Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil, by John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (Oxford University Press, 196 pp.; $25, hardcover). Reviewed by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who teaches literature, history, and women's studies at Emory University.
If God is all good and all-powerful, how can evil exist? The problem, known to theologians as theodicy, has haunted Christianity from its distant origins in the Old Testament. Why should God have visited untold miseries upon Job, his most exemplary and faithful servant? How may we explain, much less accept, the death of "innocent" babies? The destruction of "good" people and their homes through tornadoes or earthquakes? The indiscriminate ravages of famines, floods, and plagues?
If anything, human impatience with pain, suffering, and destruction seems to have increased with the passage of centuries, perhaps because we moderns have become more arrogant about our ability to judge the good and the bad in human affairs and more presumptuous about our ability to control so many of life's normal vicissitudes. Increasingly reluctant to recognize either sin or suffering as inherent in the human condition, we grow rebellious against a God who could subject us to either. In this slim volume, John Stackhouse, Jr., sets the daunting challenge of evil within the context of Christian faith, recasting the problem of God's willingness to tolerate evil as the question of whether God can be trusted.
Throughout, Stackhouse's language is deceptively direct and accessible, and he more than fulfills his self-imposed task of translating the work of philosophers and theologians into terms that ordinary Christians can understand. His admirable avoidance of intellectual pretension and technical jargon should not be mistaken for philosophical simplicity. He neither obscures the intractability of the central problem nor claims to have fully "solved" it. Rather, he graciously invites readers to progress with him through the steps in an argument that must inevitably end with the mystery with which it began.
Stackhouse divides his book into two parts: "Problems" and "Responses." The first begins with the question of whether the existence of evil does pose a problem. Many religions revere an omnipotent god capable of capriciously wreaking hardship upon his faithful without jeopardizing their devotion. In contrast, Christianity worships a God whom it celebrates as ultimately and absolutely good. This emphasis upon God's goodness opens the possibility that he may be powerless to prevent evil and, hence, not be omnipotent. Stackhouse, following orthodox Christian tradition, rejects this explanation, reminding us that Christians condemn the Manichean heresy that would raise Satan to equality with God in a struggle to control the world.
But if God is both good and omnipotent, then why does he inflict evil upon the children he claims to love? We must begin, Stackhouse suggests, by examining our idea of evil. First, we may view evil from either a subjective or an objective perspective. Our subjective perception includes the anger, pain, or outrage we feel when evil directly befalls us or those we cherish, or perhaps offends our convictions about how things should be. The objective perspective, in contrast, adopts a certain distance on specific events, permitting us to acknowledge our own inability to see and assess distant consequences: Even the most painful apparent evil may turn out to further a larger good.
Such objectivity does not, however, offer emotional satisfaction, nor does it let God "off the hook or out of the dock." Stackhouse acknowledges that God's works everywhere confront us with apparent inconsistency and moral contradictions, which make it impossible to "derive a consistent ethic from the available phenomena around us." To complicate matters further, evil itself does not follow consistent patterns: some evil results from natural phenomena over which we have no control; some evil results from our own moral failings—from our proclivity to choose sin rather than virtue.
Above all, Stackhouse insists that to ask why God could create evil is to ask the wrong question: "Evil is not a 'something' God could create." Evil in this sense is only an abstraction, not a real entity. Evil, he insists, "is primarily an adjective." Actions, events, human qualities, or even human beings can be evil, but the evil does not exist independent of their embodiment of it. Nor are we endowed with an innate ability to recognize the evil quality of specific phenomena: Our ability to recognize a phenomenon as evil depends upon our having a prior idea of the good. For evil can only be understood as a deviation from the good—as something or someone gone awry. But the recognition of evil as a violation of the good in turn forces us to ask why there is good. Thus does the consideration of evil force us back upon the ultimate problem of meaning.
Stackhouse concludes "Problems" with the acknowledgment that any adequate response must take account of all of the dimensions of evil he has evoked: its natural, moral, and possibly supernatural causes; its various degrees; its place in the lives of the guilty and the innocent; and, especially, the questions it raises about meaning and the existence of good. His succeeding section on "Responses" successively reviews a range of Christian explanations of evil, but his delineation of the problems has already pointed the way toward his main point, namely, that, as Christians, we must trust—and have reason to trust—in the essential goodness of God.
In this respect, some readers may feel that Stackhouse begs precisely the question he set out to answer, for he never fully explains why a God of love could or should tolerate a prevalence of evil that leads many to doubt his power, his goodness, and, indeed, his very existence. That charge, however, itself misses the point, as the most important of Stackhouse's responses implicitly suggests: in attempting to reconcile ourselves to the simultaneous existence of the myriad manifestations of evil in our world and of a good and omnipotent God, we must learn truly to think as Christians. For, as Christians, we do know that none of us can pretend to the comprehensive understanding that belongs to God alone.
We further know that each of us is, by the mark of our birth, a sinner and, accordingly, liable to be complicit even in the manifestations of evil from which we most seek to distance ourselves. In this connection, Stackhouse quotes Mother Teresa, who, when asked by a reporter where God is when a baby dies in a Calcutta alley, responded, "God is there, suffering with the baby. The question really is, where are you?"
We know also that when God created the world he found it "good," and that he found Adam and Eve "very good." Loving his human creatures, he endowed them with free will, which our ancestors rapidly—and repeatedly thereafter—used to sinful ends. Entrusted with stewardship for the rest of creation, our kind has frequently chosen the temptations of exploitation and abuse. In sum, we bear no small share of responsibility for the world's pervasive and recalcitrant deviation from the good.
Our acceptance of these explanations, Stackhouse acknowledges, requires our prior adherence to Christianity—requires a faith that leads us to trust in God. He thus devotes the most substantial part of his responses to a defense of Christianity as the truth that commands our adherence. Scrupulously acknowledging the claims of other religions upon their faithful, he does not put the matter as baldly as I have, but his arguments permit no doubt about his meaning.
Christianity, Stackhouse insists, uniquely combines reason and faith, which it holds as both compatible and mutually reinforcing. Relying heavily upon the work of Alvin Plantinga, he details the many "warrants" that support the truth of Christianity, notably the gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Stackhouse takes the reliability of the warrants for the gospel account of Jesus as the crux of our Christian response to evil, and herein lies the special form he gives to the general problem of theodicy.
The point for Christians is emphatically not that we should complacently accept evil. What Christian faith offers us is the certainty that even the most daunting manifestations of evil represent an (imperfectly understood) aspect of the truth or meaning that gives shape, direction, and purpose to our lives. For however mysterious many of the central tenets of our faith remain, we have the certainty that "Christ was and is the actual human face of God." The mysteries remain: the mystery of God's providence has not been fully revealed, nor has it been revealed why some suffer and others do not. "But God has revealed Godself in Jesus in a manner adequate for faith. And that, we recall, 'is the point of it all.' "
Stackhouse thus answers his own question, "Can God be trusted?" with a steadfast yes. Only that trust, which rests upon the adequately warranted conviction of reason, can effectively locate evil within the context of meaning. Trust in God does not strip evil of the power to wound, but it does offer us a way to accept it as a consequence of God's meaning, about which we have only the most fragmentary and partial understanding. Informed by grace, this trust might even help us to recognize ourselves as part of the evil that tempts us into rebellion against God himself and thereby chasten those aspects of our own nature that cripple our ability to embrace and return his love. For, as Stackhouse might well have concluded, despair is a sin.
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