Over the years, I've been to a boatload of academic conferences and listened to dozens of academic, highly professional papers in philosophy and theology. Too often, the papers are so specialized that only a handful of people in the world could possibly follow them. A not uncommon feeling walking out of a lecture room after hearing one of these papers is "huh?"
Reading (and re-reading, and re-reading yet again) Ricoeur's Evil was like walking out of those lecture rooms--which somehow seems appropriate, since the essay is the text of one of his lectures. Ricoeur at his best is irritatingly obscure. Here, he's maddeningly obtuse. I made the mistake of requiring this book in one of my classes, and none of my students--bright young people all--could figure out what Ricoeur was trying to say. Neither could I, actually.
In broad strokes, Ricoeur wants to claim that the experience of evil, either one's own or another's suffering, can never be demythologized, regardless of how strenuously we try to do so. Discourse about evil historically and psychologically has tended toward reductionism, moving from a mythic account, which simply accepts it as a given in life, to theodicy, which tries to explain it away. But the experience remains irreducible.
Okay. But if this is all Ricoeur is saying, it's neither terribly interesting nor original. What's at stake is why the experience of evil is irreducible, and for the life of me I can't figure out what Ricoeur's answer is. Nor is he clear in discussing the different levels of reductionistic discourse about evil. Especially impenetrable are his discussions of what he calls "the stage of gnosticism and anti-gnostic gnosis" (I don't even know what he intends the second term to mean) and Barth's negative dialectic.
In short, a maddening little book. Its subtitle is "A Challenge to Philosophy and Theology." Too right.