Whence Human Depravity?

Book cover
The Problem of Evil in the Western Traditionby By Joseph F. KellyLiturgical Press. 256p $17.95 (paper)

Andrew Delbanco has persuasively argued in his book The Death of Satan: How Americans Lost Their Sense of Evil that the word evil has all but vanished from the American vocabulary and with it the symbols once used to articulate our experience of evil. In the wake of the tragic events of last September, however, the word evil has made something of a restricted reappearance among us; it applies to others, not to us. And one may wonder how long it will be with us. Notwithstanding, the existence of evil has engendered perennial questioning among philosophers and theologians, though the problem of evil as we have come to know it did not emerge until the 17th century, in the English natural theology tradition and in a German tradition culminating in Leibniz’s Theodicy. It was a time when philosophers began to think they had clear ideas as to what divine power and goodness meant as the use of analogy in God-talk drifted into univocity.

The mystery of eviland that is what it is, mystery, not a problem to be solvedraises for Christian thinkers a challenge unlike any other, for it suggests that the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of God, that faith and reason are irreconcilable. The issue has come to be framed thus: How is it possible to affirm at once, without contradiction, that God is all-powerful, that God is all good, but that evil exists? Adopting various strategies, theodicies have struggled for coherence in response to the objection that only two of these propositions are compatible, not all three at once. The mystery deepens when evil is made to encompass such diverse phenomena as murder, cancer, earthquake, nature red in tooth and claw and genocide, evil on a grand sale exceeding all imaginable compensation. Yet beyond the parry and thrust of academic argument there are the silent, burning tears of those who suffer and ask not why evil? but why me? There is the rage of protest, accusation and appeal to God against God that argument cannot assuage.


Joseph F. Kelly, a professor of religious studies at John Carroll University, provides a fast-moving and sweeping survey of the myriad approaches to the mystery of evil in the Western tradition. The book is a timely, worthwhile contribution. After examining Middle Eastern mythology and the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures by way of background, Kelly chronicles philosophical, theological and literary works dealing with evil and slots them into the customary time frames: patristic, medieval, Renaissance and Reformation and modern. The major players briefly appear: Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Leibniz, Hume and Nietzsche. In addition, a host of minor players make fleeting appearances. In the modern period, Kelly introduces the chief approaches: the free will defense, Irenaean and process theodicies. Especially interesting is the survey of varied recent approaches that view evil as genetically mediated. In the end, Kelly correctly observes that what tells most against all theodicies is the grossly disproportionate and wholly senseless evil of tragedies such as Auschwitz, Rwanda and the World Trade Center, evils whose dimension cannot be charted or absorbed. What is unique to Kelly’s work is his wide-ranging inclusion of literary classics that have evil as their theme: Dante, Marlowe, Milton, Pope, Goethe, M. Shelley, Dostoyevsky and others.

The fruit of Kelly’s years of teaching undergraduates, this is a reader-friendly, lucidly written work, unencumbered by the scholarly armature of footnotes. It is also an overly ambitious work. It contains the makings for two or three books. The author is aware that he has purchased comprehensiveness at the costly price of depth. There is here no thesis to be established, no sustained argument weaving his mass of information into a digestible unity. For while Kelly from time to time briefly summarizes what was moving forward in history, the book lacks an interpretive framework. Nor is the reader alerted to the evils of theodicy, which in the insensitive, generalizing abstractness of its explanations domesticates evil. After scaling this mountain of material, Kelly tersely reveals his personal view: that he cannot reconcile the existence of a good God with the existence of evil and is resigned to nescience while trusting in God. Further, because the work is concerned primarily with moral evil rather than natural evil and the complex entwining of the two, there is frequent reference to original sin, a term riddled with ambiguity. Would that we could abandon it. Kelly rightly views the Augustinian understanding as no longer viable and seems to prefer seeing original sin as a symbol of our inherent tendency to evil. Yet while one of the most important spinoffs of the study of evil is what we learn about our humanity, Kelly makes no attempt to elucidate our dark underside, why humans incline to and do evil.

Even if one does not go as far as Kant and assert that our anguished theodicies are transcendental illusions, we must admit that theoretical approaches end in blind alleys. Enigma becomes insoluble difficulty and, for the believer, bafflement before the opacity of God’s wise love. Religion, therefore, turns from argument to affect and action, not as solution but as response to render the aporia productivefirst, by leading to a docta ignorantia, whereby in not seeing one at least sees how not to explain evilfor example, as divine chastisement. Second, lamentation, while leading to consolation, wisdom and acceptance, also challenges believers to enlist in an ethico-political struggle to mitigate evil and suffering in private and public spheres. Believers are challenged to engage in offered suffering. At a certain level, only Christology can render divine goodness credible in a world of caused and suffered evil, a theme nowhere pursued in Kelly’s survey. In light of the cross we still do not know the world’s story, but we detect a pattern emerging that we can trust and that will not let us tell it as a story of God’s indifference to human agony.

There is a dialectic moving from Adam to Job to the Servant of Yahweh/Christ; from suffering as penalty to suffering as affliction to suffering as action; from culprit to victim to servant; from evil committed to evil suffered to evil redeemed; from God as lawgiver/judge to God as tyrant to God as fellow-sufferer and advocate. Perhaps only when one attains a capacity for offered suffering does the world cease to be too wicked for God to be good, though always there are the tears of children, mass death and the nightmare of the cruel or ineffective God of tragedy, unthinkable yet invincible.

Argument, however, remains indispensable for the light it brings us about ourselves as destined to good and inclined to evil, and about the limits of reason. Therein lies the value of Kelly’s work in a time that tends to trivialize evil as just another fact of life and to reduce it to a genetic, social or psychological problem, and tractable accordingly through genetics, drugs or behavior modification. But the priority rests finally with praxis, where the passivity of being victim becomes the activity of suffering servants.

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