Madeleine Davies

Marilyn McCord Adams, horrendous evils, and the goodness of God

In Uncategorized on February 27, 2019 at 7:06 pm

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, on display at the Renia Sofia museum in Madrid (CREATIVE COMMONS)

WHEN Marilyn McCord Adams died in 2017 I read in an obituary by her husband that, “the topic that most gripped her, and most inspired her intellectual work through the rest of her life was the theological problem of evil.”

In her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Robert Adams observed, “she does not try to answer the question, ‘Why did God permit all the evils that we know about?’ Rather she asks, ‘What can God do to make our existence a great good to us, without trivialising the horrendous evils that we know about?’”

This year I finally got around to reading Horrendous Evils. I have no background in philosophy, or theology, and it’s been a challenging exercise. But I have found it so helpful. What I’ve written below is mainly just a sort of repository for me to come back to, a store of some of the quotes I want to treasure..


Towards the end of Horrendous Evils, Adams takes on the rebuke occasionally levelled at philosophers who attempt to speak about suffering – the insistence on keeping separate theory and the practical care of those she refers to as “participants in horrors”. She writes:

Many (though not all) participants  in horrors, sooner or later, not at every stage but eventually, over and over, raise questions of meaning: of why God allowed it, of whether and how God could redeem it, of whether or how their lives could now be worth living, of what reason there is to go on? They demand of us, their friends and counsellors, not only that we sit shiva with them, but also that we help them try to make sense of their experience.”

I like this. For as much as many of us are fearful of those Christians too quick to volunteer a theodicy in the midst of terrible suffering, I think Adams is right that, for many of us, such questions do rise to the surface.

Horrendous Evils is a scholarly book – it’s composed as a sort of treatise, in which evidence is marshalled and counter-arguments pre-empted and seen off. I had to pace myself and Google several words (“aporetic” “surd”). But it’s also very humane; for Adams, philosophy is consolation.

Towards the end, she observes that those who dismiss philosophers and theologians as “ivory tower” or “armchair” thinkers fails to recognise that:

“Professors are also persons who suffer, who even number among participants in horrors; that they love other persons who are likewise vulnerable to horrors; that as family members, friends, and teachers they are involved in the pastoral care of those around them.”

Early on in the book she notes that, “worries about evils and the problems they cause, resist confinement . . . They not only spill across academic boundaries, but well up in the hearts of most every human being.”

One of the things I came to love about her writing was the occasional exclamation mark that would appear at the end of a concluding point – conveying the excitement of a teacher delighted and impatient to convey a discovery:

“eventually, cognitive and emotional scales will fall and everyone will recognise the omnipresent tender loving care of God!”

A case to answer

Something that intrigued me about the book is the slight paradox between one of Adams’ central claims – the tiny stature of humans compared to God – and her commitment to facing down challenges to God’s goodness. I came to see her not as a champion or defender of God but as a dogged pursuant of the truth, determined to push her understanding of him to the limits, in the service of those troubled by his apparent absence.

At the beginning of Horrors, Adams observes that religions “face crises, especially when their accounts are inadequate to handle the very features of life for which they are most needed”.

She focuses on the gauntlet laid down by J L Mackie, an Australian philosopher who argued that, “theism is positively irrational because the existence of evil is logically incompatible with that of an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good God.”

Her desire is to zone in on the very worst evils that exist. For her concern is that: “Our philosophical propensity for generic solutions – our search for a single explanation that would cover all evils at once – has permitted us to ignore the worst evils in particular (what I shall call horrendous evils) and to avoid confronting the problems they pose.”

Horrendous evils, she explains are those that give us “reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could be a great good to him/her on the whole”.

“their destructive power reaches . . . into the deep structure of the person’s frameworks of meaning-making, seemingly to defeat the individual’s value as a person, to degrade him/her to subhuman status”.

“what makes horrendous evils so pernicious is their life-ruining potential, their power prima facie to degrade the individual by devouring the possibility of positive personal meaning in one swift gulp.”

Horrendous evils, she notes, can make people wish they had never been born. And yet they are to be embraced by the philosopher for their potential to expose the inadequacies of attempts to explain them (“free fall approaches founder while soul-making theodicies at least teeter on the rock of horrendous evils”).

The vulnerability of humanity

As noted by her husband, Adams did not set out to answer why God permits evils.

“Where horrors are concerned, not only do we not know the actual reasons why of Divine permission; we can scarcely think of any candidates for a complex explanation. . . I agree with Anselm, that any reasons why that we may discover are only partial, and that for any disclosed to us, there are and always will be deeper ones we cannot fathom. I also concur with Anselm that the mystery of Divine goodness is permanently inexhaustible by us and permanently partially inaccessible by us; exploring it will keep us fascinated for eternity.”

Some have argued, she notes, that “God’s ways are so much higher than ours that we would not expect to be aware of Divine reasons for their permission if there were any.” Others offer possible or actual reasons.

There is the free will defence: a perfectly good God might accept evils as the price of goods related to free creatures. And there is the best possible world defence: “God created the best of all possible worlds, and the best of all possible worlds contains evils as logically indispensable constituents”.

