I was talking last week about the young man whom the experience of reading Aristotle’s Ethics had “scared.” In talking with him, I dropped the ball, and I promised to tell how.
Some people may think this has nothing to do with natural law. I think it has a great deal to do with it. It seems to me that the theory of natural law ought to be able to address itself to the reasons why the theory alone is insufficient. Our problem is not just in the intellect.
As I explained in the previous post, the mere discussion of virtue had troubled my guest’s conscience. He told me that it had made him realize that he hadn’t led a virtuous life. Aristotle hadn’t mentioned the moral law, but conscience informed my guest that the virtues are commanded by that law. He was telling me that he was frightened by that accuser. He wanted to know what he could do about it. He already knew how Aristotle would advise him to live. But he hadn’t lived that way.
I told him I didn’t think Aristotle had the answer to his question, but I did think there was an answer. He asked me to tell him what it was.
This request put me in a difficulty. "I could speak about that,” I told him, “but not as a representative of the State of Texas, which employs me as a teacher. I could only do it from the perspective of my faith."
"Would you do that?"
"Are you giving me permission to speak with you not professor to student, but man to man?"
"Yes. That's what I want you to do."
I made a silly gesture of taking off my professor hat. I explained that he was free to say anything he wished without fear that it could affect his standing in the course. That didn’t concern him. He wanted to get on with it.
So I told him I thought he was experiencing what the New Testament calls the conviction of sin. He said that made sense to him.
I then said the question was about how to be forgiven of sin and healed of what was broken. He said that was what he wanted.
So in inward fear and trembling, I explained the Gospel of Christ to him. He had been “scared”; now, I confess, I was. But he accepted the truth of it all without hesitation.
And he told me it sounded wonderful.
Then would he be interested in entering into that world of forgiveness? No. And this was the reason that he gave: He wasn’t good enough to be forgiven.
Disturbed by compassion, thinking he had misunderstood, I said that if we were good enough, we wouldn’t need forgiveness in the first place. Not being good enough is the point. That’s why divine mercy is called grace; it is an undeserved gift. First God forgives us; then He makes us good. There would be no need to make us good if we were good already. Neither would there be a need for forgiveness.
But like a mantra, he kept saying “God couldn’t forgive me.” Dropping his voice, he said I didn’t know all the things he had done. “I’m not a good man like you, professor.” I said the comparison was inappropriate because he didn’t know all the things I had done either. Christ suffered for us not because we didn’t need it, but because we did.
It was as though he didn’t hear me. The problem was not just that he was in despair. It was that he clung to his despair, much as the saints cling to hope. And so the conversation went.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the sin of Satan was that he wanted something of his own power, something he had not received from God. So I asked my guest whether his conviction that he was too sinful to be forgiven might be rooted in a kind of pride. Was he suggesting that his sin was so great, so unique, that it towered even over God’s mercy? For nothing can overcome God’s mercy.
My last shot was to ask whether he claiming that his moral standards were higher than God’s -- that in this sense he was more righteous than God – that he wouldn’t allow God to sink so low as to forgive him? For it isn’t because of low standards that God forgives us.
The questions simply didn’t register with him. He iterated and reiterated his formula that he was not good enough to be forgiven. He repelled reasons like oilcloth repels water. He longed for forgiveness, but he was resolute not to be forgiven.
We talked. We parted. For several years I saw him on campus from time to time. He always greeted me and chatted for a few minutes. But the conversation that day had completely failed.
Why had it? Only God knows, but after years of thinking about it, I do suspect part of the reason. Taking my guest’s statements at face value, I think I had utterly misread both his motive and the state of his understanding. I thought then that he was missing the point about forgiveness, but in fact he did get the point. I thought then that he didn’t understand that he could be forgiven and healed, but in fact he did know he could be.
The problem, I now suspect, was that he wanted to be forgiven, but not healed. The fatal flaw in his motive was unwillingness to change and be changed. We cannot cooperate with the grace of forgiveness unless we also cooperate with the grace of healing, but he wanted only the first half of the deal.
I should have challenged him. I didn’t.
No one can refuse good except for the sake of some other apparent good – St. Thomas again. I didn’t see that some good must have seemed even better to him than beatitude. I didn’t recognize that even in the teeth of unhappiness, the pursuit of some cherished desire seemed better to him than the Supreme Happiness which leaves nothing further to be desired. So, though he could barely live with himself, still he clung to himself. Desiring to preserve his life, he was losing it.
I haven’t seen him in years, but I still pray for him. I pray for his redemption. I pray that he might have talked with others, who didn’t drop the ball as badly as I did. I also pray that I will do better, the next time someone turns up at my door to show me his trembling hands.