- Dissonant Harmonies:Tolkien's Musical Theodicy
At the heart of what it means to be a human being are crucial questions which have given birth to all philosophy: where does the world come from? What is the origin of evil? Why are suffering and death part of our world? Human beings of all times and places have tried to provide many answers to these fundamental problems, and several of these answers are deeply intertwined with religious beliefs. Indeed, once the existence of one or more divine beings is posited, these questions may take a more direct and almost defiant shape: if there is an omnipotent and benevolent being, why is the existence of evil tolerated? And why is there such a thing as evil in the first instance?
Facing this terrible question, one possible answer is the one we have come to identify with Manichaeism, but which is present in several religions and philosophies, regularly surfacing across time and space: the benign divine being is not absolutely omnipotent, but has to contend continually with one (or more) equally divine beings who are entirely evil (or who have some traits we identify as evil, such as bellicosity). Thus, history is seen as the battlefield between the good and evil powers, and human beings frequently represent the (innocent) casualties of this divine war.
The Christian response to the problem of evil and suffering is both simple and complex. It is simple, since it is primarily in the form of an icon, that of the crucified and risen Christ, whose paschal mystery embodies—in a surprising and powerful fashion—both the goodness and the omnipotence of God; it is complex since, beyond this immediate and visible answer, it admits several (and sometimes deeply different) philosophical or theological accounts of how God's benevolence and omnipotence are shown in Christ's Passion and resurrection. One of the most compelling theological explanations of the origin of evil is that of St. Augustine, who, indeed, worked out his philosophical and spiritual theology precisely in response to—and against—the Manichaean view, to which he had himself previously adhered. By this account (very simplistically summarized here), "evil" is in fact a non-entity, a non-being; it is to Being what darkness is to [End Page 93] light, i.e. a lack of goodness.1 To materialize or personalize evil is, for Augustine, to fall into the Manichean heresy.
Augustine's view, though enormously influential in the history of Christian thought and of Western philosophy in general, was, however, by no means the only response to the problem of evil. Indeed, several theologies which acknowledged their common origin in his thought ended up with intensely divergent results. With the advent of modernity, in particular, the need started to be felt for a theodicy, a formal vindication of God. Events such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 constituted an intellectual and emotional scandal for the culture of their time, and prompted some of the most prominent thinkers to cite God in the tribunal of reason, asking Him to account for the unaccountable suffering of many innocents. Though theodicy frequently assumed the form of an ex-officio defense of God's will, it also implicitly admitted human beings' right to challenge God on the ground of the problem of evil. While this move is theologically problematic, since created beings are by definition incapable of comprehending the fullness of the mystery of God, it has however an authoritative precedent in the Bible itself, where Job, a righteous man, requires from God an explanation for his suffering. The theodicies of Job's friends, which constitute a great part of the eponymous book, are ultimately discarded by God Himself, who reveals His glory to Job. This Old Testament book is therefore doubly fascinating in the effective dialectic between the overall narrative and the speeches: on the one hand, God seems to accept the challenge of suffering human beings, and indeed is more favourable to Job's protest rather than to his friends' well-meaning justifications of God (Job 42:7). On the other hand, God's response to Job is an assertion of His omnipotence and of the inscrutable...