(The following is an edited excerpt from an email I wrote to someone about the Catholic faith, with bits left out and some rewritten. I don’t go into in much, but I think a really good philosophical response to the problem of evil, that gets into evil as privation, is in God Matters by Herbert McCabe, OP. What I say here is of course generally not original to me and I picked it up (insofar as I have accurately represented it, which, if I haven’t, is my error alone) from others. See, for example, God Matters and material by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP—like this recording).
In many circumstances, we cannot get anywhere by wondering why God allowed this or that evil. That usually does not profit us in any way, and it is best to put that question from our mind as much as we can. It is usually a vain speculation and will not do us any good— indeed, it can be positively harmful to us often to ask or to venture an explanation to others. It causes anxiety and confusion to no purpose. I cannot stress this enough. “What is too sublime for you, do not seek; do not reach into things that are hidden from you,” says the Book of Sirach (3:21).
Or as Julian of Norwich puts it, “The second aspect is hidden and closed to us (that is to say, everything that is not necessary for our salvation); for it is our Lord’s privy counsel and it is proper to the royal Lordship of God that his privy counsel should be undisturbed, and it is proper for his servant, out of obedience and reverence, not to know his counsel too well. Our Lord feels pity and compassion for us because some people are so anxious to know about it; and I am sure that if we knew how much we would please him and set our own minds at rest by leaving the matter alone, then we would do so. The saints in heaven do not want to know anything except what our Lord wants to reveal to them…”
We must go by what we know, not what we don’t.
First, God does not will evil, suffering, privation, defect, except insofar as He wills some good to which some evil or suffering is attached (for instance, for St. Thomas, in willing justice, God thereby wills the evil of punishment which is attached to justice). He does bring good out of evil, but this does not mean He wills the evil that He brings good out of (again, except in the sense above). And He never wills, even in any qualified way, sin and the sins which effect or harm us—though of course He permits it and He wills to permit it.
Second, we know that love is the ultimate meaning of reality, of everything. All things that exist come from divine love and are leading to the divine love, even if we cannot see how.
Third, that here and now in our concrete lives, we can find meaning in our suffering as a means of union with Christ and as an occasion to participate in the redemptive plan of the Triune God for His creatures.
Here is what I mean on that last one. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, prayed for His Father to spare Him the suffering that stood before Him, but He accepted the Cross on which he was crucified insofar as it was the Father’s will that He endure it, as the lot of His being human. He was obedient to the will of the Father, though that meant He would be crucified. And He gave His obedience to the Father as a sacrifice and as the remedy for our disobedience of God, and that is our salvation.
Jesus felt real agony over this in His human nature. Luke 22: 41-44: “And he was withdrawn away from them a stone’s cast; and kneeling down, he prayed, Saying: Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from me: but yet not my will, but thine be done. And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony, he prayed the longer. And his sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground.” Yet in his agony he obeyed the Father’s will. As a result, the Father raised Him from the dead, and we are saved by His obedience.
We follow Jesus. We can offer our sufferings up to the Father as a sacrifice, in obedience to His will for our life. Just as Jesus accepted the Cross from His Father and gave his suffering to the Father, so also can and should we accept whatever cross God gives us, and offer it up for our salvation and the salvation of the world—not that somehow we can be the ultimate source of redemption of the world, but as being instruments of the redemption of Christ under the grace of God. And when we die on the crosses of our life, we have the chance to see ourselves as with Christ, on His Cross, and to pray to the Father that He will receive our obedience to our cross and do whatever He will with it.
This is the best route to meaning, of a certain sort, in private sufferings. Atheism cannot offer anything like this, though of course even an atheist could acknowledge that suffering can temper our character. However, it is not a matter of ‘offering’ an idea, as if we voluntaristically just believe something for no reason except that we find it comforting. What matters is what is true—and it is true that we can do this. We really can, in the fabric of reality, offer up our sufferings in union with Christ, as obedience to the will of the Father.
