Quick thoughts on the injustice of grace

Image from the Orthodox Church in America

A call for papers passed through my inbox recently for a conference entitled ‘Divine (In)Justice in Antiquity and the Middle Ages‘. In my perversity, I immediately thought about this sublime post by Fr Aidan Kimel over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, St Isaac the Syrian: The Scandalous Injustice of God. If you’re pressed for time, I recommend that you skip my post and read Fr Aidan’s.

Anyway, I thought it would be a laugh to submit a paper to the conference about the injustice of divine grace in St Isaac the Syrian (‘of Nineveh’, d. 700) — to challenge our ideas of what it means when God is ‘unjust’. Generally speaking, when folks say that God is ‘unjust’, they really mean that God allows ‘bad’ things to happen to ‘good’ people. My paper, inspired by Fr Aidan and giving him full credit (of course), would use St Isaac to question this idea of just and unjust as well as bad and good in relation to divine-human relationships.

Upon further thought and reading the call for papers more closely, I decided that it wasn’t such a good idea — I can’t read Isaac in the original Syriac; I have yet to read his complete works; blog posts by Fr Aidan are the only secondary material I’ve read. The groundwork for me to produce an academic paper on St Isaac the Syrian is too great, even if the seed of a thesis exists. And I have a feeling that seed is correct.

Nevertheless, as I brough to the fore on my posts about St Augustine of Hippo and medieval Cistercians on divine love (here and here), God goes far beyond justice in His dealings with the human race, according to the teachings of historic Christianity. Whether one believes in apokatastasis as do St Isaac and Fr Aidan, God — the overwhelming Trinity that is, in His essence, agape, dilectio, love — loves us more than we can ask or imagine, and that love has overflown and continues to overflow in the divine action with regard to the human race.

Remember, as we were taught in Sunday School or heard from an evangelist on the street, the human race is fallen, broken, twisted, diseased, suffering. One glance at footage shot by drones in Homs, Syria, will show you that. One look at the clubbing scene in Glasgow on a Saturday will show you as well. Having turned our backs on God, and being ourselves ultimately ex nihilo, we are headed for destruction without God (see St Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation).

God loves us, so He comes to save us. Justice, which is balance (I always quote Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins for that), means that ‘bad’ things happen to ‘bad’ people. No one is good, no one is righteous — not one (Cf. Romans 3:12; Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:0).

Yet when we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us so that we might become the friends and children of God, heirs of the universe. This is absolute, overpowering love, agape at its deepest and truest.

It is also, by the ancient understanding of justice (in a judiciary sense, typically a retributive idea), unjust.

All of this, of course, has been said better and more beautifully by St Isaac the Syrian.*

[Insert plug for Late Antiquity here.]

*Also said by the Newsboys, ‘When you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. A real good thing.’

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What do you mean, “God is love”? (Part One: dilectio and agape with St Augustine)

When I was 15, there was a very popular Barq’s rootbeer commercial where one of the characters, out of sight of another, proclaims, ‘What do you mean, “Barq’s has bite”?’ Here it is in all its glory:

That summer at camp, I was involved in a parody of that ad, only the guy standing at the booth was saying, ‘God is love,’ and Johnny was saying, ‘What do you mean, “God is love”?’ Johnny was handed a New Testament, took a look, and said, ‘Amen!’ instead of, ‘Ouch!’ (I think?)

The question has recently jumped into prominence for me because of St Augustine, De Trinitate, and the Church of England’s ‘Pilgrim Course’. Today I’ll deal only with Augustine.

IMG_2219In Books 8 and 9 of De Trin, St Augustine discusses love and knowledge, and how one can love that which one does not know. He also says that love is a potential analogy for the Holy Trinity, since love requires a lover, a beloved, and the love itself. He later rejects this analogy on the grounds that in order to love onself, lover and beloved are both the same. He later makes some other analogies from human psychology.

So — what do you mean, ‘God is love’?

The first thing we need to sort is ‘love’. When I was working for IVCF/IFES in Cyprus, we were reminded to be careful with how we use that famous phrase. A lot of the Nepali Hindus we met were liable to switch subject and predicate and then equate sex with love, producing a highly distorted view of what 1 John 4 is talking about!

St Augustine in these books of De Trin uses multiple words for love, annoyingly. When he actually cites, ‘God is love,’ he does so in a version of 1 John 4:16 that runs:

Deus dilectio est, et qui manet in dilectione, in Deo manet. (De Trin 8.VII (10))

God is love, and the person who remains in love, remains in God.

The Greek of the relevant portion is is:

Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστὶν

God is agape. The Weber-Gryson edition of the Vulgate gives us caritas where Augustine has dilectio and the Greek agape. Caritas is the normal Latin translation of agape — hence older English Bibles with charity. I found myself perplexed by Augustine yesterday, no less so when he suddenly switched from dilectio to amor in Book 9, using it in much the same way! He did use caritas at one point in Book 9, to distinguish between it and cupiditas.

Semantics matter if we’re trying to figure out what somebody means.

It turns out that I may have a watered-down vision of dilectio, probably from some of the uses of its cognate verb diligo that seem weak in English — ‘to esteem’. Also, it is used commonly in late Latin letter-writing as ‘tua dilectio’ so frequently that any force of substantive love has been sucked out of it.o

Nonetheless, I learned from Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary that this is a late Latin word and that Tertullian uses dilectio dei to refer to the love of God, and it is not entirely absent from the Vulgate. The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, in fact, cites nothing earlier than Tertullian for this word. According to that esteemed dictionary, dilectio is used in it primary sense as a synonym for the Greek agape and the Latin caritas.

