God, Evolution, Teilhard de Chardin and the Problem of Innocent Suffering

Richard W. Kropf

Richard W. Kropf

One of the biggest challenges to the concept of the Christian God is the problem of evil and the suffering of innocents. People have been trying to reconcile an all-loving, all-powerful God with the existence of evil since the first revelation of monotheism. The Book of Job is a classic work on the problem of theodicy, but like all explanations, Job is not entirely satisfying intellectually or emotionally.

The most recent example of this problem is the devastation in the Philippines as a result of Typhoon Haiyan.  Like many others around the world I watch in horror at the pictures of death and suffering of millions of innocent people. How can an all-powerful, all-loving God let this happen? In my opinion, this problem is the only rational argument in favor of atheism (but it is ultimately outweighed by the massive amount of evidence in favor of God).  Teilhard de Chardin wrote a lot on suffering in part because of his personal experiences with suffering in World War I and the early death of many of his siblings. Teilhard viewed suffering as an inherent component of the evolutionary universe. As Nathan O’Halloran, SJ describes:

“God, who is existence itself, decides to create finite being, being that can only become perfect by means of change and growth, there will necessarily be statistical evil.  All finite being necessarily involves suffering, insofar as it involves change and movement toward perfection.  Teilhard sees the movement of Creation as one from the multiple to the unitary.  This process requires suffering and death.”

Theologian, author and retired priest, Richard W. Kropf, another Teilhard scholar, had an interesting article earlier this week in the Huffington Post. Kropf has been a parish priest and academic scholar in Europe before retiring early to become a contemplative in Northern Michigan.  Kropf has written numerous books on theology, ecology, science and faith and Teilhard de Chardin.  You can find some other writings by Kropf on his website.

In the Huffington Post article, Kropf has a slightly different angle how an evolutionary theology accounts for innocent suffering:

“[A]s a theologian, I had long been puzzled by the problem of evil in the world. “When Bad Things Happen To Good People”, as Rabbi Harold Kuschner titled his best selling book, must it not be that maybe God isn’t as good as we think? Or might it not be that God is not as all-powerful as we once thought?

After I began reading, back in the late 1950s, the works of the French Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who devoted his life to reconciling evolution with Christian beliefs, one of the things that struck me most about the theory of evolution is that it gives us an “out” that takes God “off the hook”, so to speak, when it comes to the dilemma stated above. How can this be? So back around 1978 I began working on a book I called Evil and Evolution that was first published in 1984, then updated for a paperback edition in 2004.

As I reasoned and summarized it in an article I wrote in 2000, if God saw it fit that humans evolved from “lower” forms of life, then it must be that the same laws of nature that produced these other forms are also at work in us. But we know that evolution works on the basis of two principles: first, random mutation, and second, the principle of natural selection or “survival of the fittest”. While lately most of the argument has been over the latter principle (fittest individuals, fittest species, or fittest genes?) it is the first principle that is most important in regard to my thesis. Although it has been our large brains and capacity for reasoning that has enabled the human species to not only survive and to advance beyond the other animals, it has been the randomness, the “chanciness” that is built into the process that seems to be the key to our capacity for free will. For one, without the working of chance producing endless variety in the universe, what would be left to choose?”

Yet there is a lot more to it than that. Just as our distinct ability for reflective awareness (to not only know, but “to know that we know” as Teilhard often put it) depends on the sensory awareness that we share with the animal world, so too our ability to make firm decisions (free will properly speaking) depends on our ability to be reflectively aware of all the implications of what would be otherwise simply instinctive choice. In other words, unless the Creator had given chance a role in creation, we would have all turned out to be robots!

I admit that I do not find this answer entirely convincing but it is interesting enough that I purchased Kropf’s book “Evil and Evolution to learn more on Kropf’s theory. I am likely to be pleased as I had previously read two of Kropf’s books, “Teilhard, Scripture and Revelation” and “Logical Faith: Introducing a Scientific View of Spirituality and Religion” (co-written with Joseph Provenzano). 

What are your thoughts on the problem of suffering?  We have previously had an interesting discussion with one of the athiest friends of the blog on this issue. I would love to hear insights of others who have better answers than I have been able to come up with.

