Friday, April 06, 2012

Eat your spinach, it's good for you

I'm not quite sure how I got on the mailing list of Notre Dame University's Center for Philosophy of Religion. I have written extensively on topics of mutual concern. And I am an eight-year graduate of the university with a sincere affection for my alma mater. In any case, I am happy to receive the Center's occasional newsletter.

Let me say at once that I find much to admire about the Center and its mission. Their investigations, although grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition, are open to insights from other traditions, including the likes, apparently, of agnostics like me. The current fellows profiled in the latest newsletter appear to be a lively mix of inquiring minds.

Prominent among the Center's research topics is the "Problem of Evil in Modern and Contemporary Thought." Brave of them to take on a question that has bedeviled theists for thousands of years: Why does an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil in the world? If God loves us unreservedly, why do the innocent suffer, sometimes excruciating agony?

Traditional "resolutions" of the paradox are grounded in our ignorance: We cannot know what God has in mind when he allows suffering. As Gary Gutting writes in the current newsletter: "We have no way of knowing whether we humans might be the victims of necessity. For example, we do not know whether there is or will be some other, far more advanced, species for whose sake God will allow us to be annihilated or suffer endlessly." Or as others say: God allows suffering for the benefit of the sufferer in ways, in our ignorance, we cannot comprehend.

For example, the "free-will solution" to the problem of evil suggests that (as Gutting writes) "the freedom of moral agents may be an immense good, worth God's tolerating horrendous wrong-doing."

One might think this "solution" of the problem of evil would satisfy an agnostic; after all, we are ever ready to admit our ignorance. But the ignorance of the skeptical theist and the ignorance of the agnostic, I would contend, are of different sorts. The first allows one to believe what one already assumes to be true; the second fences one's knowledge about with unknowing.

For the skeptical theist, ignorance is an invitation; for the agnostic, ignorance is a caution.

(I will be traveling this weekend. Anne will be here Sunday. I’ll be back on Wednesday.)