Monday, April 6, 2009

The Problem of Evil (part 3)

Well, so far its been really interesting. I appreciate anyone who's still reading along at this point. High five.

So far I've laid out some basic ideas surrounding the idea that evil exists because God can't do anything about it because humans have free will/free choice and God doesn't know exactly what decisions we're going to make because God doesn't necessarily have foreknowledge. That's the summation of the past two posts, more or less.

I signed up a little while back on to be part of a blogger's book review of sorts. Basically, they send me books, I read them, then I blog about them. I have really procrastinated in writing about them, but have really enjoyed reading them. I got four books, all from Process and Faith--a group that centers their writings around process theology. Up until reading the receiving them, I was fairly ignorant as to the specifics of process theology. The first book ("Why Whitehead?" by John B Cobb, Jr.) is the script from a lecture given by Cobb about the importance of Alfred North Whitehead--a mathematician and philosopher who greatly influenced the genesis process theology. The next book, "Evolution Without Tears: A 3rd Way beyond Neo-Darwinism and Intelligent Design" by David Ray Griffin, was concise but informative. He basically lays out the 13 most important aspects of Neo-Darwinism, the critical aspects of intelligent design, and then the 13 most important parts of Whiteheadian Evolution (which seeks to reconcile the two). The third book, "What is Process Thought?" by Jay McDaniel, was particularly interesting. It lays out the history of process thought, its key ideas, what fallacies it tries to avoid, and the branches within it. The most helpful part was an appendix where he addresses the issues and controversies of process theology.

The final book, "How Are God and Evil Related?" by David Ray Griffin, was far and away the most interesting to me. Since I was already studying the concept, the book was a great read. Griffin sets up the problem of evil, historical approaches to addressing the problem (and what those views' conclusions really are), and how process theology seeks to reconcile the view of a loving God and a world with ever-present evil, suffering and pain. A major part of this book is discussing the act of Creation.

Regardless of your view on HOW Creation happened (whether by God literally creating or by God jump-starting the evolutionary process), all Creation discussion must start with a look at the opening of the book of Genesis which says (in most English translations): "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty..." Which is interesting. See, when I took Hebrew 1, this was one of the first things we translated. I remember talking with Dr Veenker about the words used here, and the class agreed a better translation (though not as literal, but more appropriate to our vernacular) was probably: "When God began creating the heaven and earth, the earth was without form and empty..."

Back to the book-- Griffin echoes this point: that creation was out of chaos rather than out of nothing. It WAS a widely held view that God created/shaped/designed the universe out of pre-existing chaotic matter. (Most Jewish translations of Genesis still translate it "When God began creating..." When Genesis still existed only in Hebrew, the idea was fairly universal from what I've found.) Long story short, along comes this dude named Marcion, espousing the idea that evil exists because the things causing it (human or otherwise) were made from evil matter. In reaction to that, guys like Tertullian and Irenaeus supported a new idea of creation "ex nihilo," meaning creation "out of nothing." (Its easy to deny the world being made from evil matter if it was made from nothing.) But Hermogenes and others warned that this "ex nihilo" would leave Christians (as Griffin says) with a big hole in the argument: with this view, there is no explanation for evil. You see, if we were made from chaos, then there is still chaos in all of us. God did not put it there, it was simply already there. Since God gave humans free will, and they already had chaos within them, then they had the power to digress to that chaos at times. But if the universe and all that is in it was created out of nothing, then God is responsible for all matter. Good matter or bad matter, its all God's doing. Needless to say, Tertullian's views became the prevalent perspective and Hermogenes was labeled a heretic by his peers who stood in opposition to his views. (Funny how that happens.)

But what if we returned to the Genesis idea of "creation out of chaos?" What implications follow along with that viewpoint?

Griffin says there are four variables now: 1, the capacity to enjoy positive value; 2, the capacity to suffer evil; 3, the power of self-determination or freedom; 4, the power to influence others (for good or bad). Basically he says that there is a necessary positive correlation between the points--meaning that if one of the variables goes up, so do the others. Follow me here: compare a cat and a human using this chart. Think about the cat. It can enjoy positive value (good things) in life. It can suffer evil. It has freedom to make some of its own choices. It has the power to influence others. Now compare the cat to the human. The human can do all of these things as well, but to a MUCH greater level than the cat. While we (humans) have the capacity for far greater good than the cat, we also have the capacity to create far greater amounts of evil. Process theology holds this to be very important because it answers a critical question: "Why didn't God create a world with all the good but without the bad?" A process theologian's response would be: because he couldn't. In a world where there was a capacity for humans to experience great joy, love and happiness, there would also be the opportunity for hate, loss, and pain. For God to create beings with the freedom to choose good but no freedom to choose bad means there is no real freedom. The beings in that situation would have no choice--they would be robots who do good all the time. This is probably the biggest pro and con for the free will argument.

