One of the most powerful images to come from the tragedy of the Twin Towers attack was the giant cross of metal beams found standing upright in the midst of the immense pile of rubble. The cross was blessed in a service televised throughout the world. There was something of great importance in this cross, something not to be overlooked. At a moment of profound anguish, people usually having little to do with religion were being deeply moved by the presence of this cross so unexpectedly found by rescue workers. Nor should it be callously said that this was mere superstition at work. The good Lord had left a sign that He was accompanying all of us in this trial, and people were deeply stirred by its presence. The cross there in the aftermath of the attack was doing what it always does—offering hope that comes from the redeeming sufferings of Christ. It is a hope that resonates instinctively within even secularized hearts.
In the next three articles we will be looking at the cross as a source of hope. To set the scene we will first of all look very broadly at the presence of evil in creation and the way it is used by Divine Providence. The mystery of human suffering is part of this larger mystery of evil. Particularly at issue here are the origin of evil, and its continued presence in light of God's infinite goodness.
In our own time we find an answer to this question frequently given in the affirmative. People place the blame for human suffering ultimately with God. Often many reject belief in God because they assume, if He exists, He must be the underlying cause of all the misfortune in life. The infant who dies of crib death, the devastation caused by an earthquake, the capacity of man for great acts of destruction—these are signs for many that there is either a cruel God running the world, or there is no God at all. From their point of view, there certainly could not be a good God who created and sustains a world where evil and suffering are found.
This mentality of some today is not new to the human scene. Throughout the world's ancient religions there has been a recurring theme of blaming God for evil. At the beginning of the Christian era, we find a sect with origins in the ancient regions of Eastern Asia known as the Manicheans. For them, not only was there a god who directly causes good, there was also a divinity from whom all evil originates. There were two supreme principles of all that exists, two gods equal in power. All suffering, as well as all corruptible matter comes from the god of evil. All that is good, which for them meant all that is spirit, is from the god of good. Our very human nature is divided between our bodies produced by the god of evil, and our spirits created by the god of good. The struggle that goes on within us between the flesh and the spirit, problems we have with inordinate desires leading us to sin are, the Manicheans taught, the result of evil matter fighting against good spirit. The world will one day end in a complete separation of the material world from the world of spirit. Souls who belong to the god of good through a strict rejection of material creation will go on to an eternal spiritual state of bliss. Those, they taught, who have cherished and clung to anything material will live eternally joined to matter, living forever in a state of darkness and suffering because of that union. What the Manicheans had proposed, in fact, was a horrible assault on the goodness and beauty of creation.
St. Augustine (b. 354), in his rebellious youth, was a member of this sect. During this time he was deeply troubled over the problem of why man does evil. The Manichean answer, for the time being, satisfied his probing mind. But there were too many profound contradictions with the bizarre sect for his mind to rest content. Shortly after his rejection of Manichean teaching, he rejoined the Christian fold and devoted himself to the teaching of a philosopher named Plotinus. With Plotinus the approach to the problem of evil was indeed different, but not entirely so. There was only one God, from whom all things have flowed in a descending fashion, with each descent things becoming progressively more imperfect. From the all-perfect God comes an outpouring of creatures that, as they descend and become more and more distance from their source, become less and less filled with His goodness. At the end of this flow is the most basic form of matter, having none of the goodness of the all-perfect source. This matter, Plotinus taught, is the root of all evil and the cause of corruption and decay in creatures; it is the source of all suffering and tribulation in the world. Augustine had come across a philosophy that upheld the unity of God. But still the problem remained: God is the cause of evil; it came forth from Him.
