A quick note of apology to those of you who have tried to access the blog over the past few days. No one has been more frustrated than I. I hope we have resolved the technical issues and that the domain is once again accessible without hassle.
Speaking of the problem of evil, there was a fascinating reply to the existence of suffering and evil provided by Cardinal Pell, of Sydney Australia. Many of you may recall that he debated Richard Dawkins back in April of 2012. I call his answer a “reply” since there is really is no simple answer to the problem of evil or to the problem of suffering.
The essential question of the problem of suffering and evil can be stated as, “If God is good, why does he permit such suffering and evil to take place on the earth?” Indeed, why does God leave so many things unresolved? Why do the wicked succeed? Why is there disease? Why is there suffering at all? The anguished and rhetorical form of the question is “If your God is so good and powerful, why does he let children starve? Why did he let an earthquake devastate the poor and largely innocent people of Haiti? What kind of a God do you worship?”
The implied answer to the angry form of the question is, either God does not care, or he is cruel, or he is not all powerful, or he does not exist at all.
The problem of evil and suffering is probably the most serious challenge to the faith there is. Most other objections to the existence of God seem, at least in the view of this priest, to be more rooted in the fact that the existence of God is not convenient to the moral life or worldview of the “non-believer.” But the problem of evil and suffering is a significant and worthy challenge that ought to be seriously engaged.
That said, there is no simple answer. The Scriptures take up the problem especially in the Book of Job, and the answer is a kind of “non-answer” answer. When Job demands some reason for his intense sufferings, God in effect turns the tables on Job and starts asking him questions. The question are all carefully designed to help Job know that he is utterly incapable of knowing whereof he asks. God’s interrogation of Job leads to his silence and repentance. The Book of Job seems to say to us that if God were to give us an answer to the problem of evil and suffering, all we would hear would be thunder.
St. Thomas Aquinas takes a similar approach in reminding us that, since we see so little of God’s canvas, we are not really equipped to assess the whole painting or how any small part relates to the whole. Any painting is a play of shadow and light, the dark streaks making sense only in relation to the light. But we cannot see the whole and hence the purpose of suffering and its evils lie hid to us.
And thus we have a kind of “non-answer” answer for the true and full answer is beyond our sight. But somehow that is an answer, however unsatisfying.
And that leads us to Cardinal Pell’s reply to the posed question of suffering and evil. Again I call it a reply, not so much an answer, for his reply invites us into the mystery of the very questions before us. And while I present the Cardinal’s fuller reply and exact words below, allow me first to summarize a reply based on his insight. The reply is something like this:
You ask me how an all-good and loving God can permit that there be any suffering, evil or injustice in the world. It is a true and very valid concern. But to illustrate the difficulty in answering the question, allow me also to pose something to you. As you ask, “Why is there evil, why is there suffering?” and rightly want an answer, I want to ask you in return, “Why is there beauty? Why is there goodness? Why is there love? Why is there justice, or even any notion of it?”
Yes, these questions are just as valid as the question about evil and suffering. And they are just as much a challenge for a materialist to “answer”, as for a believer to “answer” the problem of evil.
And I do not ask these questions in a kind of triumphalist mode, or as an attempted “gotcha.” Beauty, love, goodness, justice and so forth are deeply mysterious, just as evil and suffering are. I do not really expect and surely do not demand that an atheist or materialist give me an answer rooted in their system and rather doubt they could. I also admit that within my system of belief there is great mystery in terms of evil and suffering and I cannot simply account for it or give it a comprehensive answer. I DO believe and experience that it is redemptive, and has properties that help bring me strength. But that is not a full explanation for suffering’s existence and unequal distribution, it is only an appreciation of its possible effects.
So this is my own summary and reflections on Cardinal Pell’s reply to the problem. It is one of the most interesting replies I have heard to the problem of evil.
Here are his exact words, with some introductory material to supply the context:
RICHARD DAWKINS: There is massive amount of suffering in the natural world, a huge amount of suffering and it seems to me that’s an almost inevitable consequence of Darwinian natural selection…..[but] it’s not the business of an atheist to justify the ways of God to man. It is the business of a Cardinal.
TONY JONES: Okay, let’s go to the Cardinal. The question was: how can there be a compassionate God who is all powerful and has created us and yet we suffer. Why create such a world in the first place?
GEORGE PELL: I think that is probably the hardest question for us to answer.
TONY JONES: Do you struggle with it?
GEORGE PELL: Yes. If I get a chance to say to ask a question when I die I think I will ask the good God why is there so much suffering? That’s a problem for us. I think the greater problem and I will come back to the question because it is a very good one it’s at the heart of what we’re about. I think it’s a much greater problem for the atheist to explain why there is goodness and truth and beauty. Our problem is to cope with suffering. One of the unique I think, well, certainly special features of Christian teaching is the value of redemptive suffering and that is the significance of Christ suffering with us and dying on the cross. That helps people. My first Easter after I was a priest, it was in the hills in Italy. Very sad village. All the men were away in Germany or Switzerland getting big money, home only for three weeks a year and the people were coming in, coming to confession and coming for consolation. I was even wetter behind the ears than I am now. I didn’t know what to say and eventually I said to someone “Well, look, Christ suffered too. Christ had a bad run. Christ died on the cross and we believe that through his suffering good will eventually triumph”. .
Full Debate here: