Lecture : Panchuck (& Hareth) All Things Work Together for Good: Theodicy as Gaslighting

Previous post : Zigmunt Baumann - Liquid Modernity

(Keynote address at the conference Epistemic Injustice and Religious Identities, held at McGill this week)

Panchuk (pesenter) and Hareth (co-author) have two arguments in this paper; a weak one, that theodicy can be gaslighting, and a strong one, that thodicy is always gaslighting. Panchuk is quite convinced of the former, and makes a compelling case for it, but she herself is only marginally convinced of the strong case, though she attempted to argue for a general connection. Both authors identify as survivors of religiously-motivated child abuse, personal experiences which, combined with reading of various theodicies, motivated the paper.

Panchuk began with a thought experiment: imagine a close friend has recently faced the death of a young child, and at the funeral, comes to question God, God’s justice or God’s existence for allowing the situation to happen. She asks, “Why would responding with a theodicy be inappropriate (as our moral intuitions inform us)?” Is it a question of the place (funeral context)? An insufficient time having elapsed since the event? Insufficient progress in the grief process? Or is it because what she needs is a friend, rather than a philosophical discourse? These arguments gradually get better, but even the final one, she dismisses: imagine the case where this friend’s child lived, and as an adult, the mother has to face the pain of being asked apologise for all of her errors as a parent. Would a friend not be completely justified in confronting the problem view, and arguing that she should own up for such mistakes? Instead, she puts forward that a gaslighting explanation is at least part of the full explanation of why this would be wrong.

Panchuk then moves on to define gaslighting and theodicy, putting them both in their contemporary context in philosophical discussion. Definint #theodicy, she distinguishes between a theodicy in the strict sense, which seeks to identify the moral reasons God permits evil, and defense to the problem of evil, which responds more to the logical problem of evil by trying to give a potential account of reasons that God could be morally justified in allowing suffering. She uses the term theodicy in the more general sense to include both.

In the philosophical discussion of the problem of evil, she evokes especially Jewish post-holocaust discourse, asking of using theodicy, “would you say this to a burning child?”

She draws the discussion of #gaslighting back to the film on which the term was based, noting that its common use has developed since then. She offers several definitions (refering to sources I didn’t catch), with a synthesis like this: emotional manipulation meant to make one think their emotions and recollections about a stuation are unfounded, poor, or wrong, leading to questioning one’s emotional state; or to judge onesself untrustworthy as an epistemic agent (question one’s ability to perceive and understand reality). “the theory doesn’t fit your lived experience, so something is wring with your lived experience, your interpretation of it, or your understanding of reality. (Bernstain, 2020)” She distinguishes between personal and structural gaslighting, the latter being connected to an unjustly constructed social system. In the Q&A she evokes that often proponents of theodicy are the beneficiaries of these systems – we can imagine this in power differential situations. She probably overstated her case here, saying this is usually the case, but his was in unprepared remarks in the Q&A; she was also aware that theodicy can be a helpful processing mechanism for survivors of suffering.

She then evokes three common judeo-christian theodicies (two during the lecture, a third in the Q&A period) and attempts to draw out how these can be (or even always are) a form of gaslighting:

  1. The Free-Will defence; well known from, eg, Alvin Plantinga. Essentially, an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God has three choices regarding free will: 1) Create a world with agents having free-will, knowing that people will use that free will to harm others; 2) create a world with no free agents; 3) do not create a world. The moral good of free will is sufficient to justify the harm done by free choice.

    Panchuk argues this is gaslighting because it involves saying to the abuser, “The freedom of your abuser outweighs your pain”; as a society we have rejected this claim, notably in our willingness to restrain people who are harming others.

  2. Divine intimacy theory, which states that suffering is the best way to bring an individual closer to God.

    Panchuck gives accounts of a couple of forms of this one, some more and some less well founded, in her view. (I didn’t get good notes on the details). The argument for gaslighting here, though, boils down to, “if you didn’t grow closer to God through your suffering, it is because you chose not to – eg, it is your fault.”

  3. Sceptical theism (in Q&A period): we, as limited human beings, cannot know everything that is happening in the universe; God is greater than us, so we can imagine that “we just aren’t in a position to know.” I am unclear on how she argued this to be gaslighting; perhaps it is a question of questioning one’s ability to judge right and wrong?

My general evaluation is that she made a very compelling case for the weak thesis, that theodicy can be gaslighting. The strong thesis, though, would require a lot of work to support, and a lot of dialog with theological sciences. a brief search turned up this paper by Ganzenvoort, which suggests that psychological research may even support a variation of the divine intimacy defense: “In recent years, researchers have started to explore the positive outcomes of traumatic experiences. They find that posttraumatic growth is far more usual than has been acknowledged so far. Some even state that the normal result of trauma is growth, not pathology.”

Ganzevoort, R., W. Gräb, et L. Charbonnier. « All things work together for good. Theodicy and post-traumatic spirituality », 2009. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/All-things-work-together-for-good.-Theodicy-and-Ganzevoort-Gr%C3%A4b/cdf973f74c6553ac005ddb6328dac04db6e2d787.

Next post : From Corporate Church to Missional Church: The Challenge Facing Congregations Today - Craig Van Gelder


comments powered by Disqus