119–121: The Problem of Evil and Suffering

August 15, 2012
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One of the most prominent and difficult issues in philosophy of religion addresses the dilemma that arises when one asserts the existence of an all-powerful God who is also perfectly loving, while also asserting the presence of genuine evil in the world. As David Hume puts the case: “Either God would remove evil out of this world, and cannot; or He can, and will not; or, He has not the power nor will; or, lastly He has both the power and will.  If He has the will, and not the power, this shows weakness, which is contrary to the nature of God.  If He has the power, and not the will it is malignity, and this is no less contrary to His nature.  If He is neither able nor willing, He is both impotent and malignant, and consequently cannot be God.  If he is both willing and able (which alone is consonant to the nature of God), whence comes evil, or why does he not prevent it?”

There have been many attempts through the centuries to address this dilemma, ranging from denial of the logical problem that seems apparent when trying to hold to all three assertions, to giving reasons for God allowing evil for some larger goods: because love requires free will, which opens the door to the possibility of us choosing evil, or because the presence of evil creates ideal conditions for “soul making,” our proving ourselves through how we respond to it. Outside of classical theism and the three assertions, one finds other approaches to evil, including its denial–the claim that it only appears to be evil because we have a limited perspective (e.g., St. Augustine, Buddhism)–a denial of God’s goodness (e.g., protest theology, theistic dualism), or the denial of God’s omnipotence (e.g., process theology, LDS metaphysical positions suggested in some of Joseph Smith’s writings).

Evil is far more than a philosophical problem, however. Most people care more about the suffering associated with evils, and their concern is to find meaning in what they or others are experiencing. A nice, clean “defense” (theodicy) of the God of classical theism is of little interest to them, as such answers are of no help to a torture victim or a teenager sold into sexual slavery. The matter then becomes finding the best response to evil and its attendant suffering. How do I best serve others who are in pain? How do I act powerfully in the face of my own afflictions? What role, if any, has God played in bringing this trial to me, or is God a fellow sufferer with me, ready to offer comfort and guide me to important lessons and eventual peace? And many more.

In this three-part episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, Jim McLachlan, and Loyd Ericson address these and many other issues related to the problem of evil and suffering. Part 1 focuses on the classical philosophical problem and defenses. Part 2 move more directly into LDS approaches to the subject, including a distinction between LDS “discourse” about evil (which follows closely what one finds in most other theistic traditions) and LDS “theology” about evil and suffering derived from Joseph Smith’s rejection of classical theism, as well as fascinating scriptural passages. Part 2 and Part 3 also directly address suffering, including powerful tire-meets-the-road stories of people in intense pain and which ideas and approaches to thinking about evil often exacerbate their suffering versus the ones that are more helpful.

Questions of evil and suffering are very important topics, and this episode provides a great deal of food for thought, exploration of scripture and theology, and insights for any who are in need of comfort or who are called upon to be present with suffering others. We look forward to your listening and then sharing your comments and own wrestles with evil below.

_____

Quotation and Link:

Mark Twain (final page of The Mysterious Stranger):

Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago–centuries, ages, eons, ago!–for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities.  Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction!  Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane–like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell–mouths mercy and invented hell–mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!

Loyd Ericson, “‘Which Thing I Had Never Supposed’: The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Man” (Sunstone, June 2010)

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66 Responses to 119–121: The Problem of Evil and Suffering

  1. Ryan Comins
    August 16, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Another excellent podcast! Thank you, I thoroughly enjoyed this incredibly powerful discussion!
    I particularly loved the discussion of process theology, as it is a worldview that I myself resonate with. The problem of evil disappears when you refrain from asserting all three of God’s ‘omnis’. I do not choose to assert God’s complete and utter omnipotence in the fullest sense of the word, so the problem of evil really isn’t a problem for me, personally (though I am still appalled at the amount of suffering in the world today). As I believe God is incapable of violating our agency, He cannot be held responsible for our actions when those actions lead to suffering. As you say, He is trying to “make lemonade out of lemons”. Furthermore, as I don’t believe God created us, and I love Joseph Smith’s teaching that we are all co-eternal with God, He cannot be held responsible for weaknesses or flaws in our character that lead to our mistakes and wrong choices.
    There is something I wanted to bring up, which is that Christians often deal with the Problem of Evil by downplaying one of the two problematic ‘omnis’ – omnipotence or omnibenevolence – without going so far as to completely dismiss them (as in process theology and protest theology). For example, Arminians typically emphasise God’s omnibenevolence more than His omnipotence. They still affirm His omnipotence, but believe that He restrains His omnipotent power to control our lives in order to allow us free will (which desire is due to His omnibenevolence) – the classical Free Will Defense. They thus downplay His omnipotence in favour of His omnibenmevolence, without being outright process theologians and denying His omnipotence. Calvinists, on the other hand, typically emphasise God’s omnipotence more than His omnibenevolence. God has complete and utter power and control over everything – including human decisions and human destiny, hence the doctrine of double predestination. This is similar to the Muslim idea that Allah alone is active, and all else in the universe, including human beings, are merely passive dominos acting out His will. Whenever we think we are doing something, whether it is good or evil, God is really doing it through us. This of course raises concerns about His omnibenevolence. If God is really in control, and hence responsible, for every single thing that anybody in the universe ever does, then surely we could expect a more perfect world? Our current world surely could not come about if an all-loving God was in control of every single event that unfolds. Calvinists typically respond by saying that God’s goodness is complicated. Because the whole idea of goodness comes from God Himself, and there is no real meaning of goodness besides ‘God’s will’, whatever God chooses to do is, by definition, good. If He chooses to randomly elect some to salvation and eternal bliss, and others to damnation and eternal torment, then that becomes a loving thing to do because He chooses to do it. To say that God is wholly good is merely to say that what God wills is the only true standard of morality – there is no objective standard of morality which God must abide by. Again, this downplays God’s omnibenevolence without being outright protest theology.
    I personally think that these different views of God – one which sees His omnipotence as supreme, eg Calvinism and Islam, and one which sees His omnibenevolence as supreme, eg Arminianism and Mormonism – stem from two different ways of experiencing God. To the Calvinist, God is experienced and known primarily through marvelling at the wondrous glory and majesty and power of the universe, all of which testify (to the Calvinist) of the Supreme power and omnipotence of God. Thus, it is His power which is most self-evident, obvious and apparent, and if anything else – such as His goodness – seems to come into conflict with that, then it is His goodness that must be rejected, or at least modified in order to accomodate for His omnipotence. In contrast, Mormons tend to know and experience God primarily through spiritual experiences, or ‘the Spirit’. Since we recognise the Spirit as being accompanied by feelings of peace, love and joy (and the other fruits of the Spirit outlined in Galatians 5), our experience of God is generally characterised by a recognition and appreciation of His love and goodness. Thus, if anything – such as His omnipotence – seems to come into conflict with His goodness, then it is His omnipotence that must be rejected or downplayed.
    Now, I am sure that is overly simplistic and there are probably numerous exceptions, but it’s just a thought I was having while listening to the podcast. What do you think?
    By the way, I apologise if you discuss some of these things in the latter part of the podcast, I haven’t completely finished listening yet.

  2. Cam
    August 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    Regardless of whether one is dealing with the omnipotent deity of classical theism or the pretty powerful deity/ deities of the LDS faith it seems the question of why God doesn’t do more to prevent evil remains the same, if one takes the first vision account of Joseph Smith in as it has traditionally been presented.

    If one simply establishes that God, regardless of how powerful he is, has the power to appear to humanity as a burning bush, pillar of fire, anthropoid, or whatever other form you can imagine, one has to ask why he doesn’t do so in more exigent cases. Just as the Father and Son are said to have appeared to Joseph Smith Jr., couldn’t they have also appeared to other historical figures in order to prevent serious catastrophes? Granted, this objection relies upon believing the First Vision account as it has traditionally been presented.

    • Cam
      August 16, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      Further, the idea of eternal progression is big in the LDS faith. If by progress we mean improving, and if there is no objective, unchanging standard we use to measure such progress, can we really call it progress? It seems that the absence of some universal, immutable source of ideals is problematic. I would love to hear responses.

      • McLachlan
        August 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm

        That is certainly the way that a lot of Mormons have understood things. This was one of the disagreements between Brigham Young and Orson Pratt. I prefer the emergent idea because I think that you can get an objective standard. The relation to the other person creates the moral law. This is how Schelling read Kant’s categorical imperative. In terms of the Young/Pratt dispute Young maintained we don’t worship principles we worship God (a person) and have obligations to others. Think of the ways we read D&C 130 20-21. Some folks read it as a whole group of laws on which blessings are predicated. While others see one law (the great commandments) from which all other laws and blessings flow. Progress in how we love each other and recognize the order and relation of all things would be the way to judge development. But you’re right one could read it your way and it has been read that way. That why I cautioned we’re not going to get to certainty in these types of theological speculations. But they may be helpful in helping us get through life.

