Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Does Suffering Have Meaning?

A few days ago, David Hart, an Orthodox theologian and a wonderful writer, published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Tremors of Doubt," in which he gives a semblance of an answer to the question: what kind of God would allow a deadly tsunami? I found the link at Touchstone's Mere Comments blog, and, subsequently emailed their editor to voice a couple of reservations, which they forwarded right smartly to Mr. Hart, and who was kind enough to respond. You can find my letter and Hart's response here. After reading that response, my last email to Touchstone was as follows:

Thanks for the notice, and to Mr. Hart for replying. It seems I did read him 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 the evil. The balancing of accounts I referred to is a spiritual one, of course, and I am not quite ready to abandon it.
I understand Mr. Hart is busy, so I don't expect him to linger over this for my benefit. But I do hope some of your other readers (and maybe some of you Touchstone editors) will throw in their two cents.

And I would ask this as well of my own readers. You will need to read Hart's original article (it's not long) and, of course, the Mere Comments blog entry. I'd like to know if anyone sees what I see. Or am I in error, and my understanding of Catholic teaching deficient? I can hardly bear the thought that, in Hart's words, "there is no spiritual fruit to be reaped from the drowning of tens of thousands of infants, for them or for us." And if anyone knows more about the apparent disparity between an Orthodox and a Catholic understanding of Original Sin, particularly the matter of "universal aboriginal guilt," I'd like to hear it, not having known that it existed. If my understanding of the Catholic position is in error, Mr. Hart does not call me on it, but merely acknowledges the divergence.

Many thanks to any who can help. Also, I'd recommend keeping an eye on the Touchstone blog for the next day or two. Rumor has it that an exchange between Mr. Hart and at least one other Touchstone contributing editor will be forthcoming.

Update: a second response from Esolen.

Related post: Go to Does Suffering...a continuation

Comments: Does Suffering Have Meaning?

Bill, I have to think about this more--I had read the WSJ piece, and had not seen your reply or his. I am not worthy to dip my toes into this intellectual argument, but I'd make one comment.
What he seems to be denying is first that the deaths of those babies was somehow necessary to "balance the books." Perhaps that is a gross simplification of his words, but I took it to be his basic point. That's why he says he would "advocate apostasy" if we believed in a God that would need to cause the suffering and death of thousands just to make everything "even out" over time. I think that's where his "Stoic parody" thing comes in. If we conceive that we must just accept that these little victims are somehow necessary to the working out of God's plans for our salvation and redemption. Wouldn't the Stoic then simply have to say, "Well, God knows best, I must buck up, dry my eyes, and understand that this HAD to happen for things to work out well in the end"?
Then he goes on to say that death and suffering, in and of itself, is meaningless--it is part of the fallen world we live in now. It is part of the wrongness of the world we live in, not necessary to the plans that God had for us.
(I know I'm gonna run out of comment box room, so I'll continue in the next comment! Long-winded? You bet!)
Posted by MamaT email at January 4, 2005 08:54 AM

I would also tend to agree with that part of his argument. Everything that was NECESSARY for us was present in the Garden before the fall wasn't it? And death wasn't a part of that.
However, I think your words come in at a different point in the argument--AFTER the terrible thing has happened, what good can God bring out of it. And there I agree with YOU--he will unite the sufferings of those babies with the sufferings of Christ--because he is a gracious and loving God (and I believe that in the face of the disasters and all)--and graces will flow from the sufferings and deaths of those babies--because of God's providential care and love for his people. It is God who gives meaning to our suffering and death, without Him and grace it would be meaningless pain. (Hence it doesn't have "ontological meaning in itself" in Dr. Hart's words.) God WILL bring good out of this horrible evil.
Just my first thoughts. I'm going to go read it again, and probably change my mind......
Posted by MamaT email at January 4, 2005 09:04 AM

I think what Dr. Hart is trying to emphasize is that the suffering of innocent children has no merit in and of itself either ontologically or otherwise metaphysically. It is an evil, and thus a privation of the good, an emptiness of any real being, and thus of any real telos. That God takes such suffering and brings real good out of it does not negate the reality of the evil and meaninglessness of that suffering, only that God is more powerful than such and thus overcomes it. Such suffering, being evil, should be seen as adversarial and inimical, but should not be seen as somehow a defeasor of God's love and mercy.
This, it seems to me, is what Dr. Hart is trying to say.
Posted by Clifton D. Healy email at January 4, 2005 11:53 AM

I am no theologian either, but I will throw in my $0.02, with the caveat that evil is a mystery. As with many other things (time, consciousness, love, mathematics, wave-particle duality, the success of Microsoft products, etc) we will not be able to grasp and possess it fully in our intellects. But this limitation does not mean that we can know nothing about it at all.
There are two very common conceptions of the problem of evil (not that there aren't more, but these are the most common). For shorthand we can call them the Liebniz position and the Voltaire position, though no doubt this sells short the subtleties of both men.
The Liebniz position is that God makes good come from evil; and that because of this, the world we are in is (nonintuitively, but truly) the best of all possible worlds. A world without evil in it would not be as good as the actual world, which happens to have evil in it.
The Voltaire position takes evil seriously as evil: as utterly abhorrent and of no merit, no value. Thus it rejects Liebniz as essentially denying the existence of evil. Liebniz's evil is no evil at all, it is good in disguise; but what person with any humanity can take that seriously when confronted with the reality of thousands of terrorized and drowned children?
The problem with the Voltaire position is that God comes out pretty badly in the analysis: surely He can prevent evil, yet He does not.
There are two basic problems with what I view to be a false dichotomy here, and both have to do with errors in perspective.
The first is that God is viewed as a ruthless logical good-maximization function, rather than as a Person; a true Person with Personal loves, Personal interests, Personal likes and dislikes, Personal tastes, everything that goes along with Personhood. I love my kids, I am not a logical good-maximization function applied ruthlessly to my kids, and I presume that the God-as-Father analogue has some merit because of Who articulated it.
That in itself is somewhat unsatisfying, but we also need to take into consideration the other perspective problem. Voltaire's perspective purports to be fundamentally that of God Himself: the existence of any evil is intolerable, full stop. And, this is important, he is right: evil is intolerable, and we can see that manifestly ourselves. However, Liebniz is also right if we shift perspective. I am the contingent product of a history that in fact has evil in it. I am not logically possible without all of the things that come before me upon which my existence is dependent. Take the Holocaust out of history and I don't exist: it would be sufficient to change my parents' activities prior to my conception by a microsecond to eliminate me personally from the cosmos.
So evil is real; it is utterly abhorrent, utterly without merit. And yet my own personal existence depends upon it. I tremble at the feet of a God Who would allow such a state of affairs for my sake. It is to my profound good fortune (and exquisite terror) that I have a Father, not a ruthless good-maximization machine.
Posted by Matt email at January 4, 2005 01:40 PM

