A forgotten response to the problem of evil

brightmanEdgar Brightman 1919-1953

John Dewey asks the question; “Is the universe friendly to man?” There any number of ways of approaching the question. We could begin by asking whether our moral strivings, ideals, hopes and aspirations have any grounding in anything beyond our desires. Is there something about the world that can validate what we most value even if we never see the culmination of our efforts?Or are they lost to an indifferent world?

What many have argued is that the question is wrong. If the universe is not personal, how can it be asked if it is friendly or not? It could have no thoughts towards us or display any kind of character or dispositions. Our strivings are for ourselves. While such a world can lose some consolation in that we as humans are on our own, on the other hand, it is not evil per se or malevolent towards us. It has no intentions.

So to ask a question such as what evil might one find in a tsunami would be nonsensical. Evil assumes intentionality; mere events themselves don’t display a moral character apart from intentionality. We may hold people responsible for their crimes but nature cannot commit crimes. So when faced with natural disasters, it may be supposed that it would be a category mistake to think of it in terms of evil.

Such an account makes a number of moves that could be called into question. Does it make sense to make intentionality a requirement of the good and evil of a particular event? One of the features of an event like Auschwitz and the Transatlantic Slave Trade is that if one begins to isolate the moral intentions of many of the actors that made such a horrendous event occur, it would be hard to find a correlation between intention and results.

When Hannah Arendt identified in Eichmann, the marks of someone who was not an evil master mind but an ordinary person who sought to get along in this world, she was criticized for excusing the moral tragedy of the Holocaust. It is as if the only way that such a dramatic evil could be made sense out of would be if there was an intentionality that was as broad sweeping as the evil which resulted from the event.

But Arendt was not calling into question the evil of the event but the link between evil and intentionality. Despite whatever intentions may have been in play, the moral quality of the evil remained. And in some ways this was all the more perplexing precisely because there was no intentional mastermind that could in a one to one correspondence make sense of the evil.

In this, one is confronted with a senseless kind of evil. And a senseless kind of evil, like those which are traditionally classified as “natural evils” are the most troubling in that without intentionality and reason, they shock our sense of the way things should be. Thus attempts to make the universe morally neutral does not solve the problem of evil, it merely intensifies it, because now events have no meaning but are just bare events.

But such a view only works by separating out human beings from the universe. Clearly we are not indifferent to the question of good, which means that something of the universe is not indifferent. Nor could the universe be wholly impersonal since we are persons and part of the universe. Nor could such a universe be utterly devoid of intentionality since we are intentional and part of the universe. There is an implicit dualism that often creeps into descriptions, especially about nature and the universe that acts to separate out human concerns from nature and the universe.

But there is also something beyond human beings in the world that sustains and creates that which we find to be worth while. As Brightman points out in his critique of Walter Lipmann, presumably something was at work in the world which gives us the ability to both understand the world and live with courage within it. Any social account of human self, finds that humans are caught in a network of relationships with others and our environing world, which becomes the source and grounding of whatever is worthy in life, our values and our ideals.

In that way ideals are not just what one finds to be desirable, they have an origin in the conditions of our world and our relations with others. This does not mean that every event is conducive to what we value. The problem of evil should prevent us from making such a move. But it does mean that something in the world is conducive to what is of worth and value, just simply based on the fact that we do have such goods, such ideals, such values created and sustained.

So we have what Dewey calls an ambiguous picture of the universe, with some features of the universe working for what is worthy in life and other features which seem to be indifferent or even at odds to the question of human good. What kind of big picture of the whole can develop from such a view? It would certainly be a morally complex one.

Henry Nelson Wieman argues that one could not find good and evil in any one event or thing. Rather good for Wieman is what happens in a total complex situation of a number of actors towards a particular end. As those constituent elements shift, even the goods which were previously had could in a new situation find themselves to be evil. In this case, the means by which scientists increased knowledge is a good and those elements which lead to discovery are as well but when those discoveries are taken in a different vein and context, in the case of weapon building, then what was a good as been turned into something demonic.

Now, Edgar Brightman defines the good as that which leads to the development and sustenance of personality. The advantage to such a definition is that a good number of events and situations which sustain or breakdown persons and personality are themselves not necessarily filled with the intention to do just that. The tsunami that hit East Asia a few years ago and killed hundreds of thousands of people was an evil, not because the tsunami chose to wreck havoc but because so many persons and their possibilities were lost in the flood of waters. And while it is possible to point out the all too human structures, corruption of governments, lack of resources that make many nations particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, the natural disaster itself is not removed from the total evaluation of whether an event was good or evil.

And while innumerable amount of small decisions not necessarily aiming for the disastrous end were had, which accentuated the disaster of the tsunami it is difficult to find intentionality behind the event. That is, there are conditions of the natural world and of existence that create the contexts by which human beings miss the mark, fail, or are destructive of their own and other persons. While choice is in the mix, even the range of plausible choices in our experience comes from a grounding that is wider than the individual themselves. Thus a clean division is not readily had again between “moral evil” and “natural evil”, since they both have their grounding in the same world.

If one was to start to think of the constituent elements which make up the good in life it would be hard to encompass in a short description. They would undoubtedly be a complex mix of individual choices, the socio-political contexts we find ourselves, the interpersonal resources that move us to other regard, and so forth. Brightman offers a religious description that seeks to ground those conditions, that is, one that tries, based on our limited experiences, to give a description of the whole.

