[Editorial note: Content here is pulled from social media comments and posted by Jesse Hake (with permissions). Some of this same material, along with additional related content, was also posted here.]
First, my friend, Maurice Mo Hagar II, asked for help on social media…
Did God set us up to fail? What a great question! Drawn from anonymous questions, submitted by a church youth group, for discussion the following week. Help!
The standard response is, “Of course not, free will… blah blah blah.” They’re too smart for that. Though I think the analogy here to parenting is spot on. “Did my parents set me up for failure, pain, and suffering by bringing me into this world?” “Yes, they did…” Help!
So I’m inclined towards, “Let’s be honest. Yes, as a necessary condition for our growing, dying, and rising again into our fully divinized potential – the glory of God – in Christ, slain from the foundation of the world.” Or something along those lines.
…I’d love to hear from anyone able to unpack this simply and quickly for a bunch of erudite teens no longer content with Sunday School fare.
Dr. Jordan Daniel Wood replied with a substantial note…
My brief reply would begin with the following three observations, mostly unsubstantiated here since I’ve little time:
1. Genesis 1-3 isn’t historical, but “mythological” in the deeper, more ancient sense (where primordial realities are cast back to an unobservable past, which indicates that these realities so characterize our entire historical experience that they cannot even properly be conceived as yet another episode within that history). But, it must be admitted, this only slightly mitigates the original question. In fact what matters more than the historical veracity of these stories is the sequential structure that even non-literalist readings and classical doctrines of faith assume: first God was “before” creation, planning it out, as it were, and “after” that he executes the plan. Reading Genesis (1-11 esp.) as myth, or, if you like, as inspired at the level of “Spirit,” means we’re also free to deny the assumption that God’s act of creation must itself involve such a sequence. This mitigates the original question further, but not entirely, since the question is less about why God began things in such a way (i.e. “set us up”), and more exactly about why any dimension or aspect of God’s creation should permit evil. We might put the same question in the present tense: Why does God continue to bring forth rational beings into this world, here and now, given its fallen character–the ignorance, malice, greed, hatred, error, misjudgment, and suchlike that seemingly dominates it? My 1 year-old is, after all, just as much an effect of God’s creation ex nihilo as any supposed individual “Adam” and “Eve” were. All to say: Genesis must be read nonliterally, and yet this does not finally resolve the issue at hand. We must therefore move beyond mere exegesis into properly speculative theological thinking.
2. On the one hand, the very fact that creatures must begin at all means that they must begin in process. That’s because having a beginning means that you are not yet at your end–that your end is, as it were, “beyond” your current state. So you must strive for it, make your way towards it, attain it. You’re made already in process, already on some path or way. All the more so if your true beginning is your true end: this would mean that even the beginning you necessarily begin with, is not yet even your true beginning in being (not just that it’s not yet the end). Hence, if it’s true that, say, Christ himself–the event of the Incarnation–is our true end and beginning (Eph 1, Col 1, Apoc 3.14, Apoc 22, etc.), then this means that what we currently perceive to be our beginning is only a relative beginning, not yet our real start. And so our “necessary” beginning appears to be like this: we begin not because we’re truly finite, but rather our seeming to have a beginning makes us think we’re merely finite (not to mention our brute end, death!). In other words, the very fact that we begin to be is the occasion for our own self-deception, whereby we imagine that we are merely dust. (Here Gen 2.7 should condition everything we think about Gen 1-3, by the way). Or as Maximus says, Adam “fell at the very same time he began to be.” So the fact that we are finite-beings-meant-to-become-finite/infinite beings (theosis) means that we necessarily begin in ignorance of God, the world, and ourselves–and ignorance is the mother of all vice. But even here we’ve not yet answered the original question. It remains unclear why God would undertake creation at all if it must begin in this way.