Augustine’s experience, however, with both the Manicheans and Plotinus proved invaluable for the emergence of a true and enduring doctrine on the problem of suffering and evil in the world. Years of working his way through the errors inherent in both systems of thought, assisted all the while by grace, resulted in a formulation of the problem of evil that Christianity has turned to ever since. Christians from the beginning, as well as their Jewish forbears and some pagan philosophers, implicitly understood the problem. But it was Augustine who expressed it in its most timeless and clear way. In a work called the Enchiridion, a "handbook" of Christian teaching, written in 423, he offered the solution to the problem of evil that has become classic. There he explains that evil is no thing or quality subsisting in itself. It is the result of the absence of goodness (chapt. 11). Evil is a privation. He uses sickness as an illustration, a condition that arises because of lack of health in the body. One might say that a cold virus is a substance, something that indeed exists, which is true enough. But what the virus causes in the body, the sore throat, the congestion, the coughing are all the result of bodily functions trying to return to the perfection they are meant to possess. When one is speaking of ill health, one is not speaking of something there, but of something missing. In the same way all evil results from an absence of some goodness that should be present in a creature. It can be a physical privation like a failure in the stability of the earth, resulting in an earthquake, or, as we have seen, a body weakened by disease. Or, in rational creatures, angelic and human, it can also be a moral defect: sin. Here the will makes flawed decisions that lead one away from the ultimate goal for which we have been created: union with God. Whatever the case may be, evil is nothing more than a void in the total perfection of a creature.
We can now see where Augustine is going with the presence of evil in the world. The problem is found not in God, but in creatures. What God creates is entirely good. He is the supreme good, and is incapable of producing something defective. Anything coming from His hands will have all the goodness He intends it to have. There will be nothing lacking, that is, no evil. But once these creatures begin to exist, then comes the falling away from goodness we call evil. Why does God allow this to happen? Why does He allow the decline to evil to take place at all? Augustine’s formulation of the problem would be repeatedly quoted by theologians throughout the centuries: “God, since He is the highest good, would in no way allow any evil in His works, unless He were so omnipotent and so good that He could turn evil to good” (chapt. 11). St. Thomas was one of those to frequently use this wonderfully simple and yet profound expression of the problem of evil. “God,” says Thomas in his own very concise way, “does not permit evil except for some greater good” (I, 2, 3, ad 1).
There is a background to this problem of evil we have not yet touched upon. Basically, what is at issue is God's not being a tyrant in running the affairs of His creatures. He allows them to function on their own, according to the natures He has given them. He permits his creatures to act upon one another, to have their effects on one another, to leave their mark for good or for ill on their fellow creatures. St. Thomas speaks of this in terms of things being “causes” for some effect on another. The lightning bolt causing a fire in the tree, or the sun illumining and warming the earth are examples. God, as the creator of all things, is the primary cause of creation. But, in His great goodness, He had no wish to monopolize the role of cause among creatures. So He shared causality with His creatures. He made them causes in their own right, able in their own way to contribute to the functioning of the universe. All creatures, says Thomas, have a secondary causality given by the Creator. God has made the stars to shine. Although He is sustaining them each moment with his power, they are the ones that are doing the shining. The oak tree has its own powers of growth within itself. Mankind has an innate capacity to think and love. And for all this creaturely independence to be more than just a sham, God must be open to the possibility of failure in his creatures.
This means God tolerates evil out of respect for His creatures. He wants the tree to grow under its own powers and lighting to burst forth from the clouds, even if from time to time the bursting of the lightning will shatter the magnificent tree. The tree wouldn’t be a tree without its vulnerability to lightning. The lightning wouldn’t be lightning without its explosive and fiery nature. How great each thing is in its own nature! How tragic it would be for the Creator to interrupt His creatures every time one is the cause of some evil coming upon another! It is only illusion to imagine that it would be a better universe were God to do so.
Why illusion? First of all, St. Thomas says, “If evil were completely eliminated from things, they would not be governed by Divine Providence in accord with their nature [i.e., the normal activity of a thing would be suppressed while God prevented the evil]; and this would be a greater defect than the particular defects eradicated” (Compendium of Theology, 142). Nothing, in effect, would be operating as true secondary causes. The proper nature of creatures would be repeatedly subverted as the Divine nature again and again would be required to intervene.
