God without the Idea of Evil: Part III—The Twofold Gaze of the Lord 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; part II, “The Goodness of Human Freedom,” is available here—Ed.

God knows our responses in the gaze that corresponds to his consequent will, a will that takes into account the consequences of our free-will decisions. If we agree to accept his grace, God is pleased to guide us further along the path we have chosen. Conversely, if we sin by rejecting grace, God works in every way to heal and save us. The entire mystery of the incarnation and salvation in Christ depends on God’s consequent will. Of course, when we sin by rejecting his friendship and grace, God does not suffer in himself because he is the eternal, unchanging source of happiness. But he perceives our sin as a wound in us that he mercifully wants to heal. This is why God instituted the mystery of the redemption: in it, he triumphantly overcomes the evil of which he cannot comprehend—the evil of which we alone are the source—taking it upon himself in the person of his Son.

In the light of this twofold gaze of the Lord, Jean-Miguel Garrigues invites us to reflect on various texts of Scripture. But before we look at some of them, we need to look at what he says about the nature of evil itself.

The title of Garrigues’s book under consideration, God without the Idea of Evil, is taken from a phrase used by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae. Its meaning is that God has neither created, programmed, nor foreseen evil, namely moral evil or sin, committed by beings who were created with intelligence and free will. God who is infinite goodness and the fullness of being foresees, plans, and creates only that which exists, that which is. All that he creates is good and has being. From eternity he conceives and plans only existence and goodness. God “has no idea of evil” because, metaphysically speaking, evil is that which is not, that which has no existence of its own.

Of course, it is evident that things are not quite that simple. Evil is not just something that does not exist. It is a specific kind of nothingness. It implies a lack of existence and a lack of goodness. Here we are faced with the distinction between natural and moral evil. Natural evil arises from the fact that the material world is constantly changing and has not yet reached its final goal. The development of the world, its evolution, implies that beings are born, grow, and die, giving way to others. Among other things, it implies a food chain in which living things feed on each other. Goodness for the lion implies the evil for the zebra. Natural evils are said to be implicitly the object of God’s will because they contribute to the common good of the universe.

However, the moral evil by which spiritual beings (including angels and human beings) freely and deliberately reject the Lord’s friendship and love is totally against God’s will. It was in no way created, programmed, predestined, or foreseen by God. What the Lord intended from all eternity is man’s not-yet-fully-defined freedom, a necessary precondition for those who are called to freely accept God’s grace of adoption. Human freedom is an absolutely necessary element in God’s plan. If we were not free, it would be impossible for us to participate in God’s life. But with this freedom came the possibility or risk of sin, not the necessity to sin; the possibility, but not the necessity, for man to reject God’s call. This risk exists and will continue to exist until man’s freedom is finally established in communion with God in the fullness of the kingdom of heaven.

It follows that original sin (with all its harmful and tragic consequences for us and for our world) and all our subsequent sins did not have to happen, nor were they preplanned by God. Contrary to what some theologians claim, original sin, with all its painful consequences, was not simply an inevitable stage in human evolution. The experience of sin was not part of the pedagogy that God originally intended for man. If it had been otherwise, God would indirectly have been the author of all the evils into which mankind has fallen. But, on the contrary, original sin was a failed stage of spiritual development, which happened only because man freely rejected God’s grace. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the entire tradition of the church affirm, the present condition of fallen man is the result of a sin committed at the beginning of human history. According to the Catechism, this was a concrete historical event.

These facts have inspired Garrigues to consider what the history of mankind might have been if man had not sinned. Of course, we must not imagine that man was created in some mythological world, in the way some fundamentalists imagine according a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation stories. Man came into being in our world, where all creatures experience birth and decay. Man himself, in his body, is a product of animal evolution. However, endowed by the Creator with an immortal soul and the gift of divine grace, man was called to journey through this world under the guidance of the eternal Son of God, step by step transcending his limitations as a created being in order to become capable one day of participating fully in the life of the Trinity, which is a life of pure self-giving love. Man could have made this journey without falling into sin, because he was sustained by original grace and not yet oppressed by that concupiscence which, after the original fault, clouds our minds, weakens our wills, and makes us prone to sin.

If in our world man now suffers grievously from all kinds of natural and moral evils, the various types of cruelty which are of human invention (e.g., man against man, man against nature), it is because man freely rejected God’s grace when he sinned in the beginning. If man had not sinned, he would have been able to reign peacefully and harmoniously in the natural world, and at the end of his life, without the painful rupture of death as we know it, he would have passed on to the fullness of eternal life in body and soul in a way somewhat similar to that of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the mystery of her Assumption. But Mary’s situation is different, for she belongs to the economy of salvation in Christ, having been redeemed beforehand and protected from original sin by the merits of her Son which were foreseen in advance.

We are now ready to look briefly at some of the texts and images that are the objects of the meditations that form the main part of this book. We will begin our next installment with those relating to the antecedent will of God. ♦

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.

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

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