The Historian’s Theodicy
“The problem of evil.” Theologians and philosophers couldn’t have found a staler term to categorize the spiritual and intellectual catastrophe that is the question, “Where was God…?”
Where was God during Deir ez-Zor, Auschwitz, Darfur, and September 11th? Where is God when everyday people suffer and die from the most banal of causes. A non-stick frying pan, when scratched and heated, releases brain-damaging lethal fumes — where the hell is God in that? Imagine! The creator of the universe’s very existence challenged by kitchenware, and the best response Mankind’s thinkers can conjure is the crossword puzzle-sounding “problem of evil.”
The term I prefer is “theodicy”; the word’s Greek origin has an appropriately menacing sound. Yet, when I take a moment to examine the word’s etymology I find it nearly as insufficient as “the problem of evil.” It comes from the Greek θεός (theós, “god”) and δίκη (díkē, “justice”), meaning literally “the justice of God,” but more accurately rendered as “to justify God” or “the justification of God.” It was coined in 1710 by the German polymath Gottfried Leibniz. You may recall him as the fellow who believed ours is “the best of all possible worlds.”
The problems with theodicy are immediately apparent, loaded as it is with innumerable assumptions. One assumption is the very goodness of God; another is whether it is the divine, not humanity, who is in need of justification. And of course the most fundamental assumption is that God even exists (but that’s a topic for another reflection — for the sake of this essay, and out of respect for my own spiritual experiences, I’m going with the belief that some kind of divinity does exist). However, the most problematic assumptions are (a) that there’s a flawless divine plan, much less total divine mastery over events, and (b) that events are assailable as either “good” or “evil.” At the root of both these assumptions are the ideas of certainty and necessity, and the question of the relation between suffering and divine intention.
For these reasons I propose that the entire concept of theodicy be gutted and rebooted. How? By dropping talk of “good” and “evil,” eviscerating the gibberish of what we mean when we say “God,” and then asking a new question, one about the relation of chance and divine decisions. In other words, let’s be historians about our faith, and ask: how do we reconcile belief in God with contingency and change? The answer I propose: God is a storywriter, and we are partners in the plot. This is the core analogy of what I call “post-monotheist theodicy.”
(I) The crumbling
Let’s start with some deconstructions, some of which at first glance are “common sense,” others which are not:
(1) None of us are in any position to accurately describe anything as either “good” or “evil.” An example: the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge caused the exile of millions of Cambodians — an evil — but had that never happened, the Phoeuk family would never have fled to the United States, and I would never have met the first love of my life — a good. Thus, in the centuries-old churn of cause and effect, the labels of “good” and “evil” seem rotten. The human experience, for the individual and the species alike, is simply too vast and intricate to be reduced into a black and white taxonomy.
Axiom: history defies the absolutisms of moral theory.
(2) None of us can deny the role of chance and circumstance in God’s decision-making, but neither can we comprehend it. Why did God select Moses, John, and Muhammad, and not Aaron, James, or Abu Bakr? Why were revelations sent to the Hebrews and Arabians, but not the gentiles? The illogic of predestiny provides no satisfaction to these questions. Yet, were God entirely an opportunist, divinity would seem impotent in the face of time and place.
The answer that always made the most sense to me was that of Abraham Joshua Heschel: the prophets were chosen because they were capable of being chosen. They heard because they could hear. It’s a beautiful notion, but the logic is dangerously circular, not to mention it begs the question of which came first, God’s word or the prophet’s willing ear?
Axiom: history itself, as the theater of revelation, threatens the reliability of prophecy.
(3) None of us know what God is, or what “God” was. We as a thinking species have never known the true nature of the divine. Is it an entity or a force? Is it even an “it,” much less a “he” or “she”? In saying this I’m not trying to play semantics, and yet, semantics is at the heart of the problem, for Mankind’s few direct insights into divine nature, hard-won by our prophets and mystics, have all been lensed through the culture and language of their eras. In other words, what “God” meant to Muhammad was something immensely different than what it meant to Baha’ullah.
How has the term “God” shaped our understanding of God? We’ll never know, for the true story of our spiritual vocabulary’s evolution has been lost to time. Philologists and archeaologists are locked in eternal disagreement about what θεός (theós), אל (el), إله (lah), and even “god” (ǥuđán long, long ago) meant to monotheism’s polytheistic forebearers. Indeed, even the concept of polytheism is a point of contention. Were the ancients really believers in a haphazard array of deities? Were the earliest prophets true monotheists, or were they henotheists and monolatrists? Even the conception of the “one true God” has changed throughout the reign of monotheism. The 17th Century God of Leibniz was a deity of philosophers and scientists; today, it is a deity of lawyers and would-be gnostics.
Axiom: history challenges the very possibility of exegesis and theosophy.
