a practical theodicy

I’ve been reading up a bit on Gnosticism because I’m reading Colossians and it seems that Paul is fighting some pre (not-quite-full-blown-yet)-Gnosticism there. Gnosticism is, for the record, not an easy thing to get your head around, a situation further complicated by the fact that it was a “mystery” religion that kept a lot of things, well, mysterious. But one thing I’ve grasped is that it was, like all religions or spiritual beliefs, attempting to deal with the problem of evil. Theodicy is the classic Christian problem of evil: as in, how can evil exist if a good, all-powerful God also does? Gnosticism tackled the problem by putting a buffer zone between its god and the world they lived in. They believed there was a divine being who either lived in or was equal to a “fullness” which was a sort of heaven. This Divine being began expressing itself with “emanations” which are sometimes portrayed as beings, sometimes as cosmic forces. Imagine it like a chain of bubbles and the further the “emanation-bubbles” get away from the “fullness” the more corrupt they get. Until you get to one emanation who had a mind of his (or her, depending on which Gnostic you listen to) own and started creating a world when he wasn’t supposed to. And this is our world. All that to say that they believed the world and life here was messed up because God didn’t create it and had nothing to do with it. Sometimes this meant they advocated a very ascetic lifestyle, very carefully monitoring their contact and involvement in the physical world (apparently like the people Paul was arguing in Colossians) and sometimes the opposite extreme. Salvation would come through proper enlightenment about these things (and a lot of other mysterious things that history didn’t record) and eventual reuniting of all the emanations within humanity (the super-spiritual people) with the Divine fullness—this would happen if they followed the ascetic practices (according to some Gnostics anyway).

Thinking about how other people attempt to handle the evil and corruption of this life made me take a closer look at how I handle evil and corruption in my own life. Every day we face this, whether in big ways (reading about truly terrible things happening all over the world or even people we love suffering) or in little ways (the frustrations and failures of daily life).  Oddly enough, it’s the little things that usually do me in. It usually works like this: I’m plugging along through my day and then a couple things just go wrong. Also oddly, this never fails to shock me. At this point, I’m probably frustrated but still steaming ahead, working hard to rectify whatever’s gone wrong, stay on course, etc. And then, if it’s one of “those days,” another few things go wrong and I reach the limit of my own strength. I’m suddenly mentally overwhelmed, emotionally drained and then, like dominoes falling, the few little things that have gone wrong seem somehow, in my pea-brain, to be connected to everything that is wrong in the whole world. Oh no, we have not just lost a sock people—did you know that there’s also people starving everywhere and beating their children and plotting to bomb other human beings? And in the face of everything that is wrong in the whole world, I wonder what ‘s the point of holding my tongue and exercising some patience? And I usually end up sinning over a sock. Which only serves to further emphasize that everything really is wrong in the world, especially me. You know how your mouth feels when it’s bone dry, with everything in it sticking to itself and unable to move well and tasting sourly of only itself? That is how my soul feels when I come so squarely up to the evil around me and in me. My question is about what I do in those moments—what is my practical theodicy? “Practical” because it’s not an abstract philosophical discussion, but the evidence of what I really believe the solution to the problem of evil is. What do I turn to?

The first thing the Spirit has shown me is that I don’t view evil primarily as rebellion against Creator God, but mostly an unpleasant experience to “fix.” This isn’t actually so distant from the classic philosophical theodicy because most of the time when we discuss the “problem of evil,” it is very personal. Unfortunately, no one can get that abstract about evil. But the reason we discuss theodicy in the first place and the reason that I dislike those daily frustrations is because it messes up my life—not because it messes up God’s. Ironically, nothing would be truly evil if it weren’t affronting God. I mean, if I told someone not to eat something and they did anyway, the world wouldn’t fall apart (wait… that actually did happen five minutes ago…). So the fact that I feel so wronged has nothing to do with the true depth and extent of evil. The only reason I think there’s a connection is because I’ve put myself in God’s place—self-idolatry.

And the self-idolatry makes my practical theodicy a lot easier to handle. Are you still with me?… because this is where it gets practical (I know you thought I put that word in there just to tease you, ha!). If I am the Judge and if evil’s evilness is measured by how much I feel, then all I have to do is make myself feel better and get to my happy place. So I handle the discomfort of a fallen world and my own sin a lot of ways: thinking about something else, complaining, making excuses, doing something I enjoy, or something I can do well instead of fail at, whining to my husband, comparing myself to a false standards (i.e., others), the sympathy and affirmation of friends… “I might not be able to speak kindly and wisely to my kids today, so I will just get an A on this test instead.” Or I choose to feel excited about a perfect, complicated dinner rather than daring to trust God when I feel hopeless.

Furthermore, the little things do me in precisely because I expect to be able to handle them. I don’t expect to end famines or pedophilia, but keeping my house clean… surely I’m good enough to do that! This reveals another aspect of my practical theodicy. Not only do I view myself as the Judge of what is evil and what is right, but I also view myself as Savior. When faced with the fallen state of the world and my own soul, I apparently think the solution (at least on a small scale) is my own ability. If I can just work hard enough, read enough books, come up with the right words at the right time, schedule and plan carefully enough, etc. and etc. When I wake up in the morning to tackle the tiny regime of the fallen world that’s mine, I don’t pray—I plan.

So my official line is that I believe in an unfailingly good God who created, defined and is the standard of all that is right and good, but my practical theodicy shows that I actually consider myself the standard. I judge evil not by comparison to God’s character, but by comparison to my own desires and ideals.

And another thing I profess to believe that there is an all-powerful God who is sovereign over all, but my practical theodicy shows that I consider him less than trustworthy. Instead, I choose, time and time again, to fall back on my own resources.

So far, this has been really negative. But it’s going to get really positive next (in a pending part two), because scripture declares that God is both capable and willing to resolve the problem of evil. And he has.

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One response to “a practical theodicy

  1. Pingback: Practical Theodicy: part two | the still point

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