Saint Irenaeus and the Vale of Soul-Making

The problem of evil – of reconciling suffering in the world with a good God who is both omnipotent and omniscient – is the strongest argument that can be posed to the religious believer; perhaps even the only one which has any real abiding force. The study of this problem is itself a notoriously difficult one, not only because of the perceived opposition between the goodness of the Creator and the suffering of His creatures, but also because to try and explain how this can be so is in some sense to trivialise it – we can, ultimately, never really say that suffering, especially great suffering, is justified; we can only attempt to show how it can be understood in a wider context.

So I think it important to stress at the outset that this problem does always remain, to a great extent, mysterious, and that there is no way in which I, or anyone else, can ‘explain away’ suffering – to do so is essentially impossible, given that we do not and cannot know the Mind of God, and also immoral, in that a complete explanation, even if it could be found, would tend to minimise the real lived experience of those who suffer. However, having said that, to try and make sense of our suffering is not the same thing as explaining it away, and theodicy – the attempt to respond to the problem of evil – is a just endeavour, and also necessary, if we are to give a reasonable account of the Faith.

Out of the many theories which have developed within the school of theodicy over the ages, there is one that particularly appeals to me, because of its respect for human freedom, its honest appraisal of the reality of suffering and God’s ultimate responsibility for it as Creator of all that is (as opposed to theories which aim to diminish God’s responsibility through secondary causes), and its recognition of the genuinely creative work that God’s grace can effect through our suffering. The theory in question is the Irenaean theodicy, named after Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 200), who provided the basic outline of the theory (but which has been developed further by later thinkers – Richard Swinburne being a notable contemporary exponent).

Saint Irenaeus provided a sketch of the theory in his (relatively) short summary of salvation history, entitled The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which he gave brief descriptions of Creation, the Fall, the history of Israel, and the events of the New Covenant. The section which provides the basis for the theodicy which is named after Irenaeus is quite early on (pre-Fall) in this treatise, and is as follows:

Now, having made man lord of the earth and all things in it, He secretly appointed him lord also of those who were servants in it. They however were in their perfection; but the lord, that is, man, was (but) small; for he was a child; and it was necessary that he should grow, and so come to (his) perfection. And, that he might have his nourishment and growth with festive and dainty meats, He prepared him a place better than this world, excelling in air, beauty, light, food, plants, fruit, water, and all other necessaries of life, and its name is Paradise. And so fair and good was this Paradise, that the Word of God continually resorted thither, and walked and talked with the man, figuring beforehand the things that should be in the future, (namely) that He should dwell with him and talk with him, and should be with men, teaching them righteousness. But man was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected; wherefore also he was easily led astray by the deceiver.

Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, XII.

            There are other passages in Saint Irenaeus’ writings, most notably in Adversus Haereses (Book VI, Chapter XXXIX) where he talks about man’s ability to distinguish (and therefore choose) between good and evil, and God’s coaxing us towards holiness, as the potter moulds the clay. But the passage above is the clearest example of what the Irenaean theodicy is in essence, particularly as it describes man’s state before the Fall. The central import of the passage is that man is created as good, but incomplete, and so it is necessary that ‘he should grow, and so come to his perfection’. What Irenaeus is driving at here, and in other similar passages, is that there is a very real need for us to grow into our true selves – to learn our way into holiness.

Irenaeus does not see this as being in conflict with what happens in the Fall – his view of man as incomplete, of ‘not yet having his understanding perfected’ is perfectly compatible with what we believe about Original Sin. The Fall of Adam is a matter of human pride and of lack of trust in God, and it is perfectly possible that Adam would have continued to grow in understanding and in love had he not sinned. To recognise this is also to see something important about the Irenaean theodicy, namely that it is not concerned so much with where evil comes from; rather it assumes that it exists (and, for Irenaeus at least, as well as other orthodox interpreters, assumes Original Sin as part of its cause) and then goes on to deal with the bigger problem of how to reconcile its existence with God’s essential goodness.

Having recognised that mankind needs to grow into his role as God’s image-bearer and vice-regent on earth, this view then sees the world as a ‘vale of soul making’ (a term that comes from John Keats) – an environment which is good in the sense that it is equipped with all the necessary means for bringing forth life, sustenance, and all manner of things to nourish and fulfil the human soul, but which is also necessarily subject to change. On this latter point, it is rather difficult to imagine a plausible material world that could exist freely (i.e.; without constant acts of interventionary maintenance by its Creator), in time and space according to regular laws of motion etc, without the subsequent problems that result from different entities and processes existing in the same environment. Other worlds are possible, but not really plausible.

