Apprehending Apokatastasis: The Incoherence of Everlasting Perdition

I’m a bit surprised to find myself beginning a series of reflections on That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart. The book has already generated a copiosity of reviews from theolo­gians and internet cognoscenti. Eclectic Orthodoxy has hosted a goodly number of them. Surely there is not much more interesting to say. Nevertheless, I need to add my voice to the cacophony. In this series I intend to highlight specific arguments and lines of thought advanced by Hart that I find compelling, challenging, evocative. Sometimes we miss the trees for the forest.

Hart begins his reflections with the classic Christian doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo. The doctrine declares that the infinite and perfect God created the cosmos in absolute freedom, without need of anything outside himself. On this all orthodox Christians may agree. But Hart then draws our attention to an often overlooked feature of the divine act—namely, its telos and goal:

Perhaps the first theological insight I learned from Gregory of Nyssa is that the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not merely a cosmological or metaphysical claim, but also an eschatological claim about the world’s relation to God, and for that reason a moral claim about the nature of God in himself. In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness. Anything willingly done is done toward an end; and anything done toward an end is defined by that end. (p. 68)

The meaning of the cosmos is revealed in its consummation. The beginning is directed toward the eschaton, and the eschaton contains the beginning. There’s nothing particularly obscure about this observation. Every good story journeys to a fitting conclusion. Narrative threads and character arcs are brought to satisfying closure. Quests are fulfilled, lovers united, conflicts resolved, rewards and punishments meted out, truths revealed and falsehoods exposed, important questions answered—and if they are not, we see why this too was necessary. If the conclusion fails to provide the fulfillment the story demands, which our aesthetic enjoyment demands, then the story, as well as its telling, is called into question. A bad ending can ruin a tale. (Just ask an avid Game of Thrones fan what he or she thought about season 8.) The obverse is also true: a good ending can save a problematic story. We hope that our lives constitute a coherent narrative, that they are more than a series of plotless happenings; we hope that somehow our ending will justify our beginning. If Macbeth is right, and life should prove to be nothing more than “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing,” then it was never worth the telling. The end is where we start from.

The God of the Bible creates from the final future—the final future that is himself—in his timeless telling of the cosmos. “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13). The infinite and ineffable divinity bespeaks himself in the reflective mode of finitude. All is theophany. All is divine self-presentation and icon. For this reason the eschaton constitutes the ultimate manifestation of the divine character. This is probably more me speaking than Hart, so let’s quote the metaphysical wizard himself (warning: super-long citation coming—sorry):

Here my particular concern is the general principle that the doctrine of creation constitutes an assertion regarding the eternal identity of God. The doctrine in itself is, after all, chiefly an affirmation of God’s absolute dispositive liberty in all his acts—the absence, that is, of any external restraint upon or necessity behind every action of his will. And, while one must avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s resolve to create as an arbitrary choice made after deliberation among options, one must still affirm that it is free, that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent on the world’s, and that the only “necessity” present in the divine act of creation is the impossibility of any hindrance being placed upon God’s expression of his own goodness in making the world. Yet, for just this reason, the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable. As the transcendent Good beyond all beings, God is also the transcendental end that makes every single action of any rational nature possible. Moreover, the end toward which he acts must be his own goodness; for he is himself the beginning and end of all things. This is not to deny that, in addition to the “primary causality” of God’s act of creation, there are innumerable forms of “secondary causality” operative within the created order; but none of these can exceed or escape the one end toward which the first cause directs all things. And this eternal teleology that ultimately governs every action in creation, viewed from the vantage of history, takes the form of a cosmic eschatology. Seen as an eternal act of God, creation’s term is the divine nature for which all things were made; seen from within the orientation of time, its term is the “final judgment” that brings all things to their true conclusion.

Moreover, no matter how great the autonomy one grants the realm of secondary causes, two things are certain. First, as God’s act of creation is free, constrained by neither necessity nor ignorance, all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision. And, second, precisely because God in himself is absolute—“absolved,”that is, of every pathos of the contingent, every “affect”of the sort that a finite substance has the power to visit upon another—his moral “venture” in creating is infinite. One way or another, after all, all causes are logically reducible to their first cause. This is no more than a logical truism. And it does not matter whether one construes the rela­tion between primary and secondary causality as one of total determinism or as one of utter indeterminacy, for in either case all “consequents” are—either as actualities or merely as possibilities—contin­gent upon their primordial “antecedent,” apart from which they could not exist. And, naturally, the rationale of a first cause—its “definition,” in the most etymologically exact meaning of that term—is the final cause that prompts it, the end toward which it acts. If, then, that first cause is an infinitely free act emerging from an infinite wisdom, all those consequents are intentionally entailed—again, either as actualities or as possibilities—within that first act; and so the final end to which that act tends is its whole moral truth. The traditional ontolog­ical definition of evil as a privatio boni—a privation of the good lacking any essence of its own—is not merely a logically necessary metaphysical axiom about the transcendental structure of being; it is also an assertion that, when we say “God is good,” we are speaking of him not only relative to his crea­tion, but (however apophati­cally) as he is in himself. All comes from God, and so evil cannot be a “thing” that comes from anywhere. Evil is, in every case, merely the defect whereby a substantial good is lost, belied, or resisted. For in every sense being is act, and God, in his simplicity and infinite freedom, is what he does. He could not be the creator of anything substantially evil without evil also being part of the definition of who he essentially is; for he alone is the wellspring of all that exists.

