Samuel Shearn is studying an MPhil in Modern Theology at the University of Oxford on an Ertegun Graduate Scholarship in the Humanities. He was recently awarded the 2013 Religious Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize for his essay Moral critique and defence of theodicy’. This annual and international Prize is sponsored jointly by Cambridge University Press and the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion. The winning entry is published in Religious Studies (Cambridge University Press). Samuel shares his thoughts on the Prize and provides a summary of his winning essay.

My essay discusses how we should talk about God and suffering. I take seriously the charge that it is immoral to defend God and give reasons for why God allows suffering. I have friends who are facing severe challenges as they watch their child suffer. It just doesn’t seem right to come up with some great explanation as to why everything is in fact alright.

There are religious and non-religious people who hold a similar view, known as moral anti-theodicy. A classic version of it is expressed by Dostoevsky’s character Ivan in the novel The Brothers Karamazov. A recent influential exposition of this view is D. Z. Phillips’s The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (SCM Press, 2004). Coming from a theological background, I approached the issue with a broadly sympathetic view of moral anti-theodicy. Surveying recent journal articles in the philosophy of religion, I found thoughtful objections to moral anti-theodicy and came up with counter-objections. My essay therefore maintains that ambitious theodicies which claim a silver lining in the clouds of suffering, trivialise suffering and harm sufferers.

However, courses in Ethics, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche made me aware of possible problems with moral anti-theodicy. When expressed as the duty to give horrendous suffering its due weight, moral anti-theodicy is susceptible to the over-demanding concerns associated with ethical theory. It occurred to me that those who, like Nietzsche, take a stand against Schopenhauerian pessimism, were acting like theodicists. Therefore a moral anti-theodicy must have at least structural parallels with a morally demanded pessimism.

My essay also looks at certain types of ‘low-ambition’ theodicy which imagine God to be making an all-or-nothing decision – a decision as to whether to create a humanity or not, assuming humans are free to do wrong. In such cases, I argue that it is not immoral to affirm God’s decision to create. If you claim it is immoral, you are a philosophical pessimist, believing it would be better if humanity had never been. This seems to me less like a moral stance, and more like a way of seeing the world.

This issue led me down a path I thought I would not take: that of exonerating a certain type of theodicy. Even if ambitious theodicies trivialise suffering, something like a free-will defence is probably not immoral. However, I maintain my scepticism about the role of theodicy. Theodicy cannot comfort those who undergo severe suffering, because the God of theodicies appears to remain aloof to that suffering.

The wider context into which the essay speaks is the interaction between first- and third-person perspectives on human life and God. In philosophy of religion there has been some welcome softening of the boundaries between analytic and continental philosophy, and I hope my essay is a contribution in that regard. I have tried to be stringent in my argument without being too abstract. I cover quite a lot of ground and make quite a lot of claims so I hope the essay will invite some critical responses.

On winning an Oscar or other prize it is traditional to express one’s gratitude to all those who made it possible. Firstly, my thinking and writing on the issue benefited from teaching and conversations with staff at the University of Birmingham while I was doing an MA in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Secondly, I had no funding for my MA and was reliant upon the financial support of friends and a couple of small charitable trusts. Also, my parents let me stay rent-free for a year (with wife and kids!). This is the story of much postgraduate study in the humanities – without all this help: no essay, and no prize.

To access this essay, please click here.

Submissions for the 2014 Religious Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize will be invited in September 2013. You can read last year’s guidelines here.

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