    • Ryan Comins
      August 17, 2012 at 3:13 am

      I think one way of dodging that objection would be to say that God can only reveal Himself to those who are open to Him. If world leaders are not truly open to Him and a relationship with Him, and actively seeking a manifestation of Him, then He cannot manifest Himself to them. However, I will grant that there are still probably some examples in history where world leaders did fit those criteria and God still didn’t manifest Himself to them. To which I shrug my shoulders, scratch my head and rely on faith. Which I recognise really isn’t a very intellectually satisfying response.

    • McLachlan
      August 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm

      That’s a very good point. God at least has the power of any embodied being. That’s why Process theologians and the Russian philosopher N. Berdyaev argued that God only has persuasive power. In fact from the point of view of coercive power Berdyaev once quipped that “God has less power than a policeman.” Even though Brigham Young once said that the rest of the universe cooperates with God better than we do and Alma 42 talks about how if God coerces God would cease to be God I don’t know if this option is completely open to Mormons because as you say God has a body and that gives one some power. I think any attempted solution to the problem of evil will have problems with which one will need to struggle. I think this is the one for Mormons. That said I think the potential answer lies in the fact that God is making the universe. As 2 Nephi 2 says there is a struggle going on, creation didn’t end on the 7th day. For a really nice Jewish interpretation of this you might look at Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil. I like what Berdyaev says about it in The Meaning of History and The Destiny of Man, and Brightman in The Problem of God.

      • Ryan Comins
        August 18, 2012 at 6:41 am

        That’s true – I hadn’t considered that His corporeality gives Him at least some power to physically ‘manhandle’ us into doing the right thing.

  3. August 17, 2012 at 9:58 am

    I’ve not yet been able to listen to all of this podcast yet, but I love what I’ve heard so far. Although not likely to be anything anyone is going to hear in Sunday School, an argument can certainly be made that Mormonism, in fact, rejects the traditional Christian view that God is “all powerful.” There are clearly ideas and forces in the universe to which even Elohim is subject. For example, as taught by Mosiah, if He were to abrogate human agency all existence would cease and “God would cease to be God” (which explains beautifully why Lucifer and his gang were dealt with so harshly–it wasn’t just a question of who got the honor and glory!) Furthermore, Mormonism rejects the ex nihilo creation, thereby nicely taking God off the hook for much of the evil which is apparently inherent in our eternal existence. But getting people within just about any Western religious culture to believe that God is less than omnipotent is definitely a hard sell.

    • Ryan Comins
      August 18, 2012 at 6:39 am

      I agree. I personally don’t believe in an omnipotent God, and don’t think I could, but all Abrahamic religions seem pretty clear on His omnipotence. It makes me laugh when people gasp in horror at Anselm’s view of God’s omnipotence (He believed, in contrast to Aquinas, that God could only do what was logically possible, ie He couldn’t draw square circles or make a stone so heavy He couldn’t lift it) and condemn it as heresy. I just think to myself “you obviously haven’t read into Mormon theology!”

  4. davedd233
    August 17, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Another great topic. Dan, do you think anybody has ever been called into a disciplinary council for wanting to punch Mormon in the face?

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      August 20, 2012 at 9:31 am

      Oh, man! Too hilarious. If I were to actually try to do it, and Mormon looks anything close to the Arnold Friberg likeness, I would have bigger problems than guys in suits debating my membership!

  5. JT
    August 17, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    I appreciate the moves made by the panelists toward criticizing theodicies that would preserve evil in the interest of defending God.

    I was also struck by Jennifer’s recognition of immature, even narcissistic, spirituality. I’ve often been struck by testimonies of comfortable suburban-style blessings supported with certain claims of Holy Ghost whisperings. They fit that description, especially in the face of Tsunamis, earthquakes, genocides, and such.

    I was impressed by the diminished capacities attributed to the pre-mortal Yahweh/Jesus. I found myself imagining a corporally-challenged world builder who, after billions of years of watching his embodied cousins eat each other into and out of existence, was only moved to tears when his few closest kin exercised their psychological pathologies. That seems a bit pathological itself.

    Perhaps the best theological explanation of the problem of evil is God’s greater need to keep hidden – to avoid the tough questions – which seems to me the bigger problem. Calling Him a “bad communicator” strikes me as too generous a characterization given context of world history.

    The problem of evil is certainly a pesky artifact of theism. I agree with Jim that there is no escaping its problems … except to let it evaporate under the lights of modern astrophysics, geophysics, meteorology, biology, neuroscience and psychology. The ability of science to explain why “s–t happens,” including the fallout of our too-easily perturbed minds, is now more than sufficiently complete. The only real problem is how humans can collectively face these facts and expand their moral circles to more broadly and successfully alleviate suffering, as Lloyd concluded. I don’t think it is productive to keep waiting for the worn out Apocalyptic promise.

    • McLachlan
      August 17, 2012 at 2:15 pm

      I was with you til the last paragraph. The problem is you then have to accept that there will never be justice for the billions who have suffered horribly and continue to suffer. You can do that. It may even be that way but I don’t think we need or should embrace it. I don’t think science can or has close the door to hope completely.

      • JT
        August 17, 2012 at 3:36 pm

        I will have to give more thought to this

        For the moment, my response to your comment:

        “there will never be justice for the billions who have suffered horribly and continue to suffer.”

        I would put not group together the “billions who have suffered” – who are presumably dead – with those who “continue to suffer,” for whom there may be some hope for helping.

        The former have either passed on to a better situation (your hope I presume) or no longer exist (my working hypothesis). The latter need our attention, as I thought I was advocating. I thought my final words expressed the hopefulness I do embrace – it’s for those for whom there is still hope. And science has nothing to do with that – I don’t understand how you conflated the two.

        I don’t think “justice” would best characterize the substance of my hope for suffering people – especially if that means some kind of divine retribution to the perpetrators of evil, or God “making it up to them” for either setting them in the path of such suffering in the first place (assuming they didn’t “earn” it in the pre-existence), or simply admitting he had no control over it but was ready to give them a brand new happy beginning in heaven.

        Again, I’ll give this more thought.

    • McLachlan
      August 17, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      Besides there are some really interesting things written on the relation of religion and science by John Haught, Ian Barbour, Philip Clayton and a host of others. You might take a look at the Oxford Companion to Religion and Science as a starting place. The problem I have with the new Atheists is that they tend to take the most backward versions of religion as their target. This is too easy. There is a really nice discussion of this in Stephen Prothero’s nice critical introduction to world religions God is Not One: Eight Rival Religions that Run the World.. Take a look at his chapter on Atheism.

      • JT
        August 17, 2012 at 2:58 pm

        Do you mean The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science?

        http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Religion-Science-Handbooks-Theology/dp/0199279276

        Thanks for the reference. I’ll look into it – hopefully find similar work in related articles available on-line, or get to a library (a bit $)

      • JT
        August 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm

        Thanks for these references. Do you mean the Oxford HANDBOOK to Religion and Science?

        http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Religion-Science-Handbooks-Theology/dp/0199279276

        I’ve heard a couple interviews and panel discussions with John Haught and look forward to reading him. I recall enjoying his point of view. Hopefully a nearby library has the above expensive volume. Prothero’s book is more affordable.

        I understand and sympathize with your response to the likes of Dawkins and Harris. They cast a broad and indiscriminate net. I find myself more in line with Columbia’s Philip Kitcher in terms of his ideas and approach to the secularism vs theism debate – which strike me as respectful, understanding and valid. Excuse me if I failed to emulate these virtues in my attempt to be brief (and honest).

        I offer in return the following video lecture and audio interview as samples of Kitcher’s thinking for your consideration. In the both he offers fair criticism of Dawkins’s approach – but that is not his focus.

        http://vimeo.com/4197013

        http://www.pointofinquiry.org/philip_kitcher_living_with_darwin

        Best wishes,

        JT

        • McLachlan
          August 17, 2012 at 7:38 pm

          Thank you I look forward to looking at it. And I just found you position in the last paragraph sort of dismal. That doesn’t make in untrue. :)

    • Carey
      August 17, 2012 at 8:55 pm

      “If in the manner of men I have fought with the beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not?”

      In Book 2 Chapter 6 of The Brothers Karamazov, Miusov reports Ivan Karamazov as saying that there is “no law of nature that man should love mankind”. Such love depends on belief in immortality: “if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism.”

      I’m not necessarily arguing that you can’t offer arguments against this — I’m just saying that Science as Salvation has its own set of problems to content with.

      • Ryan Comins
        August 18, 2012 at 6:33 am

        I personally would try to love others even if I didn’t accept the existence of an afterlife, simply because doing so brings me a deep satisfaction and a beautiful, sweet feeling of peace. Basically, I do it because it makes me happy here and now, rather than because I hope that doing so will bring me happiness in a future life (something which I am uncertain of at best).

