I’ve got a small stack of posts I’d like to do of a more reflective or theological nature, or that are reviews of things I’ve seen recently. (Perhaps I’ll eventually do some book reviews as well…once I get the books concerned read! Free time to read–what a novel concept!) I’ll start with this one, because it’s more of an open question than one which I have any useful answers on–but, it’s an open question that I don’t find very many people asking, and that in itself is pretty interesting in its own way.
I’ve talked about theodicy on here on a few occasions before; it’s a common theological question. If you’re not familiar with theodicy (from theo + dike, which basically means “divine justice”), it’s the question of pain and suffering for the most part. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Or, on a more cosmic scale, how can evil exist in a world created by a just and loving deity or deities? It’s more of a question for monotheism than for polytheists, granted, because most polytheists don’t think of the world as being created by a singular deity or even a set of deities, and those deities probably wouldn’t be considered entirely perfect or entirely “good.” It’s a complex set of questions, certainly, but lots of people ask them all the time.
What does not get asked, however, can be thought of as “reverse theodicy,” in a sense. Such questions which are almost never asked include the one in my subject line above: “Why do good things happen to bad people?” And I wonder, why not? Why aren’t these questions asked? If the gods are just, then how is this explained? It almost gets to the heart of the term “theodicy” more cogently to ask these questions than it is to ask their general form of “bad things, good people.” The term itself means “divine justice,” and what justice is there at all if people who lie, cheat, steal, murder, and in various other ways do things that are harmful to others, to the world, and to themselves end up being prosperous and successful, all on the backs of people who are harmed by their dishonest and unjust practices?
Now, of course, there are some immediate, “duh!” answers to these sorts of things that many people would suggest. A big one that I suspect many would come up with is that because we’re “not supposed to judge,” we shouldn’t have opinions on the bad people, who in the privacy of their own homes might be very nice to their families, their lovers, their secretaries, and so forth. But, it’s nowhere in my own ethics derived from my knowledge of the polytheistic cultures that I am familiar with that one shouldn’t judge others, or judge in general–judgement is, indeed, the only thing that can allow a person to decide that they are being abused or discriminated against, for example. While such judgements may not extend to a moral evaluation of the person involved, based on their actions the person who offends in such instances has demonstrated that they have no love for virtue or justice in acting in abusive or discriminatory ways. Judging that a specific set of actions by a person has crossed a line is what saves our lives a lot of the time, so I’m totally for it.
Another thing people might say is that virtue is its own reward, and that those who are acting in unjust ways are dying inside and are slowly becoming hollow human beings with sick souls, if indeed they have any souls at all after having caused such destruction and turmoil for their own gain. Perhaps; but, it’s an awful lot more difficult to suggest that goodness is its own reward when one is poor and dying after having done good, while those who are manifestly unjust sit in untold luxury and privilege to the point that they don’t even comprehend that there is suffering in the world.
And, yet another thing that many people might say is that we should have compassion for everyone, the suffering as well as those who cause suffering. That’s a wonderful ideal, and a very Buddhist thing to say…but I’m not a Buddhist.
(Yes, in the “Prayer Against Persecution,” we do enunciate some of these desires, through Antinous’ guidance, to not lack compassion towards ALL others; but, there is a time for compassion and there is a time for action on quite a few occasions, and “compassion” often gets misunderstood as being “all-forgiving,” which I don’t think it necessarily is or should be.)
The big question that all of this sidesteps around, of course, is that if justice does come from the gods, and is supported by the gods, then why is it so often lacking in the world, especially in those cases wehre injustice causes a ton of suffering for some people, but a huge amount of luxury, richness, and prosperity for those who inflict such suffering and cause such injustice?
For my own part, I can’t imagine that this situation pleases the gods, particularly those most concerned with justice. But, if that is the case, then “they’ll get it in the end” is not much of a consolation to those who are suffering meanwhile. It brings up and highlights once again the ultimate answer to the other version of questions of theodicy, as outlined by Rabbi Harold Kushner: namely, that the gods must therefore not be omnipotent, even though they may support love, justice, and virtue.
I don’t know–what do all of you think?