You wrote:
So evil is real; it is utterly abhorrent, utterly without merit. And yet my own personal existence depends upon it.
If I understand what you're saying correctly, and please note if I've misunderstood, what you posit is something of a Manichean dualism. This may come in part from your starting from two different philosophers--whose views you show to have weaknesses--who themselves do not begin from Christian faith. Your attempt to find a middle or nuanced way between them, then, is bound, in my own view, to steer you wrong.
As noted, the classical Christian view is that evil is profoundly unreal, a privation or absence of being. Which is not to say that evil does not or cannot have very real consequences in the world of being, but only to say that such consequences in that they mark our beings do not derive from anything truly real. Thus, if one could somehow eliminate all evil, our own personal existence would not be eliminated. Indeed, we would be more truly those selves God has meant us to be. Evil left to remain part of us, makes of us counterfeits, unreal illusions, parodies of our true intended beings. Evil must be filled up with real being, goodness, holiness, lest we succumb to the vacuum of unreality.
Thus it is that one of my female relatives, a victim of rape, would not be any less who she is were that rape to have never happened. Indeed, there were some long months and years in which it was very nearly the case that she would succumb to a shadow version of herself: fearful, resentful, bitter, angry, twisted and misformed. But through the energetic graces of God, such a falsehood has been kept at bay, and she has been able to continue on the path of theosis.
While the rape will continue to be part of her historical story, it does not need to continue to be part of her personal identity and being.
Posted by Clifton D. Healy email at January 4, 2005 04:20 PM

These are all great comments, and I don't know that I can respond to them adequately short of another post, which will interfere with others already planned. But I don't care. I think it's important enough.
Mama T - You done pretty good for someone "not qualified." Your emphasis on "necessary" is not a word that appears in Hart's original article, so you do him a favor by bringing it up. I'd ask: Does God permit that which is not necessary? Once sin entered the world, these evils have the appearance of being necessary to our salvation. If not, a God who permits them is one against which I would commit apostasy. But I would like to keep the focus (and I would say this to Clifton and Matt as well) on Hart's assertion that "there is no spiritual fruit to be reaped" from the deaths of these innocents, and to our apparent discrepancies on the matter of universal guilt, for this latter is a question of doctrinal allegiance in which all other arguments find their origin.
Posted by William Luse email at January 4, 2005 05:09 PM

"If I understand what you're saying correctly, and please note if I've misunderstood,..."
Well, by "real" I don't mean that evil ontologically participates in Being-qua-Being. I was using as much shorthand as I could, although the length of my post may undermine that claim.
By "real" I mean (pace Voltaire) that evil is true evil, it is not a mere illusion (pace Liebniz): a true lack, not the illusion of a lack, if you prefer that terminology.
If I take the sequence 1+3+5+1 = 10, 10 is the sum of the other terms. If I take away a term and have only 1+3+1, I no longer have a perfect 10 as the result, just an imperfect 5. As a rational matter that is what we human being are: we are (personally) the result of a process in which the evil is real, not illusory. Fill in the gaps with the lacking terms and the result is no longer us, it is something else. We are all mere 5's, not perfect 10's, and to complain about the lack is to complain about our own personal existence.
One might even argue that the ontological change brought about through the sacraments is precisely a filling in of the missing terms, by the way. But we all start out as incomplete little sums, and if we didn't then we wouldn't be us.
"Thus, if one could somehow eliminate all evil, our own personal existence would not be eliminated."
I don't think that sentence means anything intelligible. That is to say, I assert positively that it is a meaningless equivocation on personal existence. That is OK, because as we try to comprehend more and more of what we can know about God (or more mundane transcendent objects e.g. self, consciousness, love, truth, mathematics) our reason inevitably falls short and degenerates into equivocation. That is precisely what I think is occurring with the "problem of evil": in the end, it is a nonsense statement.
Posted by Matt email at January 4, 2005 10:57 PM

"But I would like to keep the focus (and I would say this to Clifton and Matt as well) on Hart's assertion that "there is no spiritual fruit to be reaped" from the deaths of these innocents, ..."
As a result of those events, some children will be born who would not otherwise have been born. It will be up to Hart at that point to look those children in the eye and assert that their existence is not a "spiritual fruit to be reaped."
Indeed if fornication is categorically evil and yet the children born of fornication are unmitigated goods (two propositions we all ought to be able to agree on without controversy, I would think) then Hart's statement generalized to evil in general cannot be true, or at least its most apparent meaning cannot be true.
Posted by Matt email at January 4, 2005 11:02 PM
I appreciate your last comment, because I agree with it. As to the nature of evil, I think both you and Clifton are right, each applying a different emphasis. Here's the Cath. Encyc. on St. Thomas:
Evil, according to St. Thomas, is a privation, or the absence of some good which belongs properly to the nature of the creature. There is therefore no "summum malum", or positive source of evil, corresponding to the "summum bonum", which is God; evil being not "ens reale" but only "ens rationis"--i.e. it exists not as an objective fact, but as a subjective conception; things are evil not in themselves, but by reason of their relation to other things, or persons. All realities (entia) are in themselves good; they produce bad results only incidentally; and consequently the ultimate cause of evil if fundamentally good, as well as the objects in which evil is found.
Its existence subserves the perfection of the whole; the universe would be less perfect if it contained no evil...God is said to be the author of evil in the sense that the corruption of material objects in nature is ordained by Him, as a means for carrying out the design of the universe; and on the other hand, the evil which exists as a consequence of the breach of Divine laws is in the same sense due to Divine appointment; the universe would be less perfect if its laws could be broken with impunity. Thus evil, in one aspect, i.e. as counter-balancing the deordination of sin, has the nature of good.
However, when Hart moves from the ontological "unreality" of evil to the assertion that God will not, in the end, balance it all out according to His justice (that's what I think he's saying), and that "no spritual fruit" is to be gained, etc. I believe he commits grave error.
Posted by William Luse email at January 4, 2005 11:34 PM

