Saturday, January 8, 2011

In Which Aquinas Answers Rebecca's Contention with Job

“The name of the Lord is truly blessed by men inasmuch as they have knowledge of His goodness, namely that He distributes all things well and does nothing unjustly.”
— Aquinas,
Commentary on Job, Chapter I, Section iii

Near the beginning of October Rebecca and I fell into an argument which concluded (as all such theological arguments tend to do) with Rebecca remarking, “Well, what about Job?”

And I sat there in silence. I knew what she meant, of course: “Why did God permit Satan to kill all Job’s sons and daughters, his cattle and sheep, his menservants and maidservants, and wrack his poor, frail frame with pestilential boils? And then leave his nagging wife and disputatious friends alive?”

It is a question with which I have been confronted many times in my life. Dr. Hopkins led us on a skeptic’s journey through the book of Job in Philosophy of Religion, a journey in which our final discussion (on the mountain-rending, glacier-cleaving terror of God’s concluding discourse) was memorably interrupted by the unwelcome intrusion of a singing telegram. I have also studied with interest the answer which Carl Jung formulated in Answer to Job, which was, in many respects, the culmination of his life’s work. Jung essentially maintains that God possesses both a light side and a dark side; that in encountering Job, He was confronted for the first time ever with the evil in His own nature; and that this was the moment when He decided to incarnate as Christ, and experience what it was like to be a man among men. When Christ re-ascended into heaven, Satan was cast down to the earth—God, you might say, was suppressing His shadow; but as all suppressed things eventually reemerge with still more potent ardor, evil is beginning to erupt into the natural realm, true, absolute evil, not the mere “absence of good” which Augustine argued was the real essence of evil (a negation, not an actual substance), but evil as a living entity, which is why the twentieth century saw tyrants, holocausts, and conflagrations on a global scale.

Which, whatever your perspective, is a fascinating theory. Probably not true at all. But fascinating.

Whatever the reason, though, I had never actually discovered the true explanation for Job’s sufferings, which is why whenever someone like Dr. Hopkins or Rebecca came along with questions like, “Well, might there, perhaps, be injustice in God?” I never had an answer. Besides all which, I wasn’t sure there was an answer; God could be as cruel and controlling as He wanted, and as long I didn’t ask too many questions, kept my head down and discharged my duties faithfully, what mattered it to me?

But then in the last few months I began to discover, through personal experience—the only way you really ever come to learn these things—that God is neither cruel nor controlling; that He is, in fact, light, and that in Him dwells no darkness at all (1 Jn. 1:5). In fact, as Tyler and Aquinas both argue, I felt controlled by God because I was controlled by sin. This is how it works: We are under the illusion that we have free will. We are not (Jn. 8:30-32). As even Melville knew, the soul that gives itself over to evil abdicates its freedom to choose (see Moby-Dick, Chapter 44). But Aquinas comes at it from another perspective. For him, the will is the slave of the judgment. The person who possesses a false understanding of God is goaded by his misperceptions (which are generally, on the deepest levels, willful) into acting against Him. It is only as the judgment aligns with the truth, as we see God for Who He truly is, the only Source and End of all good, that the will is freed to trust Him in surrender. We are thus incapable of following, or even loving Him, until we see Him as He is. We are enslaved to lies, and only Truth can free us. Thus my recent prayer: “Lord, grant me knowledge that leads to sight, and sight that leads to love.”

But the important thing to note here is the back-and-forth, symmetrical, parallel nature of it. Take my own life (please!) as an example. I viewed God as a tyrant, a maniacal, all-controlling despot. That He is not. But my perceptions were reinforced by the fact that whenever I wanted to refrain from committing a particular sin (any sin), I found myself unable. This occurred for a combination of reasons: one, because I was trying to fulfill the law (though I wouldn’t have called it that) to earn God’s favor, which I had already, and trying to fulfill the law can only draw you into further sin. You need the assistance of the Spirit of God. Two, I was unable to refrain from committing those sins precisely because of the way I viewed God, which made my will captive to sin. I felt controlled, and I was, not by God, but by my perception of God as all-controlling. It was my sense of being controlled that controlled me. And that all-controlling sense of being controlled bolstered my false understanding and imprisoned me in sin.

Wow. That’s heavy. Even heavier than Jung.

