The vessels of wrath

Perhaps life represents a kind of massive failure of God. Massive as in seismic, inconceivably catastrophic. A collapse from the top down. before there was anything there was God: evil, however it is rationalized, arose on His watch. Every suffering creature, each deformed or retarded child, the man or woman devoured by cancer or famine or old age or dementia or loneliness, the heart broken by loss, diminished by fear or lost to insanity, the bird fallen from its nest in a storm, the creature struggling in a bloody trap, the dry waterhole with it’s carcasses of thirst-dead animals, the the city or forests eviscerated by a volcanic eruption or swept away by a tsunami; the gradual universal decay of entropy, the countless ages of flesh-tearing dinosaurs and their reign of carnivorous terror, meteorites of the ancient past smashing with cosmic indifference into our planet (and destroying nine tenths of it’s life forms): each of these speaks of God’s failure. I will avoid telling of the atrocities of man toward man and man against his fellow creatures (we need not hold God accountable for our vices) for I’d need a list as long as history for such a task. Creation, if that’s what we must call it, from the miniscule worm burrowing through an infant’s eye to the ominous black hole sucking entire stars and planets into its crushing depths – seems a disastrous, incriminating curriculum vitae for God.

No wonder the gnostics saw the creation as the nightmarish realm of Yaldabaoth, the irresponsible and unpredictable demiurge who brooks no dissent and demands unwavering adherence to his arbitrary laws. Not content with the disaster of existence, those who believe the creator-god to be all-good nevertheless happily insist upon a Hell where the chaos of evil with it’s resultant suffering continue unabated forever – surely the most complete conception of God’s failure, the failure of good to finally vanquish evil, the failure of the light to overcome the darkness. Who in heaven could enjoy peace of mind, seated comfortably at the marriage supper of the Lamb (together with a mere fraction of the poor souls who have passed their tormented lives upon this earth), fully conscious of the horrendous suffering going on forever and ever while the saints enjoy eternal bliss? What monster could turn his ear from the cries of the damned and eternally lost? We condemn a man’s indifference to the pain of others here, yet endorse it in the hereafter. And we might imagine with Hieronymous Bosch’s almost pornographic imagery that the demons derive some perverse pleasure in torturing God’s creatures in Hell: is God happy with this infernal state of affairs? Is it even vaguely acceptable?

In an interview with the (UK) Daily Telegraph, Stephan Fry was asked what he would do if he found himself at the “pearly gates” after his death.

“I’ll say: bone cancer in children, what’s that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that’s not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil… Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?… Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. Why? Why did you do that to us? It is simply not acceptable.”

(the religious mystic might argue at this point that Fry’s atheism, his rejection of this “mean-minded, stupid God” – far from presenting an argument against the Absolute – in fact represents a profound affirmation of the divine, for the Absolute is also a stranger to this mean-minded, stupid God. Fry’s outrage at suffering is itself an expression of divinity.

Somehow, an old, threadbare theodicy and exhausted apologetic leave one with the sense that believers are defending the indefensible, cronies propping up an aging and idiosyncratic – yet still oddly malign- dictator (Mugabe and Gaddafi come to mind).

“Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?”

“What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction?”

Yet even if we reject all notions of a failed creation as a defamatory and malicious accusation against a good and just God, a satanic assault as it were on God’s impeccable character, if one takes a position that the creation is good and God’s virtuous intention in it all is merely hidden from his ignorant creatures, then one must still confront the catastrophy with some sort of meaningful theodicy – and here one struggles to find much beyond arrogant statements of faith, suspect dogmas and bigoted condemnation for their detractors. Is Saint Paul’s argument in his letter addressed to  “God’s beloved in Rome”, Witten around AD47, sufficient to convince?

“Hath not the potter power over the clay; of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor?”

Thus far in my admittedly limited interrogation of the matter only Jakob Boehme’s ungrund and Nikolai Berdyaev’s meonic freedom has saved the day for the three monotheistic faiths – and then only just.

“Boehme pondered over the problem of the origin of evil, over the problem of theodicy. He was very much tormented by the question, how God could have created the world, yet foreseeing the evil and suffering. In the face of the evil and suffering of world life, the anger and wrath of the Father, he sought salvation in the heart of the Son, of Jesus. There was a moment, when it seemed to Boehme, that God had withdrawn from the evil world and he seeks God close at hand. Koyre says quite accurately, that Boehme started out with torment over the problem of evil and he sought salvation first of all, and thereupon knowledge. How is one to conceive of evil in the face of the Absoluteness of the Divinity? How is one to be saved from evil and from the anger, the wrath of the Divinity, such as is no longer discerned in the Son, as Love? Boehme has affinity with the gnostics of old in his torment over the problem of evil. But his resolution is distinct from the merely gnostic by its immeasurably more Christian character. In any case, Boehme belonged to that profound select group of people, who are pained by the evil and torment of world life. Boehme was the first in the history of modern thought to make a distinction, which will thereafter play an enormous role in German Idealism, — everything can be discerned only through the other, through opposition. Light cannot be discerned without darkness, good without evil, the spirit without the opposition of matter.”

“The mysterious teaching of Boehme about the Ungrund, about the abyss, without foundation, dark and irrational, prior to being, is an attempt to provide and answer to the basic question of all questions, the question concerning the origin of the world and of the arising of evil. The whole teaching of Boehme about the Ungrund is so interwoven with the teaching concerning freedom, that it is impossible to separate them, for this is all part and parcel of the same teaching. And I am inclined to interpret the Ungrund, as a primordial meonic freedom, indeterminate even by God”

“Boehme’s teaching about the Ungrund explains as deriving from freedom the origin of evil, the downfall of Lucifer, drawing after him in the Fall the whole of creation.”

Journal Put,  feb. 1930,  No. 20, p. 47-79. N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV): STUDIES CONCERNING JACOB BOEHME:,Etude I.  The Teaching about the Ungrund and Freedom (1939 – #349)

One thought on “The vessels of wrath

  1. I watched the interview with Steven Fry and sympathize with his rejection of the (g)od on whose watch such an immensiity of unfathomable suffering occurs. I wonder if we need – or should – attempt a defense of such a god? Karl Rahner wrote, “… the experience of God often exists as the experience of knowing something is wrong, or that there is a standard against which evil can be judged: “Where do atheists and agnostics acquire their often acute sensitivity to injustice, evil, suffering, and death if not from an even deeper experience of ultimate life, fulfillment, and meaning? In short, what provides the grounding for a radical experience of ‘what ought not to be’ for those who deny ultimate meaning a priori?” This type of experience is foundational, perhaps “utterly inescapable.”


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