Monday, May 16, 2011


As a two-time graduate of the University of Notre Dame, I get occasional mailings from the university, including their excellent quarterly alumni magazine, which is surely one of the most handsome and engaging alumni magazines in the country.

Yesterday, for some reason, I received the spring newsletter of the university's new Center for Philosophy of Religion.

An interesting read. Fellows at the center include Catholics, mainstream Protestants, evangelical Christians, and at least one acknowledged agnostic. All getting along swell and learning from each other. Sam Harris, the arch-atheist, was a recent guest. What a difference from the 1950s, when everyone but RCs were assumed to be on the highway to hell. I believe I have mentioned here before that my undergraduate apologetics text was Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity, the premise of which was if you don't accept Catholic orthodoxy you are insane.

The Center is now in its second year addressing the problem of evil: Why does undeserved suffering exist in a world that is created and sustained by a loving and all-powerful God? A lively topic, to be sure, and more power to them. The newsletter gives no indication of a solution.

The problem has been around at least since the beginning of Christianity. As far as I can see, there have been only two proposed solutions that can hold water:

1) A loving, all-powerful God does not exist; or

2) God's ways are inscrutable to humans, including theologians and philosophers of religion.

There is a third "solution," that of Aquinas: Any suffering of the just on Earth is outweighed by blissful union with God in the afterlife. Which more or less assumes what one is trying to prove.

I don’t see much in the newsletter that moves the discussion beyond Aquinas and Leibniz, which suggests that philosophy may not have much new to offer in resolving the age-old conundrum. As for myself, I'll stick with Ockham's Razor, which suggests a healthy agnosticism. I have no proof that the principle of parsimony is valid, but it has served science well, and led us into the world of the galaxies and DNA, big bang and quarks, cosmic space and geologic time. Meanwhile, the problem of theodicy squats on square one.

Ockham's Razor suggests that love, justice and evil are human concepts, having nothing to do with tsetse flies and tsunamis. If bad things happen to good people, well, maybe that's just the way things are and a loving, all-powerful God has nothing to do with it.