America Magazine

January 2, 2022

The topic of suffering is never far from the lips of theologians or those who take seriously their relationship with their God. In light of the horrific events of Sept.11, 2001, the questions posed by suffering, especially innocent suffering, seem especially pertinent for examination. John E. Thiel, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University, Conn., has given us a serious book that takes up this task. This highly analytical, rather theoretical, yet accessible book explores the age-old question: why do the innocent ones suffer? It is Thiel’s contention that God is not the cause of suffering or death in any way, and to name God as the cause of evil renders it impossible for us to believe in God.

Thiel insists from the beginning that he is not undertaking a theodicy, because he is not arguing for reconciliation between God and evil. Nonetheless he does argue quite vehemently in support of specific attributes of God, namely God’s omnipotence and omnipresence. It is no longer fashionable to do a theodicy, yet I wonder if those of us who are especially interested in the topic of suffering are not “closet theodicists,” for we do desire to defend particular understandings of divinity in the face of evil and suffering.

It is to Thiel’s credit that he does not want to solve the “problem” of suffering. What he hopes to achieve is an adequate account of God’s relationship to evil while maintaining God’s omnipotence and omnipresence. He also wishes to affirm that innocent suffering does take place in our world and such suffering must be allowed to exist in its own right. The author demonstrates a great sensitivity to the reality of innocent suffering and how it plagues us all. I am grateful to Thiel for fully exploring the faulty human assumption that one person’s innocence requires someone else’s guilt-and more especially, as is pointed out, requires someone’s evil agency. This book will help put to rest the idea that God causes evil and suffering.

One very useful aspect of this book, from the standpoint of classroom teaching, is that it gives the reader a good overview of various aspects of the Christian response to suffering. St. Augustine’s theological contributions are highlighted, as well as the story of job, a brief history of theodicy, the arguments of contemporary theologians and references to the Holocaust. I was pleased to see that Thiel occasionally draws upon the wisdom of women theologians, but those who have done significant work in the field of suffering, e.g., Rebecca Chopp and Wendy Farley, are conspicuously absent. While his nod to the great work of Elie Wiesel is appreciated, I think it is important to draw other names from the long list of Jewish theologians who write with an eye to the Holocaust.

Thiel argues from the authority of Scripture and tradition as he lays out his understanding of divinity in the face of innocent suffering. He is most willing to reframe the traditional understanding of original sin in order to support his thesis. But he is most unwilling to reframe other aspects of the tradition, such as the power of God, that have been highly problematic. He wants us to know that our omnipotent God cares for us and is filled with concern for victims of innocent suffering; but the ways in which this attribute has been manipulated over the centuries to oppress others are ignored. I also found myself asking, “What of our triune God’s ability to relate to human beings? Why must this attribute take second place to God’s omnipotence?”

I was baffled by Thiel’s outright dismissal of process theology. It seems that this theology has nothing to offer when dealing with the reality of evil and suffering. I cannot accept Thiel’s declaration that process theology is unworthy because many believers “would be reluctant to pay the high price exacted by the process understanding of God.” In some areas Thiel stands open to acknowledging the value of randomness, change and chance with regard to divinity, but this openness disappears when the attribute of omnipotence emerges. While God’s omnipotence (especially God’s ability to defeat death) is the basis of faith for many believers, God’s omnipotence is troubling and problematic for many others. I was hoping for a further exploration of power as perhaps a process of interaction between persons or a paradigm of mutual influence. Thiel takes no account of the fine theological work challenging the overemphasis on God’s omnipotence. This, in my view, is the major weakness of his book.

The great strength of the book is that it makes a sound case for God’s omnipotence as a moral witness to innocent suffering. The reader will be moved by the acknowledgment that God bears witness to that which we cannot understand. Thiel offers us a God whose presence fills up the void left by such suffering. It is easy to see why omnipotence is so essential to his argument. This is a God who must be able to defeat death and emerge victorious. It is also a God who seems to be male, authoritarian and in control. Again, I voice my concern that Thiel’s use of omnipotence as the main attribute for God pushes all other understandings of God to the sidelines.

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