Where is God in these events? That questions pops into he finds of many among us who believe in a God thought to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent -- all powerful, all-knowing, and all good. It is as if the two subjects -- evil and God -- are forever tied together. And how can they not be? If God is conceived as all powerful, all-knowing, and all good, how can there be place for evil in the universe? This is a dilemma for us, a paradox.
In his dramatic play, J.B., Archibald MacLeish stated the paradox through the voice of one of his characters, Nickles. Just as the play itself is a dramatic rendering of the Old Testament account of Job, so are Nickles' lines in the play a reference to the suffering , bewildered Job who has lost everything he has in the world. Nickles says this:
I heard upon his dry dung heap
that man cry out who cannot sleep.
"If God is God, He is not Good.
If God is good, He is not God."
This statement of the paradox of evil at the hands of a good Good comes from the old philosopher Epicurus (340 BC-270 BC) through a theological work De Ira Dei (The Anger of God) by Lantantius (240 AD-320 AD). In other words, many fine minds have pondered this paradox for centuries with no resolution that seeks to "stick" in the common imagination of people, whoever they may be and of whatever religious persuasion.
So, I have no thought of offering you some once-and-for-all solution to our problem. In my blog last month, I suggested four categories in which I group instances of evil: (1) natural evil, (2) systemic evil, (3) moral evil, and (4) the archetype of evil. Those groupings help me at least to understand the different ways in which I understand evil to manifest in the world.
But I said very little about the other side of the equation -- God. And so, this month I want to begin some considerations of ways we think about God.
I begin with the basic question of theism. We think we know what a atheism is, but what is the "theism" that "a-theism" is "not?" Here are some definitions, but more than that, some ideas to ponder. The definitions come from The American Heritage Dictionary.
Theism: "Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world." And how is "god" defined and generally understood? "A being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe, the principle object of faith and worship in monotheistic religions." You see, defined and understood this way, "God" is, simply put, a being although the Supreme Being. But if limited to anthropomorphic form, such a being can be reduced in meaning to something like a cosmic bell-hop whose role is to make our stay here on planet earth as convenient, happy, and comfortable as we want and expect from a major five-star hotel in an exclusive resort. This God is to be on call to do our bidding at all times and for anything we might need or want. I exaggerate, of course, to make my point. But you see where the idea of God as a being lends itself to the ridicule and disbelief described by a-theists.
Polytheism: "The worship of/or belief in more than one god." This is an extension of theism that allows for more than one deity. Consider Greek mythology's grouping of a circle of gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus. But we also find traces of a polytheism in the early history of Judaism and Christianity. This accounts for the first of the Ten Commandments, "You shall have no other god besides me." (Exodus 20:3)
Pantheism: "A doctrine identifying the deity with the universe and its phenomena." This appeals to many people. God is in the world, or the world is itself God, etc. But the main objection here is that God is nothing more than the world. There are indeed beautiful sunsets, but there are tsunamis as well in which God's weakness seems to some people to be all too human.
Panentheism: "The belief or doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it." (New Oxford American Dictionary) This idea means that God or Spirit or Personal Creation, Energy, or agency of creation is in the world, interpenetrating it but also transcending it. Here there is transience and immanence. The mystics experience it as sacred and personal Presence; the non-religious skeptic may allow for the presence of a pervading energy in the universe that accounts for the dynamics of astrophysical and quantum occurrences.
Most of the monotheistic religions will find references that appear to hold to this perspective of God as the personal power within but beyond the world. For example, in Christianity there is Colossians referring to Christ as "the image of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth" (1:15-17). Consider also the phrase in Acts 17:28, "for in him we live and move and have our being" (Paul speaking to the elders of Athens regarding the "unknown God").
Finally, for Judaism and Christianity, the appearances of God to Job in the form of a whirlwind (chapters 38-41) suggests the presence of the deity in nature, as nature, but also the creator of the world. This manifestation of God overwhelms Job, as it also at the same time challenges the ideas of suffering, evil, and morality as those were held and practiced by the pious ones who had condemned Job.
The conclusion of Job leads to the point where I will also break off my reflections for the time being. To suggest a quick summary, I will state it like this. The idea of God is bound today within a culturally conditioned box that makes impossible any deep reflection on the relationship of God and the presence of evil in our world. It is not that the problem or paradox is too big; rather, it is that our minds are too small. Or at least, our ideas of God are too small to contain the consciousness of who we are and what we are becoming in our mysterious, expanding universe in which tragedies remind us that is is a place of light and dark, life and death, Thanatos and Eros, compelling us to look for the name of that which connects us to the stars.