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Gregory on Evil and Suffering. Part Two: An Alternative?

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)

Gregory on Evil and Suffering: Part Two

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

***

3) An Alternative

It’s not difficult to build a much better theology of suffering and death (read: that conveys the Gospel more faithfully), but since we’ve all become so accustomed to theology like Gregory’s, the alternative can feel very unintuitive.

Essentially, we need to radically re-think all of Gregory’s underlying assumptions. Luther opened the door to this in the 16th C, but the necessary conclusions are still rarely voiced in contemporary theology.

Re-think #1: Our Idea of God

The place to start is our ultimate idea of who God is—and where we’re getting that idea from.

Gregory’s starting point is basically Neoplatonic: God is a Perfect Being in the Sky, Absolutely Good, Absolutely Wise, beyond all change, all passibility, etc.

Promoting this vision, defending it, and working out its implications are the key generative forces behind Gregory’s theology. His theology is essentially one long set of corollaries to this vision.

But you don’t have to do theology this way. As Luther realized, there is another way that Christians can approach the knowledge of God. This way is called the “theology of the cross”. This approach understands the ultimate and chief reference point for God to be not some abstract Perfect Being, but the Christ of the Gospel—specifically, the crucified redeemer who died for us and who grants us salvation as a radically free gift.

In this vision, we take Christ crucified as the fundamental and basic revelation of who God is—and then work out our theology from there.

Philosophically, this is a messy way to do theology. But it is fascinating to see how it points us to some very startling conclusions.

What do we immediately notice when we turn to the question of evil and suffering?

First, the point of the crucifixion is not to exculpate God—Gregory’s central concern—but to implicate God in our suffering and pain. God is immediately revealed as precisely a God who suffers: is passible, changeable, weak, conflicted. God is not fundamentally a Big Spotless Being in the sky. He’s fundamentally a filth-encrusted human wallowing in the muck of our reality—but who bears a promise of something better. So immediately our starting point is virtually opposite that of Gregory.

Second, the crucifixion is precisely about physical, sensible (sense-able) suffering. There is no denial or downplaying of the significance or reality of this type of suffering. To the contrary, God reveals this type of suffering to be, in effect, what suffering is really about. There is certainly no whiff of a call for us to raise our minds “above” this type of suffering, to ascend beyond it to some intellectual realm where we can perceive that our suffering is not “really suffering” or evil. Not in the slightest! In fact, brief thought reveals that such an idea would be tantamount to denying the significance of the cross altogether.

Third, God isn’t revealed as trying to “teach” us something with suffering, or use it as a medicine, or suggest it is necessary for us. There is no justifying of suffering and death, and no instrumentalization of it at all. Suffering remains nothing but a horror that God experiences and then simply destroys. This point is tremendously important. There is nothing sapiential about the cross or suffering: it is not fundamentally about providing us with any wisdom or insight. Critically—despite some early Christian speculation to the contrary (“take up your cross”)—it’s also not something we’re being asked to participate in: in the Gospel, God is doing the all of the suffering for us. That’s the whole point. There is nothing we need to add.

Fourth, God doesn’t seem to be too worried about whose fault any of this was! It’s just not an issue. And, if anything, it is very interesting to ponder the implications of the fact that God is clearly the one taking responsibility (“paying the price”) for evil. Hm!

So, right off the bat, the Gospel pushes in precisely the opposite direction of Gregory’s theology, and on fundamental points. If we take the approach of the “theology of the cross”, and understand the Gospel of Christ crucified as truly definitive of Christianity—it’s criterion of truth—Gregory’s theology should be quite impossible. The Gospel pushes us towards something very different.

Re-think #2: The Comprehensibility of Evil

One of Gregory’s basic assumptions is that Christianity can make sense of evil: that part of the Good News is that we get a Good Explanation.

To be fair, humans do want an explanation for suffering and evil in the world—and particularly for why God permits it to happen. This is a very basic human need.

But is this something that Christianity can really provide? Or should even try to provide?

