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Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World

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Finding “Meaning” in a Meaningless World: One Atheist’s Argument from Evil

 

“The meaning of life is not the pleasure principle; only a fool

would be convinced that the meaning of life is maximized

pleasure by any means possible, which seems to be the only

positive message that the atheists have at their disposal” (Atheist).

-       Anonymous

-        

Late in the War in 1944, Nazis hurriedly rounded up and executed 425,000 Hungarian Jews in the Auschwitz gas chambers.  Famed Jewish artist and Holocaust survivor Alice Lok Cahana, at age 15, was the only member of her family to survive the ordeal, and the story she has told of both atrocities and acts of paradoxical kindness is hauntingly tragic.  Yet decades later, Cahana remains a devout believer in God and in the ultimate good inside humanity.  "Art must have a message,” Cahana said, “of the tran[s]cendence of the human spirit over inhumane evil and hate" (Hagerty).

*          *          *          *          *

On Tuesday, July 8, 2003, a plane flying from Port Sudan to Khartoum, Sudan crashed into a hillside, resulting in the death of 116 passengers.  A two-year-old boy, Mohammed el-Fateh Osman, was the sole survivor.  Although the child was badly burned and had to have its right leg amputated, Sudan’s aviation minister, Mohammed Hassan al-Bahi, speaking about the horrific event, said: “If you were to see the state of the bodies . . . you would know it was a miracle dictated by God that this child has come out alive” (Sudan). 

*          *          *          *          *

In the spring of 1994, militant Hutu and many Rwandan soldiers executed nearly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.  This campaign of genocide included the mass rape and HIV infection of tens of thousands of Rwandan women, including Joseline Ingabire, 39, the only member of her family to survive the genocide:

“When he came to rape me, I was pregnant. He told me I was not the first

that he had raped. He was ruthless, he put a spear in my leg then raped

me for four hours. I stayed in that place for six days, and they raped me

every night” (Torgovnik).

She was subsequently imprisoned as a sex slave for months.  Of her daughter, Leah, the product of that violation, Ingabire says that “I never loved Leah” but now “I am beginning to appreciate that this other one is innocent” (Torgovnik).

*          *          *          *          *

            Innocent. 

Each night, hundreds of millions of innocent human beings suffer untold evils, both moral – the result of willful wrongdoing -- and natural – all other evil (Botterill 120).  Whether, like Osman, people are victims of natural disasters and accidents or whether, like Cahana and Ingabire, they are victims of outright, willful acts of evil by moral agents, the search for meaning and purpose can seem fruitless in a world where suffering is the status quo.  And it is likely that even millions more suffer from unhappiness, addiction, regret, or emotional pain as events and losses all too often underscore the powerlessness they experience in their lives when faced with evil, whether imposed or accidental.  

Traditional explanations for the existence of evil in a world allegedly watched over by an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful god may reside in the purview of philosophers and theologians, yet explanations fall far short for those who suffer or who are touched by those suffering.  Often, when people consider the paradox of the existence of both evil and a benevolent, omnipotent god, unsatisfying arguments lead some to the conclusion that god must not, therefore, exist or else this god could not possibly be either all-good or all-powerful.  Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that calls into question the simultaneous and enigmatic belief in both evil and an omnipotent, benevolent god, we still “tailor our assumptions to fit certain principles which we simply refuse to reject,” namely that somehow there is an explanation for this apparent paradox (Botterill 117).  Nonetheless, barring the possibility that god is weak or – worse yet – maniacal, how does one find meaning in a world in which one might conclude that god cannot, therefore, exist? 

I have struggled for most of my adult life with this question.  Christian platitudes like “trust God, we can’t comprehend His ways” and “it’s a Mystery, we’re not meant to know” have been, for me, an unsatisfying chalice from which to drink.  Even as a child, I often pondered why things are the way they are: Why are we encouraged to search for knowledge about everything but not allowed to question god?  Why do people who follow the same god continue to persecute and kill one another?  Why does pain and suffering exist if god is supposed to truly love us?  These were all questions which, as a child, I was to find no answers.  It wasn’t that no one had answers – everyone had an opinion, it seemed.  Instead, it was that no one would even entertain my questions.   I was often made to feel somehow inadequate for even asking about god and was told that those who lacked faith could not enter into the “Kingdom of Heaven.”  I believed in god just as the bible stories told in Sunday School.  “Suffer the children to come unto Me” and “if you have the faith of a mustard seed” were all verses I knew by heart, planted into the very fabric of my mind like sown seed. 