        • Carey
          August 18, 2012 at 9:50 am

          I agree with sentiment and live my life that way as well and I’m not suggesting that atheists are not just as good people as theists, but when we enter the realm of philosophical arguments like the problem of evil there are also problems with atheism and morality. I just felt like JT dismissed the notion of God with too broad of a stroke. Sort of like the pot calling the kettle black.

          • JT
            August 18, 2012 at 11:35 pm

            I agree, both theists and atheists have moral problems – except for cannibalism – atheists all agree that cannibalism should be lawful.

      • JT
        August 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm

        Carey,

        I appreciate that you are not arguing that there are no good arguments against the proposition that love and every living force would be dried up without belief in immortality. I am interested to know if you can think of an example of a good argument against it, or even a simple contradicting example.

        BTW, I understand how your reading of my fourth paragraph could be taken as dismissive of God. It certainly does not logically follow from a scientific, or naturalistic, understanding of the sources of evil and suffering that God does not exist. It does however, I weigh against a theology that would have God punish sinners with disease, natural disasters, etc., or explain mental illness in terms of demon possession or justify racial discrimination in terms of an inherited curse due to sin of an ancestor life or pre-mortal existence, for example. Obviously, such examples can be found in Mormon scriptures and tradition – and I am happy to see that the Brethren no longer emphasize such things.

  6. August 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    This was a very fun episode. As a believer one of my favorite things was the awesome and deep areas for theological speculation allowed by Mormon Doctrine. As a believer it is still one of my favorite aspects. I think it appeals to me in the same way Science Fiction does. I think much of my interest in world religions appeals to me the way science fiction does. Imaginary, magical, but still plausible (either through science or the possibility of a God and after life) worlds with complex, self contained rules and stories.
    So episodes like this are a lot of fun for me for that reason.

  7. August 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    In regards to the Stake President whose wife was leaving him because he had been looking at porn and couldn’t understand how when he was otherwise so spiritual.
    The therapist says that because he was looking at porn he wasn’t actually ‘spiritual’ he was selfish and immature. But I would like to say that looking at pornography doesn’t mean someone is selfish and immature, it means he is a normal, healthy male with a sex drive. (If he was doing other behavior in addition, then she ought to have mentioned that,) The unhealthy and unscientific emphasis on pornography and masturbation that the Church has is very unhealthy and it is THAT which breaks up marriages and destroys peoples lives, NOT pornography. Many many couples both together and separately look at erotic images of other naked people as part of their sex lives and have healthy, happy and mature relationships.
    I see no contradiction that this man may have had a spiritual personality, may have been in tune with the spirit and may have been an extremely kind, loving, thoughtful, caring human being and it is a shame that because he indulges in one activity that the overwhelming majority of all men do means he is ‘selfish’ and ‘immature’ and that his wife would be even remotely justified in leaving because of it is a shame. And if he was deceptive about it, that is not his fault but the institution which shames a healthy facet of human sexuality.
    (I realize the point wasn’t about pornography but about saying spiritual things versus engaging in spiritual actions but the only evidence we had that this man did not ‘talk the talk’ was that he looked at pornography. If there were other reasons, then that may change things but those were not stated)

    • Jennifer Finlayson-Fife
      August 22, 2012 at 8:40 am

      Hi Christopher,
      This woman certainly wasn’t leaving him just becuase of porn use. If it were the only reason, I would be looking at her immaturity not his. In addition to being an oppressive partner sexually and otherwise, he justified actively deceiving his wife over 10 years. Men (and women) can look at porn, but I have trouble with the deception often associated with it. Deception, or withholding information, in order to keep someone in a marriage or a sexual relationship with you, is immature at best, if not evil.

      • Jennifer Finlayson-Fife
        August 22, 2012 at 10:15 am

        One other thought: He also actively deceived his congregation by talking about the evils of porn (as his wife reports that he often did) while withholding hte information that he was using it himself. This is highly problemmatic behavior in the name of spirituality.

  8. Brian Petersen
    August 19, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Loved the Podcast

  9. Brian Petersen
    August 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Great Podcast! This is one of my all time favorite topics and I really enjoyed the discussion. I LOVED how it always came back to “there are no good answers.” My question on the Problem of Evil has always been it’s flipside that I always call, The Problem of Blessings.

    The idea of a limited God who is in a universe with other agents is always well and good, and I can envision a God like that that can jive with the real world we are in, but the scriptures and modern day prophets really seem to talk about a God that is not so limited.

    If I believe in a God that can do the following:
    1) Calm stormy seas
    2) Bring rain to cease famine
    3) Heal an illness through Priesthood blessing
    4) Cause sleepiness to come over someone
    and many more scriptural and modern day teaching about an intervening God.

    Then it seems that I believe in a God that has considerable power of “agents” in this world. So that when any of those things do NOT happen, then it was a choice of God to not intervene.

    All of my issues with God and the church actually started on this whole topic. It wasn’t the Problem of Evil, but of blessings. I found myself unable to go up the pulpit to thank God for “his blessing of giving me a new baby” because it felt unfair to the family in the pews who couldn’t seem to have children. I felt odd to thank God for healing me from the flu when the Bishop’s child just died of Leukemia.

    My problem isn’t stories of Evil as much about story of Blessings. Because each time I read or hear an account of an intervening God that provided a blessing, it always brings up the flipside of someone who is well worthy and not receiving that blessing.

    The only answer I have been able swallow, is an answer that comes off as ungrateful, namely that God isn’t involved in a lot of the blessings I get. There’s a lot more randomness/luck/coincidence in this life than there is God’s intervention.

    What I can’t swallow is the double sided coin of church discourse that often ends up calling everything “good” a blessing from God, and everything “evil” the consequence of a limited God.

    • Ryan Comins
      August 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      I’m totally with you on that.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      August 21, 2012 at 8:59 am

      Wonderful post, Brian. Thanks! What you have named is indeed one of the biggest pieces of this puzzle of trying to affirm a God who is a “God” in some kind of real sense (one who can actually do stuff!) while still facing the facts of genuine evil/suffering in the world that are nearly impossible to imagine serving some greater good—especially if that evil (disease, injury-inducing accident, loss due to natural disasters, etc.) is thought of as “pre-planned” or “given” to us by God. As we talked about in the discussion, I think God can and does assist in creating something good and growth-inducing from every tragedy, I just don’t think God chooses for them to happen to us. My sense, instead, is the evils of disease and harmful agentic action are simply part of the human condition given our kinds of bodies with their evolutionary and other capabilities, with natural evils simply a by-product of the earth’s geologic and climatory conditions that are necessary to produce/sustain the complex kinds of life this planet does.

      It IS interesting that this episode came on the heels of the one in which we talked about scripture and prophetic discourse as “true” in ways that aren’t necessarily factually accurate. For your question, Charley Harrell’s three types of inspiration are very interesting to me, especially the “motivational” type, as I think that (along with a bit of “conceptual” type) is primarily where the notions of God’s hand in everything from seas and rains and healings and sleep inducements enter the conversation. As I imagine these ideas coming into scriptural accounts, I sense the it’s mostly a matter of something triggering an event that affects a life/many lives/fortunes of nations, which is followed by a mass of confusion about how and why this happened, which is followed by efforts to explain the event and conditions. The attempts to explain that end up in “scripture” are generally the ones that interpret these events as God intervening, and that the event is a way of showing either God’s approval, disapproval, or desire to test us. (Of course, when it comes to scripture, the events that get commented on as the background for God’s actions are often mythic in and of themselves, or at least the details given are specifically shaped for setting up the conclusion that is reached.)

      There are lots of human reasons for seeking and writing “motivational” revelations, ranging from desires to tame the discomfort of a chaotic world to wanting a God that “knows” us and is intimately involved with all our lives, including being aware of and compassionate toward us in our suffering. These are things we talked about in the podcast. Understanding these human reasons and making connections between the flavor of my own inspiration/insights and the kinds of things found in scripture help me make peace with the scriptural and testimonial explanations that feel less than clearly factual and more motivational in a “here’s the answer, all is well in the world, all makes sense and we can discern how to influence more positive events and mitigate against negative ones” sort of way.

      But, even as I say the above, there are lots of places in scripture and prophetic discourse, including Mormon prophetic teaching, where I still do sense what is said IS a bit closer to speaking about the fundamental processes of the universe—processes that allow for us to affirm spiritual influences, processes that offer room for the shaping action of Gods. These parts of scripture are, for me, the quieter places where metaphysical sensibilities begin to peek through, in lamentation sections about the difficulties of life and the struggle to find meaning in it all, and also in places where the writers are sharing their own experiences of “how” they came to gain the peace or orientation amidst the chaos that they have achieved. These are places that talk about processes, about truths “acting for themselves,” about God’s blessings coming according to pre-established laws, of truths and powers that are embodiments—views and confidences that are gained by one’s own experience working with the ways of the universe—rather than gifts given to us because we pleased a Being who meted them out to us.

