Day One - Evil and Theodicy in Modern Thought

Posted on by Jeremy Daggett

Take a deep breath, because we covered a lot of ground on the first day of class. What follows is philosophical because it’s the philosophers who asked the toughest questions. We’ll try to understand what it meant to look at the problem of evil from a modern perspective that valued science and reason and so put faith in a corner (or got rid of it altogether).

What’s fascinating about this section is that our own understanding of how the world works guides how we talk about good and evil. My own worldview mixes Christian, modern, and postmodern perspectives. Let me go ahead and give you the conclusion: postmodernity actually serves a Christian worldview by arguing that everything has a dimension of faith. Modernism is fundamentally flawed because there is no such thing as pure objectivity or pure rationality. But we start with modernism because that is still where a lot of scientists, philosophers, scholars—and just regular people—still are. Their faith is in the human capacity to reason.

Developments in theodicy require us to think about history. For a long time, evil and suffering were thought of from a “pre-critical” faith perspective that generally accepted the goodness of God despite the reality of evil. In the 17th century, the Enlightenment happened, and with it science and reason became the highest values of the Modern Age. In 1755, an earthquake devastated Lisbon and the immensity of the death and destruction brought the discussion to the forefront of academic conversation.

Four Basic Perspectives on Theodicy in Modern Thought

Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought is our guide for this section. The titles of these views are fairly self-evident, but I offer a simple explanation of how the argument plays out. I also mention some names of philosophers who held these positions, because many of them will be familiar.

  1. Optimistic: this understanding argues that the universe is ultimately rational and can be figured out. Optimism, then, takes one of two tracks—explanation or transformation. Leibniz explained that this world is the “best of all possible worlds” that God could create. Marx, on the other hand, said that the problem is economics, but we can be optimistic about humans transforming the world by defeating suffering.
  2. Pessimistic: The universe is chaotic and irrational. It exists to drive us crazy (Voltaire). We can't hope for a better world; this is all we have. If there were a designer, couldn't he have designed a world without tornadoes and earthquakes (Hume)?
  3. Illusory: There’s no need to figure this out, just live your life. Theodicy is a useless task, an illusion. You want to believe there is meaning to life because you’re afraid of a meaningless world (Freud).
  4. Agnostic: There are limits to what we can see, and reality exists beyond physical phenomena. If you want to be completely rational, then you’ll realize humans are necessarily ignorant (Kant). We can’t know, because there’s no way to know everything from what we see.

After Neiman presents these four modern perspectives, she argues that none of them are good enough in light of World War II:

If Lisbon marked the moment of recognition that traditional theodicy was hopeless, Auschwitz signaled that every replacement fared no better.

Neiman concludes that you can’t do theodicy by human reason alone. Every attempt either a) denies the reality of evil, or b) ends up in despair. Somehow, we have to learn to live with the reality of evil without the despair.

The search for meaning in the face of despair is part of what makes us human.


Bottom line: we all bring a certain set of beliefs to the table. Whether we have faith in God or faith in science, there is an element of faith present. Modernism pushed rationality to its limits. Postmodernism moves us beyond pure reason into the realm of uncertainty, where the human search for meaning may find hope.

We spent the afternoon watching the 2008 PBS movie God On Trial (script). Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz put God on trial for allowing the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Some prisoners defend God with different strategies. Others prosecute God with counterarguments. The movie does two things:

  1. It reminds us of how evil evil can really be.
  2. It introduces the complexity of theodicy, even from a Jewish faith perspective.

So, even though postmodernism allows us to build a theodicy within the a framework of faith, it is still complicated. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how God is at work in the world (i.e. providence). Then we’ll start building a theodicy as part of the Christian faith narrative.

Discussion off