What does all this mean?

While God is still responsible for everything, she is not blameworthy. If God has created humans with the capacity for the best "good" experiences, then humans also have the capacity for the worst "bad" experiences. If humans have the freedom of choice and God has no foreknowledge of what those choices are (good or evil), then God cannot stop them. Therefore, God is not responsible for the pain, suffering, and evil that is ever-present on the Earth.

All of this is dependent upon the rejection of the idea of creation "ex nihilo." I don't have the time or energy to write a defense of this, so feel free to spend time researching, reading and investigating the idea for yourself. I just don't find it to be a clear idea Biblically. So when you throw the assumption of creation "out of nothing" out the window, it raises lots of other questions. That's how I ended up here. That's how I can sleep at night. God is love. God didn't create evil. God didn't predestine evil. God created order out of chaos. We all have some of this chaos in us. We also have the freedom of self-determinism. In this freedom is the ability to choose really good and really bad things. While God knows about every choice we could make, he doesn't know what choice we will actually make. Therefore, if we choose really bad things, we are responsible for the outcome of those choices and not God.

Wow. That was a lot of writing. I hope this made some sense (as far as my perspective and argument goes). Up next is "The Problem of Evil (part 4)." In it, I wanna talk about God's nature and how it would be different if he has no foreknowledge.


Kickert said...

I have come to the same conclusion. The universe (this term is being loosely used) and God have both always been. In conversation I talk about God works with the "primordial gunk" to create. This "gunk" is neither good nor bad (or is both good and bad) but the idea is while it needs redeeming, it is not automatically evil.

As for the Hebrew. I can't quite go there with you. You see, the word bara (create) is a Qal perfect. This indicates a simple action, that as a whole, is complete. It really is the most straight-forward verb stem possible. "God created" is really the best translation, although I could give you "God creates" if you were talking about what happens generally in creation, rather than describing a past event.

What you could argue is that Gen 1:2 describes the scene before God created the world. (i.e. before God created, the earth was formless and void). This actually clears things up later in the Genesis 1 account and it does not require linguistic gymnastics.

Now, Genesis 2:4 is much more ambiguous because all of the verbs are infinitives. By nature, these verbes (create, make) are atemporal and do not convey any time or aspect. In other words, only context dictates whether these are past, present, future, completed, or ongoing. Furthermore, the word traditionally translated as "accounts" is actually the word for generations, which would provide an argument for various stages of creation. The following translation would be faithful to the Hebrew: These [are] generations of the heaven and the earth being created (as created / which were created). in the day of YHWH God's making of earth and heaven (in the day YHWH God made the earth and heavens).

jason said...

I'm still processing this - so bear with me.

I don't think you have to reject "ex nihilo" in order to affirm what you have affirmed. I think people could reject process theology and yet affirm that God didn't want to create mindless robots. Without rehashing your whole argument, anyone that affirms free will can affirm these things while adhering to ex nihilo. I am not sure I agree that subscribing to ex nihilo would make God the author of evil. If God has given us free will, the logical end to that is we could potentially choose something other than God - which we call sin. If God's goal in creating was to extend Trinitarian relationship outward, authentic relationship requires free will and free will requires a second option.

Talk to me about a rejection of ex nihilo. What are the worldview implications for this? Are God and "chaos" locked in an eternal epic battle (like He-Man and Skeletor / the Smurfs and Gargamel)?

I think the thing that I am struggling with is that if there is chaos that is outside of God's control, then is this "chaos" equal with God? Talk to me about where scripture points to dualistic chaos.

Now we will have something to talk to the guys at the gym about :)

Jeremiah said...

I have always thought it was weird that people thought of evil as existing in/as material like the 'flesh.' So my question is how do you think that evil could exist in non-rational, non-thinking matter?

JD said...

Sorry--I slacked off about responding. I'll get to it. Swear...

Justin Guest said...

Referring to your recap of previous posts, do you believe God is outside of time? How could God not know exactly what decisions we're going to make if He lives outside the time in which we make them. Even if he wasn't all knowing would he just be able to see what's going to happen?

