The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God by D. Z. Phillips
Fortress Press, 2005
reviewed by Graeme Hunter
This ambitious, often insightful book by D. Z. Phillips, incumbent of the Danforth Chair in Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in California, means to reshape the current debate about evil among major philosophers of the Anglo-American tradition (also known as “Analytic Philosophy”), to which, for decades, Phillips has been a major contributor.
A Responsible God
There are two parts to the case that Phillips lays before us. In the first half of the book, he shows why he thinks the assumption that Christian thinkers can exonerate God from any responsibility for the existence of evil and show that human affairs turn out well enough in the end, is untenable.
Attempts to construct arguments to this effect abound in Christian theology and philosophy, going back at least as far as Augustine’s City of God. They aim to produce a “theodicy,” a term coined in 1710 by the philosopher Leibniz, meaning a justification of God.
Phillips is not concerned with the likes of Augustine or Leibniz, but with the current laborers in that philosophical vineyard, such as John Hick, Alvin Plantinga, and Stephen Davis. But the problem is the old one: to show how the existence of evil is compatible with the omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence of God.
Many of the traditional answers have become part of every Christian’s stock of ideas, and sophisticated versions are still defended today by the philosophers of whom Phillips is critical. God is said to permit evil for the sake of developing our character, or because he so much values human freedom as to tolerate the existence of evil choices that free agents are liable to make, or because freedom gives us opportunities to act charitably toward one another, or because suffering makes possible learning and patience.
There is also the argument that, if we can put aside our natural fears and egotism, we will find that there is much less evil in the world than we formerly supposed. And, to mention one final familiar account, it is sometimes argued that the afterlife will more than compensate even the most abject sufferer for all the pain and disappointment of his present existence. Christians may, of course, hold several of these views or all at once.
An Insufficient God
Phillips’s attack on these theodicies is for that reason one of the most startling chapters of this unconventional book. In a chapter called “God’s Morally Insufficient Reasons,” Phillips argues that none of these traditional claims is logically tenable, if they are even intelligible. He suspects this mainstream tradition of being mistaken both about God and about his creation.
One overarching difficulty Phillips detects in what he calls our “problematic [philosophical] inheritance” is that the logic employed in its arguments is far too remote from human experience, particularly the experience of suffering, while the God in whom it trusts is far too much like one of us. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “either an abstract concept of logic prevails, or the emphasis is on an anthropomorphism that attempts to treat God as though he were a fellow moral agent in a moral community he shares with us.”
Thus, a logician can reason, perhaps, that since God is both omnipotent and good, the evils of the world must be necessary fixtures of it. If they were not, God would remove them. That is indeed logical. But it would be inconsiderate of that logician—perhaps even obscene—to present this piece of reasoning for the approval of those who have had a deep experience of evil, say, victims of Auschwitz.
On the other hand, if we succumb to the opposite temptation, imagining God as somehow involved with us in a single moral community, we will, Phillips thinks, begin to ask questions about God that are foolish, if not almost blasphemous. “What should we say of his allowing the Holocaust to happen? Is God to be the object of pity? Is creation a moral tragedy in which God is necessarily involved in evil? And what of God’s view of what he has done? Does the Holocaust stay with him?”
What alternative account of evil does Phillips propose? One that draws on “a neglected inheritance” nearer to lived experience of evil and at a more respectful distance from God. The principal inspirations for this approach are mystically inclined philosophers like Kierkegaard and Simone Weil, and the philosophical tradition that begins with Ludwig Wittgenstein, passes through Rush Rhees, and culminates in Phillips himself. Their alternative account of evil is the subject of the second half of Phillips’s book.
A Withdrawn God
In this part of the book Phillips asserts that God is neither “an agent among other agents” nor a “pure consciousness.” His critique of those conceptions of God is what he calls “a purifying atheism,” meaning not a recommendation of unbelief, but a purge of conceptual obstacles to what he believes to be authentic belief.
He asks us to consider the possibility that creation involves not God’s self-infusion into all things, but his withdrawal, his voluntary self-emptying, that creates a space for the activities of his creatures. In that God-forsaken space, much of what we creatures do and much that is done to us is bad, from small-scale indignities to absolute evil on the scale of the Holocaust. Human suffering also results innocently from natural causes, like diseases and natural disasters.
Evil is real and God is not going to do anything about it. In this severe dispensation, “those who are crushed by life’s afflictions are not going to enter a state where all this is to be put right.” The only answer God will give, if we so much misconceive our position as to put him to the question, is another question, the one he hurled at Job out of the whirlwind: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
In arguing this, is he very different from Weil or Kierkegaard? He appears to think that he is smoothing away their rough edges, but it will interest few readers to sort out the exact places where they converge and diverge.
Phillips is trying hard not to propose another theory. Theories are the last thing he thinks we need. The kind of belief he wants us to develop would have the character of a response to evil, one that would imitate the self-emptying of the absconded God. We would imitate him by dying to ourselves, accepting our suffering, and even loving it, because in it we encounter the absent God.
No doubt this sounds obscure, bleak, and theologically unorthodox. It is. More so than I can indicate in a few words. Presenting Phillips’s positive views is also a more risky business than it would be with most philosophers, and would involve my trying to make clear what is not very clear in the original, what I suspect of being deliberately unclear.
The Wittgensteinian tradition to which he belongs loves subtlety and dislikes theory. Therefore, where other writers labor to show you what they believe, the Wittgensteinian coyly conceals it. (The dedication of this book to Rowan Williams therefore has about it a certain fearful symmetry.)
Quirky & Lean
But it is also in its quirky way a good book. Phillips is not always clear but he frequently finds striking and insightful ways of getting us to rise above the inadequate clichés with which we too often dare to stand before the glaring fact of evil.
A separate question is whether or not Touchstone readers would enjoy this book or even profit from reading it. My guess is that those familiar with the assumptions and methods of Anglo-American philosophy will like it a lot more than will others. Neither group may much approve of the book, since it is not recognizably orthodox either philosophically or in its Christianity.
Phillips would regard his work as a failure if, like Job’s comforters, it ended up propounding some theoretical bromide for the evils of the world. It doesn’t. However, it will seem to some readers, as it occasionally did to me, that Phillips inadvertently ends up resembling them in another way, by “darkening counsel with words.” Although he has some deep things to say about the Christian faith, most readers from outside the philosophical guild (and some, perhaps, from within it) will find the mix too lean.
But there is an alternative way to connect with what Phillips is really saying: Read his sources. Chief among them are Kierkegaard’s profound essay Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing and Simone Weil’s classic essay Waiting on God.
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