A Short Essay on Value

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A discussion I’ve had with a few of my friends who are atheists over the last few years has led me to write this very brief consideration of the concept of value. It is an attempt to demonstrate the difficulties of a purely materialistic understanding of morality and value.

Morality is itself based around the concept of value. Certain things warrant certain treatment, and to act as if they possess less than their value is to do moral evil. This comes most obviously in the form of treating human beings as if they were merely objects. When a person is objectified, they are stripped of their dignity of personhood and regarded with a dignity far below that warranted by their value.

Differing systems of morality assign value differently. A racist morality would place the value of one race above another. A utilitarian morality places value in the greatest happiness of the largest number of people. In the first case, treating a “lesser” race as if it were higher is an offense to the moral system, and indeed treating the “higher” race as if it were lower is also offensive. Thus in the early half of the twentieth century in America, for a white man to drink from a black fountain was degrading, and for a black man to drink from a white fountain was more than presumptuous. So too, in a utilitarian system, if a lesser happiness for a smaller group is put before the greater happiness of a larger group, a moral offense has been committed.

This raises the question of where value ultimately comes from. In a theistic system, a person can turn to the creator of all things and hold that, as creator, God has assigned things different values, and thus given each thing a dignity that is appropriate to it. A rock has a very minimal dignity, an ape a very great one, and finally humanity the greatest. The reason for this hierarchy is either explained as simple divine fiat, or, an understanding I find far better, it is explained as having its root in the concept of likeness to God. A rock is somewhat like God in that it exists. An ape more like God in that it thinks, is social, lives, even loves. A human is most like God in that a human, by nature, creates, imagines, shapes, laughs, loves, has abstract thought, worships, and far more than these.

In such a system the theist comes up against the hard brutal fact that things have value whether or not she likes it. A person’s body has value whether or not I want to treat it only as a means to my own pleasure or for my own gain. A person’s will is valuable whether or not I want to override it. Indeed, even an animal or a tree has more value than is convenient for me. All of this is the case because behind the animal, or the person, or the tree is the final ultimate source of all value, the one who makes the tree and the person and says “This is its value.” Because God is outside of the system of things made, and behind them all, it becomes impossible to argue with God, since our arguments are also things that God has made[1].

Now, for an atheist, the situation becomes more dire.[2] For value, not coming from outside of the system of creation, it must be assigned from within the natural order. One of the things in the universe begins to assign value to other things in the universe. A human being says of other human beings “you are valuable to me.” She says of her pet “you are valuable to me.” She says of a piece of art “this is valuable to me.” He says of a bit of shiny metal “this is valuable to me.”

The origin of the value assignment is the person who, and this is the tricky part, has no intrinsic value or authority on her own, but only the value which is given to her by other persons. Thus, an atheist can be easily outraged by the enslavement of another person, because that atheist places value in that other person. But the person who is doing the enslaving may not place value in the enslaved person except as a slave. So who will arbitrate between them as to who is “right?” In an atheistic system, where value only derives from the individual, there can be no such arbiter, for the value of the person resides wholly in the mind of each individual.

Now, there may seem to be three recourses the atheist can take to shore up the strength of her values. The first is society, the second is the natural world, and the third is the fact that she can assign value at all. I want to consider each of these briefly.

The societal argument says that value can be derived not merely from the individual, but from society at large. I might not think that a bit of colored paper has any value, but society does, and so money is valuable. I might not think that a man’s will is particularly valuable, but society values it, so I should not override it.

Now the problem with this argument is that it confuses value and power. A society has power to enforce its views of value. Thus if society tells me that a painting is valuable, and I use it for kindling, society can punish me for treating the painting as if it did not have any value. But this does not actually give the painting value, it only allows some people to enforce their value judgments over other people who disagree. One can no more assign objective value in this way than one can make two and two equal five by popular vote. This is easily seen when the society breaks apart, or changes its mind about the value of things, there is no left over objective value to be dealt with. If we once thought that a particular painter’s work was worth millions, but decide suddenly that its rubbish, we do not make the argument that the thing has some objective value that it was once assigned and that now can’t be gotten over. Nor do we say of those who were once enslaved that they do not have any rights because society agreed at one point that this was the case.

Thus we are left with a simple fact of numbers and power. If enough people agree that certain things have certain value, then they can enforce those views. It does not make them “right” for in such a relative system, there can be no “right.” There are only opinions about what things have what value. A mass of opinions, no matter how large or for whatever span of time, never becomes objective fact.

Now this presents some very sticky situations for the atheist morality. And we must say straight away that there is no denying that atheists can have morality. People who say those kind of things have not thought the matter all the way through. But the matter is, admittedly, rather difficult when an atheist says something like “The law should change” or “society is wrong.” For what is meant by “should” and “wrong?” Society’s value system is a system of general agreement on what has and does not have this or that value. In an atheistic world, this fact of society giving value itself has only the value that the individual or society gives it. In other words, if I think society’s values are worthless, they are in fact worthless to me. But at the same time, if society thinks my values are worthless, they are, because they have been assigned no value by society.

When an atheist says of society “You should be different” what she is saying is “Your values should match my value” or, in other words “You should assign value to my own value assignments.” But where does the “should” come from? Is there an overarching value which she can appeal to and by which she can measure her values to see that they conform to it more closely than society’s?  No. There is only her own assignment of value. What she can say is “I desire that society’s values more closely matched my own.” And indeed, we all, to some great degree, desire this, for it would make all of our lives less frustrating. The danger, which I will not go into other than to mention it here, is that that often transforms into “I value myself above all others, therefore all others should value me above themselves.” Such a world is not workable.