      Some hints about this came up in this and the previous MM episode, but let me offer just a few of the ways I read certain passages that seem to impute more action to God than really is the case. For instance, in Moses 7, God tells Enoch that “in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency.” Leaving aside the fact that I’m quite confident that Garden of Eden is meant to be symbolic and not literal (and that it’s okay for Latter-day Saints to think this way), LDS doctrine clearly teaches that we had plenty of agency long before the Garden, asserting that we all chose one way or another in the debate about whether or not to come to earth to experience human life. In this case, then, it is God reportedly speaking of his actions when the more fundamental reality is that freedom/agency is simply part of the human (and eternal spirit) condition. In D&C 130:20–21 and 82:10, we get: “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” and “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” In both these cases, it sounds like God is doing the blessing when these scriptures themselves hint that the term God is actually being used to personify the effects of law living or law breaking, of alignment with eternal laws or actions against those laws that bring positive blessings. So, again, we have what seems like God “doing” stuff, when really what goes on is more like “karma,” with consequences following actions. I talked in the podcast about the JS King Follett statement where God finds himself in the “midst of spirits and glory, and because he was greater, he saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have the privilege of advancing like himself” as being likely less about God “instituting” laws in terms of writing them and more about God articulating how God received the empowerment that Gods enjoy and that we are attracted to, with his work being more like giving guidelines that will lead us along that path. Here, again, laws and things that follow our either keeping or rejecting them are spoken of in personal terms, as God doing stuff. Dozens of more examples like this in the scriptures, including ones I’m always riffing on, such as Mosiah 4 and D&C 121 and D&C 88:20ff, about how getting ourselves in alignment or out of alignment in key areas leads to results naturally flowing to us rather than being something like God pushing a button and deciding to bless or punish, of sanctification coming through laws we live or don’t that allow us to “abide” the glories of the various kingdoms.

      So what DO the Gods (and here I’m switching to talking about Gods plural, including within this language the possibility of the best way of viewing Deity is, as LDS doctrine teaches, that of a Divine Couple) “do” in my theology? All that they can. And this all includes to be present always and in and through everything (referring to the insights in the “Light of Christ” materials in early D&C 88 as LofC naming the alignment of God with the fundamental interconnectedness of all in all—an alignment that might be conceptualized as emanating “from” God as source yet in a similar way to reading other passages discussed above seems more likely to me simply to be said that way to be a more relatable for humans to think of our oneness with everything), willing always to be in relationship with us, to never reject us even when we’re willfully ignorant or self-harming. To always call to us, lure us, reach out. To be continually be open to our yearnings and callings out to them, to present ideas and insights for our consideration (sometimes wonderfully accessed through pondering on scripture and prophetic insight) as we strive to listen through the noise of our own brains and confusion that are inherent in the human condition, to point us toward the healing or comforting energies that are always around us if we open to receiving them.

      Can people be healed in what seem to be miraculous ways? Can people in crisis experience insight and wisdom that calms their troubled souls? Of course. But is it primarily through the Gods’ specific actions, through Gods being pleased or displeased and deciding to bless or not bless with this? Not in my theology. Can prayers affect weather? Maybe/probably. But do I think it something completely of a different type of action beyond the way minds/intentions interact with matter (risking sounding a bit New Agey here, and I’m happy to talk more about this some other time)—something that requires the Gods pushing buttons and causing weather patterns to change? No, I don’t. When we find lost items or other prayers are answered, is it the Gods who are helping us? For me, sure, if we want to think of the Gods as personifications of the information available to us all at all times via the interconnectedness that we are part of (again, the LofC stuff in early Section 88). Since these types of experiences happen for everyone in every part of the world, even those with worldviews in which the organizing forces are non-personal and there isn’t a lot of prayer to personal beings going on, I lean toward giving priority to radical interconnectedness and energies of the universe that flow in and through and around us all (and are best accessed when we focus on alignment with them rather than our own abilities as individuals) than to personal forces, but just as certain individuals and their presence in my life and history are “bigger” and more influential than others (seemingly always present in the background as I act and move and consider options, I am completely open to the idea that personal beings (Gods) I don’t know from conscious experience in this life and body are being superbly influential on my spirit and intelligence (happy to have you read that in all the ways Mormons expand on that word). And, indeed, I’m actually pretty sure they are. Some of my deepest spiritual experiences have felt like interactions with personalities, with other minds, and that is why I go with that hypothesis as part of my daily faith.

      Too long! Hope the above makes sense. It’s how I affirm and continue to want to engage scripture even as I imagine its declarative parts about God(s) doing this or that as really being something a bit more grounded in the interconnection and energies in which we all, including the Gods, find ourselves in the midst of.

      • Brian Petersen
        August 21, 2012 at 12:23 pm

        Wow! Fantastic response, Dan. I’ve had to read it over and over and I’m still not sure I’ve got it completely, but I think I get your theology. I’m LOVE looking at theologies and concepts of God with the eye of “are they internally consistent.” Because if they aren’t, it’s hard for me to get behind them.

        The “Problem of Blessings” always seemed be the sticking point for me in that regard. It seems that your view (while VERY different from chapel Mormons) is internal consistent as far as I can tell (I need to read this a handful more times).

        I’ll try to restate what I think your are saying through I may get it wrong:

        Gods became “Gods” by “aligning” themselves to certain things (energies/ways to being/love/etc). And as OUR God, God is helping us and encouraging us to aligning ourselves to that we can become like him, and He/She will never stop helping us do that. God is doing this in a universe full of “agents,” so he doesn’t have control of EVERYTHING. The actions of these agents can and will cause suffering (suffering that occurs without God’s will involved at all). What God does do is “be present” with us during this entire process and encourage/help us align ourselves. God has the ability to provide comfort/inspirations in thought/promptings that will help us align ourselves the way God is aligned, thus allowing us to receive certain “blessings.” In a sense, these blessings don’t “come from God” as much as they come from us aligning ourselves like God is aligned. Any “miraculous” event that may occur comes through this alignment. And that alignment came as the result of so many different independent agents, that it’s a process that God cannot simply “make happen” repeatedly if he wanted to.

        So when PATIENT A says, “God healed my cancer” while the equally righteous PATIENT B next to them just died of cancer, it’s not that “God healed the cancer of Patient A and chose not to heal the cancer of patient B.” It’s the combination of agents acting on agents acting on agents to practically infinity, and God was there for BOTH patients working as hard as he could to help “align” things, but he can’t CONTROL all the agents involved from doctors/patients/genetic/etc. So it is possible that God could have desires for BOTH patients to be healed from cancer, and God tried his hardest to heal BOTH patients, but because of the acting on independent agents, only one was healed. The blame shouldn’t be put onto God for the death. Nor necessarily should ALL the the credit be put on to God for the healing, though he was involved and it is right to be grateful and thank him for it.

        Wow… sorry, this is long too. I hope you don’t think I’m putting words in your mouths. Just trying to understand.

        Brian

      • Brian Petersen
        August 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm

        [I don't know what happened... I had a reply to this but it's not here. Maybe I didn't press submit. sigh... here it goes again]

        Wow! Fabulous reply! I need to read it over a couple more time to fully get it but I think I’m getting the general gist. I LOVE talking about this topic and really like looking at theologies and concepts of God and making sure they are internally consistent. “The Problem of Blessings” always made things inconsistent to me. It appears your take on this (though VERY different form chapel Mormons) is internally consistent, from what I can tell.

        Here’s my restate to make sure I understand where you are coming from (I may get this wrong):

        God became “God” by doing/being a certain way and He/She is in turn trying to help us “align” ourselves to do the same. And God will never cease in helping us try to align ourselves to become like Him/Her. God does this in a universe that has a number of “agents” that act independently. God does NOT have total control of these agents, therefore the action of these agents will cause suffering (independent of God’s will). God can and does try to prevent suffering by influencing the agents, but can only have limited success due to the almost infinite number of independent agents in play.

        When someone receives a “blessing” it is more of a result of multiple agents aligning their actions/feelings/energy with something that brings about a result. It’s isn’t as much “following God’s rules” and getting a reward, but “following God’s example” which naturally brings about an independent consequence.

        When PATIENT A says “God cured my cancer” while an equally worthy PATIENT B in the next room dies from cancer, it isn’t that God chose to heal Patient A and chose NOT to heal PATIENT B. God COULD have been doing ALL He could to heal BOTH of them from cancer and although He did all he could, there were other agents (genetics/doctors/patient’s energy/etc) that God does not have control over and all of those things need to be aligned in order for the “miraculous” to happen. The blame for Patient B’s death should not land on God, nor should ALL the credit for the healing of Patient A (though since God was involved some gratitude is appropriate).

