Review of Richard Rice, Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain

Richard Rice, Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 167 Pps., $20.00.


Richard Rice, a noted Open theist, is professor of religion at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. He is the author of several books, including God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will (2004) and Reason and the Contours of Faith (2013). People have, for millennia, when faced with suffering, asked questions the nature of God. When people do not believe in God, the number one reason they give, more often than not, is the suffering that they have endured, or the suffering that they have witnessed in others. This book had its origin in Rice being asked to provide a graduate course at local health sciences university on the subject of suffering. During the course, he realized that even practically-minded people, those without training in philosophy per se, had need of an approach to handle the topic of suffering.

This book, Rice declares, is driven by one central question: How can ideas about suffering help those who face the experience of suffering? The interface between theories about suffering and the practical challenge of facing suffering deserves careful exploration, as suffering is universal and the urge to make sense of suffering itself is also universal. In this title, after an introductory chapter, Rice surveys seven widely embraced approaches to the problem of pain, as he terms it in the title (otherwise known as the problem of suffering, note), and concludes with a summary chapter that provides guidance on how one can construct their own personal theodicy (note that the term theodicy derives from dikaioō – justify and theos – God). Each chapter begins with a personal response of someone to suffering, and thereafter proceeds to explore the framework of meaning to which this response points. Rice then explains the particular view, and thereafter notes both its conceptual and practical appeals and limits. In what follows, I will flesh out more fully the movements he herein makes.

Indeed, in chapter 1, Rice surveys the perfect plan theodicy. He notes that there are several factors that make the perfect plan theodicy appealing. For example, it has – seemingly – strong biblical support. The idea also makes good sense, as it flows logically from the conviction that God has infinite power and wisdom. The notion that God is in perfect control also appeals to us personally, as it erases “What if” questions. In addition, it appeals to our deep desire for order. The perfect plan theodicy goes hand-in-hand with the notion that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. If God is God in this sense, sovereignty must be absolute. Whereas some people find this position comforting, others find it to be abhorrent. The most persistent challenge to this particular theodicy is the fact that the world contains such massive amounts of suffering – both natural and unnatural. This theodicy has the staunchest supporters and the most vocal critics of any of the various theodicies surveyed herein.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the free will defense form of theodicy. The basic idea here is that God is not responsible for suffering and that its lies outside God’s will. There is suffering in the world, this form of theodicy holds, because creatures misused their free will. Creatures disobeyed God’s directives, and the world’s ills are a direct consequence of their sin. In its favor, it relieves God of responsibility for suffering. In this view, because God creates out of love, and because God desires a relationship with creatures founded upon love, God is not pleased with mere obedience – he is desirous of obedience because the creatures themselves choose to do so. In this free will defense, God’s purposes require the cooperation of the creatures. This view of suffering has allot in common with the perfect plan theodicy, but differs largely with reference to whether suffering is a part of God’s overall plan, or something that is inherently opposed to it. The free will defense opts for the later.

The third chapter explores Irenaeus’s soul-making theodicy. In this theodicy, even our most painful experiences can be “occasions” for growth and development. According to this theodicy, the value of moral growth or character development provides us with the best explanation of suffering in the world. In fact, in this view, it is not only possible to grow through suffering, suffering is absolutely essential to our growth to become mature, well-developed and moral beings. This method of dealing with suffering connects with our inherent desire to make meaning out of our experiences. Whereas other forms of theodicy consider the world to have been perfect at the beginning, and thereafter corrupted, this one sees perfection to be the end product of life, not the beginning. This theodicy resembles the free will theodicy in many respects, but differs in that in the free will model, God wants creatures to remain loyal, whereas in the soul-making theodicy, God wants creatures to become loyal him. A prevailing problem with this view of suffering is whether it is all truly worth it – i.e., does the degree of suffering become justified by its end product?

Chapter 4 is devoted to what Rice refers to as the cosmic conflict theodicy, which rests on the idea that there are malevolent entities that are in conflict with the force of good, i.e. God. For some who suffer, this view is rewarding, as it enables them to not place responsibility for their suffering at the feet of God, but on a diabolical power that attempts to thwart God’s plan instead. One is reminded of the parable’s mention of the tares within the wheat – “An enemy has done this.” Gregory Boyd is a modern advocate of this view, and he notes that with it the why? and why me? questions dissolve when we replace the classic picture of God with the warfare model. This model shares placing responsibility for suffering upon creatures with the free will theodicy, and there are parts that parallel the account given by soul-making theodicy, as they both picture it to be possible for suffering to be for moral growth. However, the plausibility of this theodicy is its weakest point – does it actually appear to be true that there is a cosmic conflict raging all around us?

