The Problem of Theodicy
Every nomos is established, over and over again, against the threat of destruction by the anomic forces endemic to the human condition. In religious terms, the sacred order of the cosmos is reaffirmed, over and over again in the face of chaos. (p.53)
Nevertheless, human society is faced with anomic and destabilizing phenomena, such as "suffering, evil and, above all, death" (p.53).
An explanation of these phenomena in terms of religious legitimations, of whatever degree of theoretical sophistication, may be called a theodicy. (p.53)Berger is especially insistent that theodicies per se need not be theoretically sophisticated (p.53), though he admits that they will vary in rationality (p.54). Fundamentally, theodicy is an attitude that surrenders the self to a social transcendence.
[E]very nomos entails a transcendence of individuality and thus, ipso facto, implies a theodicy. (p.54)
The nomos locates the individual's life in an all-embracing fabric of meanings that, by its very nature, transcends that life. (p.54)Berger illustrates this insight with reference to social rites of passage.
The social ritual transforms the individual event into a typical case, just as it transform individual biography into an episode in the history of the society. (p.54)
In other words, he may "lose himself" in the meaning-giving nomos of his society. (p.55)
In consequence, the pain becomes more tolerable, the terror less overwhelming, as the sheltering canopy of the nomos extends to cover even those experiences that may reduce the individual to howling animality. (p.55)This means that the basic theodicy precedes all individual societies.
Theodicy proper, then, as the religious legitimation of anomic phenomena, is rooted in certain crucial characteristics of human sociation as such. (p.55)Berger analysis this situation through the interplay of masochism and sadism, where the one individual erases themselves to make the other the only reality. Berger correctly points out that this must fail
... the self cannot be annihilated this side of death and ... the other can only be absolutized in illusion .... (p.56)Berger uses this as an analogy to describe the self-loss of totalitarian submission.
... the self-denying submission to the power of the collective nomos can be liberating in the same way. Here, the concrete other of social experience is vastly magnified in the personifications of collective order. (p.57)Berger then widens the view to the religious self-abnegation, whose other is properly transcendental and makes no mistakes.
The sadistic god is not handicapped by ... empirical imperfections. He remains invulnerable, infinite, immortal by definition. The surrender to him is ipso facto protected from the contingencies and uncertainties of merely social masochism---for ever. (p.57)In short
... the masochistic attitude is one of the persistent factors of irrationality in the problem of theodicy, no matter what degree of rationality may be attained .... (p.57)Berger reminds us that theodicy does not preserve "happiness", "but meaning" (p.58).
These experiences, however painful they may be, at least make sense now [under "an appropriate plausibility structure", (p.58), RCK] in terms that are both socially and subjectively convincing. (p.58)The suffering believer desires "to know why these misfortunes have come to him in the first place" as badly as "relief from these misfortunes" (p.58). This reconstruction allows Berger to distance any claims that all theodicies have to necessarily be coupled to redemption (p.58).
Because societal collectives are made up of individuals, the benefits scale to the social in predictable ways.
Entire collectivities are thus permitted to integrated [sic RCK] anomic events, acute or || chronic, into the nomos established in their society. (pp.58f)And these anomies need not be external to the social order.
One of the very important social functions of theodicies is, indeed, their explanation of the socially prevailing inequalities of power and privilege. In this function ... theodicies directly legitimate the particular institutional order in question. (p.59)
[T]heodicies provide the poor with a meaning for their poverty, but may also provide the rich with a meaning for their wealth. (p.59)And if the same theodicy can serve both groups, Berger argues, it "constitutes an essentially sado-masochistic collusion, on the level of meaning" (p.59). There are cases of multiple theodicies as well, historically speaking (p.59). Berger cannot provide a full classification of theodicies, but observes that the more irrational ones claim that the individual is defined through their group membership.