        In praying for rain, the alignment of souls desiring rain COULD, on a metaphysical level, influence matter and cause the storm systems to produce rain. But even if that “miracle” does happened, it’s not God saying, “I heard your prayers, here is rain.” It’s simply the alignment of interconnected energy causing an end result.

        God can’t simply “produce blessings” on his own accord. It requires the cooperation of a large number of independent agents, one of which is God. And thankfully God is ALWAYS doing ALL He/She can so when all the alignments “line-up” and the resulting consequence is a “blessing” we can be thankful to God, but we can’t expect that he can repeat that blessing again in our own lives or the lives of others (even if He wants to).

        This requires a fairly limited God (which some don’t want to do), but this allows you believe in a God that desires ALL blessings for ALL people at ALL times and He will do ALL he can to help that come about. That’s a nice concept of God. Better than the God who choses not to bless you in order to teach your a lesson.

        Don’t know if that makes any sense, but that’s where I think you are going.

        Am I on the right track?

        Brian

        • Dan Wotherspoon
          August 22, 2012 at 12:27 pm

          Losing things you write! Ugh! Worse thing ever! Others having trouble? I had a friend write me that he tried and was thwarted yesterday, too. Ugh on Disqus comments software updates. I haven’t liked the new look/options. If things persist to be a problem, let me know and I will look into what I might be able to do.

          Thanks, Brian, for taking the time to so closely consider my approach! For the most part, I think you are in the zone with it, though you are emphasizing “multiple agents” or “independent agents” all needing to be persuaded or cooperating than I tend to usually imagine. When push comes to shove, however, I think there is more to what you’re saying that could be necessary for me to flesh out were I to try to be more systematic. I tend to shy away from that for a couple of reasons. One is simply the language of “choice” or “being persuaded” suggests a self-awareness (almost self-consciousness) on the part of non-complex entities that I don’t believe is the case. I’ve written a bit about the kind of thing I’m thinking of in terms of intelligence that defines at least one aspect of all things as being more akin to hungering and thirsting and feeling drawn (maybe almost blindly) toward this or that–whether it be God, or wholeness/wellness, or being part of something larger, etc.). (I will give link to a piece I wrote about this at end of this post.) Second, I’m deliberately not wanting to be thought to be thinking in concert with Cleon Skousen’s theory of how the Atonement works, which does seem to impute more consciousness to all the things in the universe (so basically the same issue I hesitate toward embracing that I’m talking about above). If you haven’t encountered it and want to, we link to Skousen in the write-up of the Mormon Matters Atonement episode (#54).

          I’d also want to enrich the places where you use the term “alignment” to really include more of a sense of matched and/or flowing energies. This universe feels quite alive to me with all of us part of one large interconnected energy field, with individuals (borrowing metaphors from physicist David Bohm) being more like whirlpools or eddies one might find in a rushing, flowing river. Individuals are energy patterns within a larger field just as whirlpools and eddies are part of river in which it’s hard to tell where the individual pattern begins and ends, in which whatever happens in any part of the river affects all other parts, etc. I see everything as “internally connected” rather than “externally”–we are “in and through” each other (Gods too!) more than things that bump up against each other and only affect movement/action via the outsides (the famous billiard balls metaphor). Given this, whenever I’m imagining powerful changes of the sort that lead folks to say “I’m healed! It’s a miracle!” or “God did this!” I really want to convey how those really would be something really quite dramatic in feel (aligned such that the flow is really intensified) even though they wouldn’t be of a different “kind” of event than what is happening every second. We’re swimming in the energy all the time so don’t notice it until something calls our attention to it–these somethings being triggered by our own reaching/calling/attempting to better align or by the agentic reaching/calling/sendings forth of energy toward particular goals that originate from others. Anyway, “alignment” means more to me than “oh, isn’t it neat that I am aligned.” It’s more like, “Wow, I am feeling really wild and powerful things happening here! This is something extraordinary.” Make any sense?

          Love chatting with you, good sir! Let’s keep it going!

          Here is link to that piece in which I muse on the nature of the type of “response” I think we’re talking about when it comes to all but very complex entities: http://mormonmatters.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Wotherspoon_Reaching-Calling-Hungry-Thrirsty.pdf

      • Ryan Comins
        August 22, 2012 at 2:58 am

        Love it. I do think that even this understanding of suffering and God has some problems of its own, but no defence to the problem of evil is ever going to be perfect, and I really resonate with a lot of your theology.

  10. August 20, 2012 at 9:26 am

    OK. My wife and I
    finally found the time to finish listening to all three segments. This was excellent, Dan, and you are to be
    congratulated for having put together such an excellent panel. The discussion went pretty much in the
    direction I had anticipated, with the denial of the creatio ex nihilo and the challenge to the orthodox understanding
    of God’s omnipotence. (I would have
    liked to hear more about our co-eternality with God and the fact that Evil
    appears to be an inherent element in the universe–part of the yin-yang with Good
    touched on in 2 Nephi, chapter 2.)
    Still, this was great!

    I do, however, have a couple of bones to pick with you,
    Dan. The first is this business about
    God being a “bad communicator.”
    I just can’t buy that. If there
    is a problem with communication the problem is much more likely to be on our
    end. Witness our good friends Laman and
    Lemuel in 1 Ne. 15. Nephi acknowledges
    that much of Lehi’s visionary understanding was “hard to be understood,
    save a man should inquire of the Lord.”
    He then asks his brothers if they have done their part–whether they have
    “inquired of the Lord.” The
    response is revealing: “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing
    known unto us.” No wonder they are
    left “disputing one with another.”

    Now this doesn’t mean that all we need to do is walk into
    the woods, kneel down, and heavenly messengers will instantly appear. That kind of dramatic, immediate response to
    prayer is necessarily very rare. One of
    the terms of our probation, if you will, seems to be that the Spirit will not
    always strive with us. If we could
    easily receive answers to our big questions that would inevitably result in an
    abrogation of our agency. (Who
    knows? Perhaps that kind of spiritual instant
    gratification was part of Satan’s professed plan–though he certainly knew
    better–by which none of us would be lost!)
    In any event, to blame the transmitter when the receiver may be on the
    blink strikes me as the height of human hubris.

    My other issue is your criticism with Mormon. First of all, part of what generals
    inevitably do in battle is “count beans,” as you put it. The casualty count is always an important
    factor in determining loss or victory.
    But it’s hardly as if Mormon is some calloused commander who really
    doesn’t care about the lives that are lost.
    He is so adverse to bloodshed that he repeatedly calls off the battle as
    soon as he is able. And he certainly
    understands Just War theory. (Would that
    our civilian and military leaders today had such a keen understanding of when
    war is and is not justified!)

    But what really makes Mormon stand out as a spiritual, as
    well as a temporal, leader is his eternal perspective. When he comments upon the slaughter of the
    innocents in Alma 14 (which, by the way, probably included Amulek’s own
    family), he has Alma give a very good explanation why he is constrained from
    stretching forth his hand to stop these martyrdoms. This explanation–that (a) they are received
    by the Lord in glory and (b) their deaths will help justify the harsh judgments
    that will fall on their executioners probably didn’t give much comfort to
    Amulek, but from God’s point of view, this is all perfectly reasonable. From the Divine perspective death is nothing.

    Ditto the slaughter of the People of Ammon in Alma 24. Yes, they left this mortal sphere a bit ahead
    of what our schedule might have been
    for them, but the important thing is not when they left, but where they
    went. And the fact that in doing so they
    brought many to Christ is frosting on the metaphysical cake.

    In sum, let’s not be too hard on Mormon
    or–especially–God. God’s ways are not
    our ways and our perspective is rarely His.
    Perhaps one of the greatest tools we can and should carry in our
    metaphysical tool belt is the ability to simply accept the fact that bad things
    happen to good people. Of course we
    should fight evil to the best of our ability.
    And we should be anxiously engaged in alleviating the suffering around
    us. But moral and natural evil is part
    of what we apparently signed up for when we agreed to this whole Second Estate
    thing. When something awful happens to
    us, rather than asking “Why me,” perhaps we should just say “Why
    not me?” and move on. After all, are we greater than Christ?

    (Thanks again for such a stimulating conversation, Dan. You and your panelists are greatly
    appreciated.)

    • Brian Petersen
      August 20, 2012 at 11:38 am

      “If there is a problem with communication the problem is much more likely to be on our
      end.”

      I would hesitate putting blame on the individual. In fact I’m always deeply bothered when people do this. I’m actually much more comfortable putting it on God or not putting any blame at all. Sure there are Laman and Lemuels, and people praying without real intent, but there are countless good, worthy, well intentioned people getting no answer or different and varied answers from God. So if there is a “one-true” or “only way” to God, then I would indeed say God is a bad communicator of it.