In the fifth chapter, Rice explicates the openness of God theodicy, where he notes that this view modifies the concept of divine foreknowledge and God’s relation to the world. Rice notes that this does not mean that God knows nothing of the future, as he knows all possible effects of present causes, and also everything that could happen. However, in this view, God does not know the content of future free decisions. In common with the free will defense, this view of God places the origin of evil to the misuse creaturely freedom. But it differs from perfect plan theodicy and the free will defense by rejecting absolute foreknowledge. This view, instead, avers that the future is genuinely open. This view further pictures God’s creation as intimately connected to him, and in fact as a profound expression of his identity. What God can and cannot do with creation in general and creatures in particular is dependent upon what they do in a large measure. There is nothing that happens to us, in this view, that does not correspondingly also happen to God. Open theism shares with traditional theology the hope that the cosmos will be ultimately transformed at the eschaton. One of its weaknesses, however – at least as perceived by many – is that it presents a view of God that is too limited. Open theists do not grant this objection much credence.

In chapter 6, Rice covers the process theodicy, which he refers to as finite God theodicy. In this view, God cannot – constitutionally – do all that he wants to do. In essence, the proponents of this view have chosen to limit God’s power if forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good. In this view, God is deeply involved with the world, caring for it, and being responsive to it. But there is only so much God can do. God cannot act directly and unilaterally within the world to accomplish what he wants. Rather, the application of God’s power is by persuasion, rather than coercion. God can guide the choice, but he cannot unilaterally impose it. With Hartshorne, it asserts that the only livable doctrine of divine power is that it influences all that happens but determines nothing. The pros of this view are manifold, in my opinion. For example, if God indeed had all power to direct events, such a concept would remove from us all responsibility, as well as all incentive, to better the world we live in. If there is nothing God cannot do, there is truly no reason for us to do anything. In this view, love is the preeminent characteristic of God. God’s activity, in this view, always involves his creatures. But there are also questions regarding this view. For example, it runs the risk of relegating God to anonymous “spectator” in the world.

Chapter 7 examines what Rice calls theodicies of protest. This view of theodicy is comprised of – succinctly – outrage at the suffering. It is not rational, and no attempt is made to explain it – it just happens. This is especially the case with respect to innocent parties and children. However, protest theodicies present us with a paradox: our instinct is to condemn the act of cruelty, whatever it may be in this case, but this response necessarily implies the existence of a supreme moral being. Yet this idea is that which the protest theodicy itself rejects. The only manner to justify an objective standard is to attribute it to a lawgiver, in other words, to God. In the final chapter, Rice constructs a practical theodicy that attempts not to construct a final meaning out of suffering, but rather helps those in the midst of suffering to respond in a resourceful manner. It is important, Rice contends, that we think through our theodicy, for what we think about suffering in general and how we experience suffering ourselves are intimately related.

What we need, Rice avers, is a practical theodicy. Rice refers to this endeavor as forming a “bricolage,” derived from bricoleur, which refers to a handyman who makes do with whatever materials he can find and patches them up with this or that to render it useful to him. With Rice, I attempt to model this bricolage formation in appreciating the confidence in the fulfillment of God’s purposes that the perfect plan theodicy represents; the affirmation of soul-making theodicy that God uses all things for our good; the insistence that suffering is not what God intended for creation that is basic to the free will defense; the portrait of good versus evil that the cosmic conflict theodicy paints; the conviction of open theists that God took a risk in creating free creatures; the realization that God does not always get his way that the finite God theodicy represents; and the moral outrage at evil that is expressed in the protest theodicy.

Suffering unsettles us because it threatens a deeply held conviction that (nearly) all of us possess: that the world is orderly and life makes sense. Because suffering threatens the confidence that reality is stable and our lives have purpose, we are compelled to make some sense out of it. I am reminded of Viktor Frankl’s words, after the Holocaust, to the effect that someone who has a why to live can survive any how. This title will be instructive for those who are attempting to understand their own suffering, as well as being profitable to those who attempt to help others through their suffering. It is written, says Rice, for the “general reader,” who is not a specialist in theology or intending to become one, but who is nevertheless interested in the issues that suffering raises. While they will not find the perfect answer by Rice, as suffering ultimately defies logical explanation, ministers and other caregivers will find this text to be highly informative.

Bradford McCall

Holy Apostles College and Seminary

Review of Richard Rice, Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.