Monday, May 29, 2006

"How Do I Get a Gracious God?" in the Intertestamental Era

The Pontificator has recently voiced a sentiment I've heard expressed before: that Luther's agonizing search for a gracious God was a personal eccentricity, or perhaps a sickness of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but in any case not a question that would have made sense to the Apostle Paul from whom Luther sought to find the solution to his great question.

“How do I get a gracious God?” . . . I cannot imagine the question being posed in the early centuries of the Church. Christians then simply knew God was gracious. They rejoiced in his paschal triumph over death and the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit. They were confident they would share in his Kingdom. They had been made new creatures by water and Holy Spirit. They now shared in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Each Sunday they ate the Body and Blood of their Savior. They knew their God was a God of love and mercy, and so they lived their lives in hope. There were no guarantees, of course. They knew they possessed the power to turn away from salvation and enslave themselves once again to sin and death. And so, like the Apostle, they worked out their salvation in “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Yet as far as I can tell, few suffered from a “terrified conscience.” There was no crisis of assurance.

Well, this is very odd. Apart from the fairly obvious counter-examples in the New Testament, one of the great pieces of doubt and despair of God's justice and mercy can be found as an appendix to Jerome's Vulgate as 4 Esdras. (Esdras is the Greek form for Ezra; in the Vulgate, what we call Ezra is called 1 Esdras, and what we call Nehemiah is 2 Esdras. Today 4 Esdras is generally termed 2 Esdras or the Apocalypse of Ezra). This is a Jewish text of the first century or so, preserved in Jerome's Latin translation and considered canonical in the Old Church Slavonic and Ethiopian Bibles. (RSV Text and NRSV text)

The work begins* with "Esdras" praying to God about how the Gentiles sin but Israel does not, yet God allows the Gentiles to oppress Israel:

"Then I said in my heart, Are the deeds of those who inhabit Babylon any better? Is that why she has gained dominion over Zion? For when I came here I saw ungodly deeds without number, and my soul has seen many sinners during these thirty years. And my heart failed me, for I have seen how thou dost endure those who sin, and hast spared those who act wickedly, and hast destroyed thy people, and hast preserved thy enemies, and hast not shown to any one how thy way may be comprehended. Are the deeds of Babylon better than those of Zion? Or has another nation known thee besides Israel? Or what tribes have so believed thy covenants as these tribes of Jacob? Yet their reward has not appeared and their labor has borne no fruit. For I have traveled widely among the nations and have seen that they abound in wealth, though they are unmindful of thy commandments. Now therefore weigh in a balance our iniquities and those of the inhabitants of the world; and so it will be found which way the turn of the scale will incline. When have the inhabitants of the earth not sinned in thy sight? Or what nation has kept thy commandments so well? Thou mayest indeed find individual men who have kept thy commandments, but nations thou wilt not find."

Uriel the angel first tells "Esdras" that he could not understand the ways of God, but then gives him signs of the Apocalypse to come. There is much discussion of the sufferings of Israel and creation, leading "Esdras" to cry out:

"All this I have spoken before thee, O Lord, because thou hast said that it was for us [i.e. Israel] that thou didst create this world. As for the other nations which have descended from Adam, thou hast said that they are nothing, and that they are like spittle, and thou hast compared their abundance to a drop from a bucket. And now, O Lord, behold, these nations, which are reputed as nothing, domineer over us and devour us. But we thy people, whom thou hast called thy first-born, only begotten, zealous for thee, and most dear, have been given into their hands. If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance? How long will this be so?" (6:55-59)

In the end, "Esdras's" sorrow for Israel seems to be swallowed up in a greater pain as he contemplates the misery of all the children of Adam:

I answered and said, "O sovereign Lord, I said then and I say now: Blessed are those who are alive and keep thy commandments! But what of those for whom I prayed? For who among the living is there that has not sinned, or who among men that has not transgressed thy covenant? And now I see that the world to come will bring delight to few, but torments to many. For an evil heart has grown up in us, which has alienated us from God, and has brought us into corruption and the ways of death, and has shown us the paths of perdition and removed us far from life -- and that not just a few of us but almost all who have been created!"

He answered me and said, "Listen to me, Ezra, and I will instruct you, and will admonish you yet again. For this reason the Most High has made not one world but two."

