Faith and Reason: God hides that we may seek Him: In our debate on whether God is guilty, David J. Goldberg, Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish synagogue in St John's Wood, London, enters a plea of 'not proven' for the defendant.

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AS A PERPLEXED theist, who wishes that the theological justifications for why a beneficent Creator permits evil in His universe were just a little more - well - convincing, I have been reading the current series of 'Faith and Reason' articles with particular interest.

Can an all-good, all-powerful God be blamed for the wickedness of humanity? That debate goes to the heart of religious faith. It used to be said about the capital punishment controversy that all the facts came from the abolitionist side, and all the emotions from the pro-hanging lobby. Likewise, all the evidence for finding God guilty is adduced by rationalists, and all the pleas in mitigation come from believers.

The most extreme formulation of both horns of the dilemma was Stendhal's witticism that the only reason for not finding God guilty is that He does not exist. If we modify such dismissive certainty at least to allow discussion of the premiss both that there is a God and that evil is real, then we are treading a path as old as the Bible itself, and the question asked by the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes of why the righteous suffer.

Monotheistic faith, whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam, has never sought to deny that God is wholly good, and it is surely a sound religious instinct which refuses to ascribe any evil to the nature of God, because it would be idolatrous to worship a Being morally inferior to the humans He has created, who would abolish evil if they had the power to do so.

That leaves the theist with two possible approaches; either to question the reality of evil, or to qualify God's omnipotence. The medieval philosophers and schoolmen tended to the former proposition, arguing that what we classify as evil is 'merely' a privation of the good. God does not create evil, rather He does not bestow certain goods upon certain people. Thus the fool is someone to whom He has not given wisdom, the blind person someone to whom He has not given sight.

Whether or not such an approach was ever intellectually tenable - how, without abusing language, can you argue that a person racked by cruel disease is merely being deprived by God of good health? - it is certainly unsustainable in our day. We have witnessed man-made evils of unparalleled scope and brutality and would find it much harder to affirm, as did even a pessimist like Moses Maimonides, that there is more good than evil in the universe.

The only valid option, then, would seem to be that of limiting God's omnipotence. 'Process theology' does just that, proposing the concept of a God who is not yet omnipotent and depends on human cooperation to become so; who is, indeed, still in the process of becoming. He is infinite in some respects, but finite in others. The attraction of such views is that they purport to provide an answer to the problem of why God tolerates evil. He does not desire this evil and would eradicate it if He could, but cannot.

But the notion of a finite God is hardly satisfying to the religious seeker. It leaves the cosmic drama incomplete, with no assurance that evil will eventually be vanquished. Nor does it explain how 'The Given', as ES Brightman calls this element in God over which He has no control, comes to be in God. It invites the suspicion that such a limited God has no reality but is a figment of the human imagination, a pseudo-entity in Judaeo-Christian superstition, partially effective, at best, as an emotive illusion in a localised language of private faith.

So the theist who subscribes to the traditional concept of an omnipotent, omniscient God is thrown back on the classical Free Will defence: that God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us free will to engage in the struggle between good and evil and, for humans to be truly free, evil must be a real possibility. The most eloquent recent exposition of this defence was by the Christian scholar John Hick in his Evil and the God of Love, where he takes sides with the second-century theologian Irenaeus against St Augustine's argument that the evil in the world is the result of the Fall of Man. Irenaeus, on the other hand, views the world with all its hardships and challenges as the appropriate arena for the emergence of those values which make us Godlike in our struggle for the good, and thus equip us for our role of enjoying God for ever. In Keats's famous phrase, this world is not a vale of tears, but a vale of soul-making. Only in a world where there has to be a struggle for the good, can we freely choose God. Not even an all-powerful God can be expected to do the logically impossible of giving us free will and the opportunity of exercising it, and at the same time placing us in a world where there is no evil and therefore no possibility of choice.

To which the rationalist would retort that even if this world is to be seen as a vale of soul-making, it does not explain why God should allow His creatures to face evils which are not necessary for their moral development - for example, pointless physical pain, genocides, the sufferings of children. Surely God has seen enough by now to persuade Him that giving free will to humans was not altogether a good thing.

At this point, the theist invokes the mystery, kicking the ball into the net with a cry of 'Faith', while the rationalist vainly appeals against foul play. Although a member of God's team, I must admit that my sympathies lie with the hard-done-by side. To invoke faith is all very well for those who claim to have it, but an unsatisfactory answer for those who up until now have been pursuing a systematic line of reasoning, only to be told that the rules of the game have suddenly been altered to allow admission of a new element - religious belief - which by definition is sui generis and impervious to empirical proof.

Honesty should compel the theist to acknowledge that his recourse to faith is not a deductive solution, but a poultice for the wound caused by God's terrible silence in the face of the evils committed since time immemorial by human abuse of free will; and that parables like the one of Eli Wiesel's quoted a few weeks ago about the Jews in the concentration camp who put God on trial, found Him guilty - and then adjourned to pray - are no more than edifying discourses which let God off the hook by shifting the blame to man. In any human scale of values, the brains behind a crime is accounted at least as responsible as the accused who pulls the trigger.

That God hides Himself was a metaphor already used by the biblical authors. The struggle to glimpse Him and understand something of His purposes is the essence of the religious quest. That is why the only stark alternatives for the would-be believer are either to suspend judgement on God's guilt, for want of conclusive evidence, or - God forbid - out-and-out atheism.