Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Pastoral And The Personal In Theodicy

Theodicies, like some virtue ethics and certain ontological arguments, are easy targets for refutation, but much depends on the way they are used.

A theodicy is an attempt to reconcile the apparent evil in the world with the alleged goodness of God, often by showing that the very goodness of God makes some evil necessary; or by arguing that the goodness of God is amplified by a certain amount of evil.  In other words, the evil we experience and witness is, in the end, made to serve goodness.

Roman tombs in southern Crete.
When theodicies are spoken publicly and authoritatively, there is a real danger that they will be used to justify further evil.  If evil serves good, and evil is easier to accomplish directly than goodness, why not practice evil?

There's also the very real danger that theodicies will isolate us from one another.  Sometimes some perversity in us makes us inclined to tell someone who is experiencing fresh grief that "it's all for the good," or "it will all work out well in the end," or "your loved one is now in a better place." I would guess we do this because we do not know what else to say, and because we want the discomfort of grief banished from our presence.  In which case we speak those words like an incantation, using magic to make the unpleasantness disappear.  But the grief is not detachable from the griever, so to will the banishment of the mourning is to will the death of the mourner.  In simpler terms, when we invoke thoughtless theodicies, sometimes we are committing human sacrifice - throwing out the mourner - in order to comfort ourselves.

In spite of this, I think there is still a place for theodicies - just as there is a place for ontological arguments - provided they originate with the believer and are not forced upon her.  The mourner who chooses to believe that the dearly departed have gone to well-earned rest may believe that.  That belief may be the germination of the seeds of honor and love, or the expression of grief combined with commitment to the flourishing of the memory of the beloved - it may be the fruit of the idea that the cosmos has no right to bring this love to an end.  You may destroy the body, but the soul you shall not take from me.

My great aunt and great uncle.  Here lie their bodies.  
Of course, the mourner's grief should not turn into fixed doctrine for the rest of us, either.  Some things we simply don't know.  Death is a horizon we pass only once, a boundary that few - if any - signs are allowed to pass over.  But precisely because we do not know what comes after - because we do not even know ourselves much of the time - we may allow others what they need to endure their losses, neither forcing our justifications of evil upon them, nor denying them the explanations that may give them the comfort their hearts need.

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