Mystic Mondays – The Centrality of Faith (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

“Mystic Mondays” is a series done here at the Christian Watershed in the hopes of keeping us grounded. While we support the rational defense of the faith, we must ultimately concede that our faith is beyond reason; Christianity contains reason, but reason doesn’t contain Christianity. This is because our foundation is not in a system, but in a Person. 

From On Apostolic Preaching:

St. Irenaeus of Lyons

“Therefore, lest we suffer any such thing, we must keep the rule of faith unswervingly, and perform the commandments of God, believing in God and fearing Him, for He is Lord, and loving Him, for He is Father. Action, then, comes by faith, as ‘if you do not believe,’ Isaias says, ‘you will not understand’; and truth brings about faith, for faith is established upon things truly real, that we may believe what really is, as it is, and believing what really is, as it is, we may always keep our conviction of it firm. Since, then, the conserver of our salvation is faith, it is necessary to take great care of it, that we may have a true comprehension of what is.”

It seems that one of the central debates for Christians today is whether we should believe like Christians or live like Christians. One side is adamant that our beliefs are what save us while the other side argues that our works save us, while beliefs don’t really matter (or at least don’t hold that much importance).

For early Christians the distinction between believing and actions simply didn’t exist. To have “faith” meant that we believed what had been handed down to us and then lived according to those beliefs. As Irenaeus elucidates, action comes from faith and faith is established on things that are real. Our faith is in God, who is real, so then we should act on this belief.

We shouldn’t have a dichotomy between how we live and what we believe. Turning to the highly respected 20th century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, we read,

“And when we exalt orthopraxy, right action, which is demanded clearly enough by Jesus himself…do we have to lose all sense of what the New Testament equally emphatically calls right belief, orthodoxy?” (Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, 13)

It certainly seems like von Balthasar is simply echoing the sentiments of Irenaeus, both of whom seem to point back to St. James (the Less or the Great, depending on who you believe), who wrote,

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

It would appear that even James faced this dichotomy where people were more concerned about works or about belief. To James, there is no difference. If you believe then it will show in your works, and your works will aid in your belief. Thus, faith is both a belief based upon reality, or Ultimate Reality, but because this is the case, faith requires us to act.

One can think of God’s Word, who is Truth (John 14:6) coming down and dying for His creation. Certainly He believed that He loved us, certainly Christ has beliefs about Himself. But He acted on those beliefs. The same God who baffles the greatest theologians and makes them less than children in knowledge came down to lift up the broken of this world so they might not only hear about His love, but experience His love. God cannot be divided, so while He is Truth, He is also action; we cannot merely believe in Him as a purely intellectual object to be studied, because when we gain true knowledge of Him we are moved to action.

This is part of the mysticism of Christianity, that it is a belief, it has propositional truths, it is rational, but it extends beyond these things. It has good actions, it is concerned with the poor, it serves the widows and orphans, but all of these actions are based upon its beliefs. Faith, true faith, is a faith based on reality and one that changes the whole of man.

Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 5) – The Evidential Problem of Evil

As alluded to, while the logical problem of evil has been adequately dealt with, we are still left with the evidential problem of evil. Yes, it is logical for God and evil to co-exist, but is the current amount of evil we see necessary? This is where the argument of gratuitous, or superfluous evil becomes extremely problematic for theists.

The skeptic might accept Plantinga’s argument, but turn around and argue that we can imagine a possible world with less evil. We could, conceivably, imagine a world where humans never discovered how to split the atom, which would prevent disasters like Nagasaki and Hiroshima from occurring. It would prevent the threat of annihilation. It would prevent people dying slow, horrible deaths from nuclear poisoning and the inevitable cancer that comes with it (think of Chernobyl or the inevitable problems that will be caused by the Fukushima power plant). We could imagine a world where Hitler or Stalin never came to power or where nations mostly existed peacefully (with wars only arising every few hundred years).

Likewise, we can imagine God acting to prevent some of the superfluous evil without contradicting a person’s free will (or at least this is the argument, though I take issue with it). For instance, if a man grabs a little child to kidnap her, we could imagine God sending an angel down to stop the man from doing so. After all, God prevented Pharaoh’s army from slaughtering the Hebrew people, He prevented Daniel from being eaten by the lions, and prevented Daniel’s three friends from being consumed in the fire. So we have examples of God supposedly preventing a superfluous evil, so why can’t we imagine a world where this Divine intervention happens more?

– Great Good Theodicy

Many theists and Christians attempt to explain the existence of superfluous evil by stating that it’s not really superfluous; they take Plantinga’s argument and say that every act of evil is invariably tied to a greater good that results from the evil. God will allow an evil only if a greater-good can be obtained from the evil, or if He intends for the greater good to obtain from the evil.