Uriel goes on to say that obviously the precious is rare and the base is common, just as with metals and stones, concluding thus:

So also will be the judgment which I have promised; for I will rejoice over the few who shall be saved, because it is they who have made my glory to prevail now, and through them my name has now been honored. And I will not grieve over the multitude of those who perish; for it is they who are now like a mist, and are similar to a flame and smoke -- they are set on fire and burn hotly, and are extinguished." (7:60-61)

Somehow, "Esdras" isn't comforted and cries out:

I replied and said, "O earth, what have you brought forth, if the mind is made out of the dust like the other created things! For it would have been better if the dust itself had not been born, so that the mind might not have been made from it. But now the mind grows with us, and therefore we are tormented, because we perish and know it. Let the human race lament, but let the beasts of the field be glad; let all who have been born lament, but let the four-footed beasts and the flocks rejoice! For it is much better with them than with us; for they do not look for a judgment, nor do they know of any torment or salvation promised to them after death. For what does it profit us that we shall be preserved alive but cruelly tormented? For all who have been born are involved in iniquities, and are full of sins and burdened with transgressions. And if we were not to come into judgment after death, perhaps it would have been better for us." (7:62-69)

Uriel's answer is that it is precisely because people have mind but misuse it, so almost all of them will be destroyed, and that "Esdras" should not mourn for them, as if he were one of the lost.

But this answer does not satisfy him, and he asks, perhaps in hope that there might be some intercession of the just for the unrighteous on Judgment Day. No such luck, Uriel informs him:

"The day of judgment is decisive and displays to all the seal of truth. Just as now a father does not send his son, or a son his father, or a master his servant, or a friend his dearest friend, to be ill or sleep or eat or be healed in his stead, so no one shall ever pray for another on that day, neither shall any one lay a burden on another; for then every one shall bear his own righteousness and unrighteousness."

I answered and said, "How then do we find that first Abraham prayed for the people of Sodom, and Moses for our fathers who sinned in the desert, and Joshua after him for Israel in the days of Achan, and Samuel in the days of Saul, and David for the plague, and Solomon for those in the sanctuary, and Elijah for those who received the rain, and for the one who was dead, that he might live, and Hezekiah for the people in the days of Sennacherib, and many others prayed for many? If therefore the righteous have prayed for the ungodly now, when corruption has increased and unrighteousness has multiplied, why will it not be so then as well?"

He answered me and said, "This present world is not the end; the full glory does not abide in it; therefore those who were strong prayed for the weak. But the day of judgment will be the end of this age and the beginning of the immortal age to come, in which corruption has passed away, sinful indulgence has come to an end, unbelief has been cut off, and righteousness has increased and truth has appeared. Therefore no one will then be able to have mercy on him who has been condemned in the judgment, or to harm him who is victorious
" (7:102-115).

At this news "Esdras" cannot forbear to lament again over mankind,

I answered and said, "This is my first and last word, that it would have been better if the earth had not produced Adam, or else, when it had produced him, had restrained him from sinning. For what good is it to all that they live in sorrow now and expect punishment after death? O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants. For what good is it to us, if an eternal age has been promised to us, but we have done deeds that bring death? And what good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised to us, but we have miserably failed? Or that safe and healthful habitations have been reserved for us, but we have lived wickedly? Or that the glory of the Most High will defend those who have led a pure life, but we have walked in the most wicked ways? Or that a paradise shall be revealed, whose fruit remains unspoiled and in which are abundance and healing, but we shall not enter it, because we have lived in unseemly places? Or that the faces of those who practiced self-control shall shine more than the stars, but our faces shall be blacker than darkness? For while we lived and committed iniquity we did not consider what we should suffer after death" (7:116-126)

Uriel says simply that they knew the rules and broke them, so no one will grieve over their destruction, and in any case, Esdras should talk as if he was one of the lost.

Esdras then appeals to Uriel for a word of comfort in the name of God's mercy, and the angel replies,

He answered me and said, "The Most High made this world for the sake of many, but the world to come for the sake of few. But I tell you a parable, Ezra. Just as, when you ask the earth, it will tell you that it provides very much clay from which earthenware is made, but only a little dust from which gold comes; so is the course of the present world. Many have been created, but few shall be saved" (8:1-3)

It goes on, and always Uriel emphasizes that "Esdras" must not feel bad for the vast majority of humanity, for whom hell-fire is all they were ever good for anyway.

