John Hick on soul-making

In this extract from Philosophy of Religion (1963) pages 44-46 John Hick adopts a negative theodicy by arguing that it would be impossible to have a good God, understood as a loving God committed to soul-making, if the world was created perfect. A world whose purpose is soul-making is one “in which free beings, grappling with the tasks and challenges of their existence in a common environment, may become “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life”.

We may now turn more directly to the problem of suffering. Even though the major bulk of actual human pain is traceable to man’s misused freedom as a sole or part cause, there remain other sources of pain which are entirely independent of the human will, for example,          earthquake, hurricane, storm, flood, drought, and blight. In practice it is often impossible to trace a boundary between the suffering which results from human wickedness and folly and that which falls upon mankind from without. Both kinds of suffering are inextricably mingled together in human experience. For our present purpose, however, it is important to note that the latter category does exist and that it seems to be built into the very structure of our world. In response to it, theodicy, if it is wisely conducted, follows a negative path. It is not possible to show positively that each item of human pain serves the divine purpose of good, but, on the other hand, it does seem possible to show that the divine purpose as it is understood in Judaism and Christianity could not be forwarded in a world which was designed as a permanent hedonistic paradise.

An essential premise of this argument concerns the divine purpose in creating the world. The skeptic’s assumption is that man is to be viewed as a completed creation and that God’s purpose in making the world was to provide a suitable dwelling-place for this fully-formed creature. Since God is good and loving, the environment which he has created for human life to inhabit is naturally as pleasant and comfortable as possible. The problem is essentially similar to that of a man who builds a cage for some pet animal.Since our world, in fact, contains sources of hardship, inconvenience, and danger of innumerable kinds, the conclusion follows that this world cannot have been created by a perfectly benevolent and all-powerful deity.

Christianity, however, has never supposed that God’s purpose in the creation of the world was to construct a paradise whose inhabitants would experience a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. The world is seen, instead, as a place of “soul-making” in which free beings, grappling with the tasks and challenges of their existence in a common environment, may become “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life.” A way of thinking theologically of God’s continuing creative purpose for man was suggested by some of the early Hellenistic Fathers of the Christian Church, especially Irenaeus. Following hints fromSt. Paul, Irenaeus taught that man has been made as a person in the image of God but has not yet been brought as a free and responsible agent into the finite likeness of God, which is revealed in Christ. Our world, with all its rough edges, is the sphere in which this second and harder stage of the creative process is taking place.

This conception of the world (whether or not set in Irenaeus’ theological framework) can be supported by the method of negative theodicy. Suppose, contrary to fact, that his world were a paradise from which all possibility of pain and suffering were excluded. The consequences would be very far-reaching. For example, no one could ever injure anyone else; the murderer’s knife would turn to paper or his bullets to thin air; the bank safe,robbed of a million dollars, would miraculously become filled with another million dollars(without this device, on however large a scale, proving inflationary); fraud, deceit,conspiracy, and treason would somehow always leave the fabric of society undamaged.Again, no one would ever be injured by accident: the mountain climber, steeplejack, or playing child falling from a height would float unharmed to the ground; the reckless driver would never meet with disaster. There would be no need to work, since no harm could result from avoiding work; there would be no call to be concerned for others in time of need or danger, for in such a world there could be no real needs or dangers.

To make possible this continual series of individual adjustments, nature would have to work by “special providences” instead of running according to general laws which men must learn to respect on penalty of pain or death. The laws of nature would have to be extremely flexible: sometimes gravity would operate, sometimes not; sometimes an object would be hard and solid, sometimes soft. There could be no sciences, for there would be no enduring world structure to investigate. In eliminating the problems and hardships of an objective environment, with its own laws, life would become like a dream in which,delightfully but aimlessly, we would float and drift at ease.

One can at least begin to imagine such a world. It is evident that our present ethical concepts would have no meaning in it. If, for example, the notion of harming someone is an essential element in the concept of a wrong action, in our hedonistic paradise there could be no wrong actions-nor any right actions in distinction from wrong. Courage and fortitude would have no point in an environment in which there is, by definition, no danger of difficulty. Generosity, kindness, the agape aspect of love, prudence,unselfishness, and all other ethical notions which presuppose life in a stable environment,could not even be formed. Consequently, such a world, however well it might promote pleasure, would be very ill adapted for the development of the moral qualities of human personality. In relation to this purpose it would be the worst of all possible worlds.

It would seem, then, that an environment intended to make possible the growth in free beings of the finest characteristics of personal life, must have a good deal in common with our present world. It must operate according to general and dependable laws, and it must involve real dangers, difficulties, problems, obstacles, and possibilities of pain, failure,sorrow, frustration, and defeat. If it did not contain the particular trials and perils which-subtracting man’s own very considerable contribution-our world contains, it would have to contain others instead.

To realize this is not, by any means, to be in possession of a detailed theodicy. It is to understand that this world, with all its “heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” an environment so manifestly not designed for the maximization of human pleasure and the minimization of human pain, may be rather well adapted to the quite different purpose of “soulmaking.”

NOTES 1. The word “theodicy,” from the Greek theos (God) and dike (righteous), means the justification of God’s goodness in the face of the fact of evil. 2. J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence.” Mind (April 1955), 209. 3. Flew, in New Essays in Philosophical Theology. [See Reading II.17.]

 

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