Gregory is an excellent example of how this can go wrong. His attempt to explain evil basically ends up twisting the Christian message into an ideology of abuse: our experience of suffering is dismissed, the victims are blamed, and God is established as a cruel, sadistic disciplinarian who is obsessed with coercing his creation to obey and love him not just from fear but totally freely (or else: more “medicine”!).

But Gregory is not alone here. I would suggest that most attempts at explaining evil end up with a picture of God that is pretty messed up. The Augustinian/Calvinist theories of predestination provide other excellent examples.

But perhaps there is another way of approaching this?

Here we need to re-examine another “deep assumption” of almost all patristic and medieval theology (inherited from Greco-Roman mind-body dualism): that there remains something pristine in our intellectual faculties that is untainted by sin. Ancient theology is profoundly convinced that we possess a seed of the divine that remains somehow unsullied, and that is capable, with training and God’s help, of “connecting” with the divine in a pure way.

As a result, much patristic and medieval theology is concerned with the re-activation and re-orienting of our intellectual/volitional faculty (usually away from earthly realities to heavenly ones) as the very process that effects, or is, our salvation. This belief leads directly to a very high valuation of human reason. It suddenly becomes possible for us to think our way to the truth of problems like the problem of evil; and holding this truth becomes itself a path to salvation.

Luther, however, reflecting on the Gospel that Jesus has done everything to save us, and we do nothing, had a much more thorough, radical idea of sin. For Luther, there remains nothing in humanity that is untainted by darkness and evil, including reason (and the will). In fact, if anything, reason might be the most tainted element of the human. Further, this taint is a deep stain, penetrating to the very core of all our faculties, leaving nothing recoverable or usable, at least as pertains to the divine. And the stain is indelible. There is no amount of our scrubbing that we can do to “unleash our hidden divinity”, as it were.

As a result, for Luther, reason is fundamentally and permanently untrustworthy as relates to any question of the divine—including the nature of evil.

So for Luther, the whole idea that we can come up with a Good Explanation is suddenly put into doubt. Our reason will always generate inadequate explanations. These will be inherently corrupt, i.e. they will always undermine the Gospel of radical grace, no matter how well-intentioned. There is, therefore, in this world, no escape from the tortured conclusions of our minds: our minds will always end up presenting us with something like Gregory’s theology, or Calvin’s—a vision of cruelty, futility, horror.

This approach to reason creates a very different theology than what we are used to. Theology becomes fundamentally deconstructive, not constructive. It becomes at core a process of constantly challenging our beliefs and dogmas by the impossibly radical message of the Gospel of free, universal grace. That’s it. Theology is just an exercise in allowing the Gospel of radical grace to constantly and permanently explode and contradict what our minds come up with about God and God’s actions. It is an exercise in total (and impossible) passivity and humility before this Gospel.

What then happens to the problem of evil in this framework?

It suddenly shifts from a problem of finding the right answer/explanation to a problem of figuring out how we can still engender hope in light of the fact that there is no good answer.

Theology therefore shifts from an abstract discourse of knowledge to a practical discourse of trust—from a sapiential to an existential discourse. The basic “sapiential answer” to evil then becomes quite simple, almost banal:

– The world is filled with evil. God does nothing. All is horror. No explanation works.
– Correct. Nevertheless: we have the Gospel.

But providing this answer is not the point—since it’s obvious, and also unsatisfying. The point is that we are now driven to finding concrete ways, for concrete human beings whom we know, to turn that message of grace into actual hope, actual care, and actual diminishment of suffering. The point suddenly becomes action.

Re-think #3: The Free Will Trap

Central to Gregory’s thought on evil and suffering is the concept of free will. In fact, this concept is critical to Gregory’s entire anthropology (i.e. his understanding of what it is to be human). He views free will as “the most beautiful and honoured of good things” which God has bestowed upon humanity, and an essential element of how humans have been made to “reflect” God’s image (ch. 5). This last is key, as our creation in the “image of God” is understood as a critical affinity or nexus with God by which salvation/deification is effected.