A greater good (G-G) theodicy teaches that some goods are contingent upon certain evils. They point to the example of the cross, where Jesus’ death, though evil, must occur for the good of salvation. Or one can think of the chicken pox, that while a child must endure the temporary evil of the chicken pox, she will have the greater good of not getting it later in life when it would be worse. Under the G-G theodicies, no evil is really “gratuitous” because it will always produce a greater good, it always has a reason, and is always necessary.

Already some readers may recognize the problem with G-G theodicies. The first problem and possibly the biggest is that it forced God to become reliant upon evil. If God wishes to obtain good and must only rely on evil, then how is He not ultimately responsible for evil? It would mean that God would have to cause evil in order to obtain a good from the evil. Likewise, it makes God the ultimate pragmatist, which would seemingly contradict God’s holiness; just because a greater good can be obtained through evil, how could God remain holy for doing this in every instance?

The other problem with G-G theodicies is that they significantly limit free will, which forces us to reconsider or abandon the answer to the logical problem of evil. If every act of evil begets good and good is part of God’s plan, then we must commit that act of evil. God is dependent upon us acting in an evil way, we have no other choice, so how are we truly responsible for acting in an evil manner? Let’s say that God plans to use Mike to cure HIV/AIDS, but the only way Mike will do this is if his wife contracts the disease through a blood transfusion and dies from it. Thus, God kills Mike’s wife in order to motivate Mike to cure HIV. Where is Mike’s free choice in the matter of choosing to cure HIV/AIDS? God knows that the only thing that will motivate Mike to cure HIV is the death of his wife via HIV (and then AIDS). Mike doesn’t really have a choice in such a situation and God becomes the cause of evil.

Along the same line of though, if all evil leads to a greater good then we have no reason to prevent evil. If a man sees a woman being mugged he has no reason to step in because a greater good could obtain from her being mugged. How do we know the good provided by evil won’t be greater than the good we achieve by preventing the evil? If a greater good obtains in every case of evil, then why work to stop every case of evil?

Hoes does a proponent of G-G theodicies escape the inevitable conclusion that God wills evil? As Little argues, “…if the good is necessary to the plan of God, then so is the evil, which logically leads to the conclusion that God wills the evil.”[1] If the good is willed by God and is necessary to the plan of God, then the evil that brought about the good would also be willed by God (under G-G theodicies). It’s a matter of forward causation – if God demands that G occurs, but E is needed for G to obtain, then God must have ordered E to occur.

Yet, G-G theodicies become more problematic the more we examine them, namely that we can always imagine ways God could bring about some good, yet use a less evil. We can think back to Roman times when the death of a Christian served as a testament to God. People would argue that the temporary evil of a Christian being torn apart by a lion would beget the greater good of the testimony offered by the Christian. Yet, we can imagine that God could somehow miraculously save the Christian, which would equally display His power to people.

Or we can imagine the collapse of a building during office hours in which hundreds are killed. The building collapsed due to faulty standards and oversight. Though hundreds are killed, the government passes new legislation that fixes the building standards and provides more oversight to prevent the tragedy from ever happening again. But can’t we also imagine that an inspector catches the problem before it happens and lobbies the government to pass such a law and they do? Or what about the building collapses a night with no one inside, leading to the same good as if hundreds had perished? In this example too, while a good does obtain as a result of the evil, we can imagine far less evil (or no evil) occurring that leads to the same resulted good.

Even if we accept that God somehow relies on evil to obtain good in every instance of evil, we can still imagine God using lesser evil. The problem is that to respond to this, one must argue that the level of evil is actually necessary for the good to obtain. As Little argues, “

“If the good is necessary, then so is the particular evil, for if the good could be accomplished with a lesser evil, then the all-good God would use the lesser evil. The end is, that the particular evil is necessary, for the good could not obtain without the evil and the good must obtain because it is necessary.”[2]

God then either appears infinitely dull in not thinking of better ways to obtain the good by using lesser evil, or it becomes an impossible mystery to us, but this doesn’t offer an answer to the problem of evil. We must argue that every act of evil is absolutely necessary (which can lead to Christian nihilism, where there is no point in preventing evil) or that God just can’t think of a better way to use a lesser evil.

Even if we disregard the above objections, we still have a further problem with G-G theodicies, namely that they almost inevitably lead to further evils. What is good now may be evil tomorrow.

One can think about the freedom of the US and all the good that was brought about through the evil of war. But turn around and think of the evil thrust upon the Native Americans via expansionist genocide. Or we can think about the evil caused by the institution of slavery. The original good (freedom from an oppressive government) eventually turned into evil (oppression was thrown upon another group).

