Wednesday, December 09, 2009

“Which Thing I Never Had Supposed” The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Man

I realized last week that I hadn't submitted anything for next year's SMPT conference, and had to whip up something as fast as I could to meet the deadline. This is what I ended up with. It still needs a LOT of work. Hopefully it gets accepted so that I can present it in March.


“Which Thing I Never Had Supposed”
The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Man


Loyd Ericson
Claremont Graduate University
SMPT 2010

The problem of evil, in its various forms, is almost always viewed as a problem for God’s existence. The question posed is simply of how is it be possible for there to exist an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God in light of all of the evil and suffering we witness in the world. If God is all-powerful, then he would be capable of preventing evil; if all-knowing, then he would know of potential evil to be prevented; and if all-loving, then he would have the loving desire to prevent evil. Because evil is present, it is concluded that God (who is defined as being—among other things—all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving) does not then exist. While many believers have attempted—and perhaps successfully so—to respond to this problem and defend God’s existence, these attempts to dissolve the problem of God open and reveal another: what I will call the problem of man—the problem of justifying and understanding our individual existence in a world that may render us irrelevant.
Perhaps the most famous of responses to the problem of evil is Alvin Plantinga’s free-will defense. To summarize it quickly, Plantinga argues that it is possible that in order to create the best of possible worlds, God allows humans (and possibly other invisible creatures) to be free-willing agents which God does not prevent from committing evils. Another popular response to the problem of evil is John Hick’s soul-making theodicy, where it is argued that God allows, or even designs, evils so that free-willing agents can learn and grow from their experience with evil. Both of these have been adopted in some form or another by numerous Mormon philosophers and theologians.
While these responses may be rational and adequate intellectual defenses for the existence of God in light of the evidence of evil around us, their appeal to the best of possible worlds or a broader goal, can leave the individual person without a defense of their own existence or value. While suffering and evil may be defended as being necessary for God’s plan, it is unclear whether each of us individually is just as necessary for that plan. The problem of man asks: if while God may have a plan for humanity, does he have a plan for me? Or am I like the ant whose individual existence is negligible in comparison to the colony?
Perhaps this is what Moses experienced following his revelation recorded in the first chapter of the Book of Moses. After being shown “the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created,” Moses wakes up and says to himself: “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:8, 10). After witnessing the seemingly endless numbers of children which God had placed on the earth, is it at all surprising that Moses would announce that his own life is nothing in comparison. Like the Monty Python Sketch, “Live Organ Transplants,” in which a woman is told in song about the almost unimaginable size of the universe, how can we not respond with her and Moses and say, “Makes you feel so, sort of, insignificant, doesn't it?”
God tells Moses that his creations are endless and that he is going to show Moses just one part of it. Moses then sees the world and every person on it. Like the woman, suddenly he is insignificant, he is nothing. He is merely a single grain in an eternal beach of sand. To make things even worse, the scriptures say that after having this vision, “the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself.” Moses was suddenly small, insignificant, and alone.
To emphasize this sense of loss and insignificance felt by Moses, it seems then to be no coincidence that it is at this very moment that Satan appears to Moses – to attack him at his weakest. The scripture continues: “And it came to pass that when Moses had said these words, behold, Satan came tempting him, saying: Moses, son of man, worship me.”
Like Tyler Durden in the movie Fight Club, this realization can be telling us: “Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”
A quick response by believers might be in an appeal to God’s knowledge of each of us individually. Like Jesus, they may respond, “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not. . . .  If  God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?” But what does this say to the Cambodian sex slave, the child suffering of bone-cancer, or even the lonely and forgotten widow?
In an effort to defend God’s existence against evil, has the individual’s own identity and valued existence been denied? Has the dependency on free-will for the greater good or a theodicy of soul-making for the whole rendered our own individual existence meaningless and irrelevant? If we believe that God is all-powerful and all-loving, is the intense and meaningless suffering of an individual indicative of the insignificance of the individual in God’s eyes—especially in a tradition where the miraculous interventions of God are affirmed? Or in other words, while God may love his children as a whole, can not the sufferer ask, “But does God love me?”
According to D.Z. Phillips, in his The Problem of Evil and The Problem of God, this realization of our own nothingness is essential to understanding our relationship to God and suffering. He writes:

[T]he chief use of suffering is to teach us that we are nothing. . . . To recognize that one is nothing, is to recognize that one is not the centre of the universe. The ‘I’ is not sacrosanct, immune from harm. The world can reach out and touch it at any moment. Nor is the ‘I’ the possessor of a cosmic right that will guarantee that things go in its favour. (183)

For Phillips, this nothingness should require the believer to realize that, regardless of what happens in our lives, our existence—that we live—is a gift of God. As Phillips puts it: “[T]here is a requirement to love the fact that God has given life with its contingencies to human beings. This love is gratitude for existence” (184).
It is in this same manner that Moses responds to Satan after being tempted to worship him in his moment of despair:

And it came to pass that Moses looked upon Satan and said: Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee? . . .
Get thee hence, Satan; deceive me not; for God said unto me: Thou art after the similitude of mine Only Begotten. (Moses 1: 13,16)

In his response, Moses affirms his created status. Regardless of his nothingness in comparison to the whole of creation, that he is a son of God, and that he is in the similitude of Jesus—like all the rest of God’s children—is the source of Moses’ power and ability to throw off self doubt.
As Albert Camus, writes in The Rebel:

One envies what one does not have, while the rebel's aim is to defend what he is. He does not merely claim some good that he does not possess or of which he was deprived. His aim is to claim recognition for something which he has and which has already been recognized by him, in almost every case, as more important than anything of which he could be envious.... He is fighting for the integrity of one part of his being. He does not try, primarily, to conquer, but simply to impose.

            This affirmation of one’s own worth because of one’s created status is not limited to the self however. If our life has value because of its creation, then all life shares such a value. As Phillips puts it:

[W]e should now be able to see why belief in creation, seeing oneself as the recipient of grace, cannot lead to quietism, since it involves fighting against everything in the world, and in oneself, that regards other people, and that world, as creatures to be exploited, possessed and used for one’s own selfish purposes. This use of others . . . constitute[s] a refusal to see the other as a child of God. (185)

            Ironically, the problem of man—the believer’s individual nothingness in comparison to the whole—is at the same time a source for empowerment and understanding. That we are born into a world and life with its contingencies of meaningless suffering and unnecessary evils shows that the believer that life itself—with all its struggles—is a gift from God.

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