Monday, February 4, 2008

PoE (Reprise)

In my look at historical responses to the problem of evil, pain, and suffering (see my last post for Part 1), I want to discuss just two more Christian thinkers.

The first is C.S. Lewis, medievalist scholar, author, and apologist. His book The Problem of Pain is recognized as a classic on this subject, and in it he provides what many consider to be excellent arguments in defense of the God of Judeo-Christianity in light of the existence of evil and suffering in the world.

More recently, Roman Catholic philosopher Eleanor Stump has provided what I find to be one of the most insightful analyses of this issue of suffering. She categorizes most of such arguments—those from The Problem of Pain and of Augustine, Pascal, and Plantinga—as coming from the “third-person” perspective. These are philosophical arguments about the evil “out there.” An entirely different facet of the problem of evil is the “first-person” perspective. This encompasses the sufferings, doubts, and questions (as about God’s existence and goodness) that are experienced by the person currently living in grief, pain, or fear. And the person going through such an experience has little use for the arguments given from a third-person perspective.

Indeed, later in life, Lewis experienced firsthand the depths of grief associated with the untimely death of his wife (after only four years of marriage). His doubts (about the very existence and goodness of God, about his own Christian worldview) are chronicled in A Grief Observed. A reading of this makes it clear that the arguments he gave in his earlier book (which were third-person arguments) would have been ill-received if offered to him during his first-person experience of grief.

To return to the book of Job… his so-called friends offer Job third-person arguments for what he is going through, and provide him no comfort. (This is exacerbated by the fact that their arguments fall along the lines of the Deuteronomic view… “You must have done something grievously wrong for Yahweh to be punishing you like this.”) At the end of the book, God Himself visits and speaks with Job. And part of what God offers is third-person arguments. In essence, He tells Job that His ways and purposes are ultimately beyond Job’s finite understanding. But, according to Stump, we are wrong if we think that this is sufficient to account for the change in Job’s attitude.

Rather, says Stump, what made the difference is that Job had had a “second-person” encounter with God. He could no longer doubt God’s existence (as might be our situation from either a first- or third-person perspective), because he had now spoken with Him face to face.

By analogy, consider the 6-year-old boy with an otherwise fatal condition that is about to face corrective surgery. He has been in pain, and what he has heard (from the doctors, nurses, and others) has given him reason to fear even greater pain. Obviously, he does not need his mother to inundate him with medical terms and a thorough explanation about the procedure and its expected consequences. All he needs is to see her loving and concerned face, to feel the squeeze of her hand, to know (without understanding) that the pain through which he is about to go is what his loving mother considers best for him.

That, says Eleanor Stump, is what the book of Job offers us. Job’s attitude changes because he encounters God again, remembers the great love He has shown for Job, and trusts (without full understanding) that God can redeem whatever earthly suffering Job is called to face.

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