Your numerical sum analogy to describe the imperfection of human existence is purely nonsensical, even if metaphorical. Human beings, and the being we have as imago dei, are not sums of any sort, anymore than the Holy Trinity is a sum of three.
You are correct, in a sense, to note that human existence is, per se, incomplete. Only God's existence--which concept itself can only be approached apophatically lest we careen off into heresy--could in any way be described as complete. But note, this "lack" if you will, in human existence obtains prior to the Fall and evil. The Fathers have taught that even prior to the Fall, the operative telos of human existence was theosis. The prelapsarian human race, though untainted by evil, was still imperfect.
So this talk of sums and lacking terms does not advance this discussion of evil and human existence in any way. It simply allows the conversation to veer off into unhelpful tangents.
Regarding my "unintelligible" comment real personal existence and what the potential elimination of evil would or would not do to it: You had stated unequivocally that your personal existence depended upon evil (or perhaps the consequences thereof). I take strong exception to that as previous noted.
If, as the conversation has progressed, and as I now take you to mean, you were intending something like the purported necessary/inescapable concupicence in human conception without which (and God's specific creation) you would not exist, I think you make a categorical error here; i. e., the confusion of causation. But then perhaps I've misread you again, in which case I need to be set straight.
My main point has been, correlative to Dr. Hart's thesis, is that our own personal existence cannot be predicated in anyway upon evil.
Posted by Clifton D. Healy email at January 5, 2005 12:19 AM

"If, as the conversation has progressed, and as I now take you to mean, you were intending something like the purported necessary/inescapable concupicence in human conception without which (and God's specific creation) you would not exist, ..."
It is nothing so general or abstract. If the Holocaust had not occurred, my parents would probably never have met. And even if they had, you would be talking to someone named Alice.
"My main point has been, correlative to Dr. Hart's thesis, is that our own personal existence cannot be predicated in anyway upon evil."
And again, I think that is simply nonsense, at least if I take it seriously as a positive assertion of something actual and concrete about me personally.
Posted by Matt email at January 5, 2005 01:36 AM

Well, Mr. Hart ends up growing a bit exasperated both with Bill and with Anthony Esolen (when the latter contributes some eloquent and powerful remarks to the discussion).
I note that the word "necessary" does appear in Hart's second response
I liked Mr. Esolen's essay, but this comment jarred me: "We can, as Paul struggles to say, make up by our suffering what is lacking in the sacrifice of Christ." And it still jars me, even after Mr. Healy's thoughtful response.
Posted by Paul Cella email at January 5, 2005 05:32 AM

Here's a quote from the EWTN forum: "The Orthodox understanding of original sin, which equates it first and foremost with mortality, is based largely on how several key Eastern Fathers read the scriptures. St. Maximos the Confessor, for instance, is very clear on this point. He believes that Adam's fall initiated a process of disintegration and death, in which all of creation is spiralling away from God. Christ's death and resurrection reversed this process. Likewise, Maximos doesn't believe that physical death is an entirely bad thing. By causing us to die physically, God placed a limit on our sinfulness so our evil wouldn't be immortal. You may want to read the article on this subject which I wrote for Eastern Churches Journal: "Byzantine Perspective on The Fall," in Vol. 8 No. 3. --Anthony Dragani
I blogged more here.
Posted by TSO email at January 5, 2005 03:28 PM

So, Matt, perhaps I'm continuously bouncing off your comments on tangent.
Explain to me, again, then, how it is that you view your existence as in anyway founded or predicated upon or bound up with evil, or how it would make sense to speak of your existence as inextricably bound up with evil.
What sense do you intend when you say: "So evil is real; it is utterly abhorrent, utterly without merit. And yet my own personal existence depends upon it."? And how does my denial of this constitute, in your view, "nonsense"?
Posted by Clifton D. Healy email at January 5, 2005 05:37 PM

Why does it jar you?
Also, thanks for the link to Mr. Clifton's place. His remarks would indeed benefit anyone who has difficulty with that question.
Posted by William Luse email at January 5, 2005 08:11 PM

TS, Thanks for the link to that old post. It indeed helps me see that Hart and I are most likely coming at this from different directions. And I think the difference is substantial. Needless to say, I find the Eastern tradition insufficient. But Lane Core also sent me an email in which he quotes an Eastern patriarch who seems to see it pretty much as the West. I may include it in a later post and you can see what you make of it.
Posted by William Luse email at January 5, 2005 08:21 PM

It jars me because I question whether anything was lacking in Christ's sacrifice. Was it not the perfect sacrifice of Him who is perfect Man and perfect God? That something might be lacking in Christ's sacrifice seems to suggest that there was something lacking in the Incarnation. But I am probably out of my depth here.
Posted by Paul Cella email at January 5, 2005 10:47 PM

