Thursday, December 11, 2008

He is not a tame lion

In our last Honors session of the semester, we were discussing the Rule of St. Benedict, and naturally got into a discussion of free will, a topic which has been cropping up in many of our discussions this semester. Our professor likes to force us to climb out of our mental boxes (an exercise that I need), so she brought up the whole idea of God's free will. The question she presented to us was this: Can God commit evil?

It ended up almost being a conversation between me and her (actually, that happens a lot...it's bad when you're the teacher's pet in Honors). My brain had found an idea big enough for it to wrestle with, and it wanted to keep wrestling until it either got a good grip or was exhausted.

I don't have any grand conclusions to present before you, dear readers, but here are some things to think about:

Can we comfortably say, "God cannot"? It's a dangerous thing, methinks, to put limits on the Almighty. Yes, there are certain logical contradictions (like making a square circle) that it's simply nonsense to predicate to any being, almighty or no, but is "a God who can commit evil" a logical contradiction? It wasn't to the ancients. Read the Iliad sometime if you don't believe me. For that matter, read the Old Testament. Yes, we have ways of explaining all those "God was angry" passages, but let yourself look at it simply for a minute. It looks an awful lot like a God who has no compuctions about wiping people out if He so pleases. Do you think Joshua went to battle against the Canaanites thinking, "Oh, this is all allegorical, God is really unmoved by passions."

Our current definition of God borrows heavily from the Platonists. To them, evil wasn't a thing. Evil was what you got more of the farther you got from the One, until eventually you were sitting at the very bottom of the chain of being, in the utter evil of nothingness. It was those clever Greeks who first proposed that the Supreme Being is the perfection of goodness, and therefore if the Supreme Being were to commit evil it would cease to be all-good and thereby cease to be the Supreme Being. In other words, God is incapable of commiting evil.

I'm something of a Platonist myself, and I do like this definition, but I think we should be careful that we don't settle into complacency, protected from the power of God by our cozy logical formulae. I believe (in the firmest sense of the word) that God would never commit evil, but to say that He could not is a tricky thing.

As Mr. Tumnus might say, he is not a tame lion.

2 comments:

Shakespeare's Cobbler said...

It's not so much that He could commit evil, if you ask me, as that whatever He could choose to do would by definition not be evil. However, on the receiving end of the action is where things get tricky, because while God Himself by definition cannot commit evil, it's technically an assumption to make a rule saying that how He makes things be down here wind up being cannot be partially evil if He deems that is best for ultimate good in the long run. For example, it is in a sense technically an imperfection in us, and hence technically an evil, that we are not made already fully come to Him and have to work up a long, slow climb toward it instead -- but He hasn't commited anything that would be an imperfection in Him in having us take this climb, far from it both His glory and our choice of Him will be made even greater by it.

Shakespeare's Cobbler said...

Put it in another way, He cannot commit evil, but there's no rule saying it can't be good for Him to make use of partial evils in creation.