Not a Supernatural Boy Scout

Brian Davies has written an excellent volume on God and evil. The book is remarkable in a number of ways, including its brevity (given the subject matter), its clarity, and its depth (given its brevity and clarity). Davies, a Dominican friar and professor of philosophy at Fordham University, has already produced one of the best introductory works on the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Now he takes his considerable intellectual skills to a cluster of perennial questions about the implications of evil for belief in God.

Some philosophical confusion regarding the significance of evil can be avoided by carefully adopting Aquinas’s philosophical theology. Consider the case of antitheists who argue that claims about the existence of a theistic God lead people to expect that the world would not be marked by evil. Since there is evil, the conclusion runs, then such a God cannot exist. Davies responds by arguing that because God alone necessarily exists, and everything else that exists does so only because God has chosen to create this kind of universe and not another, there is no purely logical (as distinct from scientific) basis for saying that we should expect the universe to be structured in one way rather than another. We are not in a position to claim, as some antitheists do, that if God exists, we should expect the world to be lacking in evil. According to Davies, since “we have no means of determining what logically possible things God will make to be...we have to start by noting what God has, in fact, made to be.”

Davies also addresses theological positions that reject divine “impassiblity” and prefer to speak of divine suffering as more faithful to the notion of divine love. Jürgen Moltmann and Jon Sobrino maintain that divine compassion suffers with victims, but Davies holds to the Thomistic claim that God as the uncaused cause cannot himself be caused to change and so cannot be said to suffer. God brings about change in the world but is not changed by the world. Davies holds that talk of divine suffering makes God sound too much like a human being, but Davies denies that his own view makes God an indifferent observer of human misery. God is profoundly present to sufferers, as God is present in everything that exists, and divine love is expressed in its benevolent effects on the world.

What does this imply about God’s goodness? Many discussions of divine goodness lead to frustration because they presume that God is something like a supernatural Boy Scout, brimming with good will and always ready to lend a hand. This view sets us up for disappointment when things don’t go well. Davies argues provocatively and, I think, correctly that this perspective wrongly construes God as a moral agent. God’s goodness, Davies insists, has nothing to do with the human idea of “good behavior.” The very notion of a divine creator implies that God is not subject to moral formation: he does not develop virtues or moral “character.” Davies argues that since what we mean by “moral goodness” cannot be attributed to God, it makes no sense to conclude that evil counterindicates the existence of God. This is not to deny that God is just, merciful, and good in the theologically and philosophically appropriate senses of these terms; it is simply to remind us that our understanding of God’s goodness is always analogical.

According to Davies, God causes goodness but not evil. Theists often engage in a project of “exonerating” God from responsibility for evil by means of the “free-will defense”: Human beings freely decide to do wrong; God cannot be blamed, the argument runs, for God does not cause the actions of wicked people. Davies objects that this position implies that God is merely extrinsic to human agents. God is the cause of the acts of wicked people in the sense that God is the cause of all that happens in the universe. This is not to deny that we are responsible to make decisions on the basis of good reasons, but only to note that human freedom acts within and not outside the divine causality that orders creation. God empowers our choices even when they run directly contrary to his will and our own good.

Of course, evil is found not only in human suffering but also in the pain, waste, and death of the natural world. Darwin famously lost faith in a benevolent and provident creator because of natural evil. Davies places natural evil, or “evil suffered,” in a wide cosmological context. What harms one organism (say, a worm) enhances another (the fish who eats it); today’s predators are tomorrow’s prey. The evil suffered in the natural world, Davies argues, is ultimately due to the goodness constantly produced and sustained by the Creator: “My claim is that when it comes to evil suffered all we have is the creative activity of God bringing about what is good-that God brings about everything that is good and does not directly bring about anything that we might think of as evil suffered.” Davies’s point is that God does not creatively produce evil, which is a kind of negative by-product of an essentially good creation. The “evil done” voluntarily by human beings adds to and aggravates the “evil suffered,” but God is not morally accountable for evil done; we are. Those who recognize that we are empowered by God to act as responsible agents ought to have a keen sense of our responsibility to “do good and avoid evil.” The struggle against evil should take place in the context of gratitude for God’s goodness.

Davies has written an excellent book that everyone can benefit from reading. It can be used in undergraduate courses and parish study groups, but scholars will also profit from the author’s carefully wrought arguments and nuanced conclusions. The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil provides another indication that Thomism continues to thrive as a vital tradition in philosophy and theology.

Published in the 2007-03-09 issue: 

Stephen J. Pope is a professor of theological ethics at Boston College. He is the author of A Step Along the Way: Models of Christian Service (Orbis, 2015).

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