God, Mystery, and Mystification
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God, Mystery, and Mystification

Denys Turner

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God, Mystery, and Mystification

Denys Turner

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About This Book

In God, Mystery, and Mystification, Denys Turner presents eight essays covering the major issues of philosophical and practical theology that he has focused on over the fifty years of his academic career. While a somewhat heterogeneous collection, the chapters are loosely linked by a focus on the mystery of God and on distinguishing that mystery from merely idolatrous mystifications.

The book covers three main fields: theological epistemology, medieval and early modern mystical theologies, and the relation of Christian belief to natural science and politics. Turner develops the implications of a moderate realist account of theological knowledge as distinct from a fashionable, postmodernist epistemology. This modern realist epistemology is embodied in connections between theoretical, speculative theologies and the practice of the Christian faith in a number of different ways, but mainly as bearing upon the practical, lived connections between faith and reason, between reason and the mystical, between faith and science, and among faith, prayer, and politics. Scholars and advanced students of theology, religious studies, the history of ideas, and medieval thought will be interested in this book.

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How Could a Good God Allow Evil?


You are in Princeton and ask your way to Harvard. “If I were you,” unhelpfully you are told, “I wouldn’t start from here.” Of course Harvard people might take a dim view of starting any journey from Princeton, least of all a journey to Harvard, for Harvard is the center of the universe and everyone knows that sensible journeys start from there. But if Princeton is where you are you don’t have the choice, you have to start from there willy-nilly. And so it is with many problems, particularly those of a philosophical sort. In discussions about God and evil in our times it can seem obvious that the starting point must be with the question “How could a good God allow evil?” for it is as if the boot were on the skeptical foot; and it is as if it would be required of those who ask that question in hope of a theistic answer that they meet conditions of certainty and proof that in fact cannot be met. That is where the presumption seems to stand since Hume, whether in philosophical or literary treatments of the problem of evil, whether in a John Stuart Mill or in a Dostoevsky.
Of course it is easy to see why the skeptical question is generally thought to be the better, if not the only, place to start. While for a person of any degree of sensitivity thoughts of the evil in our world may well present powerfully rational (and intensely emotional) reasons for doubting the existence of God, no one can reasonably doubt the existence of that evil. Hence it looks as if evil is a problem for belief in God in a way that belief in God can never as convincingly explain the world’s evil, still less justify it. In the mid-eighteenth century David Hume put it that way round in what is perhaps the classical statement of the “problem of evil”— it’s been where more or less everyone has started since. “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered,” he says. “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”1
You might, though, think that skepticism should be allowed to cut the other way too. For granted that there is no defense of theism that could demonstrate formal consistency between the evidence of the world’s evils and belief in the power and goodness of God, there is an equally justified doubt whether an atheistic argument formally demonstrating inconsistency is the more conclusive. You can argue that Hume’s questions are but that, questions, and that they may not be begged for all their undoubted force as rhetorical gestures. In a word, for all that Hume would have you conclude otherwise, his are in fact open questions. And if they are open then they deserve to be given a thoughtful answer, not a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. The question, then, is fair enough: If God is all good and almighty, whence evil? And were it to turn out that in truth it is impossible to settle that question one way or another, as it seems to Brian Davies, David Burrell, and Herbert McCabe among others, then while you don’t have to conclude that Hume was wrong to ask the question, you do have to insist that he should not be allowed to get away with begging it.2 It does after all matter where you start from.
And though there are arguments either way, given the prevailing Epicurean presumptions it seems preferable to start from Hume’s skeptical question at least for a preliminary and dialectical purpose if not from a dogmatically atheist answer. For it does seem reasonable to concede that you have to start from the manifest and unchallengeable facts of evil, and if so it becomes the theist’s job to show with convincing reasons why one might question the necessity of doing so. And just so as to anticipate where the argument will lead, at no point will I attempt to answer the question of what would justify an all-good and all-powerful God’s allowing evil of any kind to exist (at any rate directly), let alone allowing the extent of evil that there is; and that is because I take the view that we cannot know the answer to that question one way or the other. In short, the matter is undecidable either way, that is, you can show that you couldn’t know the answer to it. And that is about as far as anyone, theist or atheist, can get with the problem of evil. As to the question, then, “How could a good God allow evil?” the only answer can be that it is impossible to say.


