Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
September 17th, 2014 by Joel Watts

Review, @ivpacademic’s “Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain”

Richard Rice has written a marvelous little book on the problem of suffering, or rather, the mystery of suffering. He has written it in gentle, direct language, without the need of an interpreter. He has done so through parables, stories, and letting authors speak for themselves. Rice provides, in this short little book, a multitude of views on theodicy, their respective high and low points, and a way forward respective of these wide ranging views and Christian tradition. Indeed, I can think of no better introduction to the philosophical problem of suffering as grasped in the Christian Tradition and how to form our own theology than this book.

Rice divides the book into 9 chapters, with 7 chapters to explain the various theodicies and 1 to explain why we need to examine this. The final chapter is his personal view. He knows full well, and uses noted apologist Alvin Plantinga as his support, that the one challenge atheists have best over theists is the problem of evil. He begins in chapter 2 with the easiest — the easiest to grasp at the very least. As he does with all other theodicies, Rice gives an overview, usually accompanied by a personal anecdote. Our author then gives the philosophical backdrop as to how these viewpoints came to take shape. Following this, he gives questions about the theodicy in view. In chapter 2, he examines the perfect plan wherein the holder sees God’s perfect will behind every action, good or bad. He raises the right questions, as he does in each and every viewpoint. He is not biased towards any one over the other.

There are only a few issues I have with this book. One, he relates what I would consider personal stories falling under the restricted structures of teacher-student, or otherwise, considerations. He may have reached out to those students, but this was not related to us. Perhaps it is not a problem with many, but I bristled at it, recalling some of the private conversations I had with teachers. Further, I would liked to have seen a stronger approach to the actual problem of the philosophy of evil. Why do we need to define evil and then use it as a litmus test for God? Overall, given the limitations of the nature of the book, these issues are perhaps more personal and should be taken into consideration if you are exactly as I am. Finally, in examining the non-theist view of theodicy, he takes an apologetic track. This was not as oft-putting as when others did it, but I’m not completely satisfied with the answers he gave.

I’ve chosen to include the best of this book last, forgoing my usual book review structure. In the last chapter of the book, Rice gives us a practical way forward. He admits that the previous views, even the view of the non-believer (he calls this “protest theodicy” in chapter 8), all hold something for him, but do not answer the question completely. He lays out four tenets of how he maintains the separation between God and evil (the most basic definition of theodicy). Without giving them away, they reside on the things Christians believe and hope for, falling into the realms of the doctrines of creation and salvation. It is in Rice’s practical theodicy we find a real path forward, consistent with the Christian tradition of mystery and confession over theories and facts. While you and I will have our own views of God and suffering, Rice’s understanding should be one we can give an ear to and learn from.

In all, this book does not answer the question of suffering — why good things happen to bad people; rather, it admits that, admits we do not know, and calls us to live in that place where a great deal of Christianity remains…the great mystery of Godliness.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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