A theodicy is a justification of the ways of God to man. Most frequently, the term is used in discussions of the problem of evil. Succinctly stated this problem goes like this:
- 1. God is all powerful
2. God is Good
3. Evil things happen
4. God can and should prevent these evil things (from 1 & 2)
I don’t want to get into all of the intricacies of this debate. Generally speaking, Mormons “solve” the problem by in effect denying (1), claiming that there are metaphysical as opposed to merely logical limitations on God’s power. It strikes me, however, that there is another possible Mormon theodicy: An argument from consent.
In the grand council before the creation of the world, so we are told, two plans were presented, and we all made the choice to follow God and the plan of his son. As a result, we consented to come to earth, knowing that we faced a risk of evil and suffering. Perhaps we can justify the ways of God by arguing that we alienated any claim we might have against him by accepting the possibility of mortality.
There are – as you might have guessed – a number of objections that could be made to this argument. First, one might object to the notion that moral entitlements are alienable. Right is right, wrong is wrong, and we cannot by our act of consent change these facts. Perhaps. However, it seems to me that at least in part the concept of forgiveness can be understood as the alienation of an entitlement. When a person wrongs you, so the argument would go, you become entitled to some justice from that person. When we forgive a person we give up that entitlement. Now, I freely acknowledge that there are lots of other ways of understanding forgiveness. Most of them look at it subjectively. We forgive in order to avoid negative psychological effects or perhaps because holding a grudge deforms our character in some way. All well and good. I don’t see, however, that such subjective understandings of forgiveness require that we jettison a more objective notion of forgiveness as alienation of entitlement. If this understanding of forgiveness is correct, then we can think of our pre-mortal consent as being an alienation of entitlement like forgiveness.
A second objection is to claim that even if the notion of consensual alienation of entitlements is not per se in valid, the pre-mortal council did not constitute the proper conditions for a valid alienation. Thus, one might object that we couldn’t dicker with God, suggesting our own terms for the deal. You might claim that we were threatened into consenting – the alternative was to be cast out of heaven with Satan and his angles – so our consent wasn’t meaningful, etc.
These arguments, it seems to me, have some real traction. However, I am not sure that they are sufficient to throw the contractual theodicy out of court completely. First, it seems that the concerns about dickering, the inability to offer terms, etc. are a bit confused. We generally take those things as important because they are evidence that consent was meaningfully voluntary. However, consent can be meaningfully voluntary without those things. On the other hand, the harsh consequences of rejecting God’s position seem like more powerful argument.
At this point, I would argue for a kind of theoretical pluralism in our approach to the problem of evil. Even if a contractual theodicy standing alone is insufficient to “solve” the problem, it may make other approaches more compelling. (Even if in the end we conclude that those approaches are not themselves a sufficient answer – the addition of the contractual theodicy may make them less insufficient.) Thus, one might adopt the finitist position – there are certain kinds of evils that God cannot eliminate – in conjunction with the notion of consent. On this view, we become like climbers trapped on a ledge over a huge abyss. God throws us a rope and says, “This is the only rope that I have the ability to throw to you, and it may break. The choice is yours.” Even though this may not be a “real” choice because our options are reduced to certain death or accepting the risk, it seems that so long as God is not responsible for the shoddy condition of the rope that any claim we might have against him should the rope break is less weighty than would be a claim in the absence of our consent.
So what is the point of this little intellectual game. Not much really. It is fun. However, if something vaguely resembling this argument works, then we will have done a number of interesting and potentially useful things. First, we will have show that Mormon theology may have more to offer us on this problem than we had previously assumed. Second, we will have shown that the historical nature of Mormon theism is intellectually useful and interesting, since it allows us to make historical arguments (ie arguments based on the actual occurrence of some past event, rather than arguments made on the basis of ahistorical premises). Third, the structure of this argument – with its emphasis on consent, alienable entitlements, and voluntariness – is fundamentally liberal, and may provide a theological counter to communitarian thinkers like Russell and Adam who insist that Mormonism should be understood in purely corporate, communitarian terms rather than individualistic, contractual ones.