Beyond Theodicy- Sarah Pinnock

Clergy regularly publish op-eds and sermons about how we will never know why evil happens, nevertheless we have to rise to respond to the suffering. Many times these sermons are treated by those who quote it as brilliant innovation. Sometimes even the author praises himself in his own op-ed for his own deep insight and sublime rationality. Yet, as long as we have vocal clergy who blame earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods on the sins of the country, then it sustains these op-ed writers in their sense of superiority. However, the distinction between theodicy and our need to respond was a common theme of most existential authors. Sarah K. Pinnock , Beyond Theodicy: Jewish and Christian Continental Thinkers Respond to the Holocaust (2002) surveys this topic.

The book is eight years old, but I finally got around to reading it. Pinnock contextualizes nicely by surveying the deterioration of the belief in theodicy entering the 20th century and the new attempts by evangelical philosophers to restore theodicy. The majority of the book is on the four opinions of Marcel, Buber, Bloch (via Moltmann) and Metz. The book started as a dissertation and would not be good reading, to put it mildly, for those not used to academic reading.

The first position that she presents is Gabriel Marcel , who rejects theodicy but claims that we need to accept mystery of God without an attempt at justification. The goal is empathy and meaning in our lives; not to prevent suffering or protest. There are similarities to Victor Frankl and Erich Fromm.

The second position that she presents is Martin Buber, who has a greater collective sense than Marcel. For Marcel, meaning is personal, while for Buber meaning is to better the world. In the prophetic faith of Judaism one engages in moral acts, prayer, protest in the face of suffering which builds community. Buber introduces the discussion of how Job is a better source for today than Isaiah’s suffering servant. Finally, Buber speaks of how we rise from fate to destiny when we orient our lives around God. When we live in an I-thou toward others and build a community of destiny then even fate is transformed “Fate—with its eyes, hitherto severe, suddenly full of light—looks like grace itself” (102). (On the near complete reliance of Soloveitchik on some of these paragraphs of Buber, a different review would be needed.)

Pinnock’s goal was to compare the existentialists with the Marxists, so her next thinker was Bloch’s concept of hope as used by Jurgen Moltmann. Hegel downplayed suffering. The role of hope in Bloch and Moltmann is to bring the fate of history in correspondence with the destined redemption. Moltmann offers a mystical solidarity of man and God. For Moltmann, the Christian cross shows how to suffer in a meaningful way and shows the real possibility for redemption. The Marxist hope mandates a need for change or at least dignity before death.

Finally, Metz rejects the parallel of human to divine suffering. Human suffering is about painful despair, hopeless, and futility. It means broken shattered lives. To use a Jewish example, the pain of the slaughter of children in the Holocaust is not just an exile of the shekhinah or God crying. Metz introduces the theme of memory, where one has to integrate the truth of past into one’s life and in addition to investigate the causes of the suffering. The goal is to change the world, to protest, to investigate the socio-political causes of the pain, and to create a better society.

She concludes her book with comparisons during which she asks: Are these existential answers philosophy, psychology, or pastoral care? Certainly, many of the clergy versions are sheer pastoral comfort and should not be praised as philosophy. (Hashem yirahem)

The best part of the book is now the ability to analyze the options of the theologians who write that that we respond to suffering in the real world. Does the essay state that we respond in personal meaning, in building community, in restoring dignity, or to actually change the world? What did the author stress and what did the author leave out. Do we change the world or ourselves? Do we have to empathize with the sufferer or only help them? These distinctions allow us to stand on their shoulders and formulate better responses and responses that actually address the suffering at hand. If the book would be expanded, I would have liked to see chapters on Camus, Tillich, Benjamin, and Ricoeur since these authors are already making many cameos. A full comparison would be helpful for fleshing out the existential ethic.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

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