Neither satisfy Adams. She considers the search for morally sufficient reasons, “doubly misguided”

First, because how bad horrors are finds it epistemic measure in our inability to think of plausible candidates for sufficient reasons why; second, because the pressure to provide such rationales anyway drives us to advance credible partial reasons why as total explanations, thereby exacerbating the problem of evil by attributing perverse motives to God.”

A central tenet of her treatise is “radical human vulnerability to horrors”, and the enormity of the chasm that exists between us and God. She wants us to stop underestimating this gap. She frequently compares us to babies.

Shifting responsibility for horrors from God to humans simply will not do, because it flatters us too much, failing to take into consideration that “the necessary disproportion between human agency and horrendous evils makes it impossible for humans to bear full responsibility for their occurrence”:

“We human beings do terrible things to one another, sometimes deliberately, but also unintentionally, undeniably as individuals but certainly collectively, occasionally with carefully calibrated precision but often with unforeseen consequences that mushroom out of control.”

Furthermore, “the great chain of horrors does not depend on created free choice alone, but on the environment into which it is inserted”.

She uses the analogy of a child left alone with a gas stove and warned not to touch it.

“My own suggestion is that the relation between God and human adults is less inaccurately modelled by that of the mother or nursery school teacher to the infant or small child, than by that of parents to their adolescents or adult children.”

We are not “moral peers”, she insists – such a comparison, pays humans far too much respect.

God’s goodness

Adams’ contention is that “moral categories are inadequate to grasp what is so bad about horrendous evil”.

Neither the Bible nor the great medieval and reformation theologians, she argues, assert that God is “morally good”.

The challenge she sets herself instead is enormous – to argue that God can defeat horrors through his goodness:

“We cannot explain the compossibility of God and evil, even the evils of entrenched horrors, if we cannot offer a logically possible scenario in which God is good to each created person, by insuring each a life that is a great good to him/her on the whole, and by defeating his/her participation in horrors within the context, not merely of the world as a whole, but of that individual’s life.”

“God could be said to value human personhood in general, and to love individual persons in particular, only if God were good to each and every human person God created. And Divine goodness to created persons involves the distribution of harms and benefits not merely globally, but also within the context of the person’s life. At a minimum God’s goodness to human individuals would require that God guarantee each a life that was a great good to him/her on the whole, by balancing of serious evils.”

“I desire to flatter Divine resourcefulness by interpreting good to mean that Divine government can and will accomplish the utopian integration of cosmic excellence with the good of individual persons in such a way as to insure the defeat of evil or at least evils of horrendous proportions within the context of each individual’s life”.

And it’s not enough for others to conclude that God had met this bar, she decides: “the individual’s own estimate is a major piece of evidence of whether his/her life has been a great good to him/her on the whole”.

Suggesting that God has no moral obligations to creatures does not “dissolve” the problem of horrendous evils but “relocates” it, she explains: “Divine goodness to created persons is not a matter of moral obligations flaunted or fulfilled, but of how God treats, benefits, helps, nurtures, and restores . . . children.”

Honour and shame

Having set aside the moral approach, Adams sets out to explain how, “the honour code, with its calculus of honour and shame, is better equipped than morality to conceptualise the problems posed by horrendous evil.” It’s tied up with her argument that the Bible uses “aesthetic categories” to tell the story of how evil is overcome by the Goodness of God.

The honour code, she argues, is useful because it engages with horrors’ “power to degrade by symbolising that one is subhuman or worthless” and “appreciates the limits and source of human dignity, given human nature’s radical vulnerability to horrors”. For Adams, honour is “a good that can be conferred on people even while concrete benefits are still lacking”.

“The Maker of all things has honoured the human race by becoming a member of it, honoured all who suffer horrendous evils by identifying with them through His passion and death. Still more amazing, God will be seen to have honoured even the perpetrators of horrors by identifying with their condition, becoming ritually cursed through His death on a tree, taking His stand with the cursed to cancel the power of curse forever! For Christians, the cross is an outward and visible sign that through such identification, God has nullified the power of horrendous evils to degrade.”

This was perhaps the hardest part of the book for me to get my head around. I think this is because my desire is to return to moral categories, to wander back to a framework in which humans and God *are* moral peers, and he owes participants in horrors “concrete benefits”.

I tend to think of God as a close friend and in the process, have under-estimated the “size gap” Adams keeps pointing at. Maybe the conclusion to the Book of Job is helpful here – God’s reminder of this disparity:

Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
    Everything under heaven belongs to me.

Something I came to love about Adams’ approach was her recourse to the analogy of mother and baby – she emphasises the gap in such a way as to remind us of both our vulnerability, and of God’s loving response.

It is God’s responsibility, she argues, to address this “size gap”. We cannot do it. In the incarnation, God comes to us:

“The God of the Bible is relentless. When metaphysical straddlers won’t meet Him on holy ground, God takes the opposite approach of joining us in our defilement. Recall, after all, how Divine involvement with humans began with mudpies in Eden!”