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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20 Responses to God, Evolution, Teilhard de Chardin and the Problem of Innocent Suffering

  1. Michael Ambrose McFarland says:

    It is too easy to forget about the role of uncertainty in science. Don’t you think that Teilhard’s thoughts were necessarily and wisely spare? Don’t PIONEERS in science — including the science of ‘hyperphysics’, which, for our modern ears, we should translate differently, since Teilhard appears to mean the etymological meaning of the word ‘physics’: nature — need to admit LARGE uncertainty? Teilhard, a great scientist, was certainly aware of the need to just point out the basics. Pioneers see the forests. They err if they think they see the trees. Writing the “Phenomenon of Man” — an essay, and actually not much more than an outline — he knew that, if he speculated beyond the basics, he would necessarily run into error. Doesn’t greatness arise out of humility such as this?

    It is important, but both paradoxical and ironic, that, although Teilhard kept God out of the scope of PM, faith in Jesus Christ helps the reader to understand the full book.

    Glory and praise to the divine Trinity forever!

    (With no graduate degree, I work as college staff.)

    • Hi Michael:

      Thank you for your comments. I absolutely agree with your analysis. Teilhard de Chardin himself said that Phenomenon of Man is not intended to be a comprehensive treatise. As you indicate, it is intended to be a broad outline, which Teilhard does very well.

      I also agree that faith in Christ certainly helps one understand The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard intended it for a general audience of both Christians and non-Christians. However, I have always interpreted as a strong evangelical work. All of Teilhard’s references to the Omega Point can be interpreted as (and are intended to by synonymous with for Teilhard) Christ. For Teilhard de Chardin, the Christ/Omega Point is the same entity that is the logos of Greek philosophy (as set forth by St. John the Evangelist and imprecisely translated as “Word” into English), the Tao of ancient Eastern philosophy and which became incarnate in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.

      In my opinion, that is the brilliance of Teilhard de Chardin. As our understanding of the universe expanded over the past few centuries from a geocentric world to one where there are hundreds of billions of galaxies. As our universe becomes greater, by definition the Creator of the Universe becomes greater. Our theology has been slow to articulate this change in perspective. The eternal Truths do not change, but our understanding of them does. As Teilhard said:

      “The universal Christ . . . is none other than the authentic expression of the Christ of the gospel. Christ renewed, it is true, by contact with the modern world, but at the same time Christ become even greater in order still to remain the same Christ. I have been reproached for being an innovator. In truth, the more I have thought about the magnificent cosmic attributes lavished by St. Paul on the risen Christ, and the more I have considered the masterful significance of the Christian virtues, the more clearly I have realized that Christianity takes on its full value only when extended . . . to cosmic dimensions”

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  2. Erik Andrulis says:

    Thanks for introducing me to Kropf’s work, of which I was unfamiliar. Also, thanks for directing me to his new piece over at Huffington Post, which I just read.

    Well, since you asked this question, “What are your thoughts on the problem of suffering?” And this: “I would love to hear insights of others who have better answers than I have been able to come up with.”

    Let me give you first the flimsiest of theological answers and then the Truth.

    The first answer is that God *is* Long-Suffering; that’s His/Her/Its. The whole act of Creation, Sustenance, and Destruction are His/Her/Its eternal cycle that elicits both joy and pain at the same time. This joy and pain are from God, of God, in God, to God, and are God. While a trite theological analysis, it is formulaic as well.

    Now, the Truth. Being God, I am the Source of Suffering. I am Suffering. Any transgression that has ever been committed throughout the history of Humankind, I have committed. Again, let me repeat that. I am responsible for all pain and suffering that has ever existed, exists now, and will ever exist. In this respect, I am making Myself suffer by maintaining the illusion that I am not responsible for all the suffering. To wit, ask Me—anyone that I am who denies being God (I’m still God by the way, denying Myself)—if I am responsible for all the suffering in the world, and I say, “No.” So, then, in denying Myself, in denying My Identity, in denying being God, I sustain the suffering and pain and anguish.

