Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Who sinned, this man or his parents?" Reflection on the Daily Office

This Monday, two days before the Epiphany of Our Lord, included a particularly strange, compelling and interesting passage in the Daily Office readings. Here is an excerpt from it, below.

"And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind? Jesus answered, Neither this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work" (John 9:1-4).

Here we see, in encapsulated form, the most powerful and compelling argument against the Christian faith, which has vexed Christians- and before them, followers of many other religions- for thousands of years, which has given infinite ammunition to those who would argue against the existence of God. Theologicans call it the Problem of Evil. Simply put, if God is both perfectly good and of unlimited power, then why does He permit evil to exist? Why should people be born blind, or sick, or crippled, or afflicted with all manner of other evils- disease, poverty, starvation? Why doesn't God prevent such evils from happening?

Some have got around this problem by denying, or qualifying, that God is truly all-powerful, and by arguing that this universe is a battlefield between two equally matched adversaries, one good and one evil. This was the tack taken by the Zoroastrians of Persia, by the Manichaeans, and by a whole slew of Christian heresies throughout the ages: it is, it seems, an idea that we keep finding compelling, because it seems so logical. Others got around the problem by arguing- horrendously, to my mind- that God is beyond good and evil (I think some of the more extreme Calvinists went along this road). But to orthodox Christians, who hold that God is more powerful than any evil adversary, and also that He is perfectly good, and cannot be anything less than perfectly good, this has been a tough and nearly insoluble dilemma.

Ultimately, I suspect it can't be solved purely in the arena of reason and the intellect: because becoming convinced both of God's power and his goodness is an act as much of the heart as of the head. Tertullian couldn't refute Marcion purely on the ground of reason, but he could look at a flower of the meadow and say, "Did the devil create something as beautiful as that"?

How would I answer the disciples' question to Jesus? Well, I would start by saying that the man was blind because of something that had gone wrong with his body- something perhaps developmental, perhaps genetic, perhaps something that had afflicted him in the womb. But that is only to provide a proximate explanation. Beyond that, one might say that the laws of nature are set up in such a way so that sometimes biological systems break down, and organs malfunction. This is a further explanation, but it still doesn't provide an answer to the deepest question. Why are the laws of nature set up that way- why do mutations, and accidents, happen like that, and why doesn't God correct them? One could argue that, as John himself did, that this world is ruled over by a dark power, whose nature is evil, and that the laws of such a universe are inevitably going to result in evil and suffering. That's a more 'ultimate' answer but it still doesn't get to the heart of things. Whether we think of that evil power as something eternally existent or as something created by God, it still forces us to ask this question: is he equally powerful as God, or less so? And if the power of evil is less powerful than God, then why does God allow evil to exist at all?

This is the problem of evil in its sharpest form. There are a few ways to answer it- many of the answers that revolve around human free will, of course, don't explain _natural_ evil which is what we are talking about here. The way I prefer is to argue that God is perfect by his very nature, that being perfect means (among other things) possessing all virtues, that one such virtue is the hatred of and opposition to evil, and that therefore evil must exist, and must have existed from the beginning, in order so that God could be perfect not merely in exemplifying good but also in opposing evil. In order for God to be perfect, in other words, there must be evil in the universe, at some level.

Another way to say this, of course, is simply the way Jesus said it. He didn't provide a full answer, of course, but his one sentence answer provided the core of all Christian answers to the problem of evil, and the basic theme on which all the philosophers and theologians to discuss this question in the succeeding two thousand years have simply been fleshing out. Jesus said, simply, that evil must exist in order that God can bring good out of it. Aquinas said it similarly, in his refutation of the atheist's challenge to the existence of God. I would disagree with Aquinas in arguing that I don't think God _can_ completely extinguish evil, as to do so would detract from his perfect goodness. In this sense, I have a more qualified and limited sense of what 'omnipotence' means than most historical Christians. But I do agree with Aquinas- and ultimately, with Our Lord- in my basic understanding of what the answer to this question must be: that a God who struggles against evil, who spits into the ground and heals the blind with the touch of his finger, who knows temptation at the hands of the devil and who ultimately dies the death of a common criminal, is more perfect- and thus, more real- than a God who does not. Evil must exist in order for God to oppose it, to hate it, to strive against it, and ultimately to conquer it. In other words, evil exists, in order that by striving against it, "the works of God may be made manifest."

Glory be to the Father, the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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