Yesterday was a good day on social media for Jordan. He became involved in two conversations on Facebook and Twitter, both on the topic of theodicy. As Eclectic Orthodoxy readers know, Jordan is a brilliant theologian with a gift for explaining difficult and complex matters in a way that is understandable to us ordinary folk. So I thought I’d share with the brethren his insights on suffering and theodicy.
Jordan: My brief reply would begin with the following three observations, mostly unsubstantiated here since I’ve little time:
1. Genesis 1-3 isn’t historical, but “mythological” in the deeper, more ancient sense (where primordial realities are cast back to an unobservable past, which indicates that these realities so characterize our entire historical experience that they cannot even properly be conceived as yet another episode within that history). But, it must be admitted, this only slightly mitigates the original question. In fact what matters more than the historical veracity of these stories is the sequential structure that even non-literalist readings and classical doctrines of faith assume: first God was “before” creation, planning it out, as it were, and “after” that he executes the plan. Reading Genesis (1-11 esp.) as myth, or, if you like, as inspired at the level of “Spirit,” means we’re also free to deny the assumption that God’s act of creation must itself involve such a sequence. This mitigates the original question further, but not entirely, since the question is less about why God began things in such a way (i.e. “set us up”), and more exactly about why any dimension or aspect of God’s creation should permit evil. We might put the same question in the present tense: Why does God continue to bring forth rational beings into this world, here and now, given its fallen character–the ignorance, malice, greed, hatred, error, misjudgment, and suchlike that seemingly dominates it? My 1 year-old is, after all, just as much an effect of God’s creation ex nihilo as any supposed individual “Adam” and “Eve” were. All to say: Genesis must be read nonliterally, and yet this does not finally resolve the issue at hand. We must therefore move beyond mere exegesis into properly speculative theological thinking.
2. On the one hand, the very fact that creatures must begin at all means that they must begin in process. That’s because having a beginning means that you are not yet at your end–that your end is, as it were, “beyond” your current state. So you must strive for it, make your way towards it, attain it. You’re made already in process, already on some path or way. All the more so if your true beginning is your true end: this would mean that even the beginning you necessarily begin with, is not yet even your true beginning in being (not just that it’s not yet the end). Hence, if it’s true that, say, Christ himself–the event of the Incarnation–is our true end *and* beginning (Eph 1, Col 1, Apoc 3.14, Apoc 22, etc.), then this means that what we currently perceive to be our beginning is only a relative beginning, not yet our real start. And so our “necessary” beginning appears to be like this: we begin not because we’re truly finite, but rather our seeming to have a beginning makes us think we’re merely finite (not to mention our brute end, death!). In other words, the very fact that we begin to be is the occasion for our own self-deception, whereby we imagine that we are merely dust. (Here Gen 2.7 should condition everything we think about Gen 1-3, by the way). Or as Maximus says, Adam “fell at the very same time he began to be.” So the fact that we are finite-beings-meant-to-become-finite/infinite beings (theosis) means that we necessarily begin in ignorance of God, the world, and ourselves–and ignorance is the mother of all vice. But even here we’ve not yet answered the original question. It remains unclear why God would undertake creation at all if it must begin in this way.
3. That’s to say, evil starts to appear as a “necessary” component or condition of creation itself. That, we’re often told, is “gnostic” and thus heretical, since it seems to deny creation’s goodness. And yet Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus all say that not every phenomenon in creation is “a work of God.” Anything that falls short of expressing God’s infinitely good and loving will is no effect of his will, and thus not a work or creation or result or term of his will. So here we are: this world is a damnable mixture of God’s universal and ubiquitous, totally good will for each and all creation (the logoi) and our own pseudo-“creations” that we give our own lives to make “real,” but ultimately in vain. Nor are such “creations” limited to individual acts or lives: this world is pervaded by the work of “Adam,” of the collective ignorance and foolishness that form the conditions for all sin, and precisely because we are created with the potency to become God, our ignorant acts can take near-cosmic dimensions. This is a dire view, far worse than anything Augustinian original sin conveys with its merely genetic handing on of perverted tendencies in the will. For now the very heights of our vocation in Christ, to become God-human beings, is itself an occasion for our universal fall. So this observation too, while it further changes the framework of the original question, cannot resolve it.
