Saturday, June 07, 2008

More Abba Anthony

The second saying is relatively short, so I quote it here in its entirety from Sr. Benedicta Ward's translation:

When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depths of the judgement of God, he asked, "Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?" He heard a voice answering him, "Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgement of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them."

The more formal term for questions about evil and the providence of God is "theodicy." This is a perpetually hot topic on the web. Ecclesial wanderer Huw over at Sarx has even invited folks to take part in a Summer Theodicy Meme. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has looked at the issue several times, beginning with an essay response to the Indonesian tsunami and finishing with his book The Doors of the Sea. Abba Anthony gets a response to his question which would be profoundly unsatisfying to any philosophical student of the problem of evil. It is an answer most of us would find unsatifying. It is also perhaps the only honest answer to the question that God could give to us in this life. It is not an answer that would be acceptable from anyone other than God. We all resent it when another human stands over us and says "I know more than you, you couldn't understand, so just sit down and shut up if you know what is good for you." This rightly offends us because we know that, most likely, they don't know much more than we do, that they don't know, or care, what is good for us and are telling us to shut up to preserve their power and hide their own fear and ignorance. We probably resent this sort of answer from God as well, assuming that we are bigger than we are and He is smaller than He is and that we could understand any answer He gives. We assume an answer to the question of evil would be less complicated than, say string theory, and that we could absorb that answer without any real expansion of our hearts and minds in their present condition.

We say we want knowledge, but in our present state, "knowledge" is a polite way of saying "power." Ultimately, wanting to justify the way of the world to ourselves is a wish to play God for a moment. The trouble is that, as a general rule, playing God usually results in bad news both for ourselves and any other humans within our area of influence. It is not a habit to cultivate. It is ironic; we are called to be like God (perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect says the Gospel of Matthew). Yet, the beginning of this process is to realize our unlikeness with God. If we want his strength, we have to know our own weakness. Questions about divine providence are good questions. It is just that we are not yet the kind of persons who can hear and profit from the answers: "Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgement of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.".

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