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Andrew Gleeson's A Frightening Love: Recasting the Problem of Evil is an ambitious attempt to rethink the problem of evil from a self-proclaimed "existential" perspective that prioritizes love over morality. Gleeson's book contains a preface and six chapters that amount to a refreshingly succinct 165 pages, including the endnotes. Gleeson helpfully sketches out the six main themes of the book in the preface. He also indicates that his work is as at least as much concerned with meta-philosophy as it is philosophy of religion.
The reason is that Gleeson aims to take down the oft-invoked sharp distinction between the "intellectual" problem of evil on the one hand, and the "personal" or "existential" problem of evil on the other. In analytic philosophy of religion, the former is thought of as the proper subject matter of philosophers who bring the tools of their trade to the discussion of evil; the latter problem is left to ministers, therapists and others who are involved by vocation with helping people cope with suffering and evil. An upshot of this distinction is that philosophers often say things in seminar rooms, conferences, and professional journals, about evil, God and human suffering that, as Gleeson puts it, "they would never countenance in their personal lives" (viii).
Sometimes parody ensues, as when prominent philosophers place toothaches, twisted ankles and minor social embarrassments in the same category as genocides and devastating natural disasters -- as if all of these experiences raise the problem of evil in the same way, in principle, and are all responsive to the same basic solution. At worst, this approach renders theodicists "effectively complicit in hiding the real problem of evil from philosophical study" (73). This is a serious charge. To his credit, Gleeson goes to great lengths to justify it -- as a criticism of the discipline of theodicy, not the personal character of its practitioners.
Along the same lines as this provocative indictment of the meta-philosophy of analytic philosophy of religion, Gleeson also argues that theodicy is "a moral failure" (viii). He attempts to show instead that, rightly construed, the problem of evil is "existential." That is, it is "a struggle inside our hearts between the apparently rival claims of God's love on one side, and morality, claiming our allegiance in the name of the victims of evil, on the other" (viii). In his conclusion, Gleeson refers to this as a battle between "two incommensurable perspectives" (151). To give us a palpable sense of the sort of victims he has in mind, in chapter one Gleeson cites Ivan Karamazov's indictment of God -- in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov -- on account of the horrible suffering of a young girl, and returns to this bracing example often. Karamazov's challenge is straightforward, according to Gleeson. It is an "unblinking denial that any good, however great, is worth certain sorts of (actual) human suffering, especially the suffering of children" (2). If the challenge succeeds -- Gleeson thinks it does -- there is no moral (greater good) vindication of God in the face of horrific evil. However, the atheological arguments that, as Gleeson notes, would "count fatally against God" barring an appeal to love "no longer need do so once love is appealed to" (95).
The other main themes of the book are no less controversial (among analytic philosophers at least). Gleeson argues that it is quite possible for one person to be bound by conscience to belief in God in the face of evil, while another is morally required not to believe. Often he expresses this as a difference between competing ultimate loyalties: to God (and love) or to the "burning children" and other victims of horrendous evil. Gleeson reaches the conclusion that "believers" and "unbelievers" alike (his terms) can be justified in their stances in response to evil because he embraces a broader view of justification, which takes into account the personal histories and other particularities of persons. Consequently, he rejects the "universalizability of judgments" for the problem of evil (viii).
