Some of you probably recognize the first phrase in the title. It's Leibniz from his Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil. The phrase itself, along with a few other themes, is the primary target of Voltaire's withering satire in Candide. It's a work we must discuss in Modern Humanities every semester, and it's a piece of writing that leads to no small amount of consternation in certain students, and no, I don't mean Christian students. Many theist students do quite well with the conversation, some because they don't understand the implications, and others because they're content that the question doesn't point out a fatal flaw in evangelical, Catholic, or moderate theologies.
Without going into too much detail (sparknote it if you must), Voltaire sets up a tragic farce that juxtaposes Leibniz's phrase with all sorts of horrific realities: poverty, flogging, rape, massacre, sexual slavery, religious hypocrisy, and systemic corruption. The story really is funny, and we in the contemporary world are jaded enough by Scorsese and Tarantino that we are probably ready for a movie version (Please, no Aronofsky, though. Stylized theological bullshit doesn't really interest me, no matter how lovely the cinematography.).
The story is supposed to highlight two questions, one of which I grappled with early in my theological training, and one that helped usher me out of the faith. The first is a false dichotomy. Is God powerful enough to do something about evil but not caring enough to intervene, or does He care about intervening but lack the power to do so in a way that would end the evil? It was readily apparent to me that there is a third way here, even if an unsatsifactory one given traditional, non-Reformed definitions of "god." The Reformed answer is some perverse version of "Whatever God wills is good, so suck it earth people." The non-Reformed wants to keep alive definitions of good and god that are independent of the mistaken assertion that god's actions are the definition of goodness. Rather, they prefer to say that God does the good because it's good. I worked this one out a while back to my own satisfaction, but none of the answers, quite frankly, are all that great. You're still left wondering why the hell God doesn't do certain things.
The second question is far more difficult, and I ask students a stripped down version of a very complex metaphysical problem: Do we live in the best of all possible worlds, or could you design a better one, or at least improve this one? I don't mean for them to pretend to take on all the questions and complexities that result in changing variables in an oftentimes chaotic system, but I do expect them to think through what the possibilities are in terms of minor adjustments. My favorite example, and yes, I'm aware there are category differences, and I'm likely equivocating on the definition of "design," but it works as a thought experiment to get their brains working.
It's clear humans can't do whatever they want to do. Assuming a theist creation framework, I'm designed to do some things and designed to be unable to do others. For example, I can't flap my arms fast enough to fly, although I can clearly see that flight is possible for some creatures. The idea of flight is pleasing to me, but I am unable to do it. This is not considered an unjust design decision, just a limitation in the form itself. Why not create humans who are incapable of desiring children? Why design that as an option in the form? Given that idea of form limitations, why not eliminate it categorically, and spare the children of the world you're designing the horrors of molestation?
In just that way, I invite students to improve the design. Most of the answers are straightforward: cancer, rape, poverty, etc. Nothing that will surprise you, because with just a little prodding, we can imagine a better world, a much better world. (We eventually get to the problem of natural evil, but that's not even necessary at this juncture.) Yesterday, one student refused to answer. He simply said he wasn't going to talk about these things. I'm guessing that in his mind we were being blasphemous, or at least arrogant to a sacrilegious degree. I never force the issue at this point; it does more harm than good to insist students trangress a boundary they hold as sacrosanct, even in classes concerned with boundary crossing.
Inevitably, someone offers one of two possibilities: the by-and-by solution or the higher thoughts solution. We can't understand it now, but we will when it's all over. I like to point out that the answers of this variety rely on a false sense of certainty that there will be a by-and-by, as well as a false sense of certainty that there will be a plausible explanation for all the bullshit. This is the point at which I would like to hand students a copy of The Brothers Karamazov and invite them to read Ivan's exchange with Alyosha, the substance of which is that no answer will explain or atone for the suffering of a child. It's Dostoevsky at his best, but Russian novels are dense ,and well, there's YouTube, so what the fuck...
The higher thoughts solution is silly, too. We can't understand because God's thoughts are higher than ours. One wonders where we obtain reason and logic in such a framework, but it's best not to ask systemic questions when the particular ones are so befuddling to the hearers. I like to point out at this point that the prophet Isaiah is speaking specifically of God's forgiveness of the wicked in this passage, not about the coherence of thought processes and the necessity of logical axioms. In short, God is challenging Isaiah's readers to do the counterintuitive: forgive those who don't seem to deserve forgiveness.
This feels like the spot for a conclusion, but I can't think of a good one. A call to action? A provocative question? A summary of what's above? I guess the question is the good solution: if God could have designed a better world, and it seems God could have, why didn't sHe?