So that settled what Augustine meant by dilectio. He meant love as in agape as in caritas.

Caritas/agape has traditionally been rendered into English as charity — observe the King James translation of 1 Corinthians 13.

This is the word that Lancelot Andrewes and his team chose to signify the highest form of love there is. Sadly, because of how we act/view ‘charitable’ deeds and almsgiving, charity in English tends to mean someone else’s leftovers that they really don’t want. It should, rather, mean a super-powerful love that is powerful enough to love the unlovely and unloveable. It is, after all, modelled upon the love of God — a love so large that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Ro 5:8).

A prime example of what has happened to the word charity is that famous sermon Bono preached to then-President G. W. Bush several years ago. He said that Africa and the developing world don’t need charity — they need justice. And went on to press the President to improve the quality and quantity of American foreign aid.

In fact, actually, Africa doesn’t need justice. True charity is preferable to justice. Every time. Ra’s al Ghul may have had dastardly methods to execute what he felt was justice, but he was not wrong in declaring that justice is balance in Batman Begins. This is what the retributive justice system is about. Justice is when you get what you deserve.

Charity, on the other hand, looks at your deserts and chooses to give you better. In a universe shot through with charity, the Judge looks at you and takes your penalty. In a universe shot through with charity, the Father embraces you, knowing that you have a knife in your hand to stab Him in the back.

Augustine’s dilectio is meant to carry the same weight, although I didn’t quite get it without the lexicographical wonders of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.

But this is only one of the many ramifications of what is meant by “God is love”…

Catacombs and Controversy

Orans or ‘Pray-er’ in the Catacombs

I’m not an art historian, as this post that still leaves me dissatisfied will show. But I do like art and architecture and sometimes even have coherent thoughts about them. This coherence is typified in my posts about Gothic art and architecture here and here. Part of what makes Gothic architecture easier to write about is the fact that it comes with a guidebook, almost. When Abbot Suger redesigned St. Denis, he wrote all about it.

This clarity is not the case for much early Christian art.

And today, I had to lead a tutorial seminar on the Catacombs of Rome, which lack much clarity and coherence because they were first excavated during the Reformation and were thus marshalled for the ‘Counter-‘ or ‘Catholic’ Reformation as Anti-Protestant/Iconoclast propaganda. Today, the Vatican still controls access to these subterranean lands full of wonderful images, thus making it harder to re-evaluate them based upon new techniques and better knowledge of the early history and art of Christianity from other sources (such as Dura Europos).

The propaganda value of the Catacombs comes from attempts to proclaim all of the art Christian and all of it pre-Constantinian. This often comes coupled with the belief that the Christians lived and hid in the Catacombs during times of persecution. The idea is that if you can prove a major role for bishops and the Bishop of Rome before Constantine, as well as the centrality of martyr (ie. saints’) cults in Ante-Nicene Christianity, as well as the prominence of Christian figural art including images of Christ before Nicaea, you can prove to Iconoclast Protestants who want to separate from Rome and abolish the cult of the saints that they are treading a fine line with overturning early stages of the very tradition that gave us the Scriptures.

However, I do not believe that you need to espouse this 16th-century propaganda to be Roman Catholic — not that I’m a Roman Catholic. The newer interpretations of the Catacombs are that they are subterranean necropoleis like those of other Mediterranean cities and that they housed the corpses Christians, Jews, and pagans. This view explains why there are so many pagan motifs in the art down there (you’d think it would be welcome to the Roman authorities).

Catacomb Banquet

Although such a view leads to re-dating some art as well as proclaiming other art pagan, the art that seems to date from the mid-third century still has many of the major Catacomb motifs — banquet scenes, Bible stories, Christ the Good Shepherd on the ceiling, fish, chi-rhos, and the like. Thus, arguments for Ante-Nicene figural images can still stand against Iconoclastic opponents.

Of course, when the material is re-dates, there is some trouble with the fact that none of the crosses or crucifixions pre-dates the fifth century. But this merely makes the Catacombs like every other place with Christian art. Christians were very slow to go about publically painting and carving crosses. My hunch is that in a culture where people are actually crucified, it’s still too raw; Christians have to spend enough time working through the shame as it is, as evidenced in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho.

I think the lack of crosses also points to the purpose of the art. While it’s likely that some Christian martyrs were buried there, no evidence exists for regular Church services down there, apart (one imagines) from martyrs’ festivals. The Bible stories tend to be images of people being saved, not of Christ’s salvific act. They are reminders of the hope all Christians hold.

Good Shepherd, ceiling of cubiculum in Catacomb of Priscilla

Another idea countered by younger scholars is that every banquet scene in the Catacombs is Eucharist. Since some of them are pagan, this need not be so. They could be images of the heavenly banquet; they could be images of the banquets Romans (Christians included) held at the tombs of loved ones on the anniversary of their death; they could be images the Christian love-feast. Who knows?

Alas, however, these views are hard to find, as an art historian/archaeologist friend was explaining today over coffee. Since access to these sites is so closely controlled, and the official line so loudly proclaimed, it is hard to find a book that will break the silence and tell the truth in all its messiness and with all its uncertainties.

But I like the image of the Catacombs as common cemeteries where Christians told their stories in frescoes, even if they are not always the stories we expect. It adds another angle to the evidence provided by the also scant but much more numerous documentary evidence that I usually deal with.