      Or I would say that the means of getting that communication is not clear and not repeatable across the population. The “experiment” upon the word isn’t repeatable with any type of consistent result. And when the blame is put on the individual (not sincere, haven’t studied it out, desire to sin, “it’s part of your probation not to know”/spirit will no always strive with man, etc.), you’ve basically created an unfalsifiable premise. It’s impossible to come out of the experiment without a positive.

      In the end, the experiment has to only be purely individual, and any answer that someone receives should be applied only to that individual and not to the general population. If God told you X and someone else said God told them Y, who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong. You have to grant to everyone the right that God was speaking to them in the same way you believe God is speaking to you.

    • Ryan Comins
      August 20, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      I think Dan’s criticism of Mormon is justified (at least in these particular instances – I quite like several other parts of Mormon’s comments and thoughts). What I (and I think Dan would agree with me) have a problem with is not so much his explanation of the eternal perspective, but rather that the way he says it makes it seem as if he’s suggesting that these terrible tragedies are really no big deal, and we have no reason to be sad about them. Sure, they slaughtered a load of innocent people, but since they all went to Heaven what’s the problem? The problem is that it’s sad – sad for the people they left behind, sad for all the widows and children that now have to mourn the death of those departed. No matter how much of an eternal perspective we try to have, we should never try to suggest that the massacre of innocent people is something we can be ok with, because the sorrow such actions cause is truly awful, and it is completely justified to mourn the death of a loved one, no matter how much good came out of their death. What is not justified is to suggest that because something good came out of their death, we should rejoice.

      • Dan Wotherspoon
        August 21, 2012 at 9:21 am

        You got me, Ryan, thanks!

        One of the cool things about the polynesian Mormon experience podcast we did was the description of funerals as being open ended in length and always beginning with song and wailing and fully feeling loss. Eventually move more toward comfort, but always with real mourning.

        I’m working with a group wresting with LDS approaches to disability. One of the most painful things is parents of children not really being able to give voice to the pain and grieve the losses (Jennifer talked about this in this episode as she had to face the full facts of what it means for both her and her son that he is autistic), given how everyone is telling them that their child is so special and angelic and they are so strong and celestial to be given this challenge. Sure, some pieces of that may be true, but we don’t like lament and sorrow and go far too quickly to the tamping down of chaos and trying to make sense of anything that doesn’t fit the comfortable model.

        Loved this podcast. Glad so many of you are enjoying it, too!

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      August 21, 2012 at 9:14 am

      Thanks for the comments, Roger!

      Ryan has come close to how I’d respond on the criticisms of Mormon and his theology. Where he focuses is definitely the point I’m making. And all of my “want to punch him in the face” stuff comes out of frustration about how when he and other scripture writers put out “answers” that may indeed comfort, they hurt our ability as a community to engage the deeper wrestle that is life. As Jennifer hinted at a few times in the podcast, and that I agree with, at a certain point in our development as humans, we need to blow up all easy and comforting answers and embrace the mourning and chaos. The serious call is for life and acting more in the mode of God in the Moses lament.

      On God as bad communicator, that was totally Jennifer bringing that up. I went along but hinted that it wasn’t overly a concern of mine. Here is an excerpt from a “Why I Stay” talk I gave at Sunstone (2009), that deals with God’s seeming inability to communicate the “way it really is” and why I actually like that:

      Begin excerpt:

      One of the questions that naturally comes up for theists who ponder the existence of and flourishing of other religious traditions, especially non-theistic ones, is why God would design the world this way—to have many, many religions—and if not design it, at least allow it and seemingly even encourage this diversity through giving people such strong spiritual confirmations about the truth and importance of their own tradition’s truths. If God is love, in what way is it loving to individuals or the world, to run things or allow things to run this way? Wouldn’t it be more loving to tell everyone, once and for all, what is what? Surely, the argument would seem to go, God is powerful enough to do that!

      In our musings together on this subject, Randy Paul and I have come up with a speculative position on this question that I’m kind of excited about. I’ll share only a small portion of what we’re working on, but it begins with the descriptive fact that no human being, given the limits of humanness, can possibly grasp every truth. Every moment, we choose to pay attention to this or that, and it’s impossible for any human to truly focus on multiple things. Given this fact, one might actually consider it loving of God to only ask us to truly learn and inhabit a small portion of the wondrous truths that make up all reality.

      But there’s another angle on this issue, and that is to ask how it might also be important and honoring to the different truths themselves for God to encourage the full flourishing of many, many faiths. In taking our thought in this direction, I was nudged by a statement by Krista Tippett in her book, Speaking of Faith. In conversing with hundreds of amazing religious folk, she says:

      I began to imagine religious truth as something splintered and far-flung—for good reason, [as it was] too vast for one tradition to encompass. I saw [Christian] reformers across time as people who noticed a scattered piece of the Christian truth that the church itself was neglecting. They picked it up and loved its beauty, and saw it as necessary, and embodied its virtues. The Anglicans saw common prayer, Lutherans saw the Bible, Mennonites saw pacifism, Calvinists saw intellectual rigor, and the Quakers saw silence. And the multitudinous traditions I haven’t named in that inadequate summary see nuances of those pieces of truth and other aspects altogether, all of which make the whole more vivid, more possible, in the world.

      She continues: This analogy holds as I now [go deeper into] explor[ing] the splinters of all of the world’s traditions. The gentle single-mindedness of Zen complements the searching discipline of Theravada Buddhism. The exuberant spirituality of Sufism rises to meet the daily lived piety of Sunni and Shiite Islam. [And so on.] (Speaking of Faith, 178-79)

      From this entry to the idea of reformers seeing some piece being neglected and therefore picking it up, and loving its beauty, and seeing it as essential, and embodying its virtues, I want to take this motivation even deeper and suggest it as possibly even being God’s will: God would not want ANY truth to be neglected, but not only would God not want it to be neglected, God would want it to be as loved as possible, as deeply explored as humanly possible, as presented and defended and put into the ongoing human conversation as possible, etc. To get to this point, the truths would have to be lived, explored deeply from the inside, explored in comparison with others so that aspects that can’t be spotted by insiders will be brought out through the comparative encounter, so that strengths it possesses will be made even more brawny through individual and communal wrestle, both internally and in contestation with others.

      In these and other ways, it makes a great deal of sense to me that it is absolutely God’s will that there are many, many religions, and that there are great diversities of individuals and temperaments within each tradition, that God would even send the Holy Spirit to testify and intensify our individual commitments to the truths that we hold and love and explore. It is truly an act of love that God doesn’t have us be all religions at once, as we’d fail in that. It is an act of love by God to the truths themselves (and hence to the world) to allow, even encourage, deep, soulful commitment to very particular truths.

      End of excerpt.

      Have to run. Happy to engage more. Mostly, though, know I am really pleased by your calling me out here. Please continue!

      • Ryan Comins
        August 22, 2012 at 3:05 am

        Definitely agree with your ideas here. I see all religions as building around one fundamental truth, which they then try to build a whole mythology and way of life around.

    • conorbhilton
      August 21, 2012 at 6:22 pm

      I also would have liked some more exploration of the idea of Evil as an inherent part of the universe, as that is part of my personal understanding of why Evil exists in the world. For an interesting, fictional exploration of this idea you could read Villains By Necessity by Eve Forward. It follows a group of ‘villains’ who realize that to stop their universe from self-destruction they need to be evil to balance out the overwhelming good. An interesting idea and a very entertaining book.

      I appreciated the comments from Dan that discussed a kind of Modified Soul Making Theory, I guess. That Evil/Suffering can be turned to our benefit, by our turning to God and working to overcome them, but not that Evil/Suffering are introduced for this purpose specifically. Love it.

  11. August 21, 2012 at 9:29 am

    Dan,

    Great podcast you guys. I no longer believe in the authority or truth claims of the LDS Church. However I’m still interested in Mormonism and I listen to your podcast for that gem it sometimes delivers.

    There was a point in the podcast where Jennifer describes her experience with her son and his autism and how some tried to console her by attempting theological explanations for their situation. She observed that often times those that mourn don’t need answers from others. Often they just need others to mourn with them, an allusion to Mosiah 18:9. That touched my heart; it was beautiful. Thank you! That was inspiring!

    Zack

    • Jennifer Finlayson-Fife
      August 22, 2012 at 8:24 am

      Thank you, Zack!

  12. conorbhilton
    August 21, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Excellent. I really enjoyed the discussion. When you were discussing the idea of God being sometimes less than fully in control, but acting always in our best interests, and that sometimes it’s alright to shout at Him, I thought of a scene from the Harry Potter series. Harry is something of a Christ figure throughout the novels, with Dumbledore as his mentor, making him a God figure for purposes of the analogy. I believe the event occurs at the end of the fifth book. Harry is frustrated that Dumbledore has kept him in the dark, not communicated with him well, and goes about yelling at Dumbledore and trashing Dumbledore’s office. While this occurs Dumbledore sits calmly and lets Harry express himself. Once Harry has calmed down, Dumbledore says that Harry’s anger is justified, that he did not act as well as he should have and should have trusted Harry more and told him more of his ‘destiny’. Dumbledore then goes on to reveal many things to Harry that he probably should have revealed earlier. An interesting comparison that popped to mind as I listened.