We're all out of our depth here. It is ancient Catholic teaching. I can either refer you to a place where you can read about it, or try to explain it myself. Whichever you prefer. Or maybe a reader will try to help you out.
The reason I asked why it jarred you is that St. Paul said it. A very long time ago. It's not as though the passage is obscure or has been hiding somewhere.
And just to reassure you: nothing was lacking in Christ's sacrifice.
Posted by William Luse email at January 5, 2005 10:53 PM

I see that Esolen and Hart have had another exchange at Mere Comments. I'm glad it is more charitable from Hart's side. And I think I'm more persuaded by Hart on point 4:
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.
Since when did St. Paul's words cease to be jarring?
Posted by Paul Cella email at January 5, 2005 11:51 PM

That first sentence of Hart's: 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. Whoever said that? Not me. Such scars won't make the glory of union greater, but they might make it possible.
Posted by William Luse email at January 6, 2005 03:53 AM

"Explain to me, again, then, how it is that you view your existence as in anyway founded or predicated upon or bound up with evil..."
1) The Holocaust was evil.
2) My parents would not have met, but for the Holocaust. (This is a "lesser sum" in my math analogy that you apparently did not find helpful).
3) Had my parents not met, I would not exist.
Taking 2 and 3 together, if not for the Holocaust I would not exist.
Taking that synthesis and 1 together, if not for evil I would not exist.
It seems a bit excessive to have to spell it out that way. But it seems to me that any ordinary human being who makes the claim "my personal existence does not depend on evil" is equivocating on at least one of "my", "existence" or "evil".
And of course the Holocaust is just a particularly dramatic example. If Mom had not been recovering from a cold on a particular day in 1964, or had sneezed at a particular moment, I wouldn't be here either. The odds of any one of us existing at all go from astronomically low to certain in a particular moment we call "conception". That a conception occurred is perhaps extraordinary in its own way, I suppose, but that my conception occurred is a product of a very exact set of circumstances. Change the outcome of an obscure battle in ancient China or make it rain instead of shine on the crops in Nebraska in 1804 and there would no doubt be someone here, but that someone wouldn't be me.
This world was literally made just for me, down to every blade of grass and bacterium.
Posted by Matt email at January 6, 2005 11:34 AM

I wrote:This world was literally made just for me, down to every blade of grass and bacterium.
And importantly, this includes whatever is lacking in the world. Change any of the contingent events that lead up to my conception in the slightest - including all the evil events, all the lacks, all the sufferings - and I would not exist at all. God empowering my parents to bring me into existence logically depends on God being permissive with respect to evil, for my sake.
I don't know why people have such a hard time really internalizing this. Perhaps because it is so terrible to contemplate: it is easier to complain about God allowing evil than it is to face that evil is bound up ontologically, not with existence-qua-existence, but just with our own personal existence: that God's permissiveness with respect to evil is quite clearly a mercy for my own personal sake.
Posted by Matt email at January 6, 2005 11:46 AM

Great discussion.
Matt: Your point is certainly valid as far as it goes. I think the problem that some have with the evil contingency question is that God could easily have accomplished His objectives apart from it. Hence, there is no real "contingency". That He chooses to permit evil and to bring forth good from it is a puzzle that puts us right back to square one.
Posted by Jeff Culbreath email at January 6, 2005 02:00 PM

Mr. Culbreath wrote:"I think the problem that some have with the evil contingency question is that God could easily have accomplished His objectives apart from it."
Well, I take that statement to be similar to saying "God can make a rock that is so heavy He can't lift it, if that is His objective."
This is the statement made concrete with respect to me personally:"God could have made me without allowing evil, if He had chosen to do so."
It isn't that the statement is wrong, it is that the statement is incoherent. It is like saying "God could have made squares round if He had chosen to do so."
Posted by Matt email at January 6, 2005 02:15 PM

Well, it's not quite like that. First, a square is a square by definition and cannot be a circle. God, however, can choose to permit evil or not to permit evil. Second - and this seems a bit too pedantic - God is holy.
It sounds like you are saying that God's actions (creating you) are contingent upon evil, and that God Himself is contingent upon His actions (He could not do otherwise). Therefore, God Himself is contingent upon evil.
Posted by Jeff Culbreath email at January 6, 2005 02:34 PM

"First, a square is a square by definition and cannot be a circle."
Indeed, and I am me by definition. But the creation of me is not solely God's act. My parents and other ancestors are participants in the creation of me. Someone might claim that God could have created me without them, but again I think that equivocates on the word me: back to the round square again. The sort of me who has no parents and no history isn't me.
That does take us back to traditional theology: that the gift of free will - of man's participation in creation - is what unleashed evil. Other than Adam and Eve though we are all products of the free will of agents other than God, in addition to being products of God's will.
Posted by Matt email at January 6, 2005 02:48 PM

I am way over my head here, but I wonder if there is anything to be learned here from the Holy Innocents (whose feast day we just celebrated not that long ago). Some of the commmentary of the early church writers on the slaughter of the innocents is downright chilling if read through the eyes of the secular world.
Posted by alicia email at January 6, 2005 03:47 PM

Hi Folks, Bill,
Excellent discussion.
The reason why I -- and I can't speak for Bill -- want to believe that God's grace will have deepened fallen man's (infinite, but there are ranks and hierarchies of the infinite too) capacity for blessedness, is that it seems in keeping with the whole tenor of Scripture: God's "response" (I am speaking in human time, I know) is never simply restorative but re-creative and transcending. "Where sin abounds," says Saint Paul, "grace abounds all the more." The grace is not caused by sin; it is entirely unmerited, entirely the free election of God. But God has so chosen grace to abound all the more where sin abounds.
As for our sufferings making up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ -- Paul's words, not mine: nothing is lacking in the suffering of Christ. Paul is struggling to say that our suffering, by God's gracious will, has been made a part of Christ's suffering. I think of the fact that He has graciously allowed us to be "sub-creators," not that we create anything good without Him, but that one of the ways He creates is through our procreating. Nor did Jesus, in His divinity, need Simon of Cyrene to help Him carry the cross. There was nothing "lacking" in Jesus: it was the generosity of God that allowed Simon to bear that burden.
Bill, it's not every day you get called a heretic for asserting that God's grace endows the whole universe with meaning, is it?
Posted by Tony email at January 6, 2005 11:16 PM

