Archive for the ‘Theodicy’ Category


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 4 – Robert Alter

February 13, 2014
Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job's lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God's lines affirming light.

Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job’s lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God’s lines affirming light.

See Intro in first post.


This general turning of Job’s first affirmation of death into an affirmation of life is minutely worked out in the language and imagery of the poem that God speaks. Job’s initial poem, we recall, began by setting out the binary opposition between day and night, light and darkness, and then proceeded through an intensifying series of wishes that the light be swallowed up by darkness.

The opening verset of God’s speech summons Job as someone who “darkens counsel,” and the emphatic and repeated play with images of light and darkness in the subsequent lines makes it clear that this initial characterization of Job is a direct critique of his first speech and all that follows from it. (The allusion here to the poem in Chapter 3 is reinforced by the term God uses at the beginning of the second line in addressing Job, giver, “man,” which also occurs at the beginning of Job’s first poem — “the night that said, A man has been conceived.”

It is as though God were implying: you called yourself man, giver, now gird up your loins like a man and see if you can face the truth. Job, the Voice from the Whirl wind suggests, has gotten things entirely skewed in regard to the basic ontological constituents of light and darkness. The two in fact exist in a delicate and powerful dialectic beyond the ken of man, and the balance between them is part of the unfathomable beauty of creation. This point is intimated in many of the first thirty-seven lines of the poem and made explicit in verses 19-20:

Where is the way light dwells,
and darkness, where is its place,
That you might take it to its home,
and understand the paths to its house?

Job in Chapter 3 prayed for cloud and darkness to envelop the day he was born. Cloud and deep mist reappear here in a startlingly new context, as the matinal  [vocab: relating to or taking place in the morning.] blanket over the primordial seas, as the swaddling bands of creation (verse 9). Job wanted “death’s shadow (tzalmdvet) to cover his existence; here that term appears as part of large cosmic picture not to be perceived with mere human eyes: Have the gates of death been laid bare to you, / and the gates of death’s shadow have you seen? (verse 17).

In the one explicitly moral point of theodicy made by the Voice from the Whirlwind (verses 12-15), the diurnal rhythm of light succeeding darkness is taken as both emblem and instrument of God’s ferreting out of evildoers — an idea not present to the “Ecclesiastean” vision of Chapter 3, where evil and oppression are merely part of the anguished and futile cyclical movement of life.

It is not surprising that this particular passage should be terse and a little cryptic, for whatever God means to suggest about bringing; wrongdoing to light, He is not invoking the simple moral calculus used so unquestioningly by the Friends. Job in the ascending spirals of his pain-driven rhetoric sought to summon all forms of darkness to eclipse forever the sun and moon and stars. In response God asks him whether he has any notion of what it means in amplitude and moral power to be able to muster the dawn (verse 12) and set the constellations in their regular motion (verses 31-33).

Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job’s lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God’s lines affirming light. Job, one recalls, tried to conjure up an eternal starless night:

Let its twilight stars go dark,
let it hope for light in vain,
and let it not see the eyelids of the dawn


God, near the beginning of His first discourse, evokes the moment when creation was completed in an image that has become justly famous in its own right but that is also, it should be observed, a counter image to 3:9:

When the morning stars sang together,
 and all the sons of God shouted for joy

(verse 7).

That is, instead of a night with no twilight stars, with no glimmer of dawn, the morning stars of creation exult. The emphasis in this line on song and shouts of joy also takes us back to the poem of Chapter 3, which began with a triumphant cry on the night of conception — a cry Job wanted to wish away — and proceeded to a prayer that no joyous exclamation come into that night (3:7).

Finally, the vestigially mythological “sons of God” — with the semantic breadth in Hebrew of “son,” this implies not biological filiation but something like “celestial company” – takes this back beyond Chapter 3 to the frame-story. There, of course, it was the Adversary who was the prominent and sinister member of “the sons of God.”

The discordant note he represented has been expunged here in this heavenly chorus of creation. What I am pointing to is not one of those contradictions of sources on which biblical scholarship has too often thrived but a culminating moment in which the vision of the poet transcends the limited terms of the folktale he has chosen to use.

There is a second set of key images in the first movement of God’s speech that harks back to Job’s initial poem, namely, the imagery of physical generation and birth. Since this imagery, unlike light and darkness, which are literal substances of creation, is imposed metaphorically by the poet as a way of shaping the material, it provides even clearer evidence of how the poem in Chapter 38 was purposefully articulated as a grand reversal of the poem in Chapter 3.

Job’s first speech begins with birth and conception and circles back on the belly or womb where he would like to be enclosed, where he imagines the fate of the dead fetus as the happiest of human lots. Against those doors of the belly (3:10) that Job wanted shut on him forever, the Voice from the Whirlwind invokes a cosmic womb and cosmic doors to a very different purpose:

Who hedged the sea with double doors,
when it gushed forth from the womb

(verse 8).

This figuration of setting limits to the primal sea as closing doors on a gushing womb produces a high tension of meaning absent from Job’s unequivocal death wish. The doors are closed and bolted (verse 10) so that the flood will not engulf the earth, but nevertheless the waves surge, the womb of all things pulsates, something is born — a sense made clear in the incipiently narrative development of the womb image into the next line (verse 9), where in a metaphor unique in biblical poetry the primordial mists over the surface of the deep are called swaddling bands.

One might note that in the anticipations of this passage in Job’s speech there are allusions to the Canaanite cosmogonic myth of a triumph by force over an archaic sea monster, while in God’s own words that martial story is set aside, or at the very least left in the distant background, so that the cosmogony can be rendered ins in terms of procreation.

What we are invited to imagine in this fashion is creation not as the laying low of a foe but as the damming up and channeling of powers nevertheless allowed to remain active. (The only clear allusion in the poem to God’s doing battle, verse 23, is projected forward in time to an indefinite, perhaps vaguely apocalyptic future.) The poet uses a rather unexpected verb, “to hedge in,” in order to characterize this activity of holding back the womb of the sea, and that is a double allusion, to God’s protective “hedging round” of Job mentioned in the frame-story and to Job’s bitter complaint toward the end of his first poem of having been “hedged in” by God.

The verb, in its various conjugations, is nowhere else in the Bible used for the closing of doors but generally suggests a shading or sheltering act, as with a wing or canopy. One usage that might throw some light on our line from Job is this verse in Psalms (139:13):

“For You created my innermost parts,
wove me [or hedged me around] in my mother’s womb.”

The Creator, that is, at the end of Job, is actively blocking off, bolting in, the surge of the sea, but the word carries after it a long train of associations having to do with protection and nurture, so that the negative sense of the verb in Chapter 3 is in a way combined with the positive sense which the frame-story uses it. What results is a virtual oxymoron, expressing a paradoxical feeling that God’s creation involves a necessary holding in check of violent forces and a sustaining of those same forces because they are also forces of life.

One sees in a single compact phrase how the terms of God’s poetry — which is to say, ultimately, His imagination of the world — transcend the terms of Job’s poetry and that of the Friends. When the poem moves on — as I have suggested, in an implicitly narrative movement — from cosmogony to meteorology, birth imagery once more introduced.

First Job is challenged sarcastically, “You know, for you were then born” (verse 21), which, in addition to the ultimate allusion to the beginning of the poem in Chapter 3, sounds ,quite like Eliphaz’s words to Job in Chapter 15. The crucial difference is that instead of being a rhetorical ploy in a petty contest of supposed longevity, this address is set against a background of cosmic uterine pulsations and leads into a thick cluster of birth images a few lines down (verses 28-29), so that we quickly grasp the ontological contrast between Job, a man born of woman in time, and the principle of generation infinitely larger than man that informs nature.

The two lines below that articulate this principle richly develop the implications of the birth imagery in a characteristically biblical fashion:

Does the rain have a father,
or who begot the drops of dew?
From whose belly did the ice come forth,
To the frost of the heavens who gave birth?

In each of these two lines we are carried forward from agent (fat her) or agency (belly) to the active process of procreation (begot, gave birth — in the Hebrew, two different conjugations of the same verb). Between the first line and the second, what amounts to a biological focusing of the birth image is carried out as we go from the father, the inseminator who is the proximate cause of birth, to the mother, in whose body the actual birth is enacted.

The interlinear parallelism of this couplet also plays brilliantly with the two opposed states of water, first liquid and falling or condensing, then frozen. In the first line, the haunted inapplicability of the birth imagery is a result of multiplicity: How could one imagine anyone fathering the countless millions of raindrops or dewdrops?

In the second line, the incongruity — which is to say, the chasm between man’s small world and God’s vast world — is a more shocking one (still another intensifying development) as the poet’s language forces us to imagine the unimaginable, great chunk of ice coming out of the womb. Figurative language is used here to show the limits of figuration itself, which, in the argumentative thrust of the poem, means the limits of the human imagination. The immediately following line (verse 30) is a focusing development this ice imagery: “Water congeals like stone, / and the face of the deep locks hard.”

The tension of opposites that is at the heart of God’s vision of the world is strongly felt here: fluid and stone-harp solid, white-frozen surface and watery depths. Having reached this point, the poet lays aside birth imagery, and after three lines devoted to the stars concludes the whole meteorological segment with a focusing development of the phenomena of natural precipitation we just observed in verses 28-30, which themselves capped a whole sequence on snow and rain that began with verse.

There remains of course, an implicit connection between fructification or birth and rain, as anyone living in the Near Eastern climate and topography would be readily aware, and as verse 27 reminds us quite naturalistically and verse 28 by a sort of riddling paradox (no one is the father of the rain, but the rain is the father of life). In any case, the concluding four lines of our segment — putting aside verse 36, whose meaning is uncertain — offer an image of downpour on parched land that is, at least by implication, a final turn of the screw in the poetic rejoinder to Chapter 3.

In Job’s initial poem the only water anywhere in evidence is the saltwater of tears (3:24), and clouds are mentioned only as a means to cover up the light. It is surely appropriate that God should now challenge Job to make lightning leap from the thickness of the cloud and that in His cosmic realm, as against Job’s rhetorical realm, the meaning of clouds is not darkness but a source of water to renew the earth with life.

The rest of God’s speech — the second half of the first discourse and virtually all of the second discourse — is then devoted to a poetic panorama of the animal life that covers the earth. The sequence of beasts, like the movement of the poem through space via metonymic links, is loosely associative but also instructive: lion, raven, mountain goat and gazelle, wild ass, wild ox, ostrich, war horse, hawk and eagle. The first two and the last two creatures in the sequence are beasts of prey whose native fierceness in effect frames the wildness of the whole catalogue.

The sequence begins, that is, with an image of the lion couching in ambush for its prey (38:39-40), determined to sate its keen appetite; and the sequence closes with this striking evocation of the eagle seeking food for its brood: “From there [the mountain crag] he seeks out food, / from afar his eyes look down. // His chicks lap up blood; / where the slain are, there he is” (39:29-30).

This concluding poem in Job is probably one of the most unsentimental poetic treatments of the animal world in the Western literary tradition and, at least at first thought, a little surprising coming from the mouth of God. But the violence and, even more, the peculiar beauty of violence are precisely the point of God’s visionary rejoinder to Job. The animal realm is a non-moral realm, but the sharp paradoxes it embodies make us see the inadequacy of any merely human moral calculus — not only that of the Friends, learned by rote, but even Job’s, spoken out of the integrity of suffering.

In the animal kingdom, the tender care for one’s young may well mean their gulping the blood of freshly slain creatures. It is a daily rite of sustaining life that defies all moralizing anthropomorphic interpretation. And yet, the series of rhetorical questions to Job suggests, God’s providence looks after each of these strange, fierce, inaccessible creatures. There is an underlying continuity between this representation of the animal world and the picture of inanimate nature in 38:2-38, with its sense of terrific power abiding in the natural world, fructification and destruction as alternative aspects of the same, imponderable forces.

That continuity is reinforced by the carryover of images of procreation from the cosmogonic and meteorological sections of the poem to the zoological section. In the two former instances, as we just saw, the language of parturition and progeny was first metaphoric and then both metaphoric and heavily ironic; among the animals, it becomes quite literal. The raven at the beginning of this section (38:41) and the eagle at the end are seen striving to fulfill the needs of their young.

Immediately after the raven, the birth process and early growth of the mountain goat and gazelle are given detailed attention:

Do you know the mountain goats’ birth time,
do you mark the calving of the gazelles?
Do you number the months till they come to term
and know their birthing time?
They crouch, burst forth with their babes,
their young they push out to the world.
Their offspring batten, grow big in the wild,
they go out and do not return.

The emphasis on time here in conjunction with the evocation of birth brings us back in still another strong antithesis to Job’s wish in Chapter 3 that he could wipe out his birth. There, one recalls, he cursed the night of his conception by saying, “Let it not enter the number of months” (3:6).

Here, in God’s poem, that same phrase (with the minor morphological shift in the Hebrew of “number” from noun to verb) recurs as an instance of how time becomes a medium fruition under the watchful gaze of the divine maker of natural order. Reproduction and nurturing are the very essence of a constantly self-renewing creation as the poet imagines it.

But even the universal principle of generation is not free from uncanny contradiction, as the strange case of the ostrich (39:13-18) suggests. That peculiar bird, at least according to the ornithological lore on which the poet drew, abandons her eggs in the dirt, unmindful of the danger that they may be trampled underfoot by wild beasts,

For God made her forgetful of wisdom,
and he did not allot her insight


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 3 – Robert Alter

February 12, 2014
Blake follows the general outline of the story of Job in the Bible, but also incorporates into his designs many motifs representing his personal interpretation. At the beginning, Job and his family attend only to the letter, rather than the spirit, of God's laws. Job thereby falls under a false conception of God and into the hands of Satan. Job's sufferings are recorded in the first half of the series, culminating in his horrific vision of a devil-god in the eleventh design. Job's spiritual education and material restoration are pictured in the second half of the series. In the penultimate design, Job tells his story to his daughters; the entire family is restored to life in the final design. Some critics and biographers have interpreted the Job series as personal statements about Blake's own tribulations and the spiritual peace he found late in life.

Blake follows the general outline of the story of Job in the Bible, but also incorporates into his designs many motifs representing his personal interpretation. At the beginning, Job and his family attend only to the letter, rather than the spirit, of God’s laws. Job thereby falls under a false conception of God and into the hands of Satan. Job’s sufferings are recorded in the first half of the series, culminating in his horrific vision of a devil-god in the eleventh design. Job’s spiritual education and material restoration are pictured in the second half of the series. In the penultimate design, Job tells his story to his daughters; the entire family is restored to life in the final design. Some critics and biographers have interpreted the Job series as personal statements about Blake’s own tribulations and the spiritual peace he found late in life.

See Intro in first post.


How are the resources of poetry marshaled in the divine speech to give us an intimation of that omniscient perspective? Some preliminary remarks on the progression of the concluding poem may help indicate where it means to take us. The structure of the poem is expansive and associative (quite unlike the tight organization of Chapter 28), but it also reflects the sequential and focusing strategies of development that are generally characteristic of biblical poetry.

After the two brief opening lines in which God challenges Job (38:2-3), the poem leads us through the following movements: cosmogony (38:4-21), meteorology (38:22-38), zoology (38:39-39:30). This sequence is implicitly narrative: first God creates the world, then He sets in motion upon it an intricate interplay of snow and rain and lightning and winds, and in this setting He looks after the baffling variety of wild creatures that live on the earth.

God’s first discourse is followed at the beginning of Chapter 40 by a brief exchange between a reprimanding deity and a humbled Job) (40:1-5), and then the beginning of the second discourse, which again challenges Job to gird up his loins and see if he can really contend with God (40:6-13). (Scholarship has generally detected a scram-fling or duplication of texts in these thirteen verses, but I find that the various conjectural attempts to reassemble the text create more problems than they solve, while the lines as we have them do not substantially affect the larger structure of the poem.)

In the second discourse, we continue with the zoological interests that take up the last half of the first discourse. In accordance, however, with the impulse of heightening and focusing that informs so much of biblical poetry, the second discourse is not a rapid poetic catalogue of animals, like the last half of the first discourse, but instead an elaborate depiction of just two exotic beasts, the hippopotamus and the crocodile, who are rendered, moreover, in the heightened and hyperbolic terms of mythology as Behemoth and Leviathan.

These are the broad structural lines of the concluding poem, but in order to understand how it works so remarkably as a “revelation,” in both the ordinary and the theological sense of the term, it is important to see in detail how its language and imagery flow directly out of the poetic argument that has preceded. I shall quote in full the first two movements of cosmogony and meteorology, then refer without full citation to the naturalistic zoology before attending to the mythopoeic zoology at the end. Since the verse divisions here correspond precisely to the line division, I shall use the conventional verse numbers, starting with verse 2 of Chapter 38, where the poem proper begins.

2 Who is this who darkens counsel
in words without knowledge?
3 Gird your loins like a man,
that I may ask, and you can inform me.
4 Where were you when I founded earth?
Tell, if you know understanding.
5 Who fixed its measures, do you know,
or who stretched a line upon it?
6 In what were its sockets sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
7 when the morning stars sang together,
 and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
8 Who hedged the sea with double doors,
when it gushed forth from the womb,
9 when I made cloud its clothing,
and thick mist its swaddling bands?
10 I made breakers upon it My limit,
and set a bolt with double doors.
11 And I said, “Thus far come, no farther,
here halt the surge of your waves. “
12 Have you ever commanded the morning,
appointed the dawn to its place,
13 to seize the earth’s corner,
that the wicked be shaken from it?
14 It turns like sealing clay,
takes color like a garment,
15 and their light is withdrawn from the wicked,
and the upraised arm is broken.
16 Have you come into the springs of the sea,
in the bottommost deep walked about?
17 Have the gates of death been laid bare to you,
and the gates of death’s shadow have you seen?
18 Did you take in the breadth of the earth?
Tell, if you know it all.
19 Where is the way that light dwells,
and darkness, where is its place,
20 that you might take it to its home
and understand the paths to its house?
21 You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
22 Have you come into the storehouse of snow,
the storehouse of hail have you seen,
23 which I keep for a time of strife,
for a day of battle and war?
24 By what way does the west wind2 fan out,
the east wind whip over the earth?
25 Who split a channel for the torrent,
and a way for the thunderstorm,
26 to rain on a land without man,
 wilderness bare of humankind,
27 to sate the desolate dunes
and make the grass sprout there?
28 Does the rain have a father,
or who begot the drops of dew?
29 From whose belly did the ice come forth,
to the frost of the heavens who gave birth?
30 Water congeals like stone,
and the face of the deep locks hard.
31 Can you tie the bands of the Pleiades,
or loose Orions reins?
32 Can you bring constellations out in their season,
lead the Great Bear and her cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens,
can you fix their rule on earth?
34 Can you lift your voice to the cloud,
that the water-spate cover you?
35 Can you send lightning-bolts on their way,
and they will say to you, `Here we are!”
36 Who placed in the hidden parts wisdom,
or who gave the mind understanding?
37 Who counted the skies in wisdom,
and the jars of the heavens who tilted,
38 when the dust melts to a mass,
and the clods cling fast together?

