Minutes of Monthly Meeting

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October 13, 1996

Location: Alumni Hall, University of Dayton

Meeting Topic: God and Evil: The Failure of Theological Theory and the Necessity of Religious Practice

Speaker: Prof. Terrence Tilley, Chair, Department of Religious Studies, University of Dayton

Host: Phyllis Duckwall

PRESENT: Connie Breen and Lou Ryterband, Cochairs; Bert Buby, Phyllis Duckwall, Erika Garfunkel, Felix Garfunkel, Johann (Hans) Hafner, Edward Hatch, Jack Hickey, Sophie Kahn, Steve Kahn, Jerry Kotler, Lorraine Kotler, John Magee, Eileen Moorman, Xavier Monasterio, Bill Rain, Ken Rosenzweig, Harold Rubenstein, Sophie Rubenstein, Robin Smith, Maureen Tilley, Terry Tilley, Marianne Weisman, Murray Weisman, .

Connie called the meeting to order at about 8:00 PM. She thanked Phyllis for hosting the meeting. Phyllis delivered the invocation which was a prayer from a book by Mary Ann Williamson. A major theme of the prayer was hope for the healing of this world and no more war. Father Bert was called up to introduce the speaker. However, first, Bert announced the Sanders Symposium to be held on Wednesday, October 16. The featured speaker of that Symposium is Dr. Suzannah Heschel and one of her topics is Christian-Jewish relations. In his introduction, Bert stated that Terrence (Terry) Tilley is Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Dayton. Bert commended Terry by saying that, just as Israel needs a strong defense, Terry is a great defender of faculty in his department. Terry has brought a unity to the department that did not exist previously. Besides being Chair, Terry serves as President of the College Theology Society. He has received teaching incentive awards from Florida State University. Terry has an extensive research record, including his topic tonight, the evils of theodicy. He is the author of more than 30 papers and five books. Terry is currently working with Angela Ann Zukowski and others as a consultant in developing a new program in theology at Chaminade University.

Terry began his presentation by distributing a handout. For most of his academic life, Terry has been concerned with the "problem of evil." It harks back to Epicurus' old questions including: if God is able to prevent evil and does not do it, God is not good but malevolent. Philosophers have constructed theodicies to justify God's ways to humanity. Theodicies have been constructed in the modern sense since about 1700. One of Terry's great moments of life occurred in an elevator at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix in 1965. He was working as an orderly in the hospital and was assigned to take a body to the morgue. The body was a that of a baby who had died. Since the baby was so small, Terry carried it rather than use a gurney. To Terry's dismay, a young couple got on the elevator. After the elevator ride, the man told Terry that he could never do the job Terry was doing, and offered words of consolation to Terry.

Later in his life when Terry was an undergraduate student, he studied about problems of evil in the world, including the Holocaust. As he went through his studies, he discovered a terrible disjunction between all the formal theories and the simple compassion of the man in the elevator. He read Elie Wiesel's Night and a number of other pieces that emerged from the Shoah. This dichotomy bothered Terry and attempting to deal with it resulted in his writing his third book. Terry feels it is itself an evil to try to explain why God allows evil to exist in the world. Father Journet said that if evil in the world got out of hand, God would destroy the world. Following this theodicy to its end made Terry sick to his stomach. In his former career working in hospitals, he had taken many bodies to the morgue. When he placed those bodies in the refrigerator, his stomach never turned. But Father Journet's writing turned his stomach.

In our loss of innocence from 1943 to 1945, we have become aware of the horror of the Holocaust. We have also become aware of our (the United States) government's decision to use obliteration bombing in 1943-44. In light of these new events, theologians have begun to create new theodicies. David Hume's essays on this subject were published in the 19th century. However, the challenges of explaining God's role in the existence of evil in the twentieth century are much greater because the evil is so large-scale and institutionalized. How can God allow this to happen? The revisionist responses have all been developed in light of the 20th Century events. One such writer is Darrell Fasching, who has written Narrative Theology after Auschwitz and Ethics after Auschwitz. We need to also note Irving Greenberg's contention that no statement ought be made that is not credible in light of burning children. The other thing that guides Terry is a viewpoint expressed by the German theologian J. B.Metz; when Metz was asked how one can pray in light of these horrible happenings, he states that because there was prayer in Auschwitz, there must be prayer after Auschwitz.

What are the revisionist responses? They are all from Jewish thinkers. Terry referred to a book of essays written by Richard Rubenstein. Rubenstein was in Germany in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was going up. He was also bothered by the problem of why so many innocents were killed in the Holocaust. He is an adherent of one of the Jewish "death of God theologies." After all, the Germans succeeded in wiping out European Jewry. He feels that God died at Auschwitz. He ultimately concludes that human beings are alone in a silent and unfeeling cosmos. What about Judaism? Rubenstein believes it will pass away, as omnipotent nothingness is the lord of all creation. In the face of the enormity of the Holocaust, Rubenstein could not believe in God (although he has nuanced his position since then).