Thus we find that there is no “moral ground” for an atheist to hold one set of morals above any other. If all value is assigned by the individual, then we live in a world where the best we can do is find other likeminded people and live in some approximate harmony. But we cannot, I do not say “should not” since that would be self-contradictory in such a system, claim a superiority of our own values over another’s if we hold to an atheist perspective and desire to be consistent. Now a theist can, without self contradiction. A theist can, though she may be incorrect, claim that her values match the ultimate underlying values of the universe. She can do this without self-contradiction, for her system holds that a human being has real intrinsic value that exists whether or not she likes it. She may be wrong. She may think that things have no value which have great value, or things which she assigns great value to may be almost worthless. But she is merely in error then, not in self-contradiction. Thus a theist can say to society “You are wrong” without entering self-contradiction.

The second thing an atheist might appeal to is nature. Evolution seems to have put forward certain traits that are useful for the building of society. Therefore we can look to these particular patterns as the most valuable for people to adhere to. One sees the problem with this perspective immediately. It requires numerous presuppositions.

First, one must value the data of evolution as relevant to one’s daily life. Many do, but it is also easy to simply say “that data is interesting, and it informs me about what human beings are like, but all that does is to help me to figure out how best to manipulate them, or to help them.” Data which may seem like the most important thing to one person can have absolutely no, or completely different value to another. The data is itself not intrinsically valuable because it has to do with our origin as a species. The argument for God’s objective perspective on morality is not based on mere origin.[3]  God’s objective moral authority is recognized by theists because God is not only the creator of the universe but is also alive, thinking, and indeed, moral Himself.[4]  God invents the idea of the tree and gives it value. Evolution does not.

Second, even if one were to acknowledge that the data is valuable for society, a person would have to assign value to society for a benefit to society to be valuable to him. You may say “X will help Y immeasurably” but unless I value Y, X has no importance.

Thus, unless I value either the data of evolution, or society, this system of value means nothing. Again, the majority might all agree, and they might be able to enforce their agreement, but they do not, by doing so, assign objective value to these things.

The third position is that, because we are able to assign value to things, we have intrinsic value ourselves. As sources of value, we must ourselves have value. Now, this is true in a theistic universe where God says to humanity “I will, in some way, value what you value.” But it is not true in an atheistic world, because unless I myself value your ability to assign value, it means nothing to me. In fact, from the outside, in a purely natural world, the ability to assign value has absolutely no intrinsic value. Rocks do not care that you can assign value to things, trees are indifferent. The cosmos at large and the smallest grub worm have no issue in smashing you to bits and crawling through your remains. Thus, even the ability to assign value has only the value given to it by those who assign it.

So where does this leave us? It seems that there are two positions then an atheistic morality must take.

1. To reject the total subjective nature of value and insist that there are some things which are really valuable. Anyone who thinks that the rape of a child, the enslavement of a race of people, or even verbal abuse on the street is objectively wrong, must fall into this camp or fall into self-contradiction. To acknowledge that some things have real objective value is to abandon the simple atheist camp and begins to approach theism by acknowledging that there is some objective assignment of value in reality that is beyond nature, for to say that it is in nature is to simply make it one more thing that we can evaluate as valuable or not, and thus not objective.

2. To accept the total subjective nature of value and recognize the inherent contradiction in their position if they try to insist that other people’s values should be different than they are. Thus, if all value is subjective, and one is in the minority, one must realize that there is contradiction in saying “It should not be this way.” Then the person must decide whether or not he values consistency. If he does not, he may shout as loud as he likes until someone shuts him up. But if he does value consistency, he will realize that to say that things “should” be otherwise is less true than simply saying that he wants them to be otherwise.

Of course, then, one must decide whether or not one values truth.

 

[1] We are putting aside here the complicated fact that we may easily argue with each other about what value God has given to things. While those arguments happen all of the time, they are about the particular objective value assigned to a thing, not about whether or not there is an objective value assigned to a thing. Thus when religious debates went on about value of Native Americans and later of African slaves, they were debates that argued about what kind of value these beings had. Were they human, and thus deserving of all human dignity, or less than human, and deserving of less than human dignity? It was always a question of objective value, not of subjective value. It is, of course, of great shame to Christianity, that any of its traditions and arguments could be used to treat humans as if they are less than humans, as continues today with the treatment of women in many Christian societies.

[2] It is important to note here that this description is a description of the facts of morality, not of the moral goodness of particular people. It is evident that a theist, confronted with the brute fact of the value of another person, can transgress that value and do horrific moral evil. It is also a fact that an atheist, acknowledging that a thing only has the value he gives it, can treat that thing with the utmost respect and dignity. There is no question here about theists being more moral than atheists. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that this is the case. Instead, this is a description of the position each of the two is in when faced with the problem of value.

[3] For then we would have to assign some level of value of objectivity to our parents, our biological ancestors, and eventually to non-biological elements in the sea, which presents the same problem as evolution: an amoral reality creating morality. By no means can a really moral person leave their moral structure to an amoral agent. One might as well then toss a coin or roll a pair of dice.

[4] This is not the place for a discussion of what some people think the Bible says about God’s immorality. Difficult passages are difficult, and they must be studied. But they are studied in light of the firmly held doctrine of God’s Goodness.

Thinking Clearly about Hobby Lobby

HLA friend just posted on Facebook about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. For the purposes of anonymity I will leave her name out of this post and simply deal with the argument. My concern here is very narrow, and only addresses the logic of the following arguments. The original post states the following.

A) A company who does or does not offer coverage for contraception has the “power of life and death” over their employees.

B) By not paying for contraception, the Employer has a say over whether or not women procreate.

C) A quote from Justice Sonia Sotomayor  “Is your claim limited to sensitive materials like contraceptives, or does it include items like blood transfusion, vaccines? For some religions, products made of pork? Is any claim under your theory that has a religious basis, could an employer preclude the use of those items as well?”

D) By choosing not to pay for contraception, Hobby Lobby, a for-profit company, is imposing its religious views on its employees.

E) That this stance by Hobby Lobby is the same as determining the religious beliefs for someone.