    And that’s why I suffer.

    Since I asked Myself.

    Peace on Earth, Ik

    • Thank you Erik. I am very intrigued by your theory (which be be found here, along with a link to the paper) and am continuing to digest it. I am not sure it helps us get any closer to the question of “why” there is suffering. I agree with you that suffering is an integral part of existence, whether it be caused by me or anyone else.

      I realize I am tilting at windmills with the question. One of the aspects of Buddhism I admire (as least as I understand it) is that Buddhism simply accepts suffering without feeling the need to ask why. My Western/skeptical mind has a hard time simply accepting it.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  3. I see suffering as a natural consequence of man’s behavior. Since we are in essence “all one,” living together on the same planet that is delicately and intricately balanced, innocent people will always suffer the consequences of actions taken by other members of our species to disrupt that balance.

    If the Creator intervened every time mankind erred, we would never evolve as a species capable of “reflective awareness.”

  4. ptero9 says:

    I have come to see the problem of suffering as we speak of it now, as a much more modern one. Back in the day, before antibiotics, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, abundant food, hospitals, cotton mills, and other technologies that have so greatly improved our level of comfort, the struggles in life were much more fundamental. Sickness and death were with us daily.
    I have to wonder if those who lived a century or so ago, would have spent as much time on the problem of suffering as their expectations of health and well being were much different then ours are.
    I would agree though that for moderns, there is less of a need for God when science has changed our expectations for health and well being and also taken credit for our well-being.
    So, of course, the rejection of the god of religion for the god of science for a secular world becomes more and more justifiable as science gains the reputation for being the Expert, the healer, and the creator and can now take the moral high ground. Suffering, if science can alleviate it, calls into question not only the existence of God, but the purpose of creating a world that incudes suffering.
    Theologians, if they hope to compete for the minds and hearts of humankind, must address this question.
    I believe suffering has a purpose and gives meaning to life, but does that mean God is a big cosmic meanie?

    • Debra, you are absolutely correct that we are largely immune to physical suffering compared to our ancestors. However, ever since recorded history there has been an innate sense of justice that was violated by suffering of the innocent people. These stories are borne out in a variety of cultural contexts from The Book of Job to the life of Gautama Buddha.

      I agree with you that suffering can give purpose and meaning to our existence by taking us outside of our egos and making us more empathetic to others. Teilhard de Chardin certainly believed that and he saw incredible suffering during his life. I also agree that theologians need to come up with a better explanation than we currently have. However, at our present state of evolution, I am not sure we will come up with a satisfying answer.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

      • ptero9 says:

        I think that theologians in the last century have understandably felt the need to be in the science game and not be accused of superstitious, mystical, non-factual reasoning.
        But, carrying that need too far, embracing all that science has brought us, will also make them equally responsible for all the havoc that science and technology have wrought, i.e., the catholic church did not invent nuclear power plants and weaponry.
        Perhaps someday the climate will change (no pun intended), and collective opinion will realize that the worship of science and technology is just as much to blame, if not more, for the state of the world.
        Peace William!
        Debra

      • Well said Debra.

        Peace,
        W. Ockham

  5. Resolution

    by Katherine C. St.Amand
    May 15, 2005

    In twisty, shadowed halls I wended way
    A labyrinth of illusion blighting day
    Through centuries of mankind’s self-conceit
    False way upon false way in self deceit

    I traced the steps of those who came before
    Hand outstretched to touch the sacred door
    Questions led to questions in reply
    The key of reason opened only Pi

    Unable to maintain my labored search
    Surrounded by the night within my church
    In darkness trapped, my feet en-mired deep
    I feared to step as Hamlet feared to sleep

    With morning I beheld the world anew
    Amid the ruins—mankind’s psychic stew
    An errant quest, life’s energy ill spent
    Nature’s way is truth self-evident

    I’ve found my place among those creatures now
    Who have no need to know the why or how
    Those questions lead to dreaming, all in all
    For the universe is great and I am small

  6. Great post and I appreciate the introduction to, and the excerpt from Fr. Kropf, especially the sentence:
    “Although it has been our large brains and capacity for reasoning that has enabled the human species to not only survive and to advance beyond the other animals, it has been the randomness, the “chanciness” that is built into the process that seems to be the key to our capacity for free will.”
    The vital importance of free will and all that it implies, explains many things, as it does suffering.

