Monday, December 31, 2007

On mercy and creation

For a long time, I have believed that much of divine mercy is material creation itself. I first heard the idea, I think, at a series of conferences on metaphysics at the University of Louvain; one of my professors, Ignace Verhack, asked our guest speaker his opinion on Thomas Aquinas' notion that God's reason for creation was "mercy".

I don't remember our guest's answer, or even his name--at the time I believed he had nothing to say that my own professors did not already know, and that they were just humoring him. But the notion that God created, not simply out of "love" (a common enough notion), but out of "mercy", captured my imagination. I pictured the Alpha and the Omega, the perfect interior dialogue of love within the Trinity, yet taking pity on finite being for its as-yet non-existence. Someone with no sense of poety would think this idea silly--and if taken on a literal or mythological level, it might be reduced to that. Yet it still seems to reveal something deeply true about metaphysics, and physics--that Creation is not merely an expression of agape, of perfect, self-giving love; but of mercy, almost of pity.

Some people--in particualr, my students--are often confounded by the idea that God created, knowing full-well that evil would enter the picture, and yet is not to blame for evil. They are too quick to scoff at the distinction between the perfect will and permissive will of God, and to lose hope that Creation is ultimately Good (reading the Harry Potter books as I have been, I find Potter's misguided anger with Dumbledore to be a profound reflection of a high school student's struggle with faith, but that is another subject).

Many students do not yet perceive even the simple point that God can scarcely be blamed for "doing it wrong" when the only other alternative is oblivion. Yet beyond this is another profound theistic fact: in the very Creation itself, even before the Fall, our First Parents were surrounded by safeguards, fail-safes, and protections. All around them, and inside of them--inside their very bodies--God had already infused nature with the means of regaining eternal life. Jesus Christ is not "Plan B". "Plan B" and "Plan A" are both ultimately "Plan A", right from the start. "Plan B" was in effect from the First Day.

If we are spiritual beings, created in the image of God, endowed with a Freedom "a little less" than his own, and with our whole being depending every instant and in every molecule upon him--then why do we not blink out of existence with our first ungodly thought? Or shoot straight to Hell, which if we really understood the depth of the contradiction between our sin and his Goodness, we would see really ought to happen?

Conversely, why was Satan not given an opportunity, or even the possibility in his will, for remorse and forgiveness? Why was a single thought of rejection enough to send the Light Bearer plummeting to the icy ninth circle? To this day I remember in grade school asking the visiting priest, "How many sins does it take to go to Hell?" and hearing his response: "Just one." He said the words with honesty but also with a cheer in his voice that assured me, even as he said them, that this was no reason for sadness.

What is it that sustains my being, within that awful span of time between a grave sin and the Sacrament of Confession, during which time I not only lose the inheritance of eternal life but even a claim on this one? What is it that carries evil and godless people (nb: a godless person and an atheist are quite different concepts to my mind) from one evil act to the next? The sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.

The just, and the unjust alike: they have bodies. Bodies are our great mercy. Bodies are our safety net. Not foolproof, certainly, but the body, and mortal life, is the first gift of God to be given, and the last to be taken away. The body is our vehicle from sin to remorse to forgiveness; it is the hand of God reaching out to catch us before we fall beyond recovery; it is the thread spoken of by Jonathan Edwards, by which we are prevented, for a time, from perdition.

There's a lot more going on here, but I need to return to this later.

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