instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Through love alone

In a comment on my previous post, Aaron writes:
I'm not sure I understand... is God defective because He is merciful?
The absurdity of saying that God has a defect is the first objection St. Thomas lists to his teaching that the reason for taking pity is a defect in the person who takes pity:
For it is proper to God to be merciful, wherefore it is written (Psalm 144:9): "His tender mercies are over all His works." But there is no defect in God. Therefore a defect cannot be the reason for taking pity.
He answers this objection briefly:
God takes pity on us through love alone, in as much as He loves us as belonging to Him.
This Divine way of taking pity "through love alone" contrasts with the human way of taking pity "in so far as one looks upon another's distress as one's own."

St. Augustine makes a similar distinction after he proposes (contrary to the Stoics) that our passions, when guided by reason, can move us to act virtuously:
However, it may justly be asked, whether our subjection to these affections, even while we follow virtue, is a part of the infirmity of this life? For the holy angels feel no anger while they punish those whom the eternal law of God consigns to punishment, no fellow-feeling with misery while they relieve the miserable, no fear while they aid those who are in danger; and yet ordinary language ascribes to them also these mental emotions, because, though they have none of our weakness, their acts resemble the actions to which these emotions move us; and thus even God Himself is said in Scripture to be angry, and yet without any perturbation. For this word is used of the effect of His vengeance, not of the disturbing mental affection. [emphasis added]
You won't become popular telling people God has no fellow-feeling with the miserable, because on first hearing that sounds like a defect in God, and few people are willing to give it a second hearing.

Those who think it through, however, will find, not only that is it true that God doesn't have fellow-feeling with the miserable -- and, consequently, that God's way of showing mercy is not man's way -- but that we wouldn't want Him to. (Demonstrating the truth of this statement is, for now, left as an exercise to the reader.)

And while I don't suppose there's any comfort to be drawn from this conclusion, it's still true that it largely settles the amateur atheist's argument from human suffering against God's existence, the one that assumes God ought to be moved to help those who suffer in the same way human beings ought to be moved to help them.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What is wrong with you?

According to St. Matthew, Jesus taught His disciples, "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." According to St. Luke, He taught them, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."

This suggests that (to say the least) being merciful has something to do with being perfect. So why does St. Thomas teach that being merciful has something to do with being defective?

Because as St. Thomas uses the term "defectus," it means anything that is lacking that shouldn't be lacking. He would say, for example, that not having enough food is a defect in the person who doesn't have enough food. To be miserable necessarily involves having a defect. (And before we laugh and point too much at his ridiculously unnatural philosophical language, we might ask ourselves if we've ever wondered what's "wrong" with someone who looks sad.)

In any case, St. Thomas says that, in order for us to take pity on someone, we must make their defect, their cause of misery, our own; and, further, that we have only two reasons for doing this:
  1. Due to union of the affections: We are so united through love with the person that we necessarily regard their defects as our own.
  2. Due to real union: We are aware of the possibility that we too might suffer in the same way.
The latter reason, he says, is common among both "the old and the wise" -- who know better than to pretend they're beyond the reach of evils that befall others -- and among "feeble and timorous persons," whose find it easy to imagine themselves suffering.

Whichever reason (or combination of both) we have for being merciful, it involves a defect, a cause of misery, within ourselves. It's a conclusion that has some significant implications -- and they aren't merely of academic interest, at least not for people who want to follow both commands of Jesus quoted above.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Golden compassion

Let me unnecessarily complicate things with these completely idiosyncratic definitions:
  • I'll start with grief as the suffering of the soul caused by the apprehension of some evil.
  • Misery is grief when the apprehended evil befalls oneself.
  • Sympathy is grief when the apprehended evil befalls another person.
  • Compassion is sympathy that prompts one to help the one who is in misery.
  • Mercy is the virtue though which compassion is regulated by reason and one acts to help others in misery.
These distinctions allow me to make the following claims:
  1. Compassion is not always a sufficient response. There are circumstances in which a Christian sins if he doesn't act to help someone in misery.
  2. The virtue of mercy can (and probably should) engender compassion in the soul. While it's not, strictly speaking, necessary to feel compassion in order to act with mercy, compassion is a natural human response to the apprehension of another's misery.
  3. Alleviating one's own misery is not in itself an act of mercy. The wicked judge in the parable alleviated the widow's misery not out of mercy, but out of self-love. Relatedly, one can can act to alleviate a shared evil suffered by both oneself and another without acting mercifully toward the other, just as one can suffer the evil without feeling compassion toward the other.


Tuesday, July 06, 2010

You think your wife doesn't understand you?

Life is not all skittles and beer for the prophet of the LORD, even before the part where they kill you.

Hosea, for example, not only married a harlot at the LORD's direction, but even had to talk publicly about his unhappy marriage as a prophetic illustration of God's relationship with Israel. The personal shame of a man who lived twenty-eight hundred years ago is now a topic of conversation on the World Wide Web.

Of course, we aren't concerned with the real-life marriage of Hosea and Gomer, but with the just-as-real-life marriage of God and His people. Still, we understand more spiritual things in terms of more physical things, and the problems of a man with an unfaithful wife are easier for us to comprehend than the problems of a perfect and eternally happy God with unfaithful followers.

Hosea 2 is not a chapter to quote if you're giving a sermon on how being a good person is all that's needed for salvation. The people of Israel worshipped the local gods in thanksgiving for the bounty of the land. Giving thanks is good, right? They coexisted in peace with the local pagans. Living in peace with your neighbor is good, right?

Their error, though, goes deeper than thanking the wrong deity. Their actions are a repudiation, not of a deity-devotee relationship, but of a marriage covenant. A faithful wife doesn't go hopping from bed to bed simply because men give her presents, and she certainly doesn't treat her husband like just one more lover.

Even if Israel did not know that it was the Lord who gave them the grain, the wine, and the oil, she should have known that the Lord had made her His spouse. Yet Hosea speaks of the LORD looking forward to that day on which Israel
shall call me "My husband," and never again "My baal."
The NAB note on this verse says:
My baal: the word means "lord, master." It was commonly used by women of their husbands, but it is to be shunned as a title for the Lord because of its association with the pagan god Baal. Probably it had been so used by many Israelites, who saw little if any difference between the worship of the Lord and the worship of Baal.
It might not seem like to call the Lord "my Lord" is to be unfaithful, but God did not call Israel, and He has not called us, into an economic relationship whereby He supplies our material needs in exchange for acts of worship. God calls us to love Him, and He is not the sort of Being Who can be partly loved.