Thursday, 19 February 2015




SOMEONE—I forget who—remarked of the 1755 earthquake that it
'destroyed Lisbon and the faith of Goethe'. And I heard recently of
a youth-club discussion in which the Aberfan disaster was deemed
by some to have disposed of the notion that there is a good God. In
my Conference lecture recorded in the October 1966 number of The
Modern Churchman I touched on the problem of evil and suffering.
I could not avoid this, for it was clearly relevant to the theodicy
involved in my treatment of the concept of Reality. But time did not
permit of my amplifying my reference to this problem, and I am
grateful, therefore, to the editor for allowing me to do so now.

In the 20th century we have come to recognise, as never before,
our human proneness to wishful thinking. In itself this is good, but
we must be careful lest it prompts us to over-compensate. In our
desire not to accept some view of life merely because it is comforting,
we can fall into a morbid suspicion of any philosophy that is in fact
comforting. We must avoid both extremes. Our metaphysic—our
overall view of the scheme-of-things—must be neither comfort-seeking
nor masochistic. We must aim at calm objectivity—at seeing life
steadily and seeing it whole.

Some Christian attempts to deal with this problem exhibit a
feature which I deplore. They give me the impression that the writer
is conducting a retreat—in the military sense. The suggestion seems
to be that belief in a good God is an inference from the good things
in life, and that it is only subsequently that we notice the bad things,
and so have to explain them away. In this process we give the impression
that we are withdrawing our advanced posts, and finally
taking up a position farther back—the position that in spite of the
pain of life it is sufficiently good, on the whole, to enable us to hold
on to our belief in a good God.

Now I object to this on three grounds. First, the process of explaining
away suggests to the onlooker, and even, subconsciously, to
ourselves, that our faith is wishful thinking. If faith is to be secure,
we shall reach it not by retreat but by advance, as I shall try to
show. Second, a Christian who thinks in this way has failed to
notice that the historic Christian faith was not, primarily, an inference
from the good things in life. Third, the problem demands,
and in the 20th century can receive, a much more radical treatment.
I will deal with the second point first, as it can be disposed of
briefly. The starting-point of the historical process leading to the
Christian conception O f God was not the discovery of happiness but
the discovery of the moral conscience—the explicit awareness of the
essential distinction between right and wrong and the inner obligation—
implanted in us by the nature of things—to choose the right.
(For example, Micah's 'What doth the Lord require of thee, but to
do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?')
This at first led to inferences about God's dealings with man which
experience invalidated. There was the notion that goodness must lead
to earthly prosperity, and in common with all primitive peoples the
earliest thinking was in terms of the group—in this case the Jewish
nation. Before the time of Christ the deeper thinkers had to face the
fact that goodness is not always vindicated on earth, and that if God
is good at all He must be good to individuals. The theodicy which
Jesus accepted was individualistic and other-worldly.

I must now amplify my point that sound faith can be reached only
by advance, not by retreat. We must start from the rear; we must
seriously entertain the hypothesis that the worst is true. We shall
see reasons for being sceptical of this, as Browning's Bishop Blougram
discovered. We shall then find that the problem takes on a new form,
and this will bring us to my third point—that the problem demands,
and in the 20th century can receive, a much more radical treatment.
The thesis before us, then, is that human life has no overall significance
or purpose. With all our capacity for suffering we are but
the chance products of impersonal forces and are ultimately at their
mercy. Since there is no scheme-of-things, let alone a moral schemeof-
things, there is no guarantee that wickedness and folly will not
continue to dominate earthly life (and there is no other life) until it
is destroyed by the forces that created it. If intelligent people choose
to bring children into such a world it is only because they gamble on
the chance that their children will be among the lucky ones. If this
gamble does not come ofl?, their children will have a grievance against
them. Such a Universe is in effect (though not in intention since
there is no overall Intention) an evil Universe.

