Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Theodicy of Protest: John K Roth (Part 1)

"Could you have done better?""Yes, I think so.""You could have done better? Then what are you waiting for? You don't have a minute to waste, go ahead, start working!"


The attempt to reconcile God's existence with the presence of evil and suffering in the world (theodicy), typically finds the objector asking, 'Why doesn't God do something about it?' The point here being that as far as this person is concerned, God could and should do something to limit or even prevent evil and suffering from occurring in the world.

In Christian theology the most popular responses to the problem of evil have argued that either evil and suffering is our fault (Freewill Defense), or for our benefit (Irenaean Theodicy). Some have also suggested that God cannot actually do anything to prevent evil and suffering from occurring due to limitations in God’s essential Being (Process Theodicy). But despite their different approaches and solutions, each of these theodicies deny the suggestion that it is God who is the cause of the problem. However for John Roth, the problem of evil actually begins there. 

As far as Roth is concerned, God's supposed sovereignty (control over everything) and omnipotence (power to do anything), means God could and should be able to do something about evil and suffering. As there is evil and suffering in the world, we must surely draw the conclusion that God does not really want to do anything about it. In fact, Roth goes so far as to say that God's persistent inactivity means God is directly responsible for evil and suffering, and that our reasonable response to this situation should a form of protest that enough is enough.

He also believes we should give up on a false image of God, one that suggests God is benevolent (all-good) and always seeking to do the best for us. As far as Roth is concerned, in the matter of evil and suffering God has done too little for too long, especially when one considers the numerous and extensive atrocities committed by humanity to humanity over the course of history.

Evil as waste

Most Christians regard evil as something which works against God's intended purpose for things. Roth likes to re-define evil as 'waste'; actions (or things) that happen which are simply pointless:
"Evil happens whenever power ruins or squanders, or whenever it fails to forestall those results." (John Roth)
Roth considers the amount of 'waste' in the world to be the standard against which we assess the level of good and bad in individuals, societies and even God. So the greater the amount of evil and suffering, the greater the amount of 'waste', and vice versa.
"When we see atrocities such as the events of the Holocaust being committed, we might talk about this as being a senseless waste of human life. Now when we speak this way, we are considering certain actions as being 'evil', due to the pointless loss of life and suffering involved in them. Roth is re-defining the notion of 'evil' in precisely this way." (John Roth)
Of course, some people would argue that the 'screams of pain' (as Roth calls them), are the means by which greater things occur. In the Bible we read that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8:28). Theories of cosmic and biological evolution are also largely based on the premise that death and destruction are a necessary feature of the universe, and the means by which new life may develop and evolve. So the myriads of extinct species over the course of history are not to be understood as 'waste', but just part of the way things are.

Roth does not take such a positive views of things. For him, too much has been lost over the years and as such God must be held accountable:
"History is the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been sacrificed." (John Roth)
The wisdom and character of God

Many Christians would argue that our having freewill is what makes us unique, and that without this freedom we would simply be moral robots. The decision to give us freewill has also limited what God could do. For instance, God could not give us freewill and make us to only capable of choosing to do good things. Roth's response to this is, ‘If God is supposed to be all-knowing and all-good, how 'cost-effective' was God's decisions to allow humans to have freewill?’

History shows that there has been a significant amount of waste (evil) in the world, caused by a misuse of freewill. The events of the Holocaust are a notable example, when millions of lives were unnecessarily 'thrown away'. So we have to wonder, was the decision to give humans freewill a good one, for it appears this has been a costly decision. Also, to say human freewill has limited God in some way is nonsense. Most Christians believe God is omnipotent (all-powerful), which means that in theory, God can do anything. Furthermore, to say God is limited due to human freewill would appear to contradict the notion of freewill God has given to us, who are created in God's image (Genesis 1:26f)). If God only chooses to do good things, why not humans also (who are created in God’s image)? It is simply nonsense to suggest that humans have freewill to do whatever they want, but that God does not have the same degree of freedom.

So in light of this Roth believes we must reject the idea that God is limited, and instead draw from the evidence which suggests that God not only chose to allow history to follow a wasteful route, but that 'such a wasteful God cannot be totally benevolent'.

Of course, most Christians would be very unhappy with this analysis of the situation, for the simple reason that God cannot be blamed simply because humanity (constantly) gets it wrong. Roth obviously disagrees! He argues that it was God who started history, and therefore it is God who has allowed it to become what it is. Furthermore, God was the one who put in place the 'boundaries' for creation, and as such it was God who set-up the system under which humans have to live:
"To the extent that [humans] are born with the potential and power to be dirty, credit for that fact belongs elsewhere… 'Elsewhere' is God's address."(John Roth)
So the 'misuse of freewill argument' does not negate God of all (or any) responsibility, but simply leaves the question begging as to why God chose to give humans freewill in the first place, especially if God had some idea of what might happen as a result of doing this.

How useful is freewill anyway

For Roth, the freedom we have been given is not only too much, but also too little. We have the freedom to do a great many things (good and bad), yet appear to be unable to find to cures for some of the worst illnesses (E.g. cancer, aids). We have the freedom to make real choices, yet tend to have very little 'choice' in life-or-death situations. So our freedom is useless in those times. Freewill cannot prevent the corpses from piling up. So what value is there in giving humans freewill, especially if it is incapable of preventing more and more 'waste' from building up in the universe?

A limited God is an impotent God

So what about the argument that God is not really omnipotent or omniscient, but only in a limited sense (which is the same as saying God is not omnipotent or omniscient)? In a Process Theodicy these revisions to God's character are actually intended to help explain why evil and suffering occurs in the world, and in doing so protect the notion of God's benevolence (the belief that God only and always does the best thing possible).  Roth believes a God who is not truly omnipotent (or omniscient) is ineffectual and weak. Furthermore, this view of God is not supported by the myriad of biblical examples, where God appears to have the power (and desire) to significantly change the events of history. If God is able to part seas, make the sun go back and raise the dead, then surely God had the ability to prevent something like the Holocaust from occurring? If we say God did not have the power to do this, then how could God do these other things we read about in the Bible?

Of course, if we say that God has the power but chooses not to act, then Roth believes such a God is morally dubious and not worth bothering with either. As the philosopher David Hume famously surmised:
"Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent." (David Hume)
The bottom line is…

Although some people believe that God is working to make things better in the world (i.e. bringing about God's kingdom on earth), Roth does not see any evidence of this happening from the way things are (and have always been): 
"All gains are precarious, periodic and problematic. Life is one damned problem after another." (John Roth)
As such we should give up relying on the hope and expectation that things might get better, or fight for them to become better. We should also give up the idea that there will be some future event/act of God (or whatever), which will justify all the wasted life. Such waste can never, should never, and will never be justified as far as Roth is concerned. In what way might the cries of millions of souls lost at the Holocaust, ever be silenced by some so-called 'greater good' in the future? What could possibly begin to justify their loss, and why should they become the means to that end anyway?

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