Monday, August 31, 2015

Soul-making theodicy

1. In the past I've defended a supralapsarian theodicy. I still adhere to that, but I'd like to supplement it by considering the soul-making theodicy.  

The basic idea of the supra theodicy is that it's better to be a fallen and redeemed creature than an unfallen creature. But that involves second-order goods, which are contingent on the existence of evil.

There's a difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. You can grasp propositions about sin and forgiveness. That, however, is very different from the experience of sin and forgiveness. Existential knowledge is richer than abstract knowledge. And that's germane to a soul-making theodicy.

A supra theodicy has a subjective dimension: the personal experience of divine forgiveness. However, it's more objective than a soul-making theodicy inasmuch as the frame of reference is divine forgiveness. God is the object of forgiveness, while a Christian is the subject of forgiveness. 

By contrast, a soul-making theodicy has a more subjective orientation, inasmuch as it's about the cultivation of certain virtues. Becoming a better person. A wiser person. 

2. The soul-making theodicy was popularized by John Hick. In Augustinian anthropology, Adam and Eve were finished products. They fell from a state of moral perfection. Hick contrasted that with his own position, according to which Adam and Eve were created with the potential for moral growth. They were still in the process of creation. They had the potential for moral maturation. (Mind you, Hick denied the historicity of Adam and Eve.)

There's some truth to this analysis, although it suffers from equivocation. To say unfallen Adam and Eve were morally "perfect" simply means they were sinless. It doesn't mean there was no room for moral improvement. 

Paradoxically, fallen humans can be both better and worse than unfallen humans. Inasmuch as they are sinners, they are worse. Yet Christians can have a moral grace that surpasses the mere sinlessness of Adam and Eve. Saints have virtues that angels lack. 

3. Let's take an example: Suppose you have a family of five. Both parents are social climbers and overachievers. The husband is consumed with career advancement. The wife is a tiger mom. She makes sure the kids are enrolled in all the right student clubs and extracurricular activities that will look good on a college application. The two teenage sons and a daughter are into the usual things kids in their age-bracket are into. At dinner, each member of the family is glued to the display on their smart phone. 

The members of the family aren't Christian. Aren't into meaning-of-life questions. They lead superficial lives. 

One son starts to forget routine things. At first this is amusing. They think he's absent-minded. Distracted by too much multitasking. But he begins to complain about headaches. 

His parents take him to the doctor, and he's diagnosed with brain cancer. Suddenly their priorities come to a screeching halt. 

They now have a sick family member who will just get sicker. Their social world contracts. Their center of gravity shifts. 

Instead of being frivolous and self-absorbed, they make the most of the remaining time with their dying family member. The wrenching experience changes them. Deepens them. Makes them better people. Develops their unrealized moral potential. 

Perhaps, in their distress and despair, they turn to God. They regret the missed opportunities. Regret taking life for granted. Regret taking one another for granted. Regret all the things they should have said and done differently, in retrospect.

That kind of regret can refine character. Moving forward, that prompts them to treat others with greater patience and understanding. 

This is hypothetical, but there are real life examples of Christians like Eric Liddell and Ernest Gordon who exhibit moral heroism in the face of extreme adversity.  

Let's consider some objections to this theodicy:

4. At best, this theodicy can only justify the existence of certain kinds of evil. 

i) However, even if that's the case, that's only a defect on the assumption that a successful theodicy must single-handedly justify the existence of every kind of evil. But what if different kinds of evils lend themselves to different theodicean principles? In that event, a soul-making theodicy can make a necessary contribution. It wasn't meant to cover more than one class of evils. 

ii) In the same vein, the ordeal may benefit the caregiver even if it doesn't benefit the patient. Or it may benefit each in different ways. Some short lives are far more meaningful than some long lives. 

2. Suffering makes some people worse instead of better. Rather than refining them, their character deteriorates under the strain. They become hardened and bitter. 

i) That's a problem for a soul-building theodicy which is predicated on God's omnibenevolence. But if, a la Calvinism, God never intended everyone to benefit from evil, that's not inconsistent with the theodicy.

ii) In addition, the fact that some people fail to take advantage of opportunities for moral improvement doesn't mean the theodicy was a failure. People often blow good opportunities. If there's something blameworthy in that situation, it's not the opportunity but the failure to seize it. 