(4) None of us can know with certainty that atheists and nontheists aren’t experiencing God — or that we monotheists are. The history of Indian religion presents us a difficult puzzle: Nanak and Arjuna both experienced a supreme personal reality comparable to the monotheisms’ Godhead, yet the Buddha experienced a supreme nonpersonal nonreality. Two experiences, one positive, one negative, one theistic, one without any regard for the notion of a deity, but neither no less ultimate than the other. How can “nirvana” and “moksha,” “enlightenment” and “transcendence,” both be descriptions of the same thing with such diametrically opposed language? — and yet, that’s precisely what they are.
I myself have tried to escape the term “God,” but I have found that all this accomplishes is an alienation from the very entity that I have sought all my life, and whom, whatever its true nature, I have experienced so intimately and joyously. Try as I might, atheism or nontheism are keys which just do not open the gate of my soul, and yet theism has been just as faulty a key for many of my friends who are no less hungry for spirituality than I. Are we like darkness trying to describe the sun to a light beam? Do we find ourselves constrained by not only the culture and vocabularies we inherit from our societies, but also by our own private, inner hermeneutics?
Axiom: history, both personal and of the species, challenges the very possibility of hierology.
(5) None of us can deny the role of chance and circumstance in Mankind’s destiny, but neither can we comprehend it. Whether you believe in evolution or not, the truth we can all agree upon is that humanity’s physical form is subject to environmental conditions, particularly nutrition and the availability of energy. So, too, does geography sculpt humanity’s cultural form, and our scriptures testify to this, bearing within them the chisel marks of time and place. Who would dare say that the Koran and Torah were not revealed in a desert clime?
The question now becomes whether the soul is as shaped by environment as the body. Yet, this is a terrifying and mystifying question. It doesn’t help that few seem ready to face the fact that genetic mutations are continuing right now, within you, within me, within our children, not to mention that there’s no telling what Huxleyan transformations may result from genetic engineering. What this means not only for the future of spirituality, but its past, is uncertain save for only one thing: change.
Axiom: the future threatens the reliability of history.
(II) The rebuilding
Change is precisely that element which is at the core of the new kind of theodicy which I want to establish here. I’m taking deeply to heart the Koran’s revelation, “Mankind is destined to march from state to state.” So, enough with deconstructions; now some reconstructions:
(1) The indecideability of “good” and “evil” does not prevent decision-making. Act we must, and act we always have, despite all our endless pretensions to certainty. Take the Second World War for example. Let’s face it: no one really knew whether Hitler was truly evil, but fight him the Allies nevertheless did, because we were convinced of his bottomless depravity. You can’t say we had “proof” in the form of the death camps, because for most of the war the full extent of the Nazis’ racial program was unknown. Moreover, it wasn’t our foes who used incendiaries and atomic weapons against civilian populations — it was us, the Allies, the “good guys.” For the sake of peace, we used evil means to end humanity’s greatest, most ravaging war.
Would we, should we, commit such atrocities again? Yes. The reason is that no higher standard, nor any a priori bases for judgment, was really needed for the Allies to combat the Nazis, nor are these required of Mankind to act in crises. Levinas’ “face-to-face” measure applies as much to societies as to individuals, and it provides sufficient ethical imperative needed for ethical action. Besides, no moral abstractions are possible, for as the Koran says, true knowledge is God’s alone. We have always acted in faith, both as individuals and as a species, even when we have believed otherwise. In fact, the worst atrocities seem to come not from avowed moral relativists, but moral absolutists, such as Hitler. Moreover, the case of Hitler suggests that humanity’s true relativists and true nihilists are those who cloak their uncertainty in the respectability of verity. Therefore, let’s admit the dimness of our perception and submit our actions to the churn of cause and effect, wherein hopefully they will be emulsified into a productive, rather than destructive, legacy.
Axiom: history creates its own ethical imperatives, and action requires only faith rather than certainty.
(2) We must abandon the idea of a priori necessity wherever it appears in our perspective. History is; there is no progress or regression. Our expectations of civilization are built upon precedence alone; there is no underlying formula for how human beings will always be. The universe exists neither for nor against us; rather, it is, as Marcus Aurelius saw it, fashioned of “things indifferent.” Nothing is steadfast; our bodies, even our souls, may one day transmutate. If there is anything “necessary,” it is forged within the cauldron of lived experience, forever reinvented in the crash of events.
In essence, I am calling for a return to a Stoic or Bedouin sensibility upgraded with monotheism or what we may begin to call “post-monotheism,” that is, believing still in whatever the term “God” once signified, but seeking a more ameliorate vocabulary. It’s not that post-modern Mankind is somehow jaded, as the existentialists and deicidists believed about modern Man; nor do we tremble and bow before the idol of contemporary technology’s God-like power as the Cold War generations did. Though our atomic and genetic power is certainly a concern, we must realize that science is itself subject to the vicissitudes of history. Who are we to have decided that technology will inexorably drag us to a post-human singularity? Perhaps the exhaustion of our planet’s natural resources will derail our information superhighways, obliterate sedentary culture and the division of labor, and return us to a neolithic-like condition we once considered merely a step in a linear progression. Conversely, the expiration of the earth could also thrust us into a spacefaring Cylonic post-human existence. Time, as always, will tell.