So why could I, then, never move a mountain?  Any mountain?  I had faith.  It seemed to me that, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I prayed or what I prayed for – whether for me or for others – nothing ever happened.  It was like making a phone call to someone who didn’t have an answering machine.  It just rang on and on and on and on, Ad infinitum.

As I got older, people found my questions even more disturbing, and all but the most faithless would shun my inquiries as though I was a pariah about to be struck by lightning.  Yet I was caught in between two worlds, struggling somehow to amalgamate logic and faith into one.  Those who had already intellectually rent the sackcloth of faith chastised me for even considering god to be real, while those who believed – practically everyone around me – were appalled by my lack of faith.  Neither side – the atheists nor the theists – could honestly address the questions which, by this time, had multiplied ten-fold.  Where was I to turn?

If anything, I pondered as a young man, the answer to my questions might actually be found in the bible.  So with that, I thrust myself wholeheartedly into the world of religion, going to church, praying even harder, attending church events and bible studies, even hanging out with Christian-only friends.  In the process of immersing myself in God and His Church, I found myself poorer than I was (give until it hurts and God will reward you), no girlfriend (God will bring you a righteous woman), no career (God didn’t value evil, liberal education or jobs that paid more than minimum wage), and no more closer to inner peace than I had before I dropped out of school, penniless.  To top all of this, I watched as god’s shepherd stole tens of thousands of dollars from the church and ran away with the secretary, stranding his wife and children.  If there was a lesson in any of this, it was that Truth would not be found among the religious.

Thereafter, I began to immerse myself in pure logic.  I held my belief in an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing god, but I decided to search for answers to my questions in science and reasoning.  And reason I did.  I conducted mind-experiments where I hypothesized just how god could actually be all-knowing, developing structures of logical thought that would buttress my faith.  I studied Kepler and Copernicus as much as I studied the bible.  If, I surmised, I could somehow develop a rational theory to explain how god can exist and operate as the bible tells us, then I would be able to support my beliefs through logic and, therefore, justify my faith.  Yet, far from answering the burning questions on my mind, my inquiries into a scientific explanation for god only led to increasingly complex questions that neither science nor the bible could readily answer, questions that delve into the very heart of morality: If killing is wrong, isn’t it just as “wrong” to execute adults as it is to abort unborn humans?  Why would God have the Israelites slay every man, woman, and child in their post-exodus conquest of Palestine?  If the Soviets launch a preemptive nuclear strike, is it “right” to launch our missiles in retaliation?  Do two wrongs, then, make a right?  And if everything in this world is preordained and happens for a purpose – even the motion of every atom – then why do we punish criminals for their actions?  Aren’t they simply predestined to do “God’s will?”  Neither science, nor philosophy, nor theology could answer these and many more questions. 

Still, I struggled to somehow cling to my belief in God, in that which would somehow justify our meaning for existence and give purpose to our lives.  Then, it finally happened.  The veil was lifted from my eyes.

It was a personal series of mistakes and tragic human failings that drove me to the only conclusion I could make: god simply did not exist.  Once again, need led me to pray for help, for assistance, for something that would alleviate the pain and assign purpose for the suffering I was undergoing.  But, like the Pink Floyd song Is There Anybody Out There? the “prayer line” just rang and rang and rang, without end.  Truly, for me, no one was out there.

There was no preordained purpose.  No meaning assigned by a higher power.  No beginning of creation.  No end.  All was just a cold, hollow void.  Chaos.  It was like Lucifer waking from sleep in Pandaemonium only to discover that all was just a dream: there were no gods, no angels, and no fall.  It was just himself, all alone, and Hell was simply a part of the natural world.  This sudden awareness, then, left me with only one question: What the hell does any of this – life itself – mean?