God goes forth in all beings and in all beings returns to himself, as even Aquinas (following a long Christian tradition) affirms; but God also does this not as an expression of his dialectical struggle with some recalcitrant exteri­ority—some external obstacle to be surmounted or some unrealized possibil­ity to be achieved—but rather as the manifestation of an inex­haustible power wholly possessed by the divine in peaceful liberty in eternity. God has no need of the world; he creates it not because he is dependent upon it, but because its dependency on him is a fitting expression of the bounty of his goodness. So all that the doctrine of creation adds to the basic metaphysical picture is the further assurance that in this divine outpouring there is no element of the “irrational”: nothing purely spontaneous, or organic, or even mechanical, beyond the power of God’s rational freedom. This, however, also means that within the story of creation, viewed from its final cause, there can be no resi­due of the pardonably tragic, no irrecuperable or irreconcilable remainder left behind at the end of the tale; for, if there were, this irreconcilable excess would also be something God has directly caused, as an entailment freely assumed in his act of creating, and so as an expression of who he freely is. This is no more than the simple logic of the absolute. (pp. 69-72)

This is a crucial passage for our understanding of Hart’s universalism. Let’s try to unpack it.

1) The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo asserts the absolute liberty of the Creator in all of his acts. As the infinite plenitude of Being, God did not need to create the cosmos to fill something that was lacking in his life (remember—no passive potency) and having created it he does not find that his happiness and bliss have been increased. Moreover, not only does God enjoy absolute freedom to create, or not create, the cosmos; but he also enjoys absolute freedom in what kind of cosmos to create. He is not subject to constraints outside himself.

Nothing remarkable so far. This is just the classical doctrine of divine aseity which Hart has so ably presented in The Experience of God.

2) God eternally wills himself as the Good, and his willing of the cosmos is encompassed within this eternal self-willing. The purpose, telos, goal, consummation, and end of the divine act of creation is the Good; or to put it in the language of Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, God is the final cause of creation. The cosmos is created by Love out of Love toward consummation in Love.

In the background we hear the voices of St Gregory of Nyssa and St Maximus the Confessor, as well as Dionysius the Areopagite and St Thomas Aquinas.

3) God does not create evil. Only goodness flows from God. For this reason the classical theologians of the Christian tradition have understood evil as a privation of being, a defect, lack, and surd, nothingness. The presence of evil within God’s good creation urgently raises the question of theodicy. The question cannot be banished with a mere wave of a philosoph­ical wand. Evil will always be the greatest challenge to faith, both intellectually and existen­tially. It’s one thing to acknowledge, and suffer, evil’s presence in the temporal order; it’s quite another thing to assert its eschatological perdurance.

4) The eschaton, therefore, necessarily and definitively reveals the character and identity of the Creator. The conclusion of the story can neither surprise nor disappoint him, for the conclusion is willed in the initial act of creation. Hence the presence of evil in the eschaton is quite impossible. In Hart’s words: “He could not be the creator of anything substantially evil without evil also being part of the definition of who he essentially is.” Here is the cru­cial Hartian claim: if everlasting perdition belongs to the climax of the cosmic narrative, then it was so intended by God from the beginning. Every free act is teleologically directed and defined by its telos. The inference cannot be avoided—not if creation is a free and gratuitous act. After all, nothing compelled God to create this particular universe with this particular eschaton, and the omnipotence–omniscience combo precludes divine failure. If hell was intended, then it is good and inheres in the Good; if hell is intended, then hell becomes God.

To summarize: in his goodness the triune God creates the cosmos for consummation in his infinite goodness. All comes from Love and returns to Love. The Creator is both material cause and final cause. The eschaton, therefore, is not simply the climax of a story. It is the final revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the fullness of their lordship and glory. In the words of the Apostle:

And, when all things have been subordinated to him, then will the Son himself also be subordinated to the one who has subordinated all things to him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Cor 15:28)

God will be all in all. This is the eschatological promise. How then hell everlasting?

