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Gregory of Nyssa on Suffering and Evil. Catechetical Oration 5-8.

About the Author
David Wagschal

This post is part of the series Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers, in which our goal is to read the “fathers of the church” without rose-tinted spectacles: i.e. not as a priori authorities, set high upon a pedestal, surrounded by an aura of holiness and inspiration, but simply as any other theologians, whose work can and should be subject to critique in the same manner as anyone else’s. Can the theology of the fathers stand on its own two feet? Can it withstand serious critique? Can it hold its own in a contemporary theological conversation? Above all: is it actually good theology?

At present, we’re working through Gregory of Nyssa’s late 4th century Catechetical Oration (see the intro post for texts and editions).

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In chapters 5-8 of his Catechetical Oration, Gregory makes a number of theological moves that are foundational for his whole project. In fact, here we see expressed with exceptional clarity some of the core beliefs of the entire patristic synthesis.

It’s also here that some of the most serious weaknesses of his theology start to emerge.

This post is rather long, but it needs to be. Here’s the breakdown, spread over two posts:

  1. Suffering and Death: The Main Argument of 5-8
  2. How Good Are These Arguments?
  3. [Next post] An Alternative
    • Re-think #1: Our Idea of God
    • Re-think #2: The Comprehensibility of Evil
    • Re-think #3: The Free Will Trap
  4. [Next post] Afterword: Why Does Gregory Mess This Up? Greco-Roman Culture 101.

1) Suffering and Death: The Main Argument of 5-8

The central theological problem of chapters 5-8 is the problem of suffering and death. It is to Gregory’s credit that we encounter these issues so quickly. These are, after all, issues where the rubber hits the road for many people. Why is there suffering? Why me? Why death? Why pain? What is the source of evil? These questions, and the answers we give them, are often make-or-break for peoples’ relationship with God.

Gregory broaches these questions by continuing the mythological arc of his argument, i.e. by further developing his exposition as a narrative of primeval origins. In earlier chapters he treated the nature of “God in general”; then he moved to the Trinity; and now, classically, he turns to creation.

His first concern (ch. 5) is to note that, in keeping with God’s loving nature, humanity was created to partake in the goodness and beauty of God and God’s creation. Humans were equipped in their very nature to participate in the divine goodness by possessing faculties of wisdom, reason and immortality that are akin to divine prototypes—i.e. made in the “image of God”. This framework of “sympathetic participation” functions as Gregory’s basic means of understanding how we connect and relate to God. (Incidentally, this framework, as developed in this chapter, is highly redolent of contemporary Neoplatonic philosophy/theology, including the notion that God’s nature is such that he does not “hoard” his divinity to himself, but instead creates a world to partake of himself; the notion that the human realm/person somehow reflects the divine; and also in the heavy use of the concept of “participation”: μετέχω, μέτοχος, etc.)

But, he quickly notes: what happened to this paradisiacal plan? Clearly the soul doesn’t find itself looking very divine anymore, the body is afflicted by passions, we die, and so on. Given God’s intention, how do we account for humanity’s actual state?

His core answer is presented immediately in chapter five: free will. God, Gregory notes, did not deprive humanity of that chiefmost of good things, freewill. In fact, humans can’t be properly understood to be made “in the image of God” if they don’t have free will: it is virtually the lynchpin of our humanity. But this free will—or rather, our misuse of this divine faculty—is precisely the source of evil, death, and destruction.

But why (ch. 6) do humans misuse this faculty, and exercise our free will to turn away from good, towards evil? Well, Gregory answers: creation is by its very nature changeable and subject to passions, and so the devil (as the “Power” assigned to take care of the earth) was capable of growing angry at the fact that something earthly and subject to him should also be made in the image of God. In his envy, he deceived humans into turning from good to evil.

But if God knew that this would happen, why did he create humanity in the first place (ch. 7)? Doesn’t this still make God evil? Would it not have been better if humans had never existed, instead of subject to the pain and suffering of the world?

