Excerpt from Barry Whitney, What Are They Saying About God and Evil (New York: Paulist, 1989).

Chapter Two

The Faith Solution and its Difficulties

Theologian John Hick is correct in his observation that it is the believer in God, more so than the skeptic who is forced to come to terms with the problem of evil. For it is the believer who claims that the situation is other than it appears; it is the believer who insists that despite the evil and suffering in the world, an all-powerful and all-loving God does exist and that there must be a “morally sufficient reason” why God would permit evil. What this reason is, however, appears forever to beyond the grasp of human understanding. The most obvious course of action for the believer, accordingly, is to cultivate an attitude of trusting faith in God, despite the preponderance of evil and misery in the world. The “faith solution” recommends precisely this stance, and rejects as fruitless and impious any intellectual attempt to explain God’s ways to humanity. The Book of Job is a classic presentation of this perspective. The faith stance it recommends has persisted strongly and unabated throughout the centuries.

(a) The Appeal of the Faith Solution

The undeniably persuasive attraction of the faith solution lies in the fact that it represents an amazingly simple solution to the problem of evil and that it provides an appealing reassurance and comfort to believers who otherwise might succumb to their suffering in despair. Thus, Karl Rahner, as we shall see, rejected as inadequate the traditional intellectual attempts to answer the theodicy question, pointing out that we must learn to accept the “incomprehensibility of suffering” as “part of the incomprehensibility of God.” In Rahner’s view, God allows evil for a reason known only to God: “the true answer must be only the incomprehensibility of God in his freedom and nothing else.” Process theologian John Cobb has advocated much the same: as we all struggle to cope with the world’s evil and suffering, he suggests, we must never lose touch with the faith which is so vital and necessary to sustain us: “We cannot believe in God unless we experience life as a blessing. We cannot experience life as a blessing if we have no hope. We cannot have hope unless we believe in God. We need all three....We must not let our sense of outrage destroy our belief in the goodness of life.

This same theme runs through the writings of mystic Simone Weil:

Affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell. A kind of horror sub- merges the whole soul. During this absence there is nothing to love. What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final. The soul has to go on wanting to love. ... Then, one day, God will come to show himself to this soul and reveal the beauty of the world to it, as in the case of Job. But if the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell

The Easter message, I would suggest, could be interpreted in a way which confirms her point: amid the confusion and despair in losing their beloved master, the faith of the disciples was rewarded with an experience of the resurrected Jesus as the Christ. The same point, of course, is prevalent also in the Book of Job: despite Job’s intense suffering and anguish, his faith, which had been tested so severely, in fact was rewarded in the end.

Theologian Paul Schilling has documented some remarkable testimonies of the captivating power of the faith solution, contemporary illustrations which reveal how faith holds together lives which otherwise would collapse in numbing despair. One example is that of the priest, Pere Albert Jamme, who, after thirty-five years of laboring seven days a week to collect and painstakingly translate some rare manuscripts, lost much of his life’s work in a tragic fire. Jamme’s response was to state: “I know there is a great lesson in this. But I don’t know what it is what He [God] wanted me to learn, I do not know. That He had a reason, there is no doubt.”

(b) Biblical Testimonies of Faith in Times of Suffering

(c) Difficulties with the Faith Solution

There can be no question that the ultimate reason for evil will remain forever beyond human comprehension: finite human minds are unlikely ever to comprehend fully this great mystery. The faith stance, accordingly, is an appealing, inevitable and reasonable response. Its captivating force lies in the fact that it offers a genuine comfort and a considerably satisfying consolation that all things happen for a reason, a reason known (and perhaps ordained) by God. Yet, as many theologians have pointed out, the faith solution is not without difficulties, difficulties which seriously jeopardize its viability and usefulness in the lives of suffering people. To a consideration of some of these problems we now turn.