Comments on the post point out that Viagra is still covered, and that this is a double standard.

 

In response, I will first say that I don’t have any moral compunction against birth-control. I think that it is fully within the moral freedom of a human being to exercise, to the extent of his or her abilities, power over the reproductive act. I do not think that sex and procreation must always go together, any more than I think that taste must always accompany a full stomach. If one thinks that, by an act of power and will, humans should not experience the pleasure of Eros without the consequence of birth, they should also be lobbying very hard against chewing gum, which provides flavor with no nutritional value…and diet sodas….well, perhaps we should all be lobbying against diet sodas.

That being said, I think that the whole perspective of the original post is flawed. I want to put the argument as plainly as I can, so that if I am wrong, it will be easier to show it.

1. There is a difference between (a) forcing someone to do something/prohibiting someone from doing something and (b) not assisting someone in an act but also not prohibiting them. This is easily shown by observing the difference between stopping someone from crossing the street/making them cross the street at gunpoint, and simply not interfering or aiding them cross the street. The first (a) is an impinging on their freedom. The second (b) is an exercise of your own freedom. Now, it may sometimes be wrong to do (b) when the person needs help, but that is a different matter.

2. Hobby Lobby, as well as many other companies see the government as dong (a) forcing them to spend their money on something they find morally wrong. By insisting that they support birth control, the government is removing their freedom to act in accord with their ethics.

3. Critiques of this decision, like the one above, accuse Hobby Lobby of doing (a). In fact, arguments A-E all restate this in some way.

4. However, Hobby Lobby’s action of not covering birth control is actually the same as  (b) which is exercising their freedom to not help someone do something.

Why this is important:

Companies are run by people, and people, in general, have morals (the quality of their morals is not the issue of debate here). For a government or company to (a) force people to use their money against their morals would be an infringement on their freedom. In fact, many people do object to the way their taxes are spent on moral grounds. No one wants a government or a company to force them to do something they find morally reprehensible.

However, this is not what Hobby Lobby is doing. Instead, They are doing (b) which is that they are exercising their right not to help or hinder. If they are forcing people to do anything, they are forcing people to pay for their own birth control, or to see other sources of funding for their birth control, if they want birth control. Paying for one’s own birth control does not seem to be a morally reprehensible act. If it is, I have yet to see an argument that shows it to be.

Justice Sotomayor’s statement falls into the same error. While it would be important to know if your health insurance covers blood transfusions, which would be a valid concern if one was working for a company run by people who have a moral compunction against this (though those religions actually have a more complicated stance on this issue, as far as I know), no company could tell you not to eat pork. They might not serve pork, and they might even prohibit pork on their grounds, but in no way are they infringing on a person’s right to eat pork on their own time, or to buy pork.

As a side note, the Viagra comparison is also logically flawed. Viagra allows some men to have sex who otherwise could not. Birth control does not do this for women. Birth control attempts to control the unwanted procreation of offspring. It is not clear exactly how these two things are at all comparable.

Also, it is good to  note that there is a drug that allows some women to have sex who otherwise could not, and that drug is also Viagra. A faithful woman in a relationship with a man who cannot perform the sexual act without Viagra cannot have sex. An unfaithful woman could, of course, but that is neither here nor there.

And finally, as far as I can tell, there are no moral objections to Viagra. Is that because there’s a double standard trying to keep women down? Well, I could believe that if in fact the majority of men using Viagra were using it to have sex with each other. But, as it happens, I don’t think there is such a statistic. Instead, there’s no moral objection to Viagra because it restores a natural function of the body, it does not prohibit one. Birth control, for good or ill, prohibits what would take place in the course of nature. Ergo, some people have a problem with it. Again, I do not.

Finally, the slippery slope of this situation would be the idea that people give up their rights to be moral creatures the moment they work for a corporation. A person who is a CEO who is told, “I don’t care if you think it is good or evil, just do your job” is a person who is living in a culture that is not far from despotism. We may find other people’s morals to be inconvenient, or even damaging to our livelihoods. But the moment we start empowering the government to tell people, just because they are part of a company, that their morals don’t matter, is the moment we empower the government to tell us the same thing about our own morals.

 

The Two “How’s” – On Multiple Causality

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“So, when a ship has overcome the dangers of the sea, although the result be accomplished by great labor on the part of the sailors, and by the aid of all the art of navigation, and by the zeal and carefulness of the pilot, and by the favoring influence of the breezes, and the careful observation of the signs of the stars, no one in his sound senses would ascribe the safety of the vessel, when, after being tossed by the waves, and wearied by the billows, it has at last reached the harbor in safety, to anything else than to the mercy of God. Not even the sailors or pilot venture to say, I have saved the ship, but they refer all to the mercy of God; not that they feel that they have contributed no skill or labor to save the ship, but because they know that while they contributed the labor, the safety of the vessel was ensured by God.” – Origen, De Pricipiis, 3.1.18

One of the many criticisms laid at the doorstep of theists is that we attribute to God that which seems to be easily accounted for by natural factors. A person suffering from a great illness recovers after consulting a physician and undergoing the physician’s recommended treatments. A husband safely navigates icy roads to come home to his concerned wife. A student, after long hours of study, finally passes the last exam and wins for herself degree and title.

If the patient, man, and woman are theists and devout, they will thank God for the outcome.

This seems like foolishness to those who believe firmly that we live in a world of simple efficient causality. In a mechanistic universe where no room for freedom exists, no room for multiple causality can exist. But the Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or any other religious person, need not hold to a purely mechanistic universe. And, even if we did, the causation of God’s intent would still by no means be ruled out.

Let us put aside the question of mechanistic/non-mechanistic universes and consider a thought experiment with regard to causation.  We will see if we cannot get at what theists mean when they attribute to God some good event.

