Monday, January 7, 2019

JUST DO IT: Rogue Blogger Edition - The Problem of Evil Again

As I may have explained before, possibly around August of last year, I find myself unable to access my previous Wordpress blog, so I'm just going to get over it and start fresh here, on older turf.

- St. Michael and The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Peter Paul Rubens, 1623

Someone dear to me recently expressed grief and confusion about the highway accident in March involving a tractor trailer and a children's school bus, resulting in the death of two special-needs children.

It's the usual question, though not to be slighted for being so common: "Why would God allow this?"

I decided it would be easier to reply in a long-formish way, rather than by texting, and God knows I need all the practice I can get to return to the vita bloggensis.

First, let us note that the agonized question makes an important theological assertion in its own right, namely, that God allowed X to happen, not that He actively willed it to happen. This is a verbal summary of what Our Lord's Passion iconically teaches us: God Emmanuel, God-with-us, quite literally suffers-with-us; none of the woes in this vale of tears derive from His active will; they are complications that arise from the conditions He established in the very act of creating one finite but good world among other finitely good other worlds.

Our woes can not, in this sense, ever outweigh God's own, for at least we can derive errant pleasure from the ways in which we contribute to the fallenness of a primordially fallen world, while God has no recourse but to redeem His own errant creatures by Christ's theandric Passion, or damning those same creatures to Hell if they never abandon their errant ways. It is in this sense that the agonized question itself declares that God very often "leaves us to our own devices", rather than dragging us around like passive puppets for His own amusement. God commits no evil; He does, however, endure it along with us.

Second, on that note, why would God, so to speak, abandon us to our own freedom? Just as it is impossible to prevent oneself from thinking of a tiny pink elephant when one is told not to think of a tiny pink elephant, so, in the same paradoxical way, it is impossible for God to compel His creatures to love Him by forcing them into corners where they have no choice but to love Him. God is literally powerless to force us to freely love Him, just as He is powerless to force Himself to violate His own goodness. The only way He can be is good, and the only way He can be seen as good, is if we freely recognize Him as such.

Pardon the arcane phrasing above, but the point is that, a perfect, accident-free world that would, seemingly, make God's goodness irresistibly compelling to the human will, is just the kind of world God cannot make, since His own goodness has dictated that the world He created must end in freely returned love, or nothing at all. "Christ or nothing," to paraphrase David Bentley Hart's famously stark formulation.

In that sense, God "lets bad things happen" to remind us that our fundamental choice is between "things" and God -- between a world qua world that can only succumb to entropy and corruption, and a Creator who can heal all wounds.

As John Magee explains,

According to Aquinas, no world is so good that God is bound to create it, no[r] so bad that, so long as it has some share of being, he is prevented from creating it. ... God could prevent natural evil, but its occurrence does not imply that God is either not omnipotent or not all-good. The prevention of natural evil is possible for Aquinas precisely because God is omnipotent, but his failure to do so would not entail that God is less than all-good.

And, to recall an earlier point about freely proferred love and idealized painted corners, it is precisely by seeing, in the face of fresh evils, that we can only have a choice -- that we are not free not to be free in choosing -- between hermetic despair and healing transcendence that we glimpse why God might allow this or that particular evil: quite literally, for all we know, it may be this or that evil mishap that inspires us to place our freedom into God's goodness, or to plunge into the suffocating tar pits of despair. And seeing a single sinner place his trust in God on the rubble of some fresh evil, gives the angels in Heaven more joy than seeing ninety-nine self-righteous pundits placing their trust in the solace of entropic silence.

Third, and finally, I recall what I said about "for all we know" to defend a truism as much maligned by atheists as the original question may be maligned by anxious theists. The truism that "The Lord works in mysterious ways" is a truism precisely because it is true.

