Creation is not the magical conjuration into existence of something that possesses all the attributes of the past without actually possessing a past. Surely that must be true, right? If it were, then there would be no such thing as free rational creatures, but only fictional characters summoned into existence in a preordained state of character.David Bentley Hart (in the comments here)
So, the issue of evil isn’t a utilitarian calculus, it’s a matter of the process whereby nothingness and every possibility of evil inherent in the conditions of finite freedom is conquered while actually bringing free spiritual natures into existence. But spirit can exist only under the conditions of those rational conditions that logically define it. To ask why God did not create spiritual beings already wholly divinized without any prior history in the ambiguities of sin—or of sin’s possibility—is to pose a question no more interesting or solvent than one of those village atheist’s dilemmas: can God create a square circle, or a rock he is unable to lift? A finite created spirit must have the structure of, precisely, the finite, the created, and spirit. It must have an actual absolute past in nonbeing and an absolute future in the divine infinity, and the continuous successive ordering of its existence out of the former and into the latter is what it is to be a spiritual creature. Every spiritual creature as spirit is a pure act of rational and free intentionality away from the utter poverty of nonbeing and toward infinite union with God. This “temporal” or “diastematic” structure is no less intrinsic to it than is its dynamic synthesis of essence and existence, or of stability and change. And that means that even the first stirring of a created spiritual nature’s existence must be a kind of free assent to existence on the part of the creature.
…Yet again, to say that evil is not necessary in itself does not mean that the possibility of evil–possibility, not necessity–is not present in the “venture” of creation. To say that a negative possibility is entailed in something is not to say that there is any intrinsic necessity for or positive value in the actualization of that possibility. When surgery is performed to remove a tumor, it is possible that there will be nerve damage. That does not mean that nerve damage is an intrinsically good or necessary aspect of surgery. The possibility of a falling back toward evil and nothingness is entailed in the creation of a free finite spiritual being, almost by definition. That does not mean that the actual falling back toward evil and nothingness is in itself a necessary or good “part of the journey.” But, in the course of God overcoming evil and nothingness in finite free spiritual creatures, it may happen. Happily, one would like to believe, God does not cease to conquer that evil, in this age or the age to come.
This is Saint Macrina teaching her younger brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa:
For evil must be altogether removed in every way from being, and, as we have said before, that which does not really exist must cease to exist at all. Since evil does not exist by its nature outside of free choice, when all choice is in God, evil will suffer a complete annihilation because no receptacle remains for it.Recounted by Gregory in On the Soul and the Resurrection.
Simone Weil on her birthday. First, from Gravity and Grace (1947):
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.
…We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.
The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them… Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.
Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.
…Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.
Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.
If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.
From an April 13, 1942 letter to poet Joë Bousquet:
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
On the Christian faith.
Last letter to Father Joseph-Marie Perrin, from a refugee camp in Casablanca (26 May 1942), as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas:
Wrongly or rightly you think that I have a right to the name of Christian. I assure you that when in speaking of my childhood and youth I use the words vocation, obedience, spirit of poverty, purity, acceptance, love of one’s neighbor, and other expressions of the same kind, I am giving them the exact signification they have for me now. Yet I was brought up by my parents and my brother in a complete agnosticism, and I never made the slightest effort to depart from it; I never had the slightest desire to do so, quite rightly, I think. In spite of that, ever since my birth, so to speak, not one of my faults, not one of my imperfections really had the excuse of ignorance. I shall have to answer for everything on that day when the Lamb shall come in anger.
You can take my word for it too that Greece, Egypt, ancient India, and ancient China, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflections of this beauty in art and science, what I have seen of the inner recesses of human hearts where religious belief is unknown, all these things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ’s hands as his captive. I think I might even say more. The love of these things that are outside visible Christianity keeps me outside the Church… But it also seems to me that when one speaks to you of unbelievers who are in affliction and accept their affliction as a part of the order of the world, it does not impress you in the same way as if it were a question of Christians and of submission to the will of God. Yet it is the same thing.
