An Exchange on Foundations, Faith, and Community
William Sweet and Hendrik Hart
The idea that religion provides ideas and practices that help people cope with evil is widespread. It may be used in a neutral way to define the function of religion but can also be used by both adversaries and advocates of religion. Thus religion may be criticized for “easy coping,” for providing cheap, comforting theories. Religion may also be appreciated for giving an anchor or focus to life in hard times. In this paper, the coping thesis and the presuppositions behind it are confronted with the example of Karl Barth’s view of evil and Christian belief. Barth deals with evil under the term das Nichtige and aims to understand God’s relation to it. He criticizes the idea that human beings by themselves can know what evil is and how they should cope with it. Thus, Barth’s view seems to differ on important points from the coping thesis. What does this mean for the value of this thesis?
Theodicists have sought to show that belief in an all-powerful, all-loving, personal God is not at odds with the existence of evil and, in particular, with the extreme suffering that results from it. This paper, in common with other antitheodical approaches, argues that the attempt to show that God and evil can coexist invariably leads to the distortion and misrepresentation of suffering. At the same time, it builds upon such criticisms, proposing an approach that does not seek to provide a solution to evil conceived as a puzzle. Rather, it contends that the philosopher should take suffering seriously, allowing it to challenge the assumptions that underlie Western philosophy of religion. In particular, it accepts the limited significance of theoretical claims in the light of events that often challenge any attempt to impose meaning.