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Theodicy Beyond the Death of “God”: The persisting problem of evil, by Andrew Shanks

26 October 2018

Truth as correctness or openness is the issue here, John Saxbee finds

ANDREW SHANKS, Canon Emeritus of Manchester Cathedral, is a man on a mission. It is to expose the dangerous deficiencies of “truth-as-correctness” and promote the ever more pressing priority of “truth-as-openness”.

Key to this mission is a challenge to the “Hegel myth” formed from a whole raft of hostile misrepresentations. Such misrepresentations are partly the consequence of Hegel’s style and vocabulary, but they also owe something to our own psychological disposition towards truth-as-correctness when truth-as-openness is what Hegel sets himself to expand and promote.

This is but the latest in a series of monographs in which Shanks sequentially reinforces and develops the distinction between these two species of thought. Here he posits the death of the “God” implied in deist and fundamentalist truth-as-correctness strategies, and reaffirms the Godhead evoked by truth-as-openness.

Furthermore, the persisting problem of evil becomes the lens through which to test the merits and implications of these contrasting perspectives — theodicy as theological test case.

But Shanks is at pains to emphasise that “The ‘persisting problem of evil’ is not at all the sort of puzzle that requires resolution.” This will clearly disappoint those seeking just such a resolution. Such disappointment is, however, an all-too-familiar symptom of that “unhappy (or unatoned) consciousness” of which Hegel speaks, and which feeds the “evangelistic impatience” characterising capitulation to truth-as-correctness.

Truth-as-openness, on the other hand, is the essence of Geist (Spirit), which mere Verstand (understanding) must serve, but never seek to master or control. Whether it is the “correct” ways of thinking associated with the Enlightenment “deism” of Leibnitz, or the propositional dogmas of fundamentalist religion, truth-as-correctness will always founder on the fragility of its credentials. But truth-as-openness fosters wisdom and strength of character founded on faith that “whatever misfortunes may strike . . . behind everything, in the end, is the power of divine love”, thus negating all inclination towards self-pity or resentment.

While Shanks draws extensively on the philosophical reflections of Böhne, Schelling, and Hegel, his promotion of truth-as-openness also entails “a conversation with lyric-religious thought of every kind, including theology”. This results in a stimulating revisitation of the book of Job, besides referencing an extraordinarily eclectic range of poets and spiritual writers.

Shanks’s breadth of reading and cross-reference is astonishing, even if, at times, sources seem to be cited somewhat gratuitously. We cannot but be grateful, however, for his acquainting us with the extraordinary personalities and insights of, inter alia, Lev Shestov, Gillian Rose, Nelly Sachs, and the 16th-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria.

These exemplars serve his overall conclusion that the persisting problem of evil “is a blaze of fundamental thoughtfulness which abides . . . inasmuch as it requires . . . to be constantly fed and, as far as possible, constantly preserved in the most vigorous life”.

It is just such an emphasis on theodicy as open-mindedly existential rather than conclusively metaphysical which will comfort the disturbed — but also disturb the comfortable.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Theodicy Beyond the Death of “God”: The persisting problem of evil
Andrew Shanks
Routledge £105
Church Times Bookshop £94.50

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