In a long first chapter, Neiman reviews those philosophers who defined and struggled with the problem of evil: Leibniz, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. That problem, simply stated, is that it is difficult or impossible to affirm all three of the following claims about the world, so one of them must therefore be rejected. Tough choice.
- Evil exists.
- God is benevolent.
- God is omnipotent.
Rousseau, for example, argues that man is naturally good and that evil exists because of human institutions: "Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains." To reduce evil in the world, he would have us change human institutions and modify education in order to promote this natural human goodness. His call for religious tolerance and faith in God's Providence, grounded in natural theology, seems rather banal in the 21st century. But in the 18th century it got his books burned (for attacking the creeds) and earned him the scorn of his fellow philosophers (for affirming Providence). Nevertheless, Rousseau changed the course of the debate. Neiman observes (at p. 44-45):
Kant saw Rousseau's view as revolutionary as much because it allowed us to state the problem of evil as because it offered solutions. The task was to determine a relation between moral and natural evils, or risk acknowledging that the world has no justice or meaning. Rousseau was the first to assert a relation without calling it a punishment, hence the first to see a solution that doesn't depend on miracle.
You can see how this goes — the more you dig into the problem, the deeper it gets. In Chapter Two, Neiman discusses thinkers who take a different tack: Bayle, Voltaire, Hume, and Schopenhauer. Rather than arguing that evil is simply an appearance that can somehow be creatively reconciled with goodness and justice, these philosophers affirm that evil surely exists in the world (sometimes even revel in it) and then courageously face the devastating consequences that follow. These philosophers were not system builders; instead, they were keen observers who accepted the primacy of facts over theories and systems. Ah, stubborn facts.
Are Mormons insulated from this discussion? Is the problem of evil irrelevant from the Mormon perspective? Hardly. The fact that many Mormons seem tempted to tell the widow of a good man who dies young or the parents of a child who dies in a tragic accident that it is all part of God's Great Plan of Happiness strikes me as almost surreal. It certainly shows we haven't really thought through the problem of evil using the resources at hand, both scriptural and secular. I think it is more decent and humane to admit that tragic events do really happen in this world, then mourn with those who mourn. If there is meaning to be had, it is not that God and angels ratify such tragic events but that they do not. I'm afraid God is just not as involved with the Universe as we would like Him to be. So the problem of evil is still with us, even us Mormons. The challenges of understanding natural and moral evil and of choosing how to respond are as real and live for Mormons as for anyone else. I think we would make more progress by reading Rousseau and Voltaire (along with your scriptures) than by watching Glenn Beck or Michael Moore. Serious problems deserve serious commentators.