Now as a philosopher I must not reject this view merely because
I do not like it. If I am to reject it, it must be because there are
intellectual objections to it. One strikes me at once; it is open to
precisely the same charge as is the shallow optimism of wishful
thinking; it is not based on a calm, synoptic appraisal of all the facts.
For one thing, if a humane and fully rational person believed it, and
had the courage to oppose conventional ethics, he would advocate
the suicide of the human race. This would not mean that he would
advocate the extermination of those already alive; the desired result
could be obtained by a universal refusal to have children. If an
atheist disputes my inference it will show that he does not, in his
heart, accept the pessimistic diagnosis. But he cannot have it both
ways. He cannot at one and the same time claim that the human
situation is so hopeless that there obviously cannot be a good God,
and so hopeful that it is obviously our duty to continue the human

So we can begin an advance from the line of complete pessimism.
And the advance can continue for some distance. There is no need
for me to argue this in detail; most of the points I should make would
not be novel to thoughtful people. Broadly speaking, the thesis would
be that sophisticated, detached thinkers tend to exaggerate the suffering
of life. Ordinary people, who are more concerned with life than
with thinking about life, find life good on the whole, and cling to it.
With regard to the suffering of animals, there are sound reasons for
believing that the lower the scale of life, the less the capacity for
suffering—physical and mental. Even primitive men must have been
able to endure, and to find pleasure, in circumstances from which
civilised people nowadays would recoil. One of the most hopeful
features of modern life is our increased sympathy with children, but
mothers are usually less sentimental than grandparents. Children are
in some ways tough-minded. One hesitates to publicise any truth
which people could twist into a justification of complacency over
the sufferings of others, but one ought to be fair, even to God.
It becomes clear, then, that if we start from the pessimistic rear
we find that the facts—not merely our wishes—compel an advance
to a dualism. Life is not all joy but it is not all pain. This is a platitude,
but the point I am trying to make is so far from platitudinous that
it is often overlooked. We overlook it when we speak of the problem
of evil, or the problem of suffering. For if it is a dualism that creates
our problem, there is just as much justification for speaking of a
problem of good, or a problem of happiness. By stressing the point
that the problem lies in a dualism, we are now in a position to ask
the right question. Students of logic are well aware that not only
answers, but questions, can be wrong, for among the many fallacies
we have to avoid is the fallacy of 'Many questions', the smuggling
of questionable assumptions into our questions. The stock instance
is 'Have you given up beating your wife?'. Philosophy is largely a
matter of getting our questions right. If we can do this, we sometimes
find they answer themselves.

The first step, then, in dealing with the problem of suffering, as
we call it, is to see that it is created by a dualism. One incidental
advantage of this is that it enables us to use a type of argument which
we should otherwise have to dismiss as invalid. For example, if I
postulate a good God merely on the grounds of the good things in
life, and then include anaesthetics in my list of the good things, I
expose myself to the retort that an all-powerful Being would not have
needed to create anaesthetics; he could simply have refused to permit
pain. But the position is different if I am concerned, at the moment,
only to insist on a dualism—to insist that there are empirical grounds
for postulating a power, not ourselves (as Matthew Arnold put it)
that works for righteousness, and, I might add, that combats pain.
This justifies my putting anaesthetics in my list. For aught I can see,
there might very well have been no anaesthetics, and it is certainly
significant that the very developments in the human psyche which
increased sensitivity to pain led to the discovery of an antidote.
But the human intellect revolts against the notion of an ultimate
dualism—the dualism expressed by saying, in popular language, that
there is a good God and a bad Devil. Still more does it revolt against
the sheer pluralism involved in language about good and evil forces
at work in the Universe. We are satisfied with nothing less than a
coherent world-view, and the notion of coherence contains the notion
of unity. It is the revolt against pluralism that brought pure science
into being. If a scientist can introduce systematic unity into his data
to the extent of deducing them from three basic principles, this is a
great triumph. It will become a greater one if he can reduce the three
to two, but he will still feel the urge to see the two as connected, as
features of a final unity. You may say, of course, that human demands
are one thing, but that objective facts are another, and that our
demand for system and unity is no evidence of objective system or
unity. But this is to overlook the point that we, including our basic
instincts, are what we are because Reality is what it is; we are
organic to the nature-of-things—are part of it. The burden of proof
lies on him who asserts that there is no connection between otu*
innate mental categories and reality. Actually we do not find ourselves
demanding that Reality shall be a consistent, coherent whole; we find
ourselves assuming that if what is before our minds is incoherent, it
is to that extent not reality but only appearance. The triumphs of
pure science encourage us to trust our reasoning powers. The most
dissolving of all scepticisms is scepticism about the validity of
reasoning, for it invalidates all serious thought about anything whatsoever.
There seems, moreover, to be a connexion between the
mystic's insight that Reality is The One, and the rationalist's conviction
that Reality must be a system, a unity-in-diversity. For man, too,
is ideally a unity. There is logic in mysticism, and mysticism in logic.
We now begin to see the form which our question must take. If
we are content to use metaphors, we can ask whether goodness lies
deeper in Reality than does evil, or whether there are grounds for
thinking that goodness reveals the purpose in the scheme-of-things
whereas evil distorts it. Or, eschewing metaphor and using the language
of logic, we can ask whether, since we refuse to see good and
evil as co-ordinate, we can subordinate good to evil or evil to good.
Or we may ask whether it is easier to account for evil in a good world
than for good in an evil world. We can best tackle this type of
question by appealing to the obvious consideration that the goodness
which we deem to be the highest value is quite other than mere
innocence, and can have come into being only in a world like this,
where people suffer and are tempted to do wrong. But we must use
great care in developing this argument. We must not, for example,
imagine God as one Being among other beings in the tim.e series like
ourselves, as having at some past time 'made' the world as a carpenter
makes a box, and as then being confronted with the necessity of
creating evil in order that a greater good may come. This would leave
us with a finite 'God', an unresolved dualism—indeed, a pluralism.
It is m.yth and metaphor, not metaphysic, for it imagines God as in
the time series, as just one of us. God cannot rightly be conceived
as 'making' a world as men make material objects.

