A student of mine, Ayla, asked a killer question today. We were talking about theodicy – answering the famed "problem of evil" – as the classic biggest critique of belief in God. That is, answering the question, "How can one believe in an all-power, all-good God in the face of the reality of evil in the world?" This was after reading Exodus, with its confusing phrase about God "hardening Pharaoh's heart," which I suspect has more to do with the rhetorical style of very primitive Jewish psychology than being a considered and reflective commentary about the nature of free will, which really doesn't seem to have been on the writer's mind.
As is often the case, one of my top priorities is to simply introduce distinctions, to qualify and to complicate the question, so that students start approaching a matter in its real complexity. This is to avoid the danger of being too quick and glib in our thinking: an all too real mistake we all make. So I had spoken of the distinction between "moral evil" and "natural evil," "moral evil" being the true idea of evil, a malicious perversion of the will, and "natural evil" being those things in nature that aren't truly evil, but which have tragic consequences for humans. Thus gravity and matter are goods in and of themselves, but when I carelessly walk off the edge of a cliff and am killed by the combination of gravity and hard rock, we think in terms of a natural evil. Or, more typically, a tornado in the sky or a field that does no harm is only a striking weather phenomenon. When it kills or leaves people homeless – think Hurricane Katrina – nature seems to take on an evil aspect to us, but really remains morally neutral, despite the coincidence of all the tragedy it might have caused.
So this student asked me about whether disease, mental or physical illness, was an evil.
My initial inclination was to think of it as a "natural evil," as another example of our universe having hard edges, which we sometimes run up against. As much as I try to live otherwise, my life is incredibly determined by my disease. It affects my life and living every day. I lost my colon to it, and have had my bones affected by disease caused by the doctors trying to treat my colon. Yet, on the other hand, there are lots of stories of Jesus healing people's diseases as one of his "signs" about what the reign of God was all about, and there are other stories or images in the Jewish Scriptures that paint disease and even biological death as somehow an offense to God's order. What wisdom might lie in those thoughts?
All this went through my head as I told Ayla that I was now thinking out loud, and trying to reason out what the classic Christian response to the question might be, if there was one. I'm not an ethicist and so there are lots of these sorts of things that only come into my reading more occasionally, but I was surprised to realize, given my own circumstances, one thing:
I had never asked the question myself.
Talking more about it with a few students, David and Austin, who stuck around talking after class, I became more inclined to think of it still as a "natural evil," that like the occasional good-in-itself rock or shark that leads to human suffering, our sufferings caused by microbes, viruses, or bad genetic coding are likewise the results of living in a real, physical universe with the "hard edges" I mentioned. I wonder whether, if we didn't complicate our illnesses with sin, with real "moral evil" in the forms of neglect or self-centeredness, whether our physical sufferings would be so magnified. In a world where the elderly, sick and infirm are all too often abandoned in nursing homes or other facilities meant for their care, we might not see so clearly a world where our elderly, sick and infirm were treated with reverence by those entrusted with their care, and with the frequent presence of family and friends who help turn suffering and adversity into an opportunity for the demonstration of love.
All right, I'm off to see Julie's improv comedy troupe doing their annual 12-hour, 6pm-to-6am performance outside the Union. I figure I can turn my late-night hours into an opportunity for them to have an audience when even the tossed-out-of-the-bars crowd has finally called it a night.