Imagine a man walking down a mountain path, hurrying to bring medicine to his daughter which he has acquired in a nearby village. The man is suddenly set upon by a mountain lion, and prays to God for help. In what seems a miraculous event, a fall of rocks at that moment crushes the mountain lion, allowing the man to pass by safely and rescue his child’s life. And so begins the story of a young woman who grows up to save her nation from poverty, despair, and invasion.

In a mechanistic appraisal of these events, we might say that the events could not have happened any other way. What appears to us as a shocking and favorable coincidence is, indeed, just one of the many patterns that emerges from the complex interaction of the factors of the universe. Those rocks would have fallen at that moment whether the man’s prayer had happened or not. Perhaps they would have fallen even if the man and mountain lion had not been there. Perhaps the motions or weight or sound of the mountain lion shook them free. Indeed, we could trace the physical causes of those rocks, that lion, and that man back through billions of years of determined causality to the moment of the Big Bang and say that the “why” of that moment was the exact formation of the energy and matter that first expanded in that principal moment.

Yet, we may see the events in another way. The “how” of the rocks falling and killing the mountain lion is also that I, the story teller, have made it happen. I have told the story, not putting the Big Bang first and leading up as a result of its form and matter to the inevitable encounter between man and mountain lion. Instead, the man’s experience, or the daughter’s life of heroism, are the center of the story. The story goes outward from there, and we follow it back to give it context and history. The “how” on this level of the events is my will and act of creating the story. It need not “begin at the beginning” if by “beginning” we mean the first chronological event.

Both “how’s” can exist together, simultaneously, but the mechanistic “how” exists due to the “will and act” how. This leaves out entirely the question of “why.” The why is also my will, but perhaps then it is my will that the young woman should save her country, or that the man should save his daughter, or that the wife of the man might not be widowed. In each case, though, the efficient causes are human efforts, or natural events.  Each person would be right in saying that, though they did their part, the accomplishment of their goal was given by the author of the story.

Benedick and Beatrice spar their way toward each other, but it is the Bard that is to be thanked for their marriage. Frodo may put in the very last of his strength to climb Mount Doom, but it is Tolkien who has ensured that the task is complete.

That we live in a story and not an accident of random events is a matter of perspective. One cannot demand scientific proof that we are in a story any more than Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy might. There is no experiment to run to tell us if we are in a narrative prepared with vast cosmic backdrop for our little lives of love, hatred, jealousies, nobilities, defeats and victories. One either considers the many elements and recognizes the master hand of the master storyteller, or one does not.

But it is clear that it is not contradiction or foolishness when, as the much maligned giant of Christian thought, the second and third century theologian, Origen, relates the situation of sailors above. For it is rooted deeply in the mystery of St. Paul’s teaching, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13).

It is in the will of God that Christians identify their salvation in both mundane and spiritual things. This is not merely theologizing, for the idea itself is contained in the scriptures. For St. Paul speaks from the Areopagus speaking of God as the one “In [whom] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).

I bring this last point up because some people who have not read much from the ancient world have an assumption that many of Christianity’s arguments are newly minted to defend an old system. But the argument for mechanism/fate is older than Christianity. The Stoics, as best I understand them, held a fatalistic view of a mechanistic universe. Origen, quoted above, lived at the end of the second century into the third century.

The debate is an ancient one, one that Christianity has been very active in from the beginning. And from the beginning we have maintained a very clear idea of (at least) two “how’s” of causality.

 

 

Why Suffering 2: After Goodness

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Last week’s blog attempted to explain why, on a natural level, there must be some level of pain, if only very minor, in the process of becoming like God. This week I want to look at why I think that in our present state, it must involve more than simply that small act of letting go of our natural desires and involve real suffering. But first I want to revisit that transcendence of the natural desire for a moment.

We might imagine that for the first unfallen humans, not killing a particular animal or not eating the fruit was as easy as any other task. I think we would be wrong in saying this, for there are two kinds of commandment. The first, which we are more familiar with, involves keeping us away from doing what is really evil. “Do not murder” is always true everywhere. “Do not lie in court against your neighbor” is never untrue. However, “do not slay the white hart, for in the day you do Camelot will fall” is a different kind of command.

On its surface, it is a kind of magic. As long as the fruit is uneaten, or as long as the hart bounds through the forest, the magical land holds. When the rule is broken, the magic fades. But there is a deeper reality to the rule. It calls creatures onward and upward into God’s life. Each time the first people saw the fruit or the animal or whatever they were forbidden, there must have been a process of putting down a natural desire for it. That denial would have been an effort. It would probably not have been very hard, but it would have had to have been conscious for the magic to work. For in denying the natural good of this one thing, they see the better supernatural good of God.

But they did not do this forever. They fell. They broke the magic, and the garden fled. Or, perhaps, it is better to say that the garden was only a garden and not a wild jungle of dangers because those who walked in it were immortal gods for as long as they were obedient to the command. Lions will be lions, but their fangs mean nothing to Apollo. We need not claim that the world became wild only after sin, but that we, after long ages of evolution, came to be men and women with the immortalizing of our spiritual and rational elements as they were given to our newly immortal bodies. To such ones even the saber toothed tiger would be no more dangerous than the housecat . . . even less so.

However we say it, the gods became mortal, and sin entered the world. This sin, which is no different than the sin that lives in each of us, takes from us the easy joy in the other’s good, and sets us in fierce competition with each other. It makes the desire for things a terrible lord over our hearts. It sets jealousies and desires where there should not be. The lusts for sex and pleasure are set in a kind of disorder, but terribly worse is the lust for power and domination. To set our wills above the wills of others, to engorge ourselves by making others slaves or mere extensions of ourselves, is the direct product of our sin.