Doesn't this remind you of Luther saying, in the Bondage of the Will:

Doubtless it gives the greatest possible offense to common sense or natural reason, that God, Who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, and so on, should of His own mere will abandon, harden, and damn men, as though he delighted in the sins and great eternal torments of such wretches. It seems an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God; and it is this that has been a stumbling block to so many great men down the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that I wish I had never been made a man. (That was before I knew how health-giving that despair was and how close to grace.) This is why so much toil and trouble has been devoted to clearing the goodness of God, and throwing the blame on man's will. It is at this point that distinctions have been invented between God's will of appointment and absolute will, between necessity of consequence and of things consequent, and many more such. But nothing has been achieved by means of them beyond imposing upon the unlearned by empty verbiage . . . (Bondage of the Will, p. 217).

Or doesn't it sound like the agony of Mrs. Marvyn voicing the misery of Harriet Beecher Stowe over the loss of her child in an accident before he had become regenerate?

Or like Paul, wishing and hoping that he could die for his Jewish brethren:

I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

And who feels the terrible weight of Adam's sin:

I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

And hopes for the end of time as the release from our misery:

For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.

Or the disciples who asked (surely they weren't worried, were they?):

Then said one unto him, 'Lord, are there few that be saved?' And he said unto them, 'Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.'

And who heard warnings like this:

"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."

And responded like this:

When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, "Who then can be saved?"

And this:

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord."

Of course, one could claim that none of these figures are mature Catholics nourished with the fullness of Catholic doctrine. But remember, the argument is, "Luther's agony has nothing in common psychologically with Paul's." But the writings of Esdras form a remarkable middle term between the two, making a contemporary and historically plausible explanation of the temptations to doubt and blasphemy that laid the biographical background of Paul's theology, just as it lay behind Luther's. Imagine a Jew like the author of 2 Esdras being met with a Christian -- how would he respond? With hatred, quite likely, as one who threatens the one plank left of the shipwreck of humanity on which Israel alone -- and only a remnant of Israel at that -- clings forlorn in the gathering waves. But what if he came to see Jesus on the cross and resurrected to life as the answers to his questions -- answers much better than those of the brutal and callous angel Uriel. Would he not be born again?

And of course, Uriel's answer is that of the Erasmus: if anyone doubts about God's justice, apply a big fat dollop of "they had free will so they deserve it" and call me in the morning. Who will free me from this body of death? What's the answer? Free will -- or "Thanks be to God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

And I really wonder if the Pontificator's description of the early church is not a fantasy. Where is Origen's self-castration? Where is the eagerness to seek martyrdom? Where are the monks feeling that total renunciation is the only way to really seek salvation? This is of a piece with modern explanations about monasticism that somehow salvation is not at stake in the choice to become a monk, that its just a different vocation. But I've never read any early monastic biography that doesn't make renunciation an existential matter of eternal life or death (Here's a medieval example).

To the extent that the Pontificator's portrait isn't a fantasy, the reason is not hard to seek: where conversion involves a renunciation of clearly non-Christian belief and integration into the church with which one has had no previous connection, that very breaking with the old Greco-Roman idols, or Wells-ian atheism, or African spirit worship gives an immediate reference to challenge of Christ. I have given up everything for You, I have counted up the cost. But for those born in the faith, the answer isn't so obvious.

What will be the answer of what I can do to show I have committed myself to Christ? 1) Mortification of the flesh -- like Origen castrating himself or the monks hearing the call to cast away all their goods. Or 2) intensified hatred of the outside world. This is an odd one, but it seems to have been widely practiced. Look at the reception of 2 Esdras. It was treated as a Christian work, but only after a "Christian" preface had been added. One "solved" its puzzle by speaking of how the end is coming soon, and we will all be martyred soon. That's mortification. The preface added a story in which Esdras's lament over Israel is answered preemptively by saying that Israel is a really bad nation, so she deserves what she gets. Or 3) taking refuge in Christ as the savior of sinners, who suffers all that men suffer for all men.

It is a bit absurd really, to pretend that contemplation of the injustice God seems to allow in the world, the waywardness of our hearts, and the doubtful destiny of the vast majority of mankind could only bring the occasional neurotic close to despair, that the vast majority of well-adjusted Christians will always find Uriel's responses perfectly satisfying, and will never have to ask "How Do I Get a Gracious God?"**

*Chapters 3-14 are seen as a single, Jewish work, to which has been added a Christian preface, chapters 1-2, and a conclusion, chapters 15-16.

**[UPDATED] Perhaps the real reason why this question doesn't seem sensible to people today is that we, including the Pontificator, have much more sympathy with universalism than the church before the Romantic era. I'm not sure this is entirely a bad thing, but I'm also pretty sure it is not an entirely good thing.

UPDATE: The Pontificator has a response here.