      *          *          *          *          *

Although theology cannot answer the questions I have lived with most of my life, it can certainly provide some measure of understanding of just what it was that I was experiencing in attempting to understand the paradox of god and suffering.

The crux of my struggle with faith and reason, I eventually found, was what philosophers and theologians call “theodicy,” the question of how an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing god can coincide with the existence of evil.  Understanding theodicy and the resultant “argument from evil” was a crucial next step in exploring the paradox of God and evil.

            Coined by German philosopher Gottfried W. Von Leibniz in the 17th century, “theodicy” incorporates the Greek words for god and justice (Young 63). Those who study the apparent paradox of Western monotheistic belief and the existence of evil have been doing so for quite a long time; debate over the dichotomy of God and justice in a world where evil exists has been around since nearly the beginning of Christianity.  Christian thinkers and theologians, from Augustine to Plantinga, Hume to Leibniz, have attempted to explain in various ways the paradox of a universe where a benevolent, omnipotent God can coexist with the reality of evil.  Common sense and simple human compassion would seem to imply that “an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God would not allow any--or certain kinds of--evil or suffering to occur” (Augustine). After all, if humans were fashioned in god’s image, should our compassion not somehow be a reflection of the compassion of the creator?  It would seem that my own questions had been asked by minds greater than mine for many, many centuries.

Yet in some cases, even the definition and traditional assumptions about what “evil” really is have been challenged in an attempt to circumvent the argument from evil.  Stephen D O’Leary, in his work The Problem of Evil Revisited, observes that some religions, such as Christian Science, “deny the existence of evil altogether” (131).  “Once evil is defined,” says O’Leary, “simply as false belief, the problem is easily ‘solved’” (131).  Here, however, theories that call into question the very existence of evil and real life observation may be said to reasonably collide.  Experience alone trumps this argument.  When I see someone hurting another, that pain – that evil – is real.  Whether this perception of right/wrong is a natural, genetically-coded, inherent morality or simply an inheritance of nurture and the social contract into which individuals are born among their respective cultures, most people would agree that there is a fundamental difference between acts that harm and acts that refrain from harming.   And in many ways, the examples of Cahana and Ingabire mentioned earlier stand in stark opposition to the claim that evil is “all in our heads” (O’Leary 131). 

Still other, more widely accepted, challenges to our conventional thinking about evil include Saint Augustine’s supposition that “evil is not ‘real’ since it only ‘exists’ as the negation or privation of the good” (O’Leary 132).  This view essentially says that “evil” is not actually a tangible thing such as “good,” but is instead merely the absence of good, much as “darkness” is merely the absence of “light.”  And in his article “Wonder What God Had In Mind?”: Leibniz’s theodicy and the Art of Toni Morrison, Josiah U. Young III notes that Leibniz considered evil as a sort of Platonic “form” that existed “in God’s intelligence before the creation of the world” (64).  In essence, evil arises not as something specifically created by god (although god and humanity certainly perceive its existence) but rather as “privation,” that which is outside of what god has created (Young 64).  Thus, by delving outside of the “good” which god has created for us, we find ourselves immersed in what is outside of god: the absence of good or, therefore, god’s will, and when we fall outside of the will of the deity, we potentially expose ourselves to evil. 

Yet I find this argument intellectually unsatisfying, as it does little to shed light on the real, tangible sufferings I witness on a daily basis.  One can, of course, attempt to compartmentalize the concept of evil by merely saying it exists only in so far as one acts outside the bounds of that which is good, yet Augustine’s assertion does little to actually answer the argument from evil.  Even if evil is essentially a state outside the bounds of good, evil still is.  Regardless of whether it exists in and of itself as a creation of god or whether it is nothing more than absence of what god actually did create (the good), the fact that god does not or cannot harness evil in any form or that god does not intervene still leaves the argument from evil unanswered.  Argument over the semantics of defining a “storm” does little to comfort its very real victims.

