“You can’t mend the heart in a heartless world by observing that the world is in fact heartless.”

Here are some nice reflections on the problem of evil by Andrew Brown, columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian:

“In the end, I suppose, my objections to God are, as they must be, theological: the workings of divine providence are just a little too inaccessible to human reasoning. The problem of suffering remains insoluble. There is no possible theodicy. But I can’t, either, take the Dawkinsian view that the problem of suffering is an illusion generated by the illusion of God. You can’t mend the heart in a heartless world by observing that the world is in fact heartless. That’s not the point. I suppose I end up saying that I accept the Christian account of the problem; I just can’t accept Christianity’s account of the solution, and so I remain, by the grace of God perhaps, an atheist.”

You can read the whole essay here. (Thanks to Episcopal Cafe‘s “The Lead” for pointing me to it.)

I really like his criticism of Richard Dawkins. And I am sympathetic to his view that there is no solution to the problem of evil — sometimes I’m tempted to agree. But I wonder what exactly Brown takes to be “Christianity’s account of the solution”.

I’m a Christian theologian (more or less), and I’m still trying to figure out what sort of theodicy Christianity actually teaches. There have been many different theodicies offered by Christians throughout history. And even the Bible suggests different responses to evil. I don’t find it at all obvious which theodicy (if any) coheres best with the majority of other fundamental Christian theological committments.

If there’s one thing I am fairly sure of (given my reading of the relevant Biblical texts such as Job, the Psalms, Revelation, etc.) is that the best response to evil is going to have something to do with worship of God generally and in particular the liturgy of the Eucharist. (Then again, I tend to think that everything has something to do with the Eucharist!)

The centrality of worship (prayer, liturgy, communion, etc.) for our response to evil is something the best cinematic theologians have realized. I have already discussed Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (see my earlier post) on this topic. Here let me just mention the work of Ingmar Bergman, perhaps the filmmaker most obsessed with the problem of evil. There are hints of Eucharistic themes in The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957) and The Virgin Spring (Bergman, 1960). But the theme becomes most prominent in Winter Light (Bergman, 1962) whose story takes place in and between two celebrations of the Eucharist.

One could argue that Bergman intended these films as a critique of the idea that worship can provide an adequate response to evil. (For a really good analysis of The Seventh Seal along these lines, see Steven Greydanus’s essay at Decent Films.) But even if it is true that Bergman intended to reject a Eucharistic theodicy, he was unable to keep the truth from shining through his work. In any event, I think Bergman’s intentions were more complex than simply rejecting Christianity. He also struggled with the ability of art to respond adequately to evil — most significantly in Persona (Bergman, 1966), but I don’t think he ever quite gave up hope that art could help us go on living.

Unfortunately I don’t have time now to give a detailed analysis of Winter Light (I hope to do so in a future post — this post was supposed to be a simple link to the essay by Andrew Brown!), but I encourage you to watch it for yourself and try to figure out what is going on in the final scene. Has the priest lost his faith? Why does he go through with the liturgy? Is this an optimistic or pessimistic ending? How does the ending relate to the endings of The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring? And, most importantly, what can we learn from this film (regardless of what Bergman was trying to teach us) about responding to evil?

Let me know what you think.

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