Chapter 2: The Loving God and the Fact of Evil

Becoming and Belonging
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 2: The Loving God and the Fact of Evil

We live in a world where the reality of evil -- of various sorts, such as natural disorder, animal suffering, human pain and accident, and moral wrong as well as sin -- is an inescapable fact. Of course, at times this is not vividly experienced. Most of us, most of the time, probably manage to live a reasonably happy life and avoid dwelling on what is wrong in the creation. But there are also the moments of tragedy -- someone we love dies of cancer, there is an appalling airplane crash, we hear about a devastating earthquake or a tidal wave, famine strikes some part of the world -- when any man or woman who is at all sensitive will admit that this is not "a nice world" but rather is filled with tragedy, sadness, and pain. What is more, we humans are selfish, lustful, destructive, and careless of our human sisters and brothers much of the time if not all of the time. And to some the most dreadful aspect is the spectacle called by Tennyson "nature red in tooth and claw." when it seems that the animal kingdom is marked by shocking cruelty and suffering.

A discussion of evil is essential at this point in our discussion. For if we believe in God, we must somehow reconcile these appalling facts with the belief that God is good and caring. Only so can we make sense of the world and of ourselves in that world. Hence, we face the question. Why is there evil in the world and in human experience? In this chapter we are looking at the fact of evil from a specifically Christian perspective, and no Christian can be like the ostrich, which is said to bury its head in the sand when a storm sweeps over the desert. But if there is anything to say that will assist us to deal with this question, it can only be entertained if first we look honestly at the facts. As Thomas Hardy once put it,

If way to the better there be

It exacts a full look at the worst.

As it happens, authentic Christian faith throughout the centuries has sought to do just this, but often with indifferent success. Why is this?

I believe that much of the time the chief difficulty is with the "model" or concept of God that Christians have taken to be right, when it is not only inadequate but actually mistaken. Earlier in this book I have discussed those errors, noting what Whitehead had to say about what he styled The apostasy" of much Christian theism, with its talk about deity as like a "despotic ruler" who is in complete control of everything that happens in the creation and, hence, must be responsible for all that takes place within it. In an older day, insurance policies used to express this idea when they spoke about natural catastrophes and other such happenings as ‘acts of God." Ordinary men and women seem often to think of God as callously inflicting evil or as indifferent to what goes on in the world. I need not repeat here what has already been said about a genuinely Christian picture of God, in contrast to these and other notions. I only insist again that if the great central Christian affirmation is indeed that the clue to God’s "nature and activity" is the event of Jesus Christ, then it is imperative to see and say that "God is Love" and that God never acts in such a fashion that deity may correctly be regarded as responsible directly or even permissively (save in there being a world at all) for anything and everything that takes place in the creation. God’s nature and God’s activity are always caring and loving, persuading and luring, never sheerly coercive and never imposed arbitrarily on that creation.

In a sense, however, this conviction makes the fact of evil all the more inexplicable and puzzling. But here it is important to recognize that a corollary of this conception of God as "sheer Love," and as always acting lovingly, is that the creation has its freedom, its causative capacity, and its necessary accountability for what occurs in that freedom. Hence, the world is not some sort of object that God shoves around, intrudes into, and manipulates. To the contrary, it is there as a given fact with its specific characteristics that God respects and with which God deals.

Perhaps this can best be exemplified by what we know in our own experience. In our relationships with others, when those relationships are fully human, there is always the granting to the "other" the right to decide whether or not, and how, that "other" will respond to our attitude and action toward her or him. The relationship presupposes a personal kind of activity and attitude that will be expressed in various ways but never through sheer force or coercion exercised by one upon the other. Now what is true in our experience at the human level is also true, in appropriate fashion, of God’s way in the world. The insurance policy’s notion that "act of God" means something else is entirely mistaken -- mistaken, that is, if the "brief Galilean vision" is our best intimation of God. Indeed, the most patent manifestation of an "act of God," a Christian should insist, is a particular human existence in which rationality, imagination, respect, moral integrity, and the like were most present and visible. The ancient Christian thinker Irenaeus of Lyons once said that "the glory of God is man fully alive." This is the way in which a Christian can understand Jesus Christ as "an act of God," and similarly, it provides a clue to how God may be taken to act in every range of the creation. God respects and uses the creaturely status of each element in the world and, indeed, of the world altogether.

Thus. God is not arbitrary power acting immediately upon the world, as it were, without any mediation, controlling everything in it and, hence, directly responsible for what takes place. That is an idea that is associated with ancient tyrannies and despotisms and is fallacious when applied to God’s relationship with the creation. Nor is God unaffected by what goes on in the world: rather, what happens there matters to God and makes a difference for and to God. In such a context, the world has its own independence, its own freedom, and its own accountability. As I have said, we can see this vividly as a matter of human experience, and we can legitimately generalize from that human level, taking it as indicative (however remotely) of what is going on everywhere and always.

