Debating Hartian Apokatastasis

Invoking my magisterial authority, I hereby declare that anyone who wishes to enter the Eclectic Ortho­doxy lists to debate David Bentley Hart’s views on apokatastasis and eternal damnation must in fact have read his book on the subject. If you have not read it yet, then please refrain from disputation until you have remedied that deficiency. 

Thank you for respecting this solemn decree.

— Fr Aidan

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A Most Peculiar Story: Paradiso

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

In his Unspoken Sermon, “The Inheritance,” George MacDonald recalls the fifth canto of Dante’s Paradiso where the souls in the sphere of Mercury first sight the newcomers and cry out “Ecco chicrescera li nostri amori!” (Lo, here comes one who will increase our loves!) For heaven is both generous and desirous, flourishing by porosity to the other. MacDonald exclaims, “All the light is ours. God is all ours. Even that in God which we cannot understand is ours.” Later, in the same sermon, MacDonald links celestial welcoming not with liturgy reduced to a dull homily, but to play. “What boy, however fain to be a disciple of Christ and a child of God, would prefer a sermon to his glorious kite, that divinest of toys, with God himself for his playmate, in the blue wind that tossed it hither and thither in the golden void!” So I would like to explain to those dulled by religion or broken by suffering that the end of all things is more like play and less like a sermon. And likewise, suppose you are telling a story that is hidden under the guise of a series of meditations. Of course, such a thing is more than an act of incognito genre jumping – some might claim it is nearly a category mistake, but we are only supposing. Those who think of creation as a choice among possibles in the mode of subjunctive hypotheticals, think of the world, perhaps, as an intricate puzzle and if God has gotten rid of risk, he has done so my doing the math on countless permutations in an act of meticulous providence. These, too, are telling a story. One is invited to consider innumerable possibilities and choices, yet like Kierkegaard’s aesthete the risk of choice is debilitating, the future only present as a narrowing of choices that is destructive of the soul’s thirst for infinite beatitude. The subjunctive beget of subjunctive displays surface frivolity masking a frigid and pusillanimous refusal of life for the open, indeterminate web of initial potential is trapped in fear that decision will result in a story less than perfect. The narrative is always looking backwards, so to speak, lost in an imaginary twilight, hearkening to an ever-receding panoply of possible lives, forked roads, choices vanished into an immemorial past. But God is not an accountant, he is play itself. God does not eliminate the risk. God does not count the cost. Always, God accompanies the dear ones, wherever they wander, but God does not love as an outsider, as a watchmaker, certainly not as a hovering parent or an alienating observer like a security camera placed literally everywhere. Rather, God assumes the risk, joins divine freedom to the enslavement of the lost, to the very last sheep, to the very last coin that is owed. God never chooses among possibles, he simply creates the chosen.

The order of the story is significant. Start with God. What is God like, who is God? What kind of judgment is fitting for God? What is the nature of persons revealed by precisely this kind of judgment? What kind of freedom constitutes this kind of person? Now follow a different path. Begin with freedom understood as spontaneous choice and filtered through a narrowly historical epoch. Then consider what it means to be an individual who lives out this kind of freedom. Apprehend justice and judgment in ways derivative and tied to particular conceptions of reason and the individual. Finally, surmise what God must be like, this God who is the product of voluntarism and nominalist individualism and justice separate from the innocent simplicity of God. Insecurity and ennui ensue, reactive and torpor inducing, resulting in a form of dead chatter. Frangible, emotive, grasping after a foundation, some­thing solid and dependable, univocal, without ironies, traces, analogical leaps, resisting porosities, odd, seemingly eccentric connections of entanglement, radiant unpredictability. The joke is that it is the serenity of the Father’s loving, creative act that allows for the shock of the new. It is the latter narrative conception, seemingly so keen to preserve a cherished freedom, that elides the drama of encounter into dialectical method, stratagems of control that refuse a true play of freedoms, notions of eschatological justice that isolate celestial bliss as an individualist possession. Do not forget, though: the aesthete theologian can mimic marvels, can paint verisimilitude of flesh upon the stone of the cold death mask. A story is told and announced to be a revelation of life. An idol is made to dispense a justice men understand by the usual lights, the ones of history, and sadness, and death. The whole thing is ersatz, the work of mumbo-junkies bowed down by the empty weight of shadows. Wor­shipers ape flummery grown respectable with age, never dreaming they are trapped in a counter-narrative to the true story of implacable love. There is a concession, or better, a “saving of appearances” I wish Hart had offered. Pavel Florensky, Sergius Bulgakov, and Adrienne von Speyr, among others, have discerned in the separation of the goats and the sheep an intrapersonal judgment. Von Speyr speaks of “effigies” in hell that are the person­less “remains” of sinful history. One might then speculate that the rejoicing of the saints in heaven over the torments of the damned are nothing else than the saints themselves rejoicing over the final destruction of their own false, mad egos of sinful individuality. I don’t know how one could reclaim the odious celebration of infants left to the modest charity of limbo or the blaze of infernal flames, unless it is like the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod, a form of participation in Christ’s mission, the child as bearer of relentless divine ardor. I repeat a wise counsel from von Speyr: “Perhaps, however, the decisive thing has always lain in what is hidden, and it is necessary to dismantle one’s judgments and to reassemble everything anew from the standpoint of the hidden.” So long, of course, as one remembers that the gospel as revelation is precisely that hidden that hides in plain sight.