In his admirable presentation of the theodicy problem Paul Schilling has pointed out that the faith solution all- too-easily can lead to a mesmerizing fatalism which rationalizes away any human responsibility for evil. It may be comforting and reassuring to find meaning and significance in daily events by attributing all goods and evils to divine providence; yet such an attitude often produces a destructive resignation, fatalism, and a numbing despair that we have no genuine control over our lives. The faith solution, in short, may encourage us to abdicate our moral and social responsibilities, for if we really believe that the evils and apparent injustices in the world are the consequences of God’s incomprehensible plan, we may well be led into an attitude of social inactivity and a lack of serious concern for the sufferings of others. The poor and the wretched indeed will be with us always, as Jesus stated, yet this may be so largely because we have been content for so long to believe that we are not responsible for earthly events, believing rather that all things are part of the divine plan.  

The faith stance, moreover, not only can inculcate this deplorable attitude in us, but it must be conceded that it is an unrealistic option for many people. We cannot expect, quite frankly, that calling upon suffering people to “have faith” in God’s providential care will be helpful for many people, since it is often this very suffering which retards their potential openness to faith and hope. This is all the more true for those reflective Christians who feel a sincere obligation to strengthen their spirituality by seeking a deeper understanding--rather than mere blind acceptance--of their religious beliefs. Such people take seriously the commandment of Jesus that we love God not only with our hearts and souls, but also with our minds.

Serious intellectual reflection about our religious beliefs is anything but impious, despite those who would so condemn it. Informed study and reflection is an essential aspect of religious commitment for many people, for it is a task which enhances and significantly deepens faith. Indeed, it seems that serious reflection is indispensable for religiously mature people if faith is to remain an active part of our lives. This is not to deny that the ability of many people to maintain a strong and unquestioning belief in God, despite evil and suffering, is commendable and enviable, yet ultimately such faith is blind and uninformed, often leading easily into a fanaticism and into a narrow and intolerant dogmatism. It may seem impious to inquire into the mystery of suffering, yet faith “does not automatically turn the uncertainties of life into certainties” (as the physicist-theologian Ian Barbour has pointed out in his useful discussion of this point). Faith must be supported with rational thinking, for only in this way can a blind faith become a more mature and critical faith, a faith which may be far more able to withstand the vicissitudes of evil and suffering.

The inspiring and well-known testimony of C.S. Lewis is a classic example of the point at issue. After writing about the theodicy problem from a purely theoretical stance in his book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis experienced the bitter and tragic loss of his wife. His account of the grief he endured and the search he underwent to find a more meaningful and mature faith is documented in another of his books, A Grief Observed, published after his own death. It is instructive to notice that, in his extreme grief, Lewis rejected the traditional forms of comfort: (I) his former faith seemed irrelevant: “You never know how much you really believe,” he wrote, “until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. ... Apparently the faith—I thought it faith—which enables me to pray for the other dead has seemed strong only because I have never really cared, not desperately, whether they existed or not. Yet I thought I did”; (ii) the faith of his consoling friends also seemed inconsequential: “don’t come talking to me,” he writes, “about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand”; and (iii) he rejects as trivial the comfort of Scripture and rebuts Saint Paul’s exhortation, “Do not mourn like those that have no hope,” with the anguished and bitter retort: “It astonishes me, the way we are invited to apply to ourselves words so obviously addressed to our betters. What St. Paul says can comfort only those who love God better than the dead, and the dead better than themselves.”

(d) Understanding and Coping with Evil

Discussions of the problem of evil ought to acknowledge (but often do not) that there are two distinct types of questions involved. One is referred to as the “existential” problem; the other, as the “theoretical”‘ problem. The former focuses upon how we can cope with the anguish and misery in the world, while the latter seeks to formulate ever more comprehensive and viable rational explanations for the existence of evil. The faith solution is closely intertwined with the existential issue, and this may contribute to a further and significant difficulty with it. I shall elaborate.

For many people, the existential perspective is primary a fact which certainly is understandable, since the theoretical question does not appear to be as urgent nor as pressing as the day by day struggle to cope with the pain and suffering we must all endure. John Bowker, accordingly, in his Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World, writes that there “is nothing theoretical or abstract about it [theodicy]. To talk of suffering is to talk not of an academic problem but of the sheer bloody agonies of existence.” Human beings, by necessity, have learned to cope in an incredibly varied and imaginative number of ways, as Brian Hebblethwaite’s recent book, Evil, Suffering, and Religion, so aptly illustrates. Among the most popular and effective coping techniques he discusses are such strategies as the renunciation or rejection of the world, which for Christians takes the form of repentance, seeking mystical knowledge through a variety of meditative techniques; religious worship; performing morally valuable acts; and coping through sacrifice, including altruistic self-sacrificing for the good of others.

