Gabriel Marcel on the Mystery of Evil


Here is a brief excerpt from my first bookEvil and the Evidence for God, published in 1993:

“Some philosophers have been rather adroit in their expression of this theme. For Gabriel Marcel, the only problem of evil is what is sometimes called the ‘existential’ mode of the problem. If Marcel is correct, this language intrudes a pseudodistinction and the so-called logical problem of evil becomes a pseudoproblem, or a mystery degraded to the level of a problem. To seek ‘the causes or the secret aims’ of experienced evil, the professed goal of any theodicy, is to view evil ‘from outside,’ where evil no longer ‘touches me’ and is therefore ‘no longer evil which is suffered.’ And evil that ceases to be suffered ‘ceases to be evil.’ So the only evil that exists is the evil thathttps://i2.wp.com/www.iep.utm.edu/wp-content/media/Marcel.gif we encounter in our prereflective lived experience. Our ivory tower incursions into logical territory miss the heart of the matter.”

It has always seemed to me that Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) was onto something. Today I would say it is a penetrating insight. The details can be found in his little book The Philosophy of Existentialism. But the themes intimated there are explored and developed throughout his essays and plays.

Today, October 8, is the anniversary of Marcel’s death. His work lives on and his influence continues, notably through the work of the Gabriel Marcel Society. I hope you’ll venture to explore the rich texture of Christian sensibility reflected in the pages of this French thinker of the 20th century.

Animated Video on the Problem of Evil


Image.People.Greg GanssleI’m pleased to direct your attention to a new series of videos on the problem of evil for Christian theism, narrated by my friend Greg Ganssle. Greg is a philosopher at Yale University and a Senior Fellow of the Rivendell Institute at Yale. These are effective animated videos that encapsulate a treatment of the problem of evil concisely and in an engaging format. Have a look. Then come back here and leave your comments!

Click here for a link to the first 5-minute video in the series. More about Greg can be found here.

 

In Memoriam—John Hick (1922-2012)


John Hick, the eminent scholar in the world of religion, died at the age of 90 on Thursday, February 9, 2012. Many will mourn the loss of this gentle man and incisive thinker. But we will also count ourselves blessed to have known him, and celebrate his work among us for so many decades of fruitful scholarship.

I first met John Hick in 1985 or 1986 following a lecture he delivered at the Claremont Colleges, in southern California. I had just written my M.A. thesis (for Gonzaga University) on his treatment of the problem of evil. When I shared this with him, he said he would be interested in reading it. After he had read it, he wanted to meet. So we scheduled a get-together at the colleges and talked about my project. I will always remember two things he said to me at this meeting. The first thing he said, once we got down to business, was that, in my exposition of his position, I had gotten it right. He added that this was unusual for critics of his various views. This put me at ease immediately. We may have met for an hour. Toward the end John asked me what plans I had for publishing my thesis. I had no plans. But John urged me to seek a publisher for it, and offered his assistance.

This was indeed an auspicious beginning to a long-term friendship with one of the world’s foremost religious scholars of the 20th century. It led, eventually, to the publication of my first book, Evil and the Evidence for God: The Challenge of John Hick’s Theodicy (Temple University Press, 1993), with an Afterword by John himself.

A few years later, John’s book, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (Yale University Press, 1989) was released. This book was the publication, in expanded form, of his Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 1986-1987. The book earned him the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Religion. Shortly after its release, the Claremont Graduate School hosted a major conference, with scholars from various places around the world present to discuss his sophisticated defense of religious pluralism. I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Southern California at the time, and I was surprised by the invitation I received, with John’s support, to participate in the proceedings and present a paper of my own.

In this way I was drawn into the discussion of religious pluralism. Shortly after I was appointed to my first teaching post at Taylor University (Upland, Indiana), Wheaton College issued a call for papers for a conference on religious pluralism. I sent a brief proposal for a paper evaluating John Hick’s position. Because it was one of very few proposals for a direct discussion of Hick’s important contribution to the topic, I was told, I was invited to deliver my proposed paper.

Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips, who had hosted the conference, eventually developed the idea for a book that was to be called More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (first published by Zondervan in 1995 and later reissued under the moderately abbreviated title Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World in 1996). Again, I was invited to participate, and I was asked if I might contact John Hick to request his participation, as well. He agreed. The two other contributors were Alistair McGrath and Clark Pinnock. Gary Phillips was co-author with me for a chapter we titled “A Particularist View: An Evidentialist Approach.” John’s chapter was called, sensibly and simply enough, “A Pluralist View.” The most illustrious contributor, of course, was John Hick. And it’s very possible that the book remains in print on account of his contribution.

