Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (30): some brief comments on the problem of suffering

It seems to me that there are two ways to understand the problem of suffering: the abstract question and the existential question.

The abstract question says that God has certain attributes - fully good, fully powerful, fully knowing - and that these three attributes are inconsistent with the presence of suffering in the world. (Stephen Law has a variation of this argument which states that these attributes are inconsistent with the degree of suffering in the world. I don't find that this variation adds much to the argument; I'm with Alyosha Karamazov.)

My answer to the abstract question is to say that defining God's attributes is a mistake. That is, we're never in a position to give an overview of God's attributes; in particular, attributing 'goodness' to God seems to presume too much, and I don't think we're in a position to judge whether God is good or not. To my mind God is 'beyond good and evil'. In that assessment I view myself as being four-square in the mainstream mystical tradition of the church.

Yet, as I've tried to articulate before, these discussions, whilst of some interest in themselves, don't actually address the core of the issue, which I see as existential. They are abstract and philosophical, and end up provoking more or less 'so what?' responses, rather like the decision about choosing one way of organising a library rather than another. The existential question is much more important, which is simply: how should one live in the face of suffering? In particular, in an environment where random events may render any person's life-projects impossible, how are we to retain any sense in the meaningfulness of life?

Martha Nussbaum does an excellent job of describing the Ancient Greek response to this issue in her marvellous 'The Fragility of Goodness' - so answers to these questions by no means need to be Christian. Yet, obviously, the Christian faith also has an answer - indeed, I view the story of crucifixion and resurrection as the answer to Greek tragedy. The only perspective, in fact, that doesn't seem to have an answer to the existential question is that of the humourless atheist - but then, they seem content to play in the abstract shallows, avoiding the muck and bloodiness of full-bodied life.

Stephen continues to believe that my answer to the problem of evil 'does not exist'. I continue to believe that he doesn't understand what I'm saying. He could persuade me differently by, eg, discussing Nussbaum's work and his views on it.

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