Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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One of several terms originating in natural theology that have now come to have a special significance within the sociology of religion. As with that even more famous term to have undergone a similar fate, charisma , Max Weber is the person principally responsible for this transition. The word had featured in the title of an influential work by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, published in 1710, in which he attempted to respond to the mounting rationalist attack on revealed religion by demonstrating that belief in a benevolent and omnipotent god was consistent with believing that this same god was the creator of an imperfect world. Leibniz was endeavoring to resolve what Weber referred to as "the problem of theodicy," that is, if a wise and just God exists, why is there evil in the world? It is this issue, together with the manner of its resolution, which Turner (1981:148) suggests is "central to Weber's sociology of religion."

Certainly in the religions of the West, the conception of the divine as transcendental, unchangeable, omnipotent, and omniscient focused attention upon the problem of how the power and goodness of such a god can be reconciled with the imperfections of that world that he created (see Weber 1978:518-526). Yet even in the East, a conception of the divine as impersonal and supertheistic still raises the issue of accounting for the world's imperfections. Hence, in one form or another, this problem exists in all religions, and Weber outlined what he considered to be the three "various theoretically pure types" of solution that emerged. The first possibility he considers is that involving messianic eschatologies and the belief in a coming revolution that will bring the world into accord with God's nature, that is, the establishment of a Kingdom of God on earth.

Weber goes on to show how this view is likely to develop into a belief in predestination, as more and more emphasis is placed upon the chasm between a totally transcendent and inscrutable God and human beings enmeshed in the coils of sin: "God's sovereign, completely inexplicable, voluntary, and antecedently established (a consequence of omniscience) determination has decreed not only human fate on earth but also human destiny after death." This, as Weber notes, is less a solution to the problem of theodicy than a way of defining it out of existence. In addition to predestination, Weber specifies two other religious outlooks that he suggests provide "systematically conceptualized" treatments of the problem of the world's imperfections. The first of these is dualism, the view that the universe is governed by the two, roughly equal, powers of good and evil, represented mainly by Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. The second outlook is the Indian doctrine of karma . The latter Weber describes as "the most complete formal solution of the problem of theodicy" because the world is regarded as a completely connected and self-contained cosmos of ethical retribution in which each individual forges his or her own destiny, with guilt and merit in this world unfailingly compensated in a succeeding incarnation.

Weber makes it clear that these are ideal-type "solutions" to the problem of theodicy and that in reality religions of salvation combined ingredients from these three types together in various mixes, with the consequence that "the differences among various religious theories of god's relation to the world and to man must be measured by their degree of approximation to one or another of these pure types." It must be doubted, however, whether the full complexity of Greek thought—whether Platonic, Epicurean, or Stoic—can be successfully incorporated into Weber's triadic scheme, while it is also difficult to see where one would place what John Hick (1966) has called the Irenaean type of theodicy, which is the theory that God deliberately created imperfect beings, exposing them to a morally mixed environment to help bring them to a state of perfection. For this reason, there must be some doubt about Weber's claim that all theodicies can be understood in terms of the types that he outlines, as there also must be over the suggestion that they represent a form of treatment of the problem of the world's imperfections that is more especially "systematically conceptualized" than those he omits from discussion.

Calvin's theodicy of predestinarian determinism would not appear to be either the logical or the historical end point of Western theological endeavors to resolve the problem of theodicy, for the thinkers who came after him cannot be considered to have done more than elaborate or refine his views or, alternatively, to have rejected religion entirely. On the contrary, a succession of seventeenth- and early eighteenth- century philosophers, including such eminent figures as Pascal, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel, devoted considerable effort to the construction of a philosophical theology that would serve in place of an increasingly discredited Calvinism; moreover, Campbell (1987) has proposed that Romanticism should be seen as Calvinism's true theodical successor.

In the contemporary world, widespread interest in theodicies appears to have waned as secularization has progressed. However, there is evidence that many people still seek for answers to the fundamental problem of evil, and that popular theodicies exist to meet this need (Towler 1984).

Colin Campbell


C. Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987)

J. Hick, Evil and the Love of God (London: Macmillan, 1966)

R. Towler, The Need for Certainty (London: Routledge, 1984)

B. S. Turner, For Weber (London: Routledge, 1981)

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

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