At the very beginning of the poetic argument, we entered the world) of Job’s inner torment through the great death-wish poem that takes up all of Chapter 3. These first thirty-seven lines of God’s response to Job constitute a brilliantly pointed reversal, in structure, image, and theme, of that initial poem of Job’s. Perhaps the best way to sense the special weight of the disputation over theodicy is to observe that it is cast in the form of a clash between two modes of poetry, one kind spoken by man and, however memorable, appropriate to the limitations of his creaturely condition, the other the kind of verse a poet of genius could persuasively imagine God speaking.

The poem of Chapter’ 3, as we had occasion to see in detail, advanced through a process of focusing in and in — or, to shift metaphors, a relentless drilling inward toward the unbearable core of Job’s suffering, which he imagined could be blotted out by extinction alone. The external world — dawn and sunlight and starry night — exists in these lines only to be canceled.

Job’s first poem is a powerful, evocative, authentic expression of mans essential, virtually ineluctable egotism: the anguished speaker has seen, so he feels, all too much, and he wants now to see nothing at all, to be enveloped in the blackness of the womb/tomb, enclosed by dark doors that will remain shut forever. In direct contrast to all this withdrawal inward and turning out of lights, God’s poem is a demonstration of the energizing power of panoramic vision. Instead of the death wish, it affirms from line to line the splendor and vastness of life, beginning with a cluster of arresting images of the world’s creation and going on to God’s sustaining of the world in the forces of nature and in the variety of the animal kingdom.

Instead of a constant focusing inward to ward darkness, this poem progresses through a grand sweeping movement that carries us over the length and breadth of the created world, from sea to sky to the unimaginable recesses where snow and winds are stored, to the lonely wastes and craggy heights where only the grass or the wildest of animals lives.

In Job’s initial poem, various elements of the larger world were introduced only as reflectors or rhetorical tokens of his suffering. When the world is seen here through God’s eyes, each item is evoked for its own sake, each existing thing living its own intrinsic and often strange beauty. In Chapter 3, Job wanted to reduce time to nothing and contract space to the small, dark compass of the locked womb. God’s poem by contrast moves through eons from creation to the inanimate forces of nature to the teeming life on earth and, spatially, in a series of metonymic [vocab: A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated (such as "crown" for "royalty")] links, from the uninhabited wasteland (verse 26) to the mountain habitat of the lion and the gazelle (the end of Chapter 38 and the beginning of Chapter 39) and the steppes where the wild ass roams.


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 2 – Robert Alter

February 11, 2014
Job Accepting Charity, William Blake, 1825.  William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God" or "human existence itself".

Job Accepting Charity, William Blake, 1825. William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced”. In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as “the body of God” or “human existence itself”.

See Intro in previous post.


In Job’s complaint there are two extended anticipations of the Voice from the Whirlwind, 9:5-10 and 12:7-25. For the sake of economy I shall cite only the first, and shorter, of these two passages, with reference to the second. Job, in the midst of objecting that God is an impossible legal adversary because He is so overpowering, shifts his imagery upward from the arena of law to the cosmos:

Who uproots mountains and they know not,
overturns them in His wrath.
He makes earth shake in its setting,
and its pillars shudder.
He bids the sun not to rise,
and the stars He seals up tight.
He stretches the heavens alone,
and tramples the crests of the sea.
He makes the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the south wind’s chambers.
He performs great things without limit,

and wonders without number.

Job’s cosmic poetry, unlike that of the Friends, has a certain energy of vision, as though it proceeded from some immediate perception of the great things it reports. Most of the images he uses will reappear, more grandly, in God’s first discourse in Chapter 38.

There, too, God is the sole sovereign of the sun and the stars, the master of the very constellations and of the chambers of the wind mentioned here. There is, nevertheless, a decisive difference in emphasis between the two chapters, which leads me to infer that this and other passages in the poetic argument are in one respect patiently teaching us how to read God’s speech when it finally comes.

The Creator in Chapter 38 is distinguished by His ability to impose order. The Creator in Job’s poem is singled out first of all for His terrific, and perhaps arbitrary, power — tearing up mountains in His wrath, eclipsing the sun, and blotting out the stars. (The speaker, we should remember, is the same Job who had prayed for every glimmer of light to be swallowed by darkness.)

If both the present text and Chapter 38 allude indirectly to the Canaanite creation myth, in which the weather god conquers the primordial sea beast Yamm, what is stressed in Chapter 38 is God’s setting limits to the breakers of the of the sea, His bolting doors against the chaotic rush of the flood, while Job here gives us instead God the mighty combatant, treading on the back of the conquered sea. To be sure, there is also an element of celebration of the Creator in Job’s words, at least in the last two lines of the passage quoted, but his general perception of the master of the universe is is from the viewpoint of someone who has been devastated by His mastery.

This sense is made perfectly clear in the lines that introduce our passage (9:12-13), and the point is even more emphatic in the lines that follow it:

Look, He seizes — who can resist Him ?
Who can tell Him `What do You do?’
God will not relent His fury.
Beneath Him Rahab’s minions stoop


The analogous passage in Chapter 12 stresses still more boldly the arbitrary way in which God exercises His power.

Here, too, God, as in the revelation from the storm at the end, is imagined as the supreme, master of nature — a truth that, according to Job, we can learn from the very birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field (behemoth, a term that in a different acceptation will designate one of the featured attractions of the grand zoological show in the speech from the storm), And like the LORD Who will reveal Himself in the end to Job, God; here is imagined above all as the absolute sovereign of light and darkness: lays bare depths from darkness, / and brings out to light death’s shadow (12:22).

But this divine monarch as Job conceives Him show a singular inclination to capricious behavior, befuddling counselor, and judges, unmanning kings, humiliating nobles, using His prerogative over light and darkness to draw the leaders of nations into trackless wastes: they grope in darkness without light, / He makes them wander like drunken men (12:25). Job’s vision of God’s power over the world has an authority lacking in the parallel speeches of the Friends, but he sees it as power willfully misused, and that perception will require an answer by the Voice from the Whirlwind.

Somewhat surprisingly, the two extended anticipations of the concluding poem that show the greatest degree of consonance with it occur in the interpolated passages, the Elihu speech and the Hymn it Wisdom. This may seem less puzzling if we remember that in the ancient Near East a “book” remained for a long time a relatively open structure, so that later writers might seek to amplify or highlight the meaning of the original text by introducing materials that reinforced or extended certain of the original emphases.

In the case of Elihu, the immediate proximity to God’s speech is the most likely explanation of the high degree of consonance with it. That is, Elihu is an irascible presumptuous blowhard (images of inflation and evacuation cluster at the beginning of his discourse), and as such he is hardly someone to be in any way identified as God’s “spokesman.”

But as he approaches the end of his long harangue — as the poem ‘draws close, in other words, to the eruption of the Voice from the Whirlwind — he begins to weave into his abuse of Job images of God as the mighty sovereign of a vast creation beyond the ken of man. First he conjures up a vision of God Whose years are without number mustering the clouds and causing the rains to fall (36:26-33). Then, at the very end of his speech, in a clear structural bridge to the divine discourse that directly follows, Elihu asks Job whether he can really grasp God’s wondrous management of the natural world, invoking it as evidence of the moral perfection of the Divinity that man cannot fathom:

Hearken to this, O Job,
stand and take in the wonders of God.
Do you know when God directs them,
when His thunderhead’s lightning shines?
Do you know of the spread of cloud,
the wonders of the Perfect in Knowledge
When your garments feel warm
as the earth is becalmed from the south?
Will you pound out the skies with Him,
which are strong as a metal mirror?
Let us know what to say to Him!
We can lay out no case in our darkness.
Will it be told Him if I speak,
will a man say if he is devoured?
And now, they have not seen the light,
bright though it be in the skies,
as a wind passes, making them clear.
From the north gold comes;
over God — awesome glory.
Shaddai, whom we find not, is lofty in power,
in judgment and great justice — He will not oppress.
Therefore men do fear Him.
He does not regard the wise of heart.

Elihu’s cosmic poetry does not quite soar like that of the Voice from the Whirlwind (and this passage also involves several textual difficulties), and the second-rank poet responsible for his speeches never entirely escapes his weakness for boilerplate language. Even so, here the end it is something more than the rehearsal of formulas we saw in Eliphaz and Zophar.

The various items of his panorama of creation-the power over rain and thunder and the dazzling deployment of sunlight — will in a moment recur, more grandly, in God’s speech, and above all, the final emphasis on man’s inability to see the solar brilliance of the all-powerful God points toward the extraordinary exercise: of divine sight in which we are privileged to share through the poetry of God’s concluding speech.

The Hymn to Wisdom, Chapter 28, is in certain obvious ways cut from different cloth from the rest of the Book of Job. Lexically and stylistically, it sounds more like Proverbs than Job. Its celebration of divine Wisdom does not at all participate in the vehement argument on theodicy into which it is introduced. Structurally, the hymn is divided into three strophes of approximately equal length with the boundaries between them marked by a refrain; such explicit symmetry of form is servable elsewhere in the poetry of Job.

The imagery of precious that dominates the middle strophe has very few parallels else-in the book. But all these disparities may have troubled the audience a good deal less than they trouble us, with our notions of literary unity based on the reading of unitary texts produced by single who generally could be fully responsible for them from first draft to corrected page proofs. Whatever editor or ancient literary gremlin decided to insert this poem just after the completion of the rounds of debate with the Friends and before Job’s final Confession of Innocence (Chapters 29-31) chose the new material with a firm sense of could help tune up the proper attentiveness for God’s concluding speech.

That tuning up is a matter not just of emphasizing the vast scope of God’s Wisdom against man’s limited understanding but also of poetically defining a place where we can begin to imagine the unfathomable workings of the Creator. A whole world of sprawling expanses and inaccessible depths and heights is evoked in the poem — “A path that the vulture knows not, / nor the eye of the falcon beholds” (28:7), :unguessed realms of hidden recesses that only God can see or bring to light if He chooses.

The thematic stress on sight intimated at the end Elihu speeches is prominent here and made powerfully explicit in the concluding strophe. At the same time, specific details of the cosmic imagery that will begin the divine discourse are strategically anticipated (or, to think in the order of the editorial process rather than in the sequential order of the book, are strategically echoed):

And wisdom, from where does it come,
and where is the place of insight?
It is hidden from the eye of all living,
from the fowl of the heavens, concealed.
Perdition and Death have said,
“With our ears we heard its rumor.”
God grasps its way,
and He knows its place.

For He looks to the ends of the earth,
beneath all the heavens He sees,
to gauge the heft of the wind,
and to weigh water with a measure,
when He fixed a limit for rain,
and a way to the thunderhead,
Then He saw and recounted it,
set it firm and probed it, too.
And He said to man:
Look, fear of the Master, that is Wisdom,
and the shunning of evil is insight.
(Job 28:20-28)

The aphoristic concluding line is distinctly unlike the Voice from the Whirlwind not merely stylistically but also in the neatness of its sense of resolution. (Its formulaic pairing, however, of “wisdom” and “insight” is quite like the one God invokes in His initial challenge to Job.) In any case, the discrepancy in tone and attitude of the last line was no doubt far less important to whoever was responsible for the text of Job as we have it than the consonance of the hymn’s vision of God with the Voice from the Whirlwind — that is, a vision of God as the master of sight, searching out the unknowable ends of the earth.


No Straw Atheist, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov– Derek Jeter

November 21, 2012

Though Dostoyevsky was influenced by religion and philosophy in his life and the writing of The Brothers Karamazov, a personal tragedy altered the work. In May 1878, Dostoyevsky’s three-year-old son Alyosha died of epilepsy, a condition inherited from his father. The novelist’s grief is apparent throughout the book; Dostoyevsky named the hero Alyosha, as well as imbuing him with qualities which he sought and most admired. His loss is also reflected in the story of Captain Snegiryov and his young son Ilyusha.
The death of his son brought Dostoevsky to the Optina Monastery later that year. There, he found inspiration for several aspects of The Brothers Karamazov, though at the time he intended to write a novel about childhood instead. Parts of the biographical section of Zosima’s life are based on “The Life of the Elder Leonid”, a text he found at Optina and copied “almost word for word”.

A theme I often return to is human suffering, theodicy and salvation, marking it from one side and then another. The last time I took it up was to present the two current theodicies of Catholic thought. Theodicies are attempts by theologians to advocate that there are no pointless evils — that there are greater goods that justify the evil in the world. They are attempts, in a way, to vindicate God by providing an explanation for evil.

From Leibniz through Hume, from Alvin Plantinga to J. L. Mackie, the problem of evil has often been cast in bare intellectual terms not just by theologians but by philosophers and other intellectuals as well: how to think through the contradiction that stands between the goodness, omniscience and omnipotence of God, on the one hand, and the massive misery and undeserved suffering that characterize God’s world, on the other: Si Deus est unde malum? Si Deus non est unde bonum? [That is if God does exist where evil comes from? If God does not exist where good comes from?]

In J.B., his dramatic contemporizing of the Job story, Archibald MacLeish puts the intellectual problem of evil tersely but accurately: “If God is good He is not God. If God is God He is not good.” If, in other words, God is imbued with the charity which He himself enjoins his creatures to live by, then He must lack the divine power to create and sustain a world in which such charity obtains: He is not God. If, by contrast, God possesses the sovereignty and strength to perform what He wills, then this misery-riddled world must be proof that he is deficient in love itself. He is not good.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

Two of the best known theodicies are Augustine’s free will theodicy and John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. I presume there are many more but these are the two that I was familiar with:

One important theodicy was formulated by St. Augustine (354-430), and it has probably been the most prominent response to evil in the history of Christian thought. Fundamental to the position is Augustine’s view that the universe God created is good; everything in the universe is good and has a good purpose, some things to a greater extent, some to a lesser one. Evil, then, is not something God created. Evil is a privatio boni — a privation of the good. Augustine uses the example of being blind. Blindness is not a thing in itself, let alone a good thing. It is a privation of seeing. Evil, he argues, is like blindness; it is a privation of good.

Then, if God created a very good world, what brought about the privations? How did evil arise? It came about, he maintains, through free will. The story is familiar. Some of God’s good creation — namely persons, including angels and humans — were given the good gift of freedom of the will, a gift that reflected God’s image of being morally culpable and creative. However, some of God’s free creatures turned their will from God, the supreme Good, to lesser goods.

This act of turning from God was, in essence, the Fall. It happened first with the angels and then, after being tempted by Satan (one of the fallen angels), with humans. This is how moral evil entered the universe and this moral fall, or sin, also brought with it tragic cosmic consequences, for it ushered in natural evil as well. The Fall was no insignificant event; it was a disaster of cataclysmic proportions in the universe that accounts for all the moral and natural evils throughout history.

Augustine’s theodicy does not end without resolution, however, for in the eschaton God will rectify evil when he judges the world in righteousness, ushering into his eternal kingdom those persons who have been saved through Christ and sending to eternal perdition those persons who are wicked and disobedient and have rejected his good offer of salvation.
Chad Meister, Theodicy

The other theodicy Meister introduces is based on the work of Irenaeus (c230-c.202 CE) and developed by theologian John Hick. It is in stark contrast to the Augustinian approach. Hick maintains that his soul-making theodicy has the benefit of God’s having a close, developing relationship with his creation over time, whereas the Augustinian type presupposes an impersonal or sub-personal relationship between God and creation. Instead of God creating a paradise with perfect human beings who then freely fell into sin, on this account God created the world as a good place (but no paradise) for developing a race of beings from an early state of animal selfishness and self-centeredness to an advanced state of moral and spiritual maturity:

God’s purpose was not to construct a paradise whose inhabitants would experience a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. The world is seen, instead, as a place of “soul making” or person making in which free beings, grappling with the tasks and challenges of their existence in a common environment, may become “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life.” Our world, with all its rough edges, is the sphere in which this second and harder stage of the creative process is taking place.
John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Evil, then, is not the result of perfect persons choosing to sin but, rather, is an inevitable part of an environment necessary for developing mature character. Thus, by placing evolving beings in this challenging environment, through their free will to choose what is right and good, they can gradually grow into the mature persons that God desires them to be, exhibiting the virtues of patience, courage, and generosity, for example. Furthermore, as the theodicy goes, God will continue to work with human persons, even in the afterlife if necessary, by allowing them non-coercive opportunities to love and choose the good so that eventually everyone will be brought into a right and full relationship with God; everyone will finally experience redemption.

Makes sense I guess but I am left to wonder how Hick got the memo on all of that. Augustine gives us scriptural references. I’m not sure about Hick. I haven’t read Philosophy of Religion yet so I can only offer what his case is, not how he justifies it.


The real topic of this post is not so much theodicy per se but the character of Ivan Karamazov, a living theodicy of a sorts, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s creation that gives voice to the philosophical and theological problem of evil. Dostoevsky accomplished this better, more clearly and cogently, than any other actor in the whole world of literature.

Ivan does not make his case against God’s goodness in this intellectualized fashion. He is not a philosophical thinker who abstracts ideas from experience in order to test their logical clarity and coherence. As Albert Camus observed, “Ivan really lives his problems.” They are matters, quite literally, of life and death, of eternal life and eternal death, of ultimate bliss or final misery. Ivan is willing to face the anguish and terror inherent not only in thinking but also in living without God.

As one who knows the truths of the heart, Ivan also knows that reason alone cannot fathom the deepest things. On the contrary, reason can be put to nefarious purposes: “Reason is a scoundrel,” he confesses . Ivan is willing, therefore, to live “even … against logic.”

