Registers of Meaning

In his gospel, John vividly describes the conflict that arises when Jesus gives sight to a man born blind (John 9). It is a story that not only reveals that Jesus is the Son of God, but also highlights the necessity of spiritual sight for those who would apprehend Jesus’s true nature. The story is introduced by a question from the disciples, “Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” When the disciples are confronted by the sight of the blind man, their tendency is to use his situation to begin a theological debate: whose fault is this? Why does this man suffer? The disciples hope to query Jesus regarding the problem of evil.

But Jesus’ answer does not “solve” the problem for them. In fact, Jesus rather complicates the matter when he replies, “neither this man sinned nor his parents but that the works of God may be made manifest in him.” And then Jesus mixes his spit with earth and gives the man his sight. Of course this act, performed on the Sabbath, touches off controversy regarding Jesus’s identity, and when Jesus hears that the healed man has been “cast out” by the religious leaders of the day, he finds the man and questions him, “Dost thou believe on the son of man?” The formerly-blind man’s faithful response allows Jesus to observe, “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” The man’s physical blindness, which first occasioned questions of the problem of evil, allows Jesus to show that there is spiritual blindness as well. The blind man is given sight, both physical and spiritual. The “seeing” Pharisees are blind. One can only imagine the thoughts of the disciples who, upon first seeing the blind man, only thought to initiate a theological discussion of the causes of suffering—and evil.

In a way, Jesus has participated in just such a discussion, only he has incarnated the discussion. By introducing complications, Jesus sustains tension throughout the story and frustrates his audience. But so much of Scripture is written in just this manner, for delay and frustration can serve to instruct. His story shows that some representations of the problem of evil require registers of meaning only possible in narrative form. Sin and its results are not the kind of thing that can be parsed out abstractly without loss, and suffering is not the kind of thing that has mere material causes.

“But One Thing is Needful”

As the final days of February roll past, anyone whose life is determined by the university calendar is sure to be feeling the pressure of many tasks demanding time and careful attention. At this very moment, some of my students are probably resenting the work they are struggling to do for one of my classes. While I, of course, must continue to demand that my students do their work, I do also recognize that that work is not the greatest good. In fact, it is not good to be so “troubled by many things” that we miss the “one thing” that is “needful.”

This language contrasting the many things and the one thing comes from the gospel story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), which illustrates our primary need as creatures of a loving God. Martha’s “love language” is clearly “acts of service”. All fine and good, but Jesus recognizes the one needful thing in Mary—to love her Savior as she sits at his feet. While the familiar story has theological implications, it also illustrates the philosophical truth of being before doing.

Acts of service always proceed from the heart, and so the love we have for God and one another precedes doing and right action. In the wake of modern materialism, being is often treated as an inert material state. But if God is the source of all being, i.e. Being itself, then being in creatures must be active. The perfect love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is pure act, and by analogy, the creatures of the Triune God share in the active life of the Godhead by virtue of being. In other words, being is good and desirable in itself before any other act of service.

The implications of this truth are evident in the problem of sin. When I confess my sins of commission and omission in church, I should first think of the ways in which I have failed to love God and neighbor. When I sin, I pursue ends which are opposed to the ends for which I was created. I should turn my heart to contemplating the goodness of God and creation to correct this distortion. The law of God is a schoolmaster that teaches the greatest of all commandments—to love God and neighbor.

When I teach, I always try to keep in mind that the great commandment is the proper end of all learning. If I stray from this path, then my efforts will not promote the love of goodness, truth, or beauty in my students. And when I do stray, I ask God to teach me again, for this one thing is needful.

Newtown, CT and the Problem of Evil

Last Friday the world changed. When twenty children and six adults were murdered in a shockingly brutal massacre, not only did the lives of their loved ones alter irrevocably and tragically, but all of America has been jarred. In a way, I hesitate to write anything about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School because I fear contributing to what has become an acrimonious conversation about how and why Adam Lanza did what he did and what we should do about it. But on the other hand, how can I write about anything else when something so terrible is so fresh?

