The Mystery of Divine Anger

Doug McManaman

Most of Ontario's attention, between May of 2000 and the seven months remaining were focused on the Walkerton water scandal and its subsequent inquiry. Those not entirely indifferent to the value and irreplaceability of individual human life likely experienced, on many occasions before and after work, surges of righteous anger as we were forced to hear testimony revealing that the deaths of seven people, possibly more not to mention the more than two thousand others who became ill were the result of negligence rooted in moral indifference and technical incompetence.

According to the local medical officer, the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission knew that the deadly bacteria was in the towns water days before people started to get sick. Documents concerning the safety of the water were regularly faked a practice with a history dating back to 1979. There were instances of drinking on the job and falsification of water test samples, and according to one witness, an attempt had been made to cover up a broken down chlorination system.

On a number of occasions I couldnt help but imagine my daughter in a casket, dead as a result of E. coli contamination present in the water supply because one rather smug looking man earning close to $70,000 a year decided, for still no apparent reason, not to do what he was paid to do. I had to think of other things in order to reduce the pressure that was building up in my blood at the time.

Anger is a human emotion, and as such is rooted in intelligence. Anger is aroused when a person beholds an injustice. Now, injustice is an intelligible evil, and only an intelligent creature can apprehend what is intelligibly evil (dogs and cats do not become indignant). That is why anger is not a sub-human or irrational force within us, but a human passion that originates in reason and has an innate need to be perfected and governed by reason, and not suppressed, as if it were some non-rational energy.

The object of anger is a good, namely retribution, which is something very different from revenge. Justice (the enactment of retribution) is the virtue that perfects the will. The truly just person always wills that what is due to another person or community be completely rendered. That is why the person of justice is not indifferent to punishment, but wills it.

For the essential point of punishment is the restoration of an order of fairness, an order that was disturbed by an offenders willful violation of the rights of others. The disrupted order of fairness is restored by depriving the criminal of his ill-gotten advantage. As John Finnis writes: . . . since that advantage consisted at least primarily in (wrongful) freedom of choice and action, the appropriate means of restoring the order of fairness is by depriving the criminal of his freedom of choice and action (The Fundamentals of Ethics, p. 128).

But today few people really understand this essential point of punishment. It is generally misunderstood as a kind of revenge, an irrational inflicting of pain upon another. I believe this is why we see more and more leniency today in the decisions of our court justices.

Some of us have forgotten that leniency is not a virtue, but a vice. In fact, leniency is the defect (as opposed to excess) of the virtue of clemency, just as cowardice is the defect of courage, or insensibility the defect of temperance. Clemency is the virtue that moderates anger in the meting out of punishment. The failure to moderate such anger in accordance with justice can lead to rigidity on the one hand, or leniency on the other.

Robert Latimer's appeal for clemency (from his conviction for the murder, which he calls mercy killing of his disabled daughter), for example, is really an appeal for leniency.

Inevitably it happens that those who become angry at such leniency, at what appears to be and in fact often are nothing more than miscarriages of justice under the guise of clemency and mercy, are made to feel rigid, vengeful, and unjust. But such a state of affairs has only resulted from the confusion of retribution with revenge a confusion spawned by moral relativism, and this has made it possible for many to mistake indifference to justice for clemency, or even tolerance.

But there is nothing at all wrong with anger towards what is objectively unjust. There is, on the contrary, something terribly wrong with indifference to injustice almost always disguised as tolerance or compassion. It is a profoundly immoral posture that betrays, among other things, an attitude at odds with that of the fourth beatitude: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right . . . (Mt 5: 6).

Now, approaching the Gospels with such a confused moral frame of mind has theological consequences as well. Those parts of the gospels that portray Jesus anger as well as those that evoke the mystery of the divine anger become an embarrassment, to say the least. Because of the influence of Hegel on much of the theology of the 60s which duped many priests, religious and laity alike, it has become rather easy to dismiss such texts as expressions of an archaic mentality, which ought to be deconstructed. However, remove all references to divine anger and punishment for sin, and the prophetic literature of the Old Testament not to mention the New Testament - remains entirely unintelligible as well as embarrassing. Far from rendering the Scriptures more lucid, this approach renders them more of an enigma.

