The Purple Haze of Theodicy--A Response to John Marks

If you don’t know who John Marks is, I hope you will check out his blog, The Purple State of John. John and his old college roommate, Craig Detwiler, made a wonderful film called A Purple State of Mind. In that film, John, who is an avowed atheist, and Craig, who is an evangelical Christian (although a fairly progressive one), have a series of open, honest--and occasionally painful--conversations about faith and its implications for public life and individual action. They call the film "an 80-minute effort to bridge the cultural gap, to push past politics, and wade into the middle ground where most people live."

The "purple," of course, refers to a blending of the so-called "red state"/"blue state" divide promulgated so heavily by television news. I highly recommend the film to you.

When Dear Friend and I went to the premiere of A Purple State of Mind at Davidson College (where Marks and Detwiler met), we both felt more affinity for John, with his doubts and questions, than we did with Craig. Since that time, I have read John’s blog regularly (he does some really interesting posts on film and other cultural issues) and I comment semi-regularly on his faith-related posts. The following is my response to his post entitled The Perfect Christian Daughter Murders Her Perfect Christian Family: A Case Study In The Problem Of Evil. I got started writing, and couldn’t stop, so rather than clog up his comment box, I decided to respond here.


John--I ask in advance for your forgiveness if this sounds snarky. If we were discussing it over coffee or a beer, I assure you, I would sound more questioning than snide. (I also apologize for the length, but it’s hard to discuss this without laying out some important context.)

I have no easy answers for theodicy--and no thinking person of faith does. Stories like the one you highlight are quite effective for your purpose. You dare Christians to answer the unanswerable and show us to be ignorant fools when we try. It’s an easy “victory” for you---like shooting fish in a barrel.

But here is my question for you: What do YOU have to say about Erin Caffey and the evil she has done? Can you address the problem of evil without God and find any satisfactory answers?

I am a person of faith (in part) because, without "God," (however you define that), there can be no redemption for the evil or suffering in the world. All that pain just *is*. It will never be rectified. There will never be justice for the oppressed. There will never be any recompense for suffering. Life, to borrow from Thomas Hobbes, is "nasty, brutish, and short"--and we should probably all just kill ourselves and save ourselves the trouble. What's the point, anyway?

Maybe you can live in that nihilistic world, but I can't. Maybe you are made of stronger stuff than I--and most of the rest of humanity. I would venture to say that most people who claim a faith do so because we need to believe that the pain and suffering we DO experience (regardless of its cause) will ultimately be redeemed. That even if what we suffer is pointless, something good will come from it and our pain will not have been completely in vain.

If that makes me foolish or gullible in your eyes, I readily plead “Guilty as charged.”

I will not be glib about theodicy--but I will also state, as strongly as I am able, that I do not believe God causes or allows suffering for our "good." IMO, that God would be a monster and not worthy of worship.

I believe that God is with us *in* our suffering and works with us and others to bring good out of bad situations. I have experienced that presence myself in my own times of trouble. (Of course, it could just be some autonomic, evolution-inspired response in my brain—but that’s why we call it “faith.” ;-) I have also sensed the presence of the “holy” (for lack of a better term) in the faces and actions of those who have loved me.

I should probably note at this point that I am a process theologian. (I claim the title of "theologian" by virtue of my baptism, not because I went to seminary.) I don't believe that God is "omnipotent" (at least, in the sense most people mean it). I agree with Charles Hartshorne's view about that--he wrote a book titled Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. My theology differs from most of those whom you profiled in your book Reasons to Believe--but I still count myself as a “Nicene Creed” Christian, and there are probably a lot more like me in Christian circles than you might think.

I am also a universalist, so I do not believe that God is going to send all but the chosen few to Hell. I don’t even believe in heaven or hell, in the sense that so many people mean them (as physical places where “good” or “bad” people go). But I do believe that, somehow, what is broken will be repaired and love will reign.

At the end of the day, my belief in God gives me "a very present help in times of trouble." That belief may be a delusion on my part, but it gives my life meaning and purpose.

My "brand" of Christianity is not the one against which you contend, of course. I will never try to impose my faith on you or anyone else--and I do my fair share of fighting my co-religionists in the political/legal sphere.

But I get tired of otherwise intelligent people acting as if the existence of evil is THE argument that disproves my belief in a loving God. (Bart Ehrman is another one who comes to mind...) I can make a case for agnosticism (though not for atheism) from a scientific point of view, but to use theodicy to dismiss the existence of God still leaves atheists with the problem of evil. Only in that case, as I see it, *you* have no answer at all--and no comfort to offer to those who suffer. I would love to know how you see it.