Yet he is unwilling to live as a mindless vitalist, embracing life without much regard for its meaning and, even less, with a blithe disregard for its injustice. So huge are the world’s moral horrors, Ivan argues, that they undermine any notion of divine order and purpose. Hence Ivan’s truly wrenching quandary: Can he love life without believing that it has ultimate meaning — believing, instead, that it is godless and absurd?

There is still an awful lot of centripetal force on our planet, Alyosha. I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic. Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

What Dostoevsky forces us to face about Ivan is his denial of the Christian life and his eerie prescient embrace of our modern secular condition:

Ivan deliberately denies Father Zosima’s teaching that love cannot be selective, that it must be at once universal and concrete, that we must not love those who are conveniently remote so much as those who are inconveniently near. Already, it is evident, the philosophical and the religious arguments are linked.

Ivan not only thinks but also lives in autonomous and anti-communal terms. It is precisely the neighbor whom we cannot love, he insists. The neighbor’s objective and objectionable otherness — his bad breath, his foolish face, his ill manners — threaten Ivan’s sovereign selfhood. “He is another and not me,” Ivan complains . Despite his eager embrace of the world, therefore, Ivan wants to remain the solitary and transcendent judge over it, a godlike withholder no less than a gracious giver of praise. Others must satisfy his own criteria before he will embrace them. And because God does not satisfy the requirements of Ivan’s logic, he will not believe in God.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

I must say, how many atheists have you met that bear this attitude toward their fellow man: He is another and not me. I have never met an atheist whom I have not sensed this fundamental haughtiness.

Wood makes the point that Ivan’s logic is not sophomoric. He attacks God’s goodness, largely ignoring the case concerning natural calamities — typhoons and tornadoes, floods and droughts, fires and earthquakes and disease – other atheists will tell us this proves the “creator of heaven and earth” is the origin of a natural order inimical to human happiness. No, what makes Ivan unique in many ways is the powerful and unrelenting case he makes against the moral evils, providing us a hellish list of the crimes that we human creatures commit:

Ivan offers searing examples of such wanton and motiveless malignity. Indeed, he creates a virtual phantasmagoria of suffering from actual instances of human barbarity that he has read about in Russian newspapers: Turkish soldiers cutting babies from their mother’s wombs and throwing them in the air in order to impale them on their bayonets; enlightened parents stuffing their five-year old daughter’s mouth with excrement and locking her in a freezing privy all night for having wet the bed, while they themselves sleep soundly; Genevan Christians teaching a naive peasant to bless the good God even as this poor dolt is beheaded for thefts and murders which his ostensibly Christian society caused him to commit; a Russian general, offended at an eight-year old boy for accidentally hurting the paw of the officer’s dog, inciting his wolfhounds to tear the child to pieces; a lady and gentleman flogging their eight-year old daughter with a birch-rod until she collapses while crying for mercy, “Papa, papa, dear papa.”

Such evils cannot be justified, Ivan argues, either by religious arguments based on history’s beginning or by secular arguments that look to its end. The Edenic exercise of free will is not worth the tears of even one little girl shivering all night in a privy and crying out from her excrement-filled mouth to “dear, kind God” for protection.

Yet neither will Ivan accept the Hegelian-Marxian thesis that the harmonious final outcome of history sublates its present evils. The notion that such savagery reveals the necessary consequences of human freedom or that it contributes to history’s ultimate result is, to Ivan, a moral and religious outrage.

Neither is he any more satisfied with the conventional doctrine of hell, which holds that the monsters of torment will themselves be eternally tormented. Hellish punishment for heinous malefactors would not restore their victims, Ivan reminds us. The impaled babies would not be brought back to life nor would their mothers be consoled, the dismembered boy would not live out his years, the weeping girls would not dry their tears. Ivan rejects all such theodicies because he believes that they commit unforgivable sacrilege against innocent sufferers. With a drastic metaphor drawn again from Schiller, he refuses to offer his hosanna for such a world: he returns his ticket to such a life.

Ivan’s brief against belief seems philosophically unanswerable. Dostoevsky concedes that there is no logical justification for the suffering of innocents. Yet this is hardly to say that there are no answers at all. It is rather to say that they will be found, if at all, elsewhere than in philosophical argument; they will be located in the realm of religion and politics and the requirements of daily life.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

As a 14 year old reading this for the first time I signed on immediately for Ivan’s atheism. I was not able to process Dostoevsky’s answers to Ivan, the figures of Fr. Zosima and Alyosha, Ivan’s gentle youngest brother, the “cherub” as he calls him.

The most notable fact about the monastic elder and his young disciple is that, unlike Ivan, they are not Euclidean men. They believe that, in the most important matters, parallel lines do indeed meet. Things counter can converge because the deepest truths are not univocal but analogical and paradoxical. Theirs is not a three-dimensional block universe but rather a layered cosmos containing multiple orders of being. For Zosima and Alyosha, the material and immaterial worlds are never distant and remote from each other, as in much of western thought. The created and uncreated realms are deeply intertwined, each participating in the life of the other.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

How strange it is that these many years later, I, too am a believer in “a layered cosmos containing multiple orders of being.” If you haven’t watched Brian Greene you can catch him here. Drag the timer at the bottom to 4:30 or so to skip all the annoying PBS opening commercials.

Such an interstitial cosmos Dostoevsky tells us calls for interstitial living:

It requires the enmeshment of one life with many other lives — not holding oneself aloof as Ivan does, but involving oneself in the suffering of others. Ivan the atheist clips news accounts of suffering children and offers anti-theological arguments about them. Alyosha the monk seeks out the insulted and injured, identifying himself with them. He addresses the philosophical problem of evil with deeds no less than reasons — with his whole life, not with his mind alone. Through his patient and long-suffering friendships, Alyosha helps redeem the pathetic Ilyusha Snegirov, even as he also helps to set the nihilistic Kolya Krassotkin on the path to new life.

Alyosha is able to pull these boys out of their misery only at great cost to himself. Dostoevsky makes clear in the novel’s final scene, when the boys gather to cheer Alyosha as if he were their savior, that he is a true icon of Christ, a man through whom the invisible light of eternity brightly shines. Yet Alyosha deflects all praise away from himself and toward Christ. As the only Man who has suffered absolutely everything, says Alyosha, Christ alone has the right to forgive absolutely everything — even the tormentors of children.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

Yet Alyosha’s mere mention of the “only sinless One” so enrages Ivan that he comes forth with his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” his final and perhaps most effective assault against Christ. You can follow René Girard’s take on all that here.


Theodicy – Chad Meister

August 31, 2012

Savior in Glory, 1408 Dormition Cathedral Vladimir by Andrei Rublev

Throughout the centuries, a number of theists have believed there are no pointless evils — that there are greater goods that justify the evil in the world. Attempts to vindicate God by providing an explanation for evil come in a variety of forms, and two of the best known are Augustine’s free will theodicy and John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. The essays are by Chad Meister, Professor of Philosophy at Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana.

Augustine’s Free Will Theodicy
One important theodicy was formulated by St. Augustine (354-430), and it has probably been the most prominent response to evil in the history of Christian thought. Fundamental to the position is Augustine’s view that the universe God created is good; everything in the universe is good and has a good purpose, some things to a greater extent, some to a lesser one. Evil, then, is not something God created. Evil is a privatio boni — a privation of the good. Augustine uses the example of being blind. Blindness is not a thing in itself, let alone a good thing. It is a privation of seeing. Evil, he argues, is like blindness; it is a privation of good.

Then, if God created a very good world, what brought about the privations? How did evil arise? It came about, he maintains, through free will. The story is familiar. Some of God’s good creation — namely persons, including angels and humans — were given the good gift of freedom of the will, a gift that reflected God’s image of being morally culpable and creative. However, some of God’s free creatures turned their will from God, the supreme Good, to lesser goods.

This act of turning from God was, in essence, the Fall. It happened first with the angels and then, after being tempted by Satan (one of the fallen angels), with humans. This is how moral evil entered the universe and this moral fall, or sin, also brought with it tragic cosmic consequences, for it ushered in natural evil as well. The Fall was no insignificant event; it was a disaster of cataclysmic proportions in the universe that accounts for all the moral and natural evils throughout history.

Augustine’s theodicy does not end without resolution, however, for in the eschaton God will rectify evil when he judges the world in righteousness, ushering into his eternal kingdom those persons who have been saved through Christ and sending to eternal perdition those persons who are wicked and disobedient and have rejected his good offer of salvation.

Although this free will theodicy does exonerate God from evil by placing full responsibility for it upon free creatures, and although it has been extensively advocated by Christians since its development in the fifth century, it has been highly criticized in recent times. [For a recent and impressive defense of the free will theodicy, see Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998]

One problem with this type of theodicy is that, even granting a robust libertarian view of free will, could God not have prevented the consequences of the evil decisions made by free creatures — consequences having to do with both moral and natural evils? For example, could God not have prevented the Asian tsunami in 2004 that swept through eleven countries, killing more than 200,000 innocent people? Could he not have stopped the Black Plague in the fourteenth century, which wiped out well over thirty percent of Europe’s population? And although perhaps God was not able to avert members of the Khmer Rouge from deciding to torture and execute hundreds of thousands of Cambodian people, could he not have orchestrated events such that the totalitarian leaders failed in their attempts — thus preventing the killing fields?

Richard Swinburne, a contemporary defender of the free will theodicy, responds by arguing that not only do free will choices have great value, but their successful implementation also has great value — value great enough that God is perfectly justified in not thwarting the consequences of such choices, even if they are evil. [Also see Richard Swinburne's Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 82-107, for his engagement with this problem.]

Furthermore (and this brings up the issue addressed earlier regarding skeptical theism), how do we know that there are not greater goods that result from these evil actions that would not have arisen without them? It seems likely that we are simply not in an epistemic situation to make such an assessment. As has been discovered by those working in the field of chaos theory, the slightest perturbations of the early conditions of a dynamic system can have significant effects on larger systems that would have been impossible to predict given empirical observations.

The death of one European peasant centuries ago could have had incredible effects or others at later times and places that would provide God with a morally sufficient reason for allowing it to happen. [William Lane Craig brought this chaos analogy to my attention in private conversation. For a fascinating introduction to the developing field of chaos theory, see James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin, 1998).]

Another problem that has been raised with Augustine’s theodicy is that, given modern scientific understandings of the biological and social; development of homo sapiens, it no longer seems plausible to maintain that human beings began in a state of moral and spiritual maturity and perfection and then fell into a state of moral depravity as depicted in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. Rather than biological, social, and moral devolution, the story of human history is now generally seen as one of evolutionary development and progress. Furthermore, geology has demonstrated that natural evils existed long before the emergence of human life, and thus could not have been the consequence of a human fall.

However, perhaps the Augustinian theodicy can survive intact despite these developments. First, it is at least possible that natural evils are the result of the choices of free agents in the spirit world prior to the emergence of humans. Perhaps an angelic fall could account for “nature red in tooth and claw,” to quote Tennyson. Although this will seem farfetched to many modern ears, it is within the general purview of the Christian story, as C. S. Lewis intimated in his space trilogy. Furthermore, as Michael Murray has recently argued, it is possible to explain at least some natural evil as an unavoidable byproduct of a nomically [vocab: To know something nomically is to know it because it is implied by a natural law] regular, natural, good world. [See Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).]

With respect to the evolutionary account of human beings, it can be argued that there is no irreconcilable conflict between the standard neo-Darwinian account of human evolution and the view that there was an early pair of morally culpable hominids in whom God granted moral and spiritual awareness not unlike those depicted in the garden story of Genesis. Nevertheless, another attempt at theodicy developed by John Hick provides an overall better fit with the current scientific story of human development.

John Hick’s Soul-Making Theodicy
Based on the work of Irenaeus (c230-c.202 CE), John Hick developed a theodicy that is, in some ways, in stark contrast to the Augustinian approach. He maintains that his soul-making theodicy has the benefit of God’s having a close, developing relationship with his creation over time, whereas the Augustinian type presupposes an impersonal or sub-personal relationship between God and creation.
[Hick spells out this criticism of the Augustinian theodicy in his Evil and the God of Love (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)] Instead of God creating a paradise with perfect human beings who then freely fell into sin, on this account God created the world as a good place (but no paradise) for developing a race of beings from an early state of animal selfishness and self-centeredness to an advanced state of moral and spiritual maturity

God’s purpose was not to construct a paradise whose inhabitants would experience a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. The world is seen, instead, as a place of “soul making” or person making in which free beings, grappling with the tasks and challenges of their existence in a common environment, may become “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life.” Our world, with all its rough edges, is the sphere in which this second and harder stage of the creative process is taking place.
John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

God created good but undeveloped persons and moral, spiritual, and intellectual maturity requires experiencing trials and hardships in life. Evil, then, is not the result of perfect persons choosing to sin but, rather, is an inevitable part of an environment necessary for developing mature character. Thus, by placing evolving beings in this challenging environment, through their free will to choose what is right and good, they can gradually grow into the mature persons that God desires them to be, exhibiting the virtues of patience, courage, and generosity, for example.

Furthermore, as the theodicy goes, God will continue to work with human persons, even in the afterlife if necessary, by allowing them non-coercive opportunities to love and choose the good so that eventually everyone will be brought into a right and full relationship with God; everyone will finally experience redemption. [Eleonore Stump develops a version of the soul-making theodicy that centers on a particular theological good. See her "The Problem of Evil," Faith and Philosophy 2 (1985):] In this view, God allows moral and natural evils in the world to nurture virtues within individuals in order to make morally and spiritually mature souls or persons.

One objection that can be raised is that although it may be true that a soul-making environment cannot be a paradise, the degree and extent of pain and suffering that exist in the world surely are not justified. Why: need there be an Auschwitz, for example? Could not mature characters’ be developed without this kind of horror? In addition, some evils seem to be character destroying rather than character building. Not all people improve through the hardships they endure; often, the difficulties in one’s life cause it to end in tragedy. Think of a child with a debilitating. disease who is made fun of or who is always the recipient of charity, and then dies at an early age; or a woman who is brutally raped, held captive, and then murdered days later. Do such examples of gratuitous evil not count against soul-making type theodicies?

Hick responds by claiming that apparently pointless evils are not, in fact, without purpose and merit. The kinds of sympathy and cornpassion, for example, that are evoked by such seemingly indiscriminate and unfair miseries are very great goods in and of themselves — goods that would not arise without the miseries appearing as unfair and indiscriminate. [See Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Chapter 10] Although God did not intend or need any particular evils (such as Auschwitz) for his soul-making purposes, he did need to create an environment where such evils were a possibility. Thus, although each individual instance of evil may not be justified by a particular greater good (purpose or merit), the existence of a world where evil is possible is necessary for a world where soul-making takes place.

Furthermore, as noted earlier, on this theodicy a positive doctrine of life after death is crucial, for there are cases in which difficulties in an individual’s life breed bitterness, anger, fear, and a lessening of virtuous character. So in these instances, at least, the soul-making process would need to continue on into the afterlife if it is to be successful. In addition, as will be argued subsequently, on a Christian account of resurrection, an afterlife could also perhaps provide future goods that are great enough to justify even the worst horrors experienced in this life.

The free will and soul-making theodicies share a common supposition that God would not permit evil that is not necessary for a greater good. But a number of theists affirm that some evils are not justified, that some horrors are so damaging there are no goods that outweigh them. If there are such evils, why would God allow them? It may be that “restricted standard theism” — the view that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-good being who created the world, accompanied by other religious claims — is inadequate to provide a response. Perhaps an adequate reply requires “expanded theism” — the view that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, omnigood being who created the world, accompanied by other religious claims, such as those provided by orthodox Christian theism.


The Fall – R.R. Reno

April 26, 2012

The Fall by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564), commonly known as Michelangelo.

Sin is crouching at the door (Genesis 4:7)

The Serpent Was More Subtle.
On the sixth day God creates “the beasts. . . and the cattle.. . and everything that creeps upon the ground” (Genesis 1:25). Yet, now appears something “more subtle” and seemingly of a different order. Just who or what is the subtle serpent? The voice of the tradition is unequivocal: it is a worldly form of Satan, the fallen angel. The modern historical-critical tradition rejects this reading; von Rad is typical: “The serpent which now enters the narrative is marked as one of God’s created animals…. In the narrator’s mind, therefore, it is not a symbol of a `demonic’ power and certainly not Satan. What distinguishes it a little from the rest of the animals is exclusively its greater cleverness.” So which shall it be: demonic power personified or the animal trickster of folklore?

At the very minimum, Jewish and Christian readers expect this verse to cohere with other parts of the Bible. For example, Job 1 portrays an interaction between God and Satan that sets up another scene of temptation. God allows Satan to afflict Job in order to tempt him to curse God (Genesis 1:6-12). Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24 interprets the original temptation along similar lines: “God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” The New Testament only reinforces the presumption that temptation and transgression come from the devil.

In Luke’s Gospel, Satan and the demons are closely associated with serpents and scorpions (10:17-20), and in John of Patmos’s vision of end times, the power of Christ is depicted as dethroning “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelations 12:9). Even when the image of the serpent is absent, the link between Satan and temptation is clear. In the New Testament scene that recapitulates the circumstances in Genesis  3, Satan tempts Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).

Scripture interprets scripture, and the weight in favor of reading the serpent as Satan is overwhelming. But we can do more than adduce intra-canonical warrants. It is useful to think through why there is such a strong consensus that a demonic power lay behind the original transgression.

The benefits of pursuing this question are significant. We not only understand Genesis 3:1 more fully, but we also develop a deeper, more intelligent grasp of why angels and demons become so important in the later books of the Bible and why so many later theologians developed systematic accounts of non-bodily, spiritual creatures.

The way forward is not obvious. As Origen notes, “In regard to the devil and his angels and the opposing spiritual powers, the Church teaching lays it down that these beings exist, but what they are and how they exist it has not explained very clearly.” [On First Principles preface.6 in Origen: On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth ( Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973), 245.]But Origen, however tentative in his speculations about Satan, gives him a central role in the cosmological drama of fall and redemption. The role is emphasized in the many later scriptural passages that implicitly comment on Genesis 3:1. As the larger tradition affirms again and again, evil and the possibility of transgression begins with the angels.

It is very important to see that this view of the origin of evil is not the product of an ancient view of the world as bounded by a heaven above and a spiritual realm below, the so-called three-tiered universe often adduced by modern scholars as a sufficient explanation for early Christian (and Jewish) interest in angels and demons. The devil is not a mythological figure invented by a pre-scientific, credulous spiritual imagination.