These are the only projects in which I partnered, after a fashion, with John Hick. But we had many get-togethers over the years. Most of these happened during the years he was at Claremont, where he held the Danforth Chair in the Philosophy of Religion from 1979 to 1992. At other times we would meet when we happened to be at the same professional conference. The second most memorable occasion of our meeting was long after he had retired and I visited him at his home at the end of Seeley Oak in Birmingham, England.

John Hick was a brilliant communicator, in print and with a microphone. He was a gracious scholar who respected would-be scholars 40 years his junior. He was tenacious in defense of his many controversial positions, and friendly and tolerant toward those who disagreed. Always fair-minded and even-handed in his dealings with me, he marked my life in ways no other scholar of similar repute has (or could have), and he steered me in ways he would never have known.

John was Irenaean as opposed to Augustinian in his theodicy, a universalist and a pluralist in soteriology, a kind of Kantian anti-realist regarding the existence and nature of God—all things that I am not. But there are two reasons why he could not be ignored. First, he reasoned his way to his positions with great care and he could articulate them with great clarity. Second, he had begun his theological odyssey as an evangelical of more-or-less the sort that I am, but had gradually and in nearly step-wise fashion moved further and further away from this starting point in his career as a professing Christian. His kindness toward me would naturally count as a third reason to engage and evaluate his work with the same care that he exemplified as book after book flowed from his pen.

When I last saw John Hick, I suspected that we would not see each other again. He had ceased traveling across the pond, and I had no immediate plans to return to England. But we remained in touch over many years. I will miss his Christmas cards. And I will miss him.

For more on John Hick:

I wish to thank Fred Sanders, writer for The Scriptorium, who encouraged me to post about my experiences with John Hick. See Fred’s post here.

Coincidences of Life – Ender’s Game and a UPS Truck


UPS Truck . . . without a driver

This afternoon I was waiting at a red light (northbound on Palm at Central in Brea, CA, if the coordinates matter) and listening to the audio-book for the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Just as the light turned green, one character said to the other, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service.”

This struck me as odd, showing up in a work of science fiction. But stranger still, as I shifted my motorcycle into second, a UPS truck passed me in the intersection going south.

Was it a coincidence? Of course it was. It was quite literally the coinciding of an auditory reference from one source and a visual reference from another source to the same company, UPS. These sensory experiences occurred simultaneously. They each conveyed information, and the information conveyed referred to the same thing. I heard a guy say through my headset, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” just as I waved to a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service. (Well, actually, I didn’t wave.)

Uncanny?

Sort of.

The Merriam -Webster Dictionary defines “uncanny” in this way: “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin,” or “being beyond what is normal or expected: suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers.”

The concurrence of two causally unrelated references to the same informational content attracts our attention. It is so incredibly unlikely that this would happen, it seems almost to have been planned. Was it planned? And if so, who arranged it? It might take superhuman or supernatural powers to make it happen just so. What other explanation could there be?

“Coincidence,” we say, with palpable matter-of-factness. But of course it’s a coincidence. Saying so merely reports an observation of fact. The real question is, what kind of coincidence is it? What is the explanation for this coincidence?

We do explain coincidences in various ways. Sometimes we say, “It was just a coincidence.” By this we mean that there’s nothing more to it than that, a mere coincidence, with no deep explanation. There is no intelligible cause, and no intelligent agent, involved. There is no meaningful answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”

But the question does present itself. It does to me, anyway. Trivial coincidences like this happen in my experience with remarkable frequency. I say “trivial” because I infer no special significance when they happen. And yet it is both remarkable each time it happens and remarkable that it happens as often as it does.

Why is it remarkable if the coincidence is trivial? It’s remarkable because the concurrence is so improbable. The degree of improbability varies depending on the specific character of the information presented. But the improbability of the concurrence does not, as such, warrant attribution of some special significance.

Why not?

The answer, I think, is two-fold. First, we can think of no special reason why the elements in our experience have occurred together. (Note: No one else in the intersection, I believe, actually heard or thought of the words “United Parcel Service” at that moment.) Second, we can identify no  causal mechanism that would ensure that they did occur together. In other words, there is no apparent point in their concurrence, and no obvious causal account of their concurrence. If we thought their concurrence served some purpose, we would naturally be curious about the cause. And if nothing else will serve, we might say that the cause was superhuman and personal. Given a general reluctance to attribute causes to occult entities, we require that a coincidence be specially significant. Also, if the concurrence was caused for our benefit, then we should find some benefit in their concurrence. That is, if we who experience the coincidence were meant to experience it, then there was some reason why it happened and why it happened in our experience. And this suggests that we should be capable of discerning that purpose.