Gregory’s arguments about free will and evil (which don’t originate with him) will become classic. They are as follows:

  1. As a creation of God, humans are unthinkable without free will: God wanted a son, not a slave. God was not interested in creating an automaton, since an automaton could not be said to participate in his goodness in any type of authentic way. Participation in God = salvation, and participation requires real choice.
  2. However, a creature with an authentically free will comes with a risk: this free will might turn away from God. And this (with a nudge from the Devil) is exactly what happened to humanity. This is the origin of evil.
  3. God, of course, in his omniscience, knew this was going to happen. But because of #1, in his wisdom, God accepted this outcome, since this was better than not creating us at all, which was the only other alternative. And, of course, God also provided for the means of recalling our will back to the good: the whole “economy of salvation” (i.e. Christianity).
  4. So, in the end, our world as we experience it now, suffering and all, is effectively a necessary corollary of creation.

Today, I think some version of this argument functions as most Christians’ day-to-day explanation for evil and suffering. It’s logical, simple, and exculpates God from any direct causation of evil. Above all, it provides some reason for the evil we experience—it puts evil and suffering in the perspective of a grand plan.

Interestingly, and a bit perversely, it also flatters us on a number of levels. It grants our actions and the movements of our will cosmic significance. Created as mini-reflections of God, we have been able, by our choices, to fundamentally alter the direction and state of creation—and therefore, very importantly (and we’ll come back to this later in this series), our will are critical in effecting salvation. It also flatters us by allowing us to assume a grave piety of “taking responsibility” for evil and suffering. This allows us to adopt a stance of moral superiority—almost moral machismo—vis-à-vis any other type of explanation that might try to blame God, or something other than ourselves. It makes us feel grown-up and serious. It is strangely self-satisfying.

Gregory’s arguments about evil and free will, however, are much weaker, and much less necessary, than they first appear.

Once again, Luther was the first theologian to suspect that the old theology might have taken a wrong turn. In particular, Luther had a really revolutionary insight: there is not a necessary connection between human free will and salvation. This insight is in turn based on a thought that I think never, ever entered the mind of any classical or medieval theologian before Luther (although some of the medieval mystics and nominalists may have come close). Luther realized that it is possible to conceive of humans as having an intellectual faculty or capability—the mind, the will, perception, the interpretative faculty, whatever—which is fully functional, sophisticated, and God-given, but that simultaneously is completely unimportant and ineffective in regards to salvation. We have been given Reason, and Will, and they both might be powerful, glorious, a great gift, and so on; but, as relates to salvation, they simply don’t matter.

Luther is here saying that there is a complete metaphysical gap and incommensurability between the human and divine realms (philosophers: here Luther is very much a proto-Hume). They are just totally different categories. So, it is no problem to affirm that humans, as humans, have perfectly free wills in their day-to-day “civic”, human lives, and even that this is how God created us to be. But at the same time Luther can affirm that our free wills have nothing to do with salvation, as this is entirely in God’s realm. There is no essential reason to say that free will is only free will if it also somehow affects our salvation.

This observation throws the ancient theology into paroxysms, because it is predicated upon removing any ontologically significant role for humans in things divine—we’re always “just humans”. There is no longer a nexus between the bodily and divine worlds which we are straddling, climbing and ever-closing. Instead, in terms of salvific effect, humanity’s relationship to God is only one-way: God acting on humanity. Humans, as relates to the divine, are totally passive in the sense that we always remain “just humans”, even as God effects our salvation. This is a short-circuit for ancient Greco-Roman thinking, which could only view humans as worthwhile or valuable if they were becoming divine—participating in divine things, and becoming little gods. But Luther is saying that we can be are valuable and beloved simply as humans. No element of our faculties needs to do anything divine or become divine. God can just act on us from outside.

This may all sound pretty abstract, but in relation to evil and suffering, Luther’s view is actually quite commonsensical. Think about it: Why would God ever put our salvation in our hands? Or allow our wills to have any life-or-death impact upon us? It only takes a few moments to realize that the “son not slave” argument is really weak. If your child is about to walk off a ledge and plunge to their death, are you not going to seize them and forcibly save them? If a car is about to strike your friend, will you not push them out of the way? In any type of life-or-death situation—which surely salvation is!—would we not always act one-sidedly to save our fellow human being?