In fact, Augustine goes on to assert that our proverbial first parents were not just morally neutral creatures with a choice between good and evil, but rather creatures who were already created good.  “The first couple was made upright” as dictated by scripture, and that Adam and Eve were not only created “without sin . . . but that God made their will oriented towards their true Good” (Couenhoven 283).  What Augustine comes to believe, in essence, is that humanity has less command over free-will choices than was first thought.  Yet this explanation – meant to show that evil is not something real either in humanity’s nature or in god’s creation – is an inadequate attempt to somehow alleviate god from culpability in the argument from evil.  In Augustine’s theodicy, since god neither created evil nor created “man” with moral neutrality (the equal likelihood that Adam and Eve would choose good or evil), the argument from evil disappears. 

However, even if we were to grant Augustine’s tenuous assertion that man, not god, is responsible for evil because humanity was created “good” but chose to step outside of the bounds of god’s all-encompassing goodness, the argument from evil has still not been answered.  God remains all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing.  Why did “he” create a world where non-good was still a viable choice, and why does “he” still permit evil to happen when so many countless people suffer?  God, in Augustine’s theodicy, is little more than an inept referee, neither willing nor able to actually participate in the game of life but merely judging fouls without ever throwing a flag or stopping the play.  Such a god, for me, is unpalatable. 

Additionally, Augustine’s argument assumes that good is the normative, default state of the world and that derivation from good is merely some sort of intangible ungood, called evil.  How do we know, though, that the natural state, or form, of the world is indeed good?  Order and systemization of the physical properties of the universe alone does not necessarily denote spiritual or even transcendent goodness.  In fact, in a world where terror, abuse, violence, disease, pain, starvation, neglect, and natural disasters appear to be the norm rather than the exception, one may be compelled to question this a priori assumption. 

Indeed, if one considers humans as naturally bent toward good due to this Augustinian claim on our original creation, then there should be evidence of this in the real world.

Yet everywhere, even among young children, we find little real evidence of this natural bent toward good.  When I ask my four-year old son if he has brushed his teeth before going to bed, he often responds “yes” when, in fact, he did not. From where did this inclination to tell a lie come?  If humans were not held accountable to socially constructed laws and their enforcement, would they still be inclined to naturally choose that which is right, or would they instead do what was expedient, even if it was wrong?  How long would we continue to stop at stop signs if no one was ever around to see us?  If we were invisible, would we still act morally upright or would the inclination be to do things not indicative of a species created “naturally good?”  Explanations like Augustine’s only pose more questions than they answer for me.

It seems apparent that if anything, humans do not lack free will, at least in as far as they may make choices that are available to them.  Even people born under despotic regimes still have some choices available to them.  This free will is presumably an inheritance of the creator, part of the genetic legacy handed down for countless generations from one human to another.  We have the choice to use our free will for good or for ill.  We may act or refrain from acting.  Yet what happens if we choose not to act even when restraint may mean the suffering or death of another?

A Modern Parable

A young child is playing outside when it wandered from the safety of its yard and into the busy street.  Its father watches in silence, unmoving, as the little one is suddenly struck by a vehicle.  As the child lays there broken and bloody, crying and calling out for help, the parent walks toward the child and bends down, taking its hand in his and telling the child, “I love you.  I have always loved you.  I have loved you in ways you can never imagine in your feeble understanding.”

Were this parable to actually happen in our world, the parent would be charged, tried, and convicted of multiple crimes, including child endangerment, child neglect, and more.  The media would portray the man as an inhuman monster, and vigilantes might take justice into their own hands.  At the very least, people would shake their heads and wonder just why a parent would do that to their child. 

So, why does god get a free pass?

When “his” children, we frail humans, expose themselves to dangers of which they may have only the vaguest notion of the long-term consequences, god’s inaction is not only overlooked but applauded.  For the most part, god is allowed the luxury of doing nothing because his ways are considered “divine” or “unknowable,” and those among us who question the paradox of an all-good, all-powerful god who does not have to live by the very moral code handed down to humans through the Western Christian tradition – namely, atheists and agnostics - are considered evil.  In the same parable, people may say “it’s god’s will” or “none can know the ways of god.”  So under similar circumstances, why does a human parent become a monster while god becomes more glorious?  In this example, god sits upon some Miltonian throne over the heavens, creating Law but altogether exempt from it.