3. That’s to say, evil starts to appear as a “necessary” component or condition of creation itself. That, we’re often told, is “gnostic” and thus heretical, since it seems to deny creation’s goodness. And yet Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus all say that not every phenomenon in creation is “a work of God.” Anything that falls short of expressing God’s infinitely good and loving will is no effect of his will, and thus not a work or creation or result or term of his will. So here we are: this world is a damnable mixture of God’s universal and ubiquitous, totally good will for each and all creation (the logoi) and our own pseudo-“creations” that we give our own lives to make “real,” but ultimately in vain. Nor are such “creations” limited to individual acts or lives: this world is pervaded by the work of “Adam,” of the collective ignorance and foolishness that form the conditions for all sin, and precisely because we are created with the potency to become God, our ignorant acts can take near-cosmic dimensions. This is a dire view, far worse than anything Augustinian original sin conveys with its merely genetic handing on of perverted tendencies in the will. For now the very heights of our vocation in Christ, to become God-human beings, is itself an occasion for our universal fall. So this observation too, while it further changes the framework of the original question, cannot resolve it.
So why would God create beings whose very end is the apparently necessary condition for their failure of that end? There are no abstract resolutions to such a question, in my opinion. But that very realization introduces a yet deeper one: no abstract resolution exists because no abstract creation exists. Creation finds its perfection, rather, in the fullness, the maturation, the absolutely open plenitude of interpersonal love. Which is to say that God set out in creation to make not an “order” of “things,” but to have children. The command of proliferation he gives to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 is the very command he himself, in Christ, is out to fulfill–to be fruitful and multiply. Creation is adoption, it’s raising children, it’s attending to the manifold uniqueness that is every person, is the unconditioned realization of love. And as such, it is a work of God and us together, for not even God can create a person without that person’s participation, since person’s are never who they are apart from the vital interrelations of life (not even God is a person without such interrelations). Here the parenting analogy is more appropriate: God isn’t like a parent principally in that he sets up conditions of our coming-to-be and lets free will have free reign; that’s not even what parents do, since a main job of parenting is setting parameters to the child’s free, imaginative play, precisely so that the imagination can explore the unknown without the full consequences of such exploration as an adult. Rather God is like a parent in that nothing, not even our “necessary” ignorance and failures along the way, would ever stifle his infinite love for us, and so, since it was precisely that infinite love that is the movement of creation itself (its reason and ground and end), nothing we do in ignorance constitutes a reason against our creation. So is this ignorance and the heinous evil it permits “necessary” for God’s act of creation? Not abstractly, not at all. But might I “need” to suffer this or that evil to become what I will find I’ve always wanted to be? Perhaps. As a parent, I can say: sometimes one child “needs” something that another doesn’t, so that I wouldn’t say that just because one approach worked for one child, it is therefore “necessary” for “good parenting” in general (i.e. abstractly) to take that approach. No, parenting isn’t like that: the only way a good parent knows what is “necessary” in any actual case for good parenting, is for that parent really to know the child in question–know what they need, how they need it, what are their limits, what are their trials, etc. Creation is God’s act of parenting, his act of raising child gods to become, in Christ, co-heirs and “friends” who will no longer “need” anything other than the love and truth God is. There are no abstract resolutions to the question of evil precisely because creation is the very opposite of an abstract act–it’s our adoption as God’s children to, somehow, become his equal. An act of sheer love and wisdom. Because unlike, say, intellect (conceived as “understanding” or ratiocination), wisdom is the actual identity of theory and act. That, as I noted in my reflections on Bulgakov on Fr. Al’s blog, gets to the heart of sophiology as I understand it.
This received a response from Elizabeth Gatling: “Brief.”
Jordan: Given the gravity of the question, I’d say that was indeed a brief reply.
Elizabeth: Granted. I still think we’re set up for failure though, and honestly, the only way to win is not to play.
Jordan: I grant that almost all appearances seem to suggest that we are set up for failure. I don’t think we can know the conclusion you draw from that, though, until the end. If I were born into a storm, how could I know for sure that it wasn’t worth it until the storm passed? But I also grant this: if the “end” does not involve the changing and correcting of all events–even past ones–then the game was indeed not worth playing.
