[Milton-L] Re: Human dignity

Jason Kerr aelfric at gmail.com
Thu Jul 27 11:56:24 EDT 2006


I have been following the recent conversation between Jim Rovira,Richard Strier, and others with profound fascination, and I agree thatthese issues lie close to the core of Milton's theodicy, the questionof its success, and the question of what kind of God's ways end upbeing justified. Many thought-provoking things have been said, and Ithank the participants.
I agree with the idea that divine forgiveness involves extendedengagement by God. But perhaps we have not been sufficiently clearabout what divine engagement actually entails. I think it goes beyond"waiting hat in hand" or even having simply removed all obstacles toreconciliation. I agree with Prof. Smith that the Incarnation is acrucial form of engagement, indeed the engagement that makesreconciliation possible in the first place. But perhaps we need todistinguish between the engagement that makes reconciliation possibleand engagements designed to make reconciliation actual. The latter cantake surprising forms.
One example is in the Book of Isaiah, in a long prophecy extendingfrom ch. 7-9. First let me acknowledge that Christian and Jewishreadings of this prophecy will undoubtedly differ widely (I claim onlysome understanding of the former, and very little of the latter). Thebackground of the prophecy briefly is this: the northern kingdom(Israel) and Syria have formed a conspiracy to overthrow the southernkingdom (Judah) and place a puppet monarch on the throne. Isaiahprophesies that this effort will fail, for the Lord will redeem Judah.These chapters contain two of Isaiah's best-known Messianicprophecies: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive..." (7:14) and "For untous a child is born..." (9:6). I don't have time to attempt a fullexegesis, but suffice to say that, in addressing a contemporarypolitical problem, Isaiah also prophesies powerfully about theredemption of the Lord's people (a fraught term, I admit).
In this context, a repeated motif of the prophecy becomes relevant toour discussion. I quote from the KJV:
Therefore the LORD shall set up the adversaries of Rezin [the king ofSyria] against him, and join his enemies together; The Syrians before,and the Philistines behind; and they shall devour Israel with openmouth. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand isstretched out still. (9:11-12)
For the leaders of this people do cause them to err; and they that areled of them are destroyed. Therefore the Lord shall have no joy intheir young men, neither shall have mercy on their fatherless andwidows: for every one is an hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouthspeaketh folly. For all this his anger is not turned away, but hishand is stretched out still. (9:16-17)
Through the wrath of the LORD of hosts is the land darkened, and thepeople shall be as the fuel of the fire: no man shall spare hisbrother. And he shall snatch on the right hand, and be hungry; and heshall eat on the left hand, and they shall not be satisfied: theyshall eat every man the flesh of his own arm: Manasseh, Ephraim; andEphraim, Manasseh: and they together shall be against Judah. For allthis his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched outstill. (9:19-21)
Here, as through much of the OT / Hebrew Bible (so it seems to me), wehave God dealing with a recalcitrant and recidivist people. In thiscase, we have children of Israel conspiring against other children ofIsrael. The repeated motif suggests that God is justly angry when hispeople behave badly, but also that no degree of bad behavior mitigatesthe offer of mercy. It also suggests that the mere offer of mercy doesnot mitigate just punishment.
Back to PL and our discussion. I agree with Jim's distinction, thoughI'll recast it, between the fact of mercy and the product of mercy.The hand is extended, but it remains for Israel to take it. To me,Isaiah implies that divine engagement extends beyond merely reachingout. Likewise, Satan's soliloquy in Book 4 suggests that divinereaching out is insufficient. But what if the punishment in Isaiah (orin PL) has more to do with the outstretched hand than the unrelentinganger? I don't think PL sustains this line of thought as regardingSatan and his crew: see 5.719-743, though I admit I'm still strugglingwith the meaning and implications of Satan's obduracy. But in Book 10,when the Son delivers judgment on Adam and Eve, they seem to bepunished with the quotidian difficulties of life: children who bringsorrow and the necessity of labor to survival. The Son also "thoughtnot much to cloath his Enemies" (10.218), giving us both sides of theIsaiah formulation. Perhaps, rather than a binary distinction betweenjustice and mercy, anger and the outstretched hand are interwovenaspects of the same redemptive effort; by the end of Book 10,suffering brought on by sin ("punishment") has brought Adam and Eve tohumility and meekness (10.1104), conditions leading to an acceptanceof extended mercy. Theodicy seeks to address the question of how amerciful and loving God allows "bad" things to happen. Milton's answerseems twofold: first, because of the contingency introduced by agency(see earlier discussions of "ordain"), not everything can be blamed onGod. This is not the same as God "washing his hands." Even thoughSatan, through his own agency, brought down Adam and Eve, they retainaccess to grace. PL explicitly renders victims of contingency eligiblefor grace (again, the earlier discussion on "ordain"; see 3.128ff).The second part of Milton's theodicy involves God allowing humans tosuffer the consequences of their actions in the hope that theexperience will result in humility and meekness:
Man shall not quite be lost, but sav'd who will.Yet not of will in him, but grace in meFreely voutsaft; once more I will renewHis lapsed powers, though forfeit and enthrall'dBy sin to foul exorbitant desires;Upheld by me, yet once more he shall standOn even ground against his mortal foe,By me upheld, that he may know how frailHis fall'n condition is, and to me owAll his deliv'rance, and to none but me. (3.173-183)
I don't suppose this puts the question finally to rest (what fun wouldthat be, anyway?), but I hope it has contributed usefully to thediscussion. I realize that I've probably attempted something biggerhere than my relative inexperience has qualified me for, so I welcomethe coming corrections. But my going on at this length has alreadykept me from the call of duty, which happens for the moment to bereading the Faerie Queene, suggesting perhaps a certain foolhardinesson my part regarding the size of tasks I set for myself...
Jason A. Kerr
-- "Den som vover mister Fodfæste et Øieblick;den som ikke vover mister Livet."                                    -Søren Kierkegaard


More information about the Milton-L mailing list