The free will defense, perhaps one of the earliest and most persistent theories to account for the enigma of evil, contends that since god created human beings with free will, it is humanity – and not God – that is the moral agent who chooses to act evil.  Atheists claim that since the two concepts are virtual contradictions, it must follow that the former, god, cannot exist.  For these thinkers, to accept both the presence of God and evil would require that the a priori assumption that god is all-powerful or that god is all-good would have to be changed; either god is not omnipotent or god is not good.  Yet monotheists in the Western tradition require god to be both all-powerful and all-good.  If we are to grant the theists’ supposition that god must be both, then atheists are left with only one logical conclusion: that god must not exist.  Otherwise, as George Botterill observes in his work “Falsification and the Existence of God: A Discussion of Plantinga’s Free Will Defense, “The Problem of Evil is an anomaly . . . for belief in the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good God” (118). 

The choice to believe or not believe in a god is a very personal decision, and for many, personal experience and rationale alone cannot undo their faith.  How one decides to rationalize their belief varies, but for those who simply cannot accept the anomaly of god and evil, the concept of meaning or purpose appears to be moot.  If there is no higher power, no deity, who guides our steps and provides inherent, transcendent, and higher-order meaning for living, how can the atheist possibly justify living when there is no purpose to death, no meaning behind atrocities, no divine explanation of otherwise random, inexplicable acts of natural or moral evil?  Is it, therefore, possible to find a purpose for continuing to exist – or justifying the procreation of our children and their progeny after them – in a universe where meaning and purpose does not exist?

            For atheists like myself, there is a way of defining “meaning” in a meaningless world, and I propose that purpose need not be defined by a rigid, Western-style theistic understanding of life itself.  An answer to the enigma of finding purpose does not require the a priori existence of any god.  In fact, one answer lies in the very heart of the problem of the free will defense and theodicy itself: free will.

            As humans, we seem to have the ability, when we are not mentally impaired, to determine choices for our lives.   We can all, free or slave, determine whether we choose to find meaning for our own lives regardless of the existence of evil or of god itself.  And herein lies the heart of my supposition: we can choose to find our own sense of meaning and purpose. 

            Personal loss, disillusionment, disenfranchisement, and painful meditation of life’s callousness have all fostered to my personal choice to cast aside the veil of theism and embrace what is, for me, a cold, mechanical, nihilistic yet inevitable truth: god does not – cannot – exist.  Meaning, therefore, as defined by most theistic systems of belief, is meaningless.  If I am to find purpose for my own life where divine purpose no longer appears to exist independent of my mind, it is important that I readily accept the challenge of facing reality in a universe where no god exists.  What, then, is the meaning of my life?

            In a godless, meaningless world where all human actions are the result of free will choices made in a world of random chance, the ability to decide our own meaning is more important than ever.  It is imperative that I ponder what “meaning” is for me if I am to decide the path my life now takes. 

Natural evil and disasters such as weather, earthquakes, tsunamis, even improbable meteorite strikes from space may affect the direction of our lives in one way or another, at one time or another.  Worse yet, moral evil can have an even greater effect upon our lives, when one or more people choose, directly or indirectly, to harm us.  Whether one hurts our feelings, neglects us, or harms us physically, evil, or the privation of good, lies all around us.  Yet what I find important is not what happens to me, but rather how I choose to react to it.  And to the realization that evil is all-pervasive and that there is no god to redeem or justify us upon some day of reckoning, I, as an atheist, must turn to the only authority that has any real meaning or purpose in my life: me.  I decide how I will treat others.  I decide whether my actions will reap more harm than good.  I decide what will be the self-defined purpose of my life.  In essence, the atheist can find meaning in free will alone.

            Joseph Campbell, in his interview with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth, made a keen observation that cuts to the heart of my search for meaning:

                        We are having experiences all the time which may on occasion

 render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your bliss is.

Grab it. No one can tell you what it is going to be. You have to learn

to recognize your own depth. All the time. It is miraculous. I even

have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible

hands coming all the time-namely, that if you do follow your bliss

you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while,

waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you

are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are

in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow

your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't

know they were going to be” (Quotes).