The above reasoning leads Hart to the conclusion that a pernicious incoherence lies deep within the theological tradition. For the past 1500 years Church has asserted three doctrines:

  • God has freely created the cosmos ex nihilo.
  • God is the Good and wills only the good.
  • God will condemn a portion of his rational creatures to everlasting torment.

Two of these propositions may be rationally held without contradiction, argues Hart, but not all three simultaneously. Yet the Church has attempted to hold the three together, thereby causing far-reaching mischief. If God wills hell, he cannot be genuinely good:

This is not a complicated issue, it seems to me: The eternal perdition—the eternal suffering—of any soul would be an abominable tragedy, and therefore a profound natural evil; this much is stated quite clearly by scripture, in asserting that God “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). A natural evil, however, becomes a moral evil precisely to the degree that it is the positive intention, even if only conditionally, of a rational will. God could not, then, directly intend a soul’s ultimate destruction, or even intend that a soul bring about its own destruction, without positively willing the evil end as an evil end; such a result could not possibly be comprised within the ends purposed by a truly good will (in any sense of the word “good” intelligible to us). Yet, if both the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and that of eternal damnation are true, that very evil is indeed already comprised within the positive intentions and dispositions of God. No refuge is offered here by some specious distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent wills—between, that is, his universal will for creation apart from the fall and his particular will regarding each creature in consequence of the fall. Under the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent. (pp. 81-82)

David Bentley Hart is hardly the first person in the history of the Church to see the illogic in asserting both the infinite goodness of the Creator and eternal damnation. No one saw this more clearly than St Isaac of Nineveh in the seventh century. “It is not the way of the compassionate Maker,” he declared, “to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created” (Discourses II.39.6).

(cont)

 

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Analogy of Being: Knowing God in Similarity within Dissimilarity

How is it possible to speak meaningfully of the infinite and transcendent God? By definition he is not an object of our sensible, perhaps not even of our intellectual, experience; yet human language is grounded in our experience of the world. We confidently say that God is good, wise, just, loving, personal; but we use these concepts we use to refer to finite rational beings. What meaning can they possibly have when used to speak of the ineffable reality who is “wholly other”? Sure, we can always retreat into the revelational positivism of the neo-orthodox, the language games of Wittgenstein, or the metaphorical theology of Sallie McFague; but the gap between the infinite and finite remains. Divinity may condescend to cross the gap and communicate with its creatures, employing our words and terminology, but the problem of meaning is not thereby magically resolved. Reflecting on the infinite qualitative distinction and the impossibility of empirically verifying theological claims, philosopher A. J. Ayer famously pronounced: “All utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical.” Oh my—those pesky philosophers.

Norris Clarke believes that the solution to this perceived problem is to be found in the participation metaphysics of St Thomas Aquinas:

There is only one bridge that enables us to pass over the cognitive abyss between ourselves and God and talk meaningfully about Him in our terms: the bridge of causal participation, or more simply of efficient causality, taken with all its implications. If God were not the ultimate causal Source of all the perfections we find in our world, we would have no way of talking meaning­fully about Him at all. It is the causal bond which grounds all analogous predication about God.

What is there in this relation that forges a bond of community between the effects and their cause? It is the fundamental property of all efficient causality—a doctrine implicit in Plato but first laid down by Aristotle, echoed with some reservations by the Neoplatonic tradition, and systematically exploited by St. Thomas in his participation metaphysics—that every effect must in some way resemble its cause. Since all that the effect has comes from its cause and is the gift of the cause, and since the cause cannot give what it does not possess, at least in some higher equivalent way, then under the pain of unintelligibility there must be some resemblance between the effect and its cause, at least in the most fundamental order of existence and the latter’s satellite properties, such as unity. That is precisely why the world, as created by God, has always been considered—and rightly so—as an image of God, perfect but still participating in its own limited way in the infinite plenitude of the divine perfection. Creation itself, therefore, immediately sets up a bond of community between the world and God. (The Philosophical Approach to God, pp. 78-79)

Cut the bond of causal similitude between God and creature which, outside direct mystical experience, is our only bridge across the unfathomable abyss between finite and Infinite, and there is no path left to the mystery-shrouded peaks of the farther shore. (p. 81)

In other words, that we may, and indeed do, speak meaningfully about God presupposes an analogy of being (analogia entis). Even the language of divine revelation presupposes the “community of being and intelligibility established by the causal bond contained in the notion of creation” (p. 80). Apart from this ontological unity, God’s revealed Word would not succeed in communicating with us. It would be mere noise. But in fact it does succeed, and it succeeds because the world has been sung into being by the eternal Word.

