It is my pleasure to share with you our latest blog. It has been some time since our last post, but my hope is to have one go live on the first Friday of each month. We have an exciting schedule of posts coming up, and as always we encourage you, our Fellows and Associates, to send in suggestions and drafts for review to be considered for new content.
This months post (below) is by Thomas Jay Oord, and we are excited by the thought provoking questions it raises. This blog represents some of the thinking that went into Oord’s newest book, God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils (2019).
The Problem Evil, Divine Action, and Science
by Thomas Jay Oord
My title suggests a topic – really three domains – far too large to consider in one essay. Intellectual giants today and throughout history have explored the interplay of these domains. Their work is monumentally important.
Those who separate science neatly from theology will think it folly to explore both domains together. Most members of the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) will disagree with this separation. Others who want to separate science neatly from values will wonder what “evil” has to do with proper science. Again, most in ISSR will disagree. The three domains are not one, but they overlap, interpenetrate, or mutually inform.
The importance of the interplay of science, theology, and evil often become evident when we encounter personal tragedy. “Why didn’t God stop my cells from becoming cancerous?” someone might ask. Immediately, questions arise about what we know about God, how cells work, and whether cancer is inherently evil. It’s difficult to separate neatly the three domains.
“Why didn’t God stop those boys from raping me?” a girl asks. A helpful answer draws from religion, science, and philosophy. Neglecting any of the three leads to answers most find unsatisfying.
I recently published a book on the three topics with the provocative title, God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils. Unlike many of my previous books, I wrote this one using common language aimed at a wide audience. I told true stories and used numerous illustrations. I offer five statements that together solve the problem of evil.
I know, saying I “solve” the problem of evil may sound preposterous. Some may even call me arrogant. But I truly believe these five beliefs solve the central questions we ask about evil, God, and life.
Fortunately, others also think the five ideas in God Can’t solve the problem of evil. Responses to my book have been powerfully positive! Survivors of abuse and tragedy are grateful for the ideas I share. They send notes describing horrific personal tales and then report how God Can’t help them understand why God couldn’t have prevented their horrors singlehandedly.
I begin God Can’t with true stories of tragedy, abuse, and other evils. I define evil and argue that genuine evil events occur. I also define love and argue that what God thinks is loving is not entirely different from what we think is loving. Without clear definitions, little progress can be made to find solutions to our biggest questions.
The first of the five beliefs says God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly. That’s probably the most controversial claim in the book. Although God is mighty and always involved in creation, God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. God’s love is necessarily self-giving and others-empowering. Because God loves everyone and everything, God can’t control anyone or anything. I appeal to common sense, personal experiences, the Bible, and theology to argue this point.
Although God can’t control those who do evil, God is present and empathizing with victims. In chapter two, I reject the view God is unmoved, unaffected, or impassible. God is a fellow sufferer who understands, I suggest. Survivors of evil tell me how helpful it is to believe God feels their pain and has compassion.
I tackle healing in the middle chapter. After looking at advocates for and deniers of healing, I draw from the science of medicine and explore claims about divine healing. I argue that God always works to heal to the utmost. But God can’t heal singlehandedly. Inopportune conditions in creation or noncooperating creatures or entities can prevent God from healing fully.
Many people “explain” evil by saying God causes or allows all suffering as part of a mysterious plan. I reject that view. God does work with creation to squeeze good from the bad God didn’t want in the first place. I also reject the idea that God punishes. There are natural negative consequences when creatures don’t cooperate with God’s love. But that’s not the same as God inflicting pain as punishment for wrongdoing.
Some people dismiss any attempt to solve the problem of evil. “We don’t need theories,” they say, “we need activists who work to overcome evil.” I disagree. I’m strongly in favor of activism to instigate positive change. But without good theories about God’s power, few will be motivated to stop the evil they think God causes or allows. God needs creaturely cooperation for love to win in the world and the afterlife.
The responses I’m getting from readers of God Can’t indicate that few people understand the philosophy of science. The average person assumes a mechanistic view of existence, although most also think humans have free will.
I agree about free will. I think we have genuine but limited freedom. But when readers encounter my view that other creatures and entities have agency, self-organization, or spontaneity, many are surprised. Most quickly find the view appealing, however. Few have also considered the implication of the widespread idea among physicists that indeterminacy occurs at various levels of existence.
My book is written for the average reader. No university education is necessary. I point those who want sophisticated accounts of science, divine action, or evil to books that my fellow scholars of science and religion have written. And I suggest they read The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. The issues are complex!
God Can’t has taught me that everyday people hunger for answers that make sense. The fact that the book is a Best Seller in the US is strong evidence that people are searching for better answers to their big questions. Few people think any single domain – science, religion, or philosophy – can answer life’s biggest questions. To satisfy their hunger, we need scholars who think deeply and articulate their ideas in accessible language.