Or would we instead scratch our chin and ponderously consider the philosophical importance of free-will agency, while our loved one is killed? Of course not!

No: in anything important—read anything divine—of course we should expect that God acts one-sidedly! (Notice how the ancient theology often seems to create a god that is even less moral than we are? I’ve remarked this many times in this blog, and it’s something worth tracking.) And this idea flows very naturally from the Gospel. We don’t save us: God saves us. The movement of salvation is a movement of God’s total grace, God’s total love, God’s total forgiveness.

No, the Gospel is exactly that God’s grace blows our free will away like a gale: the movement of grace is inexorable, crushing, terrible. Our free will is quite powerless. Of course it is!

The opposite view, that our will plays a pivotal role in salvation, corrupts the Gospel. Suffering and evil suddenly become (sadistically) part of the “Good News”: they become necessary parts of God’s plan, which is a perverse “contest of virtue”-cum-punishment-session which God tyrannously oversees. And God is oddly not even exculpated from evil, because it is precisely God’s demand for a creature with a metaphysically-potent will that is evidently the cause of evil. It’s really quite a mess!

Of course, if we remove our free will as a causative factor in the ultimate origin of evil—or indeed of anything metaphysically significant—where does this leave the problem of evil and suffering? Clearly we all experience evil and suffering, and we propagate it too. Even if we don’t believe our will has metaphysically significant results, our “everyday” wills clearly cause a lot of evil and suffering. Why? If we can’t blame our wills, how did this world happen?  

Well: see #1 and #2 above. Bottom line: reason is the “Devil’s whore”, sin permeates everything, and we really don’t have an answer. We only have the Gospel. The only real question is: how can we make the hope of the Gospel even a bit real for people who suffer?

***

Afterword: Why Does Gregory So Royally Mess This Up? Greco-Roman Culture 101. A few concepts critical for understanding patristic thought

Gregory ends up with a pretty ghastly, and in fact perverse, vision of evil and suffering. It’s not only incoherent, but also a very bad fit for the Gospel.

When you find a “theological hiccup” of this magnitude, it’s worth taking a step back to ponder what went wrong. In my experience, when this happens, we need to look for not simply a misstep of reason—a confused idea—but for some type of existential, socio-cultural factor that is driving the discourse, and potentially blinding the actors.

In Gregory’s case, I think a few things are going on.

First, a key factor is simply the weight of elite, non-Christian Greco-Roman piety. The broadly Platonic consensus philosophy/theology that had congealed in elite circles by the 4th C was invested to the bone in the idea of a supremely transcendent, impassible, philosophically rarefied “Big God” as the only respectable and valid concept of divinity. It also could only think of humanity as, in effect, a mass of failed or inchoate “little gods”, who naturally related to God through the affinity of faculties in their divine prototypes. These little defective gods, however weak and damaged reflections of the divine they were, were still central players in the cosmic drama: God’s fellow-workers.

Under the strain of this piety, we can see how Gregory’s theological treatment of evil went wrong. This elite Greco-Roman god was simply too small for the God of the cross! And its idea of humanity quixotic, self-absorbed, even delusional. In this case, the old Protestant canard about patristic theologians being “too philosophical” or “too Greek” is probably right.

But I think two other under-appreciated socio-cultural factors are also at play in (mis)directing Gregory’s account of evil.

Slavery

It is difficult to overstate how foreign and abhorrent the ancient world would seem to us today. There are many reasons for this, but among the greatest would be the institution of slavery. Slavery was an all-encompassing, omnipresent part of ancient culture. Estimates vary, but it is likely that at least 10% of the Roman population was enslaved by the 4th C. In some places, that percentage may have been much higher. The economy was very much dependent upon slaves (and other almost-slaves), as were most elite households, and even, at times, parts of the bureaucracy. Gregory’s whole world depended upon a highly extractive, repressive social structure whose bottom layer consisted of masses of human chattel.