Following Thomas, Clarke identifies the community of being shared by Creator and creature as one, not of essence or nature, but of esse—the act of existing. The essence of God is not violated. It remains incomprehensible to finite human knowing, as long asserted by the Eastern theological tradition. By the creatio ex nihilo God establishes a proportional relationship to his creatures, thus allowing us to speak of the similarities of creatures to their Creator within a wider dissimilarity:

For the Thomistic notion of being as that which is (an essence exercising the act of existence in its own particular way) focuses explicitly on the similarity of the act of existence in all real beings—not on their essences or forms, save as modes-of-existing; hence, it does not require that in applying the notion of being to God we must know or specify the mode of existing of the divine essence, what God is like. We affirm only that God exists, is actively present in his own distinctive infinite way, but not how he exists, what his essence is like in itself, which is totally hidden from us. Hence, we can leave the essence of God intact, without drawing it down to our own level (anthropo­morphism) yet affirm something supremely positive about its “owner” that links it with the entire community of all other real existents, God’s creatures. Thus, God becomes accessible to our human minds as the fullness of existence, yet transcending all the particular modes of existing that we know from our own this-worldly experience. (The One and the Many, p. 54)

Early in his career Karl Barth famously declared, “I regard the analogia entis as the invention of the Antichrist” and insisted that it was the one decisive reason why he could never be Roman Catholic. I have never really understood his antipathy to the analogy of being and have suspected some kind of misunderstanding, either on my part or Barth’s. Yet I do not lose any sleep about it. Regardless how one parses the dispute, Christians will continue to talk about God and his perfections. But I am finally beginning to see the critical significance of the analogia entis. It invites us to experience the panoply of creation, and every being within it, as a wondrous theophany of the infinitely transcendent and beautiful God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

(9 February 2017)

(cont)

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Existence, Essence, and the One and the Many

The problem of the one and the many, writes Norris Clarke, “is the ultimate paradox of being and the deepest and the most fundamental problem of all metaphysics, of every intellectual effort to achieve a total, unified vision of all reality” (The One and the Many, p. 72). Perhaps I may have once known this back in my undergraduate days, when I took a few courses on ancient Greek philosophy; but all of that has been long forgotten. Not surprisingly, there­fore, my initial response to the above quote is, what problem? Over the past three millennia, metaphysicians have been staying awake until the wee hours of the morning obsessing over this conundrum, yet I haven’t given it a moment’s thought in my entire life. Plato I’m not.

When we expand our intellectual horizons to apprehend the whole of reality, we are con­fronted with a vast multitude of beings. We note their similarities and dissimilarities. On the one hand, every being is similar to every other being by virtue of their being. Each is real. Each claims our attention by its sheer existing. On the other hand, each is dissimilar. Each is this one as opposed to that one. A is, B is, C is; but A is not B, B is not C, C is not A. The is is the presupposition of the not. A, B, and C cannot be compared except on the basis of a shared reality. “Total diversities,” Clarke comments, “with nothing whatsoever in common between them, are incomparable, in fact unthinkable” (p. 74). He suggests we spend a few minutes mulling over this simple but basic metaphysical principle. Just try to imagine a universe populated by beings that are completely different. In fact we cannot. To apprehend beings is to apprehend the primacy of existence itself. We apprehend the many and are immediately drawn to the one.

Clarke believes that the most compelling and illuminating solution to the problem of the one and the many was articulated by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century: finite beings participate in the infinite activity of existing (esse). Thomas writes:

Every perfection of any being whatsoever belongs to it according to its act of existence (suum esse). For no perfection would belong to a man from his wisdom unless he actually is wise, and so of all other attributes. Therefore according to the mode in which a thing has existence is its mode of perfection; for according as the act of existence of a thing is contracted to some particular mode of perfection, either greater or lesser, it is said to be more or less perfect. Now if there is something to which belongs the total power of being (tota virtus essendi), no perfection that belongs to anything whatever can be lacking to it. And so God, who is identical with his own act of existence … possesses his act of existence according to the total power of existence itself. Therefore he can lack no perfection that belongs to any being whatever. (Cont. Gent. I.28)

Being itself is offered to creatures to be participated in before all the other participations of God. Whatever perfection a creature may have, it receives through a participation in God, who is, as it were, offered to all beings that they may participate in him; but he is first participated in with regard to Being itself [ipsum esse] prior to any other perfection: thus Being itself per se is more ancient, that is, more primary and noble than Life itself. (De div. nom. VI.i.633)

The bond of unity in which all beings share is the activity of existing, and this existing derives from the ultimate source of reality, Ipsum Esse Subsistens—the One who simply is his activity of existing, with no limiting essence.

