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David Ray Griffin

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From Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, Stephen T. Davis, ed. Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1981. A revised edition was published in 2001. (See Amazon link in left column.)  Professor Griffin's publications on the problem of evil include two books: God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976; reprinted with a new preface, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991; and Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.  (See Amazon links in left column.) 

A Critique of

Frederick Sontag's Theodicy

David Ray Griffin

The positions of Sontag and Roth are so similar that I intend all the points in my critique of Roth to be relevant to Sontag also.  However, the two men differ in what they emphasize; in this response to Sontag I will focus on a point common to their positions that is especially evident in Sontag’s essay.  This is the assertion that every aspect of the structure of our world must be thought to have resulted from God’s decision.  In other words, contrary to my hypothesis, there are no aspects of this structure that simply reflect “the nature of things,” that are metaphysically necessary, that would characterize any possible world.  It is on the basis of his speculative hypothesis that there are no such necessities that Sontag concludes that God must be somewhat ornery.  For example, he says that God “deliberately chose the world we experience, including its horrors as well as its virtues,” that “God has purposefully placed us in a situation of less than optimal advantage and subject to more waste and destruction than any purpose can account for,” and that “God decides to play Russian roulette.”

Furthermore, Sontag’s speculative metaphysics leads him to conclude that God does not intervene in the world to prevent grotesque evils not because God cannot intervene in a coercive way, but because God can “restrain his impulse to intervene physically,” and has adopted a “policy of noninterference.”  These statements clearly reveal Sontag’s metaphysical assumption that noncoercible power of self-determination is not a metaphysical characteristic which would necessarily be exemplified in any world God could create.

On what basis does Sontag justify his speculative hypothesis?  It is interesting that he begins by saying that we should not take the definition of God to be given and that we should work out a new concept of God.  Yet what has Sontag done except simply accept the traditional concept of divine omnipotence, according to which God has “full power,” the “power of ultimate control”?  Sontag, like Hick, takes this idea as given.  Unlike Hick, Sontag cannot believe that the structure of the world, taken to be completely God-given, always works out for the best; hence he concludes that God is partly malevolent, not always being guided by an aim toward goodness.

Insofar as Sontag provides an argument for this hypothesis of divine omnipotence, it is fallacious.  The argument (stated  more fully in his books) is essentially this:

1.    We have been able to overcome some of the sources of suffering (e.g., by discovering chloroform, and by finding a cure for smallpox).

2.    Therefore we know that these defects in the world were not necessary.

3.    Therefore we know that God could have prevented them in the first place.

4.    Therefore we know that God deliberately chose to make the world more destructive than it had to be.

The fallacy in this argument involves the covert oscillation between two meanings of “necessity.”  Sontag illegitimately jumps from the fact that something is not necessary to the conclusion that the possibility of it is not necessary.  For example, it is clearly not necessary that a child will use its freedom to murder someone.  But if you decide to bring a child into the world, it will necessarily be a possibility that this child will use its freedom to murder someone.  Likewise, it was not necessary (I would agree with Sontag) for smallpox ever to have appeared on the face of our planet; but it does not follow that the possibility of smallpox’s appearing was not necessary.

Sontag probably slides over this crucial distinction between necessary actuality and necessary possibility because he does not think it to be a metaphysical truth that any world that God could create would be composed of actualities with creativity or freedom, i.e., with the noncoercible power of self-determination.  That is, Sontag thinks that God could have created actual worlds in which all the creatures would be totally controlled by God.  If one assumes that creaturely freedom is a purely contingent feature of our world, then one can ignore the difference between necessary actuality and necessary possibility: it is only if creatures necessarily are partially free to choose X, Y, or Z that the possibility of X is necessary even if it is not necessary that X be actualized.

But this means that Sontag’s argument is circular, question-begging.  His argument for God’s total responsibility for all the features of our world is based on the premise that there is no metaphysical feature about the world for which God is not responsible – namely, inherent creaturely freedom.  This is clearly expressed in his statement that “The chance aspect of all life must find its explanation in God too.”  The contrary metaphysical hypothesis, basic to my position, is that the “chance aspect” of all life, and indeed of all actuality, is rooted in the very nature of things, not in a cosmic volition.  Both our positions put the power to decide at the base of the universe; but I suppose that the existence of a plurality of deciders lies in the nature of things, whereas Sontag supposes that only one decision-maker exists necessarily.  The ultimate difference between these two suppositions is the difference between a wholly good deity and a devilish one.

One way to choose between two initial assumptions is by evaluating their logical conclusions.  Sontag says that his view of a partly devilish deity is less “comforting” than that view of God as all-kind, good, and loving.  The sophisticated reader, knowing the charge that ideas of God are usually wish-fulfillments, is evidently supposed to draw the conclusion that Sontag’s “less comforting” view is more likely true.  But the major reason Sontag prefers omnipotence-without-total-goodness to total-goodness-without-omnipotence is that he finds the former view more comforting.  For example, he stresses that his God “has the control over events needed so that their course can be broken and reversed – if he so chooses;” and he says God must have created the terrors of this world, “else he will be powerless ever to bring such devastating power under control.”  If either doctrine is more characterizable as a wish-fulfillment than the other, it would seem to be the doctrine of divine omnipotence.

In any case, besides the critique addressed to Roth, my central question about Sontag’s position is, how can he claim to “know” that God is responsible for all the structural features of the world?  How does he rule out the possibility that there are metaphysical features of reality that are beyond divine decision, features which make the possibility of the various types of evil in our world necessary (i.e., necessary if the various types of positive value realizable in our world are to be possible)?

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