The Job of Theodicy

Most people, I suspect, don’t think about diseases until someone they know is afflicted.  It’s natural enough to try to avoid thinking of the negative, and I know that I’ve always felt overwhelmed when it came to worthy causes seeking donations.  I surprised myself, therefore, but putting up a Facebook fundraiser for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.  Someone close to me was diagnosed with the disease, and seeing suffering first-hand has a way of changing your perspective.  You want to do whatever you can to help.  Instead of feeling completely at the mercy of chance, I put my fundraiser online and I’m hoping for the best.  A doctor I know informed me that foundations for diseases are among the most helpful websites for those with the condition.

In my mind, as in that of many others, disease is intricately tied in with theodicy—the problem of innocent suffering in the presence of a God supposed to be good.  Theodicy is frequently the first stop on the road to non-belief, as a careful reading of many of the “new atheists” reveals.  No theologian has devised a satisfying theodicy.  The question always comes down to the fact that a universe without debilitating diseases can be imagined by those of us with feeble human abilities, so why not by an almighty being with no limitations?  Human evil can be attributed to free will.  Natural evil, such as diseases not keyed to behaviors that lead to them, is a different matter.  Often we’re left to our own human devices against conditions we don’t fully understand.

Facebook may not be the best place to post a fundraiser, however, it has a reach far greater than this simple blog, and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation page helps to get such fundraisers set up.  For all of its problems, Facebook does provide a way to bring people together for common causes.  Seeing someone we know suffering is never easy.  And there are so many worthy causes out there.  The situation naturally reminds me of the book of Job.  People who turn to it looking for an answer to why innocent people suffer (Job is presented as perfect in the prologue to the story) come away disappointed.  No reason is given and the question of theodicy is left unanswered beyond the claim that human understanding is limited.  God may ask how Job has the boldness to question divine action, but there’s no suggestion that he shouldn’t try to find relief with his broken potshard.  My Facebook fundraiser is my potshard, I guess, although the larger questions still remain.

And With Perfect Teeth

This week drug stores across the country will begin offering a testing product that will help assess genetic predispositions to various diseases and weaknesses. Potential parents might learn what debilitating illnesses could plague their children. Who wouldn’t want to eliminate needless suffering and create a world involving less pain and wasting away? Who wouldn’t want to know in advance? Ethicists are up in arms for such knowledge is surely a dangerous thing, just like an overcrowded lifeboat.

Ancient peoples had their own way of dealing with such dilemmas – blame the gods. Disease was not the result of genetic predisposition or even microbes. Illness, plague, pestilence and degeneration were the punishing weapons in the arsenal of ill-tempered deities who didn’t really understand what it was to be mortal. In Ugarit the archer-god Resheph was the divinity who brought pestilence. Shooting from afar with his fiery arrows he could topple cities and nations. Yet few prayers to him are recorded. Better to appeal to a higher power, an outranking deity who might overturn random suffering.

With the loss of many gods comes the loss of the right of appeal. Should the one God be the one who sends disease, to whom can prayers be offered? For many prayers to Jesus or even to Mary are made to circumvent the sad lot poured out upon a destitute humanity by an implacable father. People now recognize genetics and microbes, but still talk to the spirit world about woes and fears. Starting on Friday, however, there will be a product locally available that might provide relief in advance. Who’s willing to take on the gods and give Pathway Genomics a try?