We can do this at the Mass, where we can join our sacrifice to the sacrifice of Christ, made present on the altar. Our sacrifice is both our praise of God and our obedience to the will of God in embracing our cross. We join our sacrifice to the sacrifice of Christ, and pray God will receive it, for our good and for the good of the world. We should not do this as an ‘experiment,’ as if we judge the truth of it by the results we think we see, or out of vain curiosity, which as Blessed Newman points out, is opposed to “seek[ing] Christ in good earnest.” We must do it in the trust that no matter what we see or do not see, God does receive the sincere sacrifices we offer to Him.
But where can such trust come from, humanly speaking? I think one of your difficulties is that you start from your own experience. You say, basically, that you cannot trust God because nothing in your experience gives you any reason to. You let, that is, your experience and your feelings about your experience be the measure of things for you. This is natural and I will not say it is always wrong to consult our private history.
But as much as possible, I would urge you not to start from your own experience, but from the experience of the entire people of God, that is, the Catholic Church (and those who by grace are in some way part of it). Our lives are but one part of a great story that God is telling and we do not see the whole story, either in our own case, or in the case of the whole universe. But it is helpful to see ourselves as part of the body of Christ, and to make its memories, our memories, and its experiences, our experiences. By virtue of our baptism, we are members of the Body of Christ, and we have access to all that belongs to that body, including its memories, its experiences. God has come to the help of His people over and over again—as in the lives of the saints and in the world through the saints.
If we do not see how He has come to our particular help in our private life, we can nevertheless see that He has helped us by virtue of helping the Church, of which we are members. If God helps one member of the Church, he helps all, by virtue of how we are all united into one body in Christ. And we do know that God has provided for His people and through His people to the poor, the needy, the outcast—the memory of the Church testifies to this.
If we cannot find God in our private individual lives, we should look to find Him in the history of the Church. And there He can clearly be found—and so will He be found in our own private history if we stay committed to Him and stay in the Catholic Church, though we may not see all His works for us, until Heaven, if by His grace we get there.
The following quote is from Evelyn Waugh’s Labels: A Mediterranean Journal, the first book in Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writings, which collection I received as a gift:
What a lot of nonsense people will talk about sex repression. In many cases an enforced and unrationalised celibacy does give rise to those morbid conditions which supply the material for the jollier passages in Sunday newspapers. But in healthier psychological organisms, a sublimated sex motive may account for a vast proportion of the beneficial activities of man; copulation is not the only laudable expression of the procreative urge—certainly not copulation in which the procreative motive has been laboriously frustrated. The Christian values of charity and chastity have from old time an indissouble alliance—but all this is hardly to the point. (42-43)
Also from Labels:
Now, one of the arts of successful authorship is preventing the reading public from forgetting one’s name in between the times when they are reading one’s books. It is all very puzzling because, as far as I can see, there are only two respectable reasons for reading a book written by someone else; one is that you are being paid to review it, and the other that you are continually meeting the author and it seems rude not to know about him.
Archbishop Chaput, “Persons First: Refugees, immigrants, and executive orders”: “There are few embodiments of the weak more needy or compelling than refugees. This is why the Church in the United States has reacted so strongly, so negatively — and so properly — to President Trump’s executive orders of January 28” (h/t Brandon McGinley)
Archbishop Gomez (linked in Archbishop Chaput, “Persons First…”), “On the Executive Orders”: “And I repeat, as I have said before: the most constructive and compassionate thing our government can do right now is to stop the deportations and the threat of deportations for those who are not violent criminals.”