The individual's innermost being is considered to be the fact of his belonging to the collectivity---the clan, the tribe, the nation, or what no. (p.60)
This identification is typically apprehended as being congenital and thus inevitable for the individual. It is carried in his blood, and he cannot deny it unless he denies his own being. (p.60)Biographical anomies become episodes in the larger and continuing narrative of the collectivity (p.60). This is helpful because "the collectivity" unlike the individual "can usually be conceived of as immortal" (p.61).
This approach is often found in primitive religions, where mana or some mythological speculative version thereof allows society and nature to be embedded in the same totality of meaning (p.61). And Berger is adamant about such theodicies not needing any particular story of hopeful afterlife or immortality, as "the ultimately meaning-giving fact" is simply "the eternal eurhythmy of the cosmos" (p.62). Such religions tend toward "ontological continuity between the generations" (p.62), providing immortality to the line of descent.
The entire collectivity ... carries with it through time the same fundamental life that is incarnate in each of its members. (p.62)The flip-side of this belief is that enemies must work the much harder to interrupt this flow of life.
To destroy this immortality, an enemy must eradicate every last living soul belonging to the collectivity---a far from uncommon practice in history, it may be added. (p.62)This solution also has clear answers for the imbalance in resources and power.
The same participation of all in the life of all ... legitimates whatever social inequalities may exist within the collectivity. The power and privilege held by the few is held, as it were, vicariously for the many, who participate in it by virtue of their identification with the collective totality. (p.62)Berger then points to the Chinese conceptions of ancestors and descendants to show that there are more complex models of the same basic theodicy (p.63).
Another flavoring of the same strategy is any form of mysticism that seeks to become one with the ultimate being.
We can define mysticism, for our present purposes, as the religious attitude in which man seeks union with the sacred forces or beings. ... all individuality vanishes and is absorbed in the all-pervasive ocean of divinity. (p.63)[[RCK: Notice how this is also the claim of monophysitism, which perhaps not incidentally came from a country with a strong monastic tradition.]]
Berger underscores how mysticism across cultures tends toward masochism
... as evidenced by the cross-cultural recurrence of ascetic self-mortification and self-torture in connection with mystical phenomena. (p.64)Because:
Where the perfect union is achieved, the annihilation of the self and its absorption by the divine realissimum constitute the highest bliss imaginable, the culmination of the mystical quest in ineffable ecstasy. (p.64)Berger then cites a mystical poem of Jalalu'l-Din Rumi, a Muslim mystic (p.64), to show that the sophistication and complexity of mystical speculation cannot mask their origin in a "prototypical theodicy of self-transcendence" (p.65).
A different position on the spectrum of irrationality and rationality of theodicies is taken by the Indian thought of the combination of karma and samsara, that is, cosmic causal law and eternal rebirth (p.65).
[T]he life of the individual is only an ephemeral link in a causal chain that extends infinitely into both past and future. (p.65)
It follows that the individual has no one to blame for his misfortunes except himself---and, conversely, he may ascribe his good fortune to nothing but his own merits. (p.65)
The karma-samsara complex thus affords an example of complete symmetry between the theodicies of suffering and of happiness. It legitimates the conditions of all social strata simultaneously and, in its linkage with the conception of dharma (social duty, particularly cast duty), constitutes the most thoroughly conservative religious system devised in history. (p.65)Berger reminds us that the system spread, via the Brahmins qua "social engineers", from princely house to princely house in the Indian subcontinent. And the advantages to the upper strata of society are in Berger's view documented in the Code of Manu (p.65). [[RCK: E.g. Manu 5:96ff, on the ritual purity of the king as incarnation of the eight guardian deities; Manu 5:147-169, on controlling women and their duties.]]
Berger argues that folk religion---magic and mystical exercises and divinities intervening---managed to soften the blow of such a harsh symmetry (p.66), as well as
the simple faith that obedience to one's dharma will improve one's lot in future reincarnations. (p.66)The harshness was also dealt with by escaping back to the irrational form of the theodicy, as the mystical union between the individual soul and the divine unity, in the atman-brahman complex (p.66).
