Traditional religious theories that God is capable of preventing natural disasters or man-made suffering ignore substantial evidence that evil is a part of the human experience.
That was a core message from a timely discussion between noted theologian Rev. Walter Brueggemann and President S. Alan Ray on the nature of evil that challenged traditional views of God. Their March 15 conversation at the Frick Center was held in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan and as Middle East dictators were ruthlessly quashing popular uprisings for freedom and democracy.
Ray, a professor of religion and society, posed one of the central questions of the night when he asked, “How can you talk about evil without talking about God?” Ray noted that classical notions of God are that He is “all powerful, all knowing and all good.” The dilemma is that God permits great suffering in the world from natural evil such as the recent tsunami to moral evil such as the Holocaust, Ray said.
Brueggemann, a member of the Elmhurst Class of 1955 and the foremost Christian scholar of the Hebrew Bible, responded that such classical notions are not rooted in the Bible, which describes God as “capable of fidelity but also capable of infidelity. We have a big unlearning to do about those notions.”
The Hebrew Bible presents evil as part of what God is doing and promises that good ultimately will defeat evil, Brueggemann said, “but that hasn’t happened yet. We must live on faith that it will happen. I won’t give up on God’s goodness, but when I read the paper I have grave doubts about God’s power.” To pray to an interventionist God and ask Him to do good violates Enlightenment reasoning, Brueggemann added.
Ray said that the prevalence of evil indicates it could be essential to the human experience, and the idea that God has the power to overcome or eradicate evil may need to be reexamined.
“In the face of apparent divine non-intervention, perhaps the best we can do is simply keep our side of the covenant—love the Lord and love your neighbor as yourself,” Ray said, citing Jesus as a template for others to follow.
Moreover, Brueggemann said, the relationship humans have with God is similar to relationships humans have with each other—complicated and in need of frequent attention: “Both parties are free, and both parties are bound, and they have to work it out.”
Ray also noted that traditional views of God as all-powerful grew out of “theological imagination” as analogies of an ideal king at a time when monarchs ruled by divine right. Today, he said, we have a duty to frame our view of God in light of our life experiences instead.
Later, Ray expanded on his remarks, saying, “Theological imagination today is questioning the classical view and, with it, our assumptions about the divine attributes. I believe we owe it to the victims of evil—the victims of the Holocaust, of the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas, and others—to use that imagination to make sense of both their suffering and our religious traditions.”
A Destructive Greed
The conversation on evil was part of Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith, the College’s yearlong focus on religion in public life. The series of lectures and special events celebrates the graduation centennial of an earlier generation of esteemed theologians—Reinhold Niebuhr (1910) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1912). Reinhold Niebuhr recognized the existence of evil and wrote that society should be realistic about the possibility of eradicating evil, although that recognition shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction.
In introducing the speakers to an audience of more than 350, Chaplain H. Scott Matheney said a discussion of the nature of evil was “absolutely critical given what is going on around the world.”
The conversation was framed, Matheney said, by Brueggemann’s sermon on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after President Bush said in the wake of terrorist attacks, “Our nation has seen evil.” In that sermon, Brueggemann said the events of 9/11 underscored that “evil persists in a powerful way in defiance of the will of the creator.” That, he added, created a new context for preaching that encompasses how American greed and consumerism affect U.S. foreign policy and the use of its military power.
In closing, Ray asked what kind of sermon Brueggemann would deliver this year on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and Brueggemann replied that he would emphasize the same message, though with greater urgency. “Our greed is hugely destructive,” he said, and he is more convinced that the “narcissistic pride” that drives U.S. policy needs an overhaul that includes a “systemic repentance of our imperialism.”
“I believe that the U.S. acts like every empire. It assumes autonomy to do whatever it wants as though it were not accountable to anyone, (even) to God. Our over-extension militarily and economically is driven by our greed to have more resources and more markets and more control and more wealth, and our greed is driven, I believe, by an elemental anxiety about not being secure in the world.
“The irony is that the more we act out of that anxiety, the more insecure we make ourselves,” Brueggemann said.