Cardinal Dolan, “Moral Lessons for President Trump and Gov. Cuomo”: “President Trump’s impetuous and terribly unfair executive order closing the historically open door of America to certain immigrants, just because of their country of origin, cheapens their human dignity, and, in many cases, places their lives and future in danger. It is contrary to the teachings of the Bible Christians and Jews cherish, and at odds with the celebrated reputation for hospitality the nation we love enjoys.” (h/t Kev_jg)
Bishop Rhoades, “Statement of Bishop Rhoades on Executive Order on Refugees”: “Clearly our government has a responsibility to protect the safety and security of the United States. Certainly we must be vigilant lest terrorists infiltrate the refugee population. But, as many attest, including our Church agencies involved in refugee settlement, ‘the U.S. is already using a thorough vetting process for refugees, especially for those from Syria and surrounding countries’ (Sean Callahan, CRS President). Fear should not lead us to forsake the innocent, of whatever nation or religion, whose lives are in danger.” (Seen shared on Facebook)
Archbishop Cupich, “Statement of Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, on the Executive Order on Refugees and Migrants”: “It is time to put aside fear and join together to recover who we are and what we represent to a world badly in need of hope and solidarity. ‘If we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.’ Pope Francis issued these challenging words to Congress in 2015, and followed with a warning that should haunt us as we come to terms with the events of the weekend: ‘The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.'” h/t Matthew Sitman
There are more here (seen shared on Twitter). (I saw all the above independently of looking at this link, but it also complies the above and more—though not the statement by Bishop Rhoades or the article by Cardinal Dolan).
I recently finished Denys Turner’s Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God. More on it later, I hope. But one aspect of it dovetailed with a conversation I recently had about the knowledge of God, and I want to draw out how. The below is informed by Turner and I am generally writing from (what I take to be) his account of things, though sometimes I may have put things less strongly than he would. And of course, I might have Turner wrong as matter of interpretation, in which case I would welcome correction. With that said:
There is (depending on what is meant) a distinction between saying “I am wrong about God in some way” and “I do not know what I mean when I talk about God.” The former, in the sense I mean here, posits that some proposition held about God is not true, or some attribute is incorrectly assigned to Him. The second means there is some proposition held about God or some property predicated of him, the meaning of which escapes our understanding. In the first case, then, the proposition in question does not hold about God, plain and simple; it is false. In the second case, it does hold, but we don’t know how it holds (that is, it is true by analogy).
Take, for example, the statement “God is good.” The negation—”God is not good”—could mean “God lacks goodness” or, more strongly put, that”God is evil.” Turner says that the negation “God is not good” when it means “God is evil” is a negation that involves “literal falsehood.”
However, it could also mean “God is good, but how He is good is beyond our understanding, for He is not good in the way creatures are.” In this latter case, it is not that we thought God had goodness but it turns out He doesn’t. Rather, it is that He is too good for us to understand—it is not a lack, but an excess of goodness which results in the negation “God is not good.” This would be a theologically warranted negation, as opposed to the negation involving literal falsity.
To take the clearest case, one may, as part of the apophatic “process,” negate the statement “God exists,” if by this one means to deny that God exists in the way creatures do (and thus in the way our term “exists” is normally used). But this does not mean that the “God does not exist” of this process is saying the same thing as the “God does not exist” of atheism is. And as in the case of “God is good” or “God exists,” so, analogously, in all cases of propositions about or predicates of God.
For Turner, as he reads Pseudo-Dionysius, ultimately the point of apophaticism is not the denial, but the failure of language that we experience when speaking of God, by virtue of God’s being beyond both all affirmations and all denials (in other words, the theological negation “God is not good” is not itself the apophatic failure of language, for that failure consists not in denial but in God’s being beyond denial, as well as His being beyond affirmation).
Now, if what you mean by saying “I am wrong about God” is theological negation, then I think it is not useful to put it that way—certainly in our intellectual context, but perhaps even generally. Because to our ears, at the least, the statement “I am [or everyone is] wrong about God” carries with it the sense not of theological negation, but of literal negation. That is, it carries with it the equivalent of saying “God is not good” means “God is evil.”
