The problem of evil is evident all around us, from the
suffering of Steeles daughter to the political oppression of indigent
cultures, to the child born with Cystic Fibrosis. But while problem of evil
and genetic intricacies make for interesting conversation among theologians and
scientists, can the ordinary person gain much from these discussions? Adrian
Wyard, co-director of the Science and Suffering conference, presented his own
personal attempt to tie the academic treatment of Christian theologys problem
of evil with his own lay-persons perspective on the dilemma.
The God described
by traditional Christian theology is all-powerful, and completely good, Wyard
says. But while these are fine qualities for a God, they set up on of the
greatest challenges for Judeo-Christian theology, the problem of suffering.
Historically, Wyard says, there have been several ways of
interpreting the cause or meaning of suffering within religious contexts. Here
are some common ones:
1] Evil Spirits or Forces. This view attributes suffering,
whether it be disease or poor crops, to the hopefully temporary triumph of dark
spiritual forces which are constantly battling good forces in the unseen
2] Just Desserts. If we suffer, we must have sinned somehow
and therefore deserve the suffering as punishment. God is just by definition,
so we have no one to blame but ourselves for what comes our way. There is the
possibility of intergenerational suffering too; children are cursed because of
the sins of their forebears.
3] Trials and Rewards. God is testing us to see if we will
remain faithful through hardship. If we successfully endure our trials then we
will reap rewards, either in this life, or in the afterlife.
4] Nature is Fallen. This approach points to Genesis 1 as
a description of an ancient utopian existence that was corrupted with
suffering, death and disease because of mans sin.
We could begin to identify the merits and flaws of each of
these ideas, Wyard says, but they all share one significant problem - they
dont address the underlying paradox; how can a totally good and totally
powerful God allow suffering at all? Either God is not all-powerful or
God chooses not to exercise Gods power to alleviate suffering. It seems as
though we cant have it both ways, Wyard says; either God is not completely
good, or He is not completely powerful.
How do we reconcile this problem with our understanding of
who God is? According to Wyard, process theologians have resolved the problem
by proposing that God is not all-powerful in the traditional sense, and is
therefore not capable of miraculously fixing suffering, and so the paradox does
not occur. Traditional Christian theology, however, Wyard says, makes very
definite claims about the reality of overt divine intervention. Thus, if were
going to try and find a way to make this all work together we obviously need
to be prepared for a bumpy ride.
Why would a good God create a world so full of suffering?
Saint Augustine answered this question by pointing to the Fall of humankind,
in which the initially idyllic setting of Eden as Gods preferred order for
nature was corrupted with death and suffering when man misused his freedom
and acquired more knowledge of good and evil than was good for him. The current
order of nature, including death and suffering, is therefore traced back
ultimately to mans misguided actions, and not to Gods will, Wyard says.
Unfortunately, this Augustinian idea does not reconcile well with the history
of the Earth revealed by science.
Iranaeus, on the other hand, paints Adam as an innocent,
immature, creature living in a garden thats pleasant, but not necessarily
heaven-like. Adam ignores Gods warnings about the danger of acquiring
knowledge of good and evil, and when he attains it, his life changes
drastically. But unlike Augustine, Wyard says, the Fall is not from an
idyllic state, and the acquisition of moral wisdom - and the suffering that comes
with this capacity - is not entirely bad since it is a step along the path of maturity.
So then, inasmuch as our environment is one which leads to our maturity, this
greater good will justify the suffering along the way and is therefore
consistent with Gods goodness.
We also need to draw a distinction between natural evil
(i.e. genetic disorders, avalanches, hurricanes etc.) and moral evil (the free
actions of murders, rapists, etc.) While we can grasp that in order to be more
than robots, we need to have freedom to commit evil, how do we explain
suffering which results from natural evil, such as genetic disease?
Wyard suggests the possibility that since we choose to make
our own way, and God will not violate our free will, He has warped the whole
landscape of nature in the hope that our free choices might head us in the
right direction. Like a ski-slope, both dangers and pleasures are potential
human experiences of the landscape. Although the choice of which route to take
is ours, all routes from the top lead the skier to the bottom. Misfortunes,
such as avalanches, arise simply because they are characteristic of the
landscape. The unfortunate side-effect of a steep world designed for soul
making is that avalanches can, and do happen, Wyard says.
But while the Iranean answer may be partially satisfactory,
Wyard says, it seems there is a distinction between everyday pain, and what we
might call unjustified suffering - suffering rooted not in human
decisions of free will or seeming lessons taught by God. Do we really have an
answer for the suffering that seems truly unjustified? Wyard asks. Can we
explain the genocide of World War II? Why does God not act in these
Wyard suggests that only one barely satisfying line of
reasoning stands here - the concept of transcendent causes, causes so
worthwhile that they supercede (transcend) the value of individual
happiness. War, in which nations understand that hardship is necessary for the
needs of the many, is one example of a transcendent cause. And perhaps a more
contemporary application of this concept of transcendent causes is the idea of
the maturing - we could even say the evolution - of humanity, Wyard says.
Wherever there is suffering, there is an opportunity for a decision to love,
an opportunity for heroism. It seems love, heroism and happy-suffering are the
kinds of qualities we must learn if we are to progress from a self-centered,
war-mongering species into caring, other-centered kind of people. What we must
understand, however, is that while a the steepness of life may be to our
collective benefit, it many not be to my individual benefit,
Wyard says. Tragic circumstances may only make fractional sense when viewed
from a transcendent perspective.
The transcendent cause, the life we should strive toward,
Wyard says is the life of Jesus, one which appeared in the immediate human
context to be full of unjustifiable suffering and failure, but which was in
the transcendent context the ultimate triumph. His was a life of pure love,
culminating in the ultimate demonstration of transcendent love in his death on
As much as we soothe our conscience with scientific and
theological justifications of the problem of evil, however, the problem still
remains. At the end of the day, Wyard says, We may be able to tease out the
conceptual problem of suffering into its constituent parts and convince
ourselves that the components of our proposed solution are internally
consistent and successfully match up with the rest of our theology. We may be
happy to report that the underlying motives for a world with suffering are
probably good, he says. However, the question but why me? still seems to
stick. The problem does not altogether disappear even when treated by the
authorities of science and theology.
In light of this, Wyard asks, I wonder if the most
satisfying way to reconcile genetic disease and suffering with Christianity is
not to develop a complex logical justification, but to simply point to the life
and death of Jesus as a backdrop. And in Jesus we see that even a perfect
life entailed suffering, and that he didnt shrink from it, even the horrific
pain of crucifixion. At least God is not asking us to go through anything that
He hasnt been through first himself, Wyard says. The problem of evil remains,
theology and science remain, but in the midst of them is the Christ suffering
While the experience of suffering is only made barely
justifiable by focusing on that aspect of God that prioritizes transcendent
good over individual happiness, the Biblical account assures us - paradoxically
- that Hed do anything to help us on this treacherous journey. Even die for
us. And of course, Wyard says, Christian theology tells us He already has.
Can science and religion talk to each other? Do genetics and
suffering and ethics have any bearing upon one another? Science &
Suffering: Genetics and the Problem of Evil demonstrated not only the possibility
of dialogue; it revealed the existence of an already rich and vibrant
discourse between these disciplines. Science, we see, needs theology to guide
it toward wise applications of technology, while theology needs science to
enlarge its understanding of what it means to be human in the cosmos. While
science and technology may seem to be a strange marriage, it is a vital one for
humankinds continued understanding of and existence in the beautiful, joyous,
and suffering Creation of our Creator God.
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| Contributed by: Heather Evans