How, then, must we proceed to develop our thesis of the subordination
of evil to good? I will begin with an illustration. In 1845
the astronomer Leverrier discovered an apparent irregularity in the
orbit of the planet Mercury which was never satisfactorily explained
in the 19th century. But in 1881, working in a quite different field,
namely an attempt to calculate the velocity of the earth relative to
the alleged 'ether' by measuring the velocity of light in different directions
over a distance of a few miles, Michelson obtained a very
mysterious result which was not finally explained until, in 1905,
Einstein enunciated the Special Theory of Relativity. Now one of
the reasons for the universal acceptance of Einstein's theory by
scientists was that it provided an adequate solution not only of the
problem set by Michelson's discovery but also of problems in other
fields, including the problem of the orbit of Mercury. Conversely, the
problem of Mercury was felt to be solved precisely because the
solution was not an ad hoc one—was not an additional postulate
thought up to explain away this particular difficulty, but because the
Theory of Relativity just took the Mercury problem in its stride. In
much the same way the problem of suffering is best dealt with not
by an ad hoc attempt—an attempt to explain it away—but by work
in another field—Epistemology or the Theory of Knowledge—which
will take our experience of suffering in its stride.

Any sound study of human knowledge, as philosophy since Descartes
has recognised, must concern itself with the limitations of
finite knowledge as such. We can say, paradoxically, that human
thought's greatest triumph is its explicit recognition of its limitations.
We are not so limited as the animals, for they are unaware of their
limitations. In a sense we transcend our limitations in recognising
them. People often shake their heads at philosophy and say 'The
ultimate mysteries are beyond us', without pausing to reflect that if
we can say that human knowledge does not satisfy the criteria of
ideal knowledge we must have at least some formal knowledge of
those criteria. Our intellectual dissatisfaction with our human knowledge
is due to the fact that in spite of the great advances the best
minds have made, our world-story does not entirely 'hang together',
i.e. it is still incoherent, and it is still brute-factual, i.e. contingent.
We can see, moreover, that our intellectual limitations could not be
transcended unless we could transcend our awareness of reality as a
succession of events, i.e. as in the time order. Belief in God is belief
in an Objective Mind which eternally achieves the ideal that for ever
eludes us. For us, reality-awareness is an ideal; for God it is real, is
actual. Indeed, we define 'reality' as 'the universe-as-God-knows-it'.
Finite beings, then, can know truths but not Truth. We can have
mental pictures which are true for limited purposes, but we cannot
combine them into one over-all picture of complete consistency and
coherence. This is not, however, to say that all human knowledge, as
such, is illusion. There is a sharp distinction between truth and error
within the sphere of our limited human knowledge. We must not,
with certain religious cults, dismiss evil and pain as 'unreal', for the
word 'real', in ordinary discourse, implies something which we have
to take account of, something which afiects our actions. I can walk
through an imaginary or illusory wall; I have to scramble over a real
one. Evil and pain are obviously 'real' in that sense. There must,
moreover be something in the Divine awareness corresponding to my
experience of evil, but God sees it in a context which eternally
redeems it.

The two basic contrasts, then, between God's reality-awareness
and our finite awareness are that the former transcends our timeawareness,
and that the former grasps reality as systematic or ordered,
whereas we experience disorder or conflict. Pursuing the ideal of
coherence, we try to see a connexion between these two forms of
contrast. It then occurs to us that if those time-transcending attributes
of God-in-Himself of which we have only bare, formal knowledge
are to reveal themselves to us empirically in the time series, it may
well be that they can reveal themselves only as in conflict with their
opposites. If the real is to be revealed in time it must be revealed as
an ideal, to be attained gradually, by using means to ends, i.e. it
must be purposive or teleological. The Divine system must be seen
as seeking to produce order out of disorder. In so far as evolution
operates at all, it is essentially this, whether as seen by biologist or
by sociologist.

