Nathan Nobis

Morehouse College

Nathan.nobis@gmail.com

 

Introductory notes and commentary on Anthony Pinn’s Why Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology

http://www.continuumbooks.com/Books/detail.aspx?ImprintID=2&CountryID=2&BookId=117778

 

Preface and Introduction

 

Pinn seems to be addressing two logically distinct sets of questions. They are distinct in that answers to one set have no implications for the other (or if they do, the connection is not at all obvious). It’s not clear whether Pinn realizes this.[1]

                                                                                                                             

Here is a first set:

 

“Does the Christian message say anything liberating to a suffering humanity?

Does theological conversation . . make a positive differing in the way the oppressed responding to their existential plight?

Do Christian explanations of human suffering make a ‘material’ and concrete difference?” (p. 10).

 

These questions are not philosophical questions. They are (once the meaning of the terms is set) empirical questions that would, ideally, be answered by social science. They concern the psychological and social consequences of holding some beliefs, Christian belief, in particular: what kind of practical and psychological consequences do Christian beliefs have on people in terms of how they respond to whatever “existential” plights they are in? Do such beliefs better typically enable people to “cope” or not, compared to alternative beliefs? Do such beliefs tend to lead to flourishing, or to despair? We might call these kinds of questions about beliefs “pragmatic” questions, keeping in mind that they are empirical questions.

 

Pinn also is concerned with what sorts of beliefs would better (or best) contribute to human “liberation” (p. 11), which is a state of (among other things) psychological, physical, political, economic, existential, etc. well-being (“Liberation entails … the attainment of extended life options and a better developed sense of healthy human worth” (p. 13). One might say, “I have been liberated” or “I have achieved liberation,” and be saying that one is doing well, in profound ways.

 

It appears that Pinn will argue that some kinds of Christian belief often do not lead to “liberation” for those who believe them: in fact, they preclude or detract from such liberation when they encourage complacency and acceptance of non-liberation, e.g., accepting being a slave, accepting racism and discrimination, being taken advantage of, having low expectations for life, accepting dismal conditions, etc. because one thinks that one’s religion condones or requires those attitudes. Whether Christianity often has these consequences again is a question in the psychology or sociology of religion; it requires empirical study.

 

A second set of questions Pinn asks are purely philosophical and concern what is traditionally called the philosophical “problem of evil” (p. 13).  For this reason, we will call these questions about how to respond to the philosophical problem of evil. These questions include the following:

 

·        Does the existence of certain kinds of evils – in particular, evils associated with slavery and racism and its fallout – “contradict” the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all good being, such a God? (Pinn uses the word “contradiction,” [p. 13] but this is likely to strong of a term).

·        Is there a “tension” (p. 10) between such evils and believing that God exists? Does the existence of such evils provide evidence that there is not a God?

·        Is this argument sound or not? “If God exists, then there probably would not be slavery, racism and similar evils. But there are such evils, so probably God does not exist.”

·        What, if anything, would (morally) justify God in permitting the evils of slavery, racism, discrimination, lynchings, etc.?

 

Answers to this last question are attempts at offering a “theodicy” (p. 13). A theodicy is an attempt to show that the problem of evil is really not a problem (in the sense of providing adequate support for disbelief), or show why arguments for God’s non-existence from the existence of some kinds of evils is unsound. A theodicy is a proposed explanation for why God would allow some evil, given that – as an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful being – He would apparently be able to prevent the evil and want to, since a good being is opposed to the existence of at least certain kinds of evils, say evils that don’t contribute to greater goods, are not necessary for greater goods, produce greater goods but ones that could be achieved without evils of that magnitude, etc.

 

(Pinn seems to think the problem of evil and theodicy are the same thing [p. 10; p. 13], but they are not. He also might think the pragmatic questions above are intimately related to the philosophical problem of evil, which they are not).

 

Some responses to the argument of evil include (pp. 14):

(a)    claiming that there is no evil,

(b)   that God cannot do anything about it (thus denying or restricting omnipotence and omniscience),

(c)    and that God is not good, so does not care to do anything about it (thus denying or reinterpreting ,

(d)   claiming that various goods (e.g., free will, “soul making,” etc.) require the existence of some evil or invariably result in some evil (whether they would require the existence of evils like slavery and racism is surely controversial!) and

(e)    thinking that there is no God.

 

Pinn claims that African-Americans (esp. theologians) often respond to the philosophical problem of evil by claiming (p. 15):

(f)     suffering /evil can have “redemptive” consequences (questions: does all suffering and evil have such redemptive consequences? Can these kinds of “redemption” be achieved in other ways without as great of evils?)

a.       e.g., Pinn notes that some claim that suffering prepares Black people for “ultimate freedom” (p. 16). But couldn’t they be prepared for this without so much evil? And maybe “ultimate freedom” isn’t so important anyway!? After all, lots of people don’t suffer so much! Will they really miss out on “ultimate freedom,” whatever that is?

b.      Other kinds of redemption include “pedagogical lessons such as the correction of character flaws, obtainment of .. skills and talents, and some good which God will make clear in the future” (p. 16).

c.       LONG LIST OF “GREATER GOODS” HERE offered by AA’s to explain why God might allow slavery, racism, etc. This book will review these candidate theodicies.

                                                               i.      Bishopp Henry McNeal Turner proposes that slavery was justified to introduce Africans to Christianity.  MLK argues that undeserved suffering is justified because it will contribute to the end of such suffering (p. 17).

(g)    God and humans have to work together to lessen evils (comment: this does not address the argument from evil!); God just “persuades”. This is basically to deny God’s power.

(h)    God may be a racist and so that’s why blacks suffer more than non-blacks. (comment: this is to claim that God is not good, at least not good to blacks.).

 

Pinn does not like redemptive suffering theodicies (p. 17). But the reason why he finds them “unacceptable” is going to be odd, it appears. He says that he finds them unacceptable because of their pragmatic consequences! He thinks that if you find (instrumental) value in suffering – think that such suffering does lead to greater goods and is necessary for these greater goods – then you will likely be complacent and not work for “liberation.” He thinks that’s a bad thing (and it is!) and so seems to think you should reject redemptive suffering theodices.

 

This response is odd because whether a claim is true or not (e.g., “evils are justified by greater goods or not”) and whether there is good evidence for a claim has nothing to do with the psychological, emotional, sociological, existential effects it has on people who believe it. E.g., some people claim to find the claims of evolutionary theory to be depressing because, they claim they would feel awful if they weren’t specially created by God 5000 years ago. They might feel that way, but that has no bearing on whether evolutionary theory is true and whether there is good evidence for it.

 

So, in general, questions about the pragmatic consequences of a belief and its truth value and the quality of the evidence for it are distinct. This has been clear ever since Pascal’s wager, if not sooner. So it’s odd that Pinn responds to the issues in the way he’s going to. Redemptive suffering theodices might be depressing for some in that they somehow reinforce complacency (or they might not!), but they might tell the truth about what justifies various evils.

 

In the end, Pinn will advocate for Black Humanism. It seems clear he will advocate for it on the basis of its pragmatic effects. Whether he will claim there is good evidence for it, especially for kinds of Humanism that claim God does not exist (atheism) or that we have insufficient evidence to reasonably believe there’s a God or should suspend judgment (skepticism or agnosticism), we will see.

 

 

 



[1] Footnote 1 suggests that he does, since he says he’s unsure whether “theodicy” is the proper term to for his pragmatic / psychological / social questions. Since theodicy is obviously the incorrect term here, at least given the traditional use of that term, it’s unclear why Pinn is hesitant or why he uses the term in the first place.