Andrew Michael FLESCHER. Moral Evil. Moral Traditions Series. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013. pp. 280. $32.95 pb/ebook. ISBN 978-1-62616-010-1. Reviewed by James T. BRETZKE, S.J., Boston College School of Theology & Ministry, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
Flescher’s project is not to resolve the so-called Great Conundrum of explaining how an all-good and omnipotent God either allows or fails to conquer evil, but rather to outline four dominant models of understanding evil in such a way that facilitates living “one’s life in light of the irremovability of injustice, suffering, and brutality” (p. vii). A helpful introductory chapter lays out the contours of these models before turning to a detailed description of each in succeeding chapters. These models are 1) evil as the presence of badness as radical separate from goodness (e.g., Manicheanism), 2) evil as the presence of goodness, (e.g. classical theodicy), 3) evil as the absence of badness (a contrast to the good, e.g. perspectivalism), and finally his preferred model, 4) an Augustinian notion of evil as privation, i.e., what occurs in the absence of goodness, which then in the final chapter he joins to a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics that encourages the formation of altruistic habits that individuals can use to confront the evil they are bound to encounter in their lives.
The major strength of this book is its forthright engagement with the daunting challenge of trying to derive cogent models from the ways that philosophers and theologians over the millennia have wrestled with the mystery of evil. In the judgment of this reader the chapters on Manicheanism, theodicy, and perspectivalism were particularly helpful, especially in dealing with the intellectual legacy of Nietzsche found in thinkers such as Hermann Hesse and Michel Foucault. The chapter on Augustine is a good summary of this theology, but not does not seem to break significant new ground in Augustinian studies, beyond positing the potential connection with a virtue ethics in the Aristotelian mode.
The four models are largely Western and individualistic, though some attention is given to the Eastern traditions of Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Little, though, is done with the concerns surrounding systemic evil and social injustice unmasked by liberationist, feminist, womanist, mujerista, post-colonial, etc. theologies. Also absent is consideration of theological insights which might be furnished by a Rahnerian theological anthropology associated with fundamental option theory. More surprising is the scant attention paid to the New Testament, and especially the Gospel message of Jesus as well as more recent efforts at Reconciliation Justice in places such as post-Apartheid South Africa. While Reinhold Niebuhr is discussed at some length I believe his younger brother’s work, especially his three classic seminal articles on World War II published in the Christian Century in 1942-3, would have proffered a particularly helpful way of envisioning the redemptive suffering of Jesus in the face of immense social evil.
No study of this sort could aim at, much less claim, to be the definitive work or answer to the problem of understanding evil, and Flescher sets himself a more modest, and manageable task. Yet, his chosen methodology of employing what he believes to be a comprehensive set of four explanatory models to outline possible understandings of moral evil unfortunately hobble the undertaking, as inevitably the reader likely will find additional questions both unasked and unanswered. Moral evil ultimately seems to be a mystery that defies complete human analysis and so a more helpful approach might have been to propose his models as heuristic devices that could in a hybrid fashion complement the strengths of each other, address some of the weaknesses of each, and still leave the field open for additional reflection. While such a re-conceived project might at first glance appear to be less than offering a complete taxonomy of approaches to understanding evil, here is an instance in which less truly would have been more, as the result would have encouraged readers to continue the investigative project on their own, testing additional hypotheses to address issues that Flescher either seems to have overlooked or side-stepped. A more heuristic map might therefore aid us in exploring more deeply what remains ultimately in some profound sense a terra incognita of both the nature of God as well as God’s ways of helping humankind contend with the many and varied facets of evil.
Nevertheless, despite these weaknesses and unexplored avenues for further reflection, Flescher’s book remains a quite admirable accomplishment and a work that scholars and graduate students alike in the areas of systematic and moral theology, as well as philosophical ethics will profit from greatly.