Gleeson also argues that God is not a moral agent or "an efficient causal force," but is "love itself" (viii). He clarifies and supports this view in the latter part of the book. Although there are obvious Platonic connotations here -- Gleeson also refers to God as "goodness itself" -- one should note that this is not the quasi-Platonic view of God (and to a lesser extent, morality) recently defended by Robert Adams in his Finite and Infinite Goods. Gleeson does not attempt, so far as I can tell, to ground morality in the nature of a perfect being (or "the good"). He refers to the omni-god as "in fact a creature … but not God with a capital G" (150). He argues, moreover, that (the real) God is "beyond mere morality, an institution peculiar to the human predicament" (109). However, he also claims that God's goodness encompasses "both the non-moral good that befalls us and the moral good we do as agents" (109). That is, God is somehow present or manifested in these goods when we experience them. Frankly, I came away unclear and confused about what Gleeson thinks precisely is the relationship between God and morality. Is morality merely a set of "principles and judgments about human conduct and ideals of living" (131)? Or is it itself a kind of revelation of God, perhaps ultimately grounded in God (as "the good")? Unlike Adams, Gleeson does not clarify the relationship between what moral philosophers sometimes call "the good" and "the right," even though he clearly identifies God with the former. He says that God's reality is an "existential reality" that is distinct from "moral reality." But existential reality also provides "a sort of deep background" to moral reality and, as such, is closely related to it (131). That is the most we get on this crucial topic.
As an existential reality, God's reality, according to Gleeson, cannot be understood "independently of our religious lives and experiences" (viii). This is the last main theme of the book. Here we see another sense in which Gleeson's approach is "existential," as opposed to "objectifying" or merely theoretical.
This is not a book for neophytes in philosophy or for the general public. It is technical, but mostly not needlessly so. Also, many important sections of the book cannot be understood apart from familiarity with fairly recent discussions of theodicy in analytic philosophy of religion. Possibly it could be used as a resource in an upper-level undergraduate course that deals with theodicy, or, more likely, as a text in a graduate course on this topic.
Analytic philosophers of religion who are interested in the problem of evil should read this book. Gleeson's discussions are detailed, well informed, up to date, and he contends with the leading perspectives in the field. (I cannot possibly do justice here to all the arguments he brings forward.) Also, he carefully considers objections to his position in each chapter. He doesn't hesitate, either, to concede difficulties with his own view when they surface in his discussion. Furthermore, Gleeson offers what is to my mind a damning and incisive critique of the standard approaches in and assumptions of analytic discussions of the problem of evil. Notwithstanding the criticism noted above and the concerns I offer below, the book represents a very conscientious and sensitive approach to the problem of evil by a serious scholar in the field.
Readers may well wonder how love could put God in the clear concerning evil, while a moral assessment of the same facts fails to do so, as Gleeson claims. To clarify his position, Gleeson draws an analogy between human parents and God. Knowing that children will suffer in this world, sometimes horribly, still we have them. Does this imply that we have no right to complain then when our children suffer? Gleeson argues:
A moral case can be made that these parents have compromised their right to resist the evils, or certainly to complain about them. But the parents do not mean that practical consent in their hearts. In what morality may well see as an audacious attempt to have it both ways, they want to consent to having the children but not to consent to the evils that in many cases this will entail. … The loving parents I imagine are under a powerful human impulse of love to create and nurture new life, to bring it into the world even in the face of terrible threats. … From morality's point of view that may indeed compromise their right subsequently to complain about the evil.
But from the parents' point of view the issue is not about, or not just about, morality. … They are acting from love. … Love of this sort will take even quite high risks of serious evil -- for some evils, even a certainty -- in a way morality will not. … [M]orality, by presuming to judge them, reaches beyond its jurisdiction. They [the parents] are borne along by the passion of love, a sort of personal necessity akin to what philosophers have called 'moral necessity'. The same may be true for God's creation of the world. … Love can establish a domain of value independent of morality, and resistant to its demands. In religious language we call this the domain the sacred. … Just like human parents, God may create the world, a world he knows must contain terrible evil, in an act of reckless love (33-36).
The rest of the story that may exculpate God is that, although God can be said to be like a parent, we must not take this analogy too far, or "too anthropomorphically" (36). For God is not some grander version of a parent, but is "love itself." As such, God's creating the world should be understood as a "manifestation of love itself." As Gleeson suggests:
But once we see that the analogy does not extend to regarding God as a special case of an agent like you or me, then while the instantiation of the good in the world can be seen as a manifestation of him -- in that sense, attributed to him, telling us (non-inferentially) about his nature -- evil cannot be. God is not responsible for evil causally because he is not a causal moral agent of any sort. And trivially evil is not a manifestation of him because he is love, goodness itself. So no adverse conclusions about God can be drawn from the existence of evil (37).
