Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Problem of the Problem of Evil

Everyone seems to know the rules. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and both loving and good. Yet evil or suffering exists. This appears to be a contradiction. Goodness and suffering are compatible only when the power to combat suffering is lacking. And power and suffering suggest a God who either wishes us to suffer or somehow requires suffering for the fulfillment of a moral order that he himself created and is presumably at liberty to change. Free will is only an apparent solution to the problem, since only a subset of suffering can be attributed to human will, and begs both the question of God's ultimate responsibility for suffering (natural and manmade) and the question of whether free will is in itself a good, and if so, why.

The problem of evil cuts to the heart of any apologia for monotheism since it calls into question the existence of an organizing principle to the universe, the moral intentions and/or competence of the deity, and His fitness for worship.

But the trouble isn't with the logic of the problem of evil, but its psychology. That suffering exists is undeniable -- the existence of pain may be the closest thing to a religious fact. But the other premises are rarely if ever denied. Why couldn't God be well-meaning but incompetent? Why couldn't God be all-powerful but not fully good? Neither of these seem to be live possibilities for us -- either God is possessed of all perfections, as St. Anselm thought, or God cannot exist. Yet the notion that our souls are at the mercy of a God who may neither be totally powerful nor totally beneficent is far from contradictory, and was a meaningful and live proposition for millennia. Just not for us moderns.

Those who follow the logic of the problem of evil reveal something about themselves in the course of their syllogism. Even those who disbelieve in the existence of God believe that were God to exist, He should be -- must be -- both totally powerful to eradicate suffering and totally willing to do so out of love for mankind and His lesser creations. In other words, there may not be a moral order to the universe, but the absence of one is keenly felt as a detriment, a betrayal to the sense of individual fate and cosmic destiny.

At its psychological root, the problem of evil poses a much more melancholic dilemma. Looking outward, we see a universe of suffering and ask why the universe is indifferent to it -- and in particular, we ask why the universe is indifferent to our suffering. And looking inwards, we find a person full of shallow and selfish and hostile intentions, and we ask -- why couldn't I have been made good?

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