I believe that humans have some sort of silent convention among them­selves as to what in them is to be regarded as human and important, and what is hardly to be regarded at all. There is tacit agreement among humans that some aspects of themselves will not be noticed at all, will not be considered at all; and the result is that these aspects are not at all, to humans. And they have it all wrong about themselves as to what is important and essential. They do themselves injustice. There is so much more to them than they want to admit. (R.A. Lafferty, Arrive at Easterwine, p. 215)

Memory is the activity of assimilation in thought (i.e., creative recon­struction from representations) of that which is revealed by mystical experience in Eternity, or, in other words, the creation in Time of symbols of Eternity. We “remember” not psychological elements but mystical ones, for psychological elements are psychological precisely because they occur in Time and flow away irretrievably. (Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, pp. 148–49)

Life is not lived as a continuous stretching from birth to death, as a ‘holding together’ of a life … but rather as moments, each containing the totality of human history and destiny. Such moments are not of the world … they are lived in imitation of Christ – of the creation, fall, redemption, and salvation – lived, that is, as moments which express the anterior, original time of divine relation to the world. (Ơ Murchada, A Phenomenology of Christian Life, p. 196)

All things in their very existence and nature share in God, and so symbolize him … Christianity isn’t just another set of strange beliefs and customs, on a level with those of other faiths. It’s a new thing: religion as the right-reading of all of reality and the right-binding to the one triune God. It’s much more curious than people think. (John Milbank, Interview for the Church Times 19 Feb 2016).

Dante, come at last to the future that is God, caught up in the nuptial enchantment of the celestial rose
was astonished to discover
in the realm of the blessed
Farinata, Paolo and Francesca, Ugolino, and Brunetto Latini.

At his obvious surprise, Farinata laughed with such courtesy, a merry, gentle mirth at the poet’s confusion.“He took those effigies, the shades of the dead for an eternal destiny,” observed Latini with a wry smile.

“No, no, love wins,” said Francesca and Paolo nodded in agreement.

“Such gifts, but he always was a bit slow,” chided the divine Beatrice.

(Return to first article)

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Dr Moore has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas. He has been a contributor to Eclectic Orthodoxy since before the beginning of time. There is, it must be said, no truth to the rumor that he comes from a family of Druids or that he will drink only plum wine, though it is possibly true that he prefers cats to humans, allowing for exceptions. He is the author of the recently published tale of Noah and the ark, Beneath the Silent Heavens.

Posted in Book Reviews, Brian Moore, David B. Hart | Tagged , | 10 Comments

A Most Peculiar Story: The Freedom of God and Saints

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

Some have accused the Australian writer, Gerald Murnane, of a kind of autism. It may be that his method is little more than an idiosyncratic phenomenology, though I suspect there is something more. I cannot tell whether he is in on the joke of insight or if he’s acciden­tally stumbled into the mystery of knowledge. In Border Districts, he touches upon some obses­sional images that recur in other fictions, but what I find interesting is the way he recollects medieval optics and the concept that light not only emanates from or reflects back from an object; light also emanates from the eyes and Murnane implicitly speculates that each person has a unique signature so that what they bring to each mundane object is not replicable. In his reiteration and probing of memory, Murnane attempts to cross into a farther country that I would call the future that is God and this will involve a transforma­tion as well as an alteration of our understanding of time and eternity. At the very least, eternity is not stasis, nor is it an oppositional other to time, nor is time intended to be a trajectory ending in death or endless, tedious repetition which is spiritual death. The latter is the unwitting aim of all immanent empires of self-transcendence.

