Hauerwas and the “Problem” of Evil (Why Theodicies are Not the Answer)

The following is from Stanley Hauerwas’ acclaimed God, Medicine and Suffering. My students this semester in theological bioethics are reading it, and it is raising a host of unsettling but important issues to discuss.

Hauerwas points out the inadequacy of theoretical theodicies (justifications of God in the face of suffering), and in doing so offers Christians a timely reminder  as they formulate “responses” to suffering. Whether suffering be over the sea in Japan or in one’s living room with a sick child (I had two of my own children in the hospital this winter), theoretical responses to suffering are not the answer, even though they may be the ones we think must be offered.

Only after the seventeenth century did the problem of evil become the central challenge to “the coherence and intelligibility of Christian believe per se”  . . . That Christians now think the problem of suffering renders their faith in God unintelligible indicates that they now are determined by ways of life that are at odds with their fundamental convictions.

For the early Christians, suffering and evil . . . did not have to be “explained.” Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be “explained”—that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing suffering. […]

Apparently it never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs. Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face of persecution and general misfortune [quotes Rom 5:1-5]. Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response. […]

Historically speaking, Christians have not had a “solution” to the problem of evil. Rather, they have had a community of care that has made it possible for them to absorb the destructive terror of evil that constantly threatens to destroy all human relations ( pp. 48-53. emphasis mine)

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6 thoughts on “Hauerwas and the “Problem” of Evil (Why Theodicies are Not the Answer)

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  3. Thanks for posting this Kent. I have a few concerns that you may be able to clear up for me.

    First, the following seems false: “Only after the seventeenth century did the problem of evil become the central challenge to “the coherence and intelligibility of Christian belief [fixed typo] per se””. I may be reading the ‘problem of evil’ differently than Hauerwas but Augustine’s _On Free Choice of the Will_ and question 2, article 3 (first part of first part) of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica seem concerned with the problem of evil in a way very similar to modern concerns.

    Now what is interesting is that modern attempts to respond to ‘the’ problem of evil (and it should be noted that there is not one single problem here) look quite different from medieval attempts. For many of the medievals an adequate account of the nature of evil as privation of a due good is sufficient to dispel the problem in at least it’s most problematic form–namely, as an attempt to show that God is the author of evil in some morally relevant sense.

    Second, the following seems to address just one aspect of the problem: “Apparently it never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs.” If this is the only version of the problem of evil that Hauerwas is considering, then the first concern raised above may be answered. But then another concern arises; this is not the only aspect of evil that is puzzling. The medievals at least were not only interested in the suffering that believers endure because of their beliefs. They were also interested in addressing the suffering that believers and unbelievers endure that seem unrelated to their beliefs as well as the existence of evil in general, both moral and natural.

    Third, the following seems misleading at best: “Historically speaking, Christians have not had a “solution” to the problem of evil.” Demonstrating that God’s existence or goodness of holiness or power or knowledge is not impugned by the existence of evil is clearly a concern of many of the medievals (and I would be surprised if this were not the case for many of the ancients as well). That may not count as a ‘solution’ in the sense of showing what exactly God’s reasons are, but it does seem to indicate that the medievals were not as far from present concerns as Hauerwas seems to imply.

    So, I need a bit more, if you have the time, to be convinced that our concerns were not shared by pre-modern Christians. That they gave different answers to many of our similar concerns seems right (at one level) but that is a different point.

  4. There are two interesting debates here, relating to part of your larger question. Today, we 1) often hear practical ministers, say that everyday people don’t need even “Theology” in general; much less a theodicy. What they need, is something to comfort them. Something that makes them “feel good” or “feel better.”

    But the other side of the debate? Might 2) be represented by Philip Rief’s Triumph of the Therapeutic. Which said that in the modern era, people (ministers and psychologists?) are saying whatever things that make people feel good; whatever makes people feel better (“therapeutically”) – whether the things they say are proven true or not.

    The problem with the feel-good approach, Rief’s work might suggest to many of us, is that the short term feelgood answer, can lead to longer term problems. Heroin for example makes people feel good, short-term. But since it is not true, in the long run it creates more problems, than the short-term “fix” ameliorates.

    So that academic questions about ultimate truth, remain relevant. According to Rief and others, the short-term fix, the answer that feels good, will often leave people living in an illusory Lotus Land, or Opium dream. One that feels good over the short run. But one that ultimately will cause more pain; because it simply is not true. And does not stand the test of Time.

    This would relate to a kind of anti-intellectualism, anti-theologism, that we find in some ministerial circles; it also relates to the “White Lie” theory of religion.

    It may or may not be that very early Christians were not worried about the problem of evil. But perhaps they should have been, the Rief-ians would argue.

  5. ADDENDUM/CORRECTION: To be sure? In real life, I’d consider both sides of this debate. If a given religious dogma turns out to be literally fatal? If a theodicy glamorizing suffering as necessary, weakens the will to live and resist pain? Then after all, maybe the anti-Rief-ians also have a point, too. If a given religious doctrine not only feels bad, but is literally fatal? That would be a mark against it.

  6. Pingback: Lament, Liturgy, and Living ‘In Between’ (pt 2): What Have We Missed? | DesperateTheologian

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