To be in this state is to be in a state opposed to God. And how can it not be suffering to turn from all of this? One might say that it would be only joy to do so, and in the end I would agree. But in the beginning it involves pain. Firstly, because it involves the giving up of that which we desire with disordered longing. Strengthened by sin, this desire is not only disordered but ravenous. The denial of such ravenous desire must be pain. We have gone beyond the simple natural desire for the fruit that we imagine must taste good, or the animal which would give us hearty chase. Those desires might be overcome with only a small denial of self. But these desires, these lusts after power, possession, and dominance, can only be resisted with effort and pain. Secondly, because we have identified ourselves with these desires, to turn from them is to turn, in some ways, from ourselves.

For a sinless person, a turning from things that are bad would be ease and joy. But a sinless person need not turn from such things. Her trial comes in denying the good things which have been forbidden her because better things have been offered. But a sinful person suffers greatly when turning from her sin. She reaches once more for the old evil, pulls her hand back, kills the self again, weeps, and cries out for aid. The process involves tears. They are the tears of the desperate, the one in need of strength, not merely the contrite. The hunger for evil does not simply go when she has “cried it all out,” but remains until it is cut out of her.

Here we must remember the distinction between “a sin” and “Sin.” A single sin, or a bundle of sins, may be set aside with contrition (here I do not stand with my Catholic brethren, for I do not think that attrition is needed, or, if needed, is wholly dealt with by the cross). However, Sin, that destructive power that lives within us, cannot simply be wept away. No, remaking is necessary there, and that process must involve some level of suffering, for it involves death. Who and what we were will be unmade to be made again. The unmaking of a thing certainly is not a pleasurable process, and that must come first. Perhaps it will all come in the cancer or fire that take our lives. Perhaps.

All of this has been theology of reason. It takes what has been revealed and what is in our experience and considers its ramifications. I want to turn next week to the tradition of the church. For it does not seem to be the consensus of those who have gone before us that the suffering that will purge us from all sin is simply our natural death.

 

Image: “Garden of Eden” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1621

Why Suffering – 1. The Natural and The Supernatural

My post “Jesus: On Our Side” generated a single question: Why am I so sure that the process of becoming like Christ’s idea of me will involve pain? Why will it not be, as it sometimes is, a delightful enfolding of love? I have been asked for a clear reason as to why I think the God of love will cause us suffering in the process of moving toward Him. Is God not the great healer? The great source of love? Why then shouldn’t God make the change one of, not suffering, but a kind of catharsis? When we are swallowed up in love, might we not weep away our sin until we are clean?

Intending to write a single blog post, I realized that this is in fact five posts. So I will be posting, perhaps once a week, a single reason why I believe the process of becoming like Christ involves suffering.

Week 1: The Natural and the Supernatural

Week 2: After Goodness

Week 3: Authority

Week 4: Spoken Aloud

Week 5: The Ever Higher Hill

The following is, I hope, if not a convincing argument as to why the process must involve suffering for us, a satisfactory explanation as to why I believe it must.

There is a debate, especially among my Catholic brothers and sisters, about the question of the relationship between nature and grace. If we can’t be fully satisfied by natural things, we are in some way owed God’s gracious gift of Godself (this is based on a philosophical concept from Aristotle). For a creature must be able to attain its own ends. However, if our own natural ends satisfy us so much, why should we care about God’s gracious gift? We could, it seems, reject it without any violence to our nature.

I find the debate to be difficult at best for a number of reasons, but primarily because, once you get into some of the higher philosophy and theology of it, it predicates of God distinctions that are not meaningful. The God presented in the debates is too anthropomorphic, making one decision “after” another, and setting divine freedom against divine necessity. (These are also the problems inherent in the philosophical debate about God’s freedom starting from Leibniz until today).

However, what is useful for our discussion is the focus on the distinction between human nature and God’s grace. I, siding with St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and many others and hold firmly that the human being is made primarily for fellowship with God. Our hearts are restless until we do. Yet, I also hold that the divine call to grace is a supernatural one. Nature points us in one direction, and the gracious call of God pulls us in another. There is pain in leaving the natural path; a giving up of many of our natural inclinations for supernatural commands. Indeed, following the commands will bring joy, or, when we are at our best, are joy themselves. But that does not remove the fact that by doing them, we are giving up something we would also like to be doing.

Anyone who has come from a relatively happy family, or at least a family of love (for a loving family is not always happy), and gone away to college, knows the feeling. You know you are doing what you must, what you should; even what you want. You know that joy waits just around the corner. But there is a wrench, a tearing, and a suffering that comes from that parting. You are leaving something natural, the home, for something less natural, the dormitory. Those of us who successfully went through the process will say without question that the process is worth it, and that untold joys have been the result. But that does not make the suffering not suffering.

Indeed, all steps away from the natural involve suffering. Christianity, or even religion, is not the only one to lay claim to such things. Let us take marriage for example. The Christian position on marriage is varied, but I will consider here the view held by Catholics, Orthodox, and most Anglicans: that marriage is a sacrament. As a sacrament, marriage is called to a supernatural level. It not only puts two people together in a binding contract with all due legal rights, but calls them to an “unnatural” relationship. They “forsake all others” and swear that the union will end only when their mortal  lives come to an end. This is an unnatural state for humans to be in, as we are constantly reminded by our culture. On the other side, we can see the growing movement of polyamory and open marriages (two distinct practices). These lifestyles, as best I understand them, hold that having only a single partner is not the situation that makes human beings the happiest.

In the middle is the system of the old Roman Republic. Two people make a contract together, and remain together as long as that contract is profitable to them. Hopefully the profit is joy, children, and a richer life, but that is not always the case. Then, when the contract is done, they go their own way to make another contract. Breaking of the contract is forbidden, but happens too often anyway. This system is very much like our own, and is, from a natural level, preferable to our own as it acknowledges that this kind of marriage is a purely natural institution that can and should be left naturally without much in the way of suffering.