“If God in Christ crucified becomes curse, the power of curse is cancelled: curse cannot exile us from God anymore. Likewise, if Christ is made sin for us, sin loses its power to separate us from the love of God!”

Yet here, again, she acknowledges our limitations, not as a failing, but as the natural outworking of our humanity. Sometimes we cannot recognise the presence of God, or the meaning with which the incarnation imbues our suffering:

“The metaphysical size gap and the condition of straddling often play themselves out in such a way that people feel abandoned by God, experience only Divine eclipse, find themselves angry and unwilling or unable to believe. Many are unable to get beyond their contamination and accusations, to surmount their despair of being able to find any meaning in their lives given what they’ve suffered and/or done.”

To the rescue comes the Holy Spirit:

“The Spirit protects us from the size gap’s threat of metaphysical and psychological ruin, not with the ‘courtesy holiness’ of covering rules, but with ever courteous pedagogy that graduates self-disclosures over a developmental cycle. Human beings are called to grow up into their full stature by getting to know the Spirit, more and more consciously, and intentionally cooperating with the Spirit, aiming to act always and only in partnership with the Spirit, until we can say with St Paul, “I, not I, but Christ in me”.”

Some of us, Adams acknowledges, won’t manage, in our lifetime, to find meaning in our suffering. It will be a process that continues after death. She is confident that, the “Divine Mother” will not let anyone out of her nurturing arms:

“Eventually, cognitive and emotional scales will fall and everyone will recognise the omnipresent tender loving care of God!”

(So good I had to quote it twice).

Finding meaning

I found myself on more familiar ground when it came to Adams’ emphasis on the healing power of finding meaning, on the restoration that can be possible if we are able to see our lives as a profound story:

“A person’s life will have positive value for him/her only if s/he eventually recognises some patterns organising some chunks of his/her experiences around goals, ideals, relationships that s/he values.”

In her account, God is fundamentally creative – an artist with a limitless ability to weave the terrible events of our lives – those that threaten to destroy all meaning – into something beautiful:

“The ability to contribute to the positive meaning of a person’s life by overcoming evil with good is in part a function of aesthetic imagination, of the capacity to weave evils into complex goods through subtle irony and reversal. Given the horrendous evils God permits, God must have extraordinary aesthetic imagination to overcome them.”

“No matter what mess we make, God can clean it up, not only ‘the easy way’ by eliminating it, but by recontextualising it into a more subtle plot”

If she is to meet the challenge she first set herself – one based on each of us recognising our lives as “a great good . . . on the whole” – then participants in horrors, too, must be artists, “working to shape the materials of their lives into wholes of positive significance”. In this picture, God is a “constant but often unrecognised teacher and collaborator, able to help up pick up and rearrange the pieces to make something new.”

Perhaps because my Dad was an art therapist I grew to love this analogy:

“Like light too bright for the eyes, horrendous evils overwhelm human meaning-making capacities, prima facie stumping us, furnishing strong reason to believe that lives marred by horrors can never again by unified and integrated into wholes with positive meaning. Put otherwise, participation in horrors leaves us feeling in the position of postmodern artists, who juxtapose the incongruous without any unifying framework, so much the better to send the despairing message that no underlying meanings are to be found . .

“It is not enough for God to respond – like Monet or Stravinsky – by arranging the negatively valued part in such a way that it contributes to the positive value of the cosmic whole. God must beautify the person. Divine goodness to created persons is incompatible with God’s playing the postmodern artist with respect to individual lives. A God Who permits horrors obviously cannot be specialising in idealised classical Greek sculptures. But at the very minimum, God must be a modern artist, ready, willing and able to turn horror-torn individual careers into Guernica’s, to house distortion within a unifying framework to produce wholes of outstanding merits, at least some of which can eventually be appreciated by the individual him/herself.”

In conclusion:

“God in Chris crucified cancels the curse of human vulnerability to horrors. For the very horrors, participation in which threatened to undo the positive value of created personality, now become secure points of identification with the crucified God. . . because our eventual post-mortem beatific intimacy with God is an incommensurate good for human persons, Divine identification with human participation in horrors confers a positive aspect on such experiences by integrating them into the participant’s relationship with God. Retrospectively, I believe, from the vantage point of heavenly beatitude, human victims or horrors will recognise those experiences as points of identification with the crucified God and not wish them away from their life histories.”

To return to the beginning of this piece, and the ending of Adams’ book, I would be very wary about offering this thesis to somebody in the midst of horrendous evils. If I think about the one that has shaped so much of my life, and faith – the death of my mother – I would still struggle to say that identification with Jesus on the cross feels like a great enough good. Yet I am now at a point where I can follow an argument like this without feeling intensely angry, or assuming that the person offering it “doesn’t get it”. Perhaps this is progress.

It helps that, although she writes so forensically, Adams’ compassion is so close to the surface. I felt something like relief reading her account of our vulnerability and God’s enormity. Combined with an “inexhaustible” goodness, this enormity feels like a place of safety.

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