16 February 2005

Theodicy II

Theodicy was first coined in the 18th century by the philosopher Liebniz. While the field of philosophy loves to formulate problems as abstractly ahistorical, the problem of evil is a modern problem, and is only problematic for modern society.

Through their investigation of the problem of evil, Liebniz and his contemporaries shed more light on the sensibilities of their milleu. As far as the Divine Will is concerned, the disenchantment of the age and declining importance of religion manifest themselves in the logical formulation of God.

The Divine Will is boiled down into 3 attributes - and stripped of other qualities such as mercy, mystery, and awe. God, in theodicy, becomes the God of the philosophers, not the God of Isaac, Jacob and Abraham. The problem of evil accelerated the decline in the belief of a Divine Will for Liebniz's generation.

How did they deal with it? In the 18th and 19th centuries the solution to the problem resided in the "Clockmaker God" defense - God institutes the laws of nature during the Creation, then steps back and lets the laws of nature operate - which lead to the unfortunate but necessary disasters. As God is omnibenevolent, he cannot break his own laws...

But what about miracles? Protestant theology at that time believed that the age of miracles had ended. For the early moderns, the statement of the problem and its solution indicate the fading of God from the world, the disenchantment and increasing rationality of society.

What about us? Why did the Straitened Times devote at least 3 editorials to the problem of evil and the tsunami?

Singapore, like the US, has experienced a recent trend of religious resurgence - mostly evangelical and fundamentalist. The problem of evil poses a threat to these Christian sects - the God in their weekly sessions is a deeply personal being, a Great Communicator, and the world is literally filled with God...

It's not so much of believing that God speaks to us, as being convinced that a particular phrase in the Bible tells us directly and authoritatively that Harry Potter books are evil... Not so much of believing that God intercedes for us, but being convinced that he is actively working on OUR SIDE when we're trying to fight our way to the train, earning our first million, protesting for a pay rise... That we almost tripped while coming down the staircase but didn't, is a miracle, an intervention from the very Hand of God...

For people like this, a natural disaster wrecks havoc on their concept of God. "What, isn't he supposed to make me rich when I pray for it? How could he send a tsunami instead?" laments a Singaporean follower of the prosperity gospel. (Yes, those very strange people have a strong presence here in Singapore, or used to before 2001's recession)

The maleovence of disasters like this reflect badly on their God. The most popular response from these Christians appear to be the "for the greater good" defense: God must have allowed this to happen because either "free will" should be preserved through his inaction above all else, or "a better good will come out of this suffering".

Of course, the only Christians who believe in that kind of defense are comfortably middle class, bourgeois, and distanced enough from the actual disaster to distance themselves even further from it. No luck if you were personally affected by the tsunami - chances are you won't be spouting this particular defense.

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