Theodicy and Morality

In A Systems Theory of Religion, Luhmann addresses

the question of why God has created or permitted the difference between good and bad, and why he does not use the possibilities available to him to help the good triumph instead of the bad. Only in the modern era do people speak of “theodicy,” but it is a problem as old as identifying God with morality. (127)

Theodicy is the attempt to account for why an all-powerful, all-knowing God would permit evil and the suffering associated with evil. Luhmann is saying that this is only a problem when religion is associated with morality, which of course means that religion was not always associated with morality and does not have to be associated with morality. The connection is not necessary but contingent. Thus we have “immoral” Greek and Roman gods and an Old Testament God that gets jealous and lashes out at his enemies.

In stratified and centralized societies, morality was not really an issue because a way of life was determined by one’s social strata. For a nobleman to beat a commoner was not considered immoral. And if a nobleman killed a slave or serf belonging to another nobleman, he would just have to reimburse the master for his loss of property. Of course, commoners could be raped, etc., without any legal consequences. People were not treated as individuals with rights but just elements of a social strata. A father could kill one of his children with impunity, and so on.

Morality only comes into play when people become individuals, or persons capable of entering into legal contracts, and so on. When a single legal system arose to cover everyone–as distinguished from the older society which might have had many, uncoordinated legal systems–society changed radically. The prerogatives of the nobility could then be limited. This new way of life came into being in renaissance Florence.

Theodicy led to the decoupling of good/bad and happiness/sorrow.

Although some good people have to be asked to suffer, they are at least able to know that their suffering is observed and approved of by God. They may then cling all the more to their goodness instead of its consequences. Here as elsewhere, theodicy also means having more variety within a more reliable order. (Luhmann 127)

The creation of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory was useful in the de-coupling of morality from happiness. A person who is sinful but happy in life will go to Purgatory (if he accepts God’s grace) or Hell (if he rejects grace). Once purified, the soul who accepts God’s grace through Christ can ascend from Purgatory of Paradise. This is where the genius of Dante comes to the fore. Prior to Dante, the netherworld or Hades was a place where everyone went after death. Heroes (e.g., Odysseus, Aeneas) and gods (e.g., Persephone, Inanna) might visit the underworld and return to the world of the living, but the netherworld was not a place of punishment.

Only when people are individualized can they be sent to Hell for personal sins. Previously, punishment could be inflicted on all of humanity (e.g., the Flood), an entire nation (e.g., the Hebrews) or a  family. Multiple generations of a family could be punished for one family member’s transgression. Only in Dante (or theologians like Aquinas who Dante drew on) do we start to see the punishment of individuals for moral offenses. A happy but morally corrupt individual would be punished after death, even if just temporarily in. Purgatory. So we no longer have to resent the selfish rich people. Capitalism can prosper.

Further, the invention of Limbo allowed Dante to place the people, like Virgil, who lived virtuous lives before Christ to go to classical netherworld. And the Church had a place for dead unbaptized infants to go.


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