In Christian thought, the classic theological response to evil and suffering, known as "theodicy," operates on a metaphysical level. It aims to elucidate questions about God: God's power to prevent evil, God's goodness and justice, and God's purposes in allowing evil. It also examines questions about humanity: Are humans chronically prone to sin and violence? Does suffering serve good purposes? Does God redeem suffering? In recent Christian attempts at theodicy, attention has focused on divine omnipotence and human freedom in attempts to exculpate God for cruelty in allowing the magnitude of suffering visible in such events as the Holocaust, where six million Jews and five million Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, and other noncombatants were killed under Nazi orders. Symmetrical with exploration of the "front end" explanatory questions of why bad things happen in a supposedly good world, theodicies also explore the "back end" justificatory questions of how God can heal the damage, unevenly and unfairly distributed, in this life or the afterlife. Key exemplars of modern theodicy are Leibniz and Hegel, thinkers who have greatly influenced twentieth-century analytic and continental philosophy of religion, respectively. Despite the urgency of responding to evil, theodicy has been criticized for its abstract, global approach to suffering and its programmatic focus on justifying God in the face of violence. My own critique of theodicy has epistemic and moral components. Theodicy rests on epistemological hubris, building precarious intellectual systems in pursuing knowledge of God. Additionally, theodicy is guilty of moral turpitude on account of its single-minded focus on explanation, which smooths over the scandal of suffering and overlooks the prevention and alleviation of violence.2
Fortunately, there are more promising alternatives than theodicy in Christian thought. Particularly in the twentieth century, existentialist and Marxian philosophical movements have contributed to practical rather than theoretical emphases in response to theodicy questions. Reflection on the situatedness of the subject has prompted this shift as theology becomes more self-conscious of its cultural assumptions. Especially since the 1960s, contextual varieties of theology have emerged that recognize its socially embedded character. Theology is never purely dislocated conceptual reflection, innocent of ethical consequences, but a discourse with practical origins and effects. To use Marxian vocabulary, all theology is an "ideology" expressing the conscious and unconscious interests of a social group or class. This insight [End Page 73] does not dismiss the truth and power of theology, but forces closer examination of its production and implications. As Marx wrote in his "Theses on Feuerbach," "philosophers [and theologians] have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."3 Theology as a discourse must attend to how it functions within society to motivate opposition or acceptance of violence. Also, it must attend to how reliably it exposes and articulates violence within its vocabulary, and what social cases of violence it addresses.
I propose that the shift toward practical or contextual Christian anti-theodicy responses to violence resonates with Buddhist attention to practice, rather than speculation, in answer to suffering. To use a well-known image from the Buddha's teaching, all human beings are like persons pierced with poisoned arrows. All suffer grievously because of craving and desire, and desperately long for relief. In such a condition of life, sliding toward death while suffering, what is the most urgent need: to find out how to remove the poisoned arrow and heal the wound, or to find out where the arrow came from and why it was shot?4 Of course, the moral of the story is that the alleviation of suffering is primary and urgent. It would be foolish to searchfor an explanation instead of a cure for the poison. Understanding the cosmic origins of suffering is a distraction, irrelevant to alleviating suffering and detrimental to practice. Preoccupation with metaphysical speculation does not produce wisdom. Such wisdom is the fruit of awareness resulting from meditation training.
In presenting my ideas to a forum for Buddhist-Christian dialogue, I am very much aware of the perils of comparative thinking. My understanding of Buddhism reflects the Westernized transmission of Mahayana Zen Buddhist traditions, based on writings intended for an English-speaking, North American, primarily...