The conflict between good and evil is clearly connected with—is.
indeed, an aspect of—the conflict between order and disorder. We
feel moral approval for the ordered or integrated life—whether
individual or social. Moreover, the dawn of self-consciousness, a stage
nearer the Divine awareness, was also the dawn of conscious altruism
which could rise to the height of self-sacrifice.

Our belief, then, that it is the good side of the dualism of good
and evil that reveals God is no arbitrary one; it is not merely wishful
thinking. It stems from rational conclusions reached by studies in
another field altogether—studies of the relation of human experience
to Reality. It can be taken up into a wider generalisation, namely
that the empirical real which forces itself on us in the immediate
here-and-now is continuous with a transcendent Real which actually
fulfils our ideals—intellectual, moral and aesthetic.

The Christian answer to the problem of suffering involves a ruthless
rejection of some familiar modes of speech and their accompanying
mental pictures. We must reject the myth of the God in the timeorder
who 'made' a world long ago and created, or at least permitted,
evil. The key-concept is not 'making' but 'revealing'. The Old Testament
speaks of God as dwelling in thick darkness; His ways are not
our ways nor His thoughts our thoughts. We could know Him only
as He revealed Himself. And amid all the uncertainties in the field
of Christian origins there is at least one final certainty, namely that
because Jesus lived and died, and because his disciples were convinced
that he still lived, there was born into the world the faith
that the highest and deepest revelation of God is the sacrificial love
with which the Spirit of God can fill the hearts of men. For Christians
this has always meant that although men now see through a glass
darkly, they can one day see face to face.


  1. After my brain closed down with the tedium of his tautology, I counted back from the point where I'd given up reading: seven and a half excessively long paragraphs.
    Maybe I just haven't got a philosophical outlook or understanding.

    1. MMM,

      I found this a very hard read too. However I do believe that many of the things we have been discussing are very "philosophical" in nature and I persevered with it and I do believe that he has some good and important things to say.

      When I was "forced" to study philosophy in the seminary when I was 18 - 20 I found it very dry and hated it.

      Now at 62 - I have a better appetite for it and wish I had appreciated it more when I had nothing else to do except enjoy it.

      As I say the whole notion of God, Reality, Existence, Suffering etc is extremely complicated.

      And I wrestle with it all the time.


  2. Like you Pat, I too was obliged to philosophical studies in seminary in late 1960's, when I was in late teens. I now recognise that I was then still in the mindset framework of simple unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom from 'superiors'.
    Looking back, the cosmology, ontology, epistemology etc we were 'taught' (and I emphasise taught rather than being shown how to think), was naively simplistic, but was accepted as the 'truth'. So too much of the theology. And I believe many older generation RC clerics are in this same mindset and just as fixated on a 'one-truth' as the evangelicals of the Protestant branches of Christiandom.

    But now, at 70+, unlike you, I do not find the notion of god, reality, existence, suffering etc particularly complicated, As I do not believe in a god/creator, and accept existence as an evolutionary development, I understand suffering, whether on an individual micro basis or macro large scale disaster basis simply as another fact of evolutionary change. It has always been so, and will continue. As evolved social interdependent animals, we humans ultimately depend on one another, albeit the survival of the fittest instincts regrettably too often favours some more aggressive and acquisitive individuals.

    Sean O'Casey's JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK seems appropriate here, for Capt Boyle summed it all up by saying:
    " I often looked up at the sky and assed mesel the question - what is the moon, what is the stars" Act 1
    "Isn't all religions curious? - If they weren't you wouldn't get anyone to believe in them". Act 2
    "Th' whole worl's in a terrible state o' chassis". Act 3, and final words of the play.

    1. Dear MMM,

      I agree with much of what you say.

      Especially about those in the seminary who insisted on trying to make us believe that Thomism and "Catholic" philosophy was the only true philosophy.

      I was only told about other philosophies in the context of how wrong they all were!!!

      So maybe its just as well I did not put a massive effort in what they were teaching.

      My Dad, Jim, who was a trade union official and an old socialist had me on factory strike lines from the age of 4 :-)

      He taught me to think, to question, to doubt etc.

      My early domestic "philosophical" training has stood by me.