Well, that's pretty convenient for God and Christians such as Gleeson, is it not? The analogy between God and human parents works only to the extent that it helps Gleeson's case. When it doesn't, it is being pushed too far.
There are some serious problems with Gleeson's position both from perspectives internal to Christian theism and external to it (or any theism). I will begin with the former.
Gleeson not only claims that we should not view God as a causal agent, but also that this is the view most (Christian) believers hold, at least if we go by their actions. So when believers (and biblical authors) say that God is like a human parent they mean "to draw our contemplative attention, rather than the practical and moralising sort, to the love that God is." He concludes: "Thus it is that our praise of God is praise of the love that he is … rather than praise of an agent accumulating merit, or a causal force doing something analogous" (112).
This is special pleading. I know of no believer -- and I know and have known many, and have been one myself -- who denies that God is a causal agent, or who would make such a fine-grained distinction in regard to what she praises God for. Is it simply that most believers would think this way if they were pressed to be philosophical about their faith, but don't otherwise? I don't think so. Believers (and some unbelievers) daily petition God to act in the world on their behalf, to intervene causally, not simply to show up and manifest love or goodness, but to do things for them. God's agency lies at the very heart of Christianity: God created the world, became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, made covenants with Abraham and Moses, knocked Saul of Tarsus off his horse and turned him into the Apostle Paul, and so on. Imagine the mental gymnastics involved in exegeting the Bible as if God weren't an agent. (I won't even begin to speculate how Gleeson would work out the metaphysics of the Incarnation and the relationship between Christ's dual natures -- one obviously possessing agency, the other -- the divine nature -- lacking it.) This is truly a God of the philosophers!
To those billions of believers who believe or have believed that God is the source of morality, it must seem passing strange, too, to think that pure love could be so out of sync with what is morally right (or what "morality" has to say about an issue). It's not that love can't trump morality. (Susan Wolf has cogently argued in her essay, "Moral Saints," that a narrow fixation on moral rightness produces narrow, dull people.) Rather, the problem is one of incoherence. On the one hand, Gleeson argues that his view expresses the "logic of faith in Judeo-Christian religion" (118). On the other, this "logic" implies that love and morality not only appear to be at odds, but ultimately are (in some cases), even though traditionally Christians have traced the origins of both back to God. It would be news to Augustine and Aquinas, for instance, to learn that the logic of their faith implies metaphysical fragmentation of value, not merely the appearance of it in human existence, while it also implies that the source of all value is unitary and perhaps even absolutely simple, having no parts of any sort whatsoever.
I seriously doubt that there is any single "logic" of faith in the Christian religion, which is, after all, constituted by Christians and Christian institutions, not a Platonic form of some sort. But if there is, certainly the idea of God as the (unitary, unified) source of all value is at least as crucial to it as anything Gleeson identifies as its core. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the "logic" of Christian faith is convoluted. Instead, I don't think there is any single logic, unless we selectively privilege a particular expression of Christianity.
In this respect, Gleeson's book unfortunately exemplifies one of the vices of analytic philosophy of religion: the tendency to treat religions ahistorically and as if they are solely constituted by the doctrines that animate them (and even here by a certain select group of those doctrines). This partly owes to the fact that most philosophers working in this area completely ignore work on religion in other disciplines such as anthropology, religious studies, history, and sociology, for instance. Gleeson faults philosophers of religion who speak as if from nowhere about the problem of evil. But he sometimes treats Christianity as if it were a Platonic form (see especially 144). Along the same lines, at one point he states: "for the believer qua believer, God is neither a moral agent nor a causal force" (112). The believer qua believer? It is as if there is a Platonic form of "believer" too. Who talks this way other than analytic philosophers of religion, while they are talking to each other?
