Rethinking the Question of Natural Evil In Light Of Insights on Creation from David Burrell

Title: Rethinking the Question of Natural Evil In Light Of Insights on Creation from David Burrell
Authors: Brewer, N. David
Date: 2015
Abstract: This dissertation addresses what has traditionally been called natural evil by drawing on a reading of David Burrell, using his perspective of philosophical theology. The main thesis is that Burrell's refined understanding of creation and existence provides a way of reframing and advancing the question of natural evil, this, principally in the way he conceives of creation as relation and how his notion of relation bears on our understanding of the goodness of God as creator and the goodness of the universe as creation. The dissertation begins with a brief historical review of major features of the problem of natural evil from the ancients to the modern day in order to show that evil is not a single problem. It identifies various issues that are involved in the question of natural evil as this engages an understanding of our relation to the world. The chapter examines theodicies as responses and exposes, in light of current debate, their inadequacy. Fundamentally, they treat evil as an abstraction that ignores its harsh facticity and treats the reality of evils as evidence that places God in the dock presenting implicitly God's action as subject to a form of moral judgement. While many scholars have identified the limits of theodicy, the literature indicates an impasse: how, on the one hand does one affirm God's goodness and the goodness of creation, while, on the other hand, continue the abiding quest to understand why, why is their evil? Nowhere is this struggle to understand more evident than in a group of select authors who seek to explore the notion of creativity as exhibited in the universe. This dissertation invites a response by thinking the question of evil differently, more specifically, by turning to the work of David Burrell and examining, in particular, his approach crafted on the basis of a philosophical theology, an approach that privileges in many way a hermeneutical retrieval of Christian tradition. Chapter two explores Burrell's theological understanding and his deep examination of Thomas Aquinas that shapes Burrell’s particular approach to philosophical theology, an approach theologically grounded yet using and expanding philosophical tools and perspectives. With regard to the question, its value resides in the way he conceives of creation as relation and how his notion of relation bears on one’s understanding of the goodness of God as creator and the goodness of the universe as creation, a perspective, rooted in the tradition, giving a promising way of engaging with both theological and contemporary modes of understanding. Chapters three and four provide the data for framing and elaborating, in light of a reading of Burrell, an approach to the question of evil. Their aims are to develop Burrell's broader perspective on creation and existence. The notion of existence is framed within a deeper understanding of creation as relation, a singularly unique transcendent nature of the relation between God and creation, this particularly as a personal relation. The key to understanding this relationship is that it does not imply the remoteness of God but rather the even greater intimacy of the relationship between God and what God has created. The next two chapters are the nub of the argument for the thesis. The first diagnoses in more detail the present impasse, the second proposes a more constructive way of ‘thinking differently’. The aim of these chapters is to bring the resources of Burrell's thinking on philosophical theology to bear more directly on the topic. Each of these two chapters represent a step in advancing the contention that David Burrell's retrieval of the tradition, through the use of philosophical theology, invites us to think the question of natural evil differently. The issue underlying the present impasse is not our notions of world or of God, but how we speak about God and how such language draws on strategies such as analogy to introduce correctives to habitual presuppositions, how we can speak of the ‘unknowable God’. This includes an examination of ‘Language in Divinis’, with an emphasis on analogy and a further discussion of the ‘perfection’ terms. From this, the discussion moves to a consideration of the notion of creativeness in God, creativeness as a perfection term, from which the dissertation considers the notions of ordering, God as an artisan, our participation in creativeness, culminating in the notion of emergence, all to provide a framework for an examination of the question of natural evil and the contrast between perspectives commonly assumed by modern science as a mode of inquiry and investigation and a broader perspective for which we have been searching. The aim is to reflect on the way the question of natural evil is posed and to identify more clearly the source of the impasse. There are two aspects to the impasse: trying to ‘explain’ natural evil using the tools for the ‘what-ness’ to understand the ‘is-ness’; and ascribing a moral imperative on God, a mistaken human construct confusing God and creatures. Chapter six proposes a more constructive way of ‘thinking the question of evil differently’. To begin with, Burrell allows us to address the more existential features of the question. We turn to the understanding of God who is with us, who is more intimate to us than any thing else. We can speak to God and God speaks to us, such that we can “dare to enter into this founding relation with our creator who gives each of us our very being, and should we do so, the personal boundlessness of that relation will allow us to ‘go on’.” As an elaboration, the dissertation argues that Burrell's approach to rethinking the question of evil can be developed on the basis of his threefold structure of word, source and community: word that examines how we, through such dialogue, develop a mode of friendship with God; source that cultivates an in-depth trust in God; community, whereby we are sustained in our trust by the example of those who undergoing great suffering yet continue to testify to the presence of God and to work at transforming suffering and evil into the good. Each of the final two chapters represents a step in advancing the contention that David Burrell's philosophical theological understanding of creation together with his retrieval, in particular, of resources within a Thomistic tradition, opens an avenue for thinking the question of natural evil differently. In short, the question of natural evil, as commonly expressed, remains a question without an intelligible response, and as such is a non-question. Theodicies represent a fundamental misconception in our presuppositions about the God we worship. There is NO explanation for natural evil. This being said, the fact of natural evil remains; evil is not something to be endured stoically; it provokes outrage; there remains the harsh raw suffering resulting from some of these events. The challenge of natural evil is not so much to seek explanation but to understand and, more importantly, to respond. In view of this, what is called for is not explanation, but a renewed mode of understanding, one, such as offered by a Burrell's retrieval of an understanding of God as Creator in the mode of a philosophical theology. To be sure our reading of David Burrell does not present a definitive solution. It is offered as a way of advancing a way of questioning and understanding as these relate to the topic of natural evil.
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