Saturday, August 05, 2006

Theodicy: Not "Tales of Brave Ulysses"

I was reading a post by my friend Cory a few weeks ago, on the occasion of Kenneth Lay's sudden death. Cory noted that because of this, there could be no reparations forced from Lay's widow and family. Ken Lay himself 'avoided' the prison time that he deserved for his crimes. It would be an entirely unjust outcome if our earthly lives were the end, and as such it posed a problem for atheists: could they live with a cosmos that is fundamentally unfair? It is not enough that the just are rewarded and the unjust punished most of the time, were even that true. Without reparations after death, it is an unthinkable universe.

I've been dissatisfied with this line of argument for two reasons. First, it already takes an assumption that external goods are the only ones worth the name. Atheists are as capable as we are of adopting an Aristotelian theory of virtue, for example; in such a scheme there is not the same unfairness, since a person who becomes wealthy through theft ruins in the process his very soul, his capacity of being truly happy. True, the good still suffer without recompense, but for some reason the misfortune of the innocent has never offended human sensibilities so much as the prosperity of the wicked.

But more importantly, it glosses over a particular problem of theodicy posed by Christian theology: Ken Lay, as much as any of his victims, was capable of turning to the mercy which we believe God extends to all. If we really believe that those who have done great evil should pay for it in the next life, we must then acknowledge that the Lord may not agree with us. If the original problem of theodicy was understanding the existence of evil in a cosmos created by an omnipotent and good God, this specifically Christian problem is that of how He chooses to deal with it.

Let's take an extreme example: Suppose that God, in His infinite compassion, appears to Osama bin Laden in a vision tomorrow, and commands him to reject the folly of Islam, repent of his wicked deeds, and have himself baptized into the Catholic Church. He does so, remarkably; and just after the waters of baptism pour over him, the American troops finally find his location and drop a 2-ton bomb on him. Osama bin Laden would find himself a guest in the Beatific Vision after all1.

That's not impossible, any more than the conversion of Saul was. What's more, we Catholics should hope that he is (in this or another way) saved from the pains of Hell, along with all those who make us their enemy. We cannot and should not wish pure justice without mercy as the law in the Cosmos, since this is not what God Himself has chosen for it.

This is one thing, though, that's presently troubling me about the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament: that the Psalmist is seeking to rejoice over the suffering and destruction of the wicked. Why did God wait so long in human history to reveal that part of Himself that wills all to come to the truth (even though He will not force it from us)?

1. Of course, there is a factor which mitigates this picture a little: Purgatory. Mr. bin Laden might well have much suffering to endure for the sins of his past life, before he could attain to the Heavenly Banquet. But, from reading the sentiments of many Catholics, there are those for whom that would never be enough to meet the demands of justice. I mean, I'd forgive him, but then I'm always looking to believe people less culpable than they seem. I hold everyone to a high moral standard, but when they fail I'm loath to hold them responsible.

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