On the contrary, the idea of a fallen angel helps biblical readers of Genesis 3 in two ways. First, a reference to Satan immediately conjures a cosmos-wide power, and this helps dramatize the cosmos-wide scope of the divine plan and the sinful resistance to it. Second, the concept of the devil serves as a placeholder for the most extreme possible negation of the divine plan that is consistent with the belief that God is the all-powerful and all-good creator of everything out of nothing.

Let us begin, then, with salvation history. In the broadest possible sense, if we assume that the serpent is not just a particular animal in the garden of paradise, but is instead a grand spiritual being who has already embarked on the deepest and widest possible rebellion against God, then at the very least we have succeeded in refraining a quite intimate and concrete story of temptation in Genesis 3 within a cosmic context. What the serpent says is not just a localized event.

Recourse to the devil inflates the significance of the events. The story is not merely about a serpent and a woman and a man. On the contrary, the garden scene depicts the ultimate adversary at work. The transgression, therefore, is infected with the depth and breadth of Satan’s prior rebellion. It is universally consequential, or as the terminology of traditional doctrine would have it, the sin is original.

One might object that this enlargement of the events in Genesis 3 does violence to the plain sense. But the objection ignores the context, which positively begs from a cosmic frame of reference. The seven-day account of creation that opens Genesis is part of the Priestly tradition; in contrast, the second account of creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 reflects the Yahwist tradition. The standard modern approach to reading these two accounts emphasizes their differences. The P writer provides an account of the architecture of the cosmos, while the J writer is more interested in the human-focused flow of history.

However, the two perspectives overlap. The Priestly material suggests a historical dynamism toward the seventh day (Genesis 2:2). Now we can see how an interpretation of the serpent as the devil opens up a cosmic frame of reference for reading the Yahwist. Instead of trying to give a conceptual answer to the question of how a particular event in the past can have universal consequences, the tradition gives an exegetical answer. The episode is cosmic in significance because the serpent is Satan, the primordial agent of rebellion.

Job, the biblical text most closely related to Genesis 3 in theme and situation, evokes a similar conclusion about the human condition. The main body of the book is highly particularized. Job’s flocks are stolen, his house destroyed, and his children killed. These personal tragedies trigger a long series of debates with Job’s friends about the justice of Job’s sufferings, debates that turn on whether Job is a righteous man.

The central premise is that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. The assumption is that our actions determine our destinies. Have I obeyed? Have I transgressed? As readers familiar with the book know, Job’s friends argue that Job must have transgressed. Job counter-argues that he has not. But for our purposes, the important point of the debate is more general. Throughout the back and forth of argument, all the focus falls on the human condition.

In a sense, Job and his friends live in the Yahwist strand of Genesis. The discrete details of our lives provide exactly the right frame of reference for thinking about the human condition. And yet, Job neither begins nor ends with this focus. Instead, the story opens with Satan approaching the LORD God in his heavenly court. He challenges God, suggesting that God lacks the ability attract spiritual loyalty without buying off the faithful with worldly rewards. The story ends with the famous divine appearance out of a whirlwind, an appearance in which God recounts to Job, not the details of his life and actions, but instead the divine acts of creation. In short, the cosmic perspective frames and contextualizes the human-focused concerns of Job and his friends.

The devil functions in the same way in the New Testament, Again and again St. Paul reminds his readers of the true scale of their struggle against sin. Worldly trials and temptations are not just local; they are afflictions of the devil. The faithful are to resist with confidence, for in due time the God of peace will crush Satan under their feet (Romans 16:20). This image of triumph draws on Genesis 3:15 — the divine prophecy that the children of Eve shall crush the head of the serpent.

In the same way, Hebrews uses the greater spiritual powers of angels and demons in order to frame the significance of the passion and death of Jesus. The one who was greater than angels was made lower in order to destroy what the writer calls “the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). Luke’s Gospel makes a similar move when it evokes the intruding agency of evil: “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot” (Genesis 22:3). The reader is put on notice. The events in Jerusalem, like the events in the primordial garden, have the gravest and greatest of consequences.

Our goal is not to try to reconstruct a New Testament angelology or demonology and transpose it back onto Genesis. The point is much simpler. When 1 Peter 5:8 warns that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour,” the effect is not to conjure up pictures of a trident-carrying, horned creature with cloven hoofs. Instead, this and other appeals to Satan function in the same way as the apocalyptic visions of Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation, all of which portray our destiny in the context of more powerful forces.

Here a reading of the serpent as Satan begins to pay theological dividends. As we allow the image of Satan to guide our reading of Genesis 3, we learn something about the large biblical vision of human freedom. Although our actions are free and we genuinely shape the directions of our lives, we do not define the moral and spiritual atmosphere in which we live. As any mention of the devil reminds us, we are cast into a world already shaped by a creation-wide history of resistance to the divine plan. Our freedom is not pristine, unaffected, and uninfluenced by prior events. We must decide and act in circumstances beyond our control.

Of course, not every portion of scripture can be brought into harmony with every other part. The Bible is fundamentally heterogeneous and cannot be reduced to general theological principles. We should avoid the impulse to interpret scripture simply in order to draw out a theological point, even the very important point that human freedom is constrained by a larger contest between good and evil. Theological concepts are never fully adequate, and no single theological conclusion does justice to the plentitude of the scriptural text. For this reason, it is worthwhile to digress into some further, more technical reasons for calling the tempting serpent “Satan.” These reasons emerge out of the problem of theodicy, the conceptually difficult need to acknowledge the reality of evil while affirming the power and goodness of God.

We can best begin by considering the contrary interpretation. The text says the serpent was an animal — admittedly a strangely clever and talkative animal — and that is the end of it. [A talking animal is not sufficient reason to hypothesize about demonic (or angelic) agents. Balaam's ass talks, but the role of the ass is that of a sensible animal and not a spiritual being (Numbers 22:21-30).] With this approach we gain in literalism, but an immediate problem emerges. As human beings, our acts are voluntary or free insofar as they are motivated. An unmotivated act is accidental, not free. But as embodied rational beings, we are motivated by what we perceive and by conclusions we draw from our engagement with the world. As St. Augustine writes, “Nothing draws the will into action except some object that has been perceived.” [Augustine, De libero arbitrio 3.25.74. I draw this formulation from the translation provided in tt MacDonald's nuanced analysis of St. Augustine's approach to Adam and Eve's sin in "Primal ," in The Augustinian Tradition, ed. Gareth B. Matthews (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 110-39 at 118]

If this is so, then the first transgression must have been motivated by something perceived in the garden. Perhaps it was the novelty of a talking snake. Perhaps it was the loveliness of the fruit. Perhaps the slipperiness of human language, a faulty memory, or the all-too-natural tendency of the human mind to be distracted led the woman to eat. Perhaps the natural affections and loyalty of the man to the woman led him to follow suit.

The point is not to specify the motive or cause. Instead, we need to see what is entailed in allowing the serpent to be just a clever snake. Because our freedom is embodied and responsive rather than purely spiritual and originative, if the serpent is just another bodily creature in the world, then the temptation toward primal sin follows as a consequence of the way God creates.

He makes us free in certain way, but the created order contains realities and impulses that are intrinsically tempting and out of balance: a talking animal such as the serpent, a lovely fruit, the bond of companionship, or some other feature of created, embodied existence. In short, if the serpent is just an animal, then sin emerges out of the human encounter with the natural order.

This conclusion immediately runs up against the problem of evil. The notion that the original transgression occurs as a result of our embodied freedom seems to contradict the biblical assertion that God creates everything and calls it good. Not surprisingly, then, the tradition reads Satan into this verse. There are (so the traditional train of thought presumes) free spiritual beings whose created free wills are not moved by their perception of other created realities. In their independence, these spiritual beings are capable of a pure choice, a choice unmotivated and uncolored by instinct and natural desire. For this reason, spiritual beings can make choices that are originative and not responsive. A spiritual being can choose evil without being motivated by anything God has created. Angels are, as it were, self-moved.

If we suppose the existence of an angel who has fallen, then we have a way out of the problem of evil in our reading of Genesis 3, or at least a way of giving a more subtle form to the problem of evil. [Here I follow Augustine's line of reasoning in his long digression at the beginning of his treatment of the fall in The Literal Meaning of Genesis 11] By interpreting the serpent as Satan, we have created exegetical space for a prior, purely spiritual choice of disobedience, one not motivated by the desire for something in the created world that is perceived as good. The fallen angel is motivated solely by his choice of evil, the darkness of a world without the supreme goodness of God (Genesis 1:4).

Of course, the pure freedom of the devil is a finite freedom. The devil is not a primordial being who exists before creation, and in this sense the devil’s freedom is part of the divine project from the outset. However, although the finitude of a purely spiritual freedom constrains its scope and consequences, finitude does not mitigate the capacity of a disembodied freedom to do and become something out of its own pure choice. In a certain sense, God is still on the hook.

But for God’s creation of the angels, none would have fallen. Yet the important point is secure: no aspect of creation other than freedom itself is implicated as the reason for an angelic fall. The devil falls strictly because of his choice and not because of any other feature or quality of the created order. This allows us to say that the first transgression, the fall of the devil, occurs in creation, but not because of creation. “It was,” writes St. Augustine, “an evil arising not from nature but from choice” (City of God 11.19).

These suppositions about the finite spiritual freedom of fallen angels open up conceptual space for an interpretation of Genesis 3, and this allows us to pursue a reading that avoids the problem of implying that the ordinary conditions of our embodied freedom lead to sin. Interpreted as Satan in bodily form, the serpent in the garden can be understood as the vehicle for the intrusion of a more original evil choice into our world of embodied freedom. Aspects of creation (e.g., the attractive tastiness of the apple) are obviously implicated in and serve as the medium for transgression, but we need no longer presume that created goods trigger the first human sin.

Instead, Satan’s prior, purely spiritual, and self-directing choice influences Eve’s subsequent, embodied, and responsive choice. She is not thrown off balance by anything God has created. Her transgression turns on her response to a prior form of evil that is, in itself, an act of finite but pure freedom. Of course, Adam’s sin has precisely the same form. She hands him the fruit, and he responds to Eve’s prior choice. Once the infection is introduced it spreads.

The conceptual advantages of reading the serpent as Satan shows why it is terribly naive to imagine that the classical interpretation is motivated by a love of mythological figures. [The modern historical-critical tradition is hopelessly confused on this point. See, for example, Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11:.4 Commentary.. Unable to countenance "the mythological explanation of the serpent," Westermann concludes that the origin of evil must be a purely human phenomenon. Westermann is apparently unable to imagine that biblical readers (including readers whose writings would subsequently be incorporated into the canon) would develop interpretive hypotheses in order to avoid contradicting basic theological convictions about the nature of God and creation. Von Rad also falsely assumes that classical demonology is mythical and summarily rejects the traditional reading of the serpent as Satan by insisting that the narrative treats temptation as "a completely un-mythical process.” The dichotomy works only if one supposes that hypothetical or inferred beings are by definition mythical, but this is absurd, since it would make a great deal of scientific and mathematical reasoning mythological.]

To read the serpent as Satan is not to think of the snake as a wicked elf or a rebellious satyr. On the contrary, the traditional exegesis of the serpent as Satan resolves the dilemma posed by a literal reading of the story. To suppose the serpent to be Satan’s worldly guise allows us to coordinate the strong affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of creation in Genesis 1 with the narrative disobedience, resistance, and rebellion of Genesis 3.

At this point we should step back and consider an obvious objection. The reading of the serpent as Satan may help us with the difficulty of affirming the intrinsic goodness of God’s creation. The hypothesis of an angelic fall allows us to assert that freedom alone can pervert itself; it cannot go awry simply as human freedom engaged in response to created goods. Yet this approach, we might worry undermines human responsibility. If the fall is triggered by Satan’s earlier choice, then how can we be held responsible? It would seem that the original sin is the devil’s fault, not ours. And if this is the case, doesn’t the entire Pauline economy of guilt in Adam and forgiveness in Christ collapse?

The objection is helpful, because it forces us to be clear about the nature of our embodied freedom, as well as more attentive to what scripture actually says about our roles in both the empire of evil and the reign of Christ. It is certainly true that we are free participants in the divine plan — for good or for ill. However, transgression is like Caesar’s army crossing the Rubicon. Our freedom does not determine us all at once. It sets us down a particular path. More important, in crossing any number of moral and spiritual Rubicons, we are like soldiers deciding to follow, not generals leading their legions. Our freedom is real; we must decide to move our feet in one direction or the other.

But that freedom is reactive and responsive, not executive or commanding. We need a leader to trigger our movement. This is why human freedom never provides a sufficient explanation for the march toward sin — or the countermarch toward righteousness. Humans seem capable of a depravity — and righteousness — that far exceeds our ordinary capacities, which is why ordinary language stretches toward adjectives such as “demonic” and “saintly” when describing human extremes. We can follow much further than we can lead.

There are scriptural and commonsensical reasons for thinking of human freedom more on the model of an enlistee than an officer. Joshua ends with a re-statement of the choice that determines us. We cannot create endlessly new and different paths into the future. On the contrary, we must decide whom to follow: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:14-15). We are free to switch loyalties, but we cannot invent new armies and new objectives. With exactly the same underlying assumptions about the human condition, St. Paul insists that our choice, which recapitulates the original choice of Adam and Eve, is about whom to serve and not an invitation to brainstorm about the good life. “You are slaves of the one whom you obey, writes Paul, and in Adam we are conscripted into the army of sin (Romans 6:16).

The gospel stories evoke the same view of freedom when they portray the good news as a challenge to “the powers” that hold us in their thrall. We seem always beholden to a prior evil that gives us orders that we willingly obey, and Christ frees us by giving counter commands. Mammon leads us one direction; God leads us in another. When Paul says that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), he does not mean that we can opt out and wait for a third option. We are freed from sin precisely because we are taken captive in Christ. In him we serve the life-giving master.

Thus an appeal to Satan in our interpretation of Genesis 3 reinforces a general Biblical claim about our created condition. Our freedom is always a matter of whom we obey, and in sin we seek a perverse fulfillment of our natural desire for obedient service. Promethean self-direction is a fantasy, for we are not created with the capacity to serve ourselves. We can only serve that which is greater, which is why the supposition that the serpent is Satan fits nicely with the larger biblical tendency to see the fundamental form of sin as idolatry. The perverted human will follow the false gods, false leaders, and false promises, all the while imagining them to be the source of life.

The view of human freedom as a decision about whom to obey finds ample confirmation in everyday life. We cannot follow our instincts, but we can follow the idea of following our instincts. We cannot live as natural men and women, but we can follow a philosophy of natural existence. We cannot live only for ourselves but we can adopt the principle of egoism. By St. Paul’s analysis, in sin we pervert rather than undo or destroy the purposes for which human nature was created. We live a distorted facsimile of covenant. We are “slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe” (Galatians 4:3).

We were created to know and worship the living God, but in our blindness we serve dead idols (Romans 1:21-23). Thus, when we introduce the greater power of Satan into our interpretation of Genesis, we are not understanding human responsibility for sin, nor are we compromising the Pauline vision of salvation history. Instead, we are bringing our reading of the fall into conformity with the New Testament account of our slavery to sin. Sin is a perverted obedience, a false following, a deceived discipleship. To suppose the serpent to be a form of Satan helps us see the true form of our slavery to sin — and by contrast to see the obedient form of our participation in Christ.

Although there are strong reasons in support of a traditional reading of the serpent as Satan, neither scripture nor the classical theological tradition gives Satan an ongoing, central role in the unfolding of the divine plan. St. Paul observes “sin came into the world through one man” (Romans 5:12) and that the divine campaign against the entire empire of evil is conducted through “that one man Jesus Christ (Romans 5:15). While we may not be commanders in the cosmic conflict, salvation history turns on our loyalty. Although the possibility of evil should be traced back to the purely spiritual freedom of fallen angels, we need to be careful. The origin of evil should not be confused with the location of its ultimate conflict with goodness. The centers of government may have been in Richmond and Washington, but the tide of the Civil War turned at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.

For Gregory of Nyssa, the human focus of the scriptural story is clear from the outset, and he explains why God fittingly chooses our embodied freedom as the place to work out his redemptive plan. Our amphibious existence as both embodied and free places us at the center of the cosmic drama. “God, taking dust of the ground, formed the man, Gregory writes, “and, by an inspiration from Himself, He planted life in the work. of His hand, that thus the earthy might be raised up to the Divine, and so one certain grace of equal value might pervade the whole creation, the lower nature being mingled with the supra-mundane” (Catechetical Orations 6 in NPNF 5.480).

The human creature has a unique role. We are what angels and demons can never be: a hybrid of body and spirit that participates in all aspects of the created order. Through us, therefore, God can reach into all the corners of his creation. Neither pure spirit nor mere body, we are at the crossroads of reality. The future of the cosmos is in the hands of whichever army controls this strategic point.

Thus, for all the biblical concern about demons and for all the theological principles that warrant the hypothesis of the devil, focus falls on the human. We live out our loyalties in the quotidian realities of everyday life. It is here and now that we do the work of Satan, and it is here and now that we encounter Christ, who has the power to free us from the thrall of our own past choices, from the primordial choice of Adam and Eve, and from the original wickedness of Satan. We do the most to defeat the devil and sanctify the world when we focus on our core competence: obedience to the call of Christ in the midst of human affairs.


A Discussion On the Meaning of Suffering

June 15, 2010

Thousands of stateless Rohingya people have fled to Kutupalong makeshift camp in Cox’s Bazar District after being driven from their homes. Nearly 29,000 people find themselves camped on a patch of ground with no infrastructure to support them, posing a serious threat to health. Bangladesh 2010

The following exists by way of a series of links(some now broken) on the site of Touchstone Magazine. It is derived from an article David Hart wrote (Tremors of Doubt) which came to be a longer article in the WSJ (reading selections here) and finally a book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?

The article precipitated the falling out I had with Jerome that became the subject of the Failing Fellowship post a while back so I followed the back and forth between the distinguished participants in this exchange closely. Although I was unfamiliar with William Luse, Anthony Esolen is someone I deeply admire.

I’ve really only bolded the portions of David Hart’s arguments because I consider it important and one that many Christians don’t fully comprehend. The fact that two intellectuals such as Luse and Esolen have some trouble following it is instructional to say the least. Along the way they say some very interesting things but the day is clearly Dr. Hart’s, IMHO.

