Tuesday, August 07, 2012

States of theodicy

Stumbled on someone's recent plea for a more engaged, micro-level approach of theodicy attentive to narrative and ritual that took me back to my own thinking as a graduate student and young faculty member. The similarity was uncanny, down to an understanding of the universality of theodicy based in Max Weber, Peter Berger and Clifford Geertz. I'm claiming vertigo, not precedence; I've moved on! Can it still be possible, two decades later, for someone to come no farther than I did? A number of other scholars responded to his argument, and I found myself most in sympathy with a sociologist of lived religion.

[E]veryday people are actively involved in theodicy construction. Yet it remains to be seen exactly how much definition they truly find necessary. Is everyone terrified by the inexplicable? Or are some people able to tolerate, or even embrace, mystery in the face of suffering? In their attempts at formulating theodicy, on how many levels do symbols need to appear? Must they encompass the whole cosmos, or might a much smaller scale suffice? Are there people that need no formulations beyond an intuitive sense that, at bottom, the world is a good place and everything will be all right in the end?”
Kevin M. Taylor, “Meaning-Making in Everyday Life: A Response to 
Mark S. M. Scott’s Theorizing Theodicy,'” Religion and Culture Web Forum, Nov 2009

Have I gone over to the other side - the social scientific, empirical, ethnographic side? I plead guilty - though this also seems to me closer to where the people are, and where the genuine religious issues reside. What else have I learned from my promiscuous religious studies habit of keeping company more with social scientists than theologians? Maybe it's just the happenstance of simultaneously revising the Theorizing Religion syllabus, assembling a first year course on Lived Religion in a Secular Age, and boning up on Leibniz for a presentation on the Theodicy and lived religion, but I'm starting to think that the problem with what Terrence Tilley taught us to call the "discourse of theodicy" isn't just a luxury of professional thinkers, but a product of the nation state.

Say what? Yes, the nation state. I've long presented (and critiqued) theodicy as a modern project, usually quoting Odo Marquard's assertion that where there is theodicy there is modernity and vice versa. But religioclastic critiques of the discourse of religion are inspiring me to see theodicy also as part of what might be called a Westphalian project, an understanding of religious identity and community as analogous to citizenship in a nation-state. Although law, theology and scholarship have implicitly and explicitly assumed such a parallel, sociologists like Peter Beyer have suggested that religion never was, and surely never will be, like this. Religious life is more local, more plural, less coherent, and decisively less otherworldly-as-opposed-to-thisworldly.

On the theodicy front, I've been making this argument for a while by way of Christian Smith's "little umbrellas" response to Berger's "sacred canopy" argument (another sociological debate!). From the sociological perspective, it appears that lifeworlds make sense to people as long as they are part of some community - it doesn't have to be the whole world, or an entire society, or just one community. The "legitimation crises" of "plausibility structures" turn out to be allayed (or at least allayable) at the subcultural level. Those are the insights behind the sociologist's response above.

(A philosopher or philosophical theologian might yet respond that the sociology is irrelevant: the problem of evil is a philosophical problem, and proffered solutions are either philosophically sound or unsound, whatever people make of them. It may be, as William James averred, that nobody has ever been convinced to believe or not to believe by philosophy, but that doesn't answer - or eliminate - the question of the reasonableness or coherence of belief. On the other hand, few religious traditions have promised the kind of coherence or reasonableness presupposed here...)

But the connection with the nation state? I confess I'm feeling it more than seeing it... but I'm sure there's something there. Here are some parts of the story, which reach back across the whole itinerary of my occupation with the subject.

I've long noted that the modern theodicy problem, sometimes known as the atheistic problem of evil, is a strange one. In essence it's a question about the existence of God dressed up as the question if God is worthy of worship. You remember the formulation credited to Epicurus: Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil? But this question, I've suggested, is like the question "shall I leave my husband?" While that question can be formulated by anyone in wedlock, it's only meaningful if there's somewhere one might go; otherwise, it's really a different question, more like "how can I live with my husband?" Likewise, I suggest, the theodicy question only becomes a real question when God can be left, when a life as a non-theist (Christian, usually) is available. When I first made this argument, at a conference in 2000 (gosh I'm slow!), I wasn't thinking about plausibility communities. I suggested that God becomes divorceable only when the world comes to seem self-subsistent.


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