Good For Us
Later this month Prof. John Stackhouse from Regent College will be here in Nanaimo to talk about the New Atheists (can we still call them “new?”) and whether or not it is crazy to be a person of faith. Those who have been long-time readers of this blog will know that this is an event that has special interest for me because a) I wrote about the New Atheists for my masters thesis a few years back; and b) John Stackhouse was my supervisor for this project. So I’ll be there with bells on. And if you are on Vancouver Island on Saturday, October 23, I would encourage you to attend this event (you can register here). I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say.
One of my other main interests throughout my formal studies (including in my aforementioned thesis) was the problem of evil. Prof. Stackhouse has written one of the best books I have come across for those navigating this difficult (intellectually and existentially) topic. And I noticed today that he has just written a brief personal reflection on the problem of evil called “Why Does God Allow So Much Evil in the World?” over at the excellent new blog Wondering Fair. So, why does God allow so much evil? Stackhouse is both honest and helpful in pursuing a way forward:
I don’t know. That’s the bottom line, so let’s just face it now. I don’t know. And, so far as my research has taken me, nobody else does, either. But here are some thoughts that help me make at least some sense of what God is up to.
I have concluded that we do in fact live in a good world, and “good” in two crucial respects: (1) it is a world that conduces to our benefit, and is meant by a good God to do so; and (2) it is pretty effective in conducing to our benefit.
I think there is another respect in which the world we live in is good: us. Perhaps this sounds obvious or silly or selfish or evidence of an overly optimistic anthropology, but I have long thought that one of the most significant arguments for the claim that our world was made by a good and purposive God is the existence of creatures who are born primed—cognitively, ethically, intellectually, behaviorally, etc—for goodness. Not just the maximization of happiness, not just utility, not just selective fitness, not just pleasure, not just ______. But genuine goodness. Or, to use the language Prof. Stackhouse uses in his post, shalom:
Shalom doesn’t mean merely “peace,” but flourishing, and in every respect, along every axis. Shalom means that each individual becomes an excellent version of itself; every relationship blossoms; every group realizes its potential; and the whole cosmos relates lovingly and creatively to God.
I think this is what all of us—even those who have no interest in God—want, no matter how confusedly or counter-productively we go about our lives. Even when we are behaving badly, I think, all of us have some sense, however vague or muted or stifled, that we are going against the grain of the cosmos. Are there exceptions to this? Certainly, and for a wide and complex variety of reasons. But on the whole, while human beings certainly exhibit their share of evil and sin and, well, badness, our hunger for shalom remains.
This hunger shows itself us whenever we make an “ought” statement about something that should or should not be in our world. It comes through whenever we protest against pain or rail against injustice. We know that things ought to be better than they are. That we ought to be better than we are. We know that goodness is not just an expression of what we happen to prefer—that it is an objective fact about the cosmos, even if we have trouble justifying or articulating how or why it works.
(Of course I am aware that there are rival stories that can be [and are being] told about the origins of goodness. I am aware that there are stories of how our inclinations toward benevolence and peace and goodness and harmony are all really nothing but survival strategies—elaborate tricks played on us by selfish genes concerned only about getting passed on to the next generation. I am aware of group selection and many of the other ways that what we think of as goodness fits into an explanatory framework that reduces everything in life to a survival game. I am not convinced that these stories are altogether coherent much less compelling, but they cannot be ignored.)
In other words, we ought to make ourselves think. We are an important part of the picture. We are part of the reason we are convinced that our world began and will end in goodness, in shalom. We are peculiar, rebellious, and conflicted creatures, certainly, but we are born with our Maker’s stamp of goodness all over us.