My response to Hart's 'meaninglessness of evil' stance is a simple question:
Did the wounds of Christ have meaning? Wounds caused by the worst of evil?
In the Incarnation Christ took on human nature -- and all that this means of human pain, evil and suffering -- and forever sanctified it.
Hart's position is understandable, but it is also untenable.
The Church Fathers are right on this one [aren't they usually? :-)]
Posted by Loy Mershimer email at January 7, 2005 04:50 AM

Thanks for stopping by Mr. Esolen. I couldn't tell if that charge was directed at you or me, but no, it's not everyday I get called such a thing. In fact, I don't think I've ever been called such a thing, unless it was by another heretic. I believe it occurred because he objects to my contention that suffering has meaning. Of course, it possesses meaning only insofar as it might be the occasion of grace. I thought I'd made that clear, but maybe not. Further, Christ bore it in His flesh as the means to our salvation, when He need not have done so. For Hart to say that the suffering of those innocents was meaningless, yet that good could be drawn from it, is a line of thought I simply can't follow. A couple of my correspondents thought it verged on the nihilistic.
As to your speculation "that God's grace will have deepened fallen man's capacity for blessedness", I can't really speak to it because I haven't thought about it. It seems almost a subject for mystics. Do you mean deepened it above and beyond what would have been the case had we not fallen? Or do you mean that the presence of sin and suffering has made that capacity more keenly felt? I don't know. It's a real brain-banger, and by now my head's beginning to hurt. Whether true or not, I'm sure it's your generosity of heart and love of mercy that so inclines you, and it's certainly no heresy.
Posted by William Luse email at January 7, 2005 04:53 AM

Thanks for the comment, Loy. If you could provide any links to the Fathers' thoughts on this matter, it would be greatly appreciated.
Posted by William Luse email at January 7, 2005 04:57 AM

Hello Bill,
They're going to post my final exchange with Hart on the matter. My head hurts too. I do believe that it is possible that redeemed man is a greater creature than was unfallen man ... You've been called a heretic, and I've basically been called an idiot. But my two big problems with David's position are these: if God does not bring forth a greater good out of the evil we have done, then it would seem that evil has triumphed; God has suffered a net loss compared to what-would-have-been. Now I'm not sure that that is true -- maybe God could have simply let the fallen world go to utter ruin.
The second problem is that Jesus implies that greater and lesser will make sense in the Kingdom of Heaven. And this will depend upon love, which depends upon the grace of redemption: those who have been redeemed from sin will love the more.
But you'd think that he could at least have made some concession: I mean, he was engaging in overheated rhetoric when he called those deaths meaningless. When Jesus says, "As you do to the least of my brethren etc.," he really is identifying their suffering with his own; and his own cannot be meaningless. We don't have to unite our suffering with Christ's, because he has done that already.
But my pride has been hurt, I have to admit. Not every day do I get called a simpleton.
By the way, please call me Tony --
Posted by Tony email at January 7, 2005 09:12 AM

"...if God does not bring forth a greater good out of the evil we have done, then it would seem that evil has triumphed;"
If we are a bit careful about distinguishing "greater good for God" from "greater good for me" then it seems pretty clear that God has brought about greater good for me - starting with my own existence - from suffering. I don't think the phrase "greater good for God" means much of anything, but it is fairly straightforward to talk about "greater good for me." So again, God's permissiveness with respect to evil is a manifestation of His mercy and love for me (and the rest of y'all, and every child actually conceived who will ultimately enjoy eternal life too, of course).
That is part of the point: it is better to have been conceived, died horribly in a tsunami, and spend eternal life in the Beatific Vision than it is to never have been conceived at all. Bill is right: I think that this "God doesn't make a greater good (for us) from suffering" proposition is essentially nihilistic.
Part of the trouble with the problem of evil is that it tries to start from God's point of view, not our own point of view. But building a tower to Heaven in an attempt to be exactly like God will always result in a confusion of our language: in an inability to say anything meaningful at all. Speaking as ourselves, for ourselves is another matter entirely, and it could not be more clear: God has brought about greater good (for us) from suffering.
Posted by Matt email at January 7, 2005 09:54 AM

Thank you, Matt, that is what I should have said. God didn't need to create the universe at all; God didn't need to redeem it, he cannot need anything, nor can anything detract from Him, because He is God.
Posted by Tony email at January 7, 2005 10:05 AM

Bingo. A corollary is that evil doesn't have anything whatsoever to do with God. Literally. The fact of evil (I won't say existence of evil because that will freak out the evil-as-absence crowd) is an insult to God, at least, again, from our perspective. But it is an insult that He tolerates, and indeed has directly endured Himself personally by becoming one of us -- for our sake.
Posted by Matt email at January 7, 2005 01:35 PM

Looking over your further comments, it seems to me that you confuse accidental reality with essential reality (if I could put it that way).
While it is true that your parents met in the circumstances they did, that you were conceived by them at a specific time and place, and that your existence has been marked by other and various events (to pretty much all of which I'm not privy), and further that all of this uniquely marks you as who you are, that is not the same thing as saying that God is constrained by these events to make you what you are or that who and what you are could only have been because of these events. I take it as a given that God's freedom and omniscience in this matter could have taken any number of paths to bring you to your present point, using precisely the contingent events (the sums, if you will, of untold numbers of freely willed decisions and actions) which you claim necessarily make you who you are, including untold numbers of evil and sinful acts.
You will argue, I assume, that all this is nonsense, as there is no other set of events about which we can meaningfully speak than the events which have happened. But if I can proleptically object to this potential criticism: To assert this sort of view (as I'm perhaps vainly predicting of you) is to make some assumptions about human freedom, history, and the gracious activity of God that lie at the root of this whole discussion.
Posted by Clifton D. Healy email at January 7, 2005 04:01 PM

i don't understand mr hart.
which is it? the "imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls" OR a "creation (that) was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it" [rom 8:20] ?
the first, "imbecile forces of chance", implies a non-sovereign or non-omniscient God or a sovereign God that makes imbecile, random decisions.the second, "a creation in agony because of its bonds", implies a sovereign God to subject it.
how could these two views wind up in the same sentence?the only explanation i see right now is that these two statements together indeed imply a 'sovereign God that makes imbecile, random decisions'. ...that is, of course, if mr hart was correct in implying that the tsunami an "imbecile force of chance", which i hope all reading this are now seriously re-examining.
Posted by lance d email at January 7, 2005 04:20 PM