I am, you are, it is—that something is expresses what is most fundamental in our experience of the world. Beings stand out from nothingness by their existing. Clarke’s metaphysical vision invites us to move from the brute fact of existence, as an attribute shared by all beings, to the inner act that grounds it. “This inner act of existence,” he explains, “is not reducible to an essence or mode of being, a what, nor a mere static state, but a dynamic act of presence that makes any essence or nature to be real, to present itself actively to other real beings” (pp. 79-80). To be is a verb, not a noun. Whereas most Western philosophers have focused their attention on the essences of things (what things are), those within the Thomistic tradition have focused on the existential action by which things present themselves to the world.

The solution to the one and the many is beginning to peek through: in their multiplicity and diver­sity, beings are finite participations in the infinite pleni­tude. “This participation,” explains Clarke, “is mediated through the metaphysical composi­tion of esse, the act of existence, and essence as particular limiting mode—a composition found in all beings save one, the Infinite Source, who alone possesses this perfection in unlimited intensive plenitude as pure Subsistent Act of Existence” (Explorations in Metaphysics, pp. 12-13). Clarke thus advances a Platonic structure of ontological participation, modified by the metaphysical Thomistic twist. Think of essence as the principle that finitizes and restricts the unlimited fullness of Being. Essence holds onto and shapes the intensive energy of existing (virtus essendi). It may thus be understood as a receptive and determina­tive capacity that allows so much be-ing but no more, or to speak a bit more metaphorically, “the restrictive channel along which flows and expresses itself the encapsulated energy of the act of existence” (One & Many, p. 151). But be sure not to think of it as a preexisting con­tainer into which being is poured. Essence without an act of existence would be zilch; an act of existence without a defining essence would be nothing in particular (… or the infinite fullness of Being). Esse and essentia are joined together simultaneously to form particular realities—there can’t be one without the other. Nor should we think of the creaturely act of existing as identical to the divine act of existing:

The act of existence (best understood as the “activity of existing”) which is participated in diversely by many different essences is not to be understood crudely as the one infinite act of existence of God himself, which is somehow divided up among creatures like pieces of a pie. God has no pieces nor can he lose his infinite fullness by created more beings. Each particular act of existence is a new one, fresh out of the oven, so to speak, which exists only as correlated with its own particular limiting essence, not first in an unlimited state, than afterwards limited. We are not “parts” of God. But each one is limited, not because it is an act of existence, but because it is correlated with its own limiting essence. Yet all are analogously similar, because they all participate in the common perfection of existence as active presence. They all share in an objective similarity that cannot be denied and needs the same term to express it: real. (pp. 85-86)

The one and the many—so far we have been looking at the problem from the point of view of finite beings. Is it clear to you how Clarke’s proposal purportedly solves it? What if we were to look at the metaphysical conundrum from the point of view of the transcendent Creator?

Thus the best way to think the whole universe of real beings as both one and many is from the point of view of God, the infinite fullness of pure unlimited existence, and the one ultimate Source of all being, as actively intending and willing to share, to communicate, his own fullness of being with many other limited beings, each according to its own limited degree or capacity (essence), each corresponding to a distinct idea or plan in the mind of God for sharing his own unitary fullness with many. The unity of existence in the many participants derives from the unitary fullness of the Source and the single idea, intention, will to communicate this to many according to different modes or manners of being. (p. 87)

The one who is One is primary; the many, secondary and derivative. That which binds beings—in all of their manifest diversity, variety, multiplicity, and differences—is their act of existence; and this act, this beingness, directs us to the transcendent source who is infinite aseity and inexhaustible plenitude, “the act of all acts and perfection of all perfections” (Aquinas). The unity of the many can only be convincingly explained by their participation in the God who is absolute Being.

The Rig Veda: “Brahman is the unborn in whom all existing things abide. The One manifests as the many, the formless putting on forms.”

Thales: “All things are from water and all things are resolved into water.”

Heraclitus: “All things come out of the one, and the one out of all things.”

Zhuang-tzu: “Great thinking sees all as One; small thinking breaks down into the many.”

Plotinus: “It is precisely because there is nothing within the One that all things are from it.”

Ibn Arabi: “Glory to Him who created all things, being Himself their very essence.”

Radhakrishnan: “We have the universe of individuals which is not self-sufficient and in some sense rests on Brahman, but the exact nature of the relation between them is a mystery.”

Segue to the Holy Trinity.

(6 February 2017)

(Go to “Analogy of Being”)

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“Death swallowed the Lamb who was sacrificed for all, and then disgorging him disgorged all of us in him and with him”

“When he saw Jesus coming toward him John said: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world'” (Jn 1:29).

