Covid:19, Vico, Duterte and the Question of Theodicy

By Nestor Ravilas

The current health crisis foregrounds again the problem of theodicy. Natural calamity, whether natural disasters or viral diseases, indiscriminately harm people. But the most severely stricken by such pestilence are the poor and the weak who can barely protect themselves to survive the attack. There, we begin to question the divine justice, and wonder why such a god would randomly smitten humanity, which would only lead us to take stock that life is invariably unfair!

Many wanted to untangle this deadlock. Unfortunately, I would say, research on theodicy desperately mired into two options: God is good but powerless, or God is powerful but he is not good. Those who braved the limbo engaged in either convoluted argumentation or sophisticated reasoning, but at the end they found themselves facing the same wall of nonsense conclusion.

The current onslaught of the epidemic of viral disease now baptized as COVID-19 compelled me to spit out this bitter thing inside my mouth. This might offend your conservative stance, but desperate condition calls for eloquent thinking. This could be a portion of an immense project of Penuel School of Theology on Political Theology, but now prematurely offering it to the public in hope to show that theologians, like our medical frontliners, could help sift our way down to triumph over this challenge.

Let me start by saying that theodicy is a problem spawned by monotheism. Prior to the rise of monotheistic faith, theodicy was not a problem. For reasons I will discuss rather in another time and platform, Israel decided to reduce the Ancient Near East (ANE) traditional pantheon into one single god. It was a necessary adjustment considering the historical condition of Israel when they started to promote monotheistic faith. But like every solution, it creates another problem later on. And in the case of monotheism, theodicy is the problem it breeds.

The Genesis creation story is the epitome of biblical presentation of monotheistic faith. With obvious influence of Enuma Elish, the creation account of Genesis was altered in many ways to address particular condition of Hebrew people. There you can see a single deity, located outside, and created the world out of her words all by herself.

Not however on the oldest creation accounts circulating in ANE  prior to the Genesis account. There creation was not a product of the commands of a benevolent god, rather it is a product of a battle between Chaos and Order. There was this primordial battle between good and evil, between chaos and order, between the demiurge and Apopis, the sea dragon.

The god/s of order eventually won the struggle and there was therefore peace and order in the cosmos. This order, however, was not a permanent design, it has to be preserved, protected and defended from the incessant desire of chaos to pull down cosmos to destruction. There is no problem of theodicy in this religio-poltical arrangement. Evil has a place then in this archaic cosmogonic design, and it is there lurking but active, waiting to attack anytime chance is offered. The battle is ongoing and never ceased between benevolent and evil gods such as between Re and Apopis, or Horus and Seth, or between El and Baal, or Baal and Yamm, or between Vico Sotto and Rodrigo Duterte.

That is the problem with monotheism. You have only one god inhabiting the cosmos, where, in order to maintain his omnipotence, which is a prominent theme in the books of Ezekiel and Second Isaiah, you have to attribute evil and good, chaos and order, to the same god, Yahweh. Where do you put, say, Vico and Duterte, evil and good, on this political theology then?

The problem of Vico and Duterte, evil and good, was first problematized by the Book of Job written centuries after the intensification of monotheistic faith in 7th century. The problem monotheism has engendered was immediately felt, “Will you attribute both Vico and Duterte, evil and good, to the same deity, Yahweh?” Unlike Filipinos, the Israelites under Yehud, felt uncomfortable with that. Thus they started conceiving and “adversary” where evil and Duterte could be associated with. By the time of Jesus in the New Testament, the adversary gained complete identity as Satan, the god of evil and destruction. Monotheism was slightly broken to separate Vico and Duterte, one landed in the bosom of Abraham, and the other one to his father Satan, the killer and destroyer.

The discontent with monotheism created consequently Satan as adversary to Yahweh, which is inspired by the unyielding cosmic battle between Horus and Seth, Baal and Yamm and many more of such pairing of benevolent and evil gods. In this arrangement, society is not expected to sit and ask why evil exist. But society, as part of the consubstantiality between nature, gods and humans, must remain vigilant every time Apopis, or the Leviathan, or the sea dragons emerge from its lair to wreak havoc in order to drag the cosmos into chaos. We are not expected to sit and wonder afterwards why evil happens. But in this eternal cosmic battle we need to identify who are the sons of Apopis, of Seth, of Yamm, of Satan and spurn and overcome them to keep order and peace intact. The rise of the kind of Vico Sotto and others is a stark demonstration that we have this cosmic duty to protect peace and order. Next time evil prospers, don’t look on God and ask her why she let this evil happened. Look inside us rather and ask, why did we conspire with evil by becoming obedient and silent!

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