Beyond Theodicy

Theoidiocy | rejectingjesus

A man was taking it easy, lying on the grass and looking up at the clouds. He was admiring the vastness of the universe when all of sudden he had this intense feeling as if he could feel the sacred presence of God around him. Overcome with this feeling he decided to talk to God.

“God,” he said, “how long is a million years?”

God answered, “In my frame of reference, it’s about a minute.”

The man thought for a moment and then asked, “God, how much is a million dollars?”

God answered, “Well to ME, it’s just a penny.”

With this, the man thought a moment longer. Finally, he asked, “God, can I have a penny?”

God answered, “In a minute.”

Time and again people turn to God in hope to find answers to the most puzzling issues of life. It would not be an overstatement to say that many of us present this morning at one time or another have turned to God and to church community, seeking comfort and prayerful support while facing personal hardship.

I was not surprised to discover that people have been engaging more with religion since lockdown. The fact that Bible app downloads shot up in March globally is one indication of this.

Similarly, English-language Bible on Google Play App Store was installed almost two million times, the highest amount ever recorded for March, according to Appfigures. In another research I discovered, one of the  largest online Christian bookstores, Eden, has seen physical Bible sales rise by 55 per cent in April, while Google searches for “prayer” and “Christianity” have skyrocketed.

The pandemic has triggered a spiritual moment in a response to feelings of disorientation, fragility and fear caused by the crisis.

But we shouldn’t be surprised by it. There is nothing new under the sun. In fact, I am reminded of the great German thinker George W Hegel who famously said, “history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce”.

Historically speaking, God is considered to be both good and all-powerful. God cares, God provides and God protects. But this raises a question, how can this divine goodness be reconciled with divine omnipotence?

Or, as one of my friends recently said, “looking at the coronavirus situation, I’m questioning God’s goodness. What kind of twisted entity would allow such suffering?”

“That is indeed a million-dollar question” I said. After all, how do we measure natural disasters – global pandemics, earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, bushfires, and so on – with a God who is good, a God who would not want natural disasters and subsequent suffering that it causes?

And, because he is all-powerful, could he not simply stop them if he wished?

This question was posed to the church after the destructive Lisbon earthquake by Voltaire (1694-1778), one of the great philosophers of the European Enlightenment. The question eventually culminated in one of his famous works: Candide (1759).

On 1 November 1755, at 9.30am, Lisbon in Portugal was almost wrecked by an earthquake. Subsequent tremors, a tsunami, fires, and civil unrest meant the city was unrecognizable. It was All Saints Day and large numbers of people were killed as churches collapsed upon them. Statistics for natural disasters suggests between 20,000 and 40,000 people died out of a population of some 200,000.

Then, as now, people wondered whether there was a divine plan to the devastation that shook their Christian beliefs and historical monuments.

While writing Candide, Voltaire had the German philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716) in mind. Leibniz has already wrestled with these questions and has defended the goodness of God in his book Theodicy (1710).

For Leibniz, in spite of evils both natural and moral, this was still the best of all possible worlds. It was the best that God could have created. This is because it has the greatest variety of things that we humans can interact with, but at the same time it has the simplest laws of nature.

Evils both natural and moral, Leibniz declared, were simply part of an overall universal good, a divine plan. If the “smallest evil that we witness in the world were missing in it,” he declared, it would no longer be this world. Absolutely nothing should be added or subtracted from this world because it was created to be the best by the Creator who chose it to be like this.

Sure we can, he admitted, imagine worlds without sin and without unhappiness, but it will have a knock on effect. If the world have less happiness and less evil, then it will have less goodness in them too. God was, in other words, the perfect gardener in spite of the cosmic weeds.

Leibniz firmly believed that the world, in spite of its obvious evils, was ultimately good by virtue of its foundation in the goodness of God who had, after all, created it.

Did Leibniz’s unshakable 18th-century optimism and strong conviction in divine goodness fail to consider suffering seriously? Voltaire believed so. 

When Voltaire wrote Candid, he sarcastically portrayed Leibniz as a committed believer in this world, who in spite of its natural evils and the moral evils perpetrated in particular by Christians, Jews, and Muslims was able to rationalise it as compatible with its being eventually for the best.

Voltaire found this idea of the best of all possible worlds difficult to swallow, given the total quantity and quality of evil present in it.

What was Voltaire’s solution? Surprisingly, it was not hopelessness.

Rather, he proposed that the world is a one vast garden, as God had originally intended for us in the first Garden of Eden. We were to be like Adam and Eve. We are meant to look after each other and look after the creation around us.

Voltaire avoided all airy thinking on how to justify the ways of God to man. Instead, he offered a down to earth advice, suggesting doing a little good in the hope of our becoming a little better each day.

This is a solution that may or may not satisfy believers in the goodness of God. But it will resonate amongst those of us who, live in isolation at home, are quietly digging the soil, labouring in our vegetable patch, or contentedly mowing our lawns. Simple yet satisfying!

When I read today’s text, I see such simplicity of Jesus’s teaching. The Kingdom of God is present in uttermost simplicity of our lives.

He said to his twelve disciples, “you go and do what I have done.” In other words, we are called to live as if we were Jesus.

Feed the poor. Heal the broken. Breath life dead situations. Work together to weed out the evil. Bring the outsiders inside. Make clean all that is dirty.

This seems to be the only meaningful response to the suffering of the world.

This is the mission given to us by Christ, to preach, teach, and heal. Spread the compassion of God with the same generosity that we have experienced. Freely we have receive, freely we give. It is as simple as announcing God’s peace in our neighbourhood and the homes we enter.

In doing small things with great love we will discover that the Kingdom of God in both both deeds and words is upon us.

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