It’s hard for us to imagine how the reality of slavery would change our outlook and sensibilities. One in ten people you met would effectively be treated as non-human; they would have virtually no rights; they could be killed at whim; they could  be physically harmed with great ease; they could be bought and sold like livestock; they could be (and were) sexually assaulted routinely. They were in effect a whole segment of day-to-day humanity who were in a state of constant violence, brutality, and horror. To get a sense of this, go watch 12 Years a Slave, but imagine this with no escape. It is really hard to overstate how vile the ancient world was on this one account alone.

This reality, however, puts Gregory’s immense—but not terribly coherent—emphasis on free will in a totally new perspective!

Notice the language Gregory uses when discussing free will (ch. 5):

“… God would not have deprived humans of that most beautiful and most honoured of good things, I mean the grace of being without a master and having authority over oneself [λέγω δὴ τῆς κατὰ τὸ ἀδέσποτον καὶ αὐτεξούσιον χάριτος]. For if a certain necessity presided over human life, the image [of God in humanity] would be falsified in that part… for how could it be called an icon of the ruling nature if it were yoked and enslaved to necessities? [τῆς γὰρ βασιλευούσης φύσεως ἡ ἀνάγκαις τισὶν ὑπεζευγμένη τε καὶ δουλεύουσα πῶς ἂν εἰκὼν ὀνομάζοιτο;] Therefore, that which has a likeness to the divine in all things must have in its nature the capacity of self-rule and must be without a master [ἔδει πάντως ἔχειν ἐν τῇ φύσει τὸ αὐτοκρατὲς καὶ ἀδέσποτον…”

The language of slavery and social stratification is unmistakable. (Lutherans may also want to remark the curious content of “grace” here!)

This puts Gregory’s obsession with free will in a very new light: Gregory is terrified by the idea that God might have created him as a slave! Slaves were nothing. They were beyond disgrace. Slavery was the deepest horror and fear. Of course Gregory is going to set human free will at the center of his anthropology! It’s critical for Gregory and his elite audience to view God as treating them as free men. Any suggestion that might vitiate this image would, I think, be quite literally unthinkable, and plumb to their deepest fears (and no doubt guilt?).

From this perspective, it suddenly becomes possible to see the entire doctrinal complex of “free will” as an artifact of contextual theology. It is a temporally-located reflex to slavery. It is a fossilized fear-response of the Greco-Roman elite.

Sadly, it has persisted, and as we’ve seen above, its theological consequences are not happy. This is a rather good example of culture trumping good theology.

The Agon (The “Culture of Competition”)

Gregory’s discussion of the centrality of free will also betrays another key elite Greco-Roman instinct: the strong valuation of a culture of contest or competition.

Greco-Roman elite culture was profoundly competitive. In a way that has been tempered in our comparatively egalitarian society, elite Greco-Roman society (especially male society) was centered on constant public contest or agon [ἀγών]. Military culture, athletic culture, intellectual culture, rhetorical culture: all were structured around (at least notionally) public displays of competition, where winning and receiving public praise and recognition of the community were exceptionally highly valued. Gaining “glory”, winning “the prize”, seeking to best all others, and shamelessly engaging in braggadocio—with endless monuments and so on—were expected and even encouraged in a way that today seems a bit crass. (You might have noticed this in even ancient Christian ascetic literature, where monks are described as spiritual athletes and depicted as engaged in a kind of ascetic contest, vying to outdo each other or themselves in ever more extreme ascetic feats.)

Today this aspect of Greco-Roman culture feels a bit silly and jejune: even the Iliad today reads like the story of a bunch of strutting, hormonal adolescent boys engaged in a turf war (with swords).

It’s hard to imagine how this discourse could enter Christian theology. But check out this very revealing passage, which follows immediately on the passage cited above:

“[…one must have a nature that has the capacity for self-rule and is without a master] so that the partaking in good things might be a prize of virtue [ἆθλον ἀρετῆς].”