When I say that we ought not to start by allowing Hume to beg the Epicurean question, because it is unanswerable either way, I do want to be clear as to what I mean. Of course there is a problem of evil, if not necessarily expressed in Hume’s form. But on anyone’s account, not all evil is a problem. Some evils we can take in our stride, there being no cause for theological, philosophical or even moral alarm in them, and we should start by taking the existence of such evils out of the debate. For example: though others may have different convictions than I do about the matter, I have personally never had a theological problem with lions eating antelopes,3 though it is hard not to feel for the panicking beasts as they flee their predators in such wonderfully graceful leaps and bounds; nor do I find myself distressed that lions seem as unlikely as ever to get round to lying down with lambs as Isaiah had hoped they would. For lions lying down with lambs would be good news for lambs,4 but it would be terrible news for lions. It goes with being a lion that it eats lambs—being a lambeating machine is built in to what a lion is. And more generally there seems to be a rule here, nature requiring a level of raw indifference in matters of tooth and claw: that is, if there is to be the variety and complexity of the natural world at all and so that there be lions, alas, lambs are going to have to pay for it with their lives. “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” asks William Blake of the tiger burning bright, and it troubles him that the Creator made both the savage and the savaged.5 The question for him is not rhetorical; but there really is no answer to Blake other than “Yes, God did make tigers,” and consistency requires of those who, like Blake, have a problem of this kind that they consider what alternative world they have in mind that doesn’t either replace a problem for lambs being eaten with a problem for carnivorous predators being starved for want of ovine nutrition, or desist from creating lions altogether and along with them all the obviously creatable predatory species.
It would appear to be the same with inanimate physical processes, for they sometimes have an impact unhappily, even tragically, upon human affairs. In the mid-eighteenth century an earthquake in Portugal killed thirty thousand and Voltaire lost faith in God. Rather more understandable would have been his loss of faith in human beings; it was they, after all, who built Lisbon on a geological fault line and seemed willing to blame any one or thing but their ignorance for the destructive outcome. We today have far less excuse for continuing to build a San Francisco on the San Andreas fault, and there seems to be something of a premodern and merely pagan superstition in supposing there would be a problem about God if some day soon San Francisco were to disappear forever down an immense sinkhole, for we do know now it is very likely that in due course it will.
And were it asked more generally why a good God who had alternatives available would create a world in which earthquakes are bound to happen, it is unclear what answer could meet the case. It would seem that in asking that sort of question about earthquakes we are asking about sets of physical processes the laws governing which originate at a point in time in the order of 13.799 ± 0.021 billion years ago. That is, to require God to have created only an earthquake-free world and to regret that he didn’t is to regret too much, for to wish away earthquakes is to wish away the physical laws that govern the universe itself. There is no picking the good bits of physics from the bad, for that isn’t physics at all. For if God makes a world in which there are predictable outcomes it is because God wants to create an intelligible world. But the world would become wholly incomprehensible to us if we could never know when physical laws were going to be suspended by God just to suit our particular preferences from time to time. Those physical laws exist precisely so that by getting to know them we can among other things learn to avoid building cities where we know that earthquakes are going to happen.
More challenging for some is the problem of physical pain. Hume, again, has taken the lead here. He seems to think it obvious that a world in which no one suffers physical pain would be a better world than the one we have got; and he asks why if God is good he should have chosen an alternative so obviously the worse of the two. “It seems . . . plainly possible,” he says, “to carry on the business of life without any pain.”6 Hume’s skeptical musings are rarely so thoughtless as when he speculates in this way, and there is a quick and sharp answer to him forthcoming from anyone suffering from that rare genetic disorder known as CIPA, the chronic inability to feel pain. Hume might be less convinced as to the advantages of a pain-free life had he given a moment’s thought to the tragedy of a life threatened by scalding in overheated bath water that you cannot feel, by the prospect of limbs broken on which you walk unaware, of broken glass that you have trodden on in bare feet without noticing, or of a hand held in a flame from which there is no painful sensation to tell you of your limb’s destruction. Then you might not be so easily convinced that bodily pain is altogether a bad thing, and you will hardly think you would be better off, taken in the round, for the want of it.
To which Hume, acknowledging that some pain has its purpose in animal life, nonetheless presses the point: Why so much pain, he asks, why unbearable pain?7 Would not tolerable pain, or even some reduction in pleasure, serve the purpose of sending out the signals needed to warn of life-threatening courses of action, no purpose being served by intolerable pain? To which there is some sort of answer in the thought that pain cannot serve its purpose within the economy of human life if it occurs only at tolerable levels of mild discomfort. For, when tolerable, pain loses its point. Pain fails to do its job if it is less than too much, and still less effective is a simple reduction in one sort of pleasure relative to others. A cup of so-called “English” tea, in Harvard customarily emptied into the harbor in revulsion, has its pleasures of a sort that English people appreciate, if not Americans. Tea is not a painful drink just because it appears significantly to lack the thrills of Colombian coffee or of a fine red wine. Of course, it does not follow that we shouldn’t try to reduce the levels of pain that visit us; but we should do so only to a safe extent, and a world in which analgesics were used to dull all pain to acceptable levels of discomfort would be a world in which, our bodies no longer serving with biological efficiency to warn us, we would have endlessly to calculate how to avoid physically harmful forms of behavior. Pain makes for an immensely more efficient warning device than sluggish brainpower with its turgidly inefficient capacity for truth and its ready aptness for self-deception.
None of these forms of evil, if indeed that is what they are, have any tendency to pose a problem of the kind that Hume thinks we are all forced to face. You can guarantee secure life for lambs only on condition of meek and mild vegetarian tigers and lions, or else none of them at all; you can have an earthquake-free cosmos only on condition that there are no reliable physical laws to govern it; you can have a world free of physical pain only if it is also a world free of physical pleasure, in short only if it is a world without nervous systems, and that is to say, a world without bodies. Given the kind of world that we have, these pains are necessary evils where they are not necessary goods,8 in which case it is hard to see why the existence of them is to be regarded as providing rational evidence against God, since they seem just as plausibly to be arguments supportive of a providential benevolence within creation. In any case there is no need to bring God into the picture at this level at all, and it is no part of my argument that one should, since evolution will do as a perfectly good explanation for the emergence of the species that we have got, for the lions as for the lambs, and for why all animals have nervous systems that register pain with the intensity that they do. But if, like the pre-evolutionary Hume, and, in consort with some fundamentalist Christians of our time, you insist on bringing God into it one way or the other, the evidence from the natural world points at least as strongly against his atheist conclusion as in favor of it. Ours seems to be just the sort of natural world you might expect a good and wise God would bring about if God were to be bringing about any knowable form of natural world at all.