 Tremors of Doubt:What kind of God would allow a deadly tsunami? by DAVID B. HART
Friday, December 31, 2004 12:01 A.M. EST

On Nov. 1, 1755, a great earthquake struck offshore of Lisbon. In that city alone, some 60,000 perished, first from the tremors, then from the massive tsunami that arrived half an hour later. Fires consumed much of what remained of the city. The tidal waves spread death along the coasts of Iberia and North Africa.

Voltaire’s “Poëme sur le désastre de Lisbonne” of the following year was an exquisitely savage–though sober–assault upon the theodicies prevalent in his time. For those who would argue that “all is good” and “all is necessary,” that the universe is an elaborately calibrated harmony of pain and pleasure, or that this is the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire’s scorn was boundless: By what calculus of universal good can one reckon the value of “infants crushed upon their mothers’ breasts,” the dying “sad inhabitants of desolate shores,” the whole “fatal chaos of individual miseries”?

Perhaps the most disturbing argument against submission to “the will of God” in human suffering–especially the suffering of children–was placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by Dostoyevsky; but the evils Ivan enumerates are all acts of human cruelty, for which one can at least assign a clear culpability. Natural calamities usually seem a greater challenge to the certitudes of believers in a just and beneficent God than the sorrows induced by human iniquity.

Considered dispassionately, though, man is part of the natural order, and his propensity for malice should be no less a scandal to the conscience of the metaphysical optimist than the most violent convulsions of the physical world. The same ancient question is apposite to the horrors of history and nature alike: Whence comes evil? And as Voltaire so elegantly apostrophizes, it is useless to invoke the balances of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in God’s hand and he is not enchained.

As a Christian, I cannot imagine any answer to the question of evil likely to satisfy an unbeliever; I can note, though, that–for all its urgency–Voltaire’s version of the question is not in any proper sense “theological.” The God of Voltaire’s poem is a particular kind of “deist” God, who has shaped and ordered the world just as it now is, in accord with his exact intentions, and who presides over all its eventualities austerely attentive to a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Not that reckless Christians have not occasionally spoken in such terms; but this is not the Christian God.

The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities” — spiritual and terrestrial — alien to God. In the Gospel of John, especially, the incarnate God enters a world at once his own and yet hostile to him –”He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not”– and his appearance within “this cosmos” is both an act of judgment and a rescue of the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature.

Whatever one makes of this story, it is no bland cosmic optimism. Yes, at the heart of the gospel is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the victory over evil and death has been won; but it is also a victory yet to come. As Paul says, all creation groans in anguished anticipation of the day when God’s glory will transfigure all things. For now, we live amid a strife of darkness and light.

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering–when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s–no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms — knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against “fate,” and that must do so until the end of days.
William Luse, who has written for Touchstone, responds to David Hart’s Wall Street Journal article on the Indian Ocean tsunamis:

I read David Hart’s “Tremors of Doubt”, which you linked to, and a few lines caught my attention. He says:

The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all.

Of course, I am no theologian and may not possess a theologian’s understanding of “ultimate meaning,” but I had always thought that human suffering and death did have meaning, and that it was Christ’s own that allowed us to see it. In a world not created for suffering, our first parents let it in (that “primordial catastrophe” to which Hart refers), implicating not only themselves but all their descendants as well in the guilt for it and the restitution that must be made to God. What makes this imputation of universal guilt most difficult to bear is not merely the fact of suffering, but the suffering of innocents (the “infants crushed upon their mothers’ breasts”). We are all guilty, but some are guiltier than others. We don’t understand why the (relatively) innocent must suffer in the company, and sometimes at the hands, of the implacably evil or indifferent. Our sense of justice (and, we hope, God’s) demands that punishments and rewards be distributed according to our just desserts, and that if we cannot see it in this life, it will be completed in the next.

But Hart refers to Voltaire’s ‘deist’ God — “who has shaped and ordered the world just as it now is, in accord with his exact intentions, and who presides over all its eventualities austerely attentive to a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality’ — and says that, though Christians sometimes speak in these terms, “this is not the Christian God.” And I agree, but he then goes further:

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering — when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s — no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends.

I agree that it might be prudent in the crisis of grief to swallow the “banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels”, but how is it that they become odious? And it might be wise in that same moment to bite one’s tongue on the matter of God’s good, though mysterious, ends. But how does mention of them become blasphemous, as though He would be offended by our acknowledging His providence, or by submitting our minds to His in matters beyond us?

Perhaps I’m misreading him, or reading too much into his piece, but Hart seems uncomfortable with Christians who speak of God as the great (though mysterious and secretive) balancer of accounts, as when he notes: “And as Voltaire so elegantly apostrophizes, it is useless to invoke the balances of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in God’s hand and he is not enchained.”

People who “utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels” (with or without a license) are saying one thing and one thing only: we either have faith in those counsels, and His “good ends”, or it’s all a big nothing. Either the suffering of those innocents participated in Christ’s own, bearing spiritual fruit for themselves and for all mankind, or…what? Nothing. Suffering has meaning. It can save us. (Can, not must.) To me, it would be a great sorrow and a pity to find out in eternity that it were not so.

So I ask: am I seeing something in his words that isn’t there?

And David Hart replies:
One must attend to the meaning of “ultimate.” The story Christian doctrine tells is that sin and death are accidental to our created nature, and so they never occupied any necessary place in God’s intentions for his creatures; nor has he need of suffering and death to realize his nature or ours. Whatever good God may bring from suffering or death does not, therefore, endue (vocab: To provide with a quality or trait; endow) suffering or death with any eternal or ontological meaning in itself.

I shall skip over the matter of universal aboriginal guilt, as it presumes an understanding of original sin that is not quite in keeping with Eastern tradition, and I am of course Orthodox.  But let us grant original sin its place, and that we all sin.

Still, the notion that the suffering of, say, dying babies somehow participates in Christ’s suffering and is part of some vast providential calculus whereby God balances accounts is a Stoic parody of Christian orthodoxy, and were it true Christian teaching I should advocate apostasy.  There is no biblical or doctrinal warrant for such a view. Yes, the deaths of innocents are indeed meaningless, even if God’s providence will indeed bring good from that evil; there is no spiritual fruit to be reaped from the drowning of tens of thousands of infants, for them or for us; the reign of death in all things is not the same as the justice of every particular death in the great scheme of things; that is why Christ came to save us from suffering and death, and why God will raise the dead. This world is fallen, and nowhere does God promise to make the sum total of its suffering add up to some greater spiritual truth. Rather, through taking our suffering upon himself, he rescues us from the meaninglessness of death, and even graciously allows us to offer up our own sufferings in obedience to him.

This is the gospel: it does not announce the perfect rationality of the history of the fallen world, but the perfect love of God who overcomes the powers of this age.

I earnestly implore all who have not done so to read Ivan Karamazov’s remarks in the chapter entitled “Rebellion” in The Brothers Karamazov, and to reflect upon them.

William Luse has this further reply to David Hart:
It seems I did read [Hart] right, which disappoints me. I had no idea there was such a divergence in Orthodox and Catholic traditions on the matter of original sin. Either that or I have a poor understanding of my own faith’s teaching. But Hart seems to acknowledge that the divergence is real, not peculiar to me. As to the value of individual suffering, he holds my position as “a Stoic parody of Christian orthodoxy,” a rebuke that will sting once I confirm it to be the case. If his remark is true — “Yes, the deaths of innocents are indeed meaningless, even if God’s providence will indeed bring good from that evil” — I will find it a hard pill to swallow.

My difficulty is in seeing how their deaths can be meaningless if good can be brought from the evil. The balancing of accounts I referred to is a spiritual one, of course, and I am not quite ready to abandon it.

And David Hart has this brief response:
This is not a difference between East and West. The view that Mr. Luse has advanced belongs to neither tradition, and I wish he would make an effort to rethink the implications of what he has said. Again, I recommend Dostoyevsky as a good starting point, and Aquinas’s De Malo thereafter. And as for bringing good from evil, that still does not make evil good or necessary; it means only that God is omnipotent and loving and that the gates of hell cannot prevail against his Kingdom.

Anthony Esolen, translator of a new edition of the Divine Comedy and a contributing editor of Touchstone, responds to the conversation on suffering:
Perhaps I too am not quite sure what the word “ultimate” means. But I recall the medieval frescoes and triptychs of saints bearing their wounds as marks of glory — Saint Peter Martyr most startlingly, with the axe wound that cleft his tonsure in two — and I think that the artists perceived something important. The incarnation of Christ has allowed us men to do some things that the faithful angels themselves cannot do. We can, as Paul struggles to say, make up by our suffering what is lacking in the sacrifice of Christ; that is, we can partake of that sacrifice by uniting our sufferings with that sacrifice. We can repent, and conform ourselves to Christ; and we can die, as Christ himself died, as he would have had to die even had there been no malign Sanhedrin to condemn him. Upon Christ’s glorified body there were no bruises, no lacerations, but the five wounds remained, and, as the great hymn puts it, the faithful will one day gaze upon those glorious scars — scars which we and not the angels will share with him, because we and not the angels will have borne them.

We were not meant to suffer and die; but we sinned, and having sinned, indeed we are meant, in the re-creating Providence of God, to suffer and die, but not as Satan would have it. I must believe that the incarnation and the atoning death of Christ does not simply undo the harm of sin — does not simply restore to us a lost innocence — but delivers for us the greater glory of a victory over sin and death, a victory accomplished in us through Christ. Surely David believes this too; again, perhaps I am misconstruing his use of the word “ultimate.” But will I not always, if God should see fit to save me, be the one who suffered and repented and died in a way peculiar to myself? Will not that strange eventful history be ineradicable from my being? This hope—and for me it is an abiding hope—in the ultimate meaning of suffering seems to lie behind the strange words of Christ, illogical if a found sheep is the same sheep that once dwelt in the fold, that there is more rejoicing in Heaven at the finding of the one lost than at the keeping of the ninety nine that were never lost.

I trust I’ll not be accused of creeping Stoicism merely for noticing that adumbrations of Christlike suffering are to be found in the ideals of the best of the pagans; nor, I trust, will I be tagged as a follower of that charlatan Voltaire, who, when he rejected the Incarnation, rejected also the tremendous mystery of human suffering, and of course fell back upon a cold impersonal God whom Cicero would have found appalling, much less Boethius.

The Holy Innocents, whose feast we’ve recently celebrated, suffered the same evil as did the children who died in the recent disaster. We Christians should see in that terrible incident long ago all the blind sufferings of weeping and (relatively) innocent humanity, all of us children dying we know not why, whether it is at the hands of a Herod or in the wake of a tsunami or after the slow wasting away of our vigor. Holy Innocents, martyrs who did not know to whom you were witnesses or that you were witnesses to anyone at all, pray for us, young and old alike, that one day we may bear our wounds as gloriously as you bear yours.

David Hart replies:
I’m sorry but this is utterly irrelevant to my remarks, and has nothing to do with what Luse said either. It seems tedious to rehearse again and again this simple point, but I shall try once more: that we are allowed to offer up our sufferings to God as oblations of obedience, that we are able to find grace in the midst of our sufferings (and so on) is entirely unrelated to the claim that suffering and death in themselves are meaningful or are part of the ontological “truth” of God’s creation; it is certainly unrelated to the absurd, obscene, and grotesque claim that the sum total of suffering in the world adds up to a precisely calculated “balancing” of the score for original sin. This latter suggestion is most definitely incompatible with the message of the gospels, and indeed would make a nonsense of all atonement theology. The economy of salvation should not be confused with a Hegelian passage through the finite, nor providence with a universal teleology.

Also, the notion that a triumph over sin and death won along the hard path of fallen nature is a higher good than would have prevailed had we not fallen at all is nonsense (all talk of the felix culpa  aside); such a notion would require a view of evil as something in addition to God, something positive over against the divine, required to fecundate the good within creation. There is a very good set of doctrinal and metaphysical concerns behind the Church’s insistence upon a privatio boni view of evil.  To suggest that evil can serve to increase the good sounds marvelous and dramatic; it is also quite heretical and quite philosophically incoherent.

Anthony Esolen continues his dialogue with David Hart:
I’m a great admirer of David Hart’s work, and have actually used to good effect his brilliant article, Christ and Nothing, to bring at least one young prodigal back to sanity and the Church. So I’m in the odd position of arguing with someone whom I consider a great comrade in the current unpleasantness, if it be no presumption in a sergeant to look for comrades. But since I’m no philosopher or theologian, I’ve probably slipped on a patch or two of rhetoric.

What worries me (and, if I read him right, what worries Bill Luse) is that assertion that suffering is of no ultimate significance. Now it seems to me that the words “suffering” and “significance” can be read in more than one way. If by “significance” we mean ontological significance — that suffering adds to the created nature that God has endowed us with—then of course we must reject the proposition.

Suffering is a privation of a good that we ought to possess, as sickness is a privation of health and not a thing-in-itself. But “significance” can mean, literally, the property of being a sign of something else. In this sense, suffering—even considered as a privation of good, simply — can possess significance, if by the will of God it is a sign of something else, in this case a sign of Christ. God did not need suffering, to establish such a sign; in that sense, suffering in itself has no meaning. But God also did not need the medieval pelican, to establish a sign of the self-sacrificing Christ; pelicans in themselves bear no such significance. Attributively, by the will of God, they do bear such significance, and one of the medieval mystics, I think Richard of Saint Victor, supposed that God created the pelican precisely so that it would serve us as a sign of Christ. And maybe “attributively” is too weak a word to use, since it implies a mere notional, linguistic significance, rather than a cogent and irresistible pointing. When, for instance, Christ said, “When I was hungry, you fed me; when I was thirsty, you gave me to drink,” he was identifying the sufferings of mankind with his own. This was more than external, “forensic” imputation. Thus the suffering of human beings has meaning because it points to Christ who suffers, and because in fact it is Christ who suffers.

David may be growing impatient with me here — all this must strike him as quite elementary, as his own reference to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov struck me. I’m trying to work out my own thought; I don’t intend to be condescending. He may say that such significance is not “ultimate.” And here I think we need to look at that word “suffering.” In one sense it is a mere privation, or it is a removal of some good that ought to be there. But suppose we consider it in the same light as we consider the word “emptying.” That word even more strongly than “suffering” suggests privation; surely emptying, in itself, can possess no significance. When we empty ourselves of obedience we sin — and that sin is better described as a failure to act, an impotence, than as an act in itself. It can thus have no ultimate meaning, or even any meaning in itself at all.

But the emptying that Christ assumed for our sake is the ultimate act of grace, and perhaps had better be described as a filling: not of Himself, but of us, with Himself. Now he need not have conquered death by dying; but he chose to do so, and, more than that, he willed that “dying” be the means of our regeneration, and, as I think we are allowed to hope, of our being raised to a glory beyond that with which the sinless Adam had been endowed. In Heaven, Christ will be, and is, and has ever been, Priest and King and Sacrifice: and He has willed that our deaths here be a shadowing forth, a sign, of what He is, the Son from all eternity filling Himself with Divinity (words are failing me here) by emptying Himself in obedience to the Father.

And that seems to me to be the hope offered by Dostoyevsky. It isn’t that Marcel’s suffering and death, in themselves, signify; but they are no longer suffering and death in themselves, or, better, we now have it revealed to us that no human suffering or death is or ever was merely suffering and death, because Christ is He who suffered, and because Christ is He who was obedient unto death. Death is, through the power and wisdom of God, not what we thought it was, the cessation of bodily function: “Except a corn of wheat fall to the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

The terrible questions Ivan poses about the suffering of the innocent child are played out in the book itself, with Ivan nearly oblivious to the drama. When the real — and persecuted — lad dies, he has already become, through God’s grace, a sign of Christ, because in fact Christ was suffering in him, and the boys who form a band around Alyosha are a brotherhood, an apostolate, remembering in love the one whom they had helped to pierce. When Kolya, the leader, asks Alyosha whether, in the resurrection, they will see their friend again, and all be together, Alyosha responds that they shall — and he can say so with confidence, because the promise is that we shall see Christ, and be one in Christ.

Maybe what I’m saying is too obvious, and I’m missing a distinction between “meaning” and “ultimate meaning.”  I can’t drive from my head the marks upon the glorified Christ. They are signs. He didn’t need them. But he chose them; they are therefore His; and I hope one day, doubter that I have been, to ask to probe them, like the patron of the hardheaded, Thomas. I trust they will still be there.

David Hart continues his conversation with Anthony Esolen:
First, if I seem to be growing impatient, it has more to do with a number of communications I have received that have not been posted for general perusal; one in particular, from a pompous Calvinist who as far as I can tell is an inadvertent Moloch worshiper, put me in an especially foul mood; so excuse me. I am an admirer of Esolen’s work; until his rendering of Tasso appeared I thought I could not possibly enjoy any translation as much as the old Fairfax version, with which I fell in love when I was twelve. I plan to order all three volumes of his Dante when my next check for an article comes.

Second, let us defend the created goodness of the noble pelican, one of God’s grandest achievements. While I agree in principle with Esolen’s remarks, I insist on this distinction:  the pelican is the good creature of God, possessed of its own proper essence and nature, and as such is an analogy of the divine in its very being, whether posteriorly appropriated as a symbol of Christ or not; evil, suffering, and death — being privations — can signify God’s love only through an act of divine subversion, conquest, and economy. And, then again, this is a distinction of more than passing importance.

Third, one can become lost in a thicket of pieties if one is not careful, and so miss the obvious. Here I think I have quite a good grasp on what Dostoyevsky is doing in the chapter “Rebellion” — among other things, he is making Ivan, unwittingly, an apologist for a true vision of God’s goodness over against the sort of sickly Teutonized idealism that had corrupted the “religious movement” in Russia in his day, a vision that later Zosima will carry into its true depth. It is not, however, quite the vision that Esolen suggests, I think; but here more clarity would be necessary for me to judge. What is essential — and this is all I ever meant to say — is to distinguish between two understandings of God’s power over creation. In one — a deist understanding — the world was created from eternity to be an intricate machinery of good and evil, darkness and light, exquisitely balanced between felicity and moral gravity, wherein death and suffering constitute necessary elements of God’s creative purposes, without which he could not bring his purposes to fruition, and wherein every event is part of a perfectly coherent scheme of cosmic and spiritual harmony. In the other — the Christian understanding — God creates us for union with himself, requiring no passage through evil to realize the good in us and to divinize us, but we fall away into the damnable absurdity of sin, death, and hell, from which God then rescues us; while indeed God, in the economy of salvation, makes even death obedient to his saving purposes, he does so as the one who on the last day will judge and damn the meaningless brutality and absurdity of fallen existence, and — far from disclosing the inherent rationality and moral necessity of death — will conquer it utterly on behalf of its victims. Yes, God uses suffering and death for the good; but, no, in themselves they are contrary to the nature of the world, in enmity to God’s goodness, and “meaningless” (that is, they do not possess that ontological or moral necessity that either a deist or a semi-Hegelian theologian would assign them).