Later (ch. 7), similarly, Gregory notes that God

“…set forth for those living a life of virtue the reward of good things as a contest/prize of free-will (ὁ ἆθλον τῆς προαιρέσεως τὸ τῶν ἀγαθῶν γέρας τοῖς κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν πολιτευομένοις προθείς…), not yoking human nature by some coerced necessity to the things that seemed good to himself [God].”

God needs us to be free men, having free will, so that we can partake in a contest of virtue! It is essential that one of God’s basic tasks is to provide us with an arena to prove our worth before God, like ancient competitors before the judges of the games, or sons before their Greco-Roman father. It’s critical that Christians be able to “take the field” before God to win prizes!

Here again Gregory’s theology emerges as intensely contextual. For Gregory, formed in elite Greco-Roman culture, it’s completely natural to assume that an essential part of our relationship with God is to parade around and show off our prowess. So it’s very easy for him to incorporate the idea of contests and training into his theology of suffering. 

Unfortunately, once more, the consequences of this for the Gospel are distinctly unhappy. Indeed, by today’s standards, they are downright grotesque.

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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).

***

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?

***

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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Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration. Chapters 1-4.

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).

Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration: Chapters 1-4

In the 16th C, at the beginning of a work on Christian doctrine that could be considered a very distant descendant of Gregory’s Catechetical Oration, Philip Melanchthon wrote this famous line:

“…to know Christ is to know the things he has done for us, and not, as they [the medieval theologians] teach, to contemplate his natures and the modes of his incarnation.”1

Melanchthon was one of Luther’s disciples, and here he is summarizing a central idea of his teacher. Its essence is that, contrary to the catholic or “imperial” synthesis, we should never start our teaching about God/Christianity from abstract philosophical reflection on God “in general”, the nature of God and God’s being (ontology)—for example, with things like reason’s ability to know God, the attributes of God, the essence of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ. Instead, theology must begin its reflection on God from Jesus and what Jesus did—his actions. Specifically, we must begin with his saving work in suffering for our sakes and granting us salvation completely gratis:

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  1. Ηoc est Christum cognoscere beneficia eius cognoscere, non quod isti docent, eius naturas, modos incarnationis contueri. Transl. from Commonplaces, tr. C. Preus, Loci Communes (1521), St. Louis, 2014, p. 24. []

Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration: Prologue.

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).

Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration: Prologue

I’m afraid that we don’t even get more than a few pages—in fact a few lines—into Gregory’s Prologue before we hit something pretty problematic. The issue at first appears minor, but the implications are significant.

Gregory’s prologue is mostly concerned with explaining to his readers (bishops) that catechetical instructions—i.e. instruction for those who wish to become Christians—cannot be uniform. They must be tailored to the different backgrounds, beliefs and preconceptions of those the bishops are addressing: Jews, pagans, Manicheans, and a variety of different Christian “heresies”.

This is a rather unremarkable adaptation of the conventional Greco-Roman rhetorical doctrine that you must fit your speech to your audience. Here Gregory pulls it off with his characteristic elegance and eloquence.

But about twenty lines into Gregory’s development of the idea, we encounter this bit: “For it is necessary to fit the method of treatment [θεραπεία] to the type of disease [νόσος]. You will not treat/remedy [θεραπεύσεις] the polytheism of the pagan by the same means as you would the Jew’s lack of belief in the only-begotten God…[etc.]”

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Patristic Redux: Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration. Introduction.

About the Author
David Wagschal

[Part of the series “Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers”]

What happens when we read the “fathers of the church” without rose-tinted spectacles? What happens when we approach them, not as a priori authorities, set high upon a pedestal, surrounded by an aura of holiness—but simply as any other theologian, whose work should be subject to critique and analysis in the same manner as anyone else’s?

What happens when we brush aside the patina of veneration, and claims of inspiration, and simply take their theological works at face value? What happens when we step back from any investment in the patristic tradition we might have institutionally, culturally or ethnically, and just let it speak on its own?

Can the theology of the fathers stand on its own two feet? Can it withstand serious critique? Can it actually hold its own in a contemporary theological conversation?

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Preparing to Read the Fathers (Critically): Part Three

About the Author
David Wagschal
Saint Jerome in his Study Artist: Antonello da Messina. Wikimedia.