We can imagine about how Israel was formed because of the Holocaust, and Israel is good in that it provides a homeland for Jews who would otherwise be persecuted (today or eventually) in other countries. But the trade-off is that many Palestinian people were forced off their homes (either by Jewish settlers or out of fear) and also caused a perpetual state of war between Israel and her neighbors. Even if this isn’t the ultimate fault of Israel, we can see that much evil has arisen from the original good of the Jews having their own homeland.[3]

In the end, some goods end up causing greater evils, which in turn should lead to greater goods, which in turn would inevitably lead to greater evils, and so on. This leads us to believe that at some point, good should stop allowing for evil, or the only evils left will be so horrendous that they would wipe out all of human existence. The evils should get greater if we look at the history of humanity and apply a G-G theodicy to it. And finally, at what point does the cycle end, or are we doomed to simply watch evil escalate until humans can’t stand it anymore?

Finally, G-G theodicies don’t adequately deal with natural evils because rarely do we see a “greater good” coming from a natural disaster. We can think of Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 and how they are still suffering from the devastating affects of the earthquake. Where is the greater good? Or what about Indonesia where over 200,000 people were killed, leaving even more without mothers, fathers, friends, husbands, wives, children, and so on? Shall we say that a greater good has come from the earthquake in Indonesia, and if it has, where is it? In all these cases, couldn’t God allow structural damage while disallowing the loss of life and still achieve the same “greater good”?

The ultimate problem with G-G theodicies is that they leave an undue burden on the theist to explain evil and find the greater good in every act of evil. I think back to an episode of the television show Scrubs where Dr. Cox takes the antagonistic position on evil while Nurse Roberts takes the affirmative position, arguing that God allows evil for a reason. The entire episode they go back and forth with Cox pointing to an evil and asking, “What’s the purpose in that,” while a short time later Roberts finds the purpose and shows him. But is such a defense necessary or even warranted? Why should theists have to point out the good in every act of evil when the good isn’t always apparent?

Ultimately, the G-G theodicies, while popular, are problematic in their logic, but also impractical as explanations. They place an undue burden on the theist without giving a satisfactory explanation. While sometimes God will allow an evil in order to bring about a greater good, to say that He does this in every case of evil is unfounded and unnecessary.

– Creation-Order Theodicy

A new alternative to the G-G theodicies is Bruce Little’s Creation-Order Theodicy (C-O). Rather than attempting to deny the existence of gratuitous evil or say that God allows all evil for a greater good, it embraces that gratuitous evil exists, but that this doesn’t count against God’s holiness or power. Ultimately, his theory is based on the idea that because humans have free will, God cannot logically prevent certain evils or most evils because this would limit human freedom. He argues,

“The creation order does not provide a means for God to filter out the bad choices from which He cannot bring about a greater good. Instead, the creation order allows for gratuitous evil as a corollary to the authenticity of the libertarian freedom.”[4]

Evil, even gratuitous evil, must be allowed because God allows free choices, which means we must be responsible for these choices. So why doesn’t God stop terrorists when they detonate an explosive in a crowded restaurant? If He prevented every act of evil, or most acts of evil, then free will wouldn’t exist because there wouldn’t be consequences to our choices because our choices would never be actualized. Continue reading

Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 1) – Introduction

As I compose this essay, storms have ravaged the southern United States, Alabama in particular, taking well over three hundred lives. In addition to the lives lost, homes have been destroyed, priceless heirlooms lost forever, and it has been a traumatic experience that will not leave the psyche of the victims anytime soon. As theists, in particular Christians, look to an event such as this we are forced to wonder why God would allow such a tragedy. Why would God allow this particular evil to befall innocent people? This question has been asked for thousands of years and, to date, a satisfactory answer has yet to be given.

The problem of theodicy has been a problem apologists have struggled with almost since the dawn of Christendom. When Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths, the great Christian theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine found himself attempting to address why God has allowed such an evil. In fact, it is Augustine who was one of the first Christians to put together a structured theodicy (though some theodicies did exist prior to Augustine, specifically from some of the homilies by the Cappadocian Fathers)[1] that attempted to justify God’s actions rather than simply say that since He is God, He can do as He pleases.

While Christianity in the East never developed a theodicy justifying God’s actions (though the East does have a type of theodicy), Christianity in the West has never ceased searching for a theodicy to explain why God allows evil. The problem of evil has led many individuals to conclude that either God doesn’t exist, or He does exist and simply doesn’t care about humanity. It is my firm belief, however, that if one were to draw from the Eastern Orthodox “theodicy” (one that looks to man’s free will and God’s answer in the cross) while using some of the philosophical arguments of Western Christianity, one could arrive at a theodicy that helps to avoid an end result of atheism, agnosticism, or deism when confronted with the problem of evil.

