Karen Kilby, an occasional Commonweal contributor, is the Bede Professor of Catholic Theology at Durham University. Although Kilby lives and teaches in England, she is an American by birth. She majored in math and religious studies as an undergraduate at Yale, before receiving a PhD there. As a graduate student she worked with the Lutheran scholar George Lindbeck, author of the influential The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, and the formidable Kathryn Tanner, author of Christ the Key.
Kilby is the author of Karl Rahner: A Brief Introduction and Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction. Both are first-rate. I am a journalist, not a theologian, but I do read academic theology and back in the day used to edit it into something accessible to the general reader. I think good theological writing, like Kilby’s, makes for stimulating reading as well as sharper thinking on a host of non-theological questions. Her new book, God, Evil and the Limits of Theology (T&T Clark, $90, 176 pp.), a collection of essays first published in theological journals, is both challenging and rewarding. Kilby discusses abstruse theological questions clearly and with intellectual modesty. This is a theologian who praises the “deep beauty which lurks in Karl Rahner’s” work but is candid about his “sometimes torturous writings.” She convincingly demonstrates that Hans Urs von Balthasar is more of a mythologizer than his conservative theological champions might be willing to concede. Refreshingly, she is also a believer who acknowledges that the “beautiful, orderly ideal” of Christian truth and life needs to include “thinking about the boredom, the conflicts, the inadequacies, the sheer ordinariness that marks so much of most Christians’ experience of being a Christian and being in community with other Christians.” Welcome to Sunday Mass.
The problem Kilby tackles in her new book concerns one of the central paradoxes of theology: “How does one engage in a mode of enquiry—an enquiry which includes argument, disagreement and debate—if one presumes in advance that the ‘thing’ under discussion is and must remain mysterious, beyond understanding?” To illuminate that riddle, Kilby devotes essays to the Trinity, to the conundrums of theodicy and the meaning of suffering and evil (or its absence), and to the possibly complementary relationship between “pure mathematics” and theology. This is sometimes difficult material, but she leads even a lay reader through the theoretical thickets (including the infinity of prime numbers and Godel’s incompleteness theorem) with a gentle and steady hand.
Particularly striking is Kilby’s discussion of how we might think about suffering and loss by recovering the Christian tradition’s understanding of evil as a nullity—as the absence of good rather than an ontological reality of its own. A while ago I wrote a piece for Commonweal about Jean Donovan, one of the women missionaries raped and murdered by a Salvadoran death squad in 1980 (she was just twenty-seven). As it happens, I went to high school with Donovan, but only discovered that connection decades after her death. Her courage was remarkable and humbling, and her brutal and senseless killing left one asking all the familiar questions about how and why a loving and all-powerful God could create a world in which evil and suffering flourish.