It is unfortunate that it sometimes takes horrific disasters such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile to draw attention to writings that would prove helpful in trying to make sense of evil in our lives. This is the case with this slim volume, which was published some five years ago but has undeservedly remained under the academic radar. It is time to take a serious look at the ideas Michael Stoeber proposes to deal with human suffering.
The book was born not in the proverbial ivory tower but in the cauldron of lived and relived traumatic terror which one of the author’s friends suffered as a child. Questions kept haunting her mind: “How God could allow such horrors to be inflicted upon children. Indeed, how could one be open to a God who permitted such atrocities?” (3). To these questions Stoeber no longer thinks that his previous explanations, more philosophical and abstract, invoking God’s grand providential design and the possibility of spiritual transformation, are fully satisfactory. Citing the famous conversation between Ivan and his brother Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Stoeber argues that a more helpful theodicy—a defense of God’s power and love in the face of evil—should be rooted in the history of God’s compassion in the death and resurrection of Jesus, or to use Louis Dupré’s expression, in “concrete-religious conceptions.”
To ground his theodicy in the Christian framework, Stoeber first reaffirms the objective nature of religious experiences. While acknowledging the presence and influence of subjective factors in spiritual experiences—the point of Steven Katz’s “constructivist” theory—Stoeber vigorously insists on a realistic conception of religious experience. We do not simply experience our human nature in religious experiences but do experience and know God, though our knowledge and language about God always remains analogical. Stoeber then revisits the Christian myth of origins and points out that the fall of Adam and Eve should not be viewed only negatively—which it no doubt is—but also positively, as the dawn of human freedom. With these two theological presuppositions firmly in place Stoeber explores the possibility of transformative suffering in the light of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Chapter 3 (“Suffering and Christ”) offers a wealth of incisive and insightful reflections which amply merit a close reading. Stoeber firmly rejects the deist conception of God and wants to show that “the Divine is both open to human suffering and positively affects those people who participate in various degrees in this ongoing redemptive event” (14).
Stoeber however is fully aware that even the mystery of God’s love and compassion shown in Jesus cannot provide impetus for moral transformation in the case of what he terms “destructive suffering.” He cites as example the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December, 2004. One could add the recent earthquake in Haiti and other natural disasters elsewhere. Here, Stoeber invokes the Christian teaching on the reality of after-death transformation (the Christian doctrine of “purgatory”) and the teaching on rebirth of many religions. On the latter he carefully distinguishes between “retributive” and “soul-making” reincarnation and suggests tentatively the idea of “soul-making” rebirth might not be contradictory to the Christian belief in purgatory. (He informs us that he is working on an essay on the possibility of “soul-making” rebirth in the light of the anonymous Christian Hermeticist’s Meditations on the Tarot. We eagerly await the results of his research.)
One extremely informative part of the book that should not be skipped is its extensive notes. In a series of bibliographical essays Stoeber elaborates his ideas in dialogue with other philosophers and theologians. For those interested in contemporary developments in theodicy and eschatology, these pages (102-32) are a treasure-trove.
I strongly recommend this book for courses on the problem of God and evil. Its expositions are accessible and balanced, its style lucid, and its contents challenging.