Book Review: Cascade Companion to Evil.
This is a short but richly rewarding volume that might be described as a relaxed, wide-ranging and concise guide to evil from a Christian point of view. It wishes to answer questions about how evil can exist in a universe created out of love. Taliaferro is Professor of Philosophy at an American Lutheran college, and co-editor of a massive six-volume historical survey, History of Evil (published by Routledge). The first chapter (“Good versus evil”) spends time defining both good and evil, partly by emphasising the role of a good created order that can even enable evil intentions to be implemented. Taliaferro understands ethics as based on the primacy of divine commands set within the context of God’s good creation. He argues for a divine decision in creation that has enabled the evolution of a range of creatures, including free and rational ones. He also makes a concerted appeal to free will, deploying an expanded version of Alvin Plantinga’s “free will defense” alongside the notion of a world that enables virtuous soul-making. A world containing creatures with freedom of thought and action requires a world that is governed by natural regularities and is at least partially predictable; such a world can be understood and appreciated as more valuable than one without these freedoms, even though it can also lead to freely chosen actions that are both morally wrong and open to evil consequences. A (mainly Augustinian) account of original sin and free will is also included.
Chapter two is rather awkwardly entitled “The difference between justification and redemption” as Talaiferro differentiates–at some length–between good understood as “justified”, (such as lies to Nazis that enable a greater good), and the kind of good that brings redemption of some kind. An appealing discussion of redemption and incarnation–in a richly biblical and christological setting–follows. Heaven, hell, purgatory and whether this cosmos is the best possible, also receive attention.
The third chapter (“The ethics of creating a world and the ethics in a world”) asks the question “whether our world is or is not the kind of world that would be created and sustained by the God of Christianity” (55). He answers with a wide-ranging and open-eyed inventory of both ubiquitous goodness, beauty and love, alongside horrendous evil–and the apparent immersion of the God known in Christ in each of these realms. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the ways in which theistic belief in life after life can help to make sense of suffering (69-73).
The book’s final chapter, “Confronting evil with good,” moves discussion into a practical key as it offers a realistic survey of both the theory and practice of confronting and overcoming evil. On the grounds of “the indissoluble unity of faith and action” (85f), Taliaferro appeals to four biblically-derived Christian “primacies”: self-examination over judging others, love over hate, global community over nationalism and individualism, and “the primacy of the dispossessed.” His conclusion: “the most important Christian response to evil is not an intellectual demonstration to explain why God allows evil, rather it is human lives lived in pursuit of the good and opposition to all that undermines it” (86).
What might be the strengths and weaknesses of the volume? It contains an appealingly wide mix of readable material, well-resourced and fortified by fairly solid chunks of received wisdom from a wide range of sources. Theologically–and philosophically–speaking, it is clear that Taliaferro is not easily categorised; he seems as equally relaxed drawing upon open theism (especially Charles Hartshorne) as upon the Reformed stance of Alvin Plantinga; he declares his own spiritually to be that of a practicing Christian “inspired by the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonists … with an openness to transformative mystical experience” (5) so long as that leads to the “pursuit of the good and opposition to all that undermines it” (86). And Taliaferro is clearly at home in the company of wide range of philosophers, past and present, both Christian, secular and other. (Nonetheless, it is probably some time since a scholarly work of philosophical apologetics devoted some three percent of its final word count to a discussion under the heading “Angels and Demons” and the role they might play in a Christian view of evil (73-75).)
According to the publisher, books in this “Companions” series “combine academic rigor with broad appeal and readability.” But it is difficult to imagine the precise audience that the book would appeal to. The image that came to mind for this reviewer: a lively postgrad seminar led by an avuncular figure willing and able to stimulate students by means of sharp observations drawn from an immensely wide range of sources. For example: one chapter has a block of ten pages with injections of quite lengthy quotes from Hartshorne, Plantinga, Keith Ward, John Hick, Richard Swinburne, Marilyn Adams and Dan Cohn-Sherbok. Another chapter is dependent on a succession of quite long passages from Boethius, Anselm, Piers the Ploughman, Roger Scruton and Kierkegaard. Despite its general clarity and readability, such building blocks may place the book beyond the reach of many church home-groups, for example; though with guidance (and careful use of the discussion questions with which each chapter ends) it will help many who struggle to offer a response to questions about evil and suffering. This reviewer can say that not often does he read a volume whose every page had him stopping to admire and ponder. The book concludes with a select bibliography of over one hundred items (some twenty of them from Taliaferro himself).
Bob Robinson is a Research Fellow Emeritus of Laidlaw College, Christchurch.