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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

David Hart and Dostoyevsky

As I mentioned before, I'm reading David Bentley Hart's book, The Doors of the Sea, and I've now come to the place where Hart gives Dostoyevsky's argument (in The Brothers Karamazov, and in the mouth of the character Ivan) for the wrongness of an all good and all powerful God who allows evil. I'm happy to see this, for the fact that Hart presents this argument means that he believes he has an answer to it. My hope isn't academic ... for me, there is no greater damage done to God's goodness than the divine ends-justifying-the-means philosophy that Dostoyevsky rejects.

Here below is some of what Hart has to say ...


Above, I spoke of the moral power of Voltaire's poeme, but .... His poem is ... a feeble thing indeed compared to the subtler, more unrelenting, more tortured and more haunting case for "rebellion" against "the will of God" in human suffering that Dostoyevsky placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov ..... Admittedly, Ivan does not much concern himself with the randomness of natural calamity, as Voltaire does; the evils Ivan recounts to his brother Alexey (or Alyosha) are acts not of impersonal nature but of men .... the human propensity for malice should be no less a scandal to the conscience of the metaphysical optimist than the most violent convulsions of the physical world .... what sort of God permits it?

Ivan does not really represent himself as an atheist .... he accepts that there is a God and even that there is an eternal plan that will, in its consumation, bring about a condition of perfect peace and beatitude for all creation ...

... and still he rejects the world that God has made, and that final harmony with it .... the terms of the final happiness God intends for his creatures is greater than his [Ivan's] conscience can bear.

To elucidate his complaint, he provides Alyosha with a grim, unremitting, remorseless recitation of stories about the torture and murder of (principally) children ....

What can a finite Euclidean mind make of such things? How, with anything like moral integrity, can it defer its outrage to some promised future where some other justice will be worked, in some radically different reality than the present? ....

What makes Ivan's argument so novel and disturbing is not that he simply accuses God of failing to save the innocent; in fact, he grants that in some sense God still will "save" them, in part by rescuing their suffering from sheer "absurdity" and showing what part it had in accomplishing the final beatitude of all creatures. Rather, Ivan rejects salvation itself, in so far as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He rejects anything that would involve such a rescue - anything that would make the suffering of children meaningful or necessary .... After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small creature to death, would you think the price acceptable?

I am convinced that Ivan's discourse .... constitutes the only challenge to a confidence in divine goodness that should give Christians serious cause for deep and difficult reflection ....Ivan's ability to imagine a genuinely moral revolt against God's creative and redemptive order has a kind of nocturnal grandeur about it, a Promethean or Romantic or Gnostic audacity that dares to imagine some spark dwelling in the human soul that is higher and purer than the God who governs this world; and, in that very way, his argument carries within itself an echo of the gospel's vertiginous annunciation of our freedom from the "elements" of the world and from the power of the law ....

Ivan's argument ... in disabusing believers of facile certitude in the justness of all things ... forces them back toward the more complicated, "subversive", and magnificent theology of the gospel ....

Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoyevsky sees ... that it would be far more terrible if it were.


In a world where so many suffer, I find the justification of it by any "good end" unnacceptable. I'll have to wait until later to see how Hart answers Ivan's argument. I hope it's a good one ... it will have to be.


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