Here [in the atman-brahman, RCK] ... the perfect rationality of the karma-samsara, having extended itself to its ultimate limit, overreaches itself and falls back into the irrational prototype of self-transcendent participation characteristic of all mysticism. (p.67)Buddhism is in Berger's interpretation a radicalization of that rational thought, especially in the Pali tradition (p.67). [[RCK: Berger's dismissiveness of the folk religion of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity can be defended as an expression of the fact that this is the rational pole of the theodicic expression, thus requiring special attention to speculation of the experts.]] After purging all gods, demons and magic (p.67), only man remains and the three fundamental insights, "anichcha or impermanence, dukkha or sorrow, anatta or non-selfhood" (p.68), from which man constructs his own salvation to reach "nibbana (or nirvana)" (p.68).
There is no place here for any religious attitudes except the coolness of rational understanding and rational action to attain the goal of understanding. (p.68)
[T]he problem of theodicy is solved in the most rational manner conceivable, namely by eliminating any and all intermediaries between man and the rational order of the universe. (p.68)As the anomic issues are revealed to be illusionary, they disappear and with them theodicy, now devoid of a problem to solve (p.68). The individual is dispenses with through anatta, the insight of non-selfhood (p.68).
Between these two poles of irrationality and rationality lie multiple rationalizations of theodicy that form Berger's next focus of investigation (p.68). Into this bucket belong all forms of "messianism, millenarianism, and eschatology" (p.68), who promise a resolution of the present anomic state by recourse to a future nomic state (p.68).
For example, the sufferings of the Black Death gave birth to a number of violent millennarian movements, but so did the social displacements brought on by the Industrial Revolution. (p.68)Though this strategy is prevalent in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim orbit, it also found "[w]ith greater modifications" "in such movements as the Taiping Rebellion, the Ghost Dance, or the Cargo Cults" (p.69).
[T]he anomic phenomena are legitimated by reference to a future nomization, thus reintegrating them within an over-all [sic RCK] meaningful order. (p.69)
Berger correctly points out that the need to have a present and a future requires historiographical capabilities.
[The messianic-millennarian, RCK] theodicy will be rational to the extent that it involves a coherent theory of history (a condition ... that is generally fulfilled in the case of messianic-millenarian movements within the Biblical orbit.) (p.69)
It [i.e. the messianic-millennarian complex, RCK] will be actually or potentially revolutionary to the extent that the divine action about to intervene in the course of events requires or allows human co-operation. (p.69)
Of course this approach "is highly vulnerable to empirical disconfirmation" (p.70)---and parousia delay is just one case thereof. Thus, a common refinement is to transpose the nomic state into another reality, where "compensation is promised in other-worldly terms" (p.70)---a strategy that suggests itself in settings where "notions of immortality" were entertained (p.70). [[RCK: That this theodicy was "needed" in "the origins" (p.70) of such notions seems to overplay Berger's hand.]]
One now looks for it [i.e. divine compensation, RCK] beyond the grave. There, at last, the sufferer will be comforted, the good man rewarded, and the wicked punished. In other words, the afterlife becomes the locale of nomization. (p.70)Both Egypt and China worked out such theodicies, and Berger reminds us that there is no revolutionary spirit to be had from these strategies (p.70); the "suffering servant" in DtrJs is another example (p.71). The key contribution of this theodicy is that the empirical verification [[RCK: and typically falsification]] is blocked (p.71).
An alternate solution is the dualistic theodicy (p.71).
In these formations [e.g. Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism, RCK] all anomic phenomena are, of course, ascribed to the evil or negative forces, while all nomization is understood as the progressive victory of their good or positive antagonist. (p.71)Here, redemption becomes participation on the right side (p.71). Theodicies such as the Gnostic one solve the problem by "transposing its terms" (p.72), making the world not part of the cosmos, but either the arena or the realm of chaos (p.72). The effects of negating the world are clear:
... dualistic theodicies tend to be acosmic, ascetic and ahistorical. (p.72)Theodicy becomes a big problem for monotheistic religions (p.73).