Elizabeth: “If the ‘end’ does not involve the changing and correcting of all events–even past ones–then the game was indeed not worth playing.” Not sure I understand that statement.
Jesse: Elizabeth, this transcript of a conversation with Jordan might help with understanding that last statement you are asking about. I sure had a good time asking these questions of him at any rate…
Jordan: We consider past tragedies and traumas as “completed” events because they seem to us, in the present, as “done and over.” I think that if time itself has an “end” or “purpose,” then that end or purpose cannot be limited to just the last episode in the long line of episodes. Rather it must be the perfection of every event and time–even past tragedies–or else it is no real perfection or purpose at all. So in one sense I agree with you entirely: If any evil or trauma was the “price” of creation, a price once paid and forever fixed in time and memory, then this game was not worth playing. But if the very “end” of time includes the perfection of all time, of all events in time (which are relative), then we must await that end as not only worth this current, often repulsive existence, but worth it precisely because it will render all past tragedies null and void, and replace them with the true events that ought to have occurred as God’s will for each and every moment of creation. I know it’s a bold and nearly impossible to conceive view. But consider it a kind of demand that God, if he merits our faith, must be able to overcome what seems naturally impossible to us. And I think he can and has done just that: the Incarnation, for instance, shows faith that God is not limited even by natural limits, since it seems against nature that a human being could be God, or that God could be a creature.
Elizabeth: Oh my… Once upon a time I asked that “my faith prove it self worthy of me.” I thought I was being too much. But you just said that. You said, “…consider it a kind of demand that God, if he merits our faith, must be able to overcome what seems naturally impossible to us…” The point that God should be able to circumvent temporality as well …I need to go re-examine a few things.
Jordan: I am 100 percent in favor of a God who not only must merit our faith, but actually wants to merit it. Any good parent wants their child to love them, not merely fear them. If love casts out fear, then the perfection of faith must include the casting out of fear, and the casting out of fear includes being able to trust in the absolute and unhindered goodness of God. Christ himself wants this (Jn 15.15)! Might I recommend this wonderful sermon by George MacDonald? It doesn’t get at the time stuff I’m talking about. But it does express the heart behind the logic I try to work out. [Unspoken Sermons by George MacDonald: “The Voice of Job.”]
Elizabeth: I have homework to do today! And I am nearly in tears.
Jordan: God bless you!
Elizabeth: I am absolutely blown out of the water by this. It turns everything I ever thought upside down and inside out because LOOK! A REASON! This part: “Yes, I think, absolutely. I mean, look, Peter has that line: “Now is the time for judgment to begin with the house of God.” Judgment isn’t just a future thing any more than salvation is just a future thing. Paul says in Second Corinthians five: “Today is the day of salvation.” And Maximus will ultimately say those two are the same act of God, cooperating with God. They’re just two aspects of it because in order to fully build up and become who you are, you must destroy who you have mistaken yourself to be. And you know, Paul will say “put off your old self” and “I have been crucified with Christ” and “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” So something had to die. This is why, then, I would say, judgment is in our acts of repentance, going to the liturgy, of confession, of forgiveness, of love, of service, of everything that makes up the Christian life, the spiritual life of prayer. Everything that makes up your life is a preparation for your own perfection, but the perfection of you and your own history and of all its past events as well.
So in this sense, we, by prejudice, we normally just think, well, I’m becoming a better person.
Hopefully I’m working on myself, and I won’t make the mistakes I made in the past. But if the past itself lies in your future, then what you really are doing is you’re already beginning to change the past by preparing yourself to be the kind of person who will be able to do what you ought to have done when you’re given the opportunity to do it again.”
You broke me in the best way here. I have to start all over again. But that’s okay because I CAN.
Holy macaroni! This is the Good News!