Can we really speak of a divine anger? Yes, we can legitimately refer to the divine anger precisely because we can really speak of a divine pathos. Scripture scholar Abraham Heschel writes:

Pathos means: God is never neutral, never beyond good and evil. He is always partial to justice. It is not a name for a human experience, but the name for an object of human experience. It is something the prophets meet with, something eventful, current, present in history as well as in nature. the divine pathos is the unity of the eternal and the temporal, of meaning and mystery, of the metaphysical and the historical. It is the real basis of the relation between God and man, of the correlation of Creator and creation, of the dialogue between the Holy One of Israel and His people. The characteristic of the prophets is not foreknowledge of the future, but insight into the present pathos of God. (The Prophets, Vol. II, p.11)

Heschel does well to point out the dangers of relying too heavily upon a purely natural theology (metaphysics) when dealing with the question of the Ira Dei, and no one speaks more exhaustively of the divine pathos, but I believe Heschel fails to reconcile the metaphysical and the historical, the unity of which he argues constitutes the mystery of the divine pathos. He does so because metaphysics, in his mind, meant Aristotelian natural theology.

He overlooked that the existentialism of Aquinas (as opposed to the essentialism of Aristotle) begins with the He Who Is of the book of Exodus. Heschel would certainly agree that a metaphysics built upon this foundation alone could defend the very notion of the divine pathos. God is that being whose essence is to exist (Ipsum Esse Subsistens). As such, God is the First cause of all that is, even movement and its measure, time. In this framework, the Scriptural references to the divine anger, far from becoming archaic and outmoded expressions of a primitive era, speak of a mystery much larger than the mind of man.

Let us return to a few points regarding anger in general. As was said earlier, anger originates in reason. This is true even with regard to the anger that we sometimes witness in vicious animals. In this case, the origin of their anger is the divine reason. Aquinas writes: Anger, though it follows an act of reason, can nevertheless be in dumb animals that are devoid of reason, in so far as through their natural instinct they are moved by their imagination to something like rational action. He points out that they have a natural instinct imparted to them by the Divine Reason, in virtue of which they are gifted with movements, both internal and external, like unto rational movements (I-II, 46, 4).

Clearly, anger has an indissoluble link to intelligence. The higher up we move on the scale of the hierarchy of being, the more intelligent and immanent creatures become, and so the more capable of anger they are, not vice versa. Anger should exist more perfectly in angels than in the human person, and it should exist most perfectly in God, for He is the origin of natural instinct in brute animals and the origin of human intelligence. But we have to be careful here, for at this point we have to begin to think by analogy.

First, the angry man hopes for retribution. But God hopes for nothing, for He lacks nothing. Hence there is no anger in God as it exists in the human person. For the objects of the irascible passions are good and evil apprehended as difficult or magnified in some way. And the object of anger is retribution, that is, the restoration of the order of fairness, and punishment aims to bring about this restoration. As Aquinas writes: anger requires a certain arduousness: for the movement of anger does not arise, unless there be some magnitude about both these objects; since we make no ado about things that are naught or very minute.

But there is no arduous good or evil for God, but only for us. For God is the First cause of all that is, and as such is prior to everything. He does not have to wait for retribution, for He is not subject to time. But it does not follow that he is indifferent to retribution. This would be contrary to His perfectionif He does not hope for retribution, He certainly wills it. But God is not moved to anger because He need not be. For movement is the realization or fulfillment of what exists potentially, and so movement is always from the potential to actuality.

Now God is He Who Is, that is, He is pure Act of Existing. And so all the perfections of existence must exist perfectly in God, who is the fullness of being and the existential cause of all existing perfection. Now justice is a perfection, and so it too exists in God most perfectly. God wills justice (for He is Supremely Good), and He has the power to bring it about (He is Omnipotent).

But from Gods point of view, so to speak, since He is eternal, justice is already complete, that is, there is not a residue of injustice remaining in the entire order of creation. It is only from our point of view that justice has yet to be fully realized.

God is intimately involved, as First Efficient Cause, in every movement that occurs in the universe. For nothing can exist nor continue to exist, neither a passing thought nor the spin of an electron, without Gods knowledge and will that it be. That is why God need not be moved to anger; for He is the cause of all movement, and He is moved by nothing, for there is nothing prior to God to move Him. But the way to understand this is not to imagine the human person minus the emotion of anger and project such a stoic likeness onto God; for we exist in His likeness, not vice versa.