Moreover, I bristled throughout my reading of Gleeson's book at his simplistic dichotomizing of humanity into the categories of "believer" or "unbeliever." Gleeson seems to think these categories cut human reality at its joints, that we really do fall fairly neatly into one category or the other. Furthermore, he unintentionally is condescending in what he has to say about the differences between these two kinds of person -- even though, to his great credit, he concedes that unbelievers can be justified in their unbelief. For instance, consider this parsing of the difference between the two:
Specifically, unbelievers are not necessarily people who deny that love itself is real. Empirically, believers are people who, despite the reality of evil, remain able to see love, goodness itself -- God -- clearly, their perception unclouded by evil. In contrast, unbelievers (and there is at least a bit of an unbeliever, often more than a bit, in most of us, even those who count ourselves believers) are people whose perception of God is in some degree obscured by evil. … [T]he conceptual (as opposed to the empirical) difference between believers and unbelievers is not well captured as the difference between people who believe in the reality of love itself and people who do not. It is the difference between people who regard love itself as the most important thing and give it their first and absolute loyalty and people who do not. Unbelievers need not blame God for evil, and if they are lucid they will not. They need not fail to see the reality of love itself, and if they are lucid they will not (115).
So, "believers" are likely to be much more lucid about love than "unbelievers" are. But the poor unbelievers might still think that love itself is real, if they aren't too jaded from their experiences of evil. In any case, unbelievers will not be as loyal to "love itself" as believers.
No one would ever plausibly arrive at these conclusions inductively. There is absolutely no evidence for, and, on the contrary, much counter-evidence against these claims. Again, though, if we exempt from consideration the things that "believers" do qua "unbelievers" (remember even believers have vestiges of unbelief, according to Gleeson), we might be able to assert without embarrassment such ridiculous claims.
Gleeson foists a false dilemma on us when he posits that we must either be ultimately loyal to the people who suffer evil or to "love itself." The logic of his discourse produces this ultimatum, not our own existential realities. In addition, there are even many believers who are leery of the Platonically loaded language of "love itself" or "goodness itself." The way Gleeson sketches belief tends to imply that one would also have to be a metaphysical realist to be a believer. This is absurd.
Merold Westphal, a Christian philosopher who also happens to be an anti-realist, defines logocentrism as "the belief that our concepts can be totally lucid in themselves and totally adequate to the realities they intend." (Merold Westphal, "Kierkegaard," in A Companion to Continental Philosophy, eds. Simon Critchley and William R. Shcroeder (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 128.) For an approach that takes itself to be "existential," there certainly is a surprising degree of logocentrism in Gleeson's discussion. This is also a pervasive feature of analytic philosophy in general. It is subtly related to the impersonal approach to the problem of evil that Gleeson rightly criticizes and rejects. His position would be more consistent and offer a more thoroughgoing critique of analytic approaches to theodicy and analytic meta-philosophy in general, if he were to be as suspicious of logocentrism as he is of "the view from nowhere."
Gleeson rightly argues, "no theodicy is worth the paper it is written on unless it makes sense in the light of the sort of experiences the burning children have undergone" (43). In other words, a theodicy that makes no sense of horrific evil is useless at best. However, many philosophers would say this is just the point Gleeson misses as he tries to recast the problem of evil. Horrific evil does not make sense. As Levinas would say, it ruptures our categories of good and evil. Love doesn't make sense of it, either. And I am no less loyal to love -- whatever "love itself" is -- for saying this.
© 2012 Brad Frazier
Brad Frazier is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wells College in Aurora, New York. He recently published Rorty and Kierkegaard on Irony and Moral Commitment: Philosophical and Theological Connections (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). He also has published essays in Philosophy and Social Criticism; Journal of Religious Ethics; International Philosophical Quarterly; History of Philosophy Quarterly; and The Daily Show and Philosophy.