Letter to Georges Bernanos (1938), in Seventy Letters, as translated by Richard Rees (1965):
I have sometimes told myself that if only there were a notice on church doors forbidding entry to anyone with an income above a certain figure, and a low one, I would be converted at once.
As quoted in Simone Weil (1954) by Eric Walter Frederick Tomlin:
Love is not consolation, it is light.
“Faiths of Meditation; Contemplation of the divine” as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas:
Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense atheism is a purification. I have to be an atheist with that part of myself which is not made for God. Among those in whom the supernatural part of themselves has not been awakened, the atheists are right and the believers wrong.
…That is why St. John of the Cross calls faith a night. With those who have received a Christian education, the lower parts of the soul become attached to these mysteries when they have no right at all to do so. That is why such people need a purification of which St. John of the Cross describes the stages. Atheism and incredulity constitute an equivalent of such a purification.
Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation (1943) as translated by Richard Rees:
There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man’s mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties.
Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world.
Another terrestrial manifestation of this reality lies in the absurd and insoluble contradictions which are always the terminus of human thought when it moves exclusively in this world.
Just as the reality of this world is the sole foundation of facts, so that other reality is the sole foundation of good.
That reality is the unique source of all the good that can exist in this world: that is to say, all beauty, all truth, all justice, all legitimacy, all order, and all human behaviour that is mindful of obligations.
Those minds whose attention and love are turned towards that reality are the sole intermediary through which good can descend from there and come among men.
Although it is beyond the reach of any human faculties, man has the power of turning his attention and love towards it.
Nothing can ever justify the assumption that any man, whoever he may be, has been deprived of this power.
It is a power which is only real in this world in so far as it is exercised. The sole condition for exercising it is consent.
This act of consent may be expressed, or it may not be, even tacitly; it may not be clearly conscious, although it has really taken place in the soul. Very often it is verbally expressed although it has not in fact taken place. But whether expressed or not, the one condition suffices: that it shall in fact have taken place.
To anyone who does actually consent to directing his attention and love beyond the world, towards the reality that exists outside the reach of all human faculties, it is given to succeed in doing so. In that case, sooner or later, there descends upon him a part of the good, which shines through him upon all that surrounds him.
Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion, that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels.
By Joseph Brodsky [unknown source, posted by friend on social media].
I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wild flowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.
Wendell Berry, from Given: Poems.
Fr. Thomas Hopko speaking in a ten-part lecture series about the Lord’s Prayer. Here he speaks of praying “thy will be done” as a commitment to love like Christ loved:
Therefore the most terrifying part all this has to be accomplished when you are in fact abandoned by God himself. …The ultimate act of love is when you are really getting nothing from it, even from God. …The myrrh-bearing women are used as an example of this. Because they go out to the tomb of Jesus to anoint his body when he is dead, thinking that it’s all over. …The point that we have to make today is, if we are going to pray “thy will be done,” then that means we love and obey when we feel in total darkness, when we feel that there is nothing in it for us, when we feel that even God is absent.
We like to think … that Jesus crushed death by His divine power (“…By the splendor of His Godhead hast thou crushed death”). But how did He crush death by the splendor of His Godhead? The answer is by perfect and complete and total unconditional love as a crucified slave. That’s the power of the Godhead. It’s not brute force. It’s love from the inside.
Speaking of God’s relation to humans, Lewis writes:
Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves….
From The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 45-46.
I like the language of wooing and cake eating that Lewis uses, but I’m not so sure that God never ravishes. Certainly, God’s felt presence in any full sense would entirely overwhelm us, but his wooing at times can be fierce. I am reminded of this poem about God’s ravishing, the teachings of Maximus the Confessor, and Hendriksen’s definition of kingship as harmony with God’s will.
