Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Shoah and the problem of evil

To: Edoardo S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The Shoah and the problem of evil
Date: 30 April 2007 11:26

Dear Edoardo,

Thank you for your email of 25 April, with your essay for the Associate Award, 'God and evil, an unanswerable age-old issue'.

The first thing I must say is that, at 7910 words, this is over three times the target length of essays submitted for the Associate award. When you come to submit your portfolio of four essays, the length would have to be drastically reduced. I would say, three and a half thousand is the absolute maximum for any one essay.

Much of your essay reads like a report of your very extensive reading on this subject. I would have liked to have had a much clearer view of how you see this problem. The main topic is clearly the significance of the Shoah in relation to the traditional problem of evil. Does the Shoah, in fact, result in a fundamentally different way of understanding this problem?

While fully accepting that the Shoah is the worst thing mankind has done to date, the traditional arguments still hold good: to ask God to create a world and to ask him to make it an earthly paradise is to ask for a logical contradiction. Creation is, by definition, independent of the creator. Creation follows the laws that the creator has laid down - whatever they may be. You can't make laws which allow for the possibility of hurricanes without there ever being hurricanes. You can't make laws which allow human beings to evolve, as creatures capable of making decisions, without a human being ever deciding to do wrong.

The Shoah was terrible, but it is not the worst thing that we can imagine. The Nazis' 'final solution' to what they saw as a plague on humanity reduced human beings to things. The sheer horror of the extent of dehumanization required for the extermination machine is unbearable for anyone who contemplates it. (I saw the eight hour documentary, 'Shoah', and that was enough for me.)

And yet, I can think of something worse.

It is the age-old question of whether a man can coherently say, 'Evil by thou my good.' Nazis or Nazi sympathizers might say this on occasion, but their actions generally belie their words. Nazi mothers and fathers did not, as a matter of recorded fact, torture and eat their own children just for the sake of doing evil, or any number of other actions which good taste forbids me to list. Traditional depictions of hell come close but not nearly close enough.

I was once approached by a prospective student who described himself as a 'Priest of the Temple of Set'. I had to look this up on the internet. Apparently, Satanism is still thriving in the 21st century. One seemingly innocuous description of what the Satanists believe is that God is 'only finite'. This gives freedom to human beings to aim to develop ourselves and become greater and greater without limit. However, if we look into this formula further, we find the essential recipe for evil. There is no right or wrong: only what I myself WILL.

Yet is the idea of a finite God so different from the radical theologians' claim that after the Shoah, we realize that God is limited, after all?

My sister, who is a Rabbi is an admirer of Emil Fackenheim. She is one of those who believe that what the Shoah shows is that God is not omnipotent. However, I don't see why a theist has to make this fatal and crippling concession. How much power are you going to take away from God? If God is not all powerful (within the bounds of logic) why can't anyone be God? Why can't Eric Clapton be God? (as the fans of the famous rock guitarist call him).

This idea of a God who 'apologizes' for his impotence is pathetically anthropomorphic; at least, that is what a traditional theist would say. That's the best that can be said. The worst is that to worship a limited God is no different from worshipping Satan.

Another point that can be made is that on the traditional view, a few years on this earth is followed by an eternity in paradise. How can one possibly quantify or compare a limited time of suffering, however intense, with eternal joy? Belief in Hell and eternal damnation is a far more serious challenge to the idea of a benevolent God than any evil found in this world.

On a practical note, if you want to include this topic in your Associate award portfolio, my advice would be to concentrate on one aspect of the problem of evil. There is no way you can cover the entire history of philosophical thought on this topic. For example, as I have indicated above, you could confine the discussion to the impact of the Shoah. Or look at conceptions of God as less than omnipotent. Or you could concentrate on the traditional 'free will' argument which as I have tried to indicate still has a lot going for it.

All the best,