Optimism (Theological Aspect)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


The Christian message supposes the existence, but also the contingency, of evil in the world: evil is present, but it would not be (at least in its actual extent) without mankind's free choice. Therefore, one can speak of an optimism in theology only in the sense that evil is not total (the various beings remain essentially good) and does not take the upper hand over good (evil will not only be subordinate to good, but has even now a function in the triumph of good).

Revelation shows the value not only of the spirit but also of matter (cosmological optimism). Christian faith is not compatible with that absolute dualism that makes matter the principle of evil (Plotinism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Catharism). The good God has created the whole world and found it good (Gn ch. 12): the world is the work of the divine wisdom (Prv ch. 8) and reflects the perfection of its author (Wis ch. 13; Romans ch. 1). This teaching was developed by Irenaeus against Gnosticism, by Tertullian against Marcion, and by Augustine against the Manichaeans. The goodness of the material world was also reaffirmed by the magisterium of the Church against Priscillianism (H. Denziger, Enchiridion symboliorum, 199, 207, 456, 458, 462) and against medieval Catharism (H. Denziger, Enchiridion symboliorum, 790, 800, 1333, 1336).

In opposition to the exaggerated optimism of the Pelagians, the Church teaches that man by original sin was changed for the worse in body and soul (H. Denziger, Enchiridion symboliorum, 371, 1511). He cannot on his own observe the natural law for long (H. Denziger, Enchiridion symboliorum, 1541, 1572). To be converted he needs the assistance gratuitously given by God (H. Denziger, Enchiridion symboliorum, 374, 376, 1525, 1553). At the beginning, however, he was not in this state, and the corruption introduced by sin does not totally destroy his natural goodness (anthropological optimism). By means of human reason man can arrive at the knowledge of God, the principle and end of the world (Wis ch. 13; Rom 1.20; H. Denziger, Enchiridion symboliorum, 3004,3026). The human will is capable of good acts, even without any supernatural help, and, above all, maintains its liberty, with which it can consent to the invitation of grace (H. Denziger, Enchiridion symboliorum, 1521,1555). This is denied to no one, not even to the infidel (H. Denziger, Enchiridion symboliorum, 2305, 2426,2439). Sacred Scripture in fact invites sinners to be converted and holds them responsible for not being converted (Mt 23.37; Rom 10.16; Acts 7.5153).

Although there are individual creatures irremediably hostile to God who ensnare men (the fallen angels), these are not such by their nature, but, having been created good, they became evil through their free individual choice. This doctrine (which has a Biblical foundation in 2 Pt 2.4; Jude 6) was inculcated by Irenaeus, Justin, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, etc. against the various kinds of absolute dualism and was defined by the Fourth Lateran Council (H. Denziger, Enchiridion symboliorum, 800). Not even the snares of the fallen angels constitute a completely negative aspect of the universe: diabolical temptation can never overcome the resistance of man assisted by grace (1 Cor 10.13) and is useful for the good of the elect (Rom 8.28). The end of time will mark the definite defeat of the rebel angels (Rv 20.9) and of those who have freely chosen to imitate them (angelogical optimism).

See Also: happiness; justice of men; man; progress; temporal values, theology of; weltanschauung.

Bibliography: On the problem of evil . c. journet, The Meaning of Evil, tr. m. barry (New York 1963). j. maritain, Saint Thomas and the Problem of Evil, tr. m. l. andison (Milwaukee 1942). a. g. sertillanges, Le Problème du mal, 2 v. (Paris 194851). On the world . s. pÉtrement, Le Dualisme chez Platon, les gnostiques et les manichéens (Paris 1947). j. h. wright, The Order of the Universe in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Rome 1957). Il mondo nelle prospettive cosmologica, assiologica, religiosa (Atti del XIV convegno di studi filosofici cristiani di Gallarate 1959; Brescia 1960). On man . j. mouroux, The Meaning of Man, tr. a. h. g. downes (New York 1948). m. flick and z. alszeghy, Il vangelo della grazia (Florence 1964). On eschatology . t. f. glasson, The Second Advent (London 1945). r. w. gleason, The World to Come (New York 1958). e. c. rust, The Christian Understanding of History (London 1947). j. h. wright, "The Consummation of the Universe in Christ," Gregorianum 39 (1958) 285294. On angelology . j. d. collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels (Washington 1947). media>

[z. alszeghy]