Monday, February 03, 2014

How Literature Solves the Problem of Evil

My new article on literature and the problem of evil is in the new CiRCE Magazine here. Here is an excerpt:
When people look for a solution to the problem of evil in its rational or logical form, they are looking for a resolution to a technical problem. But this question—the rational question of evil—is not the real problem of evil. At least it is not the question with which people who experience suffering actually struggle. In fact, the vast majority of those who actually struggle with evil couldn’t even tell you what the logical question was. And even if they were aware of the problem—and even if they knew the answer to it—they would not be satisfied.
How would the answer to a logical question assuage their grief? Their grief is not a logical problem. The logical dilemma of evil would not be satisfying to anyone but a logician—and it would only satisfy him as a logician; it would not satisfy him as a human being. 
The purely abstract philosophical problem of evil is an impersonal question. It is always someone else’s problem. But the real problem of evil and suffering—the existential problem—is necessarily a personal question. It is a problem for me. 
The philosophical question of evil is not the question parents and friends of those killed in Newtown or Japan or the twin towers asked themselves. It is certainly not the question addressed by God speaking from Job’s whirlwind. 
There is, in fact, not just one problem of evil: There are two. The first is the logical question, “How can there be evil and suffering in a world created by a good and all powerful God?” But the second question, which can often sound the same, is actually much different. The second question is “Why is evil happening to me?” This second question is not a logical question, but an existential question--or perhaps we might better say that it is a phenomenological question.
It is not a question about something that happens in the abstract, it is something that happens to us. 
In Job’s story, the characters do not make this distinction, but I think the author does. Certainly God does, as we see by the end of the story. Job is dealing (whether he knows it or not) with the second question—why is evil happening to me?—while his Comforters are dealing with the first question—“How can there be evil and suffering in a world created by a good and all powerful God?” Job’s question is concrete and existential, not abstract and philosophical. But his friends are all philosophers. Job himself seems unaware of this distinction—or maybe, to borrow a phrase from Chesterton, it was in his soul but not in his mind. In any case, this was part of his struggle, and this is the primary reason why the advice of his friends is not a help to him: He thinks they are addressing his question, when, in fact, they are not. 
While his Comforters bring him reasons, God brings the news of the poetic order of the world. God’s words mean more to Job than those of his comforters because the world is more like a poem than a syllogism.


Lee said...

Why are evil and suffering conflated?

If I fall off a ladder and break my leg, I will suffer. But did evil happen? I think, given the physical makeup of the world, my legs did what legs do when subjected to a sufficient amount of force.

Miracles excepted, it's an objective world out there. What if it weren't? What if, every time I went to hurt myself, God swooped in as the literal deus ex machina to save me? For one thing, I'd start to think of myself as some kind of special. Maybe we're not here to serve God... maybe He's here to serve us? Maybe *we're* God?

I somehow doubt that's the lesson He wants us to learn from this life.

And regarding evil, that's what happpens when you mix free will with a fallen nature. We tend to focus more on our own desires than to maintain relationships, first and foremost our relationship with the Lord. A calamity can actually serve to strengthen that relationship, particularly if one has tended to stray.

goliah said...

The answer to the first 'logical' question is that the all too human theological construct of religion has nothing to do with God. God is thus not active in the world and has yet to reveal for the 'last' time the means to understand and overthrow evil. The second existential question is thus answered. If God is not active in the world of men, then one exists in the realms of fate, subject to all the ignorance and limitations of reason and all the forces of the universe that natural law is heir to.