So, now that I had learned from experience that God is light, goodness, love, now that sweet waves of loving-kindness, not torment, were billowing over my soul, I was ready to receive the doctrinal foundation for the knowledge of His goodness. And—oh look, here comes Thomas Aquinas.

First, a bit of background—from the always-indispensable eleven-volume Story of Civilization:

When he was canonized [after his death] witnesses testified that he ‘was soft-spoken, easy in conversation, cheerful and bland of countenance… generous in conduct, most patient, most prudent; radiant with charity and gentle piety; wondrous compassionate to the poor.’ He was so completely filled with piety and study that these filled every thought and moment of his waking day. He attended all the hours of prayer, said one Mass or heard two each morning, read and wrote, preached and taught, and prayed. Before a sermon or a lecture, before sitting down to study or compose, he prayed; and his fellow monks thought that ‘he owed his knowledge less to the effort of the mind than to the virtue of his prayer.’ On the margin of his manuscripts we find, every now and then, pious invocations like Ave Maria! He became so absorbed in the religious and intellectual life that he hardly noticed what happened about him. In the refectory, his plate could be replaced and removed without his being aware of it; but apparently his appetite was excellent. Invited to join other clergymen at dinner with Louis IX, he lost himself in meditation during the meal; suddenly he struck the table with his fist and exclaimed: ‘That is the decisive argument against the Manicheans!’ His prior reproved him: ‘You are sitting at the table of the King of France’; but Louis, with royal courtesy, bade an attendant bring writing materials to the victorious monk. Nevertheless the absorbed saint could write with good sense on many matters of practical life. People remarked how he could adjust his sermons either to the studious minds of his fellow monks, or to the simple intellects of common folk. He had no airs, made no demands upon life, sought no honors, refused promotion to ecclesiastical office. His writings span the universe, but contain not one immodest word. He faces in them every argument against his faith, and answers with courtesy and calm.

May that truly be said of us, and all of us.

And so finally, yesterday, after perusing the first few chapters of a “biography” by Chesterton, and an introduction to his metaphysics, I sat down and began reading his commentary on the book of Job.

It is not without some measure of justice that this commentary is described as the finest commentary on Job ever written. Here I shall deal solely with the second lesson (Job 1:6-12), in which he establishes the theme and purpose of the whole work. In the process, Aquinas demonstrates not only that the intentions of God with respect to Job were good, but what exactly those intentions were. How does he do it? Let us take a look.

First: God is depicted seated on His throne in heaven, with the angels gathered round him (Job 1:6). This is to establish, from the beginning, the supremacy of God in all natural, supernatural, and worldly affairs: “Lest anyone think that the adversities of just men happen apart from divine providence… he first explains how God has care of human affairs and governs them.” Moreover, both the good and evil things which men do are subject to divine judgment.

But then Aquinas says something peculiarly fascinating. He notes that the text says, “On a certain day the sons of God presented themselves before the Lord,” and “Satan came also among them.” In the first clause, the sense is active, in the second, passive. It is as though the author wishes to emphasize that while the good angels, and, by extension, all who love Him, are willingly subject to His gaze, and willingly perform His will (see Ps. 110), the servants of wickedness perform His will, and are subject to His gaze, in a manner opposed to their own inclinations. “The wicked angels… do not intend that the things which they do are referred to God, but the fact that whatever they do is subject to divine judgment happens against their will.” Yet, at the same time, the passage says that Satan was “among them” to signify “that evil things are not done from a principal intention of God’s, but comes upon good men almost by accident.”

And then he goes a step further. The reason why evil becomes what it is, is because it seeks its ends apart from God. The good angels in all things follow the divine will. The rebellious angels, in rebelling, separate themselves from goodness, and are, by the very nature of their divergence, naturally corrupted.

In retrospect, I suppose this is essentially what Milton was aiming to show in Paradise Lost: not even the devils started out as devils. They were spurred to their rebellion by a lust for things which, in themselves, were good. Yet in warring against the very Fount of Goodness, they became perverse, malign, reptilian; till even the love of the things for which they had initially rebelled was lost to them forever. How dangerous it is for a Christian to quarrel with his God! Not because there is any danger of His blasting us to nothing—He has no desire to destroy us—but because we rage against the light itself, and no good thing can ever grow from darkness. If our course is not corrected by His mercy, we consign ourselves to hell.