When David Hart sketches out the failures of modern conceptions of freedom and sets against them the will’s necessary intrinsic relation to the Good, he is also implicitly indicat­ing that liberty is not discoverable within the limits of a world of objects or a horizon bereft of meaning because blind to the House of the Father from which all creatures journey in order to return in a dance of non-identical repetition. Note carefully: it is not just the spontaneous irrationality of libertarian conceptions that should be refused, but its individ­ualism. The freedom of the person is different, for there is a relational component that is ontological and constitutive of person and therefore not merely elective as moderns fancy. Think of it this way: in the myth of Eden, Adam in wonder reacts to the presentation of Eve with joyous reverence. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Adam’s cry of recognition is not just species identification. He’s not saying, “thank God, she’s not a wal­rus.” Rather, there is intimacy of origin, the acknowledgment that now the Adam sees the other that was hidden in his depths. When the Fall happens two things, identical in a way, result. Flight from God and mutual recrimination – the person is replaced with the individ­ual and along with it a desire for individual responsibility, individual deserts, a belief one could cut-off what happens to an individual without irreparably harming one’s person. Everything Christ does subverts individualist flight. So Hart declares that “at Easter, Christ’s resurrection inaugurated an akolouthia of resurrection, so to speak, in the one body of the race, an unfolding that cannot now cease (given the unity of human nature) until the last residue of sin – the last shadow of death – has vanished” (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 142). This gloss on Romans 5:18-19, 1 Corinthians 15:22 and the plethora of other Pauline texts that juxtapose Adam and Christ indicate why forgiveness of sin is ultimately the defeat of death and why healing is inextricably linked with sin as an ontological category and not, except more superfi­cially, with the moral as an end in itself.

Freedom, as Hart tirelessly explicates, is identical with well-being. “Freedom is a being’s power to flourish, as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is. The freedom of an oak seed is its uninterrupted growth into an oak tree. The freedom of a rational spirit is its consummation in union with God” (p. 172). Here, contrary to some notions of Christian freedom as an ascesis that repudiates desire, one discovers the apotheosis of all desire. “To be fully free is to be joined to that end to which our natures were originally framed, and for which, in the deepest reaches of our souls, we ceaselessly yearn” (p. 173). The common sense of the modern is sure to be baffled, however, by the implication that genuine freedom reduces choice. “Whatever separates us from that end, even if it be our own power of choice, is a form of bondage to the irrational” (p. 173). Or as Shestov remarks, “The knowledge of good and evil has no positive value, as we have always been taught, but rather a negative one … The accursed serpent deceived … The tree of knowledge does not increase our powers, but on the contrary, diminishes them” (Potestas Clavium, p. 157). And thus, the near instinctive affirmation today of diversity following certain vacuous notions of rights and liberty amounts to a serpentine deception, both flight from God and refusal of freedom in the name of freedom. Enslavement to perversity, the politicization of a vulgar and banalized language of love, the ironic assertion that the Good itself is a totalitarian imposition upon human flourish­ing follows from the twinned imbecilities of the attempt to thrive by fleeing the Source of being and an individualist ethic of nihilist liberty conceived as unconstrained choice — or, it is such a depressingly mediocre aspiration, demotic resignation before the Good fractured into mundane goods, the divine horizon that could make sense of desire lost to warring, seemingly incommen­surable idolatries, the harmonious community now at best understood as provisional rules for limiting violence and allowing the pursuit of satisfaction tied to individually defined ends. Thus, modern choice turns out to be equivalent to metaphysical despair.

