Don’t You Know?

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 (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.