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Essay Prizes, the Problem of Evil, and Philosophy of Religion: An Interview with Michael Rea

May 2nd, 2012 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Notre Dame's Center for the Philosophy of Religion has just announced a unique opportunity for an academic community:  they are offering 10 $3000 prizes to people who publish essays in non-academic publications that expound upon the philosophical work that's been done on the problem of evil.

One need not be an academic to apply, though familiarity with the academic literature (and an ability to responsibly rearticulate it) is clearly a must.  But the deadline is far enough out that some more enterprising and energetic Mere-O readers may want to do some reading and give it a shot.  After all, it's called the "C.S. Lewis Essay Prize," which means someone around these parts should give it a go.

When I was told about the prizes, I wanted to hear more.  So I invited Dr. Michael Rea, Director of the Center, to answer a few questions.

1) It seems unusual for an academic center to offer to publish in a non-academic venue. Why'd you all set up this project?

It probably is unusual; but our reasons for doing this directly relate to the mission of the Center for Philosophy of Religion. One of the Center's main goals is to promote not just abstract research in the philosophy of religion, but distinctively Christian philosophy in particular. There's a lot that might go under the heading of "Christian Philosophy", but most of the academic research done on that topic is done with an eye to explaining central Christian doctrines and solving puzzles or dealing with other sorts of tensions and difficulties that arise out of a broadly Christian worldview.

Work like this is of intrinsic interest, of course; but it also has a lot of potential for serving the Church by helping ministers and lay people outside the academy to better understand, discuss, and live out the faith that they profess. The trick is making it accessible; and (believe it or not) this is very difficult work for which there aren't many incentives within the academy. So the purpose of the essay prize is to provide some financial incentive to people working on the problem of evil to take some time away from their ordinary research to make their ideas accessible to a wider audience.

2) The topic (evil) is a perennial one, yet the website suggests that the modern period was particularly fertile for constructing theodicies. Do you think that there's a particular urgency around the subject today?

As anyone familiar with the popular writings of folks like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and other "New Atheists" knows, atheists have, in recent years, become increasingly "evangelical". Religious belief is now being openly mocked in books and lectures that are engaging, persuasive, and widely marketed (in print and on the internet). And the problem of evil in various forms lies at the very center of all of it.

The problem of evil is has always been the most powerful and important argument against God's existence; but its most vivid and persuasive formulations have not always been placed at the fore of everyone's consciousness in the ongoing way that they are today. So yes, it is an urgent and important topic nowadays. Believers in God cannot sensibly ignore it, and so there is need for accessible resources to help them to think through the issue carefully.

I should add, too, that it is not just religious believers who need these sorts of resources, nor are "defenses of the faith" the only resources that are needed. As a Christian myself, I would very much like to see a growing body of literature providing new and interesting responses to the problem of evil.

But all of us--religious believers and unbelievers alike--would also benefit from the development of more careful expressions of the problem. This is an important point to notice. If you're an atheist and you care about convincing people that the existence of evil gives us good reason to disbelieve in God, you should (obviously!) want to make the case as carefully and strongly as you can. But you should also want to see the case made carefully and strongly if you are a Christian who cares about solving the problem, or an agnostic who is still trying to sort out the evidence, or whatever. For it is only by seeing the case presented in its strongest and most careful form that we can see clearly just what sort of evidence the existence of evil provides and just how Christians can most sensibly respond.

3) Part of The Center's mission is bridging theology and philosophy of religion. It seems like--and correct me if I'm wrong--most of the recent energy on the problem of evil has been among philosophers. Is the chasm crossable on this issue, or does the problem pose unique challenges for theology?

Yes, I think that most of the energy has lately be spent by philosophers. Of course, some theologians--especially those who have taken an interest in responding to the New Atheists--are working on the problem of evil. But my impression is that contemporary theologians are, for the most part, taking one of two other reactions to the problem.

Some think that it is crass to try to provide responses to the problem of evil (because they think that doing so will inevitably involve explaining why horrendous evils, like the holocaust or the brutal torture of children) are somehow "okay" or (worse) contribute to great human goods.

Others think that philosophical reflection on the problem of evil diverts us from the more important task of addressing evil itself. So, for example, N.T. Wright, in Evil and the Justice of God, says that the problem of evil is just that evil is bad, and something needs to be done about it. He then goes on to devote the bulk of his book to explaining what God has done about evil.

Now, I can sympathize with both of these reactions. Nobody in the midst of suffering wants to hear that their suffering is "all for the best"--especially when it involves horrible things like excessive pain and suffering or tragic personal loss. And all of us, I should hope, would place a premium on doing something about evil, as opposed to just sitting around and thinking about evil.

Still, the fact is that quite a lot of people lose their faith or are prevented ever from coming to faith as a result of reflection (and often rather careless reflection) on the problem of evil as it is typically discussed by philosophers. So, although I think that there is an interesting discussion to be had about why we might wish to turn our attention away from discussing the problem of evil, I think that there are also good reasons for thinking that we should not turn our attention away from it.

To get to your last question, then: No, I don't think that the problem poses unique challenges for theology; and I do think that the chasm (such as it is) is crossable. Crossing it is just a matter of having these interesting conversations that I just mentioned, so that the philosophers and the theologians can together get clear on just what is valuable about trying to address the problem of evil and on ways in which some of our past efforts may have gone awry.

4)  Anything else that you've been itching to tell people about The Center or this prize?

Only this: Your readers may wish to keep an eye on our website. We have recently been trying to develop and expand our "resources" page so as to make ourselves more useful to the wider public. In particular, we hope eventually to have a lot of resources (both video and print) that might be of genuine help to ministers and lay people who are trying to think through difficult questions about the Christian faith. We also welcome suggestions as to what might be helpful.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.