November 12, 2007
On the Question of Suffering
Two authors with new books arrive at different points on the belief spectrum.
The same week the New York Times magazine featured Mark Oppenheimer's skeptical commentary on Antony Flew's late-in-life journey from atheism to theism (which CT editor in chief David Neff responded to here), another NYT columnist, Stanley Fish, offered a thoughtful and generous survey of two recent books that add to the ever-continuing discussion of God, his attributes, and the presence of evil. In his review, Fish displays a keen understanding of classic Christian writers, from Milton to Epicurus to St. Paul, and opens a larger discussion on evil and the meaning of suffering--a discussion worth having by believers and nonbelievers alike.
The first book Fish surveys is from Bart D. Ehrman, who, since his young adulthood, has moved from theism to agnosticism, partially due to an inability to get past the terrific amount of seemingly meaningless suffering in the world. His new book is titled God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer. The other book Fish surveys, There Is a God, is from the aforementioned philosophy professor Antony Flew, and documents his famous "conversion" to theism in 2004.
As Fish notes, these two writers are approaching questions of God's (and evil's) existence from opposite frames of mind. From beginning to end, Ehrman writes with emotionally charged indignation and a frustrated inability to reconcile the pervasiveness of suffering with the supposed benevolence of God. Contrarily, Flew writes with the detached (some would say "cold") demeanor typical of much philosophical literature.
Here, Flew epitomizes Ehrman's frustration with people who make statements about God and don't seem to take into account "real life." As Fish observes,
"Will Ehrman be moved to reconsider his present position and reconvert if he reads Flew’s book? Not likely, because Flew remains throughout in the intellectual posture Ehrman finds so arid. Flew assures his readers that he 'has had no connection with any of the revealed religions,' and no 'personal experience of God or any experience that may be called supernatural or religious.' Nor does he tells us in this book of any experience of the pain and suffering that haunts Ehrman’s every sentence."
What Fish rightly points out is that while both books arrive at different locations on the belief spectrum, each book attests to the continuing importance and vitality of such questions--even in a time when screeds from atheists who want to throw out the conversation all-together are now nearly clichéd.