For Brightman, God grounds all of reality without necessarily being the cause or desirer of all that is. Let’s say that the movement towards the good in life when it finds expression indicates or actualizes God’s aims in the world. And let’s use Brightman’s word for everything else, as The Given.

The Given would not be a word for the bad things in life, though it certainly would include this. But rather it would include everything that has not been worked out as a reflection of God’s aims, or for those who would avoid theistic language, the Given is whatever does not work to add and develop personality, both that which works against it and those things which appear to be indifferent.

But the content of the Given or the function the elements in the Given play are not static but continually being worked on by God to bring into fruition increasing amounts of good, of value, of the development of persons, and so forth. While there has always been the Given, that which makes it up is in continual process, some of which God is able to successfully transform towards God’s good purposes.

What is significant is that the Given ultimately is grounded in God even if it is not reflective of God’s aims, thus there is no dualism. There is nothing outside the creative workings of God or that which is moving towards the good. It’s rather that while the Given is in God, it is being struggled with to wring out some good in the world.

Thus the total complex set of events surrounding the tsunami in East Asia is not something unrelated to the creative workings of God even if it was not expressive of God’s will, given the destructiveness which was had.But one can find elements in that story, of response, of concern, of rebuilding, of resources to rescue people where a situation was made to move into a God ward or good direction. In doing so, the evils caused remain evil and yet God was in the whole of the situation, finding what elements could be used to piece together for something better than what had originally happened.

Now for Reinhold Niebuhr, there is no virtue or good in the world that does not carry along with it it’s own vice. In fact the goods of life seem particular apt and dangerous in doing just that. For example, religious communities may extol the virtue of their humility before God while at the same time feeling assured in the knowledge that they have a special place and role because of God’s favor for their humility. Thus what should seem like a virtue has been turned upside down.

Of course it could be more complex than such a reversal. It could be that the constituent elements that make up a person lends itself to the strengths and the vices of the person. Niebuhr’s example is that of political leaders. If we imagine Bill Clinton’s desire to be liked with what makes him a gregarious personality, we find a political strength that allowed him to get into office. If we imagine that the same feature of his personality is what led him to compromises, personal and political, we can see how the same characteristics were the source of evils as well. In this case, the same aspect of his personality came to carry vice and virtue.

This indicates how, for Brightman, persons are a complex unity, with our own givens. So that what we find in God is what we find in humans. This would not be something to be celebrated, except for the continual overcoming evident in God. But it would be a fact of existence that would need to be able to relate to if we were to have a plausible moral and religious description of our world.

Such a description places any and all events within a moral framework without making everything that is, good or reflective of God’s aims. In that measure the common problem of a good and yet finite God is reconciled with the kind of world we have. This allows there to be a relationship between God, humans, and the world. This provides a means of evaluating religious accounts and explicating our bit of experience so as to live better with God and our world.

The crux of this description can be found in a series of lectures at the Wesley Foundation at Indiana University which Edgar Brightman delivered. This was made into a book, The Problem of God, in 1930. A more detailed account can be found in his 1940 work, A Philosophy of Religion. Brightman taught philosophy at Boston University from 1919 to 1953 and served as Martin Luther King’s academic advisor.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at Ecumenical Campus Ministries at the University of Kansas.


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  1. Reading this and many other treatises on God, good and evil, I wonder if anyone has even an approximately accurate understanding of the Universe, God, or evil.

  2. Dwight Welch says:

    how so?

  3. John Baun says:

    It is funny how people twist themselves into philosophical knots trying to explain the world they see around them while trying to maintain and support their faith, and Brightman and his “Given” is the perfect example. They see evil in the world, but can’t accept that their God would be responsible for evil, and therefore engage in these kinds of discussions to rationalize the discord they feel.

    It’s really not that hard. As the article states when it starts out, the universe really is not personal. It just is. It doesn’t care. But man’s ego can’t accept that everything isn’t all about us. A Tsunami isn’t evil, it just is. Yes, it causes bad things to happen to people, but it’s not evil – that requires intent which the universe just doesn’t have. And let’s not quibble over that point, as that would just be arguing over the definition of the word. Pointless.

    More interesting was the discussion of the holocaust. Again, man wants to believe that evil intent is always behind bad or ‘evil’ events. Often that’s the case, and in my opinion, true evil intent was behind the holocaust. Leaders lusting for power always need an ‘enemy’ to rally the people against. Their acts were truly evil because they were willing to harm others to promote their own selfish interests. And, I’m sorry, but Eichmann was evil, not just an “ordinary person just trying to get along”. Someone who would sacrifice others just to make their own life more comfortable (“get along”) is evil. Perhaps he was not, in his own mind, intending to be evil, but a complete lack of empathy for others is evil.

    Which brings me to my primary point. Even though we want to believe that evil things always happen by evil intent, that’s not true. Many evil things happen because people try to do what what they think is right, but in hindsight, they are terribly wrong. The old saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is actually very true. Slavery and segregation were supported by many people with distorted views of what is right, and what God wanted. Even the Mormon prophets supported segregation as God’s will (“what God hath separated, let man not bring together again”). Many (most?) wars fall into this category. And the perfect current example is the Church’s war (my term) on gays. In the name of protecting families, they are doing everything they can to destroy, and make life difficult for families that don’t fit their own view of what a family should look like. That’s evil. But I have no doubt that they, in their own minds, believe they are doing God’s work. Evil requires intent, but it doesn’t require evil intent.

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