C.S. Lewis once said something to the effect that for every new book one reads, one should then read an old one, and that if one had a choice between a new book and an old one, then one should choose the old one. In his introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, Lewis urged this advice especially on readers of theology. “Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.”
I have been very fortunate to learn about a small Christian reading group that meets regularly here at Laurier and joined them just as they embarked on a very old writer, the eastern patristic St. Basil the Great. The group is reading a set of Basil’s homilies collected and translated by Sister Nonna Vera Harrison as On The Human Condition. This an excerpt from our reading of this Wednesday, Basil’s “Homily Explaining That God Is Not The Cause Of Evil”, in which he addresses the question of why God permits us to do evil things.
“But why did we not have sinlessness in our structure, one may ask, so that the will to sin would not exist in us? Because indeed it is not when your household slaves are in bonds that you consider them well disposed, but when you see them willingly fulfil your wishes. Accordingly, God does not love what is constrained but what is accomplished out of virtue. And virtue comes into being out of free choice and not out of constraint. But free choice depends on what is up to us. And what is up to us is self-determined. Accordingly, the one who finds fault with the Creator for not fashioning us by nature sinless is no different from one who prefers the nonrational nature to the rational, and what lacks motion and impulse to what has free choice and activity. If indeed these points are a digression, it was necessary to say them, lest falling into an abyss of arguments, you remain deprived of the things you most desire and also deprived of God. Therefore, let us stop correcting the Wise One. Let us stop seeking what is better than the things that come from him. For if indeed the detailed principles which he has planned escape us, let this belief be present in your souls, namely that nothing evil comes into being from the Good One.”
Often when one reads an old book, particularly one from antiquity, there is a sense of shock with the unfamiliar. The metaphor about “household slaves” may seem jarring and unpleasant, both because we disapprove of slavery and because we are uncomfortable with our own positioning in the metaphor, the implication that we should be slaves who willingly please our master, God. Likewise, the overlay of the Reformation might make one suspicious of the idea that we should use our free choice to do virtuous things, as being a species of works righteousness. There are other passages in this homily that might give offence, such as his claim that through earthquakes and wars God “provides salvation to all, through particular punishments”. Such thoughts are indeed very alien from our own, and may make us want to toss Basil aside and find a newer book, one more agreeable to us. Certainly that was my initial thought.
But setting aside for a moment the problem of how one explains earthquakes and other harmful things or removes God from their causation, isn’t Basil offering us in the above paragraph exactly what liberalism teaches us to value so highly, namely human agency? And if God truly gives us the gift of agency and reason, then does not that not put a fearful responsibility on us as to how we should use these gifts? This line of thought might explain natural disasters like earthquakes, but it does force us to think about how natural disasters both expose human sin and call us to virtuous response. The Chinese artist Weiwei, who has created moving exhibitions critiquing the government of China for covering up the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren killed when an earthquake flattened their cheap, substandard block housing, would probably agree with Basil on this last point.