No longer does he say: Prepare. That would be out of place now that at last he who was prepared for is seen, is before our very eyes. The nature of the case now calls for a different type of homily. An explanation is needed of who is present, and why he has come down to us from heaven. What power will death have over us now that sin has been blotted out? So John says: “Behold the Lamb of God,” of whom the prophet Isaiah told us in the words: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb before his shearer he opened not his mouth” (Is 53:7). In past ages he was typified by the law of Moses, but because the law was merely a figure and a foreshadowing of its salvation was only partial; its mercy did not reach out to embrace the whole world. But now the true lamb, the victim without blemish obscurely prefigured in former times, is led to the slaughter for all to banish sin from the world, to overthrow the world’s destroyer, to abolish death by dying for the entire human race, and to release us from the curse: “Dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). He will become the second Adam who is not of earth but of heaven, and will be for us the source of every blessing. He will deliver us from the corruptibility foreign to our nature; he will secure eternal life for us, reconcile us with God, teach us to revere God and to live upright lives, and be our way to the kingdom of heaven.

One Lamb died for all to restore the whole flock on earth to God the Father; one died for all to make all subject to God; one died for all to gain all so that all “might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised to life for them.”

Because our many sins had made us subject to death and corruption, the Father gave his son as our redemption, one for all, since all were in him and he was greater than all. One died for all so that all of us might live in him. Death swallowed the Lamb who was sacrificed for all, and then disgorging him disgorged all of us in him and with him; for we were all in Christ who died and rose again for us.

Once sin had been destroyed how could death, which was caused by sin, fail to be wholly annihilated? With the root dead how could the branch survive? What power will death have over us now that sin has been blotted out? And so, rejoicing in the sacrifice of the Lamb let us cry out: “O death, where is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). “All wickedness shall hold its tongue,” as the Psalmist sings somewhere. Hence­forth it will be unable to denounce sinners for their weakness, for God is the one who acquits us. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for our sake`” (Gal 3:13), so that we might escape the curse brought down on us by sin.

St Cyril of Alexandria

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The Diffusiveness of Being

“It is proper to every being, insofar as it is in act,” Norris Clarke writes, “to overflow into action, to act according to its nature, whether such action be free or necessitated in its modality” (Explorations in Metaphysics, p. 46). To be is to be active and energetic; to be is to communicate being and reveal being; to be is to enter into community with other beings and thus form a universe. Hence while we can notionally distinguish between a being’s act of existence and its activities, in fact the two are indivisible. If something never acted, it would be indistinguishable from a nothing.

Beings go out of themselves into action for two reasons, suggests Clarke. Each being is rich in actuality. Each exists and therefore possesses some measure of ontological perfection and seeks to share this perfection with others. But each being is also poor in actuality, limited and incomplete, existing in a composite state of act and potentiality, and therefore needs other beings for the realization of their being and perfection. This metaphysical dynamism of giving and receiving structures the universe and indeed makes the universe a universe:

Not only does every being tend, by the inner dynamism of its act of exis­tence, to overflow into action, but this action is both a self-manifes­tation and a self-commmunication, a self-sharing, of the being’s own inner onto­logical perfec­tion with others. This natural tendency to self-giving is a revelation of the natural fecundity or “generosity” rooted in the very nature of being itself. We are immediately reminded of the ancient Platonic tradi­tion—well known to St Thomas—of the “self-diffusiveness of the Good” (bonum est diffusivum sui, as the Latins put it). What St. Thomas has done is to incorporate this whole rich tradition of the fecundity of the Good into his own philosophy of being, turn­ing this self-diffusiveness, which the Pla­tonic tradition identified as proper to what they considered the ultimate ground of reality, the Good, into a prop­erty of being itself, of which the good now becomes one inseparable aspect (or transcendental property). Whereas in Platonism, and especially Neoplaton­ism, being itself is only a lesser dimension of the Good, for St. Thomas the good is a derivative property of existential being itself, expressing more explicitly the primal dynamism of self-expansiveness and self-giving inherent in the very nature of being as act of existence. The primacy always lies with existence for St. Thomas. Nothing can be good unless it first actually is; and from the very fact that it is, it naturally follows that it is good, since the act of existence is the root of all perfection in any domain, “the actuality of all acts, and the perfection of all perfections.” (pp. 48-49)

Diffusiveness of being—some readers will think of the writings of the sixth century theologian and mystic Dionysius. For example:

The cause of all things through an excess of goodness loves all things, pro­duces all things, perfects all things, contains and turns all things toward himself, divine love is good through the goodness of the Good. Indeed love itself which produces the goodness of beings, pre-subsisting super-abun­dantly in the Good, did not allow itself to remain unproductive but moved itself to produce in the super-abundant generation of all. (Celestial Hierarchy 4.10.159)