What the Christian and the Open Marriage positions have in common is that they both call us to deny certain natural tendencies. The person in the Open Marriage must find his way through the jungle of jealousies and natural reactions to his mate being with other people. Sex aside, one must deal with the touch of the cheek, the affectionate hand holding, and the private jokes that, if all is well, they will be let in on but not in the same way as the two originators. There is a killing of the self that takes place in such situations that is done with the hope that, when these parts are dead, something better will be achieved on the other side. The Christian is in the same position, but on the opposite side of things. There is a death involved every time we meet someone truly wonderful who we might have loved deeply with Eros. We look at what might have been and we say “no,” knowing that we have committed ourselves to a choice. Our partner might be the best person for us, or he might not. Perhaps he is too loud, too angry, too lazy. And yet the Christian call is a supernatural call, one that calls us to deny our natural desires at times. Instead of killing the part of ourselves that wants exclusivity, we must kill the part that wants choices after our decision has been made.

Interestingly enough, both positions claim to draw their adherents to a kind of arch-natural state. Those who insist that human beings do not naturally have only one partner are no less claiming a “rightness” to their position than the Christian who claims a “rightness” to sacramental marriage. Both say that on the other side of the death of the “natural” level, there is something more natural and more life-giving.

The differences between these two positions are obvious and need not be gone into here in detail. But where they are similar is what is important. They both draw us away from our natural state, and this involves a fair amount of self-sacrifice and suffering. For no one has seen the one they truly love looking deeply into the eyes of another with equal love and not felt pain. And, conversely, no one has looked into the eyes of another and though “he . . . he would have made me far happier” and not suffered the shock of loss.

Another way of demonstrating this natural/supernatural dichotomy is from Scripture. The story of the Garden of Eden contains within it a special commandment. The man and his wife are not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a commandment given in a mythical setting, and I am fairly certain that the tree and commandment represent some other commandment given to humanity at its inception. Perhaps it was “do not kill creature X, for in the day that you do, you will surely die”. Or perhaps it was even a command not to eat a certain fruit. But whatever it was, it was not a natural commandment. If it lined up perfectly with the nature of the human creatures, it would have needed no commandment. God did not need to tell Adam not to eat rocks, Adam’s biological tendencies had that well in had. Instead, the command was itself a call to supernatural life: trusting that God is good, and that there is more for us than the natural world.

Obeying the commandment would have been almost nothing, a small self-denial for something much greater. But the self-denial must have involved some small level of suffering, else it could not be self-denial. Something must die in the giving up of what we want, even if the desire is small. If God had told us, “you shall not wear the color yellow” it would be only a small loss for me (though perhaps for others a deep loss). Yet, on those days when wearing yellow might seem best, it would involve a small, perhaps almost (but not quite) meaningless leaving of the self.

This plays out more obviously when we think about the demon of competition. We consider a good that we want, and that is not unlawful or harmful: a job, a friend’s time, a particular book on a shelf. We reach for the thing and find that another wants it. If it is someone we love, we naturally want them to have what they want. If it is a stranger, we may feel quite magnanimous to them. If it is an enemy, we may feel exactly the opposite. But how, even in the first two situations, are we to want their good if it conflicts with our good? How can I wish you to have the same job that I wish for myself?

The commandments of Christ demand from us that not only are we to wish good for all three of these people, our enemy not less than our loved ones, but that we are to give them the very thing we desire if they desire it. It is a giving away that involves suffering because, if we truly desired the job, or the treasured hour with a friend, or the hard to find book, we cannot lose it except with some level of suffering. Having worked for years to be ready to take the job, we find that another has it. How can we not suffer? Having been parted for a year, and having endured many sorrows, we find that the coveted moment is stolen from us when we might embrace our friend, and for a time hear his laughter and bad jokes again because another needs his time more. How can we not suffer?

Yet, we are called by God to go beyond these natural inclinations into joy. They can’t help but be suffering for us, and yet we must let them go. We must not stamp our feet and insist that the job is ours, or that our friend turn his back on someone in need. We must kill that part of ourselves and grow. I do not mean here into “mature adults” who can simply bear the pain, but into sons and daughters of God who give thanks that another has received good. This all involves pain.

But the fact that it involves quite as much pain as it does is strange. Should these things not be small “almost-nothings” that we give away easily? The fact that they are not will require another blog post.

The Relational Secret and the Eschaton

Judgment

This week I attended the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology’s conference this week, a conference which I heartily suggest to those even mildly interested in adding an ecumenically attended conference to their year.  The academic presenters range in tradition from Roman Catholic to Methodist, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran and more on common theological topics.  This year the discussion centered around the last things, or Eschata: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.  The last was left open due to the ecumenical nature of the conference; though I think it got very little play.  Both the papers and the discussions surrounding the topic were top notch, and well worth the time of anyone interested in theological issues.  The center’s page can be found here for both its journal Pro Ecclesia and to keep an eye out for next year’s conference:  http://www.e-ccet.org/

Now that I have done my part to bring more people to the conference, I wish to address a topic which was not directly considered in the papers presented (I place here the caveat that I did not attend the very last paper of the conference which was concerned with preaching about Heaven and Hell).  The topic in question is one of relationships as constitutive of being.  Here I am drawing on Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ proposal that the most fundamental category through which we are to understand God is not “being” but “communion” (Koinonia).[1]

Zizioulas’ understanding of persons as relational aims at undermining two of the three great sins of our reading of personhood in the last century, Radical Individualism, and Collectivism (the third being Objectification which is obliquely addressed by this theory).  Persons are persons, not individuals.  They are not particular instances of humanity existing on their own in a sea of other individuals.  Instead, they are radically related to other persons in a way that both explains and constitutes them.  From our very conception to our death, our identity is defined by who we are in relationship with.  It is not the whole of our being, of course, for we are still subjective “I’s” thinking our own thoughts, loving Celtic Music instead of Hip Hop, or vice versa, or both.  We have our own tastes, our own experiences, and our own particular existence in relationship to other persons with their own tastes, experiences, and particular existences.  This is the safeguard against simple collectivism.  I am I because I am related in some way to you, though I was I before I met you.