Hart then reiterates that God is not a preeminent object among possible choices. God is the horizon within which all created goods find their reason, their symbolic resonance, their very desirability, so that “the suggestion, then, that God – properly understood – could not assure that a person freely will one thing rather than another is simply false. Inasmuch as he acts upon the mind and will both as their final cause and also as the deepest source of their movements, he is already intrinsic to the very structure of reason and desire within the soul” (p. 183). Sin is madness, the illusion of freedom as choice between good and evil dispelled by the Tree of Life, that is, Christ on the Cross. And so Hart points to the Christological clarity of genuine human freedom. “The very thought that Christ might have turned from God, even as an abstract potential of his human nature, would make a nonsense of both Trinitarian and Christological doctrines … it would contradict the claim that Christ is God of God, the divine Logos, the eternal Son whose whole being is the perfect expression of the Father … if human nature required the real capacity freely to reject God, then Christ could not have been fully human” (p. 189). This last seems to me theologically compelling so that the theologoumenon that human freedom requires the option of refusal of God, the eternal perdurance of libertar­ian choice into the eschaton is shown to utterly lack Christian validation. Indeed, if one joins “the dynamism of human nature … its primordial longing for the Good” to an awareness of “the inherent emptiness of evil … the finitude of evil’s satisfactions and configurations and resources” (p. 191), the plausibility of the gospel as the victory of infinite love over the determinations of finite rebellion approaches certitude. If one remembers that we are not individuals, but creatures called to be persons, persons who are person by participation in the life of Christ not as an exemplary exhortation alone, but as an ontological fact, it becomes even harder to rationally deny the eventual liberty of the sons and daughters of God, for we are actually not individuals limited to choice and separate from the others. Our very freedom is rooted in the human action of Jesus Christ, so that there is an intrinsic gravity towards glory, even if for now it is often kenotically hidden from us.

“The saint,” says Felix Ơ Murchada, “is neither the hero nor the sage because the latter are concerned only with nature. The saint, on the other hand, is concerned with ‘second nature.’ The saint is not concerned directly or primarily with things of the world; his concern with things in the world is in terms of their origin beyond the world” (A Phenome­nology of Christian Life, p. 197). And here, as I frequently do, I recollect William Des­mond’s recurring theme of the passio essendi, that giftedness of being that is always sustaining, the gift that is given, and given again, even when love is refused, because, well, love is patient and kind, but love is also importunate, desirous, wanting the return of love, and though it will be consid­ered a grave theological mistake, you know, to say that God needs his creatures, because, of course, it’s quite true that if God is God, infinite, flourish­ing plenitude is the signature of divine aseity; nonetheless, Péguy is correct when he writes:

Strange reversal, strange overturning, it’s the world upside-down.
The virtue of hope.
All the feelings that we ought to have for God,
God already began by having them for us.

The poet is quite shameless in exposing God.

He who loves places himself, by loving,
By that very act, from then on, into dependence,
He who loves becomes the slave of the one who is loved.
It’s inevitable.
He who loves falls into slavery, consigns himself, puts himself under
the yoke of slavery.
He becomes dependent on the one he loves.
And yet it’s this very situation, my child, that God made for himself, in
loving us.
God has deigned to hope in us, because he wanted to hope for us, wait
for us.

And if all that seems backwards, Péguy has already admitted it is upside-down. Yet it is perfectly fitting, unsurprising in its surprise, really, for only the God who needs nothing can choose to need; only the God of absolute generosity, of agapeic gift, who gives not for him­self, but for the good of the gifted creature, can choose to desire in utter freedom, without the constraint of potency and want, so that the eros of agape is pure, ardent desire and soft, solicitous, almost diffident hope, wooing the wild, wounded beast, hoping to bring it close, to nestle and nurture and heal — that is God, who is king in the most remarkably curious way. In all that, there is a kind of stubborn joy that is still the serene creative certitude of the Father, and in the play of antinomies that strains against our finite conceptions, the mystery of freedom.

Bulgakov talks about how the earth is never a dead object, a neutral sort of stuff awaiting the shrewd ape to shape into something useful, to project from its lonely soul a vagabond meaning and worth that ever escapes its grasp, but rather, the world is not only divine gift, it is attended upon, performed, held within the noetic heaven as wondrous secret, as life emerging from the creative Triune light that is night and darkness to all creatures, so that the tetramorph and the seraphim wonder, even as they regard, the angels, caring, and watching, and singing in order to discover the next, astonishing thing, the revelation that causes joy and amazement to arise in them. “This is the meaning of the earthly world, outlined in the heavens before its creation. There is nothing really existing (and not illusory half-being arising out of the shadow of non-being, out of the play of light and shadows) which would not be in the angelic world, in the minds, multi-eyed in contem­plation and six-winged in execution” (Jacob’s Ladder, p. 82). So, Bulgakov says that the God creates in this strange manner. The God who alone creates, from nothing, the nothing you and I and the angels come from, so nothing it is truly nothing, untouched by memory, this God who hopes, also, oddly, chooses to create in such a way that the creation, dazzled by divine fatherhood, finds within itself an energy that participates, shapes, develops. Man is a liturgical being, declares Evdokimov. Inspiration, hints Catherine Pickstock, is never a function of solitary genius, we commune with angels. And Bulgakov says that all our human arts reflect angelic praise, the earth in all its symbolic richness a doxology of theophanic beauty. And freedom, in its perfected fullness, as Berdyaev declares, is an eschatological mystery. “Absolute Man is not completely and finally revealed in the appearance of Christ the Redeemer. Man’s creative energy is directed towards the Coming Christ, towards his appearance in glory … in it human­ity is deepened to the point of divinity and divinity is made visible to the point of humanity” (The Meaning of the Creative Act, p. 321). There is an echo of Nyssan anthropol­ogy in Berdyaev. Despite his admittedly heterodox metaphysics, he remains more insightful of Christian realities than most.

