A Graduate-Level Class Called “Providence and Suffering”

Posted on by Jeremy Daggett

I’m sitting in on a class this week called “Providence and Suffering.” The class exists to consider the problem of evil. That is, how can we believe in a “good God” in the face of evil and suffering in the world?

Since I’m not doing any of the required coursework, I’m assigning myself the task of summarizing what we talk about each day. Some say that the best writing comes when you’re writing with a specific audience in mind. So this week I’m writing for an audience of two. I’m writing this for my wife, Katie, who is working all week so that I can be in this class, and my brother, Seth, with whom I have the opportunity to have deep conversations on a regular basis.

I know they’ll read it. You're welcome to as well.

Claiming Humanity

First of all, this is way over my head. This sort of question heads straight off into philosophical directions that my friend Drew, Masters of Philosophy candidate at Boston College, would be way better equipped to answer. But if I don’t even try to explain it, what’s the point of taking the class?

Second, I want to be careful about what I say about suffering. As someone who has suffered very little in my lifetime, I can do a lot of damage with generalizations and simplistic answers. In fact, in most cases it would probably be better for me just to keep my mouth shut and simply be present with someone who is experiencing suffering.

We spent the first hour of class getting to know each other—especially in the context of what suffering we have experienced. The conversation has to start there, with relationship, because that’s what it means to be human.

What is Theodicy?

There comes a time when questions will be asked in the face of evil. Why would God allow this natural disaster to happen? How can humans do such horrible things to other humans?

Any attempt to answer such questions is called “theodicy.” Susan Neiman, in Evil in Modern Thought defines theodicy this way:

Theodicy in the broad sense is any way of giving meaning to evil that helps us face despair.

The search for meaning in the face of evil, then, doesn’t mean that you are a Christian or believe in God. Since the 18th century, there have been a number of different answers given for the problem of evil from both theists and atheists. Neiman presents four of the main arguments, all of which come from a modern worldview. In my next post, I’ll try to summarize these perspectives and show how postmodernity has actually reframed the question—for the better.

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