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.