JOHN SWINTON is a theologian who is not afraid to tackle difficult issues. A previous book, Dementia: Living in the memories of God, won him the 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing, and his background as a mental-health nurse and chair in Divinity and Religious Studies in Aberdeen combine to make him a compelling practical theologian.
In Raging With Compassion, he tackles the age-old problem of “theodicy” — that is, how we might believe in a loving and omnipotent God when there is so much suffering and evil in the world.
Swinton mentions the various historical philosophical studies (although some Anglicans might be disappointed that Austin Farrer doesn’t get a mention), and notes that the problem of evil was not of concern to the Early Church, and how some explanations can be pastorally damaging. As other theologians before him have agreed, there is no easy answer to the problem of pain and suffering, but the Church is called upon to minister to a hurting world; so the author suggests that we need to “reframe” theodicy and tackle the problem with a sound biblical and pastoral approach that can be healing, loving, and redemptive.
Describing his task, the author writes: “In Christ, the evil and suffering of the world are absorbed and transformed. In like manner, the community that seeks to image God and wait faithfully for the return of God’s Messiah is called to develop modes of being and forms of action that will similarly absorb suffering and resist evil.”
The book looks in depth at four particular pastoral practices — lament, forgiveness, thoughtfulness, and hospitality — and how, while these do not solve the problem of evil they nevertheless provide a practical response to suffering.
Each of the practices is given careful attention and suggests how we may help people to face up to the enormous suffering in the world and engage with it, while at the same time trusting in a loving God. As someone who has prayed daily with the psalms for fifty years, I was shamed into realising that I have failed to teach others the importance of lament in our relationship with God.
The book contains statistics of the world’s suffering as well as personal case studies and media stories. It draws heavily on the Hebrew scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and St Paul, and a wide range of theologians and other writers, to produce a book that is both scholarly and practical.
I hope that it will be widely read by clergy and laity and enable them to shape their churches into communities that engage in practical and loving ways with the problem of evil, pain, and suffering. As the author writes, “It may be that evil cannot be explained through human reason and logic. But that does not mean that there is no answer to the problem of evil. There is an answer and it is love.”
The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS is a former Bishop of Monmouth.
Raging with Compassion: Pastoral responses to the problem of evil
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18