Some relations are of course, intrinsically constitutive.  My parents are my parents at the same time that I come into being.  In fact, they are coterminous realities.  My brother, younger than myself, has my brotherhood as intrinsically constitutive of his being, since I became his brother the moment he was conceived. This is somewhat asymmetrical, of course, because the same was not true when I was conceived.  There are of course, many ways we could examine these kinds of relationships, but it is enough to say that who we are is deeply defined by who we are in relationship with.

The Eschatological question here is one that concerns itself with the question of the resurrected identity of those in the Heavenly State.  (I use Heavenly State here to describe the state of the resurrected who are in communion with God, in whatever environment that entails).  A question arises about our identity as either whole or partial in the resurrection if those who are in some way constitutive of our identity are not present.  If someone who was either more or less central to the constitution of my identity is missing because they are ultimately and eternally in Hell, how can I be a full person?  How can I be really myself?  And if not really or wholly myself, how am I fully raised?

While this may seem to us, as we know ourselves now, to be a question about a very few number of people, I think the question is ultimately about every human’s relationship with every other human who has ever lived, or will ever live.[2]  We may not understand how we are shaped by the person who bags our groceries for seven minutes once in our lifetime, but it would be a strange thing to say that even the minutest relationships between two images of God are meaningless.  Far less can we understand how persons who lived in faraway places in times remote and perhaps forgotten, even sequestered from the flow of the rest of human history, could constitute our beings.  But once more it seems strange that any two of the myriad images of the Living God should not be in some way related in a meaningful way that transcends our perceived social and familial relations.

The question of being as constituted in some way by relation continues to plague us when we consider the imago Dei of each person.  Drawing on George MacDonald’s anthropology,[3] I would argue that the revelation of God’s own self is enacted in a special way through the personal relations of each person to God.  Your relationship with God is revelatory of the God who made you, and that relationship is unique.  MacDonald uses the image of the White Stone in the book of Revelation for this idea.  Each person is given a white stone on which is inscribed a name known only to the recipient and the Father (Rev 2:17).

The revelation of God then is personal in multiple ways.  It is a personal relationship directly between a human being and her creator, redeemer, sanctifier, and deifier.  But it is also a relationship with the images of that God who speak, though their very lives, secrets about God.[4]  It seems true that if God has revealed Godself in a particular and unique way in my best friend and worst enemy, like it or not, I must love my enemy as well as my friend to fully love God.

And so we come to the second problem that lies inherent in the question of relation as constitutive of our identities.  For my relationship with God, and who I am in relation to God, is reliant on my reception of the revelation of God given to me.  But that revelation is bound up in the images of God close to me or distant from me in space and time.  Should some of these be lost, that revelation is lost.  My knowledge of God will not, in fact, be complete, or even complete in an Epektasis model, going from fullness to greater fullness.

We may argue that if persons are lost eternally, God will indeed supply the missing bits of ourselves.  God might say, “I am all in all, and I shall give to you what you once had with those persons without their presence or consent.  I will be your brother, cousin, lover, friend, so that you need them not.  What I have bound up in them as revelation of myself, I free from them and give to you directly.”

But can God, or would God do this?  Perhaps the second question first.  Would God take what was revealed as particular persons in our history and say “ultimately, you needed them not, for I am all you need.”  Would the God who has instilled in us the command that the eye should not say to the hand “I have no need of thee” (1 Cor 12:21), say to us “you in fact did not need them at all”?  This seems out of character for the God who teaches us to model all of our behavior on the divine character and life.

The more difficult question seems to be, can God even do it?  Can we distinguish some inner principle of the revelation of God which is in my worst enemy from the person that is my worst enemy?  Can we say that God can abstract from that person some truth or fact that can be presented to me in some other way?  Or is it that the revelation is the person in relationship with God?  Is it that my worst enemy is the secret or truth about God that I must learn, and can learn no other way?  If this is the case, it seems that the only way then, once God has set this truth, this person, forth in history, for me to know this truth, is to know this person in the most intimate exchange of love in the Heavenly State.

It seems then, if Zizioulas is right, that our beings are constituted by relation, and the steps taken in this short essay are safe ones, that the result of a doctrine of eternal hell leaves us with both incomplete persons in the Heavenly State, and an incomplete Revelation to those persons.  This seems intolerable for a solid Christian Eschatology.

Finally, as a bit of speculation, we might also consider the human race as a body (a not unbiblical image).  If the body is also imago Dei, and not only each individual, then we must ask who the audience is for that image.  Might it not be that the angelic hosts wait with bated breath for the day when the full revelation of God in human form is set forth?  One might argue that this is already done in Christ, but while that may be true on the level of nature, it does not seem true on the level of the particular members of that body in relation.  If, as Dr. Paul Griffith’s suggested at the conference, the only things really important about us are the sacramental elements, we might say that the revelation of each human is rather like every other.  But this seems to me to be a rather deficient anthropology.  If instead, my most despised opponent is in fact, by the very fact that he hates the show Mad Men, loves Eggplant, and skiing, particularly revelatory of God, then his inclusion in the body of Christ with Christ at its head is necessary for the full setting forth of the revelation of God called the Human Race.

Perhaps then it would be that revelation that the whole of creation stands in wonder of as the very last Son of Adam comes forth from the hell of self to stand in new godhood before all things.  Perhaps then he will be in new and renewed relation with all others, and all will be made whole.  Perhaps then will the Son of Man say to all else that He has made, “Behold, I tell you a secret about myself.”  And perhaps then the sons and daughters of the earth will shine forth like the sun in the fullness of the glory that was set as their inheritance for all things to behold and rejoice in with not a single light missing, nor a single voice silenced.


[1] John Zizioulas, Being as Communion.

[2] We may also say this about the creation as a whole, which would not stray far from Zizioulas’ ecological intentions.