Thus, one answer for atheists like me lies in finding and exploring my bliss.  Although choosing to follow one’s bliss is an exercise in which anyone can endeavor, Campbell’s message has special significance for me, since it allows me to determine for myself exactly what it is that I need to do with my life when life, otherwise, has no meaning or divine direction.  And what is bliss?

            Anything.  One’s bliss may be anything that brings true, heartfelt joy to the life of the individual pursuing it.  Whether passion for a hobby, an act, a belief, or something else, each of us has the capacity to seek out and find just what it is that moves us in the deepest part of our being.  For me, that “bliss” includes the pursuit of my art – writing – and the accumulation of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  But foremost, it involves raising my boy into a courageous, ethical, honest, empathic, and temperate man, one who has the strength of will and the ability to one day pursue his own bliss regardless of the obstacles both society and life itself may place in his way.  It even includes the search for a deep, interpersonal, emotionally and intellectually enriching relationship with other humans.  For me, pursuit of my bliss has become everything.

            Still, this pursuit should not come at the cost of the rights of others.  When pursuit of bliss means infringing – or even outright violating – the rights of another, then one should choose not to pursue bliss.  The only way I, for instance, can live an ethical, happy life in a meaningless universe is if I seek both to pursue my bliss and to harm no one.  When pursuit of the former means harming others, I willfully choose to do no harm.  Thus, my self-defined, self-appointed path of the pursuit of meaning and purpose in life is inextricably interwoven with my choice to pursue bliss where such pursuit considers first and foremost the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others.  In addition, harming others can lead to restrictions on one’s freedom to pursue their bliss, thereby acting as a negative feedback mechanism.  The pursuit of hedonistic, narcissistic, selfish debauchery may only lead to society imposing restrictions on one’s freedom or even worse – sickness and death.  Thus, to “pursue pleasure by any means possible” is antithetical to the pursuit of true bliss.  In essence, to seek bliss and thereby meaning in life, one should, by necessity, harm no one.

            Ultimately, in a world where meaning may no longer be defined by the dictates of god, atheists have choices greater than mere cynicism or the seeking of pleasure for pleasure’s sake, like some Epicurean free-for-all where we must “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” (Memento).  Atheists can choose, through their own free will that stands apart from the existence of any deity, their own meaning for the remaining time they have to live on this earth.  Once god is eliminated from the equation of life and the notion divine purpose is gone, the freedom that comes from such a realization is exhilarating, releasing my mind from arguments of theodicy and the contemplation of good/evil dichotomies and allowing me to determine my own reason for existence.   In the end, if people can come to find, like I, that happiness and purpose, ethics and meaning, can be found even when divorced from the conceptualization of Western religious heritage, then the argument from evil becomes less threatening and may be, ironically, life affirming.  Finding meaning in a meaningless world is not only possible, but it is my purpose in life.


 

 

Works Cited

 

“Atheist Evangelism.” Theodicy. 13 Apr. 2007. Theodicy. 14 Sep. 2007 <http://theodicy.

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Hagerty, Mary B. “The Quest For Meaning After The Shoah.” The Center for Holocaust

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O’Leary, Stephen D. “The Problem of Evil Revisted: Theodicy Argument as Forensic

            Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric. 29.2 (1996): 122-46. Humanities International

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Quotes from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth – An Interview with Bill Moyers. Ed.

            Paul Connell. 28 Nov. 2007<http://www.qcc.mass.edu/pconnell/joec.html>.

“Sudan ‘miracle’ child treated in UK.” BBC News 11 Jul. 2003. 14 Sep. 2007 <http://

news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3057183.stm>.

Torgovnik, Jonathan. “Rwanda: Legacy of genocide.” Telegraph Magazine 10 Jun. 2007. 14 Sep. 2007 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2007/10/06/sm_rwanda.xml.

Young III, Josiah U. “Wonder What God Had in Mind?”: Leibniz's Theodicy and the Art of Toni Morrison.” Black Theology: An International Journal. 5.1 (2007): 63-80.

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