The second revisionist response is that of Rabbi Harold Kushner, as explicated in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner's first response is to be with people. Terry feels that Rabbi Kushner has gotten this just right. As an illustration of this, Terry told the story of a woman who was trying to bring her husband to the hospital in which Terry worked; the husband had chest pains. Initially, the woman could not find the Emergency Room and circled the hospital searching for it. By the time she found the Emergency Room, her husband was dead. Terry, who worked in the Emergency Room, just put his arms around the woman and cried with her. Kushner says we have to learn to forgive God. The ability to forgive and to love are the most important capabilities God has given us. However, Kushner denies God's power. His God is impotent. Terry asked those in attendance whether we can trust a God who is weak. What Rabbi Kushner has done is to link a fine practical response to evil with a theodicy that says that God does not have the power to help us.

The third revisionist response is that of Rabbi David Blumenthal. He teaches at Emory University. His book, Facing the Abusing God, has endorsements from such notable religious thinkers as Elie Wiesel and others. In Blumenthal's view, God is a "child abuser." Given the Jewish history of undeserved persecution and the existence of family violence, distrust is a proper theology for a human being to have. Blumenthal is able to be angry at God. What is going on here? Blumenthal subscribes to the ideas of protest and lamentations. This is like Job calling God to justice. But then, Blumenthal calls God "the omnipotent lord of the universe, blessed are you." Terry saw many abused children in the hospitals in Phoenix and San Francisco in which he worked. Can Terry bless the child-abusing fathers of those children? If that is God, Terry will "return the ticket."

The fourth revisionist response is presented by David Birnbaum. Many people have praised his book, God and Evil. Birnbaum says that God made us to grow. The purpose of man is to quest for his potential. To be human is to have the potential to be free. That is what God does for us. Birnbaum picks up a tradition that he calls Hester Panim (hiding the face). God shrinks his consciousness (tsimtsum). In the hiding of the face, evil develops. For example, as Terry has gotten older (49 years old) and become more capable, he has become more dangerous (able to inflict more harm on other people). Birnbaum says that God does not know what is going on in the world; this allows God to avoid destroying human freedom. The divine eye is blind and the divine ear is deaf. God might as well be dead.

Each of these revisionist challenges has something to say to us; this is where we are today in the area of theodicy. Terry thinks theodicy is an evil; his argument is that work on theodicy gets us away from what is really important. Terry's response to the theodicy writers is that we don't have to answer the question whether God allows evil to exist in the world. This approach is called the "modest logic of faithful hope." It was elaborated in a book by A. Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil. Terry believes that one can be a reasonable person who both believes in God and recognizes that there is evil in the world. The two propositions that Terry wants to reconcile are:

  1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, omni benevolent.
  2. There is genuine evil in the actual world.
God knows all there is to know and loves all there is to love. Why do some people believe there is a God who is good? They believe for different reasons. All reasonable people acknowledge that there is genuine evil in this world. A set of alternative, possibly true propositions can allow us reasonably to believe both propositions. These alternative, possibly true propositions are:
  1. God has chosen to create entities with the ability to choose freely (possibly true).
  2. Even an omnipotent God cannot make an entity freely choose what is good (necessarily true).
  3. Some entities have freely chosen to do evil and thus have brought about genuine evil in the actual world (possibly true).
Terry stated that God can make one free or make one good, but not both. If God can do the logically impossible, there is no way we can understand the world.

Discussion Period

Murray stated that God might be able to create worlds without the logical framework of our world. Steve maintained that God might not be bound by logical frameworks, as a result of his omnipotence. Terry maintained that the general conclusions of most Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophers is that there are some things that God cannot do, i.e.., the logically impossible. Terry stated that if he believed in a perpetual motion machine, people would call him a fool. In any case, Terry stated that this argument does not matter. All that is necessary is that 2a, 2b, 2c are possibly true. Felix stated that he likes Terry's logical presentation and agrees with it. Murray stated that Kushner believes in a deistic God. Terry concurred that Kushner is deistic, but Terry himself cannot believe that God created the world with a "one-night stand." Xavier stated that Terry is proposing a reverse theodicy, with which Xavier is not sympathetic. Xavier asked, how do you get God "off the hook?" Terry stated he does not know how God can be let off the hook. Xavier replied by asking, why is Terry trying to Get God off the hook? Terry replied that it is perfectly reasonable to believe in God and the existence of evil.