But as for moral evil, for evil done in the world, that would seem to be a very different matter. Here, at least, we might reasonably think that you have to start in Princeton, that is, with where we actually are, even if it would be better were we in Harvard where only good prevails. For here there really is a problem, and Hume half gets to it, if only in a sort of ironical throwaway to dismiss it; “Is [God] both able and willing” to prevent evil, he asks, and then rhetorically: “Whence then is evil?” It is here that we have to address how seriously that question should be taken. Hume is usually interpreted as simply begging the question in favor of a negative answer. On this account it seems that he cannot conceive of the possibility that the world we have, in which there is so much moral evil, might be exactly what an omnipotent and wholly good God should have willed, though in fact he shows nothing as to the inconsistency of maintaining both, he simply assumes it. And while Hume ought to have given more thought to his question and ought not be allowed just to shrug his shoulders as if the answer weighs too obviously against the existence of God, it does seem right to require not just Hume and the skeptics but also all theists to allow that there is a genuine problem here. “Whence then is evil?” is on all sides a real question, not a merely rhetorical one. And on all sides it should be admitted that even were a theistic answer unavailable to us in fact, there might still be an answer to it in principle, just so long as it is not a demonstrable contradiction to hold all three of Hume’s propositions together, that God wills all good, that God is all powerful and can do all good, and that there is moral evil. I don’t think Hume shows the conjunction to be inconsistent. But he does want to know what would show the conjunction to be consistent, and he doubts if any such demonstration is possible. In that at least I think he is right.
There is some reason, however, to step back from Hume and his eighteenth-century rationalist priorities, and from the general nondialec- tical strategy of seeking to ease the conceptual tension between the assertion of God and the pervasiveness of evil by means of the simple device of taking God out of the picture, leaving the evil unexplained beyond the assertion that it is par for the evolutionary (or some other) course. At least, Hume thought, removing God from the equation seemed intuitively to be a more satisfactory solution to the problem of evil than that of taking evil out of the picture, and, since Hume, the preponderance of opinion on both sides of the debate, theistic defenders and atheists alike, agrees with him that that is how the land lies. But in moving away from Hume I draw attention to a surprisingly different time, place, and style of reflection on the problem of evil, that of the fourteenth-century English theologian, Julian of Norwich, who shares one thing with Hume. Believing, unlike Hume, in the existence of a good and all-powerful God, she, like Hume, is quite baffled at the quandary thus caused by the quantity of sin that there is and at the viciousness of some of it. The difference between the medieval Julian and the modernist Hume is that Julian refuses to eliminate the problem, as Hume does, by dissolving it atheistically. But just as resolutely she refuses to dissolve it theologically; she confesses that she does not know for herself personally why a good and almighty God should create a world in which there is evil and that nothing in her understanding of Christian belief in a good and almighty God gives her an answer either. It might be thought surprising to advert to so unobvious a challenge to the worldly urbane Scottish skeptic as that of a medieval woman, one, it might be supposed, who is unlikely to outbid him whether for greater moral realism or for greater conceptual sophistication. Yet on both scores she is in fact the more complex and conceptually nuanced of the two.