So why would God create beings whose very end is the apparently necessary condition for their failure of that end? There are no abstract resolutions to such a question, in my opinion. But that very realization introduces a yet deeper one: no abstract resolution exists because no abstract creation exists. Creation finds its perfection, rather, in the fullness, the maturation, the absolutely open plenitude of interpersonal love. Which is to say that God set out in creation to make not an “order” of “things,” but to have children. The command of proliferation he gives to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 is the very command he himself, in Christ, is out to fulfill–to be fruitful and multiply. Creation is adoption, it’s raising children, it’s attending to the manifold uniqueness that is every person, is the unconditioned realization of love. And as such, it is a work of God and us together, for not even God can create a person without that person’s participation, since person’s are never who they are apart from the vital interrelations of life (not even God is a person without such interrelations). Here the parenting analogy is more appropriate: God isn’t like a parent principally in that he sets up conditions of our coming-to-be and lets free will have free reign; that’s not even what parents do, since a main job of parenting is setting parameters to the child’s free, imaginative play, precisely so that the imagination can explore the unknown without the full consequences of such exploration as an adult. Rather God is like a parent in that nothing, not even our “necessary” ignorance and failures along the way, would ever stifle his infinite love for us, and so, since it was precisely that infinite love that is the movement of creation itself (its reason and ground and end), nothing we do in ignorance constitutes a reason against our creation. So is this ignorance and the heinous evil it permits “necessary” for God’s act of creation? Not abstractly, not at all. But might *I* “need” to suffer this or that evil to become what I will find I’ve always wanted to be? Perhaps. As a parent, I can say: sometimes one child “needs” something that another doesn’t, so that I wouldn’t say that just because one approach worked for one child, it is therefore “necessary” for “good parenting” in general (i.e. abstractly) to take that approach. No, parenting isn’t like that: the only way a good parent knows what is “necessary” in any actual case for good parenting, is for that parent really to *know* the child in question–know what they need, how they need it, what are their limits, what are their trials, etc. Creation is God’s act of parenting, his act of raising child gods to become, in Christ, co-heirs and “friends” who will no longer “need” anything other than the love and truth God is. There are no abstract resolutions to the question of evil precisely because creation is the very opposite of an abstract act–it’s our adoption as God’s children to, somehow, become his equal. An act of sheer love.
Picforth: Serious question for the universalists out there: is it really that much better if Hell is conceived as temporal and so of finite duration rather than eternal and unending? The moral question of a good God seems unresolved by this. But I’m interested in being convinced otherwise. I suppose I think the suffering of life should be sufficient unto itself; anything additional needs to be entirely organic and oriented toward a healing process, not arbitrarily imposed from without. I guess that is what most universalists presume, but suffering is still hard. I just really don’t want us to give ourselves an easy out with a sort of metaphysical shrug, thinking “this too shall pass.” Anyone who’s suffered immense physical or emotional pain knows how utterly useless such sentiment really is. Worldly suffering is temporary AND terrifying.
Jordan: I don’t deny the latter, but surely my kid enduring a chronic illness, even, is qualitatively different from suffering to no end whatsoever. But then if there is a qualitative difference, then surely there’s a qualitative moral difference in God’s permitting one or the other. It’s hard enough to believe in God before horrendous provisional suffering. It’s impossible—nay, evil—to believe before unending torment. The very consciousness that suffering will end nowhere in particular makes it a completely different sort of suffering, I’d think. And I say this as one who also believes that all past suffering must be destroyed in the end.
Picforth: Idk honestly. I mean I think I get it in the abstract. But when I had my kidney stone a couple years ago, knowing that the pain had to end somewhere (even if it killed me) was not a consolation. And the psychological torment of not knowing when added to the physical pain. All that to say you’re probably correct. But it doesn’t solve any problems related to theodicy as far as I can tell, nor cast them in any different light.
Jordan: Surely it casts it in a different light: I simply don’t know what it means to equate the suffering of a child and that same child’s putative eternal suffering for having chosen to reject God as a result, at least partly, of the first suffering. Nor do I think we’re somehow being more authentic or serious about suffering if we make such an equation. Everyone I know who’s endured real suffering—my mother for instance—would say it’s better to have relief than to know the suffering will not end. You said not knowing when added to the pain. Well, imagine knowing that the answer is never. There’s nothing abstract about this. We don’t do right by anyone’s suffering by pretending that the lack of provisional consolation is the same as guaranteed inconsolability. Nor by wondering whether any relief is much better than none.
At least before provisional suffering I can and do demand that God rectify all tragedy and evil: precisely because it is finite it can also be revisited and changed imo. But the very essence of endless torment entails the impossibility to make any such demand of God.