Johnson-Pelican chick and theodicy


If you google Elizabeth Johnson and “Pelican chick” you will see some online articles. She uses the example of the White Pelican’s child-nurture practice as an example of the cruelty of nature and the push for survival behind it..

Typically, the Pelican mom will lay two eggs some days apart. If the first egg hatches, she will care for that chick and pretty much ignore the chick that hatches later. The second chick has about a 10% chance to survive. It is cute and would be viable if she took care of it. But she usually lets it starve. It is an insurance chick. It is born so that if something happens to the other one, then she can divert her attention and nurture to the up-to-now expendable one. It sucks to be a second-born Pelican.

This shows the impersonal drive for survival behind evolution. The same things that make nature beautiful and full of diverse life also make it a place of cruelty and death.

You could say that this situation gives us the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz). This is the way of theodicy, a philosophical attempt to justify God. She denies that her position is a theodicy. She recognizes that suffering and evil in creation is a mystery that defies rational explanation.

She also sees that to say that suffering is necessary is a problem. Christianity has long sought to assuage suffering. To just shrug and say that suffering is necessary undercuts Christian compassion. The very existence of human beings brings a moral element to this issue.

Yet it is a fact that suffering and death existed in nature long before human beings existed. We didn’t cause it. And we can’t abolish it.

She would not put it this way, but her argument sort of corresponds to my claim that most of the injustice in the world is not social injustice, but ontological injustice. It is injustice that stems from the way this world, with its cancers and tsunamis, exists.

In the Bible and theology death gets called an “enemy.” Yet death is a functional part of the way this world operates. So what is the sense of calling death illegitimate or an enemy?

To this question, Johnson brings two reflections of her own.

First, death and suffering come from below, not above. In other words, God is not a puppetmaster who exerts control over nature or people. God allows the world to work in a way that is independent of direct divine control. So things happen that we cannot call the direct will of God.

This part of her reflection reminded me of Israel Knohl’s contention that the priests who wrote Genesis 1 believed that death and evil kind of oozed up into creation from the original chaotic state of the world. This was also a way of seeing it as something from below.

Second, she says that the story of Jesus gives Christians a new source for understanding suffering. Jesus was tormented to death and cried out in Godforsakeness. But this did not annihilate the creative Spirit of God working to bring about something new. So she is able to speak of pain and death in nature as “cruciform.” They correspond somehow to the passion of Christ.

We will go into this further as I continue to write about her book, Ask the Beasts.





About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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6 Responses to Johnson-Pelican chick and theodicy

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love | Teilhard de Chardin

  2. readingmater says:

    Re: Israel Knowl’s ” contention that the priests who wrote Genesis 1 believed that death and evil kind of oozed up into creation from the original chaotic state of the world. This was also a way of seeing it as something from below.”
    But also:” The image of groaning and suffering comes from childbirth. ”
    How do you put these together with the idea that matter somehow contains in it the coming to be of spirit, which seems to be in Teilhard and Johnson ( and did I see Rahner?)

    • Thank you for commenting. I am a little unclear about what you are asking. Matter contains the coming to be of spirit. Physics tells us that matter is a form of energy. So is there really a sharp line between matter and spirit, two forms of energy?

      • readingmater says:

        I think I was wondering about death and evil being the oozing up of chaos- tofu w’vohu- and at the same time, birth pangs. The first seems unguided, and evolution just is, purposeless, but the second is an unfolding of a divine purpose.

  3. OK. I see. Yeah, biblical images from the P source and Paul may not cohere. P is trying to understand present reality so that their sacrificial and ritual system can deal with the “oozing”. Paul is making a case for hope in Christ, and so has a more future orientation. But one of Johnson’s points is that there is both unguided chance and purposeful divine involvement in the mix. So one might try to harmonize them that way.

  4. readingmater says:

    Thanks. I can see that.

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