours of either nature or history, or obey the logic immanent to them, but is opened to us by way of the natural and historical absurdity –or outrage—of the empty tomb.”

    It seems to me Richard Swinbourne came the closest to speaking as though evil were “necessary” to the fulfillment of God’s purposes (theodicy), something Hart refutes quite eloquently. Two comments in the video which stood out to me as resonating a bit with Hart were those of Dr. Peter Vardy at 34:38 and Timothy Chappell at 42:00.

    Very thought-provoking debate. Thanks for sharing it.


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