[Readers: I acknowledge that we are, and have been in recent posts, deep in the theological and philosophical weeds; but as they say, there’s no way out but through.]
Having previously disposed of the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA, not to be confused with Public Service Announcements), Pacal-Emmanuel Gobry now urges us to recover what he says is the “classic doctrine of sin”: i.e. “The doctrine of sin and evil as having absolutely no existence, but as rather being the lack of some good, just as darkness is merely the absence of light.” 1
Whatever the metaphysical strength of this claim—and M. Gobry says that it has been so well-established by the likes of Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas that he won’t even bother arguing for its truth—the problem is that it is entirely counterintuitive and unpersuasive on the mundane level of our actual lives. In our lives, we experience sin and evil as forces of great power; we experience them as actions (and sometimes, it’s true, omissions), not as absences. A person tells a lie; a man violently assaults another man; someone is unfaithful to a spouse; one person steals from another: those are all actions, not absences.
Habitual sin has been likened to a spiritual cancer that eats away our spiritual health: M. Gobry himself writes that “if you spend your life practicing lust or greed or covetousness, you will destroy your soul, and not (certainly not primarily) because God is a retributive judge, but because doing those things literally is destroying your soul.”
That is not the language of “privation” or of sin as the mere absence of good. One could just as well claim that sickness is merely the absence of health, except that viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells are real and aggressive. The metaphysics of privatio boni (the absence of good) is, as M. Gobry surely knows, part of a classic Christian theodicy, a defense of a God who is entirely good but whose creation seems riddled with evil. How did that evil get there? Where did it come from? Who created it? Declaring evil to be merely the absence of good (in the face of our everyday evidence to the contrary) is an attempt to absolve God of any responsibility for it—God cannot be held responsible for what does not actually exist.
It’s an attempt, and a narrative, that’s impossible to sustain. Here is M. Gobry’s interpretation, in light of his metaphysics of sin, of Genesis 3:
The story of the Fall is that of man putting up a wall, a dam, between Creation and God’s grace that sustains it into existence (existence, which is, after all, only participation in the Being of God, who is the absolute, unconditioned Good)–thereby necessarily creating, well, a lack of the good (we’re still in theodicy, as you can see). Because of God’s literally unimaginable generosity, his grace still overflows enough to sustain the Universe into some semblance of coherence. But most importantly, Christ’s work, succeeding where Adam failed, burst a huge hole in the dam and, equally importantly, enabled us to keep chipping at it until it is finally, completely torn down.
“Man putting up a wall, a dam” is a vivid and concrete image; which of course, in its very concreteness, belies the claim that evil is simply an absence of good—a wall is a thing, not an absence.2 M. Gobry claims that the wall blocked off God’s grace (the source of good), thus creating our spiritual privation; but the wall itself preceded the privation, and the wall is not nothing, and putting it up was not nothing—it was an action, not an absence. In addition to which, it could only have been some evil impulse that led Adam to do such a thing in the first place—and where did that come from? Prior to the wall, the whole world, including Adam, was suffused with God’s grace; how could, and why would, a grace-filled creature have rebelled? 3
I am not unsympathetic to M. Gobry’s efforts here: that is, to his attempt to help us grapple with sin. But we can’t do so by banishing sin to some metaphysical phantom zone or by defining it out of existence; sin is too real in our lives for us to be persuaded by what amount to language games. When M. Gobry emphasizes that sin has a social and relational dimension and that it is not just a private individual matter, I agree wholeheartedly; but it might be in the social and relational matter where the privatio boni approach is least useful. In contemplating my individual soul, I might persuade myself that sin and evil have no real existence within me, and that they are merely words for the absence of grace; but in the world around me and in the pain I see (and sometimes cause) in the lives of others, I can hardly pretend that sin and its effects are unreal.
The point of PEG’s argument is that we are deceived by appearances, and that though sin and evil seem very real to us, they are (in metaphysical terms) negligible and even (M. Gobry’s word) “contemptible”. I for one don’t know how to summon contempt for that which doesn’t even exist. Unlike such lofty thinkers as Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, and Gobry, I find no metaphysical vantage point from which to view the world, a world in which sin and evil actually exist and sometimes even flourish—would that I had such a God’s-eye view of those things as to dismiss them!
Instead, I’m stuck here in this muddle with you, the rest of humanity, all of us weighted down by something M. Gobry tells us doesn’t really exist: sin, according to privatio boni, is like the man we met yesterday upon the stairs, the man who wasn’t even there and who we met again today, and who we wish would go away. But wishing won't make it so, and neither will privatio boni.
I would be remiss if I didn’t call attention to the remarkable coincidence that Richard Beck (http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2014/11/when-god-became-devil.html) recently broached the subject of Penal Substitutionary Atonement himself. Like M. Gobry, Beck dislikes the PSA theory, as do I; so at least to that extent, we’re all on the same page here.
2 I’m well aware that M. Gobry’s “wall” is a figurative, spiritual concept and not a literal physical object. The fact remains that the act of establishing a spiritual wall is an act and not an absence, and that a figurative, spiritual concept is still something and not nothing. Mankind’s spiritual wall must be just as real as the grace which M. Gobry says it serves to block.
3 Yes, we’re back to the topic of Original Sin. At the risk of belaboring M. Gobry’s “wall” image: how could puny mortal creatures effectively block the grace of God? M. Gobry speaks of that grace as “overflowing” the dam, and he speaks of the work of Jesus which “burst a huge hole in the dam” so that we humans could keep “chipping at it until it is finally, completely torn down”: all of that makes for an exciting narrative, but it makes little sense even on its own terms—Jesus’ life and death weren’t enough to finally demolish the dam? Why couldn’t God have effortlessly eliminated the wall from the beginning? He had no trouble getting rid of the Tower of Babel…