At the level of strictly natural existence, as also in inanimate nature, such qualities are not obviously observable. Yet we know nowadays that human existence has emerged from and is a part of the total "natural world." Therefore, that world can be properly interpreted only when we begin where we are, in human life with its relative independence, freedom, and accountability. Far too often in the past and far too frequently even today, thinkers have argued the other way on; they have assumed that human existence can be understood only in terms of the nonhuman. The result has been disastrous. It is the explanation of much that is wrong in human living. Perhaps the ancients had some excuse when they thought in this fashion; for us today, with our awareness of an evolutionary creation, there is no excuse to continue in so mistaken a fashion. We might even say that awareness of just that evolutionary creation has been a blessing and not (as some seem to feel) a dreadful curse.

Hence, it is necessary to reconceive some ancient beliefs. Omnipotence does not mean God’s sheer existence as "almighty power without qualification. Omniscience and omnipresence can also be given a different meaning. Omnipotence is the strength of the divine Love-in-act in a world that (as I have said again and again) possesses its own independence and freedom. Omniscience means that Love, God as Love, is all-knowing about what in fact happens and of the various possibilities that the creation may actualize -- but without dictating them. Omnipresence tells us that the divine Love is everywhere and always present and at work to augment the good, often in very surprising places -- a Christian would point especially to a humble human life, to a man born in a manger, and to that same man rejected and put to death, as the place where such active presentness is most clearly seen.

Does this signify that God is "finite" or "limited"? Only if we have begun with the presumption that what is ultimate must be sheer coercive power and control. But God is not "finite," if it is true that Love is the ultimate reality, as a Christian who knows his or her business ought to maintain. Nor is God "limited," excepting insofar as Love cannot -- literally cannot, being Love -- control everything but must wait for some such response to its prior invitation as may be found, in differing ways and with most varying intensity, in the world that is ours and God’s. The response at the natural level and at the so-called "animal level" may be minimal. Yet it is there when, for example, an electron "decides" -- that is to say, "cuts off’ (which is what decide means etymologically) one available possibility by adopting another. Modern quantum theory, the "uncertaincy principle," and "particle physics" demonstrate this genuine openness. Of course, there is no conscious choice at such points, but experience precedes consciousness, which is a fairly high level of such experience. And so up the scale, through more complex natural phenomena, until at the human level (with its obvious independence and accountability) freedom is grasped in a conscious experience.

We often call things "natural evils": hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidal waves: in animal life, the struggle for existence among and within species, but never with the intentional inflicting of pain, since at that level there can be little if any real intentionality as we understand it in ourselves: and with us humans the horror of sheer self-centeredness, neglect of or hatred for others, the inflicting of pain, injustice, and oppression, with all that these bring about. Such occurrences show vividly and clearly what can go wrong. Our world is not "predestinated" in this way or that. It is not regulated by "laws which never shall be broken," save only by the basic law of inevitable consequences for what is done, whether for good or for ill. As modern scientists increasingly stress, it is an "open world," where choices make a difference and where that difference has its results in the continuing "ongoing." In such a world, God cannot be held responsible for what we, or any other element or aspect of the creation, choose to do. God accepts the facts for what they are, given this relative creaturely freedom, and God deals with these facts as they are. The divine purpose is the wider and more inclusive working of "Love-in-act," or God, with a responsive love from the creaturely side. Furthermore, as St. Paul puts it in Rom. 8:28, "God works in every respect towards a good end"; God calls us to be (in Whitehead’s fine words) "co-creators" in the creative advance.

Having said all this, it is now proper for us to suggest what might be styled "ameliorating considerations." However black the picture may be as we look at it, there is something to be said on the other side.

First of all, this world was not "created" exactly as we now see it, in a single, all-at-once act. Thanks to evolutionary science we know that it is a world in which for untold millenia creation there has been, still is, and will continue to be a process or development. In a way, we might say that it resembles a place where an artisan is engaged in making something or other; there are loose ends here and there, bits and pieces that are not yet completed, remnants of earlier efforts that did not quite fulfill the artisan’s plan. Ours is an "unfinished world," as somebody has put it, We cannot expect, if that is true, to find everything perfectly accomplished. On the contrary, what we are bound to find is a continuing work in which the aim is to create something splendid and beautiful -- but that final aim is not yet achieved. In Christian thought and in biblical writing, there is talk of eschatology, or a future-to-be-realized one day. Doubtless the biblical material on the subject is in highly metaphorical poetic, or (if you will) mythological language. Such language is natural to all religious discourse. We cannot talk literally about matters like that because we cannot penetrate into the divine nature, purpose, and goal. Nonetheless, the material helps us to see that "there is more to come," and Christian faith would insist that God is actively engaged in working toward that end, not remote from and unconcerned with what takes place, but genuinely and vigorously acting toward it and in it with respect for and use of creaturely freedom and accountability.