Paul S Markle said...

John David,

I am coming into this discussion late and have not read your first two posts re: evil. Your ideas and thoughts definitely got me to thinking. You commented,

"While God knows about every choice we could make, he doesn't know what choice we will actually make. Therefore, if we choose really bad things, we are responsible for the outcome of those choices and not God."

One of my questions is if there is something God does not "know" then how does that fit in with the perspective of His omniscience? How could He know about every "choice" yet not know what "decision" we make? If He is not omniscient, then He is not omnipresent either is He, and if those are true then is He omnipotent?

If God "doesn't necessarily have foreknowledge," about the decisions we make then His perspective is not eternal, but rather limited or temporal. My thinking has been for some time He desires my perspective to become more eternal and less temporal. I am aware of some scripture that suggests (not knowing a lot about Hebrew or Greek) God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent.

I suppose my question is how would you make the argument you present in light of those Godly characteristics, or do my comments have nothing to do with the issue?

Also I agree with the notion that god is not "blameworthy" and that we must choose between good and evil. We made the wrong choice and became separated from God therefore suffering the consequences until we accept His merciful offer of propitiating grace.

Anyway great discussion! Thanks for making me think and feel free to tear into my perspective.

JD said...

Ben, I know the Genesis translation involves breaking some "typical" grammar rules. So I can understand your view.

Jason, I think "ex nihilo" isn't necessarily a biblical idea. Supporting it causes more questions than it answers. I don't think God is battling the chaos. I think the chaos just... is. Its in nature, its in us. I don't think God is "in control" of everything. How can free will be a possibility if God is in control of everything? How can we make choices in that instance? Or am I reading too much into what you're saying. Just because God doesn't "control" the chaos doesn't mean he's not more powerful than it. I still believe in an "almighty" and "sovereign" God and reject the "ex nihilo" idea.

Jeremiah, your question is a good one. Heavy though. Give me some time to flesh it out.

Justin and Paul both bring up a good point: isn't time a "non-linear" to God? If she is outside of time, wouldn't she able to "see" all events? That's an interesting topic. I suppose, like many things, that God chooses to limit herself. Take prayer: why would we bother praying if God already knows what we're going to say? What if God chooses to limit herself so our prayers can be legit? God can really listen. That make sense? Perhaps its the same thing here. Perhaps God can't see beyond the decisions that aren't yet made. Perhaps she has a better view at things, but that doesn't mean God KNOWS everything. Or perhaps this is a weak spot in my argument and I need to admit it and think it over more. Lol...

And Paul, I get your "omni" progression point--it makes sense. Please read my earlier two posts on the matter and let me know if they clear up that question. I think they will...

Thanks people! More soon...

Paul S Markle said...

John David,

Okay I am more on board with some of your points after reading parts 1 and 2 (sorry should have taken the time to read them first.) I also agree with Jason's point re: "foreknowledge" and "fore-ordainment." I believe one thing God cannot do is violate our free will. To me this helps explain how evil exits and God "allows" it to happen.

I believe God knew the Holacaust was going to occur before the earth was formed. Rather than asking "why," as a systems thinker I ask for example, "what could possibly be 'good' about Hitler attempting to slaughter a whole race of people," or what does God ultimately desire for me and the rest of us. The answer to the first question is nothing I am aware of. However, my awareness compared to God's is like comparing a thimble full of water to the Pacific ocean. Regarding the second question I believe we would agree a simple answer is for us to grow to be more like her.

My perception of God is as a grieving parent who hates many of the choices his children make because it causes them harm. He rejoices when we make a positive choice. As a parent I don't hate my kid because he makes a decision rife with negative consequences, but at the same time I can't stop him.

One possible fallacy I see to your argument is the frequent either/or perspective you take as if good is exclusive of evil and vice versa, or perhaps I misinterpret that. If that were the case how is it God found "David a man after his own heart," yet David committed murder (by complicity) and adultery? Perhaps in his judgment God is an either/or God, but in his love he is both/and.

Re:our example of prayer I agree God does not know the exact words we are going to speak, but the Holy Spirit makes our hearts known to God.

This leads to my concluding thought. In your argument re: evil I agree God did not cause it and that we allow it to run rampant. So how does the third person of the trinity figure into your argument about evil etc?

good stuff dude. We need to throw some D.G. and consider the cosmos of whether the designers of Keriakes were evil... :-)