In this world then, we must respond freely to the situations that arise in such an environment, and in doing so, will inevitably be presented with situations where, despite living our lives rightly, bad things will happen to us – either as a result of other people freely choosing to do evil, or of a combination of those many different processes that exist in our time-bound, contingent and complex material world. If we lived in a world where there was a one-to-one relationship between good deeds and rewards, and between bad deeds and punishments, then it would be impossible to be virtuous, let alone to grow in virtue. People would do good things just to get rewarded, and avoid doing evil just to avoid punishment.

Instead, and this is part of what the Irenaean theodicy is trying to say, the world we live in is the best possible world for us, in the sense that we can become virtuous people in it – we can grow in virtue for its own sake. This is not to say that the world is absolutely perfect, and that all suffering is therefore justified because of this possibility – again, justification of suffering is out of the question – it is only to recognise that free creatures destined for Heaven cannot learn how to live there in circumstances other than these. This – our final destination – is another key point, as it is very difficult to discuss the ‘point’ of any ethics without a final goal in sight. ‘What is the end to which you are doing it?’ is the question that has to be asked of any moral act. Our end is to be the sort of people that can live with God, and this means to be the sort of people that love for love’s sake – freely and without ulterior motive.

This, I think, is the main thing that recommends the Irenaean theodicy – it affirms our freedom, and also the fact that, whilst it is not the ultimate will of God that we suffer, in creating a world subject to change He produced an arena in which the outworkings of that freedom (both ours and the processes of creation at large) can be used to draw something good out of it – the development of our souls towards holiness. However, there are two main criticisms that can be brought against this theory – the first being that there are many situations in which suffering does not lead people to greater holiness, but actually makes them worse, and also that it implies it is somehow preferable to have evil in our lives; that we need evil to become good.

A reply to the first part of this objection would be that the theory is not meant to suggest that every single person will be made good through suffering, but that generally speaking moral good can be brought out of difficult situations. If every situation led to increased virtue, we would have a repeat of the one-to-one reward system, which would undermine virtue overall. The second part of the objection has more force, and the only response to give here is to refer back to the Garden of Eden – according to Irenaeus, we would have always been growing in learning anyway; it is just that now God has to make use of a greater amount of conflict and decay (as well as an extraordinary increase in moral evil) in the world that there would have been.

The second criticism of the Irenaean theodicy is that there are some acts of suffering that are so overwhelming that all the suffering person can do is be knocked back by it – that there is no opportunity for growth in virtue because the sufferer does not, indeed cannot, think of anything other than getting through the pain, or the darkness, or both. In response to this, it is important to acknowledge that even in great moments of suffering, there may sometimes be more purification going on than we recognise, or than the person suffering can appreciate until afterwards. Having said this though, it is clearly also true that this is often not the case, and that extreme suffering does no more than rip the heart out of us.

In these situations, I think that the only really sensible thing we can say is to admit the mystery – that this is the point where no more can be said, and we have to simply allow for the limitations of our finite understanding. When we have done this though, there is still somewhere we can turn to – the Cross of Christ. Our Lord did not come to explain the why of suffering – He too assumed it as something that was part of the data which we have to deal with – instead He came to enter into it, and stand alongside us, showing us both how much He loves us and also that this is a world that He feels is worth fighting for; that, despite what it may sometimes feel like, all this free will and free creation business is worth it because of what He has in store for us afterwards.

Ultimately it all keeps coming back to two things – our free will, and the end for which we were created. God could have created us like the other animals – just going about our business, without self-reflection or any ability to commune with Him – but, as much as I am sure God loves all His creatures, a creation consisting only of the other animals would be the equivalent of our building a model railway; a source of pleasure, but not able to give anything back of itself. Similarly, we could have been created as we are, but without free will, but apart from the fact that is nigh on impossible to imagine how we would be able to reason and create (given that these depend so greatly on our free will) in this scenario, what is most certain is that we would not be able to love.

God is Love, and He created us so that we might love as He does – that we might become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4) and thereby spread His love abroad in new ways, through something that is other than Him. Instead of a train set, or a cohort of automatons, He created us, as the pinnacle of His creation at large, to be miniature versions of Himself, sons and daughters of God, all bearing the family mark of self-giving love (c.f.; John 13:35; 1 John 4:8,16). It is indeed a great mystery as to why there is suffering in this world, but we know, through Christ and His Holy Cross, upon which He preached the pre-eminent sermon on love, that love and its increase is His aim.

