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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Olodumare and the Theistic Problem of Evil

Here is another essay on Yoruba religion as it deals with Evil by John A. I. Bewaji. It is very very long so I'll only post a piece of it:

The theistic problem of evil can be properly appreciated if one apprehends
the import of the following passage from Quinn. Of theistic religions, he
According to theists, human persons are called upon to worship God.
Theists typically hold that their reverence and adoration are the
appropriate responses to Him. This view presupposes that God deserves or
merits worship. If a being were not worthy of worship, then surely worship
directed at such a being would be widely inappropriate. But what features
must a being have to be fitting and deserving object of worship? It seems
clear that only a morally perfect being could be worthy of unqualified
devotion typical of theistic worship. Moral goodness falling short of
perfection might earn a being admiration but never adoration. This is why it
is essential to theistic orthodoxy that God be thought of as perfectly good
That Christianity and other theistic religions believe in God is a basic
component of these religions. These religions would not have any further
significance and would loose their followers and devotion if the God-head is
detracted from. As such, affirmation of the existence of a perfect God is a
necessity. However, the affirmation of the existence has often sprung from
diverse cognitive directions and sources syncretized into an absolute
epistemic criterion. To support the position that God exists, some would
adduce revelation--that God disclosed Himself in varying degrees appropriate
to circumstances to certain people such as Moses, Mohammed, and the writer
of Revelations in the Holy Bible; some others will claim knowledge of the
numinous by direct intuition from the innermost of their being; some will
adduce moral grounds to support such knowledge; some others will use the
nature of the cosmos to support their epistemic affirmation, while others
yet claim the knowledge by a leap of faith. By whatever method of cognitive
discovery God is arrived at within all forms of theism, certain attributes
are said to be intrinsic to His nature to deserve the exalted and
unparalleled devotion and worship.
While it could be philosophically interesting to critically analyse the
validity or otherwise of the various epistemic sources and grounds for the
existence of Deity, while atheism and agnosticism, and of course, theism,
has been occasioned by this type of philosophical undertaking, this is not
of direct relevance to our discussion of the problem of evil. Our concern is
with the given-ness of Deity in theism. This given-ness also has certain
attributes. It is the consequence of these attributes that brings into
focus, against the background of factual and rational experience and
contemplation, the problem of evil. Going back to Quinn in his very
ingenious and lucid essay quoted from above, one clearly sees the
ramifications of the issue. He avers that:
Theists also hold that God created the heavens and the earth. God
is, therefore, responsible for at least some of the good and evil in the
cosmos of contingent things. Theists cannot avoid grappling with the problem
of evil. How could a perfectly good being create a cosmos containing less
good than the very best he could have created? And if a being worthy of
worship could create the best cosmos he could, is a theist committed to
holding that this is the best of all possible worlds (21).
Thus, properly understood, the Divine Being, worthy of worship in the great
scriptural religions (and here the reference points are Christian and
Islam), has been conceptualized in such a way that He has all positive
attributes in superlative and unlimited degree, and lacks all negative
attributes totally. As the greatest conceivable Being, He is not in want of
any positive attribute, or predicate.
But this is what experience seems to contra-indicate. For, if that being, so
conceived and not otherwise conceivable, created the inhabited world of
humans so organized, then one needs to account for at least the natural
disease and evils that have recurrently plagued the universe created by this
being. One may leave aside moral, economic, socio-political evils as being
dependent upon man, and as such preventable if man so wills. Formulated
minimally, the problem of evil for the theist is this:
If God is omnipotent, omniscient, creator (causa sui or prima causa)

