Thursday, December 06, 2007

How would you answer this challenge?

Our North Sound ministers' cluster met today in Port Townsend for a few hours. Three of us went across on the passenger ferry that is substituting for the car ferry until it can be repaired or replaced. Instead of the huge Klickitat lumbering across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we zipped across in the sleek, fast Snohomish, in a third of the time the trip normally takes.

We always do a brief check-in, about five minutes per person of "how's it going" kind of stuff, both professionally and personally, and once we finished that, one colleague introduced the program he had planned.

At the top of a piece of paper, he had written: THEODICY: a vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil...The goal of theodicy is to show that there are convincing reasons why a just, compassionate and omnipotent being would permit pointless and debilitating suffering to flourish.

And then he set up a scenario, after reading us a story to illustrate the terrible paradox that theodicy represents. What if, he asked, you were charged with telling a group of homeless people what the meaning of Christmas is? They know you're a minister and they expect a ministerial point of view. What would you say to them, considering their circumstances and the contrast between their circumstances and yours?

These are the kinds of challenges we regularly discuss at cluster meetings and this particular colleague revels in them. He is a scientist first, a minister second, and a musician always, and he loves to hand us heavy questions to tussle with. We had a good time with this one.

Here are the notes I wrote for myself:

All human actions or events have both good and bad outcomes. We can't know what these outcomes will be. We don't know that suffering is pointless and debilitating because we don't know or can't know ultimate outcomes. I have faith in "growing wisdom" rather than in my limited concept of God's justice or goodness.

"God" is not a just, compassionate and omnipotent being. God is a process. Creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin. Things must often fall apart in order to come together in a better way.

Life is a cycle of ups and downs which often feel random. At Christmas, the visibility of these cycles becomes vivid. We see the downward moments in sharp detail and we strive to accentuate, provide, and attempt to maximize the upward moments.

We have varying degrees of success at this and we feel angry and frustrated if we can't produce an upward movement for ourselves or others who particularly need it (like a homeless person). We feel jubilant if we are experiencing an upward moment or if we are able to produce an upward movement for others, particularly those who need it badly.

I don't know for sure what this all means. I do know that I have a paradoxical concept of God, whom I see as both process and personal confidant. I know God can't be both. But to me God is both the creative energy in the universe and the one I go to with my concerns. Maybe someday I'll understand intellectually what my intuition tells me is so.


Joel said...

I know God can't be both.

I'm not sure why not. If we stipulate an omnipotent being (or even one with abilities beyond our own), it's not beyond conception for such a one (note the lack of gender there) to be immune to paradox. we may be unable to maintain two contradictory states at once, but that's no guarantee that God cannot.

Of course, as regards the original dilemma, being a dogmatist makes it a little easier to answer. The fact that Man (collectively and individually) is imperfect, combined with free will, leads directly to all suffering. If you don't believe in original sin, or even in corporate sin, then it's trickier.

Anonymous said...

As a Buddhist I would refute that Theodicy exists. It seems to me that we humans apply duelistic thinking to concepts and then spend a lot of time trying to make sense of the paradox we've created. The Divine, or Collective Consciousness, seems so far beyond that kind of thinking. It is we who label things bad or good. Things just are what they are and perhaps if we do not bow to the temptation to react to them and label them (have enough faith?),we would be more joy filled or at least less riddled with illusions that distract from our journeys or keep us from deepening into God.

LinguistFriend said...

Any minister who bothers homeless people with such issues should not be a minister. If I succeed in posting this, I will write more.

ms. kitty said...

Luckily, the scenario was strictly hypothetical, LF, and it was only pontification-loving ministers who were bothered with the issue! Nice to hear from you again after long last!

LinguistFriend said...

OK, so here I am back, and will address the issue with resources from my shelves, so to speak. Now, like John, let us begin with the word. The underlying word is Greek, but there is no such word in classical, NT, Byzantine, or patristic Greek; it occurs in modern Greek, but the odds are that it was borrowed from a learned European source. The word "theodikastos" "judged by God" does occur in early Greek, so the Greek word could have existed.
(Aside, one need look no further than Job for a pretty good biblical discussion of the topic. That's about as far as I would tax the homeless. It is about like saying, "Yup, shit happens. Pass the rice, please.")
But, if the word does not come from classical philosophy or religion, where does it come from?
In 1710, the German philosopher G.W Leibniz wrote in French a book entitled "Essays of Theodicy, on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil", descibed by the Ox. Dict. of the Christ. Church as "his one considerable theological work". It was written for Sophie Charlotte,
the sister of George I of England
and briefly Queen of Prussia, a special friend of Leibniz. According to the Encycl. of Philosophy (s.v. Leibniz), it "was the outcome of discussions with Sophie Charlotte on matters concerning free will, evil, and the justification of God's creation." The EP notes that "It is not to be put aside as mere recreation for a queen; unsystematic though it is, it contains many passages that give clear and explicit expression to many of Leibniz views." It was requested to provide Sophie Charlotte with a reply to Pierre Bayle's view that the existence of evil is incompatible with the goodness and omnipotence of God. See the 11th ed. of the Enc. Brittanica and the Ox. Dict. of the Christian Church. Discussion of the topic developed after that in the 18th and 19th c., partly on a level synonymous with Natural Theology.
The older OED ed. has as a basic def. "The or a vindication of the divine attributes, esp. justice and holiness, in respect to the existence of evil." Your friend seems to have a def. related to this one.
There is a startlingly well- done article on theodicy in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2nd ed.), by J.S.Feinberg, in over six columns of moderately small print. The shorter article in the Ox. Dict. Christ. Church s.v. theodicy is also useful in extending the purview to other religions and writers.
That doesn't solve the problem, but I hope that it will have uses for orientation. Your discussion is good, but maybe not as good as rice, given the need for a choice.

ms. kitty said...

Yep, the meaning of Christmas is probably better dealt with by giving people food than theology or a definition of theodicy! Thanks for your thoughts, LF.