In human affairs we can especially see how much of a problem this would be. Freedom to make choices between one course of action and another is part of the way we work. This is, in fact, our great God-given dignity as creatures. He has shared with us the divine trait of free will. What preventing evil from taking place in human affairs amounts to is stripping us of our freedom. Here it is clear that “this would be a greater defect than the particular defects [i.e. of sin and suffering] eradicated.” The gift of divine likeness through free will infinitely outweighs the trouble of enduring the pain and suffering that life offers. Having the gift of thought and the capacity to choose that reflect the very working of the Divine mind and will—our existence even with its trials and tribulations is a marvel not to be missed!
But in our consideration so far of God’s opening the door to the possibility of evil in His creation, we have yet to remember that the success of good is always foremost in His infinitely good mind. Actually we should say it is the only thing on His mind. He is incapable of directly willing anything that is not good. As Fr. Vincent McNabb, the great English Dominican preacher of the early 1900's once so exuberantly observed, “God can never rest in any evil as such—not even a physical evil. It can’t be done. God has His impossibilities, you know!" (The Craft of Suffering, 11).
So St. Thomas will say that He is always arranging for an evil to be at the service of some good. The decay of plants in the forest provide for the nourishment of new plants to come along. A magnificent creature like a lion continues to live through taking the life of an animal lower down on the food chain. The endurance of the saints and the shining light of their virtue arises through persecution by the wicked. How true it is that “if evil were completely excluded from things, much good would be rendered impossible” (Compendium, 142). Rather than protect all creatures from evil, God puts that evil to work for perpetuating and enhancing the goodness of the universe as a whole, and individual creatures within it.
Suffering in all it forms thus has become, through God’s wise and loving manipulation, the sculptor’s chisel to produce a work of supreme beauty. And God’s greatest work of beauty in this world is man. For working with this particular creature, God uses the unfortunate, but especially goodness-enhancing evil of physical pain. Here especially we have to take on the divine perspective.
The great trial caused us by physical pain will be completely meaningless without acknowledging that the goal of humanity is eternal life. The evil of earthly pain must be seen in the context of the unlimited good of heaven. The blessings of an eternal existence, freedom from all suffering, being lifted to a state of joy that is beyond words, are the background in which we must view whatever suffering comes along in this life. This is foundation for a life of patient endurance. Without this perspective pain’s only fruit will be despair. In all our trials, St. Paul’s rousing words should be the standard we strive for: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him” (Phil. 3:8-9). There is nothing to compare with eternal life in Christ! All trials God sends into the lives of men are planned with the utmost care to bring this about.
What is at stake ultimately is the attachment of the soul to God. There will be no eternal life unless the soul consciously decides to cling to God as her highest good. As we find happening in St. Paul’s statement above, the love of God must surpass our love for any other created thing. And this is where physical suffering, through the mercy of God, comes to our aid. Quite rightly we hate physical suffering in itself. It is, after all, an evil, something that God hates infinitely more than we could ever do! But how valuable are the fruits it brings. Fr. McNabb, in sage words, tells us why: “In point of fact, it is very hard for us to bring out our love of God to the utmost except under suffering. It is very hard for us to exert our will to the utmost, except under opposition. . . . If we could get across the room by using only 10 per cent of our power, we should only bring out 10 per cent of our power, if there were no opposition. That is a very important spiritual thing. We should beware of trying to prepare a state where we are free from all anxieties” (Craft, 12-13).
We can imagine, if we are honest, what would happen to our love for God if we were free from all anxieties and afflictions. We are so prone to love things more than God. Since the fall of Adam this has been the case. An excessive love for the good things of earth is an ongoing threat to our love for God. Abandoned to this tendency, what would stop us from forgetting Him all together? How well our comfort-saturated and faithless culture illustrates the problem. Again and again it shows us how surrounding ourselves with every possible pleasure and ease goes very well with forgetfullness of God. But is it not equally true that the saints show us the contrary--how wonderfully affliction and ardent clinging to God accompany one another? Through these holy ones we can see God's masterful hand at work in all our suffering, bringing us to a perfection we could never have without it.
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