Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Milton's problematical God

The burden of Milton's theodicy is to justify the ways of God to man, and this has led some readers to fault the poet, and others to condemn the theology the poet says he's trying to justify. Impossible to address the whole argument, but a few highlights, first from John Rogers:

I think it has to be seen as authentic and sincere, Milton's desire to justify God. He needs to imagine a God who can't be held responsible for the Fall because only a blameless God could be worthy of Milton's praise or even worthy of Milton's interest. Frankly, I think that Milton does a pretty decent job of representing a God who cannot be seen as some kind of guilty coconspirator in the Fall of man. He does a pretty decent job vindicating God, but then when we think about it, there are few poets more adept at the art of vindication than John Milton. Milton had been practicing the art of vindication and the art of defense, something like the art of criminal defense, all of his life.

Milton first of all has to reject the orthodox understanding of the Christian redemption. I'll remind you what that looks like. In the New Testament, and for a lot of Christian theologians, the redemption seems to work along the lines of something like a revenge sacrifice and, as cultural anthropologists have taught us, there is something like a primitive logic, an intensely primitive logic, at work behind the notion of the Christian notion of the crucifixion. One of the Father's sons, Adam, has died and so the Father will avenge that death by murdering someone else. Of course, that means murdering another son. This model of redemption is based on the repetition, or a repetition, of the initial crime, and this logic of repetition, I think, is largely responsible for that rhetoric of repetitiveness that we hear so often in the Father's speech. According to this -- we can think of it as a sacrifice theory of redemption or of the atonement, God chooses to sacrifice his son since someone is going to have to be punished for Adam's sin. The logic demands that.
But Milton, I think, can imagine no aspect of his religion, no aspect of Christianity, more barbaric than the image of the Father's willing sacrifice of his son. This would be a God truly unworthy of Milton's justification. Milton's struggling here, and there are a few of his contemporaries who are doing the same thing in the seventeenth century. He's struggling to bring Christianity in line with certain standards of rationality and, as Dr. Johnson had said, in the rest of the sentence that I wrote on the board, Milton wants to show the reasonableness of religion; and so Milton replaces the sacrifice model of the redemption with something like a satisfaction model of redemption. According to this way of thinking, in Adam's sin, a debt has been incurred, and this debt can be satisfied by someone else's payment so revenge is no longer the motive. There is something impersonal about this new way of imagining the atonement, and it's here that Milton gives the notion of the Christian redemption its particular Miltonic twist. Milton's Father does not willingly sacrifice the Son. It's magnificent: he simply asks for a volunteer, and the Son out of his goodness volunteers. It's something like an economic desire simply to balance the books.
The Son chooses to humiliate himself and subsequently God chooses to compensate that humiliation with the Son's supreme exaltation. You see the extent of this compensation at line 311 in Book Three, page 265 near the bottom of the page. God says to the Son:
Here shalt thou sit incarnate, here shalt Reign
Both God and Man, Son both of God and Man,
Anointed universal King; all Power
I give thee, reign for ever, and assume
Thy Merits; under thee as Head Supreme
Thrones, Princedoms, Powers, Dominions I reduce…

To reward the Son for having sacrificed himself, the Father is going to give the Son all power. (Emphasis added)
This rewarding of the son was viewed by William Empson as a form of abdication. More on Empson, and on "Milton's God," here. Empson's views were admired and pilloried by various readers. He defended his interpretation in a 1978 letter to the NYRB, which in part reads:
The chief new defense invented for God is that he intends to resign, and will do so as soon as he conscientiously can, as soon as a workable alternative to his rule has been prepared. God is at his worst when we first hear from him, early in Book III, but he is soon won over by the Son and speaks with magnificent generosity, then as on all later occasions, when he foresees his eventual abdication. But somehow, and Milton can hardly be expected to explain why (p. 145), the necessary political lay-out could only be attained through a long and painful training for both men and angels, with many casualties. Naturally God is bad when he acts as a dictator, because dictatorship is inherently bad, but he knows, as Cromwell had known, that he must labor to build a situation that makes democracy possible. No wonder the recitation of history is so dismal in the last two books. ... 
Christopher Hill gives me welcome support for the idea that God is going to abdicate, saying that it is found in a number of Ranters and suchlike bold men. But they seem to have expected a kind of palace revolution, whereas Milton presents it as a plan which the Creator has been evolving since the start of time.

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