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Augustine and the Cruel Theology of Absolving God

Why is Augustine so cruel? His argument for free will rests on absolving God of responsibility for evil in the world, ultimately for the suffering of evil that is occurring around him, and to make the case, Augustine again and again notes that God punishes but God punishes justly and so God cannot be responsible for the suffering caused.

I have taught Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will so many many times. I used to teach it in every introductory course because it was such a fitting transition between ancient thinking and modern thinking. It stages Descartes’ Meditations nicely since many of his arguments can be found in inchoate form in Augustine, and it shows precisely that to which Nietzsche is responding in On the Genealogy of Morals. I’m teaching it now in a course on medieval philosophy. It’s been some time since I taught it. In the meantime, I’ve encountered alternative possible readings of the sacred texts upon which Christianity is based in the work of people like Ted Jennings who makes the case that Christianity offers a political philosophy of exposing the injustice of empire by exposing the cruelty at the heart of its efforts at law and order (Transforming Atonement, 221). Adam Kotsko similarly makes a case in The Prince of Darkness for the genealogy of the devil who went from being associated with empire by those who were oppressed to being associated with the rabble-rousers once Christianity becomes the empire. When this happens, as Jennings shows, God is supposed to be on the side of systems of domination and division, “the one who condemns and afflicts with suffering and death” (21).

So this time going through Augustine, I see at every turn the way that Augustine contributes to this positioning of God on the side of domination and division in a way that sparks a certain flame of cruelty in the Christian tradition. Over and over again, the argument is that suffering human beings experience is deserved, that it is just punishment, that people have brought it on themselves. In fact, the suffering is to be embraced as a sign of the limitations of this world and the hopes of another world beyond this world.

I wonder about this possible cruelty because of my own experience growing up in a church that seemed to take a certain pleasure — though it would never explicitly acknowledge it — in the public performances of punishment when people were excommunicated from the church, something that happened perhaps not often but not rarely. I have also seen people close to me take a certain self-satisfaction in ostracizing (“disciplining”) people whose life choices they disagreed with. Rereading Augustine, I note now how much of his defense is about defending punishment — that suffering is justified, that the evils in the world are justified. The peculiarity of Augustine’s account of free will is that it rests on an investment in justifying suffering which is described as punishment, even for small children. I’m led to wonder what Christianity might look like if Augustine wasn’t so concerned with explaining away evil on his way to Christianity but changing a world in which suffering was pervasive. Augustine stands at the head of a tradition that in onto-theologizing God — in turning God into a concept whose constrictions demand certain things be the case — loses the thread of the Christian possibilities for acting in a collective and radical way against power rather than in defending power for its cruel whims.

The general argument is that if God is good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, then God would prevent evil from happening. Why then does it happen? Augustine defends God by dividing between the evil that we suffer — which God does cause as punishment — and the evil that we do. The evidence Augustine offers that we have a will is that we sin, which is the first teetering-toward-tautology claim of the argument. If we sin, we must be responsible for it. Why? Because sin is evidence that the stronger part of us — reason — which should lead the soul has given in to the weaker part of the soul — desire — which it could only do if there was a will whereby we allowed desire to take over. Why is reason stronger? Because reason connects to what is best, which is what is eternal. The argument for the will thus depends on God being perfect and good, which seems to be part of what is in question here. If there is a world beyond the world of becoming, it is a better world and a world we can only access through reason. If we have stopped trying to access it, it is our responsibility because the greater part has conceded its place to the lesser. Note that if there is no world beyond what changes then there is no reason to see reason as greater than desire because nothing for reason to achieve beyond the temporal things. Augustine does argue that reason is evidence that something greater than us exists because through reason we access what remains the same. But again we seem to have entered a vicious circle with no escape: reason is better because it gets us to what is greater than us, reason is evidence that there is something greater than us, we can no longer access what is greater than us because we have ceased to pursue it, so we are responsible for the condition in which we suffer. So currently we are not seeking what is greater, ie., we are not using reason, so we don’t really have evidence there is something greater though we have the capacity (unused) that demonstrates there must be something greater. And oh, every will since Adam and Eve is a bad will and cannot be good so no will since theirs actually chose to let desire take over, but we are all still responsible for continuing in this ignorance that is the situation of the weaker will.

At the beginning of Book II, Augustine proceeds to make the argument that we are created by God by positing that God punishes justly and justice only punishes that which is in its jurisdiction. Then he continues to affirm that human beings have free will with reference to the justice of God’s punishment. Again, at the beginning of Book III, Augustine affirms that the movement of the soul is blameworthy and therefore not natural. When asked about the cruelty of children dying, which Augustine says is a question raised by ignorant people, Augustine argues that there is a orderly connection of things so no human being is superfluous, but it is superfluous “to ask about the merits of someone who has not merited anything” (116). Is the one who has not merited anything the child? If the child has not merited anything, then it would seem that the suffering of the child is not merited. But Augustine continues to consider the question of the suffering of children, which seems justified by the sanctifying work it does for adults, which come on, that’s just cruel! And then Augustine says that once the suffering is past, “it will be for the children as if they had never suffered”! Really, Augustine! He continues by saying that if they don’t have the right relationship to their suffering then they deserve their punishment because they didn’t use the suffering to pursue the eternal things (117). I don’t see how this can be read as other than cruel.

Further, the cruelty seems to function to exonerate God. But one begins to wonder whether God needs exoneration or accusation if this world of unmitigated suffering is the world that is brought about by such an exoneration. God is good, we have secured that much, at the price of allowing a truly unlivable world for the most vulnerable whom we have made responsible for their unlivable lives. I recognize in this theology the theology with which I was raised and I think it results in denying, indeed actively discouraging, the development of empathy toward the suffering of others.

But what if God does not need to be exonerated by us but rather reconciled to us? Jennings offers this reading of reconciliation of God to human beings by walking through the ways that God himself is not shown to be the angry God in need of justification for right relationship. Rather, God needs to be reconciled to a world that continues to suffer (Jennings 127-131). When Jesus sides with the oppressed to expose the illegitimacy and injustice of the power of the empire, this is God doing something for human beings to end suffering in the form of a corrupt empire. This is not an onto-theological God whose concept depends on not taking responsibility for suffering, but rather a God who responds to a weary world. Viewed in this way, God takes responsibility for the suffering in the world in a way that changes the world. By contrast, Augustine absolves God for the responsibility of suffering in the world in a way that at best does not alleviate the suffering, and at worst, proliferates the suffering by projecting the place of true concern in another world suggesting that the suffering of this world does not matter.

In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates spends considerable time challenging the notion that God needs anything from human beings: sacrifice, gifts, prayers. Augustine’s cruel theology seems to suppose that God needs absolution from human beings. For Augustine, only an absolved God can be God. But what if God achieves that absolution by suffering himself and changing a suffering world? What might a world that considered God in this way resemble?

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