Fourth — and this seems to be the sticking point — it is simply wrong to say that the scars of sin and redemption make the glory of union with God greater than they otherwise would have been. This is a tempting belief, but one that must end in absurdity. Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine (and Thomas) are wonderful curatives of this particular error. If God is the supereminent fullness of all actuality and all goodness and all love, then the kenosis of God in Christ is nothing in addition to what would have been communicated to us had we not fallen; nor is the good lacking in anything necessary to manifest itself in and to creatures. It is metaphysically and doctrinally necessary to insist upon this; not to do so compromises both God’s transcendence and goodness. But that would take many many pages to unfold.

And Esolen replys:
Thank you for your reply — and for being a fan of Tasso, who does not exactly pack the stadium seats.

We agree on everything until that fourth point. I too find the Deist calculator-god as revolting as Johnson did when he lashed out against the idea in Pope’s Essay on Man, and in the work of the prelate Jenyns — if memory serves me. That’s the splendidly dour vision of Marcus Aurelius. It is haunted by Truth, but it’s an abyss of despair.

On that fourth point, though: I understand that if God communicates His fullness to a creature, there is nothing beyond that to be communicated. But the creature receives the fullness according to its capacity. Is there a way to believe that the redeemed creature is a new creation with a wholly new, not simply restored, capacity for such blessedness? Again, God would not have required the sin-and-redemption to re-create man; but could he not have willed that it be so for sinful man? Maybe I’ve been teaching Paradise Lost for too long, and trying to meet the typical student’s objection, that Satan does seem to have achieved a kind of victory after all. If you’re not worn out by the Molochites, I’d appreciate hearing how you would respond.

David B. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and author of The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003). Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante’s Divine Comedy (Modern Library).

Esolen and Hart Finale
David Hart responds to Anthony Esolen’s reply in last night’s Hart by the Numbers:

No, that cannot be. It really cannot, and there is not much room here for argument. The capacity of the creature for God is not elevated by sin, nor would our primaeval innocence have been a static condition. In either case, union with God must be a progress from glory to glory, an elevation of the creature to the fulfillment of the divine image within it; and to this nothing can or need give increase. An intellectual creature’s innate capacity for God, after all, could not possibly be limited to a specific scope — it must expand towards ever greater knowledge (otherwise it would not be knowledge of God at all, who is infinite and so never conformable to a finite intellectual intention). We are called to contemplate and enter into the life of God himself, and that is not something that admits of fixed degrees. How can the infinite be an “object” of contemplation except through an eternal growth in knowledge?

To think otherwise would also be to say that God’s intention for us apart from sin was deficient, that the divine image was not meant to be fulfilled in union with God as perfectly as it might be, and that union with God is an extrinsic accommodation with finite cognition. It would also mean that sin can somehow “enhance” the divine image in us.

Look, honestly, there are ten thousand very well worked out arguments on this matter, many of which are there to be found in Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Maximus, Thomas Aquinas…Henri de Lubac (et ceteri). I am not spinning out my own opinions here. And when one understands these arguments, one cannot really dissent from them. To advance the view that you want is to do damage not only to a coherent view of our created nature, but to any proper understanding of the transcendence of God’s goodness.

I really must end the conversation here, I fear; I am well past a deadline already.

Oh, but I must add one more observation on the Pelican. You do appreciate, I hope, that even the cross of Christ would not reveal to us the true nature of divine love were it not for the resurrection. In itself, death is not a sign, but only death thus assumed, thus conquered, and thus imitated. The pelican — that mighty sign of God’s goodness –  would reveal something true about God simply by virtue of its pelicanity in any possible world. This is actually quite important.

Anthony Esolen has his final say:
David Hart justly warns us against any easy and sentimental belief that it was, after all, good that Adam sinned. Scripture is unequivocal about this, as it is about what Hart calls the absurdity and brutality of our fallen world.

Sin cannot elevate the capacity of the creature for God. Nor, as he says, would our primeval innocence have been static. What exactly it would have been is the subject of great speculation on the part of theologians; but unless God had created Adam in vain, Adam’s fulfillment must have been attainable only in the contemplation of God himself.

It was not clear to Thomas, however, that even the desire for union, rather than communion, with God — the sharing of the very life of the Trinity that David so eloquently speaks of — was present by nature in Adam: “Eternal life is a good exceeding the proportion of created nature, as likewise it exceeds its knowledge and desire, according to 1 Corinthians 2:9: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man.’” Thus, when we’re talking about our capacity for blessedness — “capacity” is Thomas’s word — we are talking about two things: “Duplex capacitas attendi potest in humana natura.” One, he says, is the capacity we possess by nature, and this, says Thomas, God fills accordingly, as he does for every created thing. But the other is the capacity we possess by the divine will, that is by grace; and this indeed may be increased, nor is it to be considered a defect if God wills not to increase it (Summa Theol. III, q.1, a.3).

Thomas is answering the false assertion that the Son had to become man, even had Adam not sinned; otherwise, the argument goes, a capacity for blessedness in Adam would have remained unfulfilled, since, after Adam, and after the Incarnation, fallen man now has the blessings of grace. Now Thomas does not reply that Adam was no recipient of grace, nor does he imply that Adam’s state would have remained what it was; about the details of such a providential economy, as it would have unfolded, we have no witness. But Thomas does hold open the possibility of the felix culpa: “There is nothing to prevent human nature’s being raised up to something greater [i.e., than it had been in Adam], even after sin; God permits evil in order to draw forth from it some greater good (Nihil autem prohibet ad aliquid maius humanam naturam productam esse post peccatum: Deus enim permittit mala fieri ut inde aliquid melius eliciat). Thus Saint Paul says, ‘Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’; and the Exsultet of the Paschal Feast sings, ‘O happy fault, which gained for us so great a redeemer!’”

Thinking of such grace, then, Francis de Sales can say, with a tad more assurance than Thomas says it but with no heresy, that “our ruin has been to our advantage, since human nature in fact has received greater graces by the redemption wrought by its Savior than it would ever have received from Adam’s innocence even if he had persevered therein.” (Treatise on the Love of God).

Professor Hart’s language describing the rush of being lifted or embraced more and more deeply into the life of God, from glory to glory, with ever expanding knowledge, is as glorious as that of any prose writer I know, and is Dantesque in its ardor and sweep. He is right, Paradise must be so! Nor would I wish to think of our “capacity” for blessedness rather as a pint pot or a gallon jug.

But even in mathematics there are orders of infinity. Grant that man’s natural capacity for blessedness is infinite (because it is the infinite God who will fulfill it), it does not then follow that grace cannot raise that capacity, nor does it follow that there cannot be “degrees” of blessedness, if by “degrees” we are talking not of finite numbers but of ranks and hierarchies of endless (and endlessly deepening) bliss. Such degrees, from one blessed soul to the next, imply no defect in God’s goodness, no more than is implied by the fact that men are not seraphim, and seraphim are not cherubim. Thomas follows the Fathers in interpreting “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” as asserting such “degrees” — not fixed capacities, but still degrees, or “gradus,” to use his term (Suppl. 93, art. 2; and for the inequality of the blessed, and the diversity of their blessedness, see Summa Contra Gentiles 3.58).

Sometimes Thomas uses the language of “closeness” to describe these orders: “Quanto aliquis erit Deo magis coniunctus, tanto erit beatior” “The more closely one is conjoined with God, the more of blessedness will one enjoy.” (Suppl. 93, art. 3). This closeness is a consequence of charity, itself a gift of God’s grace.

I agree with Professor Hart about the worthy pelican’s showing forth his Creator in his natural pelicanity, original sin or no; and of course if the Cross signifies anything, or by means of anything, it is the victory of the Resurrection. But we have ventured far from the original discussion about suffering. I am not committed to the “strong” version of the felix culpa, as comforting as I have found it. May God one day show me whether it was true. I am grateful to David for his patience and his exertions in this discussion, which have helped me at least sort out my thoughts and feelings at this time, and I wish to join him in the wholehearted reverence he advises. We suffer; God is just and good. Let us not make light of the suffering. Let us place our hope in Christ, and be silent.

And David Hart, responding, brings this discussion to a close:
There may be some obiter dictum in Thomas’s discussion of the question of infralapsarian (vocab: Christian theology, chiefly Calvinist, a person who believes that foreknowledge of the Fall preceded God’s decree of who was predestined to salvation and who was not.)incarnation that would alter my view of him; I will consult your references. Incidentally, Aquinas is wrong — the incarnation is the premise of creation, with or without sin. But that is another argument.

In any event, Francis de Sales is speaking nonsense, and in fact rather silly nonsense, and if we had many many days to spend on the topic I might be able to convince you. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but there is a level of technicality that this entire discussion invites that makes this an unappealing project.

I will make only three closing observations:

1) Logically, the end for which an intellectual creature is intended — even though that end be supernatural and gratuitous — is the perfection of its nature in the highest good, which is to say union with God. It would indeed be a deficient creative act of God were he to will in the creature anything short of the consummate perfection of that union proper to the creature in its divinized state (in, that is, the condition of grace). To imagine that for a creature created in the divine image there could be a sufficient natural fulfillment proportionate to the creature’s capacity that is anything less than the supernatural elevation of his nature to the highest knowledge of God is to fail to grasp what it means to be created in the divine image. Without final grace, human “nature” cannot be complete. True, Aquinas would not seem to agree; though Henri de Lubac is very good at showing that in fact he does. Also, God wills the highest good possible for his creatures because he must: not to do so would be to fail to will the infinite goodness of his own essence (which is the sole “real” object of his will) in the reditio of all created things to him.

2) The mathematical model of greater and lesser infinities is not germane here, obviously, inasmuch as the question is one of finite consciousness of the infinite simplicity of God, not one concerning the size of a set. As God is infinite, and cannot therefore be the object of a finite intuition proportioned to eidetic consciousness, the vision of God must always be of the same simplicity — communicated by grace — ever more deeply apprehended, without surcease, term, or limits.

If this is the end to which rational creation is called, it becomes meaningless to speak of greater and lesser graces. God’s very being is manifestation of his essence in his Logos, in the light of his Spirit, and our being as logikoi (vocab: In the original creation, all rational spiritual beings logikoi)is to be joined in perfect living knowledge of the Logos, which can mean only one thing. Divinization is not an extrinsic accommodation between two objects set over against one another: it literally is our eternal act of “becoming God,” which is not something that comes in greater and lesser versions. A mathematical model of the infinite is a philosophical red herring here. Better to discuss Husserl’s discussions of intuitions following from an infinite intention, or Henri de Lubac’s treatment (better than Marechal’s or Rahner’s I think) of how the prior orientation of God’s infinity is the ground of all finite consciousness, even of finite things.

3) Whether one wants to accept it or not, the simple and incontrovertible truth is that, if sin can lead to a greater grace than would otherwise have been available, then sin and evil are positive elements of the divine will, of created nature, and even of the divine nature: there is no other actus in which creation participates, and so if evil can even occasion an increase in the good, then evil has real being and must participate in God. And since God is infinite goodness, and wills his own goodness infinitely, and since a higher good could be accomplished by means of evil, then we must believe God does in some sense will evil, and that evil therefore resides in the divine essence. I doubt you are following my argument here, as this really requires about 200 pages, and it is 1:18 a.m. as I write this; but what I am saying is simply correct. Either you believe in the privatio boni view of evil (and so in the convertibility of all the ontological transcendentals with the divine essence), or you do not; only in the latter case can you assert the “hard” version of the felix culpa, though you can no longer believe God or subsistent being is goodness as such.

Look, there are varying levels of theological discourse, I know. To my mind, all talk of the felix culpa remains always on the homiletic plane, where it does some good perhaps. I am only a student of classical Christian metaphysics and you could not pay me to give a sermon; within that metaphysical tradition, the notion that we will profit from evil more than we would have done from innocence is not only morally problematic, but renders Christian ontology and any coherently Christian understanding of God impossible.

Please, though, we have said enough.


Wither Job?

William Reichert responds to Esolen and Hart:
This exchange is fascinating, and I hope it does not end soon. However, I’m curious why none of the participants has mentioned the Book of Job. It seems a bit odd that the whole question of theodicy could be discussed without reference to Job.

I believe I understand Dr. Hart’s argument, but I am troubled by its pastoral application. Surely we’d make “Job’s comforters” look good if we responded to those who suffer by saying, “Be of good cheer: the evil you suffer is ultimately meaningless.” I don’t believe that is what Dr. Hart would say in such circumstances, but I’m afraid that’s what many people who read his article may carry away from his argument. Perhaps, however, he regards such application as the pastor’s, and not the theologian’s, responsibility


Hart Replies to Wither Job?
David Hart responds to William Reichert’s question:

It is precisely Job’s comforters I wish to cut short. Tell me, at the end of Job, what meaning — what justice — does God tell Job his particular suffering served?

Perhaps Christ’s words in Luke 13:1-5 would make my meaning clear.
[“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them -- do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”]

In any event, please, please, please try to see only this: to say that in your life of faith your suffering can be taken up into a greater good, by grace and economy (which is of course true), is different from saying that suffering and death are in themselves ontological and moral goods for God that constitute proper elements of his designs for his creatures. It was this latter view of evil as somehow IN ITSELF a positive good that bears fruit that could not by any other means have been brought forth in creation that I was identifying as a deist corruption of theology, and on this point how could any Christian disagree? Please remember what the original column was about.

Hart’s Last Word
David Hart sends this “final valedictory” letter:

No one is more annoying than the guest who announces his departure again and again but never leaves. I keep saying I am done, but obviously I am not. This is the last — honestly, the last — thing I want to say.

Since that accursed column ran in the WSJ (and I shall never again attempt to say so much in 750 words), I have received an average of 280 e-mails a day. Who knows how they find my address, but with a paper whose circulation is so great I should not be surprised. Most go unanswered, but I have foolishly replied to many. I also foolishly agreed to dash off another 2500 words on the matter for First Things as a rush job — one day — for the March issue. The result is that I am writing in ever greater haste, in an ever deepening condition of fatigue and of anxiety over the other obligations I am neglecting, and looking back over the last few exchanges I cannot help but notice a note of asperity sneaking in, and a sort of rhetorical sloppiness. So I apologize.

All I ever meant to point out in that piece was that Christians are not deists. Of course, our suffering and our death — on account of the empty tomb — can have ultimate moral and spiritual meaning. When Christ went hence, he took many captive — including even death, the final enemy. The issue addressed in the piece was whether suffering and death were ontological necessities for God and his great scheme, which no Christian who knows his tradition could possibly affirm. Thus it is wrong not only for skeptics to think that earthquakes should shake the faith of Christians (in fact they merely confirm what we believe about a fallen world), but for Christians to assume that God’s providential governance of things requires the notion that God directly wills evil in the world as the necessary vehicle of a final harmony or that every death or loss corresponds to an exact deistic calculus of the balance between felicity and morality in this world or the next. This is why Ivan Karamazov is helpful: he reminds us what we do not believe.

I shall go to my grave convinced that most versions of the felix culpa are fundamentally wrong and incoherent, and I believe that the totality of Thomas’s thought clearly backs me up (but if not, so be it). At the most rudimentary level, it seems to imply that God rewards sin more than sinlessness, that he therefore wills evil, that his righteousness is divided aginst itself, and that the good he wills (which is of his essence) must require evil to be perfect (which is monstrous). Or it implies a voluntarist divine freedom that responds to evil as a real power outside his nature with a decision to alter his primordial intentions for man (which makes God finite and evil substantial). But why argue about it? What inspires revulsion in me may inspire adoration in another. And while Francis de Sales was a fairly mediocre theologian (he was, as it happens, and this is no insult), he was a great saint, and holiness knows what mere metaphysics can never grasp.


Theodicy and the Idea of Salvation

September 11, 2009

salvationAt the end of my approaches to God post the other day, I threw in my personal approach to God, the notion that a conclusive argument for theodicy makes it hard to find room for the idea of redemption and obviates the need for Jesus’ ministry. I found that idea in Fr. Aidan Nichols’ marvelous book, The Shape of Catholic Theology, a text that most of my fellow students disliked – thereby creating an almost automatic condition under which I would grow to love it.

As a Yokohama Taiyo Whales fan in Tokyo, I seem to have an almost innate sense of aman’ jaku, as one of my Japanese students thoughtfully ascribed to me. I had to go to the dictionary for that one and came up with the English equivalent, perverse. Having grown up a Yankee’s fan in Boston, I had thought I was just normal. Didn’t everyone loathe the home team?

I wish I could say I had come up with linking theodicy and salvation on my own but I’m not that bright, only smart enough to recognize a good idea when I read it. Elsewhere on this blog you will see the readings I have collected on the nature of evil: Evil and Joy   or  Do Not Go Near These Wounds  to mention the two main ones. There is a lesser body of reflections on sin which embodies more than evil, a participation in it, and those are all maintained in a category on payingattentiontothesky.

Rather than just leaving the statement on theodicy and salvation out there, I thought I would give you the historical churning that accompanied those far smarter than I arriving at this conclusion. One thing I love about my Catholic faith is how it opposes the notion of sola scriptura, the Protestant doctrine that the Bible is the only infallible or inerrant authority for Christian faith, and that it contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness.

It is worth repeating here that the biblical materials for a concept of God do not organize themselves. They do not automatically arrange themselves into a satisfactory form. They achieve that form only when the human mind, seeking to understand its own faith, begins to work on them and to set them out in more intelligible ways. To organize the biblical materials, we soon find that we need to draw on such philosophical categories as good and evil, freedom and necessity, person and nature, mind and will, essence and existence, being and knowing. Of course, the application of these notions to God is an attempt to speak of what lies beyond the world within terms drawn from this world, and so is only justified if we always add a postscript to that effect. Warning: This Paper Contains Metaphysical Arguments or something like that so that our atheist friends can keep their superior scientific minds free from contamination.

