On Theodicy and Practical Theology

How do our ‘answers’ to the questions of evil relate to our ‘practices’, both individually and ecclesially?

John Swinton offers a compelling proposal for a practical theodicy that is able to surmount what he perceives as the severe theological and pastoral limitations of purely philosophical answers to “the problem of evil.” He explains,

I maintain that theodicy should not be understood as a series of disembodied arguments designed to defend God’s love, goodness, and power. We require a different mode of understanding, a mode of theodicy that is embodied within the life and practices of the Christian community. Such a mode of theodicy does not seek primarily to explain evil and suffering, but rather presents ways in which evil and suffering can be resisted and transformed by the Christian community and in so doing, can enable Christians to live faithfully in the midst of unanswered questions as they await God’s redemption of the whole of creation (Raging with Compassion, p. 4).

Our focus shouldn’t rest then on “why” evil exists, instead - relying heavily on Hauerwas here – “how can we build communities that absorb suffering and enable faithful living in the midst of evil.”

Rather than approaching the problem of evil by beginning with the “concept of evil” and the “concept of a loving God”, the proper starting point for understanding the problem of evil “should be the human experience of evil and the specific actions of the triune God within these experiences”. Swinton isn’t arguing that we drop the questions of theodicy altogether, rather, “If we start with the human experience of evil” he contends,

then the question Why does evil exist? is always held in critical tension with a second question that is, I would argue, more important: What does evil do? Answering the first question will not necessarily bring relief, release, or hope…In asking what evil does, we move the problem of evil away from abstract theory and speculation and begin to ground it in the human and divine encounter with evil (p. 44)

Because, at its most basic, evil separates humans from God, the problem of evil is therefore its “propensity to tear human beings asunder from their identity and purpose as creatures made in the image of God.” So, Swinton urges, the problem of evil is first a practical and theological one before it is a philosophical one and by reframing the issue this way he believes we gain significant pastoral leverage:

any response to what evil does must aim not only to mend those who are broken by the effects of evil (although it does of course include this), but also and most importantly to enable and sustain faith even in the midst of evil and suffering (p. 45).

So, what are the gains and losses on Swinton’s view? Even before I go ahead next week to overview the ecclesial practices that fill-out Swinton’s argument, I am interested to hear what you think of the basic premise of the argument itself as presented here.

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7 thoughts on “On Theodicy and Practical Theology

  1. I am glad to see that we are returning to address some of the “unfinished business” in the Pastoral Eschatology thread. I have addressed the questions Kent is asking in response to Swinton’s work in my own commentary on the book of Job, Unlocking Wisdom: Forming Agents of God in the House of Mourning.

    ?Gain for Swinton: It is interesting that Kent cites Hauerwas’ emphasis on community “to absorb suffering and enable faithful living in the midst of evil.” In his book Naming the Silences Hauerwas makes the early point that the book of Job is not< about theodicy. So one issue here is whether Swinton is really engaging in a wholesale redefinition of “theodicy” to begin with.

    Rabbi Kushner in his Why Bad Things Happen to Good People succumbs to the fatal error of “explaining” evil by diminishing either the love of God or the power of God, and Hauerwas, among others, does a good job of exposing why this approach to theodicy guts the thereby-mollified community of appropriate responses to evil and suffering (which seems to be the subject of Swinton’s argument). “Hauerwas goes on to explain how the work of theodicy reflects man’s need to maintain confidence in God when faced with inexplicable loss. The way suffering and evil is reconciled with God’s character depends on how it has impacted the person who feels the need to explain it; however, this is not the purpose of Job” (Unlocking Wisdom, p. 49 [note 7]).

    Greg Boyd in my opinion comes close to the same error as Kushner in his God at War and, I believe, misses the appropriate opportunities that evil and suffering present to actively involve humans in God’s redemptive purposes—this latter goal, I contend in Unlocking Wisdom, is what the argument of Job is ultimately aimed at for an audience of people who are being “invited” to be more engaged in those redemptive purposes. This “invitation” in effect makes the arguments of Boyd and Kushner completely irrelevant to the existence of evil and suffering, because its “cause” is irrelevant to whether humans are obedient or not to God’s invitation. That is why Job never “finds out” what caused his devastating calamities at the beginning of the book.

    However, this view of the argument of Job may also impugn Swinton’s (and Kent’s?) basic premise in answering the question What does evil do?. Kent summarizes the premise by saying

    “Because, at its most basic, evil separates humans from God, the problem of evil is therefore its ‘propensity to tear human beings asunder from their identity and purpose as creatures made in the image of God.’ ”

    I would thus take issue with Swinton by citing the argument of Job to assert that: for people of faith evil and suffering “at its most basic” may in fact serve to drive humans closer to God out of total desperation when they are falling short of their identity and purpose as creatures made in the image of God. This is entirely compatible with the basic premise of the book of James that trials are opportunities for testing existing faith and bringing God’s chosen agents closer to “completeness” (1:2-4).