And by-the-bye, here is also a refutation though not a lucid syllogism or argument, so they will not be moved, of those who might think Péguy is merely indulging anthropomorphic fantasies or that the uniqueness of God relegates analogy and the imagination to a useful crutch necessary for dependent creatures who reason and think discursively, but having nothing to do with divinity. It is true that the radical transcendence of the God recognized in classic theism precludes the personalism of a mere moral agent, however perfect. The immanence of the God is identical to his transcendence. It is true that the God is outside the duality of subject and object, so much so that advocates for Christian gnosis like Jean Borella and Wolfgang Smith speak of non-dualism in a manner distinctive, but nonethe­less reminis­cent of Hindu tradition. God knows the world by knowing himself, yes, but when a fella like Norris Clark borrows the language of intentionality or the experience of the Church as the recipient of transforming love declares that the God watches over his creatures with tenderness and concern, this is not a mere sop to finite limitations. If it were so, one might suspect the angels closer to God, the way the angels know. Yes, they were there from the beginning. The hermetic trope, as it is above, so it is below might give the ring to the elder brother, not the grubby, foolish, prodigal. Indeed, even if still infinitely removed by apophatic distance from God’s knowledge, might the angels not be closer than the human thing? Unfettered by blood and touch and the crush of emotion, they might know intelligi­bles without mess and awkwardness, opacity and wounds. But somehow, ridiculously, it isn’t so. That would be to forget the Incarnation and the divine humanity; that impossibly, it is tactile flesh, no doubt resurrected flesh, beyond our ken, yet not utterly outside our imagination, for that, too, is assumed by God, so that the angels bow down in reverent rapture at the strange freedom of the God who creates from the foundation of the world by the slain Lamb, a work of Christological poetry. Or as I think I once wrote, Christ is vates through and through. Throughout the text of That All Shall be Saved, Hart worries that his audience is captured by the black magic of an impoverished conception of freedom, so much so that he repeats a diagnosis of the paucity and frequent inanities attendant upon modern libertarian definitions of freedom. The various permuta­tions throughout the book attempt to make certain his readers begin to see past the shadow images and find release from binding chains. Not least, it is within the lurid light of the cave that infernal shades seem plausible. Because of the linkage between inadequate or false notions of freedom and despairing eschatology, Hart devotes less space to suggesting the fullness of human freedom. Theosis, of course, perhaps best greets us in the music of silence. I have redressed the balance somewhat in order to juxtapose the radical difference it makes for the way Christians might approach life and the way they might begin to think about what the Church is called to accomplish.

(Go to “Paradiso”)

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Dr Moore has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas. He has been a contributor to Eclectic Orthodoxy since before the beginning of time. There is, it must be said, no truth to the rumor that he comes from a family of Druids or that he will drink only plum wine, though it is possibly true that he prefers cats to humans, allowing for exceptions. He is the author of the recently published tale of Noah and the ark, Beneath the Silent Heavens.