This existential or practical response to the theodicy issue often focuses upon the God of salvation who acts decisively to overcome evil. Dorothee Soelle, in her notable book, Suffering, has addressed this point, criticizing the apathy which so often characterizes human responses to evil and exposing the fact that “all suffering is social suffering.” Soelle calls for more active opposition to all forms of human oppression. Yet God shares in our suffering, she insists, and it is in our suffering that we participate in the suffering of Christ. Jurgen Moltmann, in his seminal book, The Crucified God, has pursued this theme: the crucial issue of theodicy lies in God’s salvific activity to overcome evil.’‘ Moltmann charac- terizes God as a fellow-sufferer (see Chapter 8), but, unlike Soelle, insists that the deity takes our suffering into the very Godhead: “The misery that we cause and the unhappiness that we experience are [God’s] misery and unhappiness. Our history of suffering is taken up into his history of suffering.”

In another of his influential books, Theology of Hope, Moltmann assures us that evil will be overcome and transfigured by God, but only at the end of history. We shall “be taken, without limitations and conditions, into the life and suffering the death and resurrection of God, and in faith [we shall participate]...corporeally in the fullness of God. There is nothing that can exclude {us} from the situation of God.” The only answer for suffering people, then as one of Moltmann’s commentators points out, “is God’s redemptive deed on the cross. For faith, it is this very deed which allows the word of liberation and succour to be spoken and heard.”'

The other means of dealing with the problem of evil, however, is considered by many theologians to be just as critical, if indeed not more so, than this emphasis upon eschatological hope and practical coping techniques. Rather than appealing to what God is doing to overcome evil or, indeed, to what we can do to cope with evil, the theoretical question asks, quite bluntly, whether belief in God is compatible with the reality of evil in the world. I have suggested that this question is of primary importance, and while finite human minds never will uncover a full and completely satisfying explanation, the need to ask the question and to seek answers seems to be inescapable: we can cope with evil far better if we have some understanding, however tentative and oblique, of its relationship to God. It is regrettable that so many Christians (here, we are not referring to the professional theologians) face their suffering with little else than blind faith in God and with a largely uninformed, makeshift set of solutions. Such pious and sincere faith most assuredly is not to be ridiculed nor demeaned, but it could become a much stronger and far more mature faith if it were to appropriate some of the insights offered by serious theological reflection upon the theodicy question (and, indeed, upon other religious matters). Coping with evil, in short, could be enhanced greatly by theological reflection upon the problem of evil, rather than merely accepting the fact of evil, or indeed even by working actively to eradicate it. We must learn to cope with evil, but just as surely we must try to answer the question as to why it exists and how it is related to the will of God. This undoubtedly is what John Hick had in mind in urging us to seek some semblance of an intellectual perspective on this issue, as much as we are capable of attaining. It may well be that rational reflection “cannot profess to create faith,” but, rather, can only “preserve an already existing faith from being overcome by this dark mystery”; and “even if no complete theodicy is possible, certain approaches to it may be less inadequate than others, and it may thus be possible to reach some modest degree of genuine illumination upon the subject and to discover helpful criteria by which to discriminate among speculations concerning it.”

Michael Peterson, in his book, Evil and the Christian God, has addressed this point. Despite countless authors who are content to treat the problem of evil as purely “emotional,” Peterson’s point is that the emotional component tends to aim “at little more than inducing certain subjective states...: resignation, hope, courage, or whatever,” and when such “emotional considerations take precedence over rational ones, spontaneous answers given in the face of actual evils are usually fragmentary and inapplicable, and ultimately become arbitrary and relative.” A faith, in other words, which is uninformed by rational reflection is inadequate: “The classic and enduring problem concerns the rational acceptability of Christian belief in light of the evil in the world, regardless of how different persons respond emotionally to the various evils which they encounter.” To an exploration of the rational study of the theodicy issue we now turn for the remainder of this book.

(e) Anti-Theodicies and Theodicies of Protest ....

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[A revised and updated version of this 1989 book is in progress]