A Guide for the Perplexed, 2nd. Edition

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Chad V. Meister
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Recent overviews on the subject of evil are scarce. Perhaps the awesome and elusive nature of evil, along with its dramatic dynamics and diverse options of interpretation account for this. While this volume covers the familiar territory of theological and philosophical arguments for explaining evil and while it leaves out some alternative possibilities for treating the subject, such an overview nevertheless feels welcome. Meister’s engagement with the theme includes a bibliography and index that make this book a worthy addition to one’s library section on evil and related matters. How this second edition is different than the first edition (published in 2012) is briefly mentioned. Chapter 8 now discusses interreligious responses to evil and there are two new chapters on theodicies. Meister’s hope is to think “even a little more clearly about evil, or better yet, come away ready to tackle evil—both intellectually and practically” (ix). To this end, he says he has written more than a million words devoted to the theme (including coediting or overseeing nine volumes).

There is much to read with interest in this book’s nine chapters: What is Evil; Problems of Evil; Free-Will and Soul-Making Theodicies; A Global Theodicy of Fulfillment; Anti-Theodicy of Fulfillment; The Problem of Divine Hiddenness; Evil, Atheism, and the Problem of the Good; Evil and Suffering in Hinduism and Buddhism; and, Eternal Goods and the Triumph over Evil. Each chapter is nicely closed with “concluding interpretations” and as a bonus, further readings to ponder.

Each chapter is written clearly even while presenting overviews of classical and complex arguments that are very abstract. Some sections are nicely laid out with bulleted points which are then followed by didactic elaborations. The concluding chapter’s welcome section on confronting evil offers with some concrete suggestions, presumably from the author’s own experiences—though the several examples of assisting refugees, helping needy children, and battling illness and disease fall short of any systemic view of evil or how to confront it (other than Meister’s stated goal of promoting equality). He professes: “For real triumph to occur, it will require the concerted efforts—both intellectual and practical—of each and every one of us” (179). Here an inclusion of the late Walter Wink’s legacy of a deep biblical, extra-canonical, and experiential witness to “The Powers” via the trilogy of naming, unmasking, and engaging the powers (including poignant references to collective exorcisms) would assist. Another “what if” would entail taking a genuine stab at a working definition of evil rather than being content with just some descriptive features of evil. Hence H. Richard Niebuhr’s succinct rendering of evil as when a being reduces, thwarts, and/or reduces another being in its activities could contribute to Meister’s analysis. A final “what if” would include recent contributions of process theism and its challenging attempts to account for evil by the aesthetic polar tensions of discord/harmony and triviality/intensity that emphasizes the omni-present nature of God’s being (though it curtails, if not eliminates a sense of God’s omnipotence and even omniscience). Meister intimates that a third edition could be more inclusive and might stress God-world tensions (presumably in dialogue with process, ecological, and liberation theologies).

Despite the book’s helpful, lengthy on-the-page citations of authorities, what is also missing—perhaps understandable for an overview—are elaborations on such figures as Elie Wiesel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Robert Jay Lifton, Hannah Arendt, and Paul Tillich. Each of these individuals offers important, and not always hopeful, insights on the nature and dynamics of evil; they could well tease forth more in Meister’s engagements. Wiesel’s Night memoir is cited (but none of his other writings on engaging evil from the death camp experiences of Nazi Germany—which merited a Nobel prize for literature), but other Jewish religious literature is missing. Sartre, who is mentioned and cited twice, engaged in aspects of the WWII resistance. Despite lengthy reflections on the nature of being and nothingness, humanism and Marxism, and existentialism, he reluctantly came to conclude after the war that evil, alas, could not be redeemed. Sartre’s depiction of evil as the tendency to make abstract what is concrete is nicely expressed by Meister: “it is the pain and suffering of sentient creatures (among other evils) to which we are attending and … academic abstraction would itself be an evil” (175). Lifton has studied totalitarian situations and their accompanying ideologies but it is his case studies of actual Nazi doctors led him to conclude that it was “doubling” or a compartmentalized packaging of one’s confined work life that accounts for the uncanny practices of evil despite the physician’s Hippocratic Oath. Arendt also studied aspects of Nazi leaders and bureaucrats, and in the case of Adolph Eichmann concluded that evil was a banal or common norm for this efficient commandant’s oversight of the death camps. This phenomenon is addressed in Unmasking Administrative Evil (Routledge, 2014), by Guy Adams and Danny Balfour). And finally, Tillich struggled out of his own angst and wrestling with demons to offer an account of evil that remains to be retrieved and reflected upon as our generation, too, is compelled to address what seems irredeemable. 

Given human nature and its powerful self-deceptions that Meister is all too aware of, there is much to engage. What still needs to be written are narratives and contemporary challenges complemented by case studies or biography-as-theology perspectives on the nature and dynamics of evil—what Sojourners has called “A Bonhoeffer Moment.” To this, perhaps Meister’s next volume will contribute.

In sum, this book provides a worthwhile introduction, overview, and a continuing practical guide to the ever challenging theme of evil and, entices the reader to probe, ponder, hunger, adventure, and risk for more.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barry K. Morris is an Independent Scholar and author of Hopeful Realism in Urban Ministry.

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chad V. Meister is Professor of Philosophy at Bethel College, Indiana.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.