No, answers Gregory, this perspective rests on an excessively bodily or physical sense of evil. We must not judge good and evil by sense perception (δι᾽αἰσθήσεως), the “phenomena of the body” (τὰ κατὰ τὸ σῶμα φαινόμενα). Instead we must judge in a spiritual or intellectual manner. If we do this, and we plumb to how things really are with our mind (νοῦς), we won’t see anything in the physical realm as bad (κακόν) except moral evil (πονηρία) itself—and moral evil is simply the absence of good, which comes into being only through the movement of free will.

So take death (ch. 8): at first death appears to be the worst of all possible evils. But upon (intellectual) reflection, we realize that death is actually just a dissolution of the (tainted) physical body so that it can be re-formed through the resurrection. So God has permitted this for our own good. And as to the soul, Gregory continues, it too experiences a kind of death. But its resurrection comes through training in virtue. And this training is painful and difficult to those who lack discernment. But although it appears bitter, this training actually shows forth the wisdom and providence of God.

In the end, then, only those of great “small-soulness” (μικροψυχία) judge good and evil by physical sense-perception, and get hung up on the troubles of the world—people who “do not know that that which is good by nature cannot be touched by physical sense perception.” Only “irrational creatures” judge good and evil by “pains and pleasures”. If one had a broader, spiritual/intellectual perspective on things, one wouldn’t dwell on the pains inherent to our changeable nature, but would see the wisdom of all of God’s providential acts that call us to repentance.

Ultimately, our physical sufferings are part of the wisest possible plan. And we shouldn’t see God as the source of evil, because real evil doesn’t actually exist, and therefore was not created or caused by God. Real evil is simply the absence of good, brought about by the inclination of our will. God has no part in evil proper.

2) How good are these arguments?

If you’ve read much theology, Gregory’s arguments should be quite familiar. In their core ideas, they have become traditional, almost pat. It’s easy to breeze by them.

But there is a lot here that requires closer scrutiny. Gregory has made a few moves here that, if we stop to ponder them, are quite problematic.

Leaving aside some issues of logic, we can identify three critical missteps:

  1. He has denied the significance and, ultimately, the reality of our physical experience of suffering and pain. In effect, he has said they are not truly evil. He doubles-down on this by asserting that:
    • Our suffering and pain are necessary, and part of God’s plan/wisdom, in the sense that the only other possibility would be our non-creation or annihilation.
    • Our suffering and pain, if properly understood, are ultimately good for us.
  2. He asserts that we ourselves are the source of all evil: evil has its origin in us, and specifically in the movement of our will (strictly he pushes it back onto the devil, but this is a bit of a technicality; our complicity is critical). Evil is our fault. This observation is driven by an even more fundamental conviction—which is actually the leading thought of the entire section—namely, that God is to be understood as absolutely impassible and unchangeably good. God must therefore be exculpated from all evil. In fact, against the Manicheans and others, a central concern of the section is to argue that creation must take the blame for evil in order to protect God’s pristine and blameless nature.
  3. He casts the right exercise of our free will as a critical, constitutive part of who we are and our relationship with God.

Righto. Where to begin our critique?

Let’s start with #1. It’s best to think about this one existentially, i.e. from our own experiences of death, pain and suffering. Or perhaps from our contact with others who have experienced real and quite terrible tragedy.

What is the one thing that you don’t say to someone who has suffered something terrible? What is among the worst possible sentiments?

Simple: that the physical, perceptible death, suffering or pain that they are experiencing isn’t real; that it isn’t evil; that it isn’t truly wrong and perverse. The worst thing you can do is deny the horror of what they are experiencing.

“Your child just died in your arms. It isn’t so bad.”

