God, Suffering, and Evil
Gonzaga Socratic Club, Friday, February 11, 2005

(remarks will be posted as they become available)

Introduction: David Calhoun, Philosophy
Remarks by Michael Cook, S.J., Religious Studies
Remarks by Eric Kincanon, Physics
Remarks by Michael Stebbins, Ethics Institute
Remarks by Michael Tkacz, Philosophy

God, Suffering, and Evil—An Introduction
David H. Calhoun

Not long ago, people across the world were riveted by dramatic stories and images of the human toll of a cataclysmic earthquake and ensuing tsunami.  The shattering of a quiet Sunday morning by the violence of nature was a stark reminder of the fragility of human life.  The questions posed by the disaster were especially compelling for religious people, many of whom found it difficult to reconcile the scope of death and suffering with the idea of a benevolent God.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which occurred about 9:30 AM on All Saints Day, November 1.  Many of the casualties resulted from the collapse of buildings, including churches where the faithful were gathered for worship.  Those who survived the initial tremor then faced wildfires that raged through the city’s core.  Some of those fleeing the fires and rubble-blocked streets boarded boats on the Tagus River, where they were swamped when the tsunami roared up the river.  The death toll was estimated at 60,000 in the Lisbon area alone, though the effects of the earthquake and flooding caused deaths and injuries across the southwestern coast of Europe and even as far south as North Africa.

The Lisbon Earthquake was something of a watershed for theological reflection in Christian Europe.  Some Christians suggested that the disaster was the retribution of a righteous God against the sinfulness of Lisbon, but it is hard to see how Lisbon was qualitatively more sinful than other areas of Europe at the time.  One critical effect of the Earthquake was to challenge the common view, often associated with Leibniz, that the universe is optimally designed, the “best of all possible worlds.”  Some found this view impossible to maintain in the face of suffering and death on the scale of the Lisbon Earthquake, particularly in the details of a disaster that seemed especially to target believers on a Sunday morning gathered for worship and that hounded those who survived the first round of disaster by fire and then flood.  Most famously, Voltaire made the devastation of the Lisbon Earthquake a key part of the argument of his satirical novel Candide, which mercilessly ridicules the idea that such an event could be part of a universe optimally designed by a benevolent deity.

Just under 250 years later, people around the world were riveted by mass media images of the aftermath of the tsunami that ravaged the coastlines of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other parts of South Asia on Sunday, December 26, 2004.  While reports in the media occasionally used biblical metaphors to explain the scope of destruction (as did the Washington Post’s Michael Dobbins in a first-person report from Sri Lanka published the day after the tsunami), many treatments in the popular press turned rather quickly to the same questions as those raised by the Lisbon Earthquake.  How should people think of tragedy on such a scale, with deaths now estimated in excess of 150,000?  How might religious believers in particular reconcile their theology with the images of devastation and stories of great loss and suffering to the victims?  Prominent examples of reflections on these questions could be found across the range of popular media, from New York Times columnist William Safire to analysis articles in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.  As with the Lisbon Earthquake, some suggested (this time around in the context of religious pluralism) that the Tsunami was divine punishment for some human failure: the continued infighting among Muslims in Aceh Province in Indonesia, insufficient religious devotion among Hindus and Buddhists in the area, or the presence of unbelieving and morally lax Europeans at holiday time on South Asian beaches.  As with the attempts to blame the Lisbon Earthquake on sinful inhabitants of Lisbon, such arguments are likely to appeal only to a small group of religious people.

The problem of evil—the difficulty of reconciling the undeniable reality of evil with theological claims of a powerful and benevolent God—is a perennial issue for theists.  There is evil and suffering enough in everyday life: crime, violence, poverty, hunger, disease.  At the same time, it is doubtless true that evil and suffering on a massive scale, such as world war, genocide, or the sorts of natural disasters exemplified by the Lisbon Earthquake and South Asian Tsunami, offer a significant opportunity to think about the nature of evil and suffering, and to assess, in a clear-eyed and reflective way, the role of evil in the world we know.  Thus this meeting.