What purpose could possibly have been served by the coincidence I experienced on my way home this afternoon? Nothing comes to mind. “It’s just a coincidence.”

But wait, now that I think that thought, I recall that there was a UPS package for me when I arrived home not two minutes later. Was the coincidence a warning, then? It certainly didn’t have that effect on me when it happened. In fact, when it happened, my thought was, This is something I could blog about. And in retrospect it doesn’t seem that a warning was required. The contents of the package were innocuous. Some clothing I had ordered. I don’t know if it matters, but the package wasn’t waiting on the front porch, as if it had just been delivered by the very same UPS truck. It had been carried in by another member of my household who wasn’t home. (I know she wasn’t home because no one was home. And I know it was a she because I’m the only he in the household. Aren’t you impressed with my awesome powers of deduction?)

I suppose now I might take care trying on the clothing that was delivered. But I can’t seriously entertain the notion that I’m in some kind of danger.

If there was a message, it was totally lost on me.

Could there be some other purpose, completely unrelated to my goals or interests, so that the purpose might be achieved quite apart from my cognizance of it?

(c) 2009 Katherine Gehl Donovan

Sure. A minor demon might have been taunting some innocent angel with her powers of manipulation, claiming to be able to cause me to hear “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” and, at the same precise moment, cause me to see a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service.

In that event, would it really matter whether I recognized the concurrence of the appearance of a UPS truck just as I was hearing that bit of fictional dialogue? I can imagine a neophyte angel thinking, How did you do that? What if the line I’ve quoted from the story isn’t actually in the novel?

And what if there wasn’t really a UPS truck crossing the intersection in the opposite direction? Maybe the demon’s game was to present me with visual and auditory data that did not correspond with objects matching the data. Who knows what minor demons are capable of?

The point is, if there was a purpose in the coincidence, I have no idea what it was, and this makes it less likely that, if there was a purpose, realization of that purpose depended on my discerning that purpose.

Now, what do I actually believe? Do I believe there was a purpose in the coincidence? I do not. But this is imprecise. Not believing that there was a purpose is not the same as believing there was no purpose. I might simply be agnostic about whether the coincidence served some purpose.

So am I agnostic? No. I believe that no purpose was served.

I should have a reason for believing this, shouldn’t I?

My chief reason for believing that no purpose was served by the event is that attributing a reason does not comport with my worldview. Or rather, my worldview provides no basis for attributing a reason for the coincidence.

What we make of coincidences often is a matter of worldview commitments. Some coincidences do, for me, invite an inference to the agency of some superhuman or supernatural agent. Apparent answers to prayer, for example.

Here’s a question for fellow theists who believe that God exists and is a personal being who created the universe and sustains it in existence, others like me who affirm a doctrine of meticulous divine providence:

How do you decided whether this or that ‘coincidence’ is the occurrence of an event serving some special purpose intended by a superhuman or supernatural being?

Bonus Question: Is the angel/demon image posted here too provocative? Is it poor judgment to use it here?

Christians Who Behave Like Atheists


Augustine

Image via Wikipedia

In my recent post Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken?, I suggested that it may be common for atheists to entertain severe doubts about their atheism, and contemplate the possibility that God does exist and is worthy of belief and even worship.

It would be easy for Christians to explain atheistic belief in terms of rebellion against a God whose existence is only too obvious and personally offensive. But I would encourage Christians to consider that something resembling this may be found among believers, as well.

Any refusal to face the facts about God in the light of ample evidence is rebellion and idolatry. So one may believe that God exists, but refuse to believe certain things about God. Or one may believe certain things about God but then act in defiance of such a God. And one may assert the existence of God, even argue vehemently that God exists, and yet remain indifferent toward God on the personal level.

A believer, then, should be careful not to apply a double standard in comparing himself with nonbelievers. He should reflect on the possibility that he is like the typical skeptic in fundamental ways.

There are varieties of triumphalist apologetics. One form chastens nonbelievers for attitudes that one would find in oneself if one simply looked closely enough.

Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken?


