Context and Issues

  • Michael Stoeber
Part of the Library of Philosophy and Religion book series


The inspiration for this book comes from a close friend who shared with me an extremely painful event she experienced. We had been helping each other in various ways over a long period of time and had come together again in a meditation group that was open to emotional-spiritual work. In the dynamic of this setting my friend recalled previously repressed childhood memories. Although I have heard other disturbing accounts given by both victims and even some victimizers of childhood trauma, this particular incident was most shocking. In this instance my friend relived the terror of a childhood experience in a setting where the group was deeply connected at various emotional and spiritual levels. I am convinced that the group provided deep empathetic stimulus and support that was essential to her particular awakening to her past horrors. Compassion, a major theme of this book, provided the context necessary to initiate the healing process. And though some of us knew she was ripe for some process, none of us quite expected her story, not even she herself. As a young child she was brutally attacked by someone whom she knew and trusted.


Childhood Trauma Religious Experience Spiritual Experience Indian Ocean Tsunami Religious View 
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  1. 1.
    This danger of denying the reality of the human experience of evil in one’s attempt to reconcile the reality of suffering with God’s power and goodness has led to what James Wetzel calls ‘a growing theological backlash’. ‘Can Theodicy Be Avoided? The Claim of Unredeemed Evil’, Religious Studies, Vol. 25 (1989), 1. Theodicy is the attempt to defend God in the face of the reality of evil. Contemporary ‘theoretical’ or ‘speculative’ theodicies have come under attack by some theologians. Among other concerns, they argue that to suggest in a theoretical theodicy that suffering might be understood to serve some positive spiritual purpose, as I had begun to suggest to my friend, is to callously efface the evil that it is. In the words of Terence Tilley, such moves in theodicy ‘create a reality in which what is truly evil is not evil’. The Evils of Theodicy (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991), p. 235.Google Scholar
  2. Kenneth Surin claims that ‘To regard theodicy as a purely theoretical and scholarly exercise is to provide — albeit unwittingly — a tacit sanction of the myriad evils that exist on this planet.’ Theology and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 50. So these theologians argue that the very practice of theodicy ought to be abandoned. I explore this issue in some detail in Chapter 4.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, the Garnett translation, revised by Ralph E. Matlaw (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), p. 226.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Louis Dupré, ‘Evil — A Religious Mystery: A Plea for a More Inclusive Model of Theodicy’, Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 7 (1990), 278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 8.
    For more on the epistemology of this view of religious experience, which I call ‘experiential-constructivism’, see Michael Stoeber, Theo-Monistic Mysticism: A Hindu Christian Comparison (London: Macmillan Press, 1994), esp. Chs 1 and 2. In that book I suggest that categories of experience (related to concepts, dispositions, tendencies, etc.) do indeed frame and even enter into the nature of most mystical experiences. But I also maintain that there is a content or effect of the experienced reality upon the experience, one which might impact on the mystic’s categories of experience in significant ways.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. In support of my claims concerning the realistic interpretation of religious language about God and various spiritual realities, see, for example, Phillip H. Wiebe, God and Other Spirits: Intimations of Transcendence in Christian Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989);Google Scholar
  8. and William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Collier Books, Macmillan, 1961).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    I agree with Louis Dupré, who argues that a religious response to the problem of suffering requires a framework of theodicy which emphasizes a ‘religious’ versus a ‘rationalist’ understanding of God. When thinking about the problem of evil, many people, perhaps even Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, tend to think of God as a Being distanced and separated in some deep sense from creation and humanity. This rationalist idea of God perhaps became most popularized in ‘deism’ of seventeenth-century England, by the writings of John Toland (Christianity not Mysterious) and Matthew Tindal (Christianity as Old as the Creation). However, typically in traditional ‘religious’ understandings, God is viewed theistically in intimate relationship with creation and humanity. God is primary Being from which everything has its existence and within which all is contained. God is omnipresent in creation and can and does act in and through the natural world. Louis Dupré argues that it is this latter religious perspective — what he calls a ‘Concrete-Religious’ standpoint — that provides an inclusiveness to theology that takes into account elements of ‘living faith’, features that are typically neglected in rationalist-deistic critiques. How one views God is very significant in terms of how one understands the relevance of spiritual experience in responding to the problem of evil. Most importantly, it ‘enables the Creator to share in the suffering of his creatures and thereby to redeem them’. It is from this kind of ‘concrete, theological context’, argues Dupré, that the believing philosopher is obliged to show that ‘a belief in a good God is compatible with the existence of evil’ (Dupré, ‘Evil — A Religious Mystery’, 261, 278). A rationalist-deistic framework, which radically separates God from creation, is not the view of God from which theologians need to respond to the problem of evil. So the issue to which Dupré refers is one which exists at certain levels in Christian theology itself, rather than being a conflict solely between Christian theologians in general and atheistic sceptics. I suspect that deistic influences have penetrated deeply into much contemporary Christian thinking, so much so that some Christian theologians today work from an understanding of spiritual experience which rules out the possibility of any real human experience of intimate divine action. In this view spiritual experience is typically perceived as something wholly subjective, wherein God and spiritual realities are thought to be accessible to humankind solely as a human idea or feeling, disclosed in scriptural revelation or human inspiration, in the light of which human subjects interpret and integrate their everyday experiences. On a similar line, in exploring the possibilities of divine healing of human suffering, Morton T. Kelsey writes critically of the prevalence in modern Christianity of a ‘tacit acceptance, philosophically and theologically, of a world view which allows no place for a breakthrough of “divine” power into the space-time world. Such a breakthrough as healing is simply considered an impossibility.’ Morton attributes this religious view of the world as a closed system originally to Aristotelian influences upon Christian theology. I suspect that the historical factors in this development might not be as straightforward as Morton suggests. However, I think he comments insightfully upon a Christian worldview, quite common today, of a ‘closed rational and physical system’, which God and spirits cannot or do not penetrate. Such a view severely limits one’s initial openness to the possible healing that might occur through sacramental liturgy or other forms of prayer. Morton T. Kelsey, Healing and Christianity: In Ancient Thought and Modern Times (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 307–8, 309.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, rev. edn (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1977). Jane Mary Zwerner gives an interesting outline of Hick’s view of ‘soul-making’, one that is drawn especially into reflections on Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection which correspond to themes of this book. She writes: ‘As Hick explains, the ultimate value is not happiness or health, though these are certainly good things which we rightly enjoy. Rather, the ultimate purpose of human existence is to attain personal moral and spiritual life, to realize the likeness of God. The death of Christ on the cross and his resurrection demonstrate that transfiguration can occur, and must occur, within the context of suffering.’ ‘The Discovery of Christian Meaning in Suffering: Transformation and Solidarity’, Evil and the Response of World Religions, ed. William Cenkner (St Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1997), p. 45.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    James Wood, ‘Twister’, The New Republic, Vol. 218, No. 23 (June 8, 1998), 46.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    William Blake, ‘On Another’s Sorrow’, in William Blake, ed. J. Bronowski (New York: Viking Penguin, 1984), pp. 39–40.Google Scholar

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© Michael Stoeber 2005

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  • Michael Stoeber

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