Every evil that forces us back under the interrogation lamp of our conscience and into earshot of the ceaseless beckoning of God's transcendence, is a reminder that we know too little to despair as much as we do. To take the bus accident as an example, quite literally for all we know (i.e., considering how little we grasp), the accident may have been God's way of delivering those children from this world while they were in a perfect state of grace; may have been the event someone needed to finally defeat their alcoholism; may have been the spur someone needed finally needed to look beyond the endless tumult of entropy that is this world and firmly entrust his soul to the eternal God who suffers with us; may have been the event that led someone to resume pondering and writing about the deep things of God and thereby saving his soul from torpor; may have--

And that's precisely the point: the particular evil that we so luxuriously find ourselves conflicted by, while hundreds of other evils have washed over us as so many drops of rain, may be any number of things, but the one thing we can't definitively say is that it is sure proof of an evil God. As Magee further explains, in an essay previously cited:

"This is[, argues Aquinas,] part of the infinite goodness of God, that he should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good." The ... argument from natural evil [against the existence of God] ... does not vitiate our assurance in the existence of God. Knowing that God exists and is all-good and all powerful, the existence of evil is a mystery, but it does not undermine this knowledge. If God allows evil, then he [qua all-good Creator] must bring good out of it. Yet, God's permission of evil is not necessitated by anything. On the contrary, Aquinas believes that evil did not exist for humans in an Edenic past, and it will be eliminated in a heavenly future.

It is on that note that I wish to close.

The conventional response to evil in this life is that it somehow mitigates against the goodness or sovereignty of God, but I have come to hold a much more Augustinian view of the problem: the fragility of this world is actually one of the most compelling indicators that this world, in its own right, is beneath us, and that we see there is more to The Story precisely when this world-stage fractures and fails. Overcoming the illusion of the self-sufficiency and satisfaction of this terrestrial stage, is one of the major steps we can make towards enjoying the God-sufficiency and satisfaction of the Beatific Vision. To paraphrase something a buddy of mine says, "If this world is so great, why is it so awful?"

For one thing, the fact that we are able to judge the corruption of the same world that has formed us from head to toe, is a sign that our formation transcends the parameters of this "badly failing" world. To channel C. S. Lewis, if all we knew or could expect were confined to and derived from this world, we would have no more qualms about the twists and turns of this world than a fish would have about the variability of the water that shapes and encloses it. The very fact that we register dissent to the fractured limitations of this world, reminds us that we were created to transcend the confines of this crumbling greenhouse ghetto.

As St. Paul teaches in I Corinthians 6,2-3:

Know you not that the saints shall judge this world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Know you not that we shall judge angels? how much more things of this world?

While people generally react to evil mishaps as if they alienate us from the all-good God, I have come to see that they really remind us just how thin the ice is between our world and the promise of eternal life -- in other words, how dramatically they remind us that we are "that close," at any moment, between our mundane lives and the demands of eternity. In this sense, evil incursions on our illusory security are blessings in their own right, since they remind us that we too are at any moment a hair's breadth away "from meeting God for good" (in both senses, or in neither).

Imagine a man confined to a chamber that was never disturbed by the goings-on of the house above him: it is the perfect picture of neglect and degradation. By contrast, imagine a man who happens to find himself in a chamber the walls and ceiling and silence of which are constantly being penetrated by light from the life above it: it is the perfect picture of a man who know there is far more to his enclosed life and who in a paradoxical sense relishes every 'evil' disruption and fracture that exposes the finite sterility of his private world. By learning to savor, as it were (or at least 'appreciate'), every evil intrusion on our path to God, we gain a dim glimpse of how Christ could count every shiver of pain and loss as divinely ordained goods that He drank with free will as a sign of transcendent love.

1 comment:

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

This is a smashing post. Just terrific and stark as hell even though is it so well reasoned and explained

That pain is the coin of purchase in the economy of Divine Love is too puissant a truth for most men to surrender to and so only a few ever grasp the insight of a Flannery o'Connor who intuitively understood that The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence and the violent bear it away because mankind, especially men, has come to accept that Oprah and/or The New Theology is the Way, The Truth, and The Life.

GREAT to see you back blogging brother. You are a treasure my man....