God without the Idea of Evil: Part II—The Goodness of Human Freedom by Gregory Casprini, OSB

Following on Divine Mercy Sunday, we present this week a multipart feature by Gregory Casprini, OSB, on his recent translation of Dominican theologian Jean-Miguel Garrigues’s God without the Idea of Evil (University of Notre Dame Press, 2023). As with the “Doors to the Sacred” series by John Alonzo Dick that we published in 2022, we conceive of Fr. Casprini’s feature as a kind of seminar or “retreat in writing” that explores the idea of a God who simply “cannot comprehend” the evil in the world. Fr. Casprini’s text is based on a presentation he gave about the book in Lithuania, and captures the way such a presentation prompts prayer and reflection in the hearer or reader. In the interest of full disclosure, TAC’s editor assisted with the preparation and submission of both manuscripts mentioned in the text, and receives a portion of royalties for any copies sold. Part I of this series, “The Origins of a Translation,” is available here—Ed.

Jean-Miguel Garrigues was born in Turkey in 1944 into a family of Spanish diplomats. His parents were on an assignment in Istanbul at the time. After studying in Spain, France, and the United States, Garrigues entered the Dominican Order in France and was ordained a priest in 1969. He spent one year at the Orthodox Theological Faculty in Thessaloniki, Greece, and a second year at the Institut Catholique de la Theologie (ICP) in Paris while working on his doctoral thesis with a scholarship from the World Council of Churches. The subject of his thesis was “Sanctification through Sacrificial Love according to Maximus the Confessor.

In Paris, while preparing for the priesthood, Garrigues met another young Dominican theology student from Austria: Brother Christoph Schönborn, the future cardinal and archbishop of Vienna. They became good friends and would be destined to work together in the service of the church. At the invitation of Cardinal Schönborn, Garrigues collaborated on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Later, he helped draft Pope John Paul II’s act of contrition for the sins and errors committed by people in the church throughout history that was issued in 2000. In addition, together with Cardinal Schönborn, Garrigues was the Vatican’s representative for some fourteen years in an ongoing dialogue with Messianic Jews, especially those living in the US, who were attracted by the similarities and links between the Catholic sacraments and ancient Jewish rituals and traditions.

God without the Idea of Evil consists of thoughts and meditations on the goodness of God and human freedom, based on the Holy Scriptures and on the contemplation of two well-known images: the icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev (c. 1360–1428) and the fresco of the Mocking of Christ by blessed Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455). Garrigues’s theological-philosophical reflections were originally presented as material for retreats given to consecrated sisters. When the book was first published, it was immediately popular, but it also generated considerable debate and even criticism from some theologians. In response, a revised edition was published in 1990 that included a new section providing explanations based on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, together with commentaries by Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) and Cardinal Charles Journet (1891–1975). In 2016, a third edition was published with an introduction by Cardinal Schönborn.

The starting point of God without the Idea of Evil is the Catholic profession of faith: “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” People, however, often blame God, rejecting him and his fatherhood because of the evil which exists in the world. This is one of the main causes of atheism today. If there is a God, if he is a good, all-powerful, loving Father, why is there sickness, war, suffering, and death everywhere? Could it be that God does not exist? Or if really exists, could it be that he is completely indifferent to what is happening in the world he created? Is he a cruel and sadistic God, the enemy of human freedom? Or is he truly good and loving, but somehow unable to contain and stop evil?

Moreover, there are those Christians who claim that God predetermines the fate of people, predestining some to heaven and others to hell regardless of what their actions are or will be; God arbitrarily decides to bless, protect, and save a small group of chosen ones, while excluding all others who are simply allowed to perish. Such is the theory of double predestination. Although it has been explicitly rejected by the church, it has long been (and to some extent still is) influential in the West, weighing heavily on the consciences of many Christians and causing some to doubt the goodness of God.

Contrary to all these and similar caricatures of the merciful face of God, Garrigues boldly affirms that God is truly a good, almighty Father who has chosen and calls all people to become his adopted children. God chose and called us when he created us; if he had not chosen us, we would not have been created. As Cardinal Schönborn writes in his introduction, quoting from Garrigues:

“God elects us precisely by creating us from nothing.” By enveloping us in his look, “God encounters us in the very gift of being that he bestows upon us, and his eyes do not see our sin.” God’s gaze always encompasses us in the freshness of his creative act, which is the origin of our existence. Fr. Garrigues invites us to rediscover in the eyes of Jesus the eternal charm, the continually new charm of the divine look that chooses us by calling us into existence. God does not see the evil in us!

This wonderful perspective can help us avoid the temptation of imprisoning ourselves and God in a rigid system of predestination! God, who chose and created us, who called us at the very beginning, accompanies us every moment of our lives, regardless of our sins.

It is legitimate to ask how this can be. Does not the Bible often declare that God knows all things, and that he is constantly searching the thoughts and intents of our hearts (cf. Heb 4:12)? And of Jesus, it is said that “on his part . . . he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (John 2:25), which clearly means that he was aware of all the good residing in others. But if this is the case, how can we understand the statement that “God’s eyes do not see our sin . . . he does not see the evil in us”? Garrigues bases his answer to this on St. Thomas Aquinas’s classical concept of divine eternity: God is immutable. He lives in the eternal present. This means that he is above time, outside the timeline of the universe he created. As Aquinas says, “there is no past or future for God. All the moments of this universe are present to Him.” Divine eternity is defined by the term tota simul (“all together at once”). All past, present, and future times are present to God, and he encompasses them in one glance.

In actual fact, from eternity, God sees us with a “twofold gaze.” One view comes from God’s antecedent will, and the other from his consequent will. This is the terminology used by Aquinas, but it was formulated much earlier, in the seventh century, by Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662). This double perspective of God’s view from eternity is the key to resolving the apparent contradiction between divine omniscience and human freedom. Together with Origen (c. 185–253), one of the early Church Fathers, it can be said that although God knows everything eternally, he does not predetermine everything. His original foreknowledge willingly leaves room in which the freedom of created beings is called to play a role. On the other hand, in his omniscience, God takes into account the good or bad decisions and actions of the free will of his creatures in the ordering of his providence.

God’s antecedent will is like the first movement of God’s heart. He creates us, chooses us, and calls us without looking at our future response. From his eternity, which is above time and in which all our past, present, and future moments are present to him, God looks at our present and accompanies each one of us on the path of life, educating us step by step and at the same time respecting our freedom, a freedom which he created and constantly guarantees. In other words, every moment of the history of the world, every moment of our lives, is present to God in his eternity, created by him, sustained by him. And every time we perform an act of free will, God is with us, sustaining our freedom, which is allowed by him to manifest itself spontaneously. This is why our freedom, which is a gift from God, is completely unpredictable. The Lord, regardless of our past or future sins, constantly offers us his love and grace and ardently awaits our response, without foreseeing what it will be. This is one of the principal ways in which it is said that God “has no idea of evil”—the evil that comes from the sin of free creatures. ♦

Gregory Casprini, OSB, originally from New York, has lived as a Benedictine monk in Europe for over fifty years. He is presently at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Palendriai, Lithuania. Tomorrow’s installment in this series will further consider the “twofold gaze of the Lord” and the relationship between freedom and original sin.

Image: Detail from Fra Angelico, The Mocking of Christ, 1440.

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