Given that it seems the only way for free creatures such as ourselves to learn the habit of the virtues and to allow for love to work through us, is via some form of trial and testing, then it seems to me that the Irenaean theodicy is the least cruel of all theodicies. It does not try to absolve God of responsibility, or explain away why there is suffering in the world – instead it places our suffering in the context of our final end, which is Love, and of the weight of glory which we are being trained for. By placing suffering in this context, it also finally refers us back to the Cross of Christ, which, in times when the suffering is too hard to bear, is our mainstay – a firm anchor from which we receive the knowledge that He has been and is here with us no matter what, and that, despite what it may seem like today, Love is real, and always holds a future for us.


7 thoughts on “Saint Irenaeus and the Vale of Soul-Making

  1. Pingback: Saint Gregory the Great: Heaven is Our True End | Journey Towards Easter

  2. The world – a vale of soul-making! That is a beautiful phrase from John Keats; I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. Yet this is clearly how God saw it too when He told Man to, “increase and multiply, and fill the earth…” (Gen.1:28)

    But in this ‘vale of soul-making’ suffering is all around us in many degrees of intensity and under many forms and disguises. Many sufferings of those around us are kept deeply hidden. No one escapes it, and no one can fully comprehend it. You have made a very good job of trying to explain how suffering can be ‘allowed’ by a loving and merciful God, and at the same time reminding us that only by looking upon the Cross of Christ can some suffering have any point, or, through the humble acceptance of unavoidable suffering, any true merit.

    Suffering will always contain something of a mystery about it – I agree – but however terrible, or however long the suffering might be, in comparison to Eternity it could never be more than a split second in time. And to suffer hardly at all in life, we might discover one day to be the greatest of tragedies!

    • Thank you Kathleen – it is a very difficult subject, so I hope I have been able to give a decent account of how suffering can be made sense of, particularly in light of the Cross. It is indeed also true that, as Saint Paul says, the ‘weight of glory’ which awaits us will far outweigh anything we’ve experienced here, good or bad, and, in the light of the fact that we need to ‘learn’ holiness in order to be able to live in Heaven, yes, not having suffered at all can be seen as a tragedy, as we would never have been able to grow in our love.

      As for the phrase ‘the vale of soul-making’, I like it too – I can’t remember where I heard it originally, but I had to look up who it was that said it! 🙂

      • Yes Michael, you most certainly did give “a decent account”, and much more, in trying to make any sense of the deep mystery of suffering. It is a very tough subject, often used by people to attack believers (as you say in your article). But not fully understanding something does not make it out-of-bounds to attempt to fathom and explain in the light of Faith. ““Ten thousand DIFFICULTIES do not make one DOUBT”, Bl. J.H. Newman once said.

        And I often laugh when I remember St. Teresa of Avila’s complaint to God when yet another disaster (suffering) befell her: “If this is the way you treat your friends Lord, no wonder you have so few!” 😆

        • Thank you again Kathleen, and I fully concur with the quote from Bl. John Henry Newman there – he, in particular, had an incredible insight into the nature of belief, and how there are difficulties involved in any perspective we might take, and that yet, the force of what we have come to know as true (often through a series or stages of assent that complement and reinforce one another) does not admit those difficulties to undermine the Truth that has claimed our whole self (intellect, will, imagination, etc).

          That quote of Saint Teresa’s is a great one isn’t it 🙂 I haven’t read much by her at all, but based on the quotations of hers that I’ve come across, it seems like she was not only a woman of very deep faith and piety, but also had a great sense of humour!

          • Michael, please forgive the delay in getting back to you!

            St. Teresa of Avila certainly appears to have been a woman of extraordinary fortitude, courage and character…. and yes, with a great sense of humour too! 🙂 I have to admit that I was never able to get through her book, “The Interior Castle” – I think I attempted it at the wrong time in my life, when I was a busy young Mum. Her autobiography and all her many quotes are wonderful; she achieved so much in her life despite being a cloistered nun and suffering terrible bouts of ill health.

            There was a brilliant series on Spanish TV made on St. Teresa’s life, with the renowned Spanish actress Conchita Velasco in the role of the saint. It was even shown to the Pope in the Vatican, St. John Paul II at that time, who apparently enjoyed it very much!

            (Sorry if I have rather taken us away from the original topic.)

            • Not a problem at all Kathleen! I have been away from a computer for much of this weekend, so completely understand.

              Also, not to worry for leading the conversation towards St. Teresa – she is someone that, though I do not know that much about, find really interesting. Funnily enough, I have a copy of The Interior Castle too, but also have not been able to get into it – but in my case, I only read a few pages and was then distracted by other things. It is certainly one that I am determined to pick up properly in the future!

              Also, I will see if I can find a (subtitled) copy of that TV series you mention – maybe on Youtube! 🙂

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