Christianity is true, not false. The Creed is true, not false. And insofar as I affirm the creed, I am right, not wrong. Moreover, other religions, in so far as they deny truths that Christianity affirms, are false—literally false, in the sense I used above (which is not to say they contain no truth, or that grace cannot be given to non-Christians). And all of this is compatible with the idea that we do not know what God is in His essence. Turner quotes the first bit (“by…unknown”) of the following quote from St. Thomas, as I believe does Herbert McCabe, OP, a major influence on Turner:
Although by the revelation of grace in this life we cannot know of God “what He is,” and thus are united to Him as to one unknown; still we know Him more fully according as many and more excellent of His effects are demonstrated to us, and according as we attribute to Him some things known by divine revelation, to which natural reason cannot reach, as, for instance, that God is Three and One.
I find it helpful to say that we do not know what God is in Himself, and that we don’t fully grasp the way He exists, the way He is good, the way He is love, the way He is Creator, the way He is wisdom. That we are united to God as to the unknown, in that sense. I find this helpful because it reminds me that God is greater than I can understand, that His will is better than I can understand, that his providence is wiser than I can understand, and that one does not have to understand these things to be united to Him.
But I would not say that any of that implies the truth of the statement “I am [everyone is] wrong about God.”
[I am indebted to Frater Urban Hannon for recommending Turner to me, and I am sure my reading of Turner, and what I have written here, is influenced by communications with Frater Hannon]
In chapter seven of Saint Thomas Aquinas Vol. 2: Spiritual Master, Fr. Torrell complies a number of quotes from St. Thomas about how the Holy Spirit makes us friends of God—all taken, I believe, from SCG IV. What’s remarkable is how St. Thomas takes some feature of natural friendship between human persons and then shows that applies to man’s friendship with God, established by the Holy Spirit. The texts therefore tell us something both about natural friendship and about our life with God.
Here’s one example of this (Torrell quotes this on pg. 170 but the translation here is not taken from Torrell, but from the version here):
It also belongs to friendship that a man delight in the presence of his friend, and rejoice in his words and deeds: also that he find in him consolation in all his troubles: hence it is especially to our friends that we have recourse for comfort in time of sorrow. Since then the Holy Ghost makes us to be friends of God, and causes Him to live in us, and us in Him, as we have proved, it follows that it is through the Holy Ghost that we rejoice in God, and are comforted in all the hardships and afflictions of the world. Hence it is said (Ps. l. 14): Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with thy perfect Spirit, and (Rom. xiv. 7): The Kingdom of God . . . is justice, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, and (Acts ix. 31): The church had peace . . . and was edified, walking in the fear of the Lord, and was filled with the consolation of the Holy Ghost. For this reason our Lord calls the Holy Ghost by the name of Paraclete or Consoler (Jo. xiv. 26): But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, etc.
“As to the consequences of this predestination, Paul adds: ‘In order that he would be the eldest of many brothers.’ Just as God wanted to communicate his nature to others in making them participate in likeness to his goodness, so that he is not only Good, but the author of goods, so too the Son of God wanted to communicate the conformity of his filiation, so that he would not be an only child but the Firstborn of the sons. Thus, he who is unique in his eternal generation, according to John (1:18) ‘The only Son who is in the bosom of the Father,’ becomes through the communication of grace ‘the Firstborn of many sons’: ‘He who is the Firstborn among the dead, the Prince of the kings of the earth’ (Apoc. 1:5).
We are thus the brothers of Christ, as much by the fact that he has communicated to us the likeness of his filiation, as we say here, as by the fact that he assumed similarity to our nature, according to the epistle to the Hebrews (2:17): ‘He had to become like his brothers in all things.'” -St. Thomas, In ad Rom. VIII, lect. 6, nn. 703-6, as quoted in Saint Thomas Aquinas Vol. 2 Spiritual Master by Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P. trans. Robert Royal, pg. 144. (the citation from Romans in Torrell comes after a longer quote passage, so presumably the nn. range given above is too expansive).