    • Ryan Comins
      August 22, 2012 at 3:00 am

      I love Harry Potter analogies…

  13. JT
    August 22, 2012 at 7:35 am

    How does Satan figure into all of this … I can’t remember this entering this discussion … though I may have missed it. Satan certainly finds its way into past and present LDS Doctrine.

    http://www.lds.org/search?lang=eng&query=Satan

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    • Dan Wotherspoon
      August 22, 2012 at 12:42 pm

      JT,

      In the section where we talked about the “omni” of omnibenevolence or God’s perfect goodness, we did a short mention of Satan (as being seen as a competing evil being) and how he factors into at least LDS discourse on evil. None of us see Satan as co-equal to God in power, so we didn’t see it as a way out of the logical problem of evil as God as omnipotent (if one believed that) could still overpower Satan if God chose.

      In the Mormon Matters podcast on Satan and the Origins of Evil (#61), I outed myself as a non-believer in Satan as a literal being, so there is no real figuring of him into my approach to the problem of evil and suffering. Satan, for me, personifies our desire to control others, control chaos, run things our way, and ultimately really the unwillingness to be in actual relationship with other beings who are also free agents. We must overcome this tendency, so I am okay with language/mythic stories that encourage us to overcome Satan. Neat thing about LDS theology is that we have several places in scripture and lots of discourse that emphasizes that it is “our” power that “binds” or “looses” Satan, making this quite consistent with it being more of a metaphorical process than literal one.

      Jim McLachlan has written a fantastic piece that really matches my position well in terms of Satan/Lucifer/Cain as personifying rejection of relationship with others (I will give a link at the end–it’s one of the my favorite pieces I ever published while I was Sunstone editor). On the other hand, I don’t really know if Jim actually rejects Satan as a literal being, nor do I know Jennifer’s and Loyd’s views on this. I’ll let them speak for themselves if they come again to this discussion thread.

      Thanks for your continued engagement here at MM!

      Here is link to Jim’s great piece. Satan stuff in the final couple of pages:
      https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/150-48-59.pdf

      Dan

      • JT
        August 22, 2012 at 1:54 pm

        Thanks Dan,

        I must have been working on my reply to my own post when you posted this … and so did not see it until after I refreshed the screen. And sorry for not recalling that segment of the discussion.

        I like your rationalization (in the good sense) of Satan:

        “[Satan] personifies our desire to control others, control chaos, run things our
        way, and ultimately really the unwillingness to be in actual
        relationship with other beings who are also free agents.”

        It strikes me as a psychological explanation and either deepens or complements the one I speculatively offered.

        Thanks for the reference to Jim’s article.

        Cheers

        “JT”

      • Brian Petersen
        August 22, 2012 at 5:56 pm

        I love when you “out” yourself on some topic in the podcast. You’re really good about not doing it saying things like “but what about… could we find room to believe… maybe there could something like…” It’s probably appropriate you don’t share it maybe, but sometimes I’m in the car listening and yell out, “Come on Dan, just tell me what YOU believe!”

        But I can see why you don’t. Better if we come our beliefs ourselves. Besides, if you really knew everything you believed down to the nitty gritty, who knows, we might think you’re nutty or just too far out there. ;)

      • JT
        August 23, 2012 at 6:34 am

        Dan,

        I discovered this interesting “Tanner Lecture” by Elaine Pagels delivered at the University of Utah in 1997: The Origin of Satan in Christian Tradition.

        http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/Pagels99.pdf

        The sociological function of Satan she describes has interesting parallels in Mormon tradition.

    • JT
      August 22, 2012 at 1:46 pm

      Satan appears to accomplish both theological and psychological work for institutional religion.

      Theologically, Satan could take some of the problem-of-evil heat off God. But perhaps this ends up generating more heat when its implications are thought through. Is this is a project LDS scholars have considered?

      Psychologically, Satan seems to give us someone to project our dispositions to be selfish or to be subsumed by in-group imperatives to the point of causing harm to others. In other words, Satan takes from of the problem-of-evil heat off ourselves, allowing us to maintain an illusion of an essentially good and integrated-self.

      The Satan delivered over LDS pulpits also comes across as a bogeymen – a means of scaring people into obedience and inducing them to seek shelter in the Church. Of course it doesn’t feel like this to a person for whom Satan is real.

      That more and more people see Satan as a blunt instrument – whether dressed up with horns and carrying a pitchfork or a clerical collar. Perhaps they are coming to realize that a demon-haunted worldview hinders the advance of a real understanding of the human condition and in doing so obstructs progress to a lasting remediation of evil.

      Meanwhile, modern psychology and neuroscience is developing strong evidence that what intuitively feels like an autonomous free agency-wielding self is largely an illusion cooked-up by distributed modular unconscious cognition sensitive to physical and social environments in a manner inaccessible to introspection – but not to objective testing. Normally functioning human brains have evolved capacities for altruism in the order of their owner, immediate kin, social groups, strangers, and animals. Simultaneously, these same brains have evolved tendencies toward selfishness, exclusion and violent expression hatred when stressed, threatened, or subsumed by groups. Embracing a project of objectively understanding human nature and treating morality as a problem to be solved in conversation with neighbors – those next door and those a continent away – will do more to solve the problem of evil than metaphysical musings.

      At least that’s how I see things at the moment.

  14. KCK
    August 22, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    What a great episode. I have
    only listened to the first two hours but I had to get on here and
    recommend a TED talk on suffering and compassion. This is one of my
    favorite talks.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/joan_halifax.html

    I specifically
    was moved by Jennifer’s discussion about her son and how her friend
    suffered with her. One of my favorite quotes from the video is this,
    “Compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature
    of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong while
    recognizing that I am not separate of this suffering.”

    In the
    video Joan also talks about how in order to exhibit true compassion you
    can’t be tied to outcome. This strikes at the heart of what we often
    experience in Mormon culture. So often suffering in Mormonism is viewed
    from a fixed lens based on outcomes: it’s all part of God’s plan, it’s
    ok he/she is in a better place and lastly everything will work out in
    the end. The problem is we do not have the benefit of seeing these happy
    ending outcomes. As a sufferer we are or will be at some time stuck in
    the present of suffering in which the only thing we have before us is
    suffering.

    We need to be better at following Jennifer’s
    friend and suffer in the present with those who suffer; we can’t be
    separate from the suffering. While happy ending outcomes are nice, they
    are nothing but a band-aid to a wound. Let’s help others close the
    wounds of their suffering rather than covering it with band-aids.

  15. JT
    August 23, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    A prophet’s insight into the character of God and a purpose for innocent suffering (Alma 14 :10-11)

    “And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children which were consuming in the fire, he was also pained; and he saith unto Alma, How can we witness this awful scene? therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames. 

    But Alma saith unto him, the spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold, the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness if their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath, may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day. ”

    Earlier cmmentary by a Mormon Matters listener:

    “from God’s point of view this is all perfectly reasonable.  From the Devine perspective death [even by being burned alive] is nothing.” 

    Response by JT:  This could be the root of all evil.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      August 23, 2012 at 9:43 pm

      I gave my opinion on this very passage during the podcast, and it’s pretty close to yours here. Great stuff to wrestle with, don’t you think?!

      • JT
        August 24, 2012 at 6:10 am

        Wrestle against perhaps

  16. JT
    August 23, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    Coincidentally, the current Ensign addresses the problem of suffering in natural disasters.  

    http://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/08/natural-disasters-we-dont-have-to-be-afraid?lang=eng

    After a few anecdotes about how the Spirit guided church members to prepare for Hurricane Rita months ahead of time – resulting in no deaths – Elder Stanley Ellis offers these insider’s insights.

    “Sometimes good people do suffer during calamities… The Lord does not eliminate suffering—it’s part of the plan.”

    “The worst-case scenario… is that someone might be killed … But since we know the truth, we know that even such loss is part of Heavenly Father’s plan…”

    “Because of this eternal perspective, the pain can be eased.”

    “… the fact of the matter is that everyone is going to die sometime. When you know the gospel plan, you know that death is not the end of the world… ”

    ” From an eternal perspective, the only death that is truly premature is the death of one who is not prepared to meet God.”

    How morally stunted and tribally myopic can a religious tradition make a person?  This is the sort of “eternal perspective” all to common among heads stuck down an  ideological holes.  But that’s just my mortal perspective.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      August 23, 2012 at 9:41 pm

      Preaching that is aimed at the center will always leave a lot to be desired. Purposes are generally motivational/pastoral. I’m sure Elder Ellis and all leaders hold far more complex views and would be fun to chat with.

      • JT
        August 24, 2012 at 6:09 am

        I wouldn’t be so sure.