Of course, when discussing the problem of evil it would be appropriate to ask, “which problem of evil?” The problem of evil can actually be divided up into three different categories: (1) The logical problem of evil, (2) the evidential problem of evil, and (3) the existential problem of evil. The logical problem of evil is concerned with whether or not a good God can co-exist with an evil world, or if one cancels the other out. The evidential problem of evil grants the idea that God can logically allow for evil, but instead argues that the amount of evil we see in this world leads us to conclude that God doesn’t exist or at least doesn’t care about us. Finally, the existential problem of evil deals with the personal evil we experience in our own lives, sometimes so great that it shakes our faith in God.

To date, no one theodicy has adequately addressed all three problems. While in the West certain theodicies have dealt with a particular category, to my knowledge no theodicy has been offered to work with all three divisions, at least not in a manner that is intellectually and personally satisfying. Thus, my goal with this essay is to provide a cohesive explanation on why God allowed evil in the first place and why He allows specific evils. I plan to accomplish this goal by turning to philosophy, early Christian writers (as viewed through the teachings of Saint John of Damascus)[2], and Scripture. Certainly this is no easy task, but it is a worthy one.

Before providing an introduction to the sections of my essay, I should note first and foremost that I do not accept my Unified Theodicy as complete or without problems. There are some answers and problems with it that I struggle with and I’m unsure about, so do expect my views to change concerning this theodicy. Rather, I am writing it in the hopes of starting a dialogue – or continuing a dialogue begun by Dr. Bruce Little – of finding a better theodicy, one beyond a “greater good” theodicy. While I believe that what I am currently offering is more complete than other alternative theodicies I’ve seen, it is by no means complete in its own right. It is my hope that someone far better than I will build upon what I have composed, or tear it apart and build something better; so long as an answer is found, I do not care.

In providing my Unified Theodicy I will compose seven sections and draw upon the works of three Christian writers (Alvin Plantinga, Bruce Little, and John of Damascus). I use Plantinga to explain the logical problem of evil with his free will defense and Little to address the evidential problem of evil with his Creation-Order Theodicy. In turn, I use John of Damascus (or the Damascene as I will refer to him throughout this essay) to answer the perceived shortcomings in Plantinga’s arguments as well as Little’s. Likewise, I justify my own Unified Theodicy by turning to the Damascene and to Scripture (in particular the book of Job).

Continue reading

Heaven and the Human Mind: A Response to Stephen Hawking (Featuring St. John of Damascus)

Stephen Hawking was interviewed by the Guardian last Sunday concerning his views of the afterlife and, to no one’s surprise, he denied the existence of the afterlife. His reasoning, however, is shockingly bad. This is because Hawking makes two completely contradictory claims: On the one hand he says that Heaven is merely wishful thinking, but on the other hand he says that our brains are like computers. How can a computer – something that lacks free will – have wishful thinking – something that requires free will?

A computer, by definition, can only know what has been programmed into it. Even computers that learn still lack free will proper because they’re stuck with the programming they have. If you program a computer, say Hal 2000, to murder everyone on a space ship, then Hal 2000 will murder everyone on that ship. It might learn new and creative ways to murder the people, like sucking them into the vacuum of space, but ultimately its sole purpose is to murder everyone on the ship. Thus, the computer is stuck with its programming. I will deal with that later, but first let us look at Hawking’s belief in Heaven directly.

If this is true for humans, then where is the moral responsibility? More importantly, how does Heaven become wishful thinking if we are programmed with knowledge? Ultimately, while Hawking’s religion is science, his reasoning forces us to believe that Hawking is ultimately irrational in his beliefs.

Continue reading

Which Came First, Doctrine or Practice?

Tony Jones has put up a post talking about how the earliest of Christians were concerned about how one lives and not really about what one believes. He makes the argument that if you read the earliest texts of Christianity they were about living and not about doctrine.

But I’m curious how Jones defines “doctrine.” The most open definition simply means a set of beliefs that a church or organization teaches. If this it the case, then practice and doctrine were intertwined in the early Church. The examples he cites do encourage believers to live the right way, but then turn to doctrine to explain why they should live the right way. So which came first? Neither.

Both Christian practices and doctrines arrived at the same time and neither is the origin of the other. Rather, back then (as now) both were necessary for a Christian life; one had to know what one believed and how one should live in accordance with those beliefs. Then, as now, we discover more and more about doctrine, which in turn challenges how we should live. Some of these discoveries are also caused by how we do live. Thus, the intellectual aspect of Christianity will impact the existential impact, but in other cases the existential impact will influence the intellectual aspect of Christianity. The two work off of each other.  Continue reading