Archibald Alexander (1772-1851)

Image via Wikipedia

Archibald Alexander, who was the first professor of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in the 18th century:

Whatever may be the truth in regard to religion, it must be admitted to be the most important subject which can possibly occupy the thoughts of a rational creature. It cannot be wise to treat it, as many have done, with levity and ridicule: for even on the supposition that there is no true religion, it is a serious thing that it has got such a hold of the mind, that it cannot be shaken off; so that men of the noblest powers of intellect and the highest moral courage have been subdued and led captive by its impressions. And they who boast a complete exemption from its influence, and glory in the name of atheist or sceptic, do nevertheless often betray a mind ill at ease, and in the extremity of their distress are sometimes heard to call upon that God whose existence they have denied, and to implore that mercy which they have been accustomed to deride. . . . They seem to be haunted with a secret apprehension that the reality of religion will at some moment flash upon their conviction. It is with them a common saying, that ‘fear made the gods;’ but it would be much more true to assert, that fear made atheists; for what but the dread of a Supreme Being could be a motive strong enough to lead men to contend so earnestly against the existence of God? . . . . Indeed, a man should first take leave of his reason before he advocates an opinion demonstrated to be false by everything which we behold.

Alexander suggests that atheists and religious skeptics often are haunted by the possibility of being mistaken. One good reason for this is that there is good evidence for the existence of God.

I’ve noticed that some of the most public and argumentative atheists today deny that there is any good reason at all to believe there’s a God. This, surely, is over-stating the case, even if you think that, on balance, the case against the existence of God is stronger than the case for God’s existence.

Another feature of Alexander’s statement has continuing relevance. The atheist who campaigns for his worldview in a public way today attests to the importance of the question of God’s existence by his vigorous efforts in the marketplace of ideas. And this, too, confirms the claim that religious concern is, for all intents and purposes, a universal concern.

Some who are agnostic about God’s existence may be understandably reluctant to deride religious belief, lest it turn out that God does exist. But if it should turn out that God exists, will it be so much better to have been an agnostic than an atheist?

Are God’s Mental States All in Your Mind?


Where do we get our concept of God? I ask in the first person plural “we” because there is something pervasive and shared about “the concept of God” that we manage to think and talk about with each other.

This is illustrated by the Slate article of a week ago titled “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Brain.” The author, Jesse Bering, aims to explain “how our innate theory of mind gives rise to the divine creator.” Click here to read the article.

The article begins by noting the uniquely well-developed capacity we have to attribute mental states to others of our species, then present evidence that we also attribute mental states to inanimate entities. On this basis, Bering hopes to make a natural inference to the claim that in our thinking about God we are projecting a mental life onto an object that is neither animate nor inanimate, but unreal.

So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people’s behaviors that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe.

“What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?” Great question! I would say, “That sounds like wishful thinking on your part. Show me the evidence.”

Of course, Jesse Bering doesn’t present any evidence. Our capacity to ascribe mental lives to members of our species seems, from Bering’s point of view, to be legitimate. That much is a relief. But our tendency, as Bering would put it, to do the same for inanimate objects suggests that we are somehow hard-wired to err in doing this.

Now, it doesn’t really matter that the evidence Bering presents for our supposed projection of mental lives onto inanimate objects is very weak, because even if Bering is right about that, it doesn’t count as evidence that that’s more-or-less what we’re doing when we think about God. But the evidence that we routinely project mental lives onto the inanimate doesn’t bear the weight of Bering’s conclusion. There are plausible alternative explanations for our behavior toward physical objects when we’re angry and for our talk about objects as if they were personal entities. I don’t slam the car door because I hold my car personally responsible for “refusing” to start and “making” me late to work. But I do slam the door and I do speak this way. The action is expressive of my frustration, if only to myself, and the speech is metaphorical.

When I think and talk about God, my acting and speaking is completely unlike my acting and speaking when my car won’t start. I believe that God is real, is a person, hears and responds to me, and so forth. Unaccountably, Bering doesn’t acknowledge this difference in my so-called “intentional-state attributions.” I only appear, through my behavior, to attribute intentions to my stupid car. But I do not actually attribute intentions to the thing. My behavior does not tell the whole story, a story that I know from the inside, as the person engaged in that behavior. But I do attribute intentions to a divine creator. In fact, I see evidence all around me of a creator’s existence and intentions.

If time allowed, I would show how the reality of our mental lives—acknowledged by Bering—is itself evidence for the reality of God, a supreme being with a real mental life. That will have to be for another time. Meanwhile, I encourage you to read the charming but misguided article by Jesse Bering. It neatly exhibits a pervasive confusion—one that nurtures a very real illusion about God.

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