Saturday, January 03, 2015

Book Review: The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?

David Bentley Hart’s essay The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? is a delightful little book in many ways. It is very well-written, and it has some provocative and often helpful things to say about theodicy. One of the things that is most interesting about this book is that Hart spends at least as much time (maybe even more time) speaking of what we might call “meta-theodicy” as he does in developing a theodicy proper. That is, he has as much to say about when, where, and in what circumstances theodicy is appropriate, and about what general approach the Christian should take to theodicy, as he does about the particular theodicy that he wishes to defend. This reviewer actually found these portions of the essay more engaging than much of Hart’s own theodicizing!

Introducing the problem by means of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 (the event that inspired the book), Hart proceeds from that specific episode to the more general problem of evil, surveying some of the usual literature (Leibniz, Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, etc.), and eventually critiquing some typical Christian responses to the tsunami—particularly those that emphasize some specific greater good or purpose in each instance of evil or suffering that takes place. In place of this sort of thinking, Hart prefers a theodicy that emphasizes the gratuity of sin and evil, and the fact that the world, insofar as it contains such things, is simply not how it is supposed to be. Contrasting his view with that of certain other theodicists, he writes:
What struck me most forcefully, however, was that in their [other theodicists’] apparent need to produce an apologia for God that precluded the possibility of any absurd or pointless remainder in the order of creation and redemption, most of them had seemed to allow certain vital aspects of the language of the New Testament to become all but entirely invisible…Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering or death, that cannot be providentially turned toward God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death—considered in themselves—have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.[1]
Later in the book, Hart appeals to human freedom and the Fall to account for the existence of such gratuitous suffering. This, I take it, is the core of Hart’s theodicy.

It is interesting to consider how Hart handles non-Christian critics who have pressed the argument from evil in some form or another. This reviewer deeply appreciates the passage on pages 9-10 where Hart takes certain critics to task for a sort of presumptuous naiveté regarding Christian belief and the problem of suffering:
It seems a curious delusion—but apparently it is one shared by a great number of the more passionate secularists—to imagine that Christianity has never at any point during the two millennia of its intellectual tradition considered the problem of evil, or confronted the reality of suffering and death, or at any rate responded to these things with any subtlety: that Christians have down through the centuries simply failed to notice every single instance of flood, earthquake, or tempest, pestilence, famine, or fire, war, genocide, or slaughter; or that every Christian who has been crippled, or has contracted a terminal illness, or has watched his wife die of cancer, or has stood at the graveside of his child has somehow remained inexplicably insensible to the depths of his own pain and to the dark moral and metaphysical enigmas haunting every moment of his grief.[2]
Hart is absolutely right to call out certain of Christianity’s critics on this preposterous kind of thinking, and this reviewer greatly appreciates his passionate and eloquent statement of this reaction that he and probably many other Christians have to such critics.

On the other hand, when J. L. Mackie comes up a few pages later, What Hart has to say is rather surprising. He notes Rosenbaum’s comment that Mackie’s is an argument that “so far no one has succeeded in refuting.” Hart’s response is that “…there is no argument here to refute; the entire case is premised upon an inane anthropomorphism…that reduced God to a finite ethical agent…”[3] But the reply of many contemporary apologists to anyone pushing Mackie’s argument would likely be quite different than Hart’s. For one thing, contra Hart, there most definitely is an argument in Mackie’s piece. Furthermore, Hart’s reply actually tacitly concedes this point, because he proceeds by attacking a premise (or at least a presupposition) of Mackie’s argument! But, all of this aside, it seems that all one needs to say these days in reply to Mackie-defenders is that his argument, being perhaps the paradigmatic contemporary presentation of the so-called “logical version” of the problem of evil, is widely regarded in academic circles as having been decisively refuted (Rosenbaum’s comment notwithstanding). While evidential versions of the argument from evil are very much alive and well, the academic literature on the problem of evil has pretty much done away with the logical version of the argument (of which Mackie was the most prominent recent defender). Writing as long ago as 1996, Peter Van Inwagen says:
It used to be widely held that evil…was incompatible with the existence of God: that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able to tell, this thesis is no longer defended.[4]
Similar quotations from other experts in the field could be listed almost without end. But it will be more fruitful to move on to a couple of other comments that this reviewer wishes to make about Hart’s theodicy. Actually, the first is more of a question, and the second is a suggestion.

The question is, what is the connection between human freedom, the fall, and natural evil? It strikes the reader as odd that the very event that inspired Hart’s essay was a paradigmatic case of natural evil—a tsunami—and yet when he talks about human freedom and the Fall as the source of evil, he never (as far as this reviewer can tell) clearly sketches the connection that he sees between natural evil and the Fall. It’s not that such a connection can’t possibly be made (indeed, there are various theodicies and defenses that pull precisely these two things together); but one does wonder why Hart saw fit to pass over this apparently crucial detail in his book.

Now for the suggestion. This reviewer would like to see Hart make use of the work of Peter Van Inwagen (I think especially of Van Inwagen’s Gifford Lectures and his essay “The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God”[5]). Van Inwagen and Hart seem to have similar inclinations when it comes to matters of theodicy, and I think Van Inwagen can provide Hart’s proposal with some added philosophical rigor. Likewise, Hart’s work may be helpful to Van Inwagen in various ways. After all, it is precisely with regard to such challenging and interdisciplinary issues as the problem of evil that theologians and philosophers cannot afford to work independently of each other.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Justin Mooney is a graduate student from Michigan. He has a degree in art and design, and he is currently studying philosophy of religion. He plans to become a professor.

[1] Hart, David Bentley. The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. pp. 34-35 
[2] Ibid. pp. 9-10
[3] Ibid. p. 13
[4] Van Inwagen, Peter. “The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence” in The Evidential Argument from Evil (Daniel Howard-Snyder, ed.) Indiana University Press, 1996, p. 151
[5] Van Inwagen, Peter. “The Place of Chance in a world Sustained by God” in Divine and Human Action (ed. Morris) Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988 pp. 211-235.


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