Erica commented that the lack of response to evil by human beings is more evil than the initial evil act itself. It is up to human beings to correct the evil in the world (Tikkun Olam). Lorraine has never been able to understand the idea that the Holocaust made a difference in our conception of the problem of evil. She stated that the only answer we have is in Job: God is beyond human comprehension. Lorraine stated that the God she believes in is suffering with us. Harold stated he would like to take a different tack. Harold described the experience he had last night in an orthodox synagogue. A 13 year old boy was having his Bar Mitzvah. There was frenetic Jewish dancing. The boy and father and mother were all lifted up on chairs. A rock-type orchestra was playing, but the words of their songs were from the bible and the prayer book, all in Hebrew. Because of the richness of the Jewish cultural tradition, it is Harold's contention that Judaism will continue with or without God.

Ken asked why Terry called theodicy an evil. It is one thing to call theodicy wrong or misguided, but to call it evil implies that the writers about theodicy are somehow sinful and evil themselves. Terry replied by attempting to distinguish evil from sinfulness. He did not mean to imply that the writers about theodicy were sinful. Jerry asked whether it would be different if an ant asked the question about God and evil. Eileen asked why we cannot ask any question of God. Terry replied that some questions are audacious and insulting.

Hans proposed that theodicies need to explain two different forms of evil: moral evil (for example, that perpetrated by a torturer) and physical evil (for example, death as a result of disease). Hans stated that Terry's argument might be valid for a moral evil since the desirability of human freedom might necessitate God's allowing the evil to continue. But the argument does not hold for a physical evil since God's intervention to stop this form of evil would have less implications for human freedom of action. Terry replied that he does not know the answer for either form of evil. Hans stated that Terry is just shifting the frame of argument from the problem of evil to the question of why did God create people free.

Erica stated that Kushner answered the question by maintaining that God created the laws of nature. In the absence of divine intervention, these laws result in physical evil. Felix stated that, when human beings, against all religious teachings, commit evil, there is something to explain. Ed Hatch asked if there is evil in the afterlife. If so, how is it different? If there is no evil in the afterlife, why was this world created? Ed then expressed the view that we do have the right to call God to account for the existence of evil. Ed asked why this world was created. Terry stated that there are many possible answers as to why this world exists. Steve asked why it is not reasonable to conclude that, if God is omnipotent and there is evil in the world, God can do evil. Terry replied that Steve left out the fact that God is good. Steve stated that we must have faith in God, and that God gave us the potential to increase our understanding of these matters. Terry concurred that we humans need to learn to grow and to learn to become more courageous. We need to learn together to sharpen our intellects and expand our hearts. Most important, we need to encourage each other in this endeavor. This evening we have honestly questioned our beliefs without abandoning them. We hope that there is a God that will redeem the evils in the world. Faith is first in the feet. When we walk together, even if we are different, we learn to practice that audacious hope. The discussion of the night's topic ended at 9:45 PM.


On behalf of all the Dialogue members and guests, Connie thanked Phyllis for her years of dedication to the Dialogue. Phyllis has stepped down as Treasurer, and Bill has taken over that position. Decisions were made concerning the hosting of November and December Dialogue meetings. Harold recently received a paper from the Dayton Jewish Advocate, the newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Dayton, about a meeting concerning submitting materials for publication. Since Harold will be away, he asked if any of the members might attend to represent the Dialogue. Jerry and Lorraine volunteered to go to the meeting. On another matter, Harold asked whether there has been a Christian-Jewish Dialogue bookshelf somewhere in the Dayton area. Although noone could remember there ever having been such a bookshelf, there followed a number of remarks supporting the idea. Discussion about where such a bookshelf should be, centered on the downtown Dayton library and the University of Dayton library. Lorraine stated the bookshelf is a wonderful idea. At this point, Father Buby introduced Terry's wife Maureen. She is a tenured professor of religion at Florida State University, where she is studying early Christian documents. Harold reported on some research being conducted in Ethiopia on a possible location of the Ark of the Covenant. Eileen announced a Bill Moyers series on Genesis coming up on Thursday nights on Channel 16. At this point, Robin introduced Hans Hafner, next month's speaker, to the group. Dialogue members expressed their eagerness to hear Hans' presentation next month.

Connie announced that there will be a special planning meeting to devise the Dialogue program for next year at her house on Wednesday evening, November 6, at 7:00 PM (see announcement that follows)..

The meeting adjourned at about 10:00 PM.

Respectfully submitted,

Ken Rosenzweig, Secretary


The Annual Dialogue Picnic took place on August 11 at 3 PM at Old River Park. Twenty-seven members attended the event and everyone brought a delicious dish to share with the group. We had a lovely picnic shelter near the river and we were able to watch all the canoeists enjoying the warm Sunday afternoon. The weather was perfect, comfortably warm and breezy. After sampling the great food we all participated in lively and interesting conversations.

I received many reports that the event was very successful. Everyone enjoyed Old River Park.

Respectively submitted

Connie Breen
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