Theodicy in 1000 words

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This is the third in a series in which I try to “get pithy” with some words I use a lot in this blog. The prior post, on “free will,” is posted here.


Theodicy is the word for a “Big Question” that you may well ask often, especially in difficult times. This question is usually something like, “Why did [insert bad thing] happen to me (or my friend, family, etc.)?” Most people work in some form of “God language” into their question, but even if you are not a religious believer, the question is essentially the same.

This word was coined by the 18th-century German co-inventor of calculus Gottfried Leibniz, who weaved a lot of philosophy and theology into his writing as well. [1] Theodicy literally means “the justice of God,” although it has a broader use in the sense of “Why is there evil in the world?” Leibniz also addressed the less-asked follow-up question, “Why is there good in the world?” posed as much as a mathematics problem as it was a theological one. [2]

Life is hard

Many scientists and sociologists propose that human religion emerged some 100,000 years ago as the newly evolved humans developed something akin to modern language. [3] One of the first likely uses of this skill was to articulate the ugly human reality that we all die, and usually not in nice ways. In my distillation, the common thread of all religious “God language” is the attempt to express in thoughts and words what we really hope for, really wish for, and really fear, and we give a Name to the source of those feelings. Coping with death is the “acid test” for that language.

Across the world, ancient cultures each came up with unique explanations for the human predicament. Karma emerged in Hinduism, tied closely to the belief in reincarnation. Divine Justice determines the form of your next life, for good or bad. Buddhism, emerging from Hinduism by the 4th century BCE,  added the “Noble Truth” of dukka, which is the “radical acceptance of suffering and impermanence” as the enlightened path to facing our mortality.

Ancient Judaism is most often vague and contradictory on this subject. This tradition records an arbitrary and often angry Yahweh in the Bible’s Old Testament. In one of the oldest books, the faithful Job asks why, despite his devotion, he had to lose his family and suffer with boils. This question is met less with explanation than with a display of God’s power and fury. God appears in a whirlwind and demands, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (i.e., “Don’t ask!”) The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes begins by proclaiming that, in life, “All is vanity,” and later offers the famous fatalism of “For everything there is a season…”

The Eden story, of course, is the best-known source of the idea that human “sin” is the cause of suffering in this world. Beliefs central to many modern Christian denominations, such as substitutionary atonement (the idea that Jesus had to die to “save humankind” from that “original sin”) was but one of many competing formulations of theodicy that took up to 1000 years to “cook” into the formulations most preached today. [4]

The Greek version and modern math

Over 700 years before the emergence of Christianity (about the time of the earliest Hindu karma writings), the Theogony of Hesiod set out the Greek explanation of the Fates, also called the Moirai. Three goddesses were described who “spun the thread of life” (your birth), then allotted a unique measure of “the thread of life” to each living person, and finally “cut the thread” (your death) in a very arbitrary manner. [5]

More Greek thought related to this subject than most Christians are comfortable with permeates the New Testament scriptures and subsequent theological formulations. Greek language and thought were “the water in which they swam” in the Hellenist world of the early Christian church, a world in which a family hierarchy of Gods bred with humans and “tested them” in creative ways.

Even the most devout Christians will unconsciously slip into Greek-inspired “Fate language.” [6] And better than most religious theodicies, I find this ancient Greek theodicy to be well correlated to some basic science. At our birth we each acquire a randomized combination of our parents’ DNA, analogous to the first Fate. While that DNA determines many things about us and our future, so does our environment and subsequent probabilistic life events (disease, war, parenting, etc.), our “second Fate.” Finally, life can be long or cut unexpectedly short through a random tragedy, our “third Fate.”

I wrote a while back about a ten-year streak (now at least 11 years) in which the number of new cases of cancer involving the kidney had a rate of occurrence in Florida of 14 per 100,000 people. This rate never dropped as low as 13 nor rose as high as 15 per 100,000 people in any year. Part of the explanation for this odd consistency is the statistical principle of “regression toward the mean.” However, the root “theodicy” of that life-threatening statistic goes deeper into the origin of life itself.

Mammalian kidney cells undergo constant replication, but at a very slow rate. Most of the time, the replicating DNA copies exactly. Until it doesn’t, that is, and a cell mutation occurs. And even then, most mutations have no effect. However, sometimes those mutated cells turn cancerous by this apparently stochastic (probabilistically random) process. The net end result of that “replication math” is a kidney cancer rate centering in the neighborhood of 14 out of every 100,000 people. Other forms of cancer have some stability in their rates of occurrence. If this is “God’s will,” then God appears to be a master at lotteries. [7]

On the other hand, sometimes cell mutations are positive. Indeed, we are all here on this planet because billions of years of tiny, incremental, positive cell mutations have eventually turned single-celled organisms into me and you. All in all, that was a pretty good Fate, or if you prefer another “God language,” the unmerited favor of grace. Perhaps even, as Leibniz would say, “the best of all possible worlds,” because we are in it.


Here is Judy Collins with Pete Seeger singing Pete’s famous adaptation of that Ecclesiastes scripture.


Notes:

  1. Gottfried Leibniz was once described as “the last man who knew everything.” For more on Leibniz, see my post here.
  2. Leibniz turned this into a calculus-type maxima/minima problem and declared this world to be “the best of all possible worlds,” one that optimizes the net of total good less total evil. He called it “having the greatest variety of phenomena from the smallest number of principles.”
  3. !00,000 years ago is the date from linguist Noam Chomsky. Other scientists disagree, but it was certainly not 6000 years ago. My take on this issue, and the conflicts with some forms of religion, is posted here.
  4. The modern formulations of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement date back to the “satisfaction theory” of the 11th-century’s St. Anselm, modified by restoration reformers in the 16th century.
  5. For more about the Moirai, see this earlier post.
  6. For instance, reacting to an unexpected death, “It was just his time to go.”
  7. Or alternatively, what does it imply if God “spares me” from cancer yet the rate stays the same?

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  1. Pingback: The roll of the COVID-19 dice – When God Plays Dice

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