Why do we not say this? Not simply because it’s insensitive. We don’t say this because it’s a lie to say this. The full-on reality and horror of death, suffering and evil is perhaps the one thing that almost all humans eventually learn to be true without any doubt. Physical, “sensible” suffering is absolutely real, absolutely consequential, and absolutely evil. To think so is not “small-mindedness”. It’s honesty. It is complete clear-mindedness. After all, what other suffering is there, meaningfully, for humans aside from “sensible” suffering?

But if we insist that everyone somehow ignores or “disbelieves” their suffering—transcends it through some type of intellectual exercise—we weave profound denial of reality into the very fabric of Christian belief. We demand that Christians live in state of permanent dissociation from their lived experience; that they engage in a kind of constant cognitive disconnect with reality. We insist that the Christian life becomes a kind of studied charade.

There is another reason we don’t say this: socially, it is very dangerous. To assert that physical suffering is somehow not real or significant discourages attempts to stop suffering in society. It makes people think that injustice and physical violence are inevitable, ineluctable, part of the “natural” order. It thus functions as an ideology to rationalize and normalize oppression, injustice, and violence: “Just accept this suffering. After all, you are wise enough to see that it is not real, yes?” At the very least, it dulls the edge of our response to it, or blinds us to suffering’s full horror.

Here it is important to note that the ancient world was filled with ideologies that tried hard to convince people that suffering wasn’t really suffering, and that above all they should just endure and accept the status quo. Why? The socio-economic structure of the ancient world required constant oppressive violence, perpetrated by small elites upon huge under-classes, to maintain grossly unfair imbalances of power and wealth. To justify and perpetuate this systemic oppression, the ancient world had a tremendous need to cultivate a culture of submissive compliance and resignation. Stoicism was the most famous example of an ideology that did exactly this. Here Gregory, a member of the Greco-Roman elite, is voicing a Christian variant of a familiar ancient theme.

But returning to the thread of Gregory’s argument: if denying the significance and reality of someone’s suffering is bad enough, how could you make such an assertion worse?

By saying that not only is death and pain not that real, but that it’s actually for your own good. It’s teaching you something. It is necessary. “Your child has died in your arms. This is to teach you a lesson.”

At first, such sentiments might seem comforting, even wise. We are trying to tell people that their suffering is part of some divine (abstract, abstruse) plan: there is some cosmic purpose to it all. This provides people with a sense that their suffering has meaning—and meaning is a critical need for all humans. It also functions—or so it seems—as a way of “snapping” people out of self-pity and despair, to push them beyond suffering to productivity and functionality: to push them out of wallowing and back into life.

But in the long run these sentiments make suffering much worse. Ultimately, if we’re honest, they are designed to comfort and assure those who observe suffering, not those who are suffering.

The problem is simple enough, but it can be a bit tricky to see, since there is truth to the idea that in our daily life some types of suffering produce good things. They can jolt us out of negative patterns, they can provide us with needed “humble pie”, and so on. People can look back on even horrific experiences and discover genuinely positive outcomes.

The problem, however, is that generally none of this is true when we move beyond petty life upsets (“I didn’t get the promotion”). Many of us, unfortunately, learn that there is plenty of suffering that is not in any way productive or redemptive: it is just horror, just darkness. It has no purpose. It doesn’t really teach anyone anything. It just hurts. It’s just pain. It’s just endless loss. And in fact, if we’re honest, such suffering often makes people worse (embitters people, breaks them, destroys marriages, etc.). And to tell people otherwise is just to force them into a kind of denial, another lie. It just add lies, denial, and shame to the suffering that is already there.

Further, even if we can strain to see some “lesson” in even quite horrific suffering, the suffering is generally ridiculously disproportionate to the lesson learned. Watching your child die from a random, painful genetic disorder, or seeing a loved parent slowly waste away with chronic physical and mental disease, becoming a tortured shell of who they once were, until they finally ignominiously depart—none of this is not going to be worth any “spiritual lesson” about the transience of all things, or one’s own ability to cope in adversity, or whatever. And in any case: are there not other ways that such “lessons” could be learned? And who would not instantly “return” these lessons for their child’s life? For a painless and dignified death for their parent? And do many of these lessons really need to be taught anyway? Is this not just a kind of cruelty?

