Justifying God II
Bill Long 11/24/09
Milton anchors his argument freeing God from blame for humanity's Fall from created bliss on the notion of human freedom. His argument on freedom rests on two further points: (1) that unless humans were free to choose obedience to God, they would be unable to prove they truly loved God; and (2) that the gift of human reason carries with it the ability to choose. A word on each will suffice.
If grace were irresistible, which was one of the principles of the Dutch Reformers, canonized in the Synod of Dort in the early 17th century, then humans not only couldn't be praised for their choice of God, but there would be no way of determining whether they were showing true allegiance to God. Milton says it better than I:
"Not free, what proof could they have giv'n sincere
Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love,
Where only what they needs must do, appear'd,
Not what they would? what praise could they receive?" 103-106.
But freedom to choose obedience to God was not only required theologically; it is also required anthropologically. That is, humans were created with reason, and the faculty of reason means, by its very definition, that humans can choose.
"What pleasure from such obedience paid,
When will and reason (reason also' is choice)
Useless and vain.." 107-109.
As other commentators have shown, Milton first broached this emphasis on human reason in the Areopagitica more than 20 years previously:
"Many there be that complain of divine Providence for suffering Adam to transgress. Foolish tongues! when God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing: he had been else a mere artificial Adam."
This thought ultimately derives from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics III.2.6. Just think. God is defending Himself against the allegations of 17th century Englishmen that He is unjust in creating mankind with a propensity to fall by appealing not to Scriptural proof but to the logic of allegiance and to a great secular thinker. It is a good thing that God knows His Aristotle!
Concluding God's Speech
Lest we forget that Milton is engaging in a game of blame-shifting here, from God to humanity, he catches us up short with the brief phrase, "nor can justly accuse/ Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate" (112-113). What is fascinating is that Milton doesn't seem to want to get rid of the word "Predestination" from his system of thought, even though that word seemingly produces so much grief. He simply rejects the notion that Predestination overrules human will. There is no such thing as "absolute Decree/ Or high foreknowledge" (115-116). Even if God foreknew that Mankind would choose disobedience, one couldn't equate this foreknowledge with taking away human freedom. Or, as Milton's God says in 117-119:
"If I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less prov'd certain unforeknown."
But like any good defense attorney, he just keeps hammering away:
"So without least impusle or shadow of Fate,
Or aught by me immutably foreseen,
They trespass," 120-122.
But here is where we have to stop Milton for a second, or at least stop the juggernaut of this defensive argument and ask a question, "What is the effect of presenting such an argument on the emotional life of the hearer?" In other words, as I stated in the previous essay, in a court of law, a defense attorney tries to ward off allegations of wrongdoing either by showing actual innocence or tarring the accuser with pitch. But once you have done the latter, you have pretty much ended all possibility of fruitful relationship between the parties. Providing a ringing defense of your client by degrading or blaming the accuser is often a very effective way of going about things, if you just want to exculpate your client, but isn't very effective if your goal is to maintain a loyal or affectionate relationship between the parties after the lawsuit is completed. If you want to do that, you engage in mediation or you just live with the questions and uncertainty for a while.
But Milton had to defend God, and he chose to defend God at human expense. That is, he blamed the human for the Fall, rather than simply saying that God shouldn't be blamed. And he simply won't quit. Even after he has stated God's complete innocence, and Mankind's blame, several times, he seems to rub our human faces in the muck we have chosen:
"I form'd them free, and free they must remain
Till they enthrall themselves," 124-125.
Damned humans! They (we) are just going to reject the grace of God and pervert his plan until we are sniveling enthralled creatures, unable to choose the right. We are down. We have been kicked. What does Milton do? Of course, kick us again.
"they themselves ordained thir fall," 128.
So, Milton has skillfully used the concept of freedom not only to justify our thralldom but to liberate God from any accusation of blame. In fact, by allegedly freeing Mankind, Milton has enslaved him. God, Milton's client, is the only one who ends up winning in this encounter. Yet, he has won the argument at a cost. I can't imagine how humanity convinced of this argument or defeated by this argument, can retain any kind of affection for God. After all, the blame was shifted to us. Very big of God to do so.
Yet Milton's harshness in developing a doctrine that most people would eagerly embrace (human freedom to choose), is softened ever so briefly at the end of the speech, when he says that "Man," instead of the rebel angels, "shall find grace," 131. All of this makes me wonder whether I want (and need) to buy into this cosmic drama. There seems to be a lot of violent verbiage, and more violent action, that surrounds it. Well, maybe that is just the nature of life. Words, actions, thoughts, are violent, and we just need to go along with that account of violence which best preserves us. That is what people learn in military coups around the world; either lie low or pick the winner. Since we are all implicated in the Fall of Adam, we best just pick the winner--God. But how do we do so? The next essay describes just that...