Welcome back to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go. This week’s edition is part of a sub-series on theological terminology, which will continue for a few weeks.
The first time I heard today’s word – “theodicy” – spoken aloud, I thought the speaker had cleverly merged the words “theology” and “odyssey” to convey a thinker’s spiritual journey. I thought “theodyssey” was an exciting bit of jargon, and I still think it should be taken up officially. After some time, I began to notice that there was only ever one kind of theodyssey taking place, and I began to doubt my understanding of the word. Sure enough, when I finally saw it in print, the meaning became clear.
Theodicy is the word used to describe a theologian’s answer to the problem of evil – or at least their attempt to figure it out. As many thinkers found this to be a faith-testing problem, you can see why I was content to see it as a kind of spiritual journey, fraught with temptations and tests and questions and difficulties that would threaten to undo the entire edifice of a given thinker’s trust in God or religion. In the end, a thinker engaged in theodicy is trying to find a way to defend their faith against the difficulties and demons that lurk in the shadows.
Though the initial questions behind any theodicy are simple – Why would an omnipotent God allow evil to exist? Why would a God who is Good let innocent people suffer? Why would a just God create people who desired to harm each other? – there is no such thing as a simple theodicy. Nearly every potential difficulty comes with its own set of new problems to solve, logical inconsistencies, troubling thoughts, and more.
In Confessions VII, among several other texts, Saint Augustine reflects on the questions that tormented him prior to converting to Christianity, wondering if perhaps God could the source of goodness while materiality was the source of evil (for those familiar with Augustine, I am referring to his time with the Manicheans). But this proposal, he finds, threatens both God’s role as creator and his omnipotence:
What then is the origin of evil? Is it that the matter from which he made things was somehow evil? He gave it form and order, but did he leave in it an element which he could not transform into food? If so, why? Was he powerless to turn and transform all matter so that no evil remained, even though God is omnipotent? Finally, why did God want to make anything out of such stuff and not rather use his omnipotence to ensure that there was no matter at all? Could it exist contrary to God’s will? – Chadwick translation.
His rejection of the ontological dualism of Manicheanism comes out most clearly in “On the Nature of the Good“, where he argues fairly effectively against the claim that evil could be an equal opposing force to good. The argument is thus: if God and Evil were equal forces existing in the world, then they would be naturally opposed, each attempting to destroy the other. But if that were the case, then there would only actually be Evil; evil, by its nature, aims to destroy Goodness. If God were aiming to destroy Evil, then God too would be a destructive force, rather than a creative one. This would mean that God was actually Evil – and thus would not be God, as Goodness would not exist at all. There would only be one force – Evil – operating against itself.
The answer for Augustine, then is that there is only one ultimate force of reality. Since there is goodness in the world, and that goodness must come from somewhere, the relation above must be the inverse of what was initially presented – Evil is a privation of being, and Goodness the creation of it. Evil thus, Augustine, cannot be a true existing force, but the absence of goodness (this thinking both stems from – and feeds – Augustine’s engagement with the books of the Platonists), while God remains utterly good and creative, acting to restore that which is lacking, giving order to the orderless.
This, of course, does not resolve Augustine’s torment, but it does provide a foundational step. His full theodicy is rich, troubling, salvific, unsatisfying, hopeful, and more – as any sincere quest to justify God’s goodness in the face of evil would have to be. While many theologians come across in purely intellectual, pastoral, or even preachy terms, their humanity is difficult to miss when it comes to the problem of evil. In Book 19 of the City of God, Augustine turns to God to help him through the pain of being mortal, and facing the destructive acts of others, and here frames his theodicy as a lifeline – it is his desire for God’s existence that pulls him from the depths of mortal despair. While a thinker’s meditation on trinity or proofs of God’s existence can read like linguistic puzzles, a thinker’s theodicy often reads out the vulnerability that lies underneath, and as such can make for the most interesting – if least satisfying – part of a theologian’s work.
So when you see reference to a theologian’s “theodicy”, this is what is being referenced: their fear, their mortality, their hopes, and their attempts to understand and make sense of what seems to threaten not their faith, but their ability to cope with the world. A theologian’s theodicy shows you what they need and desire, and often what has prompted them to turn to the project of intellectually engaging with God in the first place.
Next up in the theological sub-series of the Philosopher’s Lexicon: soteriology.