[Part of the series “Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers”]

In my last few posts (part one, part two) I have been outlining five interpretative pitfalls that can derail even the best-intentioned attempts at reading patristic theology. Without an awareness of these five “traps”, it is extremely difficult to attain to the level of critical analysis that the “pre-modern turn” in modern theology so desperately needs.

These traps are:

  1. The “Great Tradition” Trap
  2. The Antiquity Trap
  3. The Difference Trap
  4. The Academic Sympathy Trap
  5. The Desperation Trap

In this post we’ll conclude the series with the last two: the Academic Sympathy Trap and the Desperation Trap.

4) The Academic Sympathy Trap

You may not be aware of this trap if you haven’t spent much time in the academy. Even within the academy we don’t discuss this phenomenon as much as we should.

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Preparing to Read the Fathers (Critically): Part Two

About the Author
David Wagschal
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale

[Part of the series “Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers“]

This post is a continuation of the previous, where I suggested that, if we want to take theological engagement with the patristic tradition beyond the level of mere Romantic antiquarianism and popular promotion, we need to cultivate a much more rigorous approach to reading these texts than has generally been evident.

In my experience, I’ve discovered that we need to become aware of five classic interpretative pitfalls:

  1. The “Great Tradition” Trap
  2. The Antiquity Trap
  3. The Difference Trap
  4. The Academic Sympathy Trap
  5. The Desperation Trap

(Yes, I’ve added the fourth since last time!)

Last post I discussed the most important of the traps, #1 The “Great Tradition” Trap. Now: Trap #2 and Trap #3.

2) The Antiquity Trap

Humans have a fascination with old stuff. When we visit historical sites, we often want to see the oldest buildings or the oldest sections of an archeological excavation—and if possible we often want to touch them, to feel them. Likewise when we visit a cemetery, we are often interested in identifying the oldest tombstones. When we tour a city, we always want to tour the “old town”. In our homes, we often treasure our oldest book, or our oldest photographs. In our families, we are fascinated by seeing how far back we can trace our lineages.

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Preparing to Read the Fathers (Critically)

About the Author
David Wagschal

[Part of the series “Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers“]

If we want to take theological engagement with the patristic tradition beyond the level of mere Romantic antiquarianism and popular promotion, we need to cultivate a much more rigorous approach to reading these texts than has generally been the case.

In my experience, this means that we need to become aware of four classic interpretative pitfalls:

  • The “Great Tradition” Trap
  • The Antiquity Trap
  • The Difference Trap
  • The Desperation Trap

1) The “Great Tradition” Trap

The patristic tradition tends to present itself as immensely broad, deep and universal in scope: it is the central Christian tradition, definitive in implications, and of unparalleled richness. It is the fundamental and core repository of theology by which all later developments should be measured. It is “catholic” in the sense of encompassing the “whole”—and orthodox in the sense of having developed, through struggle and controversy, the definitive version of Christianity. It is timeless, profound, and vast.

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Hauerwas in (Very Broad) Perspective

About the Author
David Wagschal

Stanley Hauerwas’ work is usually read as a reaction to the theological liberalism of the 19th and early 20th C. Hauerwas situates his own work this way, and this is how he is mostly characterized in the academy. He is a “post-liberal” concerned with re-asserting the particularity and distinctiveness of Christian belief over and against liberal theologies that sought to harmonize or reconcile Christian theology with Enlightenment and humanist beliefs.

Such a contextualization of Hauerwas’ work is both accurate and useful. But it may be a bit narrow. What happens if we place Hauerwas’ work in a broader perspective?

Resurrecting the Imperial Church

For me, as a historian trained in late antique and Byzantine culture, what immediately jumps out from the pages of Hauerwas is the extent to which he can be read as resurrecting the key tenets of the pre-modern “imperial” Christian synthesis. This is the 3rd and 4th C “Great Church” synthesis of doctrine and practice that congealed into the official religion of the Roman Empire and broadly became the basis of all historic branches of Christianity.

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