Consider two theological claims. First, a severely mentally retarded child has her retardation because in the premortal world she was an exceptionally valiant spirit and her current disability means that all that was necessary was for her to receive a body and then go straight on to eternal exaltation, worlds without number. Second, in this life blacks were denied the priesthood prior to 1978 because they were not valiant in the premortal conflict with Satan.
There isn’t a great deal of sophisticated philosophical Mormon theology out there, but what little there is has been disproportionately directed toward the problem of evil, how one reconciles the injustice of the world with the love and power of God. Since at least B.H. Roberts, Mormons have pursued their finitistic, metaphysically constrained concept of God as a way of explaining at least some of the evil in the world. What has been less readily recognized, I think, is that the two claims offered above are also theodicies resting on uniquely Mormon doctrines, namely the idea of pre-existence and a premortal council/war in heaven.
In the first claim, our immediate response is to see the child’s retardation as an evil that must be explained. The claim does this in two ways. First, it redefines the evil of retardation as a good by promising the child certain exaltation. Second, it rescues God from the charge of unjust favoritism (“Why does this person get a guarantee of salvation but not me?”) by claiming that the child is getting a just reward for exemplary premortal actions. The second claim implicitly acknowledges that the denial of priesthood to blacks is an injustice, an evil that must be explained. In then goes on to do so by insisting that the evil visited on blacks is deserved because of a lack of premortal valiance.
I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the whole project of theodicy. On one hand, I want to reject a fideism that insists on belief in the irrational as a mark of true faith. Hence, I want a religion that at least holds out the possibility of increasing my understanding of the ways of God and the nature of the universe through the use of reason. We shouldn’t have to crucify our brains in order to believe. And yet there is also a part of me that wants to maintain the mystery of evil. In a sense, it is only when evil remains unexplained that it can be confronted with a purity of intent, untainted by the reassuring argument that maybe it isn’t so bad after all. More importantly, I worry that theodicy distracts us from what is most important. Ultimately, evil is not a test of our understanding but of our character, and the most important reaction to suffering is its alleviation rather than its explanation.
I find myself especially uncomfortable with these premortal theodicies. As to the second claim regarding blacks and the priesthood, I reject it outright. I do not find any support for the argument in scripture, and I think that it is pernicious in its consequences and implications. I would much rather ascribe the priesthood ban to the tragic failings and racism of good and great men like Brigham Young rather than warp the cosmic narrative of the plan of salvation to make an injustice just.
I find myself more friendly to the claim regarding the retarded child. Unlike the claim regarding blacks and the priesthood, there is at least some scriptural support for the notion that in the premortal world there were “noble and great ones,” and this particular theodicy also fits in with Christ’s promise that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” And yet even here, I find myself uncomfortable with neat explanations of hardship, and attempts to push concepts of desert and justification beyond the veil. The blacks and the priesthood argument illustrates the potentially poisoned nature of this particular cup. Sometimes it may be best to simply let the mystery be.