Thought for the Day, 15 January 2010
Some more on Haiti and the problem of evil, this time from The Rev. Dr Giles Fraser:
The word “theodicy” describes the intellectual attempt to justify the existence of God in the face of human suffering. Coined by Leibniz at the beginning of the eighteenth century, he argued that out of the various possible worlds that God could have created, he might have created the best of these, a world containing less suffering than all the other options available. With this suggestion, Leibniz sought to explain how it’s at least logically possible that a merciful God could create a world with the suffering that it has.
And then, in 1755, some years after Leibniz published his famous argument, a massive earthquake hit Lisbon on the morning of the first of November, the popular feast day of All Saints. A 15ft crack opened down the middle of the street. Locals watched the tide disappear only to return as a huge wave that drowned most of the city. 30-40 thousand people were killed.
It was in the face of this terrible disaster that Voltaire came to mount his celebrated attack upon Leibniz in Candide. Voltaire cast Leibniz as the foolish Dr Pangloss, ready to trot out the absurd idea that this is the best of all possible worlds whatever misfortune befell him. The satire was biting. He was claiming that all theologians seem to care about in the face of human misery is getting God off the hook. Theodicy, Voltaire insists, is a moral disgrace and a sick joke.
Well, I have no answer to the question of how God can allow so many innocent people to die in natural disasters, like the earthquakes of Lisbon or Haiti. And indeed, I can quite understand that many will regard these events as proof positive that religious people are living a foolish dream like the idiotic Dr Pangloss.
And yet, I still believe. For there exists a place in me – deeper than my rational self – that compels me to respond to tragedies like Haiti not with argument but with prayer. On a very basic level, what people find in religion is not so much the answers, but a means of responding to and living with life’s hardest questions. And this is why a tragedy like this doesn’t, on the whole, make believers suddenly wake up to the foolishness of their faith. On the contrary, it mostly tends to deepen our sense of a need for God.
What many believers mean by faith is not that we have a firm foundation in rational justification. Those, like Leibniz, who try to claim this are, I believe, rationalizing something that properly exists on another level. Which is why, at a moment like this, I’d prefer to leave the arguments to others. For me, this is a time quietly to light a candle for the people of Haiti and to offer them up to God in my prayers. May the souls of the departed rest in peace.