So the Catholic Church has over the years struggled with heresies and Scripture, relying on sacred Tradition and the Magisterium to guide us through the rough spots. Infallible is a version of perfect and rarely pressed into use, when the Church needs to fly on automatic pilot as it were. So here are the notes from the chapter on Theodicy and Salvation, a walk through the park of Evil, God’s Justice, Redemption And Salvation.

Preambles of Faith
We have encountered philosophy in the process of aiding and abetting fundamental theology by its contribution to the preamble of faith on the topic of God’s existence. At the same time, we predicted that philosophy would also assist systematic theology by making a contribution to the concept of God — giving us a valuable pre-understanding of what God is like, an inkling which can throw light on what we find in the sources of revelation. Naturally, most of us come to all this the other way round: we get to know the revealed God through Christ’s Church, and only then do we enquire into the philosophical basis of the concept of God. But this only tells us something that is true about our autobiographies, not something true about the structure of the concept of God in itself.

A Second Preamble Of Faith – Theodicy
Another area of the preamble of faith closely connected with a discussion of the existence and concept of God, and this is theodicy — or what is often referred to as the “problem of evil.” As we shall see, theodicy (from theos and dike, “justice,” hence “enquiry into the divine justice”) is also doubly relevant, in theology, to fundamentals and to systematics. In fundamental theology, theodicy is important because we need to show that the existence of God is compatible with the existence of evil, of what we can call the “major defects” of the world. In systematic theology, theodicy is important because our grasp of what could (logically) be remedied among these major defects will give us a pre-understanding of the idea of salvation; and the theme of salvation is well-nigh the central motif of revelation’s sources, Scripture and Tradition.

Our Pre-Understanding Of Soteriology
To exemplify the point, we might wish to argue that adolescence, though often painful, is built into the very idea of humanity. We could not conceive of adult persons who were fully human but never had to go through the process of becoming an independent self, a process we call growing up. If this is so, then we cannot use the tribulations of adolescence, real as these are, to cast doubt on the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God — always assuming that we regard the creation of Homo sapiens as a boon to the cosmos. On the other hand, we might well regard the destruction of the innocent (say, of babies by leukemia) as evidence against the postulate of God. Thus, if we decide that despite such counter-indications we can accept, as theodicists, the reality of God, these counter-indications will pass over into another category, namely, our pre-understanding of soteriology, the idea of salvation. Putting a stop to the suffering of the innocent is the kind of thing we would expect the Creator to do if ever he began to relate to the world in a new way — not as Creator but as Redeemer. Here I am anticipating my argument, but so as to give the reader a glimpse of the importance of this area.

The Chief Intellectual Obstacle To Christian Theism
Theodicy is a problem which has exercised Christian minds through the ages when wrestling with the issue of the existence of God. St. Thomas, for instance, gives it as the chief intellectual obstacle to Christian theism. He formulates the objection in his customary sharp way:

“It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the name ‘God’ means that he is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.”[Thomas Aquinas, Summit theologiae Ta, q. 2, a. 3] To understand why evil is a philosophical problem of this magnitude for the Christian, we must remind ourselves of the Church’s basic confession about God. Christianity, here reflecting its own source in Judaism, ascribes to God both all-powerfulness and all-goodness. And indeed, quite apart from the fact that this is the (overall) witness of Old and New Testaments, a number of the arguments for the existence of God touched on in the last chapter also point to these qualities as characteristic of transcendence. For example, to say that God is the infinite ground of the world is to come fairly close to saying that he is almighty; and to say that he is the explanation of our sense of absolute moral obligation comes fairly close to saying that he is all-good.

Lactantius’ Dilemma
Given, then, that both a pre-theological and a specifically Christian consensus points to God as enjoying both these characteristics (and both ancient and modern deviations there from have had a frosty reception by Catholic believers), the problem of evil must be confronted. Ever since the ancient Greeks it has been formulated as a dilemma; we possess a lapidary example from the pen of the Latin Christian apologist Lactantius: “God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or he is able, and is unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able, or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and is unable, he is feeble—which is not in accordance with the character of God. If he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if he is neither willing nor able, he is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them?” [Lactantius, De ira Dei, 13]

St. Augustine’s Solution
What kind of reflection has there been on this issue in the tradition of Christian thought? From time to time Christians have attempted to resolve Lactantius’ dilemma while writing strictly as philosophers; thus, for instance, we find the highly original system of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) or in a Thomist idiom in our own time, the work of the late Père Ambroise Sertillanges. But it has become customary, at least in the English-speaking world, to identify the two most ubiquitous “solutions” by reference to two Church Fathers and therefore to writers in whom there is as yet no clear or systematic distinction between philosophy and theology. The more influential of these two types of theodicy is that associated with St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) This Augustinian theodicy consists basically of four points.

  1. First, it is argued that evil is not a positive reality in its own right. It is not an infusion, but it is a kind of negative reality, a privation or deprivation of something that should have been there but is not. Because evil is such a privatio boni, an absence of the good, Augustinians argue that it cannot be an element in the ultimate reality, which is God.
  2. Second, having proposed an ontological statute for evil, we must give an account of its origin. So far as evil conceived and executed by finite minds (moral evil) is concerned, its source may be located in free will. If God has created finite spirits endowed with free will, it must be expected that this free will is going to be abused. From such sin there flows certain other aspects of human suffering, such as the physical pain inflicted by evil people, or the fear and anxiety which good people undergo when faced with the prospect of evil people. From moral evil there may also follow kinds of suffering which could be seen as divine punishment for sin (natural disasters and the like).
  3. Third, while it may be true that the essential limitedness of everything created (metaphysical evil) is responsible for many of the imperfections of this world, Augustinians affirm that it was nevertheless right that God should have made such a world as ours. To show why this is so, they appeal to what has been called a “principle of plenitude.” The principle of plenitude states that the richest and most desirable universe contains every possible kind of existence: lower and higher, imperfect and (relatively) perfect, ugly and beautiful, cholera germs and humming-birds.
  4. Finally, and connected with this third point, the Augustinian type of theodicy is often said to be “aesthetic” in character. By this is not meant that its exponents express themselves rather prettily but that they see all realities and events as englobed within a universal harmony. Even sin and its punishment belongs to this harmony, just as in music a discordant note, when resolved, makes a work more satisfying. Unfortunately, this harmony is only fully audible to God.

Father St. Irenaeus’ Solution
The second and less influential theodicy has been referred to as “Irenaean,” after the Greek Father St. Irenaeus, who was martyred as bishop of Lyons around the year 200. This alternative theodicy sees the world as essentially an environment, a difficult, sometimes agonizingly difficult environment in which the human spirit is refined by fire. The world is a “vale for soul making.” Irenaeus saw moral evil not as an interior catastrophe but as a matter of weakness and immaturity.

Accordingly, Irenaeans regard the natural evil present in this world not so much as a divine punishment for the abuse of free will, but rather as an aspect of a divinely appointed milieu, an ambience of mingled good and evil, which is just what we need for growth toward perfection. In this way, the Irenaean theodicy appears to place the ultimate responsibility for much of the world’s evil on the shoulders of its Creator. But at the same time it seeks to show that it was for a good reason that he created a world where evil is built in.

The ultimate purpose of creation is the production of fully matured persons interacting in charity and so reflecting the life of God himself. At the end of historical time, finite persons will be greater and better because of their conifict with evil than they would be otherwise. The claim that there cannot be an all-powerful and all-good God because the creation as we know it is partly hostile to human happiness is misconceived in that it implicitly defines happiness as “having a grand old time.” This world was not meant to be a paradise, a garden enclosed, but a milieu in which the most valuable potentialities of persons are drawn out by the challenges, often terrible challenges, which that milieu contains. Any otherview of the character of human life, so Irenaeans maintain, would turn us from persons into pampered animals or spoiled brats.

God As Providence Can Draw Good Out Of Evil
The Irenaean theodicy joins hands with its main competitor by echoing the Augustinian idea that God as Providence can draw good out of evil — itself posited philosophically, as we have seen, in Marcel’s argument to God from the phenomenon of hope. Irenaeans argue that it is precisely the sort of world we have that an all-powerful and all-good God would have made, and that While we cannot at present visualize the final state of affairs that will justify the presence of evil in the world’s history, we can see that to expect such a final satisfactory resolution of the story is not irrational.

A Conclusive Theodicy Makes It Hard To Find Room For Redemption
Needless to say, not all of these arguments have met with an equally glowing reception. Before considering the main criticisms that may be launched against them, we should note that were they in themselves an adequate and total vindication of the “justice of God,” it would be exceedingly hard to find room for the theological concept of redemption, a concept which, however, lies at the heart of Christian faith. Thus Christian theodicists, aiming for total victory, swing their sabers and cut off their own heads. With this caveat in mind, let us return to the two types of theodicy, beginning with the Augustinian and its four pillars of wisdom: the privative theory of evil, the free will defense, the principle of plenitude, and the notion of cosmic harmony.

Counter Arguments To St. Augustine And St. Irenaeus
The idea that evil is essentially an absence of what ought to be a presence, that, for instance, blindness is a failure in the proper action of the eye, not an extra reality added to the eye’s reality, certainly succeeds in dispensing us from having to ascribe evil to the Creator. Evil is not something God has made because evil is not something. It is important to notice that this meontic “not being” account of evil is a metaphysical and not an empirical or observational affair [Note: Meontic and Mimetic Modes: Art is involved with "experienced reality. --or with the 'representation of reality'-- the way it is involved is divided into two contrasted relationships. In the first, art imitates what is there in reality; in the second, it imitates what is not there.

 The mimetic mirror reproduces and focuses on experienced reality; the meontic mode attempts to reproduce "what is not there" or what is imagined. The mimetic and meontic modes, though offering contrasting ways of depicting reality, should be viewed in terms of a continuum, rather than absolute opposition, to illuminate things of the spirit rather than material phenomena.]. That is, it does not claim to tell us what evil feels like. A tidal wave, one imagines, feels like very far from nothing, and the same may be said of the personality of Adolf Hitler.

However, we might wish to ask whether a theory of the ontological status of evil can depart too far from the facts of experience and still stay credible. The meontic theory is fine when trying to explain what happens when a carton of cream turns sour, but it is less successful in coping with the individual who says “Evil, be thou my good,” and then seeks what is evil with extraordinary energy and determination. One may wonder whether John Milton is not closer to the truth when in Paradise Lost he appears to portray Satan as a mind whose powers are rendered more formidable by alliance with what is evil.

Original Sin — Utterly Mysterious And Philosophically Certain
Again, Augustine’s account of the abuse of freedom has not convinced all the commentators. It is hard to see why spirits that were perfectly happy and good at the first moment of their existence (such as Augustine supposes all finite spirits to be) should fall victim to temptation. Any causal account one might give of how this could happen would seem to presuppose that they had fallen already; thus, if it were pride which made them fall, then they had already fallen into the sin of pride. It is noteworthy that Kant regarded original sin as both utterly mysterious and philosophically certain. See Fr. Edward Oakes excellent meditation on this here .

The Problem With Plenitude
Next comes the principle of plenitude. It has been pointed out that the Creator has not in fact placed in this world the total imaginable number of different species. No matter how many varieties of humming-bird there are, we can always say that God could have made twice as many, and if this would involve the doubling in size of the Amazon basin, then so be it. But then it is not easy to defend the existence of cholera germs on the grounds that they had to be there since without them one expression of the divine aeativity would be missing.

The Problem With Cosmic Harmony
Finally, there is the notion of cosmic harmony. Even from our limited standpoint in historical time, the theme of cosmic harmony is audible from lime to time. For instance, if we think of the world as a unitary design, a cosmos, the transience of nature does not seem to be an evil after all, whereas if we restrict our attention to the withering of this orchid, or the expiring of that pet rabbit, decay and death in the nonhuman world strike us as sad and regrettable. Taking a wider view, the dissolution of plants and animals into their component parts is a condition for the fashioning of fresh plants and animals. The real difficulty with the cosmic harmony theme is when we come to moral evil. An incautious statement of the aesthetic picture of evil would lead us to say that sin is necessary to the perfection of the universe, since it is beautifully counterposed by divine justice, a point of view which (presumably) few people would be keen on putting forward as a philosophical defense of Christian faith.

The Excessiveness Or Redundancy Of Evil
The Irenaean theodicy, unlike the Augustinian, rests essentially upon a single thought, the conclusion of which is, to remind you, that to predict a final justificatory resolution of evil in terms of matured souls is not counter-rational. But many will say that it is precisely this which is at issue. The extent of evil is far greater than a challenging environment would require. Evil is more than cold showers to encourage manliness, The excessiveness or redundancy of evil discourages us from positing a final state of affairs to justify the myriad succeeding states of affairs the world has so far known.

If There Were A Complete Theodicy Then There Would Be No Need For Salvation
The conclusion which emerges, therefore, is that the argumentation found in the history of theodicy goes some way toward releasing Lactantius from his dilemma, but by no means all the way. Enough has been said to convince one that evil phenomena are not an insuperable obstacles to believing in a God of the kind that philosophy and faith (as found in fundamental theology) require. On the other hand, not everything has been cleared up. But as I have remarked, if in theodicy we could clear up the problem of evil to our complete satisfaction, then there would be no need for salvation as presented in Christian revelation. God comes in his incarnate Son as the world’s Redeemer, and by his Spirit as its Renewer, so as to repair the world’s defects. But there would be no point in redemption if these defects could be shown to be either not defects at all or things built into the very idea of having a world in the first place.

The Inexplicable Elements In Theodicy
We can list some of the inexplicable elements in theodicy, which must be taken over, then, into a pre-understanding of what might be involved in the story of salvation.

  1. First, there is the strange potency of evil, given that evil should be regarded metaphysically as privation.
  2. Second, there is the fall of finite spirits, who came forth from an all-holy divine ground even if, in the case of Homo sapiens, they were culturally and psychologically immature.
  3. Third, there is the apparent escape of nature from the rational control of Providence as evidenced in say, the suffering of the innocent in natural disasters. To these three factors we may add
  4. Fourth, namely, the fact that we have not been able to solve the problem of theodicy. We can call this factor the absence of sufficient meaning, our inability to make anything like complete sense of the world

Features Of Salvation
Here, then, we have some features of the idea of salvation. If the Creator entered our world as the Redeemer, he must, it seems, do four things.

  1. He must conquer and neutralize the potency of evil in its fundamental ground.
  2. He must give finite spirits a new supernatural principle of action to replace that given them by original sin.
  3. He must provide for the harmonization of nature with human happiness.
  4. He must overcome the ambiguity, or absence of sufficient meaning, in human life as we know it. But if there is to be such a redemptive action by God, then there must be some way in which we can apprehend his involvement with the world. Divine revelation must be possible. This is the next aspect of the preamble of faith in the elucidation of which philosophy has a role to play.


We must never forget this date so read this to fulfill your duty to its memory.


Original Sin: A Disputation – by Fr. Edward T. Oakes

August 7, 2009
Original Sin at the Museum of National Arts of Popular Traditions Paris, France

Original Sin at the Museum of National Arts of Popular Traditions Paris, France

“No doctrine inside the precincts of the Christian Church is received with greater reserve and hesitation, even to the point of outright denial, than the doctrine of original sin. Of course in a secular culture like ours, any number of Christian doctrines will be disputed by outsiders, from the existence of God to the resurrection of Jesus. But even in those denominations that pride themselves on their adherence to the orthodox dogmas of the once-universal Church, the doctrine of original sin is met with either embarrassed silence, outright denial, or at a minimum a kind of halfhearted lip service that does not exactly deny the doctrine but has no idea how to place it inside the devout life. Even the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, surprisingly enough, calls original sin a “sin” only in an analogous sense (#404), because unlike other (presumably real?) sins it is only contracted and not committed — a concession that would certainly have surprised Augustine, who had a vivid and almost physical/biological understanding of the First Sin.”

So begins Fr. Edward T. Oakes engaging essay on Original Sin. He continues:

“Clearly, Augustine’s authority notwithstanding, the doctrine is in crisis, a crisis different in kind from the challenge that secular modernity hurls at the totality of the Christian message. Secular culture undeniably plays a part here as well, with its doctrine of evolution or its belief in progress (now a rather tattered and shopworn belief, though one that still lurks in certain editorials and books). But much more severe is the outright discomfort believers feel in the doctrine because of what seems to them its internal inconsistency: how can guilt, an ethical and spiritual category, be inheritable, a category drawn from nature? As with the doctrine of predestination, to which it is often married, there seems to be a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” aura to the theology of original sin: Free will may be free, declares Augustine without apparent embarrassment, only it is not free to do good. “How then do miserable men dare to be proud of free will before, or of their own strength after, they are liberated?” But no sooner does Augustine fear that the concept of original sin might threaten the idea of human responsibility than he quickly turns around and becomes free will’s best advocate, again without a trace of embarrassment: “Let no man dare to deny the freedom of the will as to excuse sin.” In other words, if you do a good deed, that is God’s doing; if you commit a wrong, it is your doing.”

Fr. Oakes mounts a defense of Original Sin based on Thomas Aquinas’ treatments of “disputed questions” that are found in the Summa Theologiae. He begins with an exposition of the position and then moves to a Videtur quod section of the argument where he refutes it. Thomas stated his opponents positions so fairly and convincingly that sometimes he seemed to present a better argument than they did. Only after stating the case would he move to the Sed contra (“on the contrary”) section of the argument

This is confusing for the modern reader, particularly those who have been raised on the duotone for and against cable news version of discussion. In fact the essay provoked numerous responses and some were generated from the lack of familiarity with the disputatio format that Fr. Oakes used.

The core of his argument is here: 

John Henry Newman, for one, always insisted that original sin is the only way believers can make sense of the world when they contrast that world to their faith in God. So powerful is his description of the meaning of this doctrine (it is probably the most famous passage in his Apologia pro vita sua) that it bears quoting in full:

If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflection of its Creator. . . . [To consider] the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turns out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world”—all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution. What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence.

