Thursday, October 14, 2010

Theodicy Fatigue, Virtue, and Faith

My blog conversation between Barth and the Coen brothers earlier this week spawned a few reactions elsewhere in the blogosphere, including one at Inhabitio Dei that looks at the film as a depiction of Holy Saturday and one at Experimental Theology which analyzes it as an expression of "theodicy fatigue". What I really like about the last one is that it shows how theodicy (the problem of good and evil) is not just a theological problem but a commonly-felt moral and philosophical one. Very well put and worth a read. I'll put an excerpt and my own comment below, but by all means go and give it a good read.

Given the challenge of evil to our "sense making" many attempt to produce a theodicy, a way to show that despite appearances there are links between virtue and happiness. In religion these links are often provided by a God who will, in the end, punish evil and allow virtue to flourish. God, by guaranteeing the links between goodness and flourishing, makes the Cosmos morally coherent and comprehensible. This is the goal of a theodicy; it is an argument that the links between virtue and happiness do exist, even if currently unrealized. One might think of the Enlightenment project as the attempt to have the State (rather than God) guarantee the links between virtue and happiness. That is, according to the Enlightenment if we get a good social contract in place we should be able to create a world where virtuous citizens get rewarded and less virtuous citizens get penalized. . . .

Some history here might be helpful. As Neiman recounts, Europe was profoundly shaken--theologically, existentially, philosophically, and psychologically--in the wake of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. This disaster greatly agitated the Enlightenment thinkers, throwing into doubt their optimistic reliance upon reason and civic virtue. . . . No Country asks us to consider the association between virtue and happiness. Specifically, is there an association? Do the good guys win? Do the bad guys get caught? The answer, in both cases, is no. In No Country the association between virtue and happiness is radically decoupled and dislocated. In No Country we see a theodicy fail. . . . [But] according to Kant, for virtue to exist in the world we need a failed theodicy, where the links between virtue and happiness cannot be guaranteed. Virtue, to be virtue, can have no guarantee. In short, virtue can only exist in a world like No Country for Old Men. (Richard Beck)

My comment on his blog might not make sense without reading the whole, but I said "I loved this film and couldn't stop thinking of it when I was reading Barth non-stop this last year. You have here given it a remarkable interpretation which takes it to new depths for me (and I've thought about it a lot). Thanks for this. (I'm thrilled to have indirectly spurred you to write this post, because it is great).

I do want to say that I don't think the Christian theodicy necessarily presents us with a Disney God [where virtue always has a happy ending]. Mind you, it is often taken that way. I guess the promise of a resurrection or after life might serve as a bit of self-interest that promotes virtue for some, but I think for most people this too fails. There is hope and faith, but they don't really guarantee any benefits to oneself in this life, and thus don't take away the fact that one must somehow find the courage to self-give; to be virtuous in this respect.

Besides, one can never quite be sure one has actually been virtuous. Who is to say on judgment day we don't find out we were fighting on the wrong side sometimes? All this to say I don't know that I agree with commenters who have implied Christianity and Disney are alike. But it may be that no one is saying that. I just wanted to think about that a bit.

A question, though: It seemed like a leap at the end to credit Sheriff Bell and Carla Jean as virtuous, as holding out a heroic kind of faith. I see the general point being made, that virtue can only be such in a failed theodicy . . . but it seems that the resources to call something virtuous or right elude us. And I'm not sure what the faith is in. I'm not sure virtue can survive in a total theodicy fail, because a total theodicy fail feels to me like it did for Sheriff Bell: a total fail of virtue and a resignation to chaos.

Maybe I'm missing an important turn. Nonetheless, I really liked this treatment of the film and this insight into the history of theodicy. Thanks."


Colin Toffelmire said...

Great post as always Jon, and for the record I loved your Coens & Barth article too. Makes me want to dive back into No Country again :).

In his article Beck gives a quick nod to the biblical witness, saying that the Bible doesn't gloss over evil or the sticky problem of theodicy. I've been doing some prep work for a course I'm teaching on Ecclesiastes in the Winter, and I think that a conversation between the Coens and Qoheleth and Barth would be even more interesting. There's this fascinating tension in Ecclesiastes between two voices, the one in the main body of the book (Qoheleth) and the one in the epilogue at the end (the Epilogist). The tension between the two has been drawn in a bunch of ways, but Boda has recently written an article that argues for a kind of creative tension between them, where the the Epilogist does agree with elements of what Qoheleth says, but re-frames both Qoheleth's darkness and his joy in terms of Torah-faithfulness and life lived in relationship with God.

It was just such an excellent fit with your original article, and what you're saying here that it made me perk up a bit. It's very possible that you'll get a big spike of traffic some time in the new year, cause I think I might assign your Barth article and this post as required reading, and No Country as required watching, when we get to the question of whether or not everything really is all vanity and vapor (Eccl 1:2).

Anyways, great stuff as always man.

Jon Coutts said...

Brilliant use for the film. Ecclesiastes ties in nicely indeed.
Have fun teaching that course, that's awesome. I'd love to see your syllabus!

Jon Coutts said...

Colin: You might be amused/interested to know that at a recent conference I heard a paper from a Cambridge student whose whole thesis project is to produce a picture-book version of Ecclesiastes. She was a good artist and I'm sure it'll be interesting, but, c'mon.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Well, that's a first for me...I didn't know that was an available option for a dissertation project. Hey, it'll probably make more money than most dissertations do if it gets published :).

Though how exactly does one do a picture book for a non-narrative piece of literature?

Jon Coutts said...

The premise is that you can communicate propositions or ideas in pictures too. Not to replace the words, but to explore the use of picture to speak.

We had a small amount of time for Q&A, but I did ask her whether her picture book of Ecclesiastes would be the book as it is in the Christian Bible, the Jewish Bible, or as a stand alone text? What I meant was whether she would attempt to read it with a view to Christ or on its own within the Hebrew context of its day, or as a modern telling about the futility of human efforts. I actually expected her to say that latter, based on her presentation, but she said the Christian one.