November 13, 2011

Theodicy Part 1: Love

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 1:10 pm

I cry to you and you do not answer me
Job 30:20a

I remember a science fiction novel, or maybe it was just a short story, from my youth. It described a planet populated by humans that had never known pain, hunger, grief or loss. They had never experienced sadness. Ever.

This state of affairs was achieved by, as I recall, an automated planetary system put in place by a now-gone super-race that had nurtured the humans’ evolution. This ancient, very advanced, and very benevolent race of overlords had been very protective of their race of humans. They did not want them to suffer, and knowing that they could not protect their humans forever, they created this system to shield them from pain long after the overlords could no longer.

If someone, say, had an accident resulting in a broken bone, drones would swoop in, mend the injury, and remove all memory of the pain from the victim. When someone died, drones came and erased the deceased from the memories of all who had known her. These robots would heal any injury or disease, and then remove it from the communal memory of the entire planet.

Then one day the overlords’ system broke, and for the first time the humans experienced pain. The story examined the shock and evolution of the people as they learned to deal with loss.

But let’s drop the fictional overlords and their protective healing and forgetting system, and just consider what our world would be like if we too never knew pain and sadness. An omnibenevolent and omnipotent God should have been able to create just such a world. Was God unable to create such a perfect world because God is not omnipotent? Or could God have created such a world, but chose not to, because God is not all-good?

What would a pain-free world look like, and who would we be in such a world?

Without sadness, we would not know happiness. Without absence, we could not celebrate presence. Without dissatisfaction, we would have no reason to strive, and hence no ambition, goals or dreams. We could not be afraid, since there would be nothing to fear. Without fear, there would be no bravery. There could be no self-sacrifice, and so no reason for altruism. Our lives would be devoid of pain, but also devoid of emotion.

Most importantly, there would be no empathy. Empathy is our ability to understand another’s emotional state, and to experience it ourselves. Without pain and loss, we would have no reason to share in each other’s emotions.

Returning to the world of my science fiction story, before the overlords’ system broke, no one is sad, but so too no one is joyous, afraid, brave or ambitious. And no one could know love. This is why God created a world in which pain exists.

God has created us in God’s image to love God and to love one another. Love is not love unless it is freely chosen and given. To be freely given, we must also be able to withhold it. We must be free to cause pain if we are free to give love. Love requires empathy, the ability to place ourselves in another’s place. Empathy requires pain, grief and loss both in the other, and in ourselves, for we can’t understand that which we haven’t experienced ourselves. Look at the outpouring of charity in the face of natural disasters around the world. Think of the time and treasure devoted to alleviating hunger and disease around the world. Think of our own lives, and the times we have comforted and ministered to our friends, family and even strangers in times of grief and loss. Could God create a world without earthquakes and tsunamis, hunger and disease, grief and loss? Perhaps. But would such a world know love?

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