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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Theodicy: Job, Kant, and Angel

Reading Does the World Make Sense? A Philosophical Reading of the Book of Job by philosopher Susan Neiman at ABC Religion & Ethics. It deals with the problem of evil, a problem that is still the greatest impediment for me in believing that God is good and loves us, or sometimes, believing that he exists at all.

Most of the Christians I know have made peace with the problem of evil by averring that there *is* no problem ... they've decided either that evil isn't really that evil, or that God is not actually omnipotent. No one seems to decide God might not be good, I guess because that's a pit stop on the road to atheism, but it does seem to me that that's the conclusion of Job's story: God allows the torture of Job, the destruction of his property, and the murder of his children, all to win a bet. As Neiman writes ...

The opening premise is clearly outrageous: God makes a bet with the devil? God allows someone He Himself describes as a man of perfect integrity to be tortured as a means of proving a boast about His own power? And speaking of power, in the second round of torments, the Almighty behaves like a sulky child, complaining to Satan that "You made me torture him for no reason". This is the God who speaks out of the whirlwind with a force and majesty unequalled in the Bible?

Here's a bit from the beginning of the article ...

The experience of inexplicable suffering and basest injustice forces us to ask whether our lives have meaning .... Consider the classic statement of the problem of evil. It consists of three sentences which are impossible to maintain together:

1. God exists, and is omnipotent
2. God exists, and is benevolent
3. Evil exists


Before the eighteenth century, however, nearly every major thinker preferred to deny the evidence of his senses than deny the central theses of monotheism - that God exists, and is omnipotent and benevolent. Perhaps it would have seemed a denial of hope. The Book of Job is matchless because it is unwilling to make the problem easier by dropping any of these claims, and makes us feel the force of all of them.

Near the end of the article she discusses God's answer to Job's question of why he has so punished a good person ...

So let's now turn to the "Voice from the Whirlwind." At first glance, God's seems to be completely beside the point. "Where were you when I planned the earth?" is no answer to the question Job asked, for God's power was never at issue. Job questions His justice, not his omnipotence; and God's response seems to be merely a detailed description of His power. Even worse than begging the question, God's speech seems to be not only an assertion of power, but an assertion so brutal it amounts to absolute tyranny.

Neiman goes through a number of explanations of what God's answer means, but she ends up with something that really struck me. Call it absurd, but I think her explanation, which accesses Kant, could be summed up in a few lines from Angel ... Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It's harsh, and cruel. But that's why there's us - champions. Doesn't matter where we come from, what we've done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be.

But here's what she wrote ...

I begin by accepting Kant's own claim that Job's friends represent the voice of pure reason, untainted by experience. The claims they assert are reasonable ones: the universe is ordered, its Creator is just. The problem with these claims is not their content but the fact that they are uttered without a bit of concern for experience: they are repeated blindly, dogmatically, refusing to look at the world as it is. Indeed, Kant goes so far as to accuse the friends of dishonesty: they are not speaking the truth, but speaking the words they believe God wants to hear - just in case He might be eavesdropping.

The look at reality is provided by the Voice from the Whirlwind, whose speech is simply description - glorious description, to be sure, but description all the same, of the way the world really is. The lack of moral categories, of a defence of just that universal justice which seemed to be called for, is what can make that speech seem inadequate.

If the Voice from the Whirlwind is meant to stand for the sheer assertion of reality, and the friends represent the claims of reason, what is the voice of Job? He is, in this picture, nothing other than the claim that the two ought to be brought together. Knowledge may depend on the recognition that the world does not exhibit the moral categories we demand, but justice depends on the recognition that it should. Here we would have to assume that God is not omnipotent, for His Creation as it stands is not final. Righteous people, like Job, are needed to make it whole. Abandoning traditional claims of divine omnipotence will be problematic for many, but that may be what facing reality requires.

As Kant would later put it, two things fill the mind with awe and wonder the more often and more steadily we look upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. They are both awesome and wonderful, but entirely separate - the one stands for a cosmos described by the Voice from the Whirlwind, a cosmos so vast and impersonal that it strikes down our self-conceit and makes us feel, as Job put it, that we are but dust. Yet the moral law within me, which Job so beautifully upholds in his darkest hours - he may wish he had never been born, but he never once wishes he had behaved anything less than righteously - that moral law reveals our power to step in and change a piece of the world if it seems to be gone wrong.

So, we're back to God not being omnipotent, and thus not responsible for all the suffering in the world. I just find this very hard to believe.

For those who want to know more about Kant's religious views, see this Keith Ward video lecture.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this interesting post.

9:39 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


9:49 AM  
Blogger Daniel Imburgia said...

Maybe take a look at John Caputo's "The Weakness of God."

6:06 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for the link. It sounds like it has a lot to do with European philosophy and deconstructionism (Derrida?). I don't know much about that stuff ... must read more! :)

9:45 PM  

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