Renée Köhler-Ryan

Dr. Renée Köhler is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Notre Dame Australia. Previous to this she was a researcher and academic assistant at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, where she defended her doctoral dissertation, entitled From Head to Foot Set in our Place: Sacred Space as the Expression of Religious Experience and Imagination. She has also lectured in Philosophy in Rome, Italy.

Main concerned to draw out in her research the relationships between Faith and Reason, her publications are in the areas of Philosophy of Culture, Philosophy of Religion, and Ethics, ranging from reviews of current writings about Christian Architecture and Applied Ethics to articles and book chapters concerning the continuing influence of Augustine, the work of contemporary philosopher William Desmond, and the importance of sacred spaces to the Catholic imagination.

The Justice of Jeremiah’s Tears

When the prophet Jeremiah asks the familiar question of why it is that the wicked prosper, while the just man undergoes trials and persecution, he has a standard of justice in mind that the reader can see develop throughout the Book that bears his name. This ideal can be uncovered as an empathetic relationship between God and prophet, which will need participation by the people to whom Jeremiah speaks if his own work is to bear fruit. Examining key elements of the Book of Jeremiah, I propose to find what the standard of justice is, particularly as mediated by empathy. I will explore how the prophet’s appreciation of justice augments, thereby enabling a perspective of how justice relates to a concept of human flourishing.

The working hypothesis of this paper is that the wicked seem to prosper only so that they can be brought low. They think that they are gaining what they need to live well, by turning to other gods and sources of power outside of Yahweh. Instead, they prostitute themselves to those who cannot love, meanwhile collecting nourishment in cracked cisterns that will break. When Jeremiah asks why it is that all he is doing is plucking up and tearing down, since he was also promised the work of growing and building, the answer seems to be that the former is not simply a precursor to the latter, but actually continuous with the work needed to bring about flourishing. Meanwhile, while he might not know it, in his laments he is more at one with Yahweh than ever, and so more fully thriving. Not to recognize injustice is far worse than to suffer it while knowing its nature.

Jeremiah’s question must be answered with another. Namely, is there any way in which righteousness can be enjoyed when it both causes pain and goes unacknowledged by those who do not realize that they are suffering from its lack? The answer can be found in the meaning and value of Jeremiah’s weeping and lamentation. He shares these with Yahweh, indicating that while he may not see completely why Yahweh acts as he does, he does feel with Him the brutality of being shunned by those he offers to help thrive in truth, rather than mere opinion. These questions and their possible answers need to be situated in a theory of justice, which in turn belongs within a framework of truth. How that framework operates in the Book of Jeremiah can more readily be known through comparisons of the notions of truth, justice and thriving with those in the ethico-political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. In this way, the differences and similarities between the Hebrew and some Ancient Greek concepts of justice will come more readily to light.

As Yoram Hazony has argued , Jeremiah is driven by a desire not only for justice, but for justice together with truth. The two need each other. Thus, living according to mere opinion entails dire consequences for the person. Feeling that he knows what is true, he is mistaken and must founder; his heart, seat both of mind and of feeling, is fractured. This bifurcation is the root of injustice on an individual level, but also for a nation made of such disordered persons. This is already a point of comparison with Plato, for whom a just person is the hierarchically ordered foundation of the just city. At the same time, since Plato insists in the Republic that mind must reign over feeling, one can see how, from a biblical perspective, Plato’s anthropology may contribute to the factors that render the person and the political incapable of thriving. Jeremiah’s quandary is that he must find how it is exactly that even though the wicked man seems to be enjoying himself, this is no indication of flourishing. Headed toward destruction, the unjust person is mistaken about the nature of happiness and fulfillment.

The paper will base itself on the passages of Jeremiah’s “confessions”. It will also build on the metaphors whereby Jeremiah is called to knock down and uproot, build and grow; and where Jeremiah was predestined from before he was formed in his mother’s womb, and wishes that he had never left that place of initial flourishing. Both of these sets of metaphors indicate the public character of Jeremiah’s ministry – that he must leave the womb in order to thrive; but that this departure, like his mission, is far from easy. Jeremiah desires a lived immediacy of being with Yahweh, characterized by the passive way in which he was nourished in his mother’s womb. He does not realize that he already something like this unmediated relationship, in his tears, which are the expression of his grief at rejection – essentially, his anguish at the injustice of those he tries to aid. Jeremiah cries with Yahweh. The paper will contend that while Jeremiah may not be fully thriving according to the Aristotelian view, he is still living out his human possibilities more than the wicked who turn to false gods and false selves. The wicked prosper and in this way participate in their destruction. In contrast, Jeremiah’s tears bring him closer to God, the running stream that makes him grow.