Honoring Marilyn McCord Adams
Many communities are mourning the passing of Marilyn McCord Adams: philosophers, theologians and Christians from all over the world benefited from her influence during her lifetime.1 We can only hope that the reach of her prolific work and profound insights continues to grow in the future. In honor of Professor McCord Adams, I would like to note some of the distinctive and inspiring aspects of her life and work.
I first encountered the work of Dr. McCord Adams in a course on the theology of suffering at Moody Bible Institute. She introduced the term “horrendous evils,” describing suffering that seems irrevocably pointless and far too tragic to ever contribute to any “overarching good” which might justify or explain its existence.2 According to McCord Adams, the only hope we have in response to horrendous evils is the consoling presence of a suffering God who shares our pain.
Adams’ approach to theodicy, and theology and philosophy in general, demonstrates her capacity to hold in tension her many vocations. McCord Adams was not only a renowned philosopher, but also a priest, and I find her pastoral approach to complex issues to be one of the most compelling and powerful aspects of her work. Adams’ incisive critique of the most prominent theodicies came in the form of a question: Could the truck driver who accidentally ran over his beloved child find consolation in it?3 Adams’ theodicy has always been a breath of fresh air to me, especially when I get mired in abstract discussions—discussions about possible worlds and contingencies that seem to miss the existential poignancy of the problem of evil. After all, if my theodicy provides no comfort to someone like the truck driver in this example, then what use is it?4 Adams was able to approach vexing questions and topics with intellectual rigor and pastoral care.
As an Episcopalian priest, Adams also demonstrated an encouraging model for Anglican thought and praxis, which is established upon the three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition, and reason. Adams sought to strike a healthy balance between all of these sources of authority, which is no easy task (and will never be accomplished without controversy). Her position on universalism was motivated by an attempt to wrestle with the logical consequences of the nature of the God revealed in Scripture, explored in tradition, and experienced in the life of the church.5 She emphasized the importance of unity over uniformity, taking great care to honor the Anglican value of a radically ecumenical communion that does not alienate the marginalized or dismiss the concerns of the oppressed.6 Her devotion to embodying and respecting the Anglican tradition through her life and work serves as an example to all of us who are privileged to participate in the Anglican communion.
So we celebrate the life and work of the Rev. Canon Marilyn McCord Adams. May Christians learn from her insistence on love and unity, may theologians benefit from her honest engagement with Christian thought, and may philosophers imitate from her conceptual consistency and rigor. Whether or not we agree with her stance on contentious issues, we cannot help but admire her unique ability to consistently navigate a complex world with honesty and compassion. So we honor her legacy and uphold her as a model for Christian thinkers to emulate.
(2) Adams, Marilyn McCord. “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God” in Adams, Marilyn McCord, and Robert Merrihew Adams, eds. The Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 211.
(3) Ibid., p. 214.
(4) McCord Adams’ discussion of theodicy is complex, and I cannot do it justice here. If you are interested in reading a fairly succinct but helpful presentation of her approach to theodicy, I highly recommend her article “Horrendous evils and the Goodness of God” in The Problem of Evil.
(5) Adams, Marilyn McCord. Christ and Horrors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 229-230.