Hey Lance.. funny seeing you here! i was just about to write a comment here too.
I can understand the frustration of you, Loy, Tony, and others have with the idea that "suffering has no ultimate meaning".. it's certainly a loaded phrase.
Regarding that romans passage.. it seems to me that "creation subjected to frustration" does not necessarily mean it is God doing the frustrating.. merely that He allows it.. whether for free will or other reasons.
I agree with everyone here that grace, mercy, and the CROSS are all important things that become evident in the aftermath of suffering.. and that they give meaning to all that happened.
I think the reason I'm still okay with mr. hart's words is that I read his words as a matter of intention.. God doesn't cause evil so that He can do a greater good afterwards(that's the calculus of good and evil).. instead He will allow evil to happen, but triumph over it by His greater holiness. That's my interpretation of Mr. Hart, and I think it's a very important distinction.
Posted by roger email at January 7, 2005 04:43 PM

The interpretation of that Romans passage I've always liked is that of "already and not yet".. that victory over sin, the fulfillment of creation was accomplished on the cross.. but not completed. Sin still exists in the world until Jesus returns. And the existence of sin and evil still here, is why there are such things as sickness and death. Not God or God's will. When creation is perfect.. when heaven meets earth.. all of those things won't exist.
That's why I have no problem saying that all the sickness and suffering we have right now is meaningless.. because there's a greater plan for us in the future!
Posted by roger email at January 7, 2005 05:01 PM

it's like were reading completely different romans....creation was subjected to frustration by the will of the >>>One
in genesis 3, God clearly increases a woman's pain in childbirth and curses the ground (creation) and tells us that we will have to undergo >painful toil
people try to 'get God off the hook' by saying that He does not cause evil, He only allows evil. but i say that we humans do not know what evil even is. we see something and call it 'evil' without a second thought, when God may not call it evil at all. essentially, it bothers me because it is so brash and presumptuous to think 1) God is not causing these things and 2) we know what is good/evil better than God does....you know, God was actually upset with the israelites because they didn't completely genocide entire races! or when was the last time we considered the great flood and wondered 'how could God have done such a thing? isn't He loving and good?' was it evil for God to command genocide? was it evil of God to flood the world? it's preposterous, presumptuous, folly and wholly awful to try to judge God...we simply do not know as we ought to know, we simply do not understand. we call good 'evil' and evil 'good'.
but, in Heaven, there will be no more tears, no more pain...that much is true. all of the Christians who died there "have departed and are with Christ which is better by far". [phil 1:23]
Posted by lance d email at January 7, 2005 06:16 PM

in other words,God only does good, but we mislabel it as evil.
and, by the way,satan only tells evil lies, but we mislabel them as good.
Posted by lance d email at January 7, 2005 06:20 PM

I wish I had time to give all these responses the attention they deserve, but there is pizza to be eaten and beer to be drunk. A few lines that caught my attention:
From Tony - "I do believe that it is possible that redeemed man is a greater creature than was unfallen man..those who have been redeemed from sin will love the more." Having risen from sin, the latter man may more fully realize the nature of his blessedness than a man who had never done so. Impossible to know, but, again, surely no heresy. And, as you say, it's for heaven.
if God does not bring forth a greater good out of the evil we have done, then it would seem that evil has triumphed; God has suffered a net loss compared to what-would-have-been. Now I'm not sure that that is true -- maybe God could have simply let the fallen world go to utter ruin.
Matt takes minor issue with this (the 'God has suffered a net loss' part) and you concede his correction. But there is a sense in which it is true. God creates out of love. The creation is His, a manifestation of His love, as Christ's human body and soul were (and are) His, and he would not surrender it to the powers of darkness. Knowing before the universe was made the disorder we would bring into it, He went ahead with the project. He cannot lose it because love is of His essence, and His love is a covenant, a promise. To have let the world go to utter ruin would have been to withdraw this promise and His love from the creatures He made to be with Him for all eternity. This would have required that He act contrary to His nature, in the same way that if we allow (as some renegades do) that Christ could have sinned, we would be saying that He could have behaved in a way that violated His divine integrity. Far from injuring our conception of Him as all-sufficient in Himself, this simply insures that He must (by definition) act in accord with Who He is. So tell me what you think.
Clifton and Matt - I may be missing the source of your disagreement, but (if I'm not) I still say that might stem from a difference in emphasis. Saith the psalmist: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." I take this to refer to Original Sin, passed on by generation, which makes Matt technically correct. God could have given us Matt by other means. He could have conceived Matt immaculately, as with the Mary, or, best of both worlds, immaculately and virginally, as with Christ. (Bad luck, Matt.) But the acts that actually brought him into the world - his parents married intercourse and his conception itself - are in themselves good and in obedience to God's command to be fruitful and multiply. So there. You're both right. (I've probably totally missed the boat.)
Posted by William Luse email at January 7, 2005 07:10 PM

