So, when I say “Rome, part 2,” that’s something of a deception. I’ve since left Rome and traveled to Florence, but since it will be a continuation on what happened to me in Rome the other day, I don’t feel so bad about deceiving you. Also, it’s gorgeous here.
In my previous post, I wrote about a conversation I had with two priests in Rome which prominently featured Chuck Taylors, superheroes, angels, and theodicy. I’m going to break this continuation up into two posts, one about superheroes and theodicy and a second about superheroes and angels. So, let’s get up to speed on what I’m talking about when I say “theodicy.”
Briefly, a theodicy is an attempt to argue that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being is probable, even in a universe where, as Paul Draper puts it, “gratuitous evils exist.” This is perhaps most famously put in that way which the early Christian apologist Lactantius attributed to Epicurus:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
The Augustinian Tradition (named for St. Augustine of Hippo) in theodicy accomplishes this goal by making the following assumptions. 1: God made all ex nihilo, out of nothing. 2. Evil exists only as privatio boni, the privation (or absence) of good. 3. Thusly, while there is evil, God did not create it and is not responsible for it. Furthermore, Augustinian theodicy holds that moral evil in human beings is the result of the corruption of God’s creation, and evil choices on the part of individuals represent the absence of good in part of that human’s will.
But, what, praytell, does all that have to do with superheroes? Superheroes aren’t necessarily omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent. They also seem to follow a very different formulation, existing in a space where a greater good (say, Superman), seems to necessitate the rise of evil (Lex Luthor), if only for the sake of story purposes. That is, the presence of a grand allegorical good force isn’t terribly meaningful except in contrast or in combat with great evil.
Put another way, it’s not terribly compelling when our big supernatural buddy who loves humans and particularly Americans, Kal-El, stops a mugging or a simple robbery. In fact, the most interesting thing that has ever happened between Superman and a petty criminal is that scene where Superman lets the bullets being shot at him bounce off of his chest but dodges when the gun is thrown at him.
As it happens, however, the appearance of great evil to challenge great good doesn’t contradict the Augustinian Tradition in theodicy. As Thomas Aquinas put it, evil is a part of good which exists as a necessary absence because the good which comes out of evil or overcomes it is greater than good in isolation. It’s necessary for the development of human morality. It also makes for better storytelling. Put another way, evil is part of the process of maximizing not only the good, but the strength of good in the universe.
Again, we’d all agree that good is at its best when combating or contradicting evil, just as we are more touched by images or stories of good people helping in times of great need than we are by mundane acts of good. In the face of evil and desperation, there are more opportunities for meaningful, exemplary, and perhaps sacrificial good. The juxtaposition of elements also serves to make the act more compelling.
Think of the recent and horrific events of the Boston bombing, and all the stories of the victory of humanity and kindess that you heard. Normally, while it is admirable to donate blood, open one’s home to a stranger or offer up a meal, gratis, to someone who needs it, these aren’t heartening or invigorating parts of a national conversation. But it in a time of fear, need, and confusion, the ordinary citizens of Boston did exactly those things, and they were seen as extraordinary acts of kindness and solidarity. That’s not an attempt to trivialize those acts, because they were extraordinary and kind. But we cannot ignore how a dire situation can transform good acts into great ones in the face of evil.
Or, going back to the superhero that spawned the chucks that started this whole strange train of thought, think of the Flash. When the Anti-Monitor threatens the earth with his anti-matter cannon, the second Flash, Barry Allen, uses his super speed to drain the energy from the cannon’s core. While I can’t really make sense of the science behind it, Allen absorbs all of the energy, destroying himself in the process. He sacrifices not only his life, but the opportunity to be with the soul of his dead wife, which he can also do with super speed, apparently. Again, the science boggles the mind, but the point is that for a being so greatly endowed with power that he can travel through time, a great evil was necessary to create a situation in which he could make the ultimate sacrifice, the greatest thing he had ever done.
I think I’m trying to make two points here. The first is that, as the Augustinian theodicy understands it, the presence of evil can serve in the development of greater good. Pursuantly, the second point is that evil does so by creating an opportunity for grand, exemplary acts of good and by exalting more ordinary acts of good. But, don’t take it from me. Take it from Batman:
A hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know the world hasn’t ended.