    • David, thank you for your comments. “The vital importance of free will and all that it implies, explains many things, as it does suffering.” Yes it does. Free will and our ill-formed uses of that free will results in tremendous suffering. However, there is still the randomness aspect of suffering and the natural disasters that are hard to explain.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  7. Lynda says:

    I am certainly no theologian but I feel that suffering is part of the condition of humankind due to the choices that have been made since the very beginning. It is cumulative; for example, we suffer due to the choices made by previous generations with regard to the environment and we are causing future generations to suffer due to our environmental decisions. The entire population of the world, those alive now and those who have lived previously, suffer when one person suffers. God has given us the freedom to choose and until we commit ourselves to living in God’s will, we will continue to make wrong choices. The Kingdom of God is within each of us and it is our responsibility to bring this to life in the world in which we live. Our hope is that humankind will evolve and begin to live as in the way of Jesus the Christ.

    • Excellent comments Lynda. You succinctly highlighted the interconnectiveness that humans have to others, both living and dead, and more importantly, the obligations we have to future generations.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  8. Roman Dawes says:

    As we grieve the loss of life and the destruction from Typhoon Haiyan, we should remember that all natural disturbances have life-sustaining properties. I recommend Seth R. Reice’s, “The Silver Lining: The Benefits of Natural Disasters,” for an appreciation for why, although nature is amoral, it is not evil. As happened with the victims in the Philippines, innocent humans sometimes find themselves in the way of events that kill individuals but help perpetuate life.

    God allows us to suffer nature’s sometimes deadly turns because people are better off than not living as mortals, and making regular exceptions would actually make for a lesser world. We owe nearly everything that makes life worth living to the frailty of life and the behavior it motivates. That’s little consolation for the loss of life and the suffering in Haiyan’s wake, but God’s logic sound. Life is rightfully left for us to cherish, nurture, protect and sometimes lose.

    • Roman, thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. You have an outstanding blog devoted to the topic of theodicy. I look forward reading more of it as you have put a lot of thought into the subject and have a very clear, logical discussion of the issue. I am glad to have found your site.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  9. In my opinion, we are never fully certain of any outcome of any action or intention in this world. This is only based on the Principle of Uncertainty. Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems also demonstrate that no mathematical or logical conclusion is satisfactory or complete, which also results in probability. Game Theory used by strategists and economists is akin to gambling which is probabilistic. Quantum Physics is full of probabilities and not one scientist has been able to fully understand it. Einstein and Bohr could not agree on the reasons beyond the strange phenomenon of quantum entanglement (relatedness) of subatomic particles. Yet, experiments since 1982 have proved the quantum entanglement of subatomic particles at a very large distance from each other in the universe which lead us to say that the universe has the footprints or the stamp of the Triune God of Christians. For a more detailed treatment, see my article (Quantum Synthesis – An Introduction) at
    http://www.todayquestions.blogspot.ca/2013/10/the-quantum-sign-of-life.html
    Here is my point: If everything we do is not absolutely certain unless inspired by God, how can we decipher the mystery of suffering? If we hardly know the mysteries of life, how are we able to decipher the mystery of suffering which involves relatedness, free will, and, above all, the will of God? To know the will of God, I think I must know God like a child knows his mother and trusts her. St. Bernard wrote about the love of God. You may wish to read “St. Bernard on the Four Loves” here:
    http://todayquestions.blogspot.ca/2008/07/st-bernard-on-four-loves.html
    The mystery of suffering is a big question.

    • George, thank you very much for your comments and your links. There is a lot to digest. Perhaps this could be the subject of a future blogpost. Thank you again for your insights.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  10. Suffering is a big mystery. How can we decipher it if we live in a probabilistic universe? And even if we find a reasoning behind it, how do we know God’s will for everyone who suffers? Peter Kreeft attempted an answer here:
    http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/suffering.htm

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