May 29, 2008
Iyov tagged me to respond to a theodicy meme which goes as follows:
1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?
Whew. While I'm always pleased to see the blogosphere engaging with weighty questions, I can't really imagine answering these in a satisfying manner in a single blog post!
I don't think these are the right questions to ask. I get hung-up on the first phrase of the first question: "if the nature of God is..." If I had to try to characterize the "nature" of "God," the best quick answer I can offer is that God is multifaceted and arguably ultimately unknowable, at least through intellectual means. The framing of the question seems to presume a pretty limited conception of God, and for me a sincere exploration of theodicy requires some different assumptions.
I took a powerful class on theodicy last summer. It helped me realize that we've always struggled to reconcile our understanding of a just and good God with the realities of suffering as we experience them. Over time, our responses to these questions have shifted as our paradigm has shifted. The Biblical answers to these questions differ from the Rabbinic answers to these questions which differ from the kabbalistic answers to these questions. (And so on.) I take comfort in the notion that our responses to these questions can shift, have shifted, must shift as we change and grow, both as individuals and as a community.
For me, the question to ask is not "how could God allow suffering," but "given the reality of suffering, how can we respond in a way that is whole and holy?" How can we respond to suffering -- our own, and others' -- with love and compassion? Near as I can tell, suffering is part of existence. Why that's the case isn't an especially compelling question for me. I'm much more interested in what we do about it; how we relate to one another, and to God, given the reality of injustice and suffering in our world. Sure, we can put God on trial for allowing suffering to occur...but while we're at it, we'd better do the same for ourselves.
I'm not big on tagging people to follow memes. If you find these questions compelling, or if you'd like to take this ball and run with it (in whatever form), please do, and drop me a comment so I can check out your response. Thanks for the tag, Iyov; this was a thought-provoking way to begin my day!