Moreover, such a God would not be greater than man, but less; for an emotionless man is not fully a man at all, but an apathetic one. For anger is rooted in knowledge and love.

The parent who cannot find it in himself to be angry does not love his children enough. Only the one who loves justice and goodness becomes angryfor punishment is ordered towards rectifying the will of the offender, that is, towards improving his character. As Aquinas argues, the more excellent a person is, the more prone to anger he is (I-II, 47, 3). Pathos is a mark of excellence. Even in the Old Testament, the intensity of the divine anger is rooted inand can only be properly understood in light ofthe intensity of the divine love for Israel (Jer 31, 2-3; 2, 1-3; 31, 9; 3, 20; 2, 5; 3, 1-2; 14, 7; Mi 7, 18). The God of Deism is apatheticand few of us regard apathy as a perfection. Anger exists in God not so much as a passion, but as pathos, that is, as the perfection of justice.

Aquinas writes:

We speak of anger in God, not as of a passion of the soul but as of judgment of justice, inasmuch as He wills to take vengeance on sin. Because the sinner, by sinning, cannot do God any actual harm: but so far as he himself is concerned, he acts against God in two ways. First, in so far as he despises God in His commandments. Secondly, in so far as he harms himself or another; which injury redounds to God, inasmuch as the person injured is an object of Gods providence and protection. (I-II, 47, 1, ad. 1)

So does God punish sin? If God is not below reason, but above reason, the answer can only be an unqualified yes. Only a God of pure apatheia could allow sin and injustice to go unpunishedand it is precisely a perceived apatheia that constitutes the heart of the rationale for most atheism. But the punishment meted out for sin is nothing other than our own personal disintegration and the havoc that our sins wreak upon our lives and circumstances (Ps. 7: 12-18).

All things came to be through the Word. The eternal Person of the Son is our origin, and so it is only by returning to the Word that we become the persons (the word) we were originally intended to be. Sin reroutes that return. Sin and disobedience to God constitutes an indirect attack upon our own nature, that is, our own personal destruction is built into the very fabric of sin. If we sin, we will inevitably suffer. The prophetic faith, moreover, makes no sense otherwise.

Certainly we must be careful of our logic at this point, in particular of the fallacy of affirming the consequent, a mistake very often made by fundamentalists. On the basis of the premise that if a person does not believe, he will not be healed, it does not follow that the person who was not healed did not believe. So too, on the basis of the premise that if we sin, we will suffer, one cannot validly conclude that where there is suffering, it is so by virtue of some sin or other. Interestingly enough, the Old Testament prophets never fell into this fallacy; the friends of Job, on the contrary, certainly did (Jb 4, 7-9; 11, 13-15).

But the Lord punishes sin, ingratitude above all. And ingratitude is an inexorable effect of sin. For sin blinds the mind, which is an aspect of its punishment, but gratitude is a kind of recognition, and as such begins in the mind, that is, through awareness. The grateful person recognizes that something has been given gratia, that is, without his having earned or merited it. And so he offers thanks (gratia), that is, he communicates to the giver the awareness of his generosity.

Gratia also means agreeable or pleasant, which is why the grateful person is agreeable and pleasant to be around. Gratitude, which yearns communication, makes genuine community possible. But a mind that is gradually blinded by sin loses awareness and its capacity for gratitude, especially towards God, who is the giver of all good things. And just as gratitude lays the groundwork for genuine community, ingratitude destroys that foundation until everyone is an isolated individual desperately pursuing the satisfaction of his own rights. Sin begets a selfish world of miserable ingrates.

