Recently, Dr. Terryl Givens has published a two part series via Meridian Magazine dealing with the problem of evil. Being a long time reader of Givens’ frankly excellent books on Mormonism, and being aware of his forthcoming volumes on theology, I was very excited to read these. Part 1 was excellent, with its reference to the Brothers Karamazov, and adeptly setting up an adequate description of what the problem portion of the problem of evil is. Givens doesn’t call it that, focusing instead on “the problem of God’s justice”, perhaps intent on limiting his focus, but he does promise “to reconcile the understanding of a God who weeps over pain but does not prevent the pain–how to reconcile that understanding with the reality of a world drenched in pain and suffering?” So, I’d say this puts forward the promise of a theodicy.
While I could say many nice things about Givens’ theodicy, for the sake of brevity, I am going to limit myself to two points where I feel it falls short:
1. Not all suffering is the result of agency. Over 10,000 are dead in Sendai, with thousands more mentally, physically, or economically damaged. Givens seems to completely ignore the greater piece of the problem of evil, which is that God allows natural disasters to occur. While I agree with Givens’ basic concept that choosing an action means choosing a consequence, there are events that are not the result of moral agency. A person can choose to do good and still not be protected by God from the sting of loss. While it may be a principle of belief that all will eventually be made right for said person, this does not alleviate the problem of suffering for the near term. I will put in the notes at the end some authors which I feel do more adequately cover this issue.
2. Givens’ conception of Justice and Atonement are extremely unclear to me in this article. First, the concept of Justice here requires that good always begets good, and evil begets evil, but practical experience shows this to not be the case (See issue #1). Further, the Book of Mormon itself denies this, even with its scriptural push for obedience equaling prosperity. The Prosperity therein does not preclude suffering, for Nephi starts out with his own statement that he has seen many afflictions, and yet has been blessed. Secondly, Givens draws a hard anti-Calvinist line in the sand, and [perhaps] rightfully so, noting that “salvation in …spite of one’s choices [is] a destruction of agency”. He makes a good argument here, except that he then explains the atonement as follows:
“Christ bears the consequences of all the wrong choices that have ever been made, to assure, to guarantee, the principle of moral agency, maintaining the law of restoration and the equilibrium of choice and consequence, thereby permitting an errant human kind to repent, or as the word signifies, to re-decide, to choose afresh. The law of agency requires that choices of moral moment eventuate in their decreed consequences. But so many of our choices, made in our frailty, entail catastrophic pain and suffering. Christ is willing to bear that pain and suffering in our stead, that we may re-employ our agency to better ends. The atonement, then, does not eliminate or override individual agency; it reaffirms its status as the precondition for all meaningful existence.”
This is confusing to me. Leaving aside for a moment that this sounds like basic penal-substitution theory, if the consequence of my choices is pain and suffering, and Christ bears that for us, isn’t that “salvation in spite of our choices”? To further complicate the issue, if the atonement allows us to “choose afresh”, then the consequence of sin is destruction of agency, but the consequence of salvation, as outlined above is also destruction of agency.
While I am somewhat disappointed in Givens’ Theodicy as presented at Meridian Magazine, I am optimistic that he will produce a much better and more in-depth analysis in his forthcoming Theology Books.
Authors I feel do a better job of covering the problem of natural suffering:
David L. Paulsen- This is perhaps the greatest devotional attempt at covering the issue.
Jim Faulconer- Sadly, “Another Look at the Problem of Theodicy” seems to no longer be available online, but here is a more recent taste of what Faulconer is about.
Blake Ostler- Aaron R puts Blake’s perspective very succinctly here.
To be fair:
Last, I can’t offer this much criticism toward another without exposing myself to the same, so here is where Geoff eviscerated my own attempt at an atonement centric theodicy.