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The “problem of evil” is evident all around us, from the suffering of Steele’s daughter to the political oppression of indigent cultures, to the child born with Cystic Fibrosis. But while “problem of evil” and genetic intricacies make for interesting conversation among theologians and scientists, can “the ordinary person” gain much from these discussions? Adrian Wyard, co-director of the Science and Suffering conference, presented his own personal attempt to tie the academic treatment of Christian theology’s “problem of evil” with his own ‘lay-persons’ perspective on the dilemma.

“The God described by traditional Christian theology is all-powerful, and completely good,” Wyard says. But while “these are fine qualities for a God, they set up on of the greatest challenges for Judeo-Christian theology, the problem of suffering.”

“Historically,” Wyard says, “there have been several ways of interpreting the cause or meaning of suffering within religious contexts. Here are some common ones:

1] Evil Spirits or Forces. This view attributes suffering, whether it be disease or poor crops, to the hopefully temporary triumph of dark spiritual forces which are constantly battling good forces in the unseen super-natural realm.

2] Just Desserts. If we suffer, we must have sinned somehow and therefore deserve the suffering as punishment. God is just by definition, so we have no one to blame but ourselves for what comes our way. There is the possibility of intergenerational suffering too; children are cursed because of the sins of their forebears.

3] Trials and Rewards. God is testing us to see if we will remain faithful through hardship. If we successfully endure our trials then we will reap rewards, either in this life, or in the afterlife.

4] Nature is ‘Fallen.’ This approach points to Genesis 1 as a description of an ancient utopian existence that was corrupted with suffering, death and disease because of man’s sin.

“We could begin to identify the merits and flaws of each of these ideas,” Wyard says, “but they all share one significant problem - they don’t address the underlying paradox; how can a totally good and totally powerful God allow suffering at all?” Either God is not all-powerful or God chooses not to exercise God’s power to alleviate suffering. “It seems as though we can’t have it both ways,” Wyard says; “either God is not completely good, or He is not completely powerful.”

How do we reconcile this problem with our understanding of who God is? According to Wyard, process theologians have “resolved” the problem by proposing that “God is not all-powerful in the traditional sense,” and “is therefore not capable of miraculously fixing suffering, and so the paradox does not occur. Traditional Christian theology, however,” Wyard says, “makes very definite claims about the reality of overt divine intervention.” Thus, if we’re “going to try and find a way to make this all work together we obviously need to be prepared for a bumpy ride.”

Why would a good God create a world so full of suffering? Saint Augustine answered this question by pointing to the “Fall” of humankind, in which “the initially idyllic setting of Eden as God’s preferred order for nature” was “corrupted with death and suffering when man misused his freedom and acquired more knowledge of good and evil than was good for him. The current order of nature, including death and suffering, is therefore traced back ultimately to man’s misguided actions,” and not to God’s will, Wyard says. Unfortunately, this Augustinian idea does not reconcile well with the history of the Earth revealed by science.

Iranaeus, on the other hand, “paints Adam as an innocent, immature, creature living in a garden that’s pleasant, but not necessarily heaven-like.” Adam ignores God’s warnings about the danger of acquiring knowledge of good and evil, and when he attains it, his life changes drastically. “But unlike Augustine,” Wyard says, “the ‘Fall’ is not from an idyllic state, and the acquisition of moral wisdom - and the suffering that comes with this capacity - is not entirely bad since it is a step along the path of maturity. So then, inasmuch as our environment is one which leads to our maturity, this greater good will justify the suffering along the way and is therefore consistent with God’s goodness.”

We also need to draw a distinction “between natural evil (i.e. genetic disorders, avalanches, hurricanes etc.) and moral evil (the free actions of murders, rapists, etc.)” While we can grasp that in order to be more than robots, we need to have freedom to commit evil, how do we explain suffering which results from natural evil, such as genetic disease?

Wyard suggests the possibility that since “we choose to make our own way, and God will not violate our free will, He has warped the whole landscape of nature in the hope that our free choices might head us in the right direction.” Like a ski-slope, both dangers and pleasures are potential human experiences of the landscape. Although the choice of which route to take is ours, all routes from the top lead the skier to the bottom. Misfortunes, such as avalanches, arise simply because they are characteristic of the landscape. “The unfortunate side-effect of a steep world designed for soul making is that avalanches can, and do happen,” Wyard says.

But while the Iranean answer may be partially satisfactory, Wyard says, “it seems there is a distinction between everyday pain, and what we might call unjustified suffering” - suffering rooted not in human decisions of free will or seeming “lessons” taught by God. Do we really have an answer “for the suffering that seems truly unjustified?” Wyard asks. Can we explain the genocide of World War II? Why does God not act in these circumstances?

Wyard suggests that “only one barely satisfying line of reasoning” stands here - the concept of “transcendent causes,” causes so worthwhile that “they supercede (transcend) the value of individual happiness.” War, in which nations understand that hardship is necessary for the needs of the many, is one example of a transcendent cause. And perhaps a more contemporary application of this concept of transcendent causes is the idea of “the maturing - we could even say ‘the evolution ’ - of humanity,” Wyard says. “Wherever there is suffering, there is an opportunity for a decision to love, an opportunity for heroism. It seems love, heroism and happy-suffering are the kinds of qualities we must learn if we are to progress from a self-centered, war-mongering species into caring, other-centered kind of people.” What we must understand, however, is that while a the steepness of life may be “to our collective benefit, it many not be to my individual benefit, Wyard says. “Tragic circumstances may only make fractional sense when viewed from a transcendent perspective.”

The transcendent cause, the life we should strive toward, Wyard says is the life of Jesus, one which “appeared in the immediate human context to be full of unjustifiable suffering and failure,” but which “was in the transcendent context the ultimate triumph. His was a life of pure love, culminating in the ultimate demonstration of transcendent love in his death on the cross.”

As much as we soothe our conscience with scientific and theological justifications of the problem of evil, however, the problem still remains. “At the end of the day,” Wyard says, “We may be able to tease out the conceptual problem of suffering into its constituent parts and convince ourselves that the components of our proposed solution are internally consistent and successfully match up with the rest of our theology. We may be happy to report that the underlying motives for a world with suffering are probably good,” he says. However, “the question ‘but why me?’ still seems to stick.” The problem does not altogether disappear even when treated by the authorities of science and theology.

In light of this, Wyard asks, “I wonder if the most satisfying way to reconcile genetic disease and suffering with Christianity is not to develop a complex logical justification, but to simply point to the life and death of Jesus as a backdrop.” And in Jesus we see “that even a perfect life entailed suffering, and that he didn’t shrink from it, even the horrific pain of crucifixion. At least God is not asking us to go through anything that He hasn’t been through first himself,” Wyard says. The problem of evil remains, theology and science remain, but in the midst of them is the Christ suffering with us.

“While the experience of suffering is only made barely justifiable by focusing on that aspect of God that prioritizes transcendent good over individual happiness, the Biblical account assures us - paradoxically - that He’d do anything to help us on this treacherous journey. Even die for us. And of course,” Wyard says, “Christian theology tells us He already has.”

Can science and religion talk to each other? Do genetics and suffering and ethics have any bearing upon one another? “Science & Suffering: Genetics and the Problem of Evil” demonstrated not only the possibility of dialogue; it revealed the existence of an already rich and vibrant discourse between these disciplines. Science, we see, needs theology to guide it toward wise applications of technology, while theology needs science to enlarge its understanding of what it means to be human in the cosmos. While science and technology may seem to be a strange marriage, it is a vital one for humankind’s continued understanding of and existence in the beautiful, joyous, and suffering Creation of our Creator God.

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