Second, a considerable part of "natural evil" is called that only when and as human life is involved. A tidal wave that devastates an uninhabited island in the South Pacific is not usually called evil. But when men and women suffer from the results of the wave, we are more likely to call it evil. Furthermore, a good deal that takes place in the natural order is tied in with providing what L. J. Henderson, the Harvard scientists, once called "the fitness of the environment," in which conditions are maintained that make possible human existence now and in the future. Without at least some such happenings, human life on this planet would long since have disappeared.

In the third place, there is, as I have already said, no intentional inflicting of evil in most if not all suffering in the animal world. Unlike humans, who can and often do set out to make others suffer, animals are primarily concerned to "protect their territory," as students of their behavior tell us, or to save their young from attack, or to secure necessary supplies of food for their survival. If these experts are to be trusted -- and I here recall a world-famous biologist with whom I once talked -- the actual suffering in the animal world is much less severe than it seems to us to be. We tend to project our own sensitivity here, said this friend, who went on to tell me (to my surprise) that when a crab tears away the claw of another crab, as I had reported to him, the probability is that what the latter feels is more like a twinge than like the anguish that the tearing away of a limb would cause in us. Incidentally, this did not lead my friend to say that there is no pain there but only that we should not commit the "pathetic fallacy" of reading our own feeling-tones into the animal world. At the same time, he insisted that it is quite wrong for us to inflict any unnecessary suffering on animals -- which was why he opposed "blood sports," although he was not a vegetarian.

Fourth, in a world where things can and often do go wrong, it is not surprising that, for example, parasites thrive on their "host" and, therefore, damage and even destroy that upon which they depend. Sometimes the suffering caused in this fashion (as with malignant cancerous growth) has its ultimate origin in some human misuse, bad diet or infection or lack, again without malicious intent on the part of the agent that causes it. Furthermore, we need to recognize the plain fact that a good deal of physical and, even more obviously, of psychological suffering is made possible through exactly the same human (and other) conditioning that makes it possible to enjoy the sense of well-being, even of joy. that marks most of human (and, in an analagous fashion, animal) existence. We should be careful in our approach. For we could not "feel pain," but neither could we "feel happiness." if we did not have such psycho-physical equipment. Laughter and tears are intimately related, as folk wisdom knows and as many poets have told us. It is also the case that our human solidarity, our participation in a common life, and our intimacy with others occasion much of the suffering that we experience. When a friend suffers, especially if that person is one for whom we care deeply, the anguish can be enormous. This we all know, yet frequently we do not take it into account when we speak of various sorts of human suffering.

I shall not discuss in detail the question of moral evil, nor shall I speak of what in religious language is called "sin." These topics are far too big to receive here the attention they deserve. But it must be said that moral evil and sin are tied in with the very freedom and responsibility that men and women know and value. They are the result of our relatively free moral decisions or they are caused by the social situation in which we men and women inevitably find ourselves. We are often accountable for them: no fully human person is likely to blame somebody or something else for all of them. In one sense however we are all "accountable" here, because we belong to a society of humans that is often based upon, or that creates, injustice, oppression, servitude, and other unhappy aspects of the world. In two other books I have discussed these at some length: Goodness Distorted (London: Mowbrays. 1970) and Cosmic Love and Human Wrong (New York: Paulist Press, 1978): perhaps I may refer the reader to them for a fuller treatment of moral evil and sin.

The several points that have just been made as "ameliorating considerations" do not reduce the reality of evil. However, they help us to avoid the totally pessimistic interpretation that can easily be mistaken for genuine realism in understanding. Or, to use again Hardy’s words, there is a "better" as there is a "worst." Total gloom is just as unrealistic as bland optimism. And on the whole, most of human and animal life is enjoyed, and the living of it gives considerable satisfaction.

Now we return to the earlier question about God’s nature and point out that deity is not unrelated to, nor unaffected by, the creation in which God is active. We can affirm that the exercise of "power" in that divine working is only for maintaining a cosmos or an orderly pattern rather than allowing the world to fall into chaotic or anarchic confusion. But throughout, God is deeply concerned for it. For relationship is concern, whether positive or negative. What God does positively is to labor toward richer, fuller, more inclusive, expanding existence: negatively God acts against the evil that may be there, and by what might be styled "the divine alchemy" God seems able to "bring good out of evil" -- although this is no excuse for the doing of evil so that good may come in the end. Such an attitude would be alien to the whole picture that we have here sought to present about God’s ways with the creation.

