Posts Tagged ‘Cosmic Harmony’


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.


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