Think about it: we could teach our children profound lessons by continually perpetrating terrible abuses upon them. In some cases this might produce genuine wisdom.

But of course mostly it wouldn’t. Mostly it would just break them. And even if it did produce some light, it would be madness.

And yet Gregory’s theology casts God as acting in just this way! Gregory’s God is basically a sadistic, abusive guru, presiding over a universe designed to impart wisdom and love through pain and suffering. (By the way: note how coercive and violent the medical imagery is in ch. 8; see my earlier post on problems with patristic therapeutic language.)

No: telling people that their suffering is to “teach them a lesson” is not ultimately comforting. Not at all. It just makes the suffering worse by dening the full horror of what they are going through and turning God into a monster. It’s really just a way for those not suffering to close their eyes and hearts to those that are.

Can this get worse? Yup! Moving to #2 and #3 above, Gregory now adds: not only is your suffering not that important or real; not only is it for your own good; not only is this teaching you a “lesson”; and it is all necessary; but it’s also all your fault. God has nothing to do with this.

So somehow we’ve created—or at least perpetuated—this world of death and suffering that we are experiencing. It’s all our doing. Your friend’s child has just died in their arms from a congenital disease, after a very short and painful life. You look into your friend’s eyes and say: “You may not understand this now, but this is ultimately your own doing. In some profound, ultimate way, this was and is in your power to stop. But God allows this to teach you a lesson.”

Madness.

This is a kind of perverted meglomania. Obviously we don’t have that kind of agency over our world. We may have control over our immediate behaviour, but the horrors of the world extend far beyond our direct volition. Look at nature! In fact, much of the worst suffering doesn’t have clear or defined volitional actors. And even if we want to see humanity as a whole as somehow the ultimate source of all evil —well, is it really fair that we individually suffer for this the way we do? Did we really do something to deserve this existence? Would we inflict such a world on anyone, even if we were wronged? Is this type of world the wisest way things could have turned out—really? There wasn’t another configuration?

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No. This theology is, frankly, bullshit. I don’t use that expletive lightly.

Step back a little, and let the true horror of this theology come into focus. Notice what is happening here. This theology:

  1. Denies the significance of the victim’s suffering.
  2. Blames the victim.
  3. Justifies and rationalizes the suffering: “this is for your own good”; “there is no other way”, “this is just hard medicine for you”, “I have to do this to teach you a lesson”.
  4. Has as its primary concern the exculpation of the perpetrator of suffering and those not suffering, not the health of the one who suffers or justice for the one who suffers.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s basically an ideology of abuse—a theology of abuse! It’s really messed up. The only reason we tolerate it is because we’ve become inured to it.

But there is a final step down the rabbit-hole, which becomes clear when we consider why we are enduring this theology in the first place.

Two central ideas drive the whole complex.

The first is that God must, above all, remain spotless, perfectly impassable, Absolutely Good, and fully exculpated from any wrongdoing.

But this means we are enduring the above theology… why?

So that Christianity’s God can appear to be a respectable Hellenistic god!

For crying out loud.

The second is that the correct exercise of our free will in our relationship with God is of absolute, paramount significance—it must be maintained at all costs.

But this mean that God allows us to subsist in a universe of constant pain and horror…why? So that he can experience our praise and glory freely given! That’s the main reason. Apparently no amount of human suffering outweighs God’s need for perfect mini-me’s to worship him freely. Here it’s interesting to note that Gregory’s God emerges as a surprisingly traditional Greco-Roman God: a kind of self-centered narcissist, concerned above all that he receives praise and glory by his handiwork in a very specific way. But this God doesn’t just want a bunch of oxen sacrificed according to this or that ritual; he is thirsty for our very wills. Nothing else will do.

Hallelujah.

Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to formulate an alternative theology. Stay tuned.

[Next post: Part two. An Alternative]

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