Theodicy in the New Yorker

thing2007.jpgJames Woods’ essay on the problem of evil in the New Yorker is an illuminating reflection on the question of how an omnipotent and benevolent God can permit suffering. The essay gives us a sense of how everyday legal categories of restitution and responsibility inform theology (and perhaps should humble lawyers into recognizing how much their own categories owe to religious thought). Though there’s much to commend in the essay, I found his closing assessment of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead most interesting:

Heaven, one of the tenderest verses in the Bible has it, is where God will wipe away all tears from our faces. In her novel “Gilead,” Marilynne Robinson adds, in a line just as tender, if a little sterner, “It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.” Robinson, herself a devout Protestant, means that the immense surge of human suffering in the world will need, and deserves, a great deal of heavenly love and repair; it is as close as her novel comes to righteous complaint. But one could also say, more skeptically, that Christianity needs the concept of Heaven simply to make sense of all the world’s suffering—that, theologically speaking, Heaven is “exactly what will be required.” In the end, Heaven, it seems, is the only tenable response to the problem of evil. It is where God’s mysterious plan will be revealed; it is where the poor and the downtrodden, the sick and the tortured, will be healed; it is where everything that we went through on earth will suddenly seem “worth it.”

But Heaven is also a problem for theodicists who take the freedom to choose between good and evil as paramount. For Heaven must be a place where either our freedom to sin has been abolished or we have been so transfigured that we no longer want to sin: in Heaven, our will miraculously coincides with God’s will. And here the free-will defense unravels, and is unravelled by the very idea of Heaven. If Heaven obviates the great human freedom to sin, why was it ever such a momentous ideal on earth, “worth” all that pain and suffering?

The difficulty can be recast in terms of the continuity of the self. If we will be so differently constituted in Heaven as to be strangers to sin, then no meaningful connection will exist between the person who suffers here and the exalted soul who will enjoy the great system of rewards and promises and tears wiped from faces: our faces there will not be the faces we have here. And, if there were to be real continuity between our earthly selves and our heavenly ones, then Heaven might dangerously begin to resemble earth.

I really enjoyed the novel Gilead, and if I recall it correctly, I think one passage responds to Wood’s concern. The narrator of the novel (a preacher), having heard that “95 percent of Americans believe in God” (from a 1948 Ladies Home Journal poll), looks over at his cat, stretching in the sun, and mentions offhand that the cat’s sense of the events surrounding it may be analogized to humans’ capacity to comprehend the infinite:

The oddness of the phrase “believe in God” brings to my mind that first chapter of Feuerbach, which is really about the awkwardness of language, not about religion at all. Feuerbach doesn’t imagine the possibility of an existence beyond this one, by which I mean a reality embracing this one but exceeding it, the way, for example, this world embraces and exceeds Soapy’s [the cat’s] understanding of it. Soapy might be a victim of ideological conflict right along with the rest of us, if things get out of hand. She would no doubt make some feline appraisal of the situation, which would have nothing to do with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat or the Manhattan Project. The inadequacy of her concepts would have nothing to do with the reality of the situation. . . . [In a similar way,] our human circumstance creates in us a radically limited and peculiar notion of what existence is. (143)

Part of the charm of Robinson’s novel is the way in which the philosophical narrator tends to undermine himself; shortly after this passage he notes that “my interest in abstractions, which could have been forgiven first on grounds of youth and then on grounds of eccentricity, is now being forgiven on grounds of senility.”

But the point about the limits of our knowledge struck me again as I read two recent books on humanity’s response to mortality (Muriel Gillick’s The Denial of Aging and Avishai Margalit’s Ethics of Memory). Echoing Becker’s Denial of Death, Gillick discusses (and dismisses) the biotech heaven of eternal organ replacement that’s becoming an increasingly popular form of secular eschatology. Margalit combines an eclectic array of moral and aesthetic value judgments to argue for efforts to remember (and not merely transcend) the past. Both authors echo Robinson’s undertone of reconciliation with the human condition–an attitude incompatible with the table-pounding demands made by the book Wood reviews (Bart D. Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer). In an eloquent bit of theodicy of his own, Robinson’s aged narrator notes:

Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave–that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. . . . What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope? Well, as I have said, it is all an ember now, and the good Lord will someday breathe it into flame again.


Art Credit: Photo of Piotr Uklanski’s Untitled (Thing) (2007), from the exhibit “God and Goods: Spirituality and Mass Confusion.”

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