3. Dire conditions aren't necessary for people to express these virtues.

i) That maybe true, but the question at issue is primarily the cultivation of such virtues, and secondarily the expression of such virtues. Does the ordeal foster such virtues in some people? Virtues they'd never develop in the first place absent the ordeal?  

The virtues were latent, not in the sense that the were there all along, waiting for an opportunity to express themselves, but because the potential was there all along, requiring a stimulus to develop. 

ii) Moreover, this is not about overcoming obstacles and testing yourself against challenges, to build generic traits like strength of character, but specific moral and theological virtues. 

4. Terrible evils aren't necessary to develop these virtues. 

That objection is circular. The philosophers who raise it have never been in a situation that requires moral heroism. Since they lack heroic virtue, they don't value heroic virtue. They have no firsthand standard of comparison. They haven't had that experience. So they lack the capacity to appreciate their moral deficiency in that respect. They don't know what they are missing. 

That's the point of the soul-building theodicy. It's not about abstract knowledge, but the kind of understanding that can only come from personal experience. Like tempered steel, you have to pass through fire to know what it's like and to experience the effect. 

They lack the necessary insight to appreciate the theodicy because they lack the necessary experience which confers that insight. The very type of experience which the theodicy concerns. 

And from I can tell, critics haven't read accounts of Christians like Eric Liddell and Ernest Gordon. For Liddell, it was a tremendous witness to his fellow captives. For Gordon, it was a transformative experience. Other examples include Christians who care for a disabled family member or family member who suffers from a degenerative illness. It taps into unsuspected reservoirs of forbearance and charity.  

5. The theodicy is circular. These virtues are only virtuous in a fallen world. They'd be unnecessary in an unfilled world. They aren't intrinsic virtues. Indeed, isn't the goal to eliminate evil?

i) Once the virtues are developed, it's no longer necessary to have the evils which foster those virtues. But that's like saying the goal of maturation is to outgrow childhood. In a sense, that's true, yet childhood is a necessary preliminary phase. 

ii) In one sense I can't prove to you that these are intrinsic virtues. Moral appeals depend on shared intuitions. That's a limitation of any moral argument.

iii) But consider an illustration. Take teen horror flicks about a group of high school students who are friends. You know, the kind in which everyone was perfect teeth. 

They go on a trip. But things go terribly awry. They find themselves in a situation where I have a better chance of survival if you don't survive. That suddenly becomes the acid test of friendship. Are they just fair-weather friends? Will they leave you behind? Or will they risk their skin to save a friend? 

A crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. To some extent it exposes what was there all along, just beneath the surface. And a prolonged crisis will make people better or worse. 

Suppose these "friends" turn on each other. Desert each other. Save themselves at the expense of one another.

Suppose, in an unfallen world, these people have the same character, only their fair-weather friendship will never be put to the test. But surely there's something defective about their character, even if those virtues are unnecessary in an unfallen world. Surely they'd be better persons for having those virtues, even if they never had the occasion to express them. 

If the absence of those virtues is morally defective in a fallen world, it's morally defective in an unfallen world. They're the same people (hypothetically speaking). How can they be admirable in an unfallen world if their conduct would be deplorable in a fallen world? 

To be good people, they should have it within themselves to rise to the challenge, had the occasion presented itself. If we knew how badly they'd perform in that situation, our opinion of them would plummet. We wouldn't look at them the same way. 

Although this is hypothetical, there are real-world analogues. In the past, and in some parts of the Third World today, it is dangerous to nurse the sick. Some diseases are both contagious and life-threatening. If you care for a sick family member, you run the risk of becoming infected and dying. But as a rule, it would be morally derelict to abandon the ailing family member.


  1. I suggest this is true of God also. There are aspects of God's character, particularly his love, mercy, goodness and justice, that are only demonstrable in a fallen world.

    God has a story he wants to tell us about him. A story requires a crisis to be faced and resolved, or there is no meaningful development. Thus Creation, the Fall and everything that follows thence.

    1. True. And that's the supralapsarian theodicy.