The oddity of theodicy: Why Captain Kirk could be a deep theologian
One argument that is commonly used against Christianity (possibly the most enduring argument) is the problem of evil, which has historically been such a matter of disagreement and debate that it has its own field of study, theodicy. Briefly, the problem is generally stated as follows, based on traditional understandings of God:
- God is good (omnibenevolent)
- God is all-powerful (omnipotent)
- God is all-knowing (omniscient)
- Evil exists
If point 4 is true, it follows that at least one of the previous 3 statements must be false. Various theologies have been suggested which sacrifice one or another of those in order to square the circle, but they remain outside mainstream Christian doctrine, regarded as “heretical”. I find it bizarre and frustrating that serious attempts to consider deep theological issues can be kicked into touch with the big boot of that H word, but that’s a topic for another post.
What interests me for now is how people have gone about reviewing point 4. There have been attempts to redefine evil in the light of points 1-3, so that anything which happens must not fit the description, or the omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God wouldn’t allow it. I hope my objections to this line of reasoning are obvious. A rather subtler form of this argument is that free will is such a valuable, overarching good that it’s worthwhile even if it allows evil things to happen as a result – what I call the Captain Kirk argument:
Without freedom of choice, there is no creativity. Without creativity, there is no life
Essentially, without freedom to make our own mistakes (and sometimes make others suffer as a result), we’re just drones, and few if any people would choose that if it was on offer – Kirk rejected benevolent imprisonment, no matter how gilded the cage. And you know what? I can see that. It’s a little bit of a fudge, I don’t think it eliminates all the problems entirely, and it would require some serious revisions to typical ideas of heaven, but as far as I’m concerned, it bumps the problem of evil down from a gaping inconsistency to a minor niggle.
Just as long as you don’t believe in an interventionist God.
Oh. Yeah. That’s not so helpful, then.
Because mainstream Christianity is completely wedded to the idea of an interventionist God, as it claims to have been founded in response to God becoming man. Many Christians believe God intervened in astonishing ways throughout history. They pray to Him in the expectation that He will intervene and make things better. Some even believe He gives them specific personal direction right here and now. There are liberal exceptions on the fringes (there always are), but essentially, Christianity is dependent on an interventionist God. See the problem?
If God’s prepared to intervene to sort out our trivial little whinges about how we want a nicer boss, or a better car, or we just can’t find a parking space, it blows that neat little argument about freedom of choice out of the water. If He can sort out even one tiny, insignificant problem, it means bad things aren’t an inevitable consequence of free will, and the problem looms as large as ever. If He can part the Red Sea, or raise a man from the dead, or even find you a parking space, He can wipe out diseases, stop mass murderers, prevent tsunamis. But He doesn’t.
I’ve heard some pretty convoluted arguments which attempt to rationalise this, most of which end up blaming the victim, either directly or obliquely, for their suffering, and we’re right back to either redefining the concepts of good and evil to the point of oblivion, or else granting God a sort of celestial diplomatic immunity for the various things He does (or allows to happen – it amounts to the same thing if you’re omnipotent). There are, I acknowledge, a few very subtle, delicate justifications based on the promise of eternal paradise (which is problematic, as noted earlier) or the good of humanity as a whole, but they tend to be very vague and speculative, and I regard them as special pleading.
There are still ways out for Christianity – re-evaluation of God’s characteristics, or a wholesale revision of Biblical interpretations along non-interventionist, essentially Deist lines are two that come to mind, but I can’t see either happening any time soon. As far as I can see, though, this is a massive problem for traditional Christianity.
The strange thing is that when I started on this post, I was expecting and intending to say that the problem of evil didn’t bother me all that much, because it never has, and I’ve always felt that was quite odd. Then as I started to set my thoughts out, I realised just how many little knock-on effects there were if the usual arguments were taken at face value, and I ended up virtually rewriting it. Maybe in time I’ll come back and revise it again.