    I would submit that this makes a huge difference in the way that we as pastors address questions of the existence of evil such as those raised in the Pastoral Eschatology thread and in response to Swinton’s argument, especially for the “people of God.” In this light I look forward to Kent’s supplemental presentation of the ecclesial practices that Swinton proposes.

  2. Thanks for this post, Kent. Swinton is certainly bringing up an important issue, and one that needs to be addressed within the church in a clearer, more well-rounded fashion than it has been.

    However, it seems that Swinton is reducing the problem to only one aspect, as if the practical aspect of dealing with actual evil were all that is really the problem. At least for some people (not the least those putting out and reading the philosophical theodicies, most likely), the abstract, speculative, theoretical answers are also important. We have a two-sided issue, which affects different people in different ways, and even the same person differently at different times. I don’t know of any philosophy professor who affirms, say, Plantinga’s free-will defense who also thinks that such would be the first option to present to a person struggling over the lose of a spouse.

    For others, there are very real intellectual challenges in coming to faith, not the least of which is the problem of evil. How can I come to faith in the Christian message in the first place, or hold onto it in times of severe intellectual crisis, if I truly see a flat out inconsistency between the existence of evil and the Christian God? I can think of two authors right off the top of my head who put the lack of this problem as a significant reason for accepting Buddhism over Christianity. For such people, brushing aside the philosophical answer is as damaging as pushing aside the practical answer for those dealing existentially with evil.

    So, kudos to Swinton for bringing up the topic and dealing with it in what appears to be a well-thought-through fashion, but the polemical tone is out of place.

  3. Hi, thanks for this post, I’m interested in reading this book… and as far as connecting Swinton’s views to a more philosophical, abstract approach, I think Paul Ricoeur would be a good dialogue partner. Some of Swinton’s statments remind me of Ricoeur’s own words in an essay called “Evil: A Challenge to Theology and Philosophy” where he says, in essence, that Christians do not trust in God because they have found a solution to the problem of evil, but they trust in God “in spite of” the problem of evil.

  4. Good post and looks like a good book.

    I 120% appreciate Swinton’s approach and critique of overly-philosophical responses, etc.

    Yet at the same time (maybe it’s just my incessant ‘need-to-know’ personallity – or weak faith? :) ), I enjoy the philosophical wrestling, and always like to hear talk about ‘why’ evil/suffering exists… :) How annoying…

    -d-

  5. Jim, thanks for your reflections on the book of Job and its unique message about theodicy. I confess that I have not yet read your book and am not familiar with the various options for reading Job that you note. Maybe we can have you write a guest post sometime to summarize the main themes of your book. Would you like to do that in 1000 words?

    Michael, as you say Swinton does indeed provide what I think is a healthy corrective to those approaches to evil that rely entirely on philosophical arguments for theodicy. I’m not so sure that Swinton is arguing that all philosophical approaches be discarded, simply that on their own and abstracted from the ecclesial practices of confronting evil that they are inadequate. I agree with you that the theoretical, philosophical lines of discussion are very important and indeed critical for the spiritual journey’s of some, but my pastoral experiences have taught me they are not enough – even for those who find them helpful. So, with you, I am grateful for my brothers and sisters in Christ who take up the mantle of “philosopher” to grapple in the most robust and informed way with the philosophical questions of the Christian confession. I have come to believe as well that the “answers” we may offer those whose barriers to faith are of the most rigorous intellectual kind are not enough when they are divorced from the lived experience of the Christian community and her practical theodicies highlighted by Swinton.

    I hope we can continue this discussion next week when I survey some of the practices Swinton argues for – You have always enriched our discussions on TF.

  6. Kent – You had said, “I’m not so sure that Swinton is arguing that all philosophical approaches be discarded, simply that on their own and abstracted from the ecclesial practices of confronting evil that they are inadequate.”

    If this is all that Swinton is saying, than I have no quarrel with him; I had taken him to say that there is something wrong with the purely philosophical arguments, not merely that these arguments are incomplete in themselves (but still form a part of an apologist’s complete breakfast).

  7. Just found you guys today. I like what you are doing. Keep it up. I have worked through Swinton and have found him very helpful. I think his ministry experience and context has pushed him to think hard about gaps in approaching the problem of evil. My take, his work is a breath of fresh air and a much needed voice in the discussion of theodicy.

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