This remarkably modern passage does not, admittedly, present a full-throated defense of the doctrine of original sin, for it still allows a choice between atheism or a subscription to a belief in the Fall to account for the presence of evil in the world. But that is how the doctrine of original sin has in fact functioned in the history of the Church’s thought: it is a secondary implication arising from a prior belief in God’s goodness and omnipotence. Thus the waning of belief in God was bound to make the doctrine of original sin seem irrational. But that hardly makes it less indispensable, as Steven Duffy argued in an important 1988 article in Theological Studies:

In the twentieth century, when human beings have already killed well over one hundred million of their kind, disenchantment [with an optimistic view of human nature] has set in. Two world wars, the Gulags, the Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, the nuclear and ecological threats form a somber litany that makes the optimism of the liberals ring hollow and naïve. Despite technological progress, evil, far from vanishing, has only become more powerful and more fiendish. . . . And artists like Conrad, Camus, Beckett, Golding, and Murdoch contend that because of our hearts of darkness there may be countless nice men and women but few if any genuinely good ones. In all these perspectives evil is held to be inherent, somehow structural, ingrained. And its terrible power defies explanation and solution. Paradoxically, the silver wings of science and technology, on which soared the hopes of the industrialized societies, carry the ultimate menace to the human prospect.

Nor is the doctrine, in its essence, tied to a “literal” interpretation of the narrative of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3, despite what so many people think. In fact, the ubiquitous evil of the world, when honestly considered, is not a reality that an honest person should see first and primarily as an abstract issue of speculative theodicy (“How can there be evil out there when God is good?”); rather it is one that should first arise from within the human heart itself (“Why do I do the evil I abhor?”).

What is more, the consequences of abandoning the doctrine are nothing short of disastrous. Indeed, perhaps the best way of defending the doctrine is to follow the career of modernity and see the consequences of not holding to the doctrine. I am reminded in this context of a shrewd observation by Anatole France to the effect that never have so many been murdered in the name of a doctrine as in the name of the principle that human beings are naturally good. When one glances over the catalogue of evils that have so pockmarked this century, it is extraordinary how many have come from doctrines founded on the notion of the perfectibility of man. As Niebuhr puts it so well:

The utopian illusions and sentimental aberrations of modern liberal culture are really all derived from the basic error of negating the fact of original sin. This error . . . continually betrays modern men to equate the goodness of men with the virtue of their various schemes for social justice and international peace. When these schemes fail of realization or are realized only after tragic conflicts, modern men either turn from utopianism to disillusionment and despair, or they seek to place the onus of their failure upon some particular social group, . . . [which is why] both modern liberalism and modern Marxism are always facing the alternatives of moral futility or moral fanaticism. Liberalism in its pure form [that is, pacifism] usually succumbs to the peril of futility. It will not act against evil until it is able to find a vantage point of guiltlessness from which to operate. This means that it cannot act at all. Sometimes it imagines that this inaction is the guiltlessness for which it has been seeking. A minority of liberals and most of the Marxists solve the problem by assuming that they have found a position of guiltlessness in action. Thereby they are betrayed into the error of fanaticism.

This too, like Cardinal Newman’s defense of the doctrine, is not a positive “proof” in the technical sense but merely points to the consequences of abandoning the doctrine. But such a modest opening gambit at least blocks the way to an outright denial of the doctrine. For it is, after all, mostly because of Augustine’s own formulations of a perfect Paradise spoiled by a nearly unmotivated sin that make Christians feel stranded in their sense of the doctrine, especially in the light of evolution. On its own terms, the doctrine stands as a cipher pointing to what everyone senses in his or her own heart: that sin after Adam always takes the form of acquiescence and not of origination. We are born, that is, into a world where rebellion against God has already taken place, and the drift of it sweeps us along.

Nor, properly understood, is Augustine’s rosy scenario of Paradise (which John Milton used so effectively in Paradise Lost) all that absurd: the Catechism speaks of the “figurative language” of Genesis 3 (#390), and the same must therefore apply, a fortiori, to Augustine’s portrait of Adam and Eve before the Fall. The reason we are drawn, despite the theory of evolution, to Augustine’s and Milton’s portrait of Paradise before the Fall is the memory of that original justice we once had with God but lost through sin, as Pascal explains so well:

The greatness of man is so evident that it is even proved by his wretchedness. For what in animals is called nature we call wretchedness in man; by which we recognize that, his nature now being like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his. For who is unhappy at not being a king except a deposed king? Who is unhappy at having only one mouth? And who is not unhappy at having only one eye? Probably no one ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes; but anyone would be inconsolable at having none.

In other words, when Augustine and Milton paint their version of “paradise lost” with the genius of their theological imagination, they are putting into figurative language this elementary insight of Pascal’s, one that every human being can recognize. The Genesis story of the Fall even retains its validity when we admit into our purview the folkloric motif of the serpent. As Paul Ricoeur notes in his book The Symbolism of Evil, which along with Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man is perhaps the best book on this topic written in the twentieth century, the figure of the serpent symbolizes a seldom-stressed aspect of the doctrine of the Fall: that rebellion against God also pre-existed the human species: “It is noteworthy that the Adamic myth does not succeed,” says Ricoeur, “in concentrating and absorbing the origin of evil in the figure of a primordial man alone; it speaks also of the adversary, the Serpent, later [understood as] the devil.” In a way, the term “original sin,” at least when taken, as it usually is, to refer to what happened to humanity in Adam and Eve, is a misnomer, for it is crucial to the narrative that they were tempted, and indeed by an outside force or reality. Niebuhr also emphasizes this point:

The importance of biblical satanology lies in the two facts that: (1) the devil is not thought of as having been created evil. Rather his evil arises from his effort to transgress the bounds set for his life, an effort which places him in rebellion against God. (2) The devil fell before man fell, which is to say that man’s rebellion against God is not an act of sheer perversity, nor does it follow inevitably from the situation in which he stands.

The term “original” sin still retains its validity, though, even when applied to Adam and Eve, for the narrative definitely holds that, in St. Paul’s terms, sin entered the world through the sin of our first parents and henceforth takes on the specifically human form of “giving in,” of yielding to a force already heavily at work in the world of creation. This is why for the saints an asceticism of agere contra, literally “striving against,” was so crucial. For without a conscious effort to “stem the tide” of sin, acquiescence will sweep us along in its path.


There is no doubt that original sin is a hard doctrine. For if we are infected with an original corruption to the very core of our natures, then there is a great deal of evil that cannot be uprooted—not an easy doctrine to accept in our activist times. Without the aid of God, unearned and unmerited, so this doctrine says, our misery is incurable.

No wonder, too, that Christians are more and more opting for a theology of universal reconciliation, hoping for an empty hell, a theological opinion most vigorously defended recently by the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. And while he is certainly right that there are certain biblical warrants for this hope, I also feel that the attraction that many Christians increasingly feel to that doctrine can be worrisome. In this accommodating climate perhaps the Church would do well to heed the admonition of Kolakowski:

It is hardly surprising that the optimistic philosophy of universal reconciliation should tempt contemporary Christianity so strongly. After the many failures it suffered through its inability to cope with a secular civilization and its mistrust of intellectual and social changes beyond its control, after its spurious success in overcoming the Modernist crisis at the beginning of this century, a Great Fear seems to have pervaded the Christian world—the fear of being trapped in an alien enclave within a basically un-Christian society. This Great Fear of being out-distanced and isolated now impels Christian thinking towards the idea that the most important task of Christianity is not only to be “within the world,” not only to participate in the efforts of secular culture, not only to modify the language of its teachings so that they are intelligible to all men, but to sanctify in advance almost any movement that arises spontaneously from natural human impulses. Universal suspicion seems to have been supplanted by universal approval; the dread of a forced retreat to the Christian culture of the Syllabus of Errors . . . appears to be stronger than that of losing one’s identity.

It is my deep conviction that any mitigation of the doctrine of original sin will prove disastrous for the health of the Church in the future, and for just the reasons that Kolakowski adduces. If the experience of human history from Rousseau to Stalin means anything, it must be that we are stuck, like it or not, with the doctrine—nay, the reality—of original sin. But as St. Paul knew, this need not be a morbid doctrine. For our diagnosis has come with a cure. Even Augustine’s formulation is perfectly understandable to people today, for he, perhaps even more than St. Paul, got to the heart of the issue when he noted that although (by virtue of our nature as human beings) we are free to do what we like, we are not free (by virtue of original sin) to like what we ought to like. And this insight is the beginning of the journey toward that holiness which God has destined for His Church. For as the Rev. N. P. Williams so wonderfully notes, “The ordinary man may feel ashamed of doing wrong: but the saint, endowed with a superior refinement of moral sensibility, and keener powers of introspection, is ashamed of being the kind of man who is liable to do wrong.”


My only argument here, against the whole plausible array of arguments against the doctrine, is that, despite its obvious paradoxicality, it proves to be more illuminating of the human condition than its competitors. As Pascal—who can set forth in two lines what it takes other theologians two books to show—says with his usual precision: “Doubtless there is nothing more shocking to our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered guilty those who, being so removed from its source, seem incapable of participating in it. Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine, and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves.”

You will find the complete article here.


Evil And Joy II: “If You Do Not Have This Love, Do Not Go Near These Wounds”

July 3, 2009

Mother Elvira Petrozzi

We left off in our last discussion of evil by considering Thomas Aquinas’ idea of evil as a privation or a negation of good. One of the great misstatements concerning Thomas’ writings on evil is that, as a privation or a negation of good, that evil, in fact, magically “doesn’t exist.” Recently this reappeared in the spirituality best seller The Shack: “Evil is a word we use to describe the absence of Good, just as we use the word darkness to describe the absence of Light or death to describe the absence of Life. Both evil and darkness can only be understood in relation to Light and Good; they do not have any actual existence.” I can recall a priest telling me of how one Christian had attempted to console another by lecturing him that the loss of his 6 year old son to leukemia wasn’t really an evil because evil “didn’t exist.”

But as you can tell by Aidan Walker’s interpretation of Aquinas I’ve been presenting here, evil is a profound alteration of good. Evil, Thomas is telling us, is not a nothing, but a voracious ontological parasite that feeds off of the real in order to clothe its empty center with a shadowy, counterfeit substance with no originality of its own.

Further, there are three considerations that flow from Thomas’ account of evil as “privation of the good” that are crucial for our understanding of how joy relates to evil and how God’s theodicy, His response to the question of evil is, in fact, a deed: the Paschal Mystery of the incarnate Son. More on that later.

(1) But first, the Thomistic account simultaneously explains why evil is scandalous and assures us that, however clamorous it is, this scandal can never obliterate the good. On the one hand, if evil is a privation of the good, we should expect it to be more obtrusive — to be more shockingly scandalous — than the good. Being normal, in fact, the good has “nothing to prove,” and so imposes its presence with a kind of quiet, solid reliability, whereas evil, a usurper with “everything to prove,” rebounds off the serene normality of the good with a loud, violent explosiveness. The evening news lives off of this obtrusiveness of evil: there is bad news to be told only because bad news can be easily pinpointed, and it can be easily pinpointed only because it stands out against a limitless background of normality. Good news is so woven into the fabric of everyday life that it can seem to be no news at all, and so can be taken for granted. Indeed, we have to presuppose the absolute primacy of the good precisely in order to see evil as evil, as something intrinsically and absolutely bad –  rather than as something merely unpleasant which one could, with time, get used to.

(2) Second, by refusing to give up either the ontological primacy of the good or the factitial (vocab: produced artificially or unintentionally) occurrence of evil, the Thomistic privatio boni doctrine enables us to move from the question of “what evil is” to the question of “why it is”, which arises precisely because the good has an absolute ontological primacy over evil –  and yet “allows” evil to occur alongside it. Or, more precisely, within it as “evil is a negation in a subject,” whose goodness is affected “all over” by this negation, but not entirely removed by it. The Thomistic account of evil helps us see that, if there is a why-question about the existence of evil –  if there is a problem of evil –  it is not because the existence of evil disconfirms the primacy of the good (if it did, the problem of evil would disappear), but rather because it raises a question about the good’s puzzling way of asserting its primacy by withdrawing into the background before the obtrusive display of evil. The privatio boni doctrine helps us see, in a word, that the problem of evil is fundamentally a question about the justice of God’s “permission” of evil in a world that he creates and providentially governs: if God is “in charge” of the world, is it not mysterious that he allows evil to occur in it?

(3) The Thomistic definition of evil as a privation of the good not only enables us to pose the problem of evil, but it also defines the parameters within which we have to answer it. It does this by requiring us to take seriously the ontological depth of evil — evil is wounded being, which affects everything co-posited in existence by that being. While conceiving evil as an ontological wound that touches the act of being, Thomas removes it from the world of nature. Thomas will “historicize” it, place it in the world of ideas and stories by relating it to the intra cosmic Fall of men and of angels. The Fall is simply another event within our history, which is already marked by evil. It is impossible to reconstruct what Paradise was like from the fragmentary hints left after the Fall. And yet, for all of the discontinuity, the Paradise and the Fall are linked together in a single history by God. History has a unity, not of man’s making, but of God’s. This is why we can paradoxically speak of a Providential plan for the world while vigorously rejecting any form of faith in “progress” or, indeed, any presumption that we can read God’s purposes immediately and simplistically from human history.

Thomas distinguishes two levels on which a “defection” from the good may happen: the level of “first act,” in which a thing’s nature is impaired, and the level of “second act,” in which a thing’s “due operation” is removed, either because it fails to occur, or because it does not occur in the right way.

“Evil…is a privation of the good, which consists principally and per se in act. But act is twofold: there is a first act and a second act. Now, the first act is the form and the integrity of a thing, whereas the second act is an operation. Evil can thus happen in two ways. In one way, by the subtraction of a form, or of some part, that is required for the integrity of a thing, in the way that being blind, or lacking a member, is an evil. In a second way, by the subtraction of a due operation, either because it does not happen at all, or because it does not have the due measure and order” (ST I, 48, 5). Contrast the joyful arrival of a child to a new family with “medical waste” flung into a metal disposal bin: the evil operates on both levels: there is the subtraction of a form and the lack of occurrence of a birth.

Both kinds of deficere a bono that Thomas mentions affect an entity’s very being, seen either from the point of view of its beginning — its initial natural patrimony — or from the point of view of its end — its naturally appointed flourishing. Taken together, then, the two kinds of deficere a bono correspond roughly to so-called “physical evil.”. In rational beings, however, the second kind of defection, defective operation, can also take the form of conscious failure to act as one should, in which case it becomes what Thomas calls culpa, or what we would call “moral evil.” Think of our collective culpability in living in a country that has aborted 45 million children since Roe Vs. Wade was enacted into law.  

In addition to committing moral evil, rational beings of course continue to suffer “physical evil,” both at the level of nature and of operation. At the same time, rational beings experience this double “physical evil” as what Aquinas calls poena, “punishment” — precisely for their culpa. In distinguishing poena and culpa, while making the latter follow on the former, Thomas implicitly “historicizes” evil in the sense stipulated previously. Physical evil, poena, is something that need not have been experienced — by rational beings.

In reserving poena (but not all “physical evil”) to rational creatures, Thomas seems to suggest that the “physical evil” afflicting sub-rational creatures, unlike the poena inflicted on rational creatures (insofar as it is poena), is in tune with the natural order, whose overall balance requires a certain mutual destruction: “Many good things would be removed if God did not permit any evils to occur. For fire would not be generated unless air were corrupted, nor would the life of the lion be conserved unless the donkey were killed, or, indeed, would a person who punishes justly or suffers patiently be praised if there were no iniquity” (ST I, 48, 2, ad 3). 

In focusing on the Paschal Mystery as the response to the question of evil, Walker tells us that he does not at all mean to replace the effort to make sense out of evil with a mere “story.” Although God’s response to the question of evil is a deed — the Paschal Mystery of the incarnate Son — this deed itself enacts what Hans Urs von Balthazar called a “dramatic logic” that responds in the only way possible to the request for meaning that comes to expression in the question of evil.

It may seem to be somewhat gratuitous to introduce the notion of drama here. But in reality, the switch to the “dramatic register” is appropriate for our argument. As we saw with Aquinas, the problem of evil — and its divine resolution — revolved around freedom, its fall, and its restoration by God. Evil, as we have seen, is introduced into the world through free, historical action, and it can be overcome only through a free, historical action that matches and exceeds it. As a privatio boni, in fact, evil is not only a contingency that first arises within history, it is one that has no sense in itself.

Consequently, it can be given a meaning, if at all, only after it has contingently occurred — in another contingent act that both compensates for it and, at the same time, exceeds it with a greater good than the one it has frustrated or ruined. It is therefore not sufficient for us to talk about evil as a privation of the due good. It is necessary that the ontological primacy of the good implied in such talk be vindicated through free, historical action. Hence the appropriateness of a dramatic framing of theodicy — for drama is the supreme artistic representation of freedom.

As I read that today I recalled these words I had encountered earlier, written by Mother Elvira Petrozzi, who is foundress of Comunità Cenàcolo, welcoming the lost and desperate through fifty-six religious orders in fourteen countries. This was her testimony of her day-to-day existence of working with those wounded by the evil of drug abuse, she called it How to Love Lepers:  “Priests are at the service of a wounded existence. I am not a priest, but I understand that I have to take care of this wounded existence, and for me the first wounded existence I must heal is my own. Today, if we are not specialists or competent, nobody will listen to us. Our competence to enter into this wounded nature is the mercy that we have received to be healed of our own wounded nature. Which one of us can say that we are not wounded in some way? Who among us still does not have open wounds? This wounded existence is us, every one of us; it is the first school for being able to be close to the wounds of others.

Today we are credible only if we have experience. We can say that we are experts. Personally I assure you that I feel that I can love only because I am continually filled up by God’s Divine Mercy. You know what mercy means? It means to become wounded by sin. This is my experience. The wound of my sin guarantees that the love that I give to my brothers is authentic. You know that I work with those who are addicted to drugs and that I live with them. I do not just live with them in a material and physical sense, but I live in their wounds. I get dirty in their mud, and I suffer their darkness.

The healing of these wounds cannot come from my natural compassion, from my human comprehension, or from the love of a consecrated woman. If it did, my experience is that my faith would decrease, my patience would end, and my interest to continue loving would be selfish. There is only one cure to heal the wounds of the heart, of the conscience, and of life: the love of God. If you do not have this love, do not go near these wounds. Otherwise, you just put the knife back in the wound, deceiving others that you can heal them with your love.”

I recall writing not too long ago about Penn (of Penn & Teller fame) on the occasion of his receiving a Book of Psalms from an Apologist. Was that not the same sort of love that was communicated to Penn, the concern for Penn’s immortal soul that the man demonstrated? Wasn’t that what impressed Penn so much?

“If you do not have this love, do not go near these wounds.”


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