My wife and I tried not to watch too much of the media coverage, partly to shield our young children—one of whom is six years old—but also to shield ourselves. We’ve watched and read enough to stay apprised of the situation but otherwise we’ve tried to limit our exposure to coverage of the massacre because contemplation of such evil is soul-scarring. When we did watch media coverage, however, I noticed that neither reporters nor commentators ever used the word “evil” to describe the mass murder or Lanza’s motives. I’ve frequently heard him described as “mentally ill” even as I’ve heard suggestions that he entertained and rehearsed it all beforehand. But “mental illness” refers to a physical problem—something amiss with brain chemistry—that must be addressed with physical solutions, such as medication, behavior modification, or legislation and prosecution. While he certainly may have been mentally ill, Lanza also acted out evil, which is an abuse of the will. I think it’s important to recognize this because a large part of our reaction as a country can be summed up with the question, “How can we ensure that this does not happen again?” In order to answer that question, many assume that the causes of the massacre could have been (and can be) prevented and, believing in the superiority of science, assume that the causes are material. By “material,” I mean that a physical account of the events offers the best and perhaps only explanation. Such an explanation gives the illusion of control—that we might finally rid the human race of “abnormal” behavior.

Whether the omission of the term “evil” is intentional or not, the inability (or choice) not to use that word is symptomatic of such materialist presuppositions. To acknowledge evil, applied to either the event or the motives, is to presuppose a real spiritual order that is true, good, and beautiful. It is also to presuppose that a rejection of that order leads to ugliness and violence, even violence against the innocent. This spiritual order cannot be reduced to science or physical description but neither is it irrational or beyond human comprehension. It cannot be beyond our comprehension (at least not entirely) because we are given the ability to choose the good, the true, and the beautiful. And by “choice” here, I mean the decision to love and submit to what we love. Obviously, we all at least occasionally reject God’s order, and the small pains and great tragedies of our lives sometimes reflect these choices. Choosing itself is a powerful, terrifying, and yet glorious gift to mankind.

Sometimes we wish humans did not have the ability to choose between good and evil because there is no simple solution, then, to evil. There is no way to make sure that nothing like the Sandy Hook murders ever happen again. Gun laws might curb such violence but laws only constrain the will rather than train it. While Adam Lanza may have suffered from mental illness, and there may be some treatment that would have helped him or at least contained him, I also believe that he never learned to love what is true, good, and beautiful. Regardless of what our nation decides about gun laws and mental health interventions, we cannot make sure than nothing like this ever happens again. It breaks my heart to admit this, but there is no way to make sure that my three little girls will not be the victims of evil and violence.

From one perspective, it would be easier for me to go with the materialists here and assign purely material causes to Adam Lanza’s acts. I could find comfort in action; I could start calling for changes that I believed would keep such a thing from ever happening again. Then again, I am not left without comfort. Admitting that such evil cannot be prevented by laws or treatment is not to give up hope—as Christians we never abandon the hope that hearts can be transformed. That transformation involves training the will to choose rightly, and the only way we can train our children and young people to choose rightly is by teaching them to love the right things. As a parent and educator, I take this task seriously, for souls must be led in the right paths and taught to love what is true, good, and beautiful.

When we consider what to do after Sandy Hook, let us all take a few moments and consider, carefully consider, what we are teaching the young people in our lives to love. And may we consistently pray for grace, guidance, and strength to love the right things ourselves as we train our children.

Boethius and the Problem of Evil

As a professor who teaches literature, philosophy, and, at times, theology, I spend quite a bit of time discussing with my students the problem of evil.  So much of the world’s great works are attempts to grapple with evil in some way or another.  Some are overt in their purposes: Milton’s famous attempt to “justify the ways of God to man” springs to mind.  The novel, that relatively new yet now-pervasive literary genre, is almost defined by an attempt to portray humans confronting evil in its various forms.  Indeed, Aristotle’s ancient definition of plot so clearly lends itself to human endeavors to grapple with evil: after the beginning of the story (exposition), the rising action is almost always some sort of complication that arises from the hero being confronted and challenged by evil.  Perhaps I should be thankful for the problem of evil—without it I might not have a job!  But considering the sheer volume of human attempts to cope with evil and all the suffering that results from it, why make further comment on the subject? Continue reading

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