The Lord then interrogates Satan: “Where have you come from?” This He apparently does to show that Satan to his inmost depths is known and seen by God, for in asking, He conveys to the Devil that He examines all the thoughts and intents of his heart. (I suppose if we accept that Satan found himself before the throne, instead of going there with willingness, this makes more sense.) It is one of many places in the Scriptures where God seems to be saying one thing, but in fact is expressing the opposite (Think of how He asked Adam, “Who told you you were naked?” thus conveying that He knew through inquiry). Satan, in the English translation of the Vulgate, responds, “From prowling through the earth.” Aquinas’ elucidation of this passage is beautifully rendered. Not only are we reminded of the line in the first epistle of Peter (“Your adversary, the Devil, prowls about like a roaring lion”), but also the various passages in the Psalms which show the wicked “prowling” (Ps. 12:8, 59:6, 14). “In prowling over the earth,” our pious friend explains, “Satan shows his craftiness in seeking out those he can deceive.” What does he mean by craftiness? In order to know that, we need to consider the path of the just, which does not deviate from its intended end. The righteous are established in their course; they know their goal, and they run towards it with abandon. The crafty, however, are not aligned with them in will nor end. They pretend one thing, yet they intend another. “Because therefore the action of the just does not diverge from its principle which is the will and from its intended end, straightness (rightness) is fittingly ascribed to the just.” Ah, how smart a lash that speech doth sting my conscience!

God responds, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on earth?” Satan has just finished explaining that he prowls about the earth. Like a proud father his child, God refers him to Job. “There is none like him on earth.” “The Lord seems to separate Job from the earth,” says Aquinas. “… However, this passage can also be understood in another way, for in each saint, there is some preeminent virtue for some special use… No one of those living on earth was like Job in that he excelled in some special use of virtue.” George MacDonald memorably wrote that we are each of us a rare and radiant flower in the garden of God, growing up to the praise of some particular glory which is ours alone.

And then, at last, Aquinas makes the crucial statement: “Consider that God not only orders the lives of the just for their own good, but he represents it for others to see.”

However, this representation has a twofold effect. In the saints, it inspires charity and burning ardor. In the wicked, in the carnal, whether saved or damned, it provokes a near-continuous eruption of envy, malice, judgment, and false accusation (2 Cor. 2:15). “Thus God wants the life of the saints to be considered not only by the elect for the progress of their salvation, but also by the iniquitous for the increase of their damnation, for from the life of the saints the perversity of the impious is shown to be blameworthy, as Wisdom says, ‘The just man who has died condemns the impious who are alive’ (Wisdom 4:16).”

And that is precisely why the Devil responds as he does: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Those who can find no taint of blame in the lives of the holy are driven to accuse their intentions, which they cannot see, because they are unable to imagine that anyone could live a life of such devotion.

Satan challenges God: “Put forth Your hand and touch all that he has, and see if he will not curse you to your face.” Aquinas writes, “Note that even the hearts of truly just men are sometimes badly shaken by great adversity, but the deceitfully just are disturbed by a slight adversity like men having no root in their virtue.” (I should note that Aquinas makes useful side remarks like this throughout the second section. I have reluctantly refrained from typing all of them, but they are well worth reading. For example, he gives an extended discourse, in the first few pages, on the nature and purpose of angels. Says The Story of Civilization: “Thomas writes ninety-three pages [in the Summa Theologica] on the hierarchy, movements, love, knowledge, will, speech, and habits of the angels—the most farfetched part of his far-flung Summa, and the most irrefutable.”)

Aquinas’ conclusion renders God, not despotic, not tyrannical, not easily seduced by Satan, but GLORIOUS in His purposes and attributes:

From what has been said already it is clear that the cause of the adversity of blessed Job was that his virtue should be clear to all. So Scripture says of Tobias, ‘Thus the Lord permitted him to be tempted so that an example might be given to posterity of his patience, like blessed Job’ (Tob. 2:12). Be careful not to believe that the Lord had been persuaded by the words of Satan to permit Job to be afflicted, but he ordered this from his eternal disposition to make clear Job’s virtue against the false accusations of the impious. Therefore, false accusations are placed first and the divine permission follows.

God wanted to vindicate Job. This He wanted to do, both for the honor of His saint, and for the glory of His name. He knew Job’s name would be preserved forever, and forever prove a consolation to the grieving and afflicted. He afflicted Job, in short, because of His faith and delight in the love of His son. In this, as Chesterton, has noted, he was not unlike the Son of God Himself.

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