The Catholic Thing
Don't You Know? Print E-mail
By Ralph McInerny   
Monday, 15 June 2009

Complaining about God has an impressive ancestry; we immediately think of Job, of course, but we should not overlook those many persuasive patriarchs who managed to reduce the evils threatened by God. In the philosophy of religion, a latter day discipline enabling supposedly neutral critics to brood upon the acts of believers, the “problem of evil” comes down to this.

Evil exists. It can only exist if God permits it, because he is omnipotent. But if he is omnipotent and permits evil he cannot be good. The suggestion is that, if two of the divine attributes, omnipotence and goodness, cannot coexist, God as believers think of Him is impossible. Next question.

There is something heady about putting God in the dock, in C. S. Lewis’s phrase. Complainers are usually careful to concentrate on evils that befall them, not those that they bring upon themselves, although this line is increasingly blurred. If we retain that line, the problem of evil is largely concerned with luck, with misfortune.

Although human beings are by definition centers of responsible agency, capable of freely formulating a plan of action and then executing it, this is notoriously not the full story of human existence. Our moral life consists of the things we deliberately and freely do, but our lives contain an uncountable number of things that just happen to us. Sometimes these result, though unintentionally, from what we freely do, sometimes from the deeds of others, sometimes from nature. Given this, anyone can draw up a pretty impressive list of complaints and lay it before God.

Jean Oesterle, one of the dearest ladies I ever knew, spent the last decades of her life translating St. Thomas’s Disputed Question on Evil. I often suspected that most of her knowledge of the subject came from carrying out that demanding project. She finished and then went into decline. I cannot forebear repeating her reply to my anxious question when I visited her in the nursing home. “Jean, do you know who I am?” An alarmed expression. “Don’t you know?”

Moral theologians concentrate on the evil we bring about, on ourselves and others, and which thus has a remedy in moral conversion. But it is misfortune that takes center stage when people complain that God is not doing his job properly.

Misfortune may be an unintended consequence of what we do, but it is not unintended by God. Like physical pain, it can be essential to the good. No bleeding, no bandage, no healing. Stepping for the elevator and getting the shaft, as it were, does not cease to be a rough experience when we ask why God permitted it. What is he trying to tell us through the misfortunes that befall us?

He’s got the whole world in his hand. Every little movement has a meaning all its own. Discovering what it is, approximating that discovery, and profiting from it, could be a description of the spiritual life. Not that anyone can have theoretical certainty that he has grasped God’s reason. The point of the inquiry is doing, not knowing.

It seems churlish for creatures who have so much to answer for themselves to concentrate on misfortune. Why do we so readily take for granted the good things that happen to us? It is as if we think we deserve them – our fantastic good looks, our flawless spouse and children, more than enough to sit in the sun in Sarasota, books, music, booze in moderation. Maybe not all the gusto you can get, but a healthy portion. And who better than ourselves? As Nietzsche asked, “Why am I so wonderful?”

Such good fortune is still occasionally recognized as a blessing. That is, as gratuitous and undeserved, what so easily might have turned out otherwise. Even the goods we work for rely for their achievement on unexpected twists and turns. If we in a whimper recognize the role of God in our lives when things go wrong, the psalmist is there to tell us that all of the works of the Lord bless the Lord. Creation is a chorus of gratitude and praise that drowns out complaints.

In the Purgatorio, Dante stresses the difference between mere natural morality and Christian morality. The latter is found in the Beatitudes which we know so well we hardly remember them. Take another look at those whom Our Lord calls blessed and try to imagine Plato or Aristotle or Seneca not finding this surprising. The Sermon on the Mount defines true happiness or blessedness. It is a paradoxical definition; it turns mere human expectations upside down. And it would make utterly no sense if earthly life were all we can expect.

Job ended with the patient realization that events whose meaning escaped him were not divine mistakes. Where were you when I fashioned the world? Job could answer Jean’s question.

Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955.

© 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (6)Add Comment
Sed Libera Nos a Malo
written by Willie, June 16, 2009
No doubt the problem of evil is the main reason for atheists. The murder,rape, pillage, and plunder of man against man is one thing, but how does one reconcile natural disasters and disease with the love of God? We look to Job who asked the same questions. We pray and we still fall prey to evil. Our Lord asked us to pray to be delivered from evil. Why? I guess the bottom line of our questioning is "Why do we die." We are told we are here only temporarily. I ask, "What did man do to deserve this?"
written by Martin, June 16, 2009
Thanks Prof. McInerny: I'm trying to come to grips with these concepts, and I find this quote helpful.

"The beatitudes do not indicate conditions especially pleasing to God or good for human beings. They are explanations drawn from the immediate context of the present availability of the Kingdom through personal relationship with Jesus." Dallas Willard
written by Willie, June 16, 2009
Andrew-Very insightful! I remember Ivan K, the atheist and rationalist, disgusted with God's earth full of suffering. And so it is! But all the good and beauty in this world keeps one from giving God back His ticket to happiness. A book worth reading again.
written by Andrew, June 16, 2009
Willie- Have you read the Brother's karamazov? I think Ivan K. would be happy to say, "but WHY the Pain?", if it comes to having a baby burn to death or having life ever lasting, Ivan is not sure what to choose (to us it seems clear). This question (as is pointed out by the book of Job) is answered by say it is for the sake of eternal salvation seems to beg the question...b/c the atheist will turn around and reply, but why THIS way? To which we could only respond, God knows.
Organic Tory
written by Stephen MacLean, June 17, 2009
Dr McInerny’s reflections that there are no ‘divine mistakes’, that ‘misfortune ... is not unintended by God’, reminded me of this sublime passage from the Summa Theologiae: ‘Hence many good things would be taken away if God permitted no evil to exist; for fire would not be generated if air was not corrupted, nor would the life of a lion be preserved unless the ass were killed. Neither would avenging justice nor the patience of a sufferer be praised if there were no injustice (I.48.2, ad 3).’
written by Fabio Paolo, June 18, 2009
I know a woman who worked in softcore porn for most of her short life. She was struck by bone cancer in her thirties, and died after seven years of suffering. Was there any good in the agonizing death of a beautiful and talented lady who had misused her life so far but had every chance to do better if she had lived? Yes there was. She did not realize it, but her last seven years were of such exemplary courage and selflessness that she gave more to everyone around her than most of us do in 70

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author