[3] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I.

[4] Once more we could also say this of the whole of creation.

Can God Make a Rock?

We are often presented with “unanswerable” questions by those who find the idea of God to be either ridiculous or self-contradictory. One aspect or another of the divine fullness is attacked by those who question every minute of every hour. Many of us, who believe that God is the God of traditional Christian expression, have had the question put to us “Can God Make a Rock that God can’t lift?” This post is a short exercise in answering this very question from a number of different theological perspectives. The first approaches the logic of the proposed situation, the second approaches the logic of the question itself, and the third approaches it from a specifically Christian perspective.

1. The Logic of the Proposed Situation

The question is aimed at attacking the omnipotence of God, or even the concept of omnipotence itself. The general idea is that because there are conflicting and mutually exclusive potential realities that an omnipotent God cannot exist, because both alternatives cannot logically be accomplished. Thus, the question asks whether it is possible for God to create a rock that omnipotence cannot lift. If the creation of the rock cannot be done, then God is not omnipotent. If the rock cannot be lifted, the same outcome results.

The question assumes a model of omnipotence that no theologian that I am aware of holds or has ever held in the Christian faith (though I did once meet a pastor who thought this way). The most famous statement on this is from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states “whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” (Summa Theolog. I Q25, 3). Thus, whenever Christians say that God is all powerful, we mean specifically that all intrinsically possible things are within God’s power. Thus, God cannot make a square a circle and also leave it a square. It is possible for a square to become a circle, but it is not possible for it to also remain a square during or after the change.

Now that fact has major ramifications for many questions of Christian theology. For those who hold merely to forensic justification or imputed righteousness, one must ask how a person can be saved, i.e. have the life of God, and be in the very likeness of God, while remaining what they were beforehand. These models seem to propose that God can make a circle into a square and leave it still a circle after the fact. Such a thing is impossible, even for a God for whom all things are impossible.

Thus the question of the rock and God’s power, proposes a logically contradictory situation. God cannot create a rock that God cannot lift, not because it is a possibility that there can be rocks that omnipotence cannot lift, but because it is a sheer impossibility. A rock, being a rock, must have weight, even if it is by some miracle of physics, infinite weight. Omnipotence can easily create enough force to move the rock. The logical contradiction is if Omnipotence could not move the rock, for then it would not be omnipotence. Thus we are left with a situation in which God can create a rock of any size, but the fact that it could not be lifted by omnipotence is itself a logical contradiction, and as we have seen, nothing that implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God…or any omnipotence for that matter.

Now, if this means that omnipotence is impossible, in the sense that many of our detractors imagine it, then we must agree, and have always agreed. Omnipotence which implies the ability to do logically contradictory things has never been, to my knowledge, put forward as an attribute of God by any reputable theologian in the entire history of the Church. So, we may agree with our detractors in deriding this particular version of omnipotence. Thank goodness we’ve never actually proposed it.

2. The Logic of the Question

The question itself is structured in a way that most people do not notice. It essentially forms a double negative, and thus condemns God, not for a lack of power, but for actually being omnipotent. I found this answer while reading Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations, but the answer is so obvious that I’m embarrassed that I did not see it myself immediately.

On the surface, the question proposes two powers that God may have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size or weight. The second is the power to not lift a rock over a certain size. Immediately the problem comes out at once. The second is not a power at all, not an ability that God can have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size at all. The second, however, is not an addition to power, but a subtraction of it.

To say that God lacks the ability to not be able to move certain sizes of rock is simply a very complicated way of saying God can move any rock. The fact that God can move rocks is a power, the ability to find a rock, or even to create a rock, that God can’t move, is not an addition to God’s power, but a subtraction from it. The trick to the question it that it shrouds the proposed lack of God’s power as if it were an addition to it. This would be like proposing the idea that I am a poor writer because I cannot write a sentence that I cannot read. (One need not resort, incidentally, to such complicated means to argue for the weaknesses in my writing). If I were a great writer, I could write any sentence. But I must not be a very good one, if there are sentences from my own hand that I cannot read. This is, of course, nonsense.

3. The Christian Response

This will not be a “Christian” Response in the manner that it will attempt to be nice. Christians should in fact be nice, as far as that goes, but they should also be as accurate as possible, and as faithful to the truth as possible. This answer is Christian, in the sense that it comes only from a Christian perspective. The first two answers could be given by anyone of any faith with a little logic behind them. This, however, turns on that most peculiar of Christian doctrines, the Incarnation.

For, it is true that God has made many stones that God cannot lift. One might guess that any stone much over a hundred and fifty pounds would be too much for the God of the Universe. For we, as Christians, believe that God emptied Godself in the act of becoming human, and dwelling among us. God, with human hands and feet, could not lift the vast majority of stones in the world. The body of a carpenter or stonecutter is strong, and Jesus of Nazareth could almost certainly bench more than I can. But the range of human strength is quite limited. Human beings are small things when it comes to the vast weight of many stones. And this Jesus, though God of the universe, was also a man.

And thus the answer particularly from Christianity is, yes. God can, and has, made many stones that God cannot lift. And this too is no detraction from His power. For the God of all creation to empty Himself, a process called Kenosis, is a vast and mighty miracle. To bridge the gap from that which is not created, God the Trinity, to that which is, the universe, and that particular bit we call Earth, is a miracle that even dwarfs the creation of the Universe itself. So mighty is God that God can walk with human feet, and hold things with human hands. But then, those hands can only hold so much.

Of course, we remember as well that Christ knew very well about humanity’s rock problems. So he offered us the power to move them, to become like Him, and to be able, through faith to move mountains. (Mt 17:20)

So ultimately, the question is not, “Can God make a rock so big that he cannot move it?” The question is “Can God make a rock so big, that those made to share God’s own nature cannot move it?” And the answer, thanks be to God, is no.