Dionysius was a significant influence on the metaphysical reflections of St Thomas Aquinas, but as Norris notes, Thomas broke from the Neo-Platonic structure, in which the One is identified as the Good and being identified with finite being. Thomas instead identifies the Good as Being, while retaining Dionysius’ emphasis on diffusiveness. (If anyone is interested in this topic, I recommend Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas by Fran O’Rourke.) The diffusiveness and generosity of created being thus reflects the diffusiveness and generosity of the Holy Trinity. Norris elaborates:

It is true, of course, that in St. Thomas’ participation universe, as in the Neo­platonic one, the self-diffusiveness of all finite participated beings can be traced back to its primal source, the infinite essential goodness of God himself, who, as pure Subsistent Act of Existence (isum esse Subsistens), is also Love itself. And revelation here gives us a marvelous further insight, inaccessible to strictly philosophical penetration, into the interior depths of the divine self-communicativeness within its own being, manifesting to us that it is of the nature of the divine being to pour over into two supreme eternal acts of self-communication of the perfection of its nature, first from the Father to the Son, then from the Father and Son together to the Holy Spirit: the procession of the Son of Logos according to self-knowledge, and the procession of the Holy Spirit according to self-love. The rest of the uni­verse dimly imitates, each thing in its own way, this infinite fullness of self-giving. But it still remains that this mysterious inner process of thoughtful, loving self-communication is not a free decision but belongs to the very nature of the Supreme Being as pure Subsistent Act of Existence. If we try to pursue this trail further, why Being itself should be self-expansive Love, all trails end in the silence of the Mystery. The Ultimate Fact that Being is identically Love precludes all further explanatory moves and serves as the ultimate explanatory reason for the entire dynamic nature of the universe. (p. 49)

Eastern Christians will immediately raise the filioque flag. Is Norris’s presentation depen­dent upon it? I would not think so, as evidenced by Dionysius’ own formulation of the divine diffusiveness. Both the Eastern and Western traditions agree that the trinitarian One freely and fittingly communicates itself in the creation of the many, and the many, in turn, reflect in action the creative self-giving of the One. In the words of Thomas: “Hence if natural things, insofar as they are perfect, communicate their goodness to others, much more does it pertain to the divine will to communicate by likeness its own goodness to others as far as possible” (ST I.19.2).

(1 February 2017)

(Go to “Existence, Essence …”)

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Action is the Revelation of Being

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Action is the revelation of being. This principle, Norris Clarke tells us, is central to the metaphysics of St Thomas Aquinas. It also seems to be true. Try to imagine a non-acting being—an entity that never interacts with other entities, that never communicates, that never manifests its presence, that never expresses its nature, that never acts in the uni­verse as a cause. Not only would we not know what kind of being it is, but we would not even know that it exists. It would be a non-being, indistinguishable from nothing. “A being that did not manifest its existence and essence to others by some form of self-revealing action,” observes Clarke, “would make no difference at all to the other beings in the universe, and hence might just as well not be at all” (Explorations in Metaphysics, p. 46). Now try to imagine a uni­verse populated exclusively by such non-beings. It would not, and could not, be a universe. Nothing would act upon anything. Nothing would be connected by cause and effect. There would be no mass, no energy, no movement, no relationship, no life, no consciousness—in other words, the absence of reality. “To be real is to make a differ­ence,” states Clarke; but in a universe filled by inert beings, nothing would make a difference (The One and the Many, p. 32). Thus muted, existence collapses into nihility. “To have a universe, a community of real existents, its members would have to communi­cate with each other, be linked somehow and all communication requires some kind of action. A non-acting, non-communicative being is for all practical purposes (in the order of intelligibility, value, action, or making any differ­ence at all) equivalent to no being at all” (p. 32).

This thought experiment leads Clarke to assert the energetic nature of existence:

It is through action, and only through action, that real beings manifest or “unveil” their being, their presence, to each other and to me. All the beings that make up the world of my experience thus reveal themselves as not just present, standing out of nothingness, but actively presenting themselves to others and vice versa by interacting with each other. Meditating on this leads to the metaphysical conclusion that it is the very nature of real being, existential being, to pour over into action that is self-revealing and self-communicative. In a word, existential being is intrinsically dynamic, not static. (pp. 31-32)

To be is to be actively present to other beings, to act on others and be available to their action. To be is to be in dynamic relation and community. To be is to exist in unity with all other beings. In this way beings form the inter-connected system that we call a universe. Admittedly, the notion of self-revelation seems odd when speaking of inanimate objects—at least until a rock hits me on the head. “What the heck!” At that moment the inanimate world gets my attention and forces me to attend to it. So I pick up the rock and attempt to under­stand its nature. Essence reveals itself to me through its energy. Just ask Wile E. Coyote.