All-loving, all-good, all-merciful, then how can we explain evil?
Does God cause evil?
If God does not cause evil, then who causes it?
Who created this cause of evil?
Was the creator of evil all-knowing, past, present, and future?
Or, is God actually all-good, all-loving and all-powerful but unable
to stop evil-- which is patently absurd?
Or, does God not wish to stop evil (22)?
This is the dilemma that the theist has to squarely face! Christianity and
other monotheistic religions, conceptualized in this fashion, do not seem to
have any easy way of escaping either of the horns of the dilemma or of
passing between. If they choose to say that God did not create evil, then it
would follow that there either is no evil in the world, which is patently
false, unless we redefine our concepts, or that someone else created evil,
which means that God did not create everything. Even with this caveat, there
would still remain the problem of accounting for who created the creator of
evil--or else, evil is self-caused, which is equally unconvincing. If they
choose to say that God did not wish to eradicate evil, then it could mean
either He lacks the power to do so, or He is sadistic and malevolent,
options which are totally unacceptable to the theist. There then seems no
way of escaping the problem without either redefining and limiting the
attributes of Deity or becoming an atheist, or at least, an agnostic.
The most popular attempt to deal with the problem in Christianity and Islam
consists in saying that Lucifer, or Devil, or Satan, who was formerly God's
deputy or right-hand angel, is the cause or originator of all evils in the
universe. That he used to be a good angel charged with powers second only to
that of God, but, that through conceit and conspiracy, he became demonic and
totally evil. Thus, although capable of having appearances of temporary
goodness, whatever schemes he may conceive are ultimately in the pursuance
of his diabolical goals of evil. He is thus the Devil. What a good Christian
and Muslim should do then is to bear his/her coat of armour and join God's
salvation army and fight against the evil one--Satan, the prince of
Persuasive and simple as this seems, it cannot escape obvious objections or,
at least, rejoinders. If God had been all-knowing and all-good, He would not
have created Satan or Lucifer. If, par impossible, He did create Satan in
error, then it should not have been too difficult for Him to rectify the
error and improve or destroy Satan, unless He is not, contra hypothesis,
Before going further to consider this problem as it relates to Olodumare
among the Yoruba people, it should be emphasized that the problem of evil
did not arise within the context of Old Testament religion. There God could
and did exercise His powers to suit the ends He designed and desired--which
desire is coincident with ultimate up-rightness and justice, even though the
justice is from the Jewish perspective. Hence, He caused the destruction of
Pharaoh's army and used an earth tremor to destroy the walls of Jericho,
while commanding Saul to utterly slay the Amalekites. There He was the
Creator who stood firmly for justice and only forgave the penitent who makes
atonement or remission for sins against Him and His chosen people. Nowhere
was God regarded in the Old Testament as evil or as a weakling for doing
these things that caused people great harm. Even the New Testament episode
of sending demons into swine that later perished in the Sea was interpreted
by the gospellers as something good--not minding the investment of the
owners of the swine who were non-Jews.
On the extra-theological plane, one may ask the relevant epistemic questions
as to the source of the knowledge of the creator of evil, Satan or Lucifer.
Was it based on eye-witness experience? Was it based on inference derived
from such an account? Was it mere speculation from the latter phenomenon of
apparently inexplicable natural disasters and human suffering? How are we to
fight an enemy about whom in all we know are partisan accounts? How do we
even come to the knowledge that Lucifer is the origin of all evil and not
just the fall-guy and scape-goat used for the deliberate desires and actions
of a Theistic God?
Such questions will surely not be entertained by a committed theistic, yet
they are relevant and should not detract from his commitment to his God as
it will only further enhance his understanding of his God. I do not see how
man is any worse for his knowledge that God is disposed to reward or punish
with good or evil, depending on human goodness or evilness as the Old
Testament does show...

There is no doubt that God is the most powerful Being and that He
has all the superlative attributes one can consider, but the Yoruba do no
think that such a being cannot do evil or cause evil. It is part of the
attributes of the Supreme Being to be able to utilize all things (37).
The implications of these attributes of Olodumare are that He is the most
Powerful Being, the Creator, the Wise and Impartial Judge who exercises
inexorable control over all in the universe. The problem of evil fails to
arise within the context of Yoruba belief in Olodumare because a being with
all the attributes stated above is conceivable as capable of both good and
bad. He uses both for the ultimate good governance of the universe (38). In
fact, to say that God does not or cannot do evil is to unnecessarily
circumscribe His power. In this regard I had earlier stated:
Equally, some of the attributes of Olodumare are diametrically at variance
with those of the Christian God. Consequently, some theoretical and
doctrinal problems that arise within Christianity do not arise for Africans
. . . The sources of evil are God-devised and help to maintain high moral
standards. The Christian God is ever-merciful, slow to anger but quick to
forgive (in fact He does not desire the death of the sinner but that he
repent and be saved), whereas, the Yoruba Olodumare is a morally upright God
who metes out justice here on earth and not necessarily in the hereafter
where we are not sure anybody will witness and learn from it (39).
All the scholars we have considered have agreed that evil, as such, is not
understandable. Nothing is intrinsically evil. We call something evil
because it does not favor us or because it causes us distress. We may not
know or understand the reason for the event or action, but ultimately it
forms part of the overall design of Olodumare. His attributes do not
preclude the device and use of evil for the betterment of society. God is
the creator. He created everything, both positive and negative. Why? We
cannot know. His ways are incomprehensible. God is the most powerful Being,
hence, He does and can do anything, including good and evil. It is only
natural that the most powerful Being should not suffer any handicap or
hindrance, especially in the execution of justice. God is all-wise
(omniscient) and knows all things. Ifa aids Him in this regard as the agent
He created as the repository of wisdom and knowledge. There is no conflict
in saying this. He still remains the overall controller of this being to
whom He has entrusted wisdom. This is unlike the Christian God, who after
having endowed Satan with powers second only to His own loses control over
Satan. Finally, God is Judge; He judges all according to their deserts; He
rewards uprightness and punishes evil.
Thus, Olodumare is more akin to the Old Testament Yahweh in his requirement
of honesty and uprightness. This ensured law and order in the societies
involved. When the Christian God is introduced, it become easy to sin all
morning and afternoon and repent in the evening and have all your sins
forgiven through a special dispensation of grace. This introduction created
room for a permissiveness that has never been witnessed in Yoruba society
before. A chasm was created over which no bridge was erected. Hence people
swear on the Holy Bible and Holy Q'uran without qualms, while they balk when
called upon to do the same for Ogun, Sango, or some other divinity. They
find a convenient, but dubious, excuse in the denigrating, culturally
enslaving explanation that swearing by Sango or Ogun is idol worshiping.
Making a similar point, about Igbo religion Onuoha says that:
The traditional religion makes no apology for exposing the law of
retribution. Every act of immorality disrupts the balance of the ontological
order and God has ordained that the law of reciprocal effect should restore
this order automatically. This law operates blindly like a reflex or a
boomerang. The suffering incurred by every sin must be undergone. God's
justice cannot be compromised (40). This system of justice prevents crime
and criminal tendencies in society.

The complete essay may be found here:

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