We interrupt our regularly scheduled “thoughts about phrases” programming – because it’s midterms – for a brief book review interlude. I’m swamped with papers, projects, presentations and another writing deadline so today, I would just like to offer my brief thoughts on a text I was assigned to read for my “Theodicy” class. “Theodicy,” for those that are unfamiliar with the term, is basically “the problem of evil.” One common formulation of it comes to us from Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, which I will paraphrase: “If God can stop evil (as in, is all-powerful) but does not, then God is not good. If God wants to stop evil (as in, is all-loving) but cannot, God is not really God (something else would be more powerful, namely, evil). If God can stop evil and wants to stop evil, whence then this evil?”
The fact that gratuitous and relentless evil is undeniable is sometimes a terminal barrier to faith. This “protest atheism” says that, because evil abounds like wild dogs, a good, loving God could not possibly exist. The theodical question is often formulated as “why did this evil event occur if God is good?” and, without reaching a satisfactory answer, people turn from God. Swinton’s work, which I highly recommend, offers a different approach to the “problem” of evil and thus, different answers. His basic premise is that evil is not a philosophical construct to be intellectually explained, but a practical reality for any and at some point all of us to be addressed and resisted. His is one of the voices hoping to encourage the creation of communities that can absorb or bear up under life’s inevitable suffering and calls the Church not to theoretical platitudes such as “Everything happens for a reason,” “God has a plan,” “If God brought you to it, God will bring you through it,” and the like, but to embodied, enacted love that defies evil and cares for those who are victims of it.
I think this book is a much-needed study, not merely of the problem of evil, but in how to respond more helpfully to suffering and more faithfully to God. I don’t agree with all of his points, of course, but I’d love to be in conversation with those of you who may choose to work through Swinton’s project. It’s 200+ pages, but it’s easy to follow. Though he does present what I assume is a new approach to most people of a Western, post-Enlightenment, technology-saturated mindset, a change in perspective and a shift in the conversation is, for me at least, a healing balm.