Posted in Book Reviews, Brian Moore, David B. Hart | Tagged , , | 19 Comments

A Most Peculiar Story: Judging Judgment Rightly

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

The story is false if you get God wrong. If you get God wrong, you are sure to misunder­stand the nature of judgment. Though folks often don’t think too deeply about it. “It’s too much,” they say. “Entirely, too much. Who can know and who has time for such things, pass the butter?” Or they peruse the scriptures and try to puzzle it out. Or they look it up in the catechism. The curious might ask their pastor or priest, someone professionally obliged to search out the ineffable. Whatever they do, the question of God is at least ostensibly an inquiry that tests the limits of man’s capacity to know and understand. In contrast, lots of people think they have first-hand experience of what it means to be a person. If it’s mysterious, something the philosophers scrutinize, it’s also something we know about, isn’t it? And so, even while intellectuals ponder if person might be ascribed to an animal or an artificial intelligence, we know enough to say, really, what it’s like, enough to know what it means. Whilst folks argue about this and that, how much we are responsi­ble for our actions, that sort of thing, it’s clear that you’re you, not me, that much is evident. And if folks are religious, when they think about persons and judgment and eternal destinies, they bring this knowledge with them. It stands to reason, we know what’s what, at least when it comes to ourselves, these selves we’ve known all our lives, even if, in the beginning, it’s a bit misty, that childhood bit, though others have told us, the old ones, the ones that birthed us, they were there and they remember for us. And yet, here too, it’s possible all that is rot. Maybe here, too, we know less than we think, or, if you follow a certain path, you know different, understand differently, in a way that makes it difficult to speak to those who do not know they do not know.

And so, Hart invokes the wisdom of Gregory of Nyssa who recognized that “the human totality is a living unity” and that “the incarnation of the Logos is of effect for the whole” (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 141). Fallen individuals encounter one another as potential threats and even under amicable conditions, as those who share resources, who sometimes benefit by our relegation to those unprovided for and outside the circle of the beloved. Sartre’s bleak assessment that “hell is other people” is not mere misanthropy, but a clear perception that our relations to the other, unlike the unique perichoretic event of divine Personhood, entail genuinely alienating constraints and antipathies not to be overcome on the ontic level of nature alone. There is something haunting, touching upon our deepest desires, in Hart’s proclamation of Nyssa’s keen awareness of both our calling and destiny. “Humanity, understood as the plērōma of God’s election, never ceases to possess that deathless beauty that humanity, understood as an historical community, has largely lost” (p. 141). Hence, Hart draws attention to how we are metaphysically constituted by our relations:

No soul is who or what it is in isolation. (p. 149)

Finite persons are not self-enclosed individual substances; they are dynamic events of relation to what is other than themselves. (p. 152)

A person is first and foremost a limitless capacity, a place where the all shows itself with a special inflection. We exist as “the place of the other,” to borrow a phrase from Michel de Certeau. (p. 153)

And truly, none of this requires a retreat into rarified religious consciousness as some might propose. It is evident in the calling of the self by the mother’s smile (Balthasar), the careful nurture of family that initiates the fragile ego through distinct developmental stages into an emerging self (James Loder), in the manner in which languages live in and through us, carrying a mysterious origin transcendent of mere history (Johann Hamann), in the innu­merable ways in which being approaches us and enlarges our vision through perplexity and porosity (William Desmond), in the manner in which we are not buffered selves (Charles Taylor), but the concrete and dynamic encounters of enfleshed being (Merleau-Ponty), substance-in-relation raised to the level of spiritual insight and intellectual acumen (Norris Clarke), speaking forth incantation that is both historical memory and eschatological expectation (Péguy). Hart recalls language that reminds me, at least, of Charles Williams: “we belong, of necessity, to an indissoluble coinherence of souls” (p.154).

And yet, Donne waxing eloquent about how no man is an island notwithstanding or Dostoevsky’s Zosima declaring that “each is responsible for all,” a nice sentiment, if you like that sort of thing. Hardly anyone believes, for instance, that the fate of a malnourished child in the Sudan and Joan of Arc and say, one of those fellas found mummified after centuries in a bog pit and memorialized by Seamus Heaney are truly connected, or that your own destiny and therefore also your unique identity is tangibly tied to whether or not everyone comes to a good end. It’s because we think they are metaphysically separate, we die alone, after all don’t we, the pain of our flesh, the pleasures, too, those are our own, but death, yes, no one, not even the Christ, does that for us, does he? Our common sense is one of isolation, of an atomized individual, where the collective is an ideological imposi­tion, a political choice or coercion, but nothing ontological. To speak like that is mystical mumbo-jumbo, and so, when we theologize, we try to speak plainly, and the best theolo­gians, following Aristotle, understand individuation to be literally a matter of matter, and so the body is what distin­guishes and certainly, your noggin is yours alone, and my belly, alas, is mine. However, if Balthasar is correct, if human personhood is truly attained by participation in Christ, if Bulgakov is right and “one must understand not allegorically