  17. JT
    August 24, 2012 at 6:06 am

    Along with Alma 14: 11-12, what does 3 Nephi 9:1-15 contribute to the LDS Church’s problem with evil?

    1 And … there was a voice heard … upon all the face of this land, crying:

    2 Wo, wo, wo unto this people … except they shall arepent; for the devil laugheth … because of the slain … and it is because of their iniquity and abominations that they are fallen!

    3 Behold, that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof.

    4 And … Moroni have I [Jesus] caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof to be drowned.

    5 … [And] Moronihah have I covered with earth … that the blood of the prophets and the saints shall not come any more unto me against them [Note 1].

    6 And … Gilgal have I caused to be sunk, and the inhabitants thereof to be buried …

    7 Yea, and the city of Onihah … Mocum … Jerusalem.. waters have I caused to come up… to hide their wickedness.

    8 And … [the cities of] Gadiandi, … Gadiomnah, … Jacob, …Gimgimno, all these have I caused to be sunk, … and the inhabitants thereof have I buried up ….

    9 … [T]hat great city Jacobugath, … I caused to be burned … for it was they that did destroy the peace of my people and the government …

    10 And behold, the [cities]] of Laman, …Josh, … I have …burned with fire… because of their… stoning those whom I did send ….

    11 … I did send down fire and destroy them, that their wickedness and abominations might be hid from before my face, ….

    12 And many great destructions have I caused … because of their wickedness ….

    13 O all ye that are spared because ye were more righteous than they, will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?

    14 Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, MINE ARM OF MERCY IS EXTENDED TOWARDS YOU, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me.

    15 Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God … I am in the Father, and the Father in me; and in me hath the Father glorified his name.

    *************
    Note 1: My use of ellipses removed four repetitions of the phrase “that the blood of the prophets … against me.” Perhaps a literary Hebrasim that the scribe was careful to record?
    *************

    The “problem of evil” is not a problem for the “true believer” for whom scripture makes God’s character and purposes quite plain. Their problem arises when they find the need to defend it – which amounts to psychological defense of self and tribe. Then the mischief begins – supported as it by the very model of behavior their God provides – and quickly becomes other peoples’ problems if they aren’t checked.

    This is what I mean by the root of all evil and we deceive ourselves if we think it does not exist next door ready to be pricked and provoked into its fullness.

  18. Chris Naegle
    September 5, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    Sorry I’m late to the show. When I saw the topic I wished that I could have been a part of the panel, but when Robert Bresson was mentioned I knew that it was all for the best. This podcast was a fantastic primer on the Problem of Evil.

    My question for Dan is this: why worship a god so limited as the one presented here? If he is constrained to arbitrary laws of nature, how is he any different than a very powerful immortal man? If there is a rule which constrains God from fixing evil, or from choosing a method of salvation other than blood sacrifice, there could just as easily be a law of the universe which guarantees the destruction of the Gods in thirteen trillion years. I can imagine him lying awake at night, wondering where meaning and ethics are grounded – he might ask: “Is having infinite offspring and kingdoms really what eternal life is all about? Is the fact that this is true in this universe an accident, or would all possible universes involve infinite god reproduction, amnesiac-religious-life tests, and necessary god-sacrifice?” Obviously, none of these possibilities engender confidence.

    I yearn for something transcendent and absolute, a wellspring of all meaning and truth, and the gods of Mormonism definitely don’t fit the bill. Granted, the traditional story of God has deep problems as well, which has led me to languish in a sort of mystically inclined agnosticism. I think that this has been the basic story of modern philosophically-aware religious life – a sophisticated view of history, science, and philosophy shows that the myths of our religions cannot be literally true, and that there is no positive reason to believe that God or gods exist (of course, nothing about this information necessarily disproves God’s existence either). Unfortunately, having grown up with a literal, active God, it is hard to accept the thin substitutes which can survive deep in the metaphysical weave behind empirical explanations – especially if one must continue to tolerate others who do not understand the implications of the nuanced view.

  19. Mormon Mama
    September 15, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    I know I’m late to the discussion. But I had an aha moment and wanted to share! One GA talk that I have struggled to accept is Boyd K. Packer’s talk from about a year or two ago when he said essentially, “why would God make anyone gay? He loves us. He is our Father. He wouldn’t do that”. After listening to this podcast (especially Jennifer talking about Graham), it occurred to me that E. Packer is simply trying to understand the problem of evil (at least something that he considers an evil). He is in the same struggle as any of us that are trying to understand our God. This increases my empathy for an Apostle with whom I feel conflict ideologically at times. So, while I still don’t agree with what E. Packer said, thank you for helping me comprehend the man’s comments a little better!

  20. Melody Newey
    October 25, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    I’d like to respond. . . far after-the-fact, but, so be it. I have some strong feelings about this topic, so here it goes.

    Thanks for this amazing discussion, Dan. I was drawn to the subject in large part because of my history of being raised in a violent, destructive home in the heart of Mormondom. I experienced firsthand what I would call Evil — abuse of power; delight in destruction of innocence; corruption of truth at every turn. So, I deeply appreciate the contributors and their individual fields of expertise. I feel validated and enlightened as a result of listening to the podcast. [Interestingly, on a personal note - I do believe that I specifically chose the general circumstances into which I was born. Unaware of what I was choosing, mind you, but the violence with its accompanying results to the health and welfare of my body and soul - I volunteered. So, I could go on and on about all that, but that's not what I want to say here.]

    What surprised me about the discussion is that none of the contributors really couched evil as an actual power or lifestyle choice many individuals seem to make. Even Jennifer softened the idea of individuals perpetrating evil with her supposition (with which I mostly agree) that evil – at its root – involves self-deception. And that we can “help” people see things clearly so as to reduce the pain and suffering they might otherwise cause – if they can just see the truth of who they are and what they are about in terms of their impact on others. She shifted from evil to “meanness” which doesn’t feel quite the same to me.

    It seems to me that one of the things we as Latter-day Saints and many other good-hearted folks want to shy away from is the idea that evil is real and that it presents a very clear threat to the safety and well-being of those who are affected by it. Right now. In our neighborhoods.

    We talk about “evil” as a concept and are reluctant to name it as a human characteristic or practice that many individuals appear to truly choose to adopt. There are countless examples I could give. I could give details about my own life, which I won’t here; wartime atrocities; local rapes, beatings, child and spouse abuse; organized groups who murder people for gain and power. You spoke of the holocaust — but more as a remote occurrence, not as a specific result of individuals perpetrating evil acts. This was the one thing I felt was missing from the conversation. And perhaps it didn’t really belong here because you opened by talking about this podcast being philosophical.

    Anyway, I sure like what you’re doing here at Mormon Matters. I’m glad to have found you. . . and maybe I just wasted a bunch of keystrokes. After all, “For there was never yet the philosopher who could endure the toothache patiently . . .” I would have enjoyed more discussion about the toothache, about how our beliefs about God intersect and interact with Evil on the ground. That’s all. Thanks again for the wonderful podcast. I could spend all day here.

  21. kayotic
    January 19, 2013 at 4:52 am

    Evil exists solely due to free will which is highly valued gift. a gift so high in value only humans possess it. if God commands a Dog to jump the dog must jump. if God commands a human to a jump the human can openly say no. now God could force through brute strength to make the human jump but there is a choice to do it or not. the dog has no choice. now the dog could be evil and actually hate God and as long as God never gives the dog a commandment could rebel and be evil. a human could do the same thing the difference is a human is free to ignore any commandments from God as long as God does not actually force the issue.

    so essentially evil exists because humans are granted free will to freely choose good and evil. and everything else also makes those choices too but only humans can openly 100% define God hence Satan exists. Satan of course provides the opposition to all things. life needs to as part of life’s existence to choose good from evil. God will not force anything on us. if we do not want heaven we will not get it.

    and that is the point….Satan or Lucifer wanted to force us to be saved. Jesus and Heavenly Father did not.

    people so often cry about injustice in the world oh how could God allow such suffering let us not forget Gods greatest act was letting His only Begotten son get brutally murdered on a cross. God seems to think and repeatedly do this…..and that is teach humans lessons or give us lessons and benefits by suffering. He seems to think we have to learn by suffering which is just as well a person never learns to walk without falling down. sperm does not fertilize an egg without millions of other sperm dying first. it seems to be apart of life suffering brings beauty yet most do not want the suffering part. perhaps we should all learn to embrace the suffering so it can lead to beauty.

    so often God tells us to bear these afflictions as if testing us(life is a test)…..Job and joseph smith being two good examples. God chastens those He loves and He loves us all and we are all chastened.

    so evil is just an extension of Gods idea of free will. we seem to think of loving being entirely different than what God views as loving God viewed His most loving act as brutal torturing murder on a cross that lasted three days if i recall….so tell me was God being a psychopath or a Loving Just God?