"...it seems to me that you confuse accidental reality with essential reality."
Not at all. I don't deny that there are events in my past which are accidental as opposed to essential to who/what I am. I do deny that my conception is accidental to who/what I am though, and it is my conception which is radically contingent upon both 1) prior events and 2) the independent free wills of created beings who are not God, e.g my ancestors, in addition to God. To say that God could have created me in some other way is, again, to equivocate in the word "me".
God granted to human beings the power to bring other human beings into existence. You seem to be saying that He could have granted us that power without voluntarily constraining Himself in such a way that we have free will in the exercise of that power. In other words, you appear to be denying the possibility of free will; and indeed the problem of evil is only intelligible as a problem when a denial of human free will is snuck in, in some way or other.
Free will doesn't solve the problem of evil: it renders it rationally incoherent.
Posted by Matt email at January 7, 2005 07:12 PM

Mr. Luse wrote:"He could have conceived Matt immaculately, as with the Mary, or, best of both worlds, immaculately and virginally, as with Christ."
Not, I think, without altering what it is to be Matt (to make the Thomist in Mr Healy happy, not without making an essential change to Matt) . Now I suppose it may be possible that there is a transcendent sense in which God can change what it is to be something: that God can change what it is to be a square, for example, and thus God unlike us can square the circle. But I don't think that sort of talk is at all intelligible to human beings.
Remember that my basic contention is not that the problem of evil/suffering is wrong. My basic contention is that it is incoherent (at least in a world like ours with free will, which at least for my taste is far more interesting and wonderful a world than one without free will).
Posted by Matt email at January 7, 2005 07:22 PM

In my mind, Aquinas is the master here [re: question of evil causality]. I've found no better answer than this:
[God] in no way wills the evil of sin, which is the privation of right order towards the divine good. The evil of natural defect, or of punishment, he does will, by willing the good to which such evils are attached. Thus in willing justice he wills punishment; and in willing the preservation of the natural order, He wills some things to be naturally corrupted… [ST, I 19.10].
The statements that evil exists, and that evil exists not, are opposed as contradictories; yet the statements that anyone who wills evil to exist and that he wills it not to be, are not so opposed; since either is affirmative. God therefore neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills to permit evil to be done; and this is a good [ST, I 19.10].
Two small paragraphs but incredible wisdom...
Posted by Loy Mershimer email at January 7, 2005 07:39 PM

Your argument is actually one that I accept and wanted to make against Hart, but I thought it would really embroil us a great deal worse than we were embroiled already. I'm not sure if in those posts I quoted Richard of Saint Victor: "The world was created as it was created, because it was to be redeemed as it was to be redeemed." In other words, as you say, God in His providence from the very first created a universe wherein we would freely sin and which he would redeem; and he created it as he did because he would redeem it as he would. And so in a certain sense it is absurd to suppose that God might not have redeemed the world, since "the world" is and always was such a world as-would-be-redeemed. I too wonder whether, if God willed not to redeem the world, that would not be a self-contradiction, impossible of God, who is all good.
I've been wondering, too, whether we can't draw a connection between God's creation of any world at all, and the "death" that Jesus talks of as preparatory to new and utterly transformed life, inasmuch as both partake of a humility that mere reason cannot grasp.
By the way, snooping around I've found out that the belief that the souls in Heaven are blessed in diverse ways and according to different ranks (which I brought up as a way of supposing that redeemed man might -- might, in the grace of God, be blessed all the more) is an article of faith for Catholics. We must assent to it.
Matt's discussions here intrigue me for a personal reason. He seems to be saying that, in a way, our imperfections are not merely privations but may also be constitutive. (It's nice to be able to write this without having Hart breathing down your neck.) For instance, I have a leg that nearly had to be amputated two years ago -- it's always been bad. You wouldn't know it to look at me, but in any other century I'd have been dead of it before adulthood. Yet this same leg has reminded me of my mortality even when I was young, and has kept me out of more trouble than I care to imagine, and has probably been one of God's instruments for keeping me from straying too far from the Truth. Is this "imperfection," if that is what it is, merely to be blotted out? I think God has brought great good from it. It is not a moral evil; it is what somebody would call an "ontic" evil, I guess; but will there be no trace of it, in the Resurrection? I am kind of attached to it .....
Any speculation?
Posted by Tony email at January 7, 2005 11:20 PM

Loy, I too ran across those remarks of St. Thomas and find them most apropos. If you read my last email to Touchstone in the post above, you'll notice that I quote something quite similar.
Matt - Not, I think, without altering what it is to be Matt. Of course not, now that you already know what it is to be Matt. But He could have, couldn't he? You could have been a different Matt. We'll call it the new, improved version of Matt. (Not that you're so bad as you are.) Just as by miracles he heals the lame, he could tomorrow regenerate you body and soul and return you to the state of Original Grace (if I might coin a term). He won't, but he could. And it would not assure your blessedness. You could choose to sin, fall, and start the process all over again. But what would probably happen is that - while all around you sin, fall ill, and perish in freak accidents - your ability to pass through unharmed would eventually get you attacked as an agent of the devil, persecuted, and put to death. You would probably consider this a circling of the square we call Matt, but I don't think you're a square. (Forgive the fancy; I've been thinking about this too much lately.)
Tony - have you ever noticed your mind moves along more than one track at a time? Wish mine could do that. As to the ranks of the blessed, I did not know it was an article of faith, but am not surprised. Tradition has it that even the angels have their pecking order. I think you're returning to an earlier implication, which you may have overtly stated in a previous comment and in your exchange with Hart, that suffering in this life, especially that which is voluntarily embraced, may enhance one's beatitude beyond that of which an unfallen creature was capable of realizing. The only argument against it that occurs to me is the case of the Blessed Virgin, who, as Catholics, we believe holds a place of honor in heaven second only to her Son. Why, one might ask? Is it only because it is appropriate, because she bore the Saviour? She surely suffered nothing like the torments inflicted on the martyrs. By what merit other than motherhood is she owed this place of honor?
But here is where her example turns in your favor. She did suffer, and more, she was innocent, and did not forsake that innocence for the serpent's fruit. All around her lay nothing but sin, our worldly sea of iniquity in which the wicked prosper, but if she was ever tempted she did not yield. What source of sorrow must the sight of the world have been to her (and how much more the sufferings of her Son)? It seems nearly impossible for we fallen ones to understand the offense that sin gives to innocence. (I try to keep at the front of my mind Cardinal Newman's line, that "the nature of sin is this: it and God cannot be together.") So under the assumption that she never suffered bodily persecution, it may be that that suffering of the spirit that only innocence can know is of far greater depth than any produced by physical pain. (I have often wondered which hurt Christ more - the physical torture, or the knowledge that His own children were murdering Him?) So the idea that suffering might enhance beatitude is one about which I claim no certainty, but not one that I find alien.
Now concerning your bum leg. He seems to be saying that, in a way, our imperfections are not merely privations but may also be constitutive. Is constitutive code for real and substantial? Our imperfections in the form of sin cannot be. (Remember Newman's line.) But your affliction is what Thomas called physical evil, the varieties of which we are all subject to, and the consequence of Original Sin. It is the kind of evil that makes life so unfair. Will it be blotted out? Can you keep it? I don't see why not, since as you say it is not moral evil. Christ in His resurrected body still bore His wounds as though they constituted a necessary sign of His glory. If the affliction has been the servant of your salvation, what reason would there be in eternity for it to be forgotten by either you or by God? I'd just like to think that if, say, you now walk with a limp, though you may keep the affliction, you will not be allowed to limp in heaven.
Posted by William Luse email at January 8, 2005 05:20 AM

