How does one live when the image of the good has been shattered? That is one way of phrasing the classical question of theodicy in contemporary terms. Classically, the term "theodicy" means "a justification of God's goodness or power when evil exists." It might be the central problem of theism, which is belief in a personal and good and all-powerful God. If God does exist as all-good and all-powerful, why does evil also exist? A theodicy is a defense of God, or at least an explanation of God, while also acknowledging the existence of evil -- or at least the existence of The Bad.
I have just finished reading one of the best literary versions of theodicy that I have ever read. It is The Sparrow, written by Mary Doria Russell, published in 1996. The book tells the story of Emilio Sandoz, Jesuit priest, who follows his faith in God to become one of the first earth visitors to an alien planet. Yes, the book participates in a science fiction genre. But, like all good science fiction, the book is really describing our current human condition. The best science fiction is always about present humanity! And this one is about, God, too!
In the case of The Sparrow, alien music is detected from the Arecibo Observatory in the year 2019; and it is the Jesuits, among all the governments and organizations of the world, who are fist able to mount an expedition to visit the planet, Rakhat. Emilio Sandoz, superb linguist, and deep man of faith, is on the trip, with his best friends. I was delighted that it is the Jesuits who are the first explorers to the alien planet, as they often were in the history of western civilization -- for better or for worse.
I do not reveal the plot by saying that all of Sandoz's friends die; that fact is declared early in the story. As the story develops, one discovers the intensity and delight of Sandez's faith. But by 2059, when Sandoz has returned to earth and is remembering his journey, his faith is silent and dreadfully damaged. The book is, thus, a theodicy. How does one believe in a good God when all evidence seems contrary to that fact? How does one believe that "not one sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing it?" (Matthew 10:29, from which the title of the book is derived).
Now, jump back to the great J. D. Salinger (author of The Catcher in The Rye, and of my favorite, Franny and Zooey), who died one year ago. Today, I read another slender review of Kenneth Slawenski's new biography of that deeply spiritual writer, J.D. Salinger. I have already mentioned the Wall Street Journal review, by Carl Rollyson . Today, Dierdre Donahue writes in USA Today that
Slawenski has written a terrific literary biography, one that jolts the reader into realizing why Catcher connects with readers 60 years after its publication. It is not about prep school misery. Rather, in its oblique way, Catcher in the Rye touches on the struggle to keep living even if one has lost faith that the world is a good place.
Is that grand adolescent novel, The Catcher in The Rye, also a kind of theodicy? Yes, I think so.