Clarke then makes an important clarification: being and action are not logically identical; “action,” rather, “flows naturally from real being precisely as existent”—agere sequitur esse (action follows the act of being). This leads to a twofold distinction: “existence is the first act of a real being, action its second act, flowing immediately from the first. Aristotle himself saw this long ago when he defined a real nature as ‘an abiding center of acting and being acted upon'” (p. 33).

We know things by their operations and activi­ties. As Thomas writes: “Then, too, the species of a thing is gathered from its proper opera­tion; for the operation manifests the power, which reveals the essence” (SG II.94). We do not originate the action of the other. We suffer it and are thus, as Clarke puts it, “con­trolled or determined by it willy-nilly.” This suffering signifies the presence of the other and leads us to a limited apprehen­sion of its nature, as this kind of actor rather than another kind. “This is precisely what our knowledge of the essences of real beings comes down to,” he elaborates: “we know them as such and such kinds of actors, distin­guished from others by such and such a set of characteristic actions. Such knowledge is genuinely revelatory of the essence, for it enables us to know that the being truly has within itself such a nature, pos­sessing such a degree of perfection and power, that it can originate such a self-communicat­ing, self-expressing, self-imaging action” (Explorations, p. 55).

We cannot bypass action to grasp the essence of things. As physical creatures who encounter the world by sensory apprehension, “we cannot ‘zap in’ by direct unmediated intuition to ‘see’ intellectually the inner act of existence and especially the nature of the agent as it abides in itself behind the actions, apart from and independently of these actions” (p. 55). God knows the essence of things immediately and exhaustively through the divine act of creation, but we only know them to the extent that they reveal their essence through their activities. Note the “to the extent”:

But no single action of a finite being can ever reveal totally, in a single exhaustive flash, the entire essence of that being. Every action of a finite being (or even the action of an Infinite Being as received in a finite being) is always at once revealing and concealing, to use Heidegger’s marvelously apt language. It does reveal something of the inner nature; otherwise it would not be action at all. But it also leaves unrevealed further depths or aspects of the reservoir of active potency within it; and though finite in itself, the latter is still inexhaustible to our knowledge because of its hidden ontological connections with every other being in the universe and especially with its Infinite Source, God himself. (p. 55)

Action is the revelation of being. Readers will immediately start pondering upon the theological implications of this metaphysical principle. Consider, for example, St Basil’s statement “The [divine] operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach” (Letter 234.1; cf. David Bradshaw, “The Concept of the Divine Energies“). How else can we know our Creator but by his self-manifestation?

(29 January 2017)

(Go to “The Diffusiveness of Being”)

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“You were not ashamed to be born within the lowly limits of our human nature, but I cannot pass its bounds”

“I am the voice, the voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord.” So I cannot be silent, Lord, in your presence. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” At my birth I took away my mother’s barrenness, and while still an infant I healed my father’s dumbness, for you gave me in childhood the gift of working miracles. But when you were born of the Virgin Mary, in the way you willed and in a manner known to you alone, you did not take away her virginity, but while preserving it intact you gave her in addition the name of “mother.” Her virginity did not hinder your birth, nor did your birth destroy her virginity. On the contrary, two opposites, motherhood and virginity, were easily united by you, because the laws of nature have their origin in you. I am a mere man, sharing in the grace of God, but you are both God and man because of your love for humankind.

“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” You existed from the beginning, you were with God and you were God. You are the radiance of the Father’s glory, the perfect image of the perfect Father. “You are the true light enlightening every person who comes into the world.” You were in the world, yet you have come to where you were already. You have become flesh, but you have not been changed into flesh. You have lived among us, appearing to your servants in the likeness of a servant. You by your holy name have bridged heaven and earth, and do you come to me? You, so great, to such as I? King to herald, master to servant?

You were not ashamed to be born within the lowly limits of our human nature, but I cannot pass its bounds. I know the distance between the earth and the Creator, between the clay and the potter. I know how far I, a lamp lit by your grace, am outshone by you, the Sun of Righteousness. You are concealed by the pure cloud of your body, but I still recognize your sovereignty. I acknowledge my servile condition; I proclaim your greatness. I admit your absolute authority, and my own lowly estate. I am unworthy to undo the strap of your sandal; how then could I dare to touch your immaculate head? How could I stretch out my hand over you, who stretched out the heaven like a tent, and set the earth upon the waters? How could I enlighten the light?

Surely it is not for me to pray over you, for you are the one who receives the prayers even of those who have no knowledge of you.

St Gregory the Wonderworker

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