Julian’s book of her “shewings,” as she calls them, is an extended set of meditations on a central problem, or set of problems, that personally beset her:9 she is painfully troubled by her experience of evil and of that consciously evil human behavior that she calls, generically, “sin”—as who would not be who was alive and capable of reflection upon conditions in what must be the nastiest century, the fourteenth, in recorded Western history after our own recent twentieth,10 ravaged as it was by interpersonal violence, disease, death, war, moral collapse, and economic decline. Julian herself, at the age of eight or nine, had survived a great plague, the so- called “Black Death,” which in the space of two years took the lives of one- third of the population of England and of the European mainland. And in the face of her experience of the reality of evil of all kinds she is told in her showings that God does not see sin, that for God sin is “no thing,” and that, contrary to all her own experience of evil, and especially of human sinfulness, “all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of thing will be well.”11 So Julian is confronted with a dilemma: in view of the conjunction of her own intensely painful experience of sin (she says she experiences its presence in our world as a “sharp pain”) and of the assurance that God does not admit to noticing it at all, she is compelled to seek some intellectual space within which the two conflicting propositions might be reconciled. You cannot sweep away the evil with some gesture toward the compensating goodness of God. Sin, she says, is real: it may be the source of, or even may consist in, every sort of illusion to which humans are prone, whether about themselves, about others, or about God. But there is no sort of unreality in the fact of our thus misrelating: the complex reality is that, on account of the world’s sin, ...

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