Monday, December 06, 2004

Antitheodicy of Protest

I can think of several types of theodicy, i.e., justifications of evil, but there is one that seems especially relevant to our time. In fact, it is not actually a theodicy but more of an antitheodicy insofar as it does not propose a justificatory rationale at all. It is the antitheodicy of protest.

Drawing on Peter Berger's work The Sacred Canopy, let me define the concept of a theodicy in nontheological terms. It is the exposition of a nomos to give structure and order to the anomic phenomena of human experience. A nomos provides a sense of meaning and purpose where life seems senseless and random. As such, it is more than a mechanistic explanation of some causal nexus; rather, it is an existential account of the relation of the event of anomie to the subject's lived experience of it. For example, such a nomos does more than the provide the scientific information necessary to grasp the growth of cancer cells in the human body, but instead offers a purposive account of why such a thing should be happening to me now. For the Azande tribes in north central Africa, a nomos provides more than a scientific account of the decomposition of the molecular structure of the wood granaries caused by termites; instead, the nomos of witchcraft explains why one of those granaries, which often provide shade on hot days, should have happened to collapse on an entire family at precisely the moment when they were sitting under it.

I can think of several types of theodicies which provide such an existential nomos: systems of karma, dualistic systems which posit superhuman forces of good and evil (e.g., Manichaeism), forms of participation in which one's suffering is relativized to a greater whole (as when self-sacrifice earns merit for one's ancestors or when the suffering of a soldier serves the greater good of the nation), and messianic systems in which some sort of redeemer figure provides a final judgment which balances the scales of justice in a final coup (whether in this world in the form of a revolutionary overturning of the social order, or in an afterlife).

In terms of the theological form of theodicy, the Augustinian recompense theodicy posits the justification of God's permission of evil as a punishment of sin. This goes for babies too, even those who suffer and die in a war zone. Augustine once said he saw one baby look with envy at another drinking its milk; if you take the mind of the baby and put it in the body of an adult, you'd have a monster full of greed, envy, and malice. But Augustine seems to get carried away with the notion of original sin. As a state or condition of human existence, I can accept it, but not as a deed which merits punishment. Besides, as the limerick goes,

The rain falls equally upon the just
and the unjust fella,
but mainly on the just because the unjust
stole the just's umbrella.

Who really believes that punishment is meted out fairly?

One can look at the problem of innocent suffering as in service of a greater good--either as a necessary condition for the possibility of free will, or as the source of moral development, e.g., John Hick's soul-making. There is also process theology's qualification of God's omnipotence. Without examining each of these, I think it is important not to make the mistake that Eliphaz, Zophar, et al. make when discussing Job's predicament. They all purport to have a quick answer by which to interpret his experience: it is because Job has sinned and is being punished; it is God's discipline of Job for which he should be grateful; it is Job's tongue which dares to question God that causes his pain; the moral law provides a calculus by which one can guarantee one's destiny because it is a contract to which God is ineluctably bound; etc. God, in the form of a whirlwind, indicates at the end that these friends (especially Elihu who presumed to speak for God) were wrong. All they have done is trivialize his pain and suffering. This is what should be avoided above all else. (Incidentally, Job's theodicy is also an antitheodicy. He despairs of ever gaining access to the wisdom with which he could interpret his experience, and he instead submits to the will of God and "repents in dust and ashes." Such a theodicy of submission is an antitheodicy.)

In our situation, we ought to follow Job's lead and refuse the pat explanations of evil which reduce the reality of innocent suffering to something less than the truly tragic experience that it is. In a sense, to offer a theodicy is to justify the presence of evil in the world as though it is acceptable, but there are elements of human experience which are simply unacceptable. Job's dialogue is also an theodicy of protest. Again, this is an antitheodicy insofar as it resists evil in spite of its inability to dispel the anomie with a nomos. This antitheodicy puts us in the position to protest the innocent suffering without minimizing it and without despairing of the energy to resist it. Job's friends offer no resistance to evil, only complacent acceptance. The prophetic tradition stemming from Amos calls on us to protest injustice, not to explain it away as an inevitability of free will. This protest does not offer a purpose for evil, but it gives us purpose in spite of purposelessness.

How did I get on this whole line of thought? In an era completely dominated by Republican ideologues, the theme of protest seems especially relevant.

And now for a little levity to round out an otherwise rather ponderous post. A short lesson in comparative religion (see here for a more complete lesson):

Taoism: Shit happens.
Confucianism: Confucius say, Shit happens.
Buddhism: If shit happens, it is not really shit.
Zen Buddhism: What is the sound of shit happening?
Islam: If shit happens, it is the will of Allah.
Hinduism: This shit has happened before.
Protestantism: Let shit happen to someone else.
Catholicism: If shit happens, you deserved it.
Judaism: Why does this shit always happen to us?
Jehovah's Witness: Let me in your house, and I'll explain why shit happens.
Agnosticism: What is this shit?
Atheism: I don't believe this shit.
Nihilism: No shit.
Antitheodicy of Protest: I can't take this shit.


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