Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The two ways of the world

Since today is June 11, I figured it would be fitting to read and comment upon Ps 11. In the words of the Didache, this psalm proposes a kind of two ways theology, a way of righteousness which wins the LORD's favor, and a way of unrighteousness which the LORD will destroy.

These ὁδοὶ δύο give the world a kind of moral intelligibility, a moral structure. They act as a fundamental basis for making moral action intelligible. Of course, two ways theology is not ultimately born from a direct observation of the way the world actually seems to go. More often than not, it would seem that the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper, a theme which is raised again and again in the psalms. This eleventh psalm also opens up with a description of the moral world collapsing all around the psalmist:

In the LORD I take refuge; how can you say to me,
"Flee like a bird to the mountains; 
for look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?" (Ps 11.1-3)

For these individuals, the world seems to be falling apart; its foundations are destroyed (v. 3). But the psalmist has a confidence in the validity of the two-ways theology, and correspondingly a certain moral vision of God, which makes moral action in the world intelligible. It makes sense to be righteous, to keep from evil, even though the evil seem to get what's good and the righteous get the short end of the stick. Why is that? Because:

The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD's throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked,
and his soul hates the lover of violence.
On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur;
a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
For the LORD is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face (vv. 4-7).

It is precisely because the wicked cannot escape forever -- even if they appear to escape in this life! -- that it makes sense not to be wicked. The LORD tests people, to see where they end up, and if they choose wickedness they can only find his disfavor. This is an essential of moral intelligibility: there is no obvious reason at all to suppose we ought to avoid wickedness, especially if it is to our material advantage, if there isn't ultimately a payment for wrongs committed; likewise, it isn't obvious we should be righteous, especially to our material disadvantage, if there isn't ultimately a reward.

Of course, Christian morality is much more complex than this, but it is at least this. For a while I wasn't particularly fond of two-ways theologizing; I thought it left no room for forgiveness and grace. Now I am beginning to rethink this opposition, and am appreciating the two-ways approach. It has its time and place. Now, naturally the Christian is called to treat all persons with grace and with benevolence. None of the New Testament virtue lists of fruit of the Spirit suggest a kind of conditionalized morality for Christians. But Christians occupy a higher moral plane; two-ways theology is for maintaining a rock-bottom and discouraging wickedness. Ultimately in the case of some who are hard-hearted and unrepentant in their evil, there's no other option except a harsher response κατὰ τὰς ὁδοὺς δύο.