For some time now, I have been growing in my understanding of how many cultural disorders are related to hatred of limits. The aspiration to limitlessness was embedded in the first temptation and the original sin, it informed the earliest docetic and Gnostic heresies, and it inspired the founding intellects of modernity. Many sincere Christians still have some sense that being limited is an effect of sin, rather than a condition of the Creation. Both Genesis accounts of Creation (in chapters 1 and 2) resound with the establishment of boundaries—in time, in space, in ontology, and in vocation. God created all things (including his image-bearers) to thrive within limits, and he then asserted that this circumstance of Creation is very good. After delivering the mandate to serve as his regents and stewards over all Creation, God reminds Adam and Eve that they are creatures who are bounded. They do not exist independently, but must turn to the earth (from which they came and to which will return) for food, for the stuff of life. But not all the food in the Garden was on the menu. Man was limited and needy in his created state, and his continued fellowship with God required the recognition of boundaries.
Almost all human cultures have pursued the task of defining and governing boundaries in human behavior. Philip Rieff argued (in The Triumph of the Therapeutic) that every culture survives “by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood.” The story of modern Western culture, however—a culture built around the ideal of the sovereign self—is a story of the abandonment of restrictions and restraints in the name of human freedom. Our institutions have increasingly been defined in terms of encouraging liberation from limits rather than cultivating a conscientious honoring of limits.
…With echoes of numerous theologians who have related the imago dei to our essential relationality, Berry questions the understanding of freedom that dominates modern culture. “In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom’ for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom of Words, ‘free’ is etymologically related to ‘friend.’ These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved.’ We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. All this suggests that our ‘identity’ is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.”
Ken Myers rarely has a thought that is not backed up by much reading and reflection. These thoughts of his from an online posting spoke volumes to me in several areas.
I need to read Gregory the Great and Maximus the Confessor directly, but these passages from Robert Louis Wilken’s study of Early Christian Thought illuminated human nature for me in some fresh, clear and simple ways. Yesterday’s post reminded me of these passages.
Gregory speaks of human freedom as moral freedom, the freedom to become what we were made to be. Freedom, as he puts it, is the “royal exercise of the will,” but will is much more than choice, than deciding to do one thing in preference to another. It is an affair of ordering one’s life in terms of its end, freedom oriented toward excellence (the original meaning of virtue) and human flourishing. As we gorw in virtue we delight in the good that is God. Hence freedom is never set forth in its own terms, but rather is always seen in relation to God. Because human beings were made in the image of God, our lives will be fully human only as our face is turned toward God and our actions formed by his love. Freedom is as much a matter of seeing, of vision, as it is of doing. (location 1676)
…The human will is not less human but more human because it is in harmony with the divine will. Like Cyril, Maximus wishes to say that Christ showed us a “wholly new way of being human.” Christ’s life, writes Maximus, was “new, not only because it was strange and wondrous to those on earth, and was unfamiliar in comparison to things as they are, but also because it carried within itself a new energy of one who lived in a new way.” (location 1454)
From The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken (Yale UP, 2003, Kindle Edition)
This is a passage that I have been coming back to over and over during the past year. (I first heard it referenced in a sermon at our church.) It speaks primarily to kingship and mentions the issue of judging rightly (pursuit of the good), allowing me to categorize it under that heading, although it touches all three. (More on this theme tomorrow from Maximus the Confessor, as I populate these first several days with old treasures.)
To reign with Christ means to experience in one’s own life the restoration of the royal office. By virtue of creation man held the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. As prophet his mind was illumined so that he knew God. As priest his heart delighted in God. As king his will was in harmony with God’s will. This threefold office, lost through the fall, is restored by God’s grace. The joyful response of the believer’s will to the will of Christ, that response which is true freedom, is the basic element in this reigning with Christ. Moreover, even during the period before death Christians rule the world by means of their prayers, in the sense that again and again judgments occur in answer to prayer (Rev. 8:3–5). In heaven they are even closer to the throne than are the angels (Rev. 4:4; 5:11). In fact, they sit with Christ on his throne (Rev. 3:21), sharing his royal glory. And when Christ returns, the saints sit and judge with him (Ps. 149:5–9; I Cor. 6:2, 3).
From New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles. Vol. 4. by W. Hendriksen and S.J. Kistemaker (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 258–259.