" Of course not, now that you already know what it is to be Matt. But He could have, couldn't he? You could have been a different Matt."
Well, I don't mean to be a square, but I am not sure that a counterfactual like that means much. He could have made me a dog or a cockroach in the same sense. And in any case it is I, the actual Matt, who God loves: not square-Matt, or dog-Matt, or cockroach-Matt, or made-perfect-from-the-start-Matt, but me. It is a logical constraint that in order for God's love for me to be taken seriously I have to exist -- not cockroach-Matt, but me. Logical constraints may or may not mean anything to God, but they certainly constrain what we can say, do, and know.
Not that there aren't a few people out there who would find cockroach-Matt-world more appealing than this world, mind you.
"She surely suffered nothing like the torments inflicted on the martyrs."
As a parent myself I am not entirely sure that that is true. I could speak with authority if I had actually faced terrible physical pain and death, but I have not (and I'd no doubt take the cab driver job in Heaven to avoid it). So rather than make a positive assertion I will merely suggest the possibility that, if your child was actually the Second Person, watching Him suffer and die in the way He did might be the worst possible torment that can be inflicted on an ordinary (or extraordinary but not divine) human being.
Posted by Matt email at January 8, 2005 10:06 AM

Thanks, Bill -- as long as I limp across that there Jordan River, I'll be all right! And let's agree with David Hart that it is not our sufferings per se that produce greater glory, but the grace that God gives us to endure and triumph over those sufferings. (So Mary is raised to the highest rank of honor by grace.) But I didn't know that my mind ran on several tracks at once -- though sometimes it seems to run off several tracks at once, or to take out several guardrails at once.
I wonder whether Augustine's life isn't itself an example of what we're talking about. We needn't wonder about the conditional universe-wherein-Adam-did-not-sin, and what it would have been like (no Stalin, no Hitler, no creator of The Brady Bunch, no Mao-Tse Tung); we might as well ask, "If Augustine had not been the arrant Manichee he became in his youth, would we now have the great saint and doctor who teaches us about grace and Providence?" I'm not saying that God required Augustine's Manicheanism to raise him to that greatness. He didn't. (Mary is the great counterexample.) But in fact Augustine did become a Manichee, and out of that evil God did bring forth the good, namely a bishop who exercised his mind most forcefully upon the problem of the nature of evil (that it is a privation of the good, as Hart insists). Augustine says "revocabimur in melius," meaning that when we are redeemed we are brought back into a state superior to Adam's; though whether it is superior to what Adam's would eventually have been, this he doesn't say. But that question seems parallel to the question of whether, in this life, God ever makes greater saints from greater sinners, not that he needed the sinning, but that where sin abounds, grace abounds the more; such is His will. I also wonder, if we are talking about rank in Paradise, if there are other races of sapient creatures in the universe, as Lewis imagined them in the space trilogy, whether redeemed man will enjoy the greater honor precisely because Christ will be sitting on the throne as God and Man incarnate (not God and Hrossa incarnate); now that's a hypothetical on top of a hypothetical!
Posted by Tony email at January 8, 2005 02:21 PM

- Matt, On the Kafkaesque matter of cockroaches I surrender. Your last paragraph is in perfect accord with my comment to Tony.
- Tony,
Talk about changing tracks, but your last two sentences won't allow me to resist. Here's a hypothetical for you: Christ could have become Incarnate on more than one planet at a time, God-man and God-Hrossa simultaneously. True or false?
Posted by William Luse email at January 8, 2005 02:34 PM

I don't see why not. But it would render absurd the revelation that Christ will sit incarnate at the right hand of the Father. He cannot be both Hrossa and Man incarnate - or how he could be, I can't imagine. Were it not for that revelation, I couldn't see why not.
Unless the premise of the question is to be ruled out: it may be that the entire universe has all been constructed for man. The more I read about the matter, the more I think we never will find another race of sapient beings anywhere else. But even if there are, we may be so widely separated in space and time as to make it practically the same as if we were alone.
Another odd question that Lewis had to address was what knowledge of the Trinity and of the Son an unfallen race would have....
Posted by Tony email at January 8, 2005 06:43 PM

Your last paragraph is in perfect accord with my comment to Tony.You are absolutely right. "Nothing like" doesn't mean "a cakewalk compared to". My bad.
Posted by Matt email at January 9, 2005 09:22 AM

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