Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Evil: Another Approach

A different way of discussing evil has its place. But we should perhaps recognise that it is more an examination of the ways we think, than a description of God acting in the world at large. I rely heavily on T P Rebard [1] for some of the following brief summary.

Stating the problem
God is defined as all-loving and all-powerful. Evil exists. So either God can't get rid of evil or God chooses not to do so. If the former, then God isn't all-powerful. If the latter, then God isn't all-loving.

Thinking it through
The chain of reasoning above is clearly sound. The only part of it which might be incorrect are the two starting points: 

[a] God is all-loving and 
[b] God is all-powerful.

Is God all-loving?
A traditional Christian approach is to think of God as loving and therefore kind. As far as I can tell this perception is the result of taking Paul seriously in his letter to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 13.4):

Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoings, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I don't suppose that this masterful summary will ever lose its punch. But we should keep in mind that it's not meant to be a theological or philosophical statement. It is addressed to ordinary people in a new Christian group. It's pastoral guidance not abstract thought.

Rebard says that love may not always be what we usually term "kind". I think what he's getting at is that our understanding of kindness derives from the way we're brought up. It's not a first principle as is love. For example:

  • Some cultures are such that its members never come into contact with the act of slaughtering an animal for food. They buy meat ready-packed. For them, there is no "blood and guts".

  • It's not surprising, therefore, that many in such cultures think that being "kind" to animals is important.

  • In another culture, the slaughter of animals is a regular social, public event. In this context "kindness" is not at issue. An animal is a valued resource to be nurtured and then eaten.

Kindness is not the important point in relation to love. Rebard gives this instance:

... it may well be kind to tell the wife of a dying man that he is doing satisfactorily, but it is unloving and dishonest. Such a claim does violence to the intellect and the dignity of the person; it does not will the good, the truth. Kind, maybe, but loving, no.

He concludes that

To love ... is to incline to the good in one way or another, according to circumstances.

In other words, love may also show kindness. But love has the overall good of the other at heart. Loving action is therefore a matter of calculating what is good. As a result, the other may experience loving action as unkind: "I do this for your good, even though it pains you now." [2]

If one thinks of God as a sort of powerful person somehow "out there" (theism), we might suppose that our difficulties are created by an unworkable perspective.

C S Lewis makes this analogy [3]. It is tempting to see God through cultural glasses. When we do that, we're rather like a young puppy which, when disciplined might well doubt his master's goodness. But a full-grown dog which has been properly trained will enter

... a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny [and] would have no such doubts ... We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses - that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more Love, but for less.

Love is bigger than kindness. Love may be painful to give - and receiving it may be hurtful - because it  requires not kindness but the perfection of the beloved.

The upshot is that what we may call evil because it results in pain or suffering is loving if it comes from God.

Is God all-powerful?
This is a traditional concept of God stretching back from today to the earliest times of the Hebrew religion. It is the assertion that the word "God" expresses that which has no limit to its power over everything in the universe. 

To put it another way, everything in the universe derives its power from, and is subordinate to, the Creator.

Both Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas asserted that God's power must necessarily be limited. If God can do what is logically impossible, then all sense of meaning disappears from the world. Our very thought processes depend upon the principle of contradiction. 

In other words, no word can refer at the same time to two different objects. This can be expressed symbolically: If p (a white cat) then ~p (not a cat of any other colour). This is the logical rule of the Excluded Middle. If an all-powerful God were to nullify this logical framework, we would be cast into a meaningless existence.

It seems, then, that omnipotence is not the power to bring about an impossible state of affairs. Not even God can make 2 + 2 = 5 or a cube into a triangle. To do so would be to destroy creation itself - or at least to destroy the way we humans appear to necessarily understand the world, which is the same thing as saying humanity would be destroyed.

Perhaps it might help to pose a conundrum. Is it possible for God, who is by definition all-powerful, to create a stone so heavy that God can't move it? If not, then God fails to bring about a state of affairs in which God is not all-powerful? In which case, God is not all-powerful. 

All this appears nonsensical in the real world. But it is important to try to establish the limits of language, since language is our only way of stating meaning.

One solution is to propose that God is not all-powerful, that some things are made impossible by God's inherent nature. Thus to say that God is loving is also to say that God's power is limited. Love is applied to the creation, which includes ourselves. If we are to achieve our full human potential, which necessarily includes the capacity to choose freely (in some matters, though not all), then God's power must by definition be limited. God's power is contingent upon God's nature.
[1] The Problem of Evil Revisited, T P Rebard
[2] Situation Ethics, J Fletcher, 1966
[3] The Problem of Pain, 1940

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