The Problem of Evil?

Posted: February 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I definitely recommend the lectures series on Eastern Orthodoxy and Mysticism: The Transformation of the Senses given by Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg. The lectures are excellent, but I actually found the manner in which he handled the Q&A sessions following each one and some of the answers he gave on the spot in response to questions even more impressive.

As I was listening to the lectures a second time, something in the third lecture that I had overlooked the first time through caught my attention and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think it captures much of my instinctive response to the particular shape the discussion of “The Problem of Evil” often takes today, but which I could never quite find words to properly express.

Father Irenei, in the part of the lecture in which he is discussing the limits of what we can say and know, makes the point that it’s a misnomer to describe evil as a problem. A problem has a solution. We may not know or have discovered the solution, but it’s reasonable to believe that a solution exists. He uses the illustration of a complex math problem. It might be hard. It might be beyond our present ability to solve. But it’s reasonable to believe it can be solved. By calling evil a problem, we imply there is a solution — that the gordian knot can be undone.

But evil isn’t like that. It’s truly a mystery that in some ways transcends our understanding. We don’t ultimately solve the question of evil. We never fully understand it in all its ramifications. We are invited instead to trust the God who also transcends our understanding — the God who has made himself immediately and personally accessible to us all by assuming our own nature. We are invited into a communion of love beyond our understanding. We are told that God has overcome evil and defeated death on our behalf. We can place our confidence in that particular God or not, but either way, we still can’t solve or resolve the problem of evil.

Evil is a mystery. We can see its impact, its effects. We sometimes know when it’s at work around us. But it’s often beyond our understanding.

None of which means we should give up or succumb to evil. We are to fight it in our lives. And we are to offer pastoral care to all those suffering evil. God gives us the grace, the power, to do both if we choose to avail ourselves of him. But those actions form a way of life, not an intellectual understanding of evil nor are our efforts necessarily effective at reducing evil on some large scale. We are to offer our efforts nonetheless. That act in creation is part of our reasonable worship. It’s part of our eucharistic function as priests in creation.

But we need to resist evil, not solve it. If we focus on the latter, I think we make ourselves vulnerable.


2 Comments on “The Problem of Evil?”

  1. 1 Sandra said at 12:53 pm on February 18th, 2011:

    Interesting perspective. Kinda the same answer I got from my fundy pastors growing up but it makes more sense now than in the version I got–which sounded more like “we can’t explain it to you so it’s a Mystery of God, quit asking so many questions”. It was their conversation-stopping answer to everything.

  2. 2 Scott said at 3:34 pm on February 18th, 2011:

    That seems to be a use of “mystery” more as a defense mechanism than as an embrace of reality. And used that way, “mystery” seems to deny our experience or our ability to know. My wife, in many ways, is a mystery to me. But I certainly know her, so well that we sometimes have the same thoughts at the same time. From time to time I know what she’s going to say before she says it. I experience her reality every day. I would also say that God is the greatest mystery of all, so much so that he transcends our language and the concepts which lie behind the words. And yet he makes himself immediately available to our experience. God can be known (though we immediately have to say not in the same way that we know or experience anything else).

    (I would also note I can’t imagine a circumstance when questions are a problem unless we allow them to rule us and lead us to despair.)

    We all know evil. We recognize it when we see it. To one degree or another we have all experienced it. Sometimes evil is so thick we can almost taste it and find it to breathe. When it manifests, evil tends to be grotesque and tangible — hardly mysterious at all. We can resist evil. Christianity asserts that, in an even greater mystery, God transforms evil to good. Sometimes we see the good. Sometimes we don’t. But evil is not directly causal. There is no equation for it we can solve. Our actions in creation can have consequences we never see. To our eyes, evil sometimes springs up abruptly and uncaused — from other humans or from creation itself.

    It’s that part of the problem which is ultimately beyond us, I think. At least, it’s at that point that people seem to despair because they cannot find the solution to the conundrum of evil. God’s solution seems to have been to join us in our suffering under the yoke of evil in and through Jesus of Nazareth. He lived as fully one of us and experienced all that we experience save that he remained faithful to God and did not add to the evil of the world. He suffered the worst that evil could do, up to and including torture and death. And in the Resurrection he defeated evil and death.

    If creation were such that evil was impossible, then it seems to me we could not be fully human. Any such creation would have to be filled with lesser beings and smaller creation. There would also be no true opportunity or capacity for love. I think this is how the creation of a God of overflowing love had to function. Love is the hardest thing there is and the most precious. Love has already won and the victory will one day be fully revealed. Time and reality are not cyclic.

    But that’s not a solution to the problem of evil. It’s a longer way of stating that it’s a mystery to us. We have knowledge of good and evil, but we do not have the ability to comprehend all evil, much less solve it. Rather, it’s a statement that as I have experienced God and his love, to whatever limited extent, I trust that he has rescued, is rescuing, will rescue his creation — not least from evil.

    I also believe that resurrection is a better answer to the problem of evil than any other I’ve encountered — even if the fullness of both is beyond me.