You see, it all started at Habakkuk's Watchpost. First Kyle wrote a thoughtful meditation on justice and hell after Pinochet's death. Then Bret followed that up with some thoughts of his own. Bada bing, bada boom (last time I ever type that, sorry) we've got a fell fledged theological discussion on our hands. At a blog, no less!
In the comments of Bret's post the discussion quickly shifted to the judgment of God, as Ben said:
... preaching God's kindness and grace must be paired with preaching God's judgment, because at heart they are the same thing. This is important lest we let our convictions about God's benevolence become rationalizations for human evil. God loves the widows and orphans for the same reason that God judges those who oppress them.
This inspired some fruitful discussion, and got me thinking a bit more about what we mean by "God's judgment." On that subject I wrote this:
That's [the question of what exactly we mean by God's judgment, as posed by Bret in a preceding comment] an interesting question. I suppose we have to fall somewhere between the two extremes of
1.) declaring that the judgment of God is the fire of hell, as a kind of cosmic moral enforcement mechanism, and
2.) using the word "judgment" to imply only a sort of empty and impotent moral evaluation.
That is, we cannot say, on the one hand, that God's judgment is somehow a supernatural threat designed to keep us in line, or on the other hand that God's judgment is merely God's way of saying, without any authority, "I really don't like that and wish you would stop."
My feeling on the subject is that God's judgment, to the extent that it makes sense to speak of it, is not a supernatural anything, be it threat or empty evaluation. Rather, God's judgment is built into the system, though perhaps not quite in the way that a deist might see it as such. That is to say that ultimately, those who sow evil reap evil, and those that sow good reap good.
I recognize that life rarely looks so neat. However, this is perhaps due more to our misevaluation of our own interests than it is to do with a cosmically unjust universe. It is my conviction that most people who live their lives in such a way as to be deemed under the judgment of God are, despite external circumstances, profoundly unhappy people. With each immoral action the sew the seeds of their own misery, multiplying their suffering. Of course they may be surrounded by wealth and luxury, enjoying their creature comforts. But those comforts will always ultimately be both shallow and impermanent, and most of the time they know that. It is for this reason that the Buddhists say that even in pleasure there is pain, suffering, dukkha.
Similarly, those whose life has been transformed by an encounter with the grace of God, and who dedicate themselves to sharing that liberating grace and alleviating suffering wherever they see it; those people to whom God might say "Well done, my good and faithful servant," are ultimately happy, and not just in some hypothetical future life.
Of course, rarely does one meet such a person. Most of us are merely stumbling towards that goal, clumsily, with decidedly mixed results, still mired in our sins. We fancy ourselves as good, and wonder why the good perish. But ultimately we are not yet good, not yet sanctified. We are merely in a process which, while it will ultimately alleviate suffering, entails a great deal of suffering on the front end.
Our reward, however, need not be in the great hereafter. Our reward, at the very least, is hope. Having seen the goal, we can aim toward it with a purpose, even if at least in this life we ultimately fall short of the prize. But that hope puts us already in a better place than those who are purely slaves to their own selfish nature, sowing suffering in themselves and others.
Still, I suppose it is, as I said before, dangerous to divide the world into "us" and "them," for as soon as we try to distinguish ourselves from the dreaded "them" we become them, praying our pious prayer:
"Lord, I thank you that I am not like that tax collector."
Prayers like that makes us once again subject to the judgment built into the universe as a part of the creative will of God - the aspect of the will of God continually shaping creation.
I first started thinking this way in a college seminar on Hobbes' Leviathan. Discussing the Hobbesian shift from humans in a state of nature to humans in covenant with a sovereign (who in many ways resembles a sort of God) almost invariably leads to a discussion on balancing the pursuit of immediate self interests with a more cooperative approach. At some point during what was generally a counter-productive argument about the foundations (if any) of ethics and politics (a room full of philosophy majors is great for arguments, if not exactly directional ones - it is for this reason that one professor of mine devoted an entire lecture to the distinction between an argument and a fight) it hit me that, understood properly, cooperation is self interest. That is, there is, if you fully understand both interests, no difference between the interests of self and more collective interests.
This comes from an abiding (and damned persistent, as I've tried to kill it more than once) faith in a God who is in some meaningful way both:
1.) Good, and
It is always dangerous to begin with a concept of God and then apply that willy nilly to the universe, expecting the universe to comply. This was the primary error of Scholasticism. Intellectual honesty demands that we do it backwards, starting with our observations of the world around (that which can be seen and known, at least to some degree) and then seeing what, if anything, such observations can teach us about this mysterious God.
But those of us who have in some meaningful way experienced something we call God see everything else colored by the lens of that religious experience. We can't help but bring our God concepts to our observations of everything else. While we may not experience God in such a way as to reduce our experience to a set of certain, quasi-encyclopedic propositions, we still emerge from that experience with certain concepts, concepts which persist through and between religious traditions. These may not exactly rise to the standard of universally held truths, but neither are they the whims of a few theologically arrogant people who think that they, as opposed to everyone else, have the key to unlocking the mystery of the Almighty.
So, if it makes sense to speak of a God, and if it makes sense to speak of a God who is in some meaningful way at least both good and sovereign (and these big ifs rest on the persistence of religious traditions and the experiences they facilitate) the from this certain things follow. One of these things is the connection between self interest and the interests of others, as the good and sovereign God mediates between apparently competing interests, turning would-be competition into cooperation as we realize that we're all in the same boat, that we're all interconnected and interdependent.
This is what I have in mind when I speak in the comment above of God's judgment being somehow "built into the system." That is, God has ordered the universe in such a way that good begets good, and bad begets bad. There is if not exactly a cosmic justice or universal moral economy, at least a kind of order to things. And that order involves the moral sphere and the political sphere, two spheres so connected that it is almost impossible to see one without the other.
[Note: I make a sharp distinction between politics, which describes the interaction between persons, the mediation of interests, and government, which is a hierarchical and authoritative power structure, usually the result of a kind of politic. So please don't read me here as saying that the proper role of government is to serve as some kind of moral enforcement mechanism.]
Ahh... now I'm hopelessly lost and off topic. I've been trying to write down some ideas which I've never recorded before, brought up again by the posts linked above. I'm working through these issues, and one of my purposes with this blog is to work through issues in a kind of community. I test ideas here. I've never tested one so raw before (at least, I'm not aware of having tested such a raw one here), but the process of refinement should be the same. I spew out some nonsense, and then questions and comments force me to work through the bits that I haven't thought out. Eventually I realize that I'll never know anything, and just trust that someone God works out all things for the good, even if I'll never grasp the mechanism.
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