Ironically, it is prosperity that seems to breed this misery within us, for we are at our worst in times of prosperity. As Dostoevsky writes in his Notes from Underground:

Let us suppose, gentlemen, that man is not stupid. (And really, you cannot say he is stupid, if only for the reason that if he is stupid, then who is intelligent?) But even if he isnt stupid, he is nevertheless monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful! I even think that the best definition of man is: a biped, ungrateful. But this isnt all; this is not yet his principal fault; his chiefest fault is his constant depravityconstant, from the time of the Universal Deluge to the chleswig-Holstein period of human destiny. Depravity, and hence lack of good sense. For it has long been known that lack of good sense results from nothing other than depravity. And now Ill ask you: what can be expected of man, a creature endowed with such strange qualities? Why, shower him with every earthly good, drown him in happiness over his head, so that only bubbles will spring up on the surface of his happiness, as on water; give him such economic prosperity that hell have nothing left to do but sleep, eat pastries, and busy himself with assuring the continuance of world history. And even then, out of sheer ingratitude, sheer nastiness, he will commit some vileness. Hell even risk his pastries and deliberately choose the most pernicious nonsense, the most uneconomical absurditysolely in order to inject his noxious fantastic element into all that positive, sensible bliss. He will invent destruction and chaos, he will invent a variety of sufferings, and will have his own way, no matter what!

Suffering and hardship is the only remedy capable of raising the ingrate from the lifeless condition caused by the minor insanity of his ingratitude and depravity. That is why man, as Dostoevsky describes him above, is at his moral best in times of suffering.

If the Walkerton scandal teaches us anything, it should have taught us that every irresponsible choice we make affects others in some adverse and very often irreversible way. It certainly underscores the importance of teaching ethics in our high schools. Morality should not be reserved for the small few who make it to university; rather, everyone who steps into a classroom should, each year, find himself challenged to form his conscience according to universal principles, those principles that underpin the very notion of a constitutional democracy.

There are certainly a lot of good things happening in our Catholic Schools in Ontario, and there are many shining stars dispersed throughout our system who do incalculable good. And yet there are situations in some schools and districts that are very much akin to that of the Walkerton scandal described above.

Although there isnt and will likely not be a public outcry regarding it, the situation is far more serious, for it involves the spiritual deaths of many more than seven, and the spiritual sickness of well over two thousand. Consider the tremendous labour and suffering that laity and religious alike freely underwent within the past 150 years for the sake of Catholic Education in this province, the sacrifices, cold winters in cheap portables, poor working conditions, etc. We are the beneficiaries of that labour.

For we now have beautiful buildings, full funding, state of the art photocopiers, computers, textbooks, chapels, new equipment, personal benefits, and myriads of wonderful students with myriads of questions on their minds. All we have to do now, in the relative comfort of that situation, is tell them the truth, that is, open them up to the rich heritage that is ours in the Church, tell them the good news of the gospel, that Christ is risen and that eternal life is ours for the asking, that divine grace is available to enable us to rise above our selfishness to accomplish the Lords will, and that such grace is available in the sacraments, that Christ gives himself to us entirely in the Eucharist, that we have the forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, strength and meaning in suffering through the Anointing of the Sick, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, older siblings in the Communion of Saints, sacramentals and prayers from the hands of these very siblings, moral wisdom that does nothing less than endow us with the freedom we so ardently desireespecially in the area of marriage and family, and an intellectual and spiritual heritage that will keep us busy for the rest of our lives, available now at the click of a mouse.

But for some reason, when all this is ours, there are some Catholic students in our province who, well into their teens, do not know how to make the sign of the crossas high as 90% in some classrooms, or who have no clue what the good news of the gospel is when asked, or to whom the word grace means nothing more than a prayer that some people say before meals. There are kids who, after twelve years of Catholic Education, have never heard of the very idea of sexual sin and who are utterly flabbergasted to discover that there is such a thing, that it is possible to sin sexually.

The harvest is very plenty, the equipment is available, and the labourers seem to be many. But not everyone seems to be working. Perhaps this only corroborates Dostoevskys point above: we are at our worst in times of prosperity. The anger that should be aroused within us ought to far exceed the anger we feel towards the injustice of the Walkerton scandal. But it doesnt, and perhaps in this regard things havent changed all that much since the time of Jeremiah and Ezekielmost were oblivious to the infidelity of Israel, and perhaps it is unreasonable to expect otherwise.

But as the prophets who entered into the divine pathos and tasted its fury foretold, punishment would be forthcoming and would not be turned back unless there was sincere repentance from the heart.

I am not a prophet, so I will not pretend to foretell what is on the horizon, but I think I can say with some confidence that the damage that is being done in some places and the beautiful opportunities that are being wasted in others will as likely go unpunished by God as those discovered to be at fault in the Walkerton scandal will be awarded the Order of Canada, and re-hired with a salary increase to boot.


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