If all rival or minor divinities are radically eliminated, and if not only all power but all ethical values are ascribed to the one God who created all things in this or any other world, then the problem of theodicy becomes a pointed question directed to this very conception. (p.73)[[RCK: It is in this sense interesting that both the NT and the early Christian Erbauungsliteratur such as the Acta Petri, maintain the dualistic touch of a divine antagonist, the Devil, but project his defeat as having begun and being completed soon.]]
Berger emphasizes not only the soteriological solution of pushing the anomic resolution into an unverifiable future (p.73), but also the Masochistic tendencies that remain in Christian theology (p.73), caused by the "totally powerful and totally righteous God" (p.73), a problem whose locus classicus is the Book of Job (p.74). Berger argues that the rejection of the right of man to question God in this fashion, as Job resolves the issue---Berger calls this an argumentum contra hominem--- leads directly to the iustificatio of man (p.74).
The question of human sin replaces the question of divine justice. (p.74)Berger then draws out the trajectories of this theodicy to the radical submission of Islam on the one side, and the predestination discussions in Protestantism on the other (p.75).
The Calvinistic glorying in the inexorable counsel of God, who from all eternity has elected a few men for salvation and relegated most men to a destiny in hell, is probably the culmination of the masochistic attitude in the history of religion. (p.75)Berger reminds us that in early Calvinism, there was no way to tell whether oneself belonged to the elect or not, so one could spend an entire life as a worshipping Calvinist---a dangerous life in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands (p.75)---devoted to a God who "had already condemned the worshiper to damnation from the beginning of time" (p.75). [[RCK: Spoken like a true Lutheran, Berger.]]
The sovereignty of God and the negation of man reach a terrifying climax here in a vision of the damned themselves joining in the glorification of that same God who has sentenced them to damnation. (p.75)That this theodicy was only for the religious specialist is indicated by the fact that in practice its tenets were quickly softened by positing a future state where the punishing would cease (p.76), or at least knowledge of the certainty of election (p.76).
Berger now turns to christology as the fundamental motif of solving the theodicy problem for Christianity (p.76).
... it is crucial that the incarnate God is also the God who suffers. Without this suffering, without the agony of the cross, the incarnation would not provide that solution of the problem of theodicy to which, we would contend, it owes its immense religious potency. (p.76)[[RCK: Thus, docetism is not Christian.]]
Only if both the full divinity and the full humanity of the incarnate Christ could be simultaneously maintained, could the theodicy provided by the incarnation be fully plausible. (p.77)From this point of view Berger rejects the origin of the great Christological controversies in "some obscure metaphysical speculations" (p.77).
However, the solution comes with a barb.
This condition is the affirmation that, after all, Christ suffered not for man's innocence, but for his sin. It follows that the prerequisite for man's sharing in the redemptive power of Christ's sacrifice is the acknowledgement of sin. (p.77)Berger discusses the potency of this shift by noting that the horrors of the Nazi regime in World War II led to questions of anthropodicy, other than the earthquake of Lisbon in 1755.
[E]ven the nightmares of Nazism [were, RCK] being taken not as a terrible question about the credibility of the Christian God but as a confirmation of the Christian view of human sin. (p.79)With the ongoing collapse of the plausibility of Christian theodicy, the call for "replacing the reign of grace by the reign of justice", as Berger quotes Camus, has become the revolutionary goal:
History and human actions in history have become the dominant instrumentalities by which the nomization of suffering and evil is to be sought. (p.79)Berger there departs from explaining religions and points to the theodicy as the central problem of all Weltanschauungen (p.80).
Our purpose has been accomplished if we have indicated the centrality of the problem of theodicy for any religious effort at world-maintenance, and indeed also for any effort at the latter on the basis of a non-religious Weltanschauung. (p.80)
Unless anomy, chaos and death can be integrated within the nomos of human life, this nomos will be incapable of prevailing through the exigencies of both collective history and individual biography. (p.80)
Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, Garden City, NY (Double Day) 1967.