David Shatz - December 2016 Meeting Topic

Virtue and the Pursuit of Theodicy

In my paper for our Chicago meeting, “Virtue and the Pursuit of Ignorance,” I outlined nine areas in which the pursuit of ignorance arguably -- though in some cases no more than arguably-- is virtuous. The last part of the paper was devoted to the pursuit of ignorance in religious contexts, with emphasis on the problem of evil and the pursuit of theodicies. (Conversation at the meeting focused on the earlier part of the paper.) My paper for the December meeting is a greatly expanded version of the discussion of theodicy in the June paper. My textual citations from religious traditions will be from Jewish tradition, but by and large the issues considered are general.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that theodicy is a central part of religious traditions. But, as Marvin Fox pointed out in a study of Talmudic and midrashic texts, so is antitheodicy-- the position that it is inappropriate or wrong for theists even to seek theodicies. It is irrational and/or unethical and/or pointless. The ancient disagreement about the pursuit of theodicy recurs today.  While today’s theistic analytic philosophers of religion are busy constructing theodicies or defending time-honored ones like soulmaking and the free will defense, authors steeped in Continental philosophy reject the very pursuit. Their opposition, I believe, emerges from two sources. One is the general anti-metaphysical thrust of Continental philosophy, reflected in book titles like Religion After Metaphysics and Religion Without Theology. Even theists who accept certain theological (and hence metaphysical) truths reject the pursuit of metaphysics. A second source of antitheodicy is despair over finding a theodicy that adequately explains the Holocaust.  Anti-theodic theists in the Continental  tradition focus not on theodicy and metaphysics but on (i) the inner lives of believers, the psychology of religious belief—religious phenomenology (ii) the nature of religious actions, e.g. ritual (iii) normative questions about what religious people should do in the world. (It is intriguing that in recent years many analytic philosophers who are theists are drawn to a cousin of antitheodicy, namely “skeptical theism” —i. e., we don’t know why God allows evil, and we have no epistemic right to assume that we could fathom the ways of an omniscient being. The positions are not identical, but both discourage theodicizing.  Possibly, skeptical theism, like antitheodicy, has emerged from a sense of defeat in articulating a concrete justification. One difference, however, is that analytic skeptical theists submit their confessions of ignorance as an outlook within the theodic enterprise rather than as a repudiation of it.)  

Do antitheodicists tell us, then, to ignore the existence of evil, to put it out of our minds, to shove it under the rug and leave it there to be forgotten eternally? No; adopting a religious version of Camus, their position, or at least that of the ones to be featured in the paper, is that although we shouldn’t theorize about why evil exists, we should focus on properly responding to evil. We must react to evil, but not try to justify it. Our reaction to evil must be to combat it, to empathize with sufferers, to relieve suffering, and to repair our faults, but not to theorize about why evil is there. Writes one critic of theodicy activity, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes, “We do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty, but rather about the path wherein man shall walk when suffering strikes…” [1] The fundamental question is not why people suffer, but rather “What obligation does suffering impose upon man?” An antitheodicist does not proffer a “metaphysic of evil,” but only “an ethic of evil”.[2] In short, “Response, not explanation, is focal.”[3] (“Response” here obviously denotes responses other than theorizing.)

Our exploration of antitheodicy will draw  us into a variety of themes related to virtue . These include intellectual honesty, arrogance/humility, moral complacency, insensitivity or detachment, fatalistic thinking, and more. It is worth noting that a familiar theme in modern theological writing is that the metaphysical statements of a particular religion do not have to be taken as literally true in order to be religiously, spiritually, and ethically valuable. Antitheodicy modifies or extends that idea: that deliberately refraining from a certain type of metaphysical theorizing contributes religious, spiritual, and ethical value.



[1] Soloveitchik, Fate and Destiny, trans. Lawrence J. Kaplan (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 2000 ), 15.

[2] Soloveitchik, “A Halakhic Approach to Suffering,” in Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Suffering, Mourning, and the Human Condition, ed. David Shatz and Joel B. Wolowelsky (New York, 2002), 101-2.

[3] Aharon Lichtenstein,“The Duties of the Heart and Response to Suffering.” In Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering, ed. Shalom Carmy, (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1999). 21-61.