God is Love -- and this is an active Love. "A thing is what it does," I have quoted from Whitehead. Active and concerned loving always seeks to identify itself with the beloved; it cannot remain aloof but must participate, so far as possible, in the beloved’s pains and difficulties quite as much as in his or her joys and happiness. This is precisely what Christians have said about God when they have taken seriously the faith that God is disclosed, enacted, expressed. or "incarnate" in the total event of Jesus Christ. In that event, with a distinctive clarity, God is seen to be actively present, to have made himself or herself one with, and thus genuinely a sharer in, creaturely existence at our human level. This conviction may then be taken as a clue for the reading of all that God does. Then God will be seen as a suffering God who shares in the anguish of the creation yet is not overcome or destroyed by that sharing. For a corollary of the Christian conviction is that divine Love, enacted in this human existence, was not defeated by the death that is part of the creaturely lot. The various stories that tell of Jesus’ "resurrection," when suitably "demythologized," tell us that Love expressed in the world, sharing in the world’s pain, and knowing from "inside" its anguish, "cannot be holden of death," as the New Testament phrases it. The reports about that "resurrection" cannot easily be reconciled to make a consistent narrative. Yet the fact of the disciples’ awareness that Jesus, in the totality of his existence, was victorious is plain to see: God "raised him from the dead."

God is "the fellow-sufferer who understands," in Whitehead’s fine phrase. But God does more than "understand"; God is in the world, knowing it from the inside and not merely as an external observer who deeply sympathizes. Of course, Whitehead meant that, too. God is actively engaged in overcoming evil, in all its differing modes. The divine aim or purpose, in a world that has its own independence and freedom, is precisely to overcome evil. But that is not done in one fell swoop; it can only be done by a continuing and persistent effort on God’s part. And there is a consequence for us.

What is that consequence? I have stressed that we are called as humans to be what St. Paul styled "fellow-workers with God." We are to work with God in furthering the creative advance of the world in goodness. truth, justice, righteousness, care, and love. Such is the practical Christian vocation. Therefore, our Christian attitude toward whatever is evil is a firm rejection of it and an earnest effort against it, to the end that it shall be overcome, negated, removed from the world or transformed into an occasion for good to emerge.

Of course, we can do little if anything against natural disaster; we cannot remove or defeat tidal waves or earthquakes, although we can see to it that people do not live in places where these are likely to occur. We can do something to alleviate pain in the animal world, if only by refusing to inflict suffering beyond absolute necessity. We can work against illness and disease, by the use of such knowledge and techniques as are acquired through the study of those ills. Above all, we can open ourselves to the forces for good that are present in the world, so that human self-centered-ness, cruelty to one’s fellows, oppression. hatred, and contempt shall not prevail among us. This is the challenge to us in our Christian discipleship.

When the day comes for judgment upon our loyalty and dedication, God will ask us (or so we might put it) the question that was put by the captain in the Hundred Years War when he came upon a soldier who had skulked in his tent while the fierce struggle was going on: "When we fought at Arles, were you there?" If we were not there, in that continuing struggle for the good, we have shown ourselves to be unprofitable servants. We have been judged, and at our best we judge ourselves, to be unworthy of our "high calling in Christ Jesus our Lord." Even if there is no simple, straightforward, and easy explanation of evil, the obligation is laid upon us to work with God against it. The depth of Christian faith is to see, with Mother Julian of Norwich, that in and with God "all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well." However, this conviction can be entertained meaningfully and realistically only if first of all we have recognized evil and have played our part in God’s suffering, yet triumphant, activity against it.

Finally, do our liturgy and teaching express vividly this reality of God as Love-in-action and ourselves as God’s agents in active loving? Anything that denies or minimizes that basic reality should have no place in our worship, our prayer, or our meditation. Fortunately, most of the newer services found in the recently revised service books of many Christian groups are in this sense more deeply Christian than earlier services. Surely it is necessary to eradicate from our theology whatever would suggest that God is in control of everything, exactly as it happens, and hence is fully responsible for what is wrong. Here much remains to be done; yet there are encouraging signs that Christian theologians are at work on this task, and we may hope that a more genuinely Christian theology may be the result of their labors. Our discipleship, which often has tended to be moralistic in a legal sense, also needs to be reconceived so that love has the preeminence, rather than the coldly moralistic interpretations of the divine purpose so often taught the past and even today hanging on in many supposedly Christian circles. Here there is much still to be done.

For any genuinely dedicated Christian, faith and practice, worship and work, go hand in hand. Despite our ignorance of much that we might like to know and with an honest recognition that we do not and cannot "have all the answers to all the questions," we yet have enough to impel us to be responsible and zealous in thought and word and deed. As a distinguished English divine of an earlier generation once put it, Christian "faith is not belief in spite of evidence, but life in scorn of consequence." In fact, that faith is itself a call to action, and part of the action is for us to serve as God’s agents in overcoming evil wherever we see it and to work with God and with our fellow humans so that the divine purpose of God for creation may be more effectively realized.