Axiom: patterns notwithstanding, history teaches that there is no necessity (necessity is not necessary).
(3) God is an enigma and power beyond the human — yet is accessible. What if “God” were nothing more than a codeword for Mankind’s absolute dependency upon immense natural and cosmic forces beyond our tools’ control? My own spiritual experiences suggest otherwise, but it’s an idea to consider. Certainly it aligns well with the message of our scriptures, from the Bhagavad Gita to the Torah to the Koran, especially the Koran. No race knew better the fragility of life than the Bedouin Arabs, subsisting as they did under the brutalities of the desert. When they roamed the sand-strewn ruins of Nabatea and the caravan empires of the past, doubtlessly they were impressed with the finitude of culture in the face of indifferent nature.
Even were Mankind to eventually engineer tools which could harness the very quantum mechanicum of the universe, the truth is we can never understand the reason underlying existence. When all is said and done, human consciousness is a Möbius strip, a string twisting upon itself, all the while revolving around a hole of ineffability. This gaping space is, for lack of a better term, “God,” a presence defined by its unpresence, yet also utterly immediate, intimate, immanent. I am now speaking from my own personal experiences of the loving femininity that has literally touched me in the moments of my worst desperate isolation. Humanity’s historical experience of the last few centuries has thrust the hope for God so far into the filament that whatever “God” truly is has become barred by ultra-transcendent, legalistic, and cruel visages; what remains is a caricature of the deist‘s negligent watchmaker, a divinity who might as well be dead, or whose demise would leave us none the worse. But spiritual experience flies in the face of historical experience: whatever “God” is, it is concerned for us — and it is reaching out to us.
Axiom: history itself, though it is the theater of revelation, is insufficient to account for or against divine concern and action.
(III) The new edifice
The content of the divine’s concern, and the way in which it is reaching out to us, are the issues at the heart of post-monotheist theodicy. The new theodicy of course raises new questions: if God yearns for us, why do so few of us experience her? And, is she helpless against the travesties of humanity’s freed will? As well as, how can we account for the wrathful “God” of fundamentalists? I do not yet have proposals for these puzzles, especially the last one, except to say that the “solution,” as it were, probably lies in figuring out the ratio between the hoped-for and experienced God and the unrelenting reality of contingency.
As to this essay, there comes a point when reason must give way to imagination; when logic, tired and spent, relents to allegory or analogy. Here is my proposal for understanding the post-monotheistic divine:
God is a storywriter.
We are characters in a drama that has been unfolding for eons, and is re-unfolding here and now in our lives. It is a drama whose playwright has a finale in mind but may be improvising the plot. Moreover, the characters of the drama may themselves be influencing the story’s course: their particular and multifarious aspects, the intricacies of their dreams and terrors, the collisions and collusions of their relationships, may all contribute to the playwright’s creative decisions. Perhaps even the very finale itself is open to alteration as together with God we unveil the true depths of the moral of the story. In other words, free will and divine will, chance and destiny, and contingency and inevitability, are neither mutually exclusive nor at war with each other, but interact dynamically.
Take for example Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet. I’ve read this play frequently and often sensed that somehow, though Hamlet was “nothing more” than a creation of Shakespeare, he was actually alive, propelling the story forward with the fuel of his own personality. To me the most critical line of the whole play is not his famous, “To be or not to be — that is the question,” but instead his dying words:
“O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
absent thee from felicity awhile,
and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
to tell my story.”
I’ve long thought there are two avenues to interpret the ramifcations of this line: (a) Horatio was Shakespeare’s stand-in within the story, and so the play was the retelling; and (b) Hamlet was Shakespeare’s reflection or inner man, and the fictional Denmark the interior world of the playwright. According to the first intrepretation, Shakespeare was his own character’s best friend and compatriot; according to the second, the ghost of the king was Shakespeare himself, appearing as a deity-penman, urging and guiding the young prince toward the climatic moment of judgement. These two interpretations complement each other, for essentially they describe the mirroring and partnering of creator and creation.
Every author leaves his imprint upon his creations, but by writing’s end, in the experience of penning whole personalities and societies into being, the creations themselves leave their imprint upon the author. They are thus bonded in an intimacy, longing, and affection that bridges emotion, intellect, and soul, and together they work toward the establishment of a masterpiece.
So, to conclude, we may use the analogy of God-as-storywriter to approach once more the vicissitudes of historical experience: tragedy and cataclysm are the spilled blood-ink of ever-creation. It is as much in our pain and loss as in our joy and gain that the greatest drama has been, will be, and is this very moment is being written.
To paraphrase Hamlet, our tears are pregnant with possibilities not yet dreamt of in our philosophies.