The Scots philosopher David Hume, did not, to my knowledge, ever in his writings mention the Lisbon Earthquake.  However, he worked on his Dialogues on Natural Religion on and off from about 1750 until his death in 1776.  There is little doubt that the Lisbon Earthquake shaped his thinking about theism and the problem of evil.  In explaining the problem, Hume borrows from the ancient philosopher Epicurus: “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered.  Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able?  then he is impotent.  Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (Dialogues, 63).

Some theodicies (attempts to justify or defend God against the problem of evil) respond to Hume’s trilemma directly by denying that God is omniscient or omnibenevolent or by denying that evil is real.  Others grant the reality of evil but try to defuse the argument by suggesting that God has reasons for allowing evil to exist, for example as a necessary correlate to human free agency or as a tool for the spiritual development of human beings.  There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these approaches.  Let’s see what our panelists have to say about this matter.

“1755 Lisbon Earthquake.” The Earthquake Museum.  http://www.olympus.net/personal/gofamily/quake/famous/lisbon.html

Broadway,Bill.  “Divining a Reason for Devastation.”  Washington Post, Saturday, January 8, 2005, B09.

Dobbs, Michael.  “It Seemed Like a Scene From the Bible.”  Washington Post, Monday, December 27, 2004, A01.

Hume, David.  Dialogues on Natural Religion.  Ed. Richard H. Popkin.  Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980.

Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).  “Tsunami Reactions (3) - Saudi Professor Sheik Fawzan Fawzan: Allah Punishes Homosexuality and Fornication at Christmas.”  Middle East Media Research Institute TV Project, 12/31/04, Clip #459.

Kozak, Jan T., and Charles D. James.  “Historical Depictions of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake.”  National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering, University of California, Berkeley.

Safire, William.  “Where Was God?”  New York Times, Monday, January 10, 2005, A19.

Worthy Goods
Michael W. Tkacz

A French journalist once asked Mother Theresa why certain people are destined to suffer so much.  Why, she asked, do I not suffer as do those desperately poor and sick people with whom you work?  Now, the journalist later admitted that she was fishing for a political answer:  she wanted Mother Theresa to say something like "because people living in wealthy countries do not care" or "because governments are not responsible enough."  What Mother Theresa actually said, however, was "perhaps you do not suffer as they do because you are not worthy enough."  Needless to say, the journalist was left rather puzzled.

To say that Mother Theresa's point of view is not one well understood today is certainly an understatement.  The reason why is suggested in Dr. Calhoun's comment that the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was a watershed for Christian theological reflection.  Why should it have been a watershed?  Christendom had seen many large earthquakes and other natural disasters long before the eighteenth century.  So, what was so special about Lisbon?  What had changed?

The answer, of course, is that the people had changed. Unlike many modern people, Christians of the early church would have found Mother Theresa's understanding of suffering unsurprising and unobjectionable.  The idea that suffering is natural and, therefore, good was a commonplace in their world in a way it certainly is not in ours.  If one accepts that there is a natural order to reality and that order is good, then natural disasters are not evil and pose no problem. Now, one can, of course, see such a disaster as objectionable with respect to one's desires or expectations.  Yet this says nothing about the value of this event in itself.  If the earthquake shakes down my house and causes me hardship, I may be unhappy with this and decide to respond by complaint rather than acceptance.  The earth itself, however, is simply tectonically doing what the earth does and this is what it is supposed to do.  It would not be the earth it is, if it failed to do this.  It would not have all that earthly goodness--good even in limited human experience--if it violated its nature.

If one lives with a worldview that takes natural order seriously as a reality, then what is experienced by one as suffering is simply part of what should be.  If one understands reality as full of purpose, then what is experienced as pain can also be understood as part of a greater good.  In such a world, even the disagreeable aspects of something can be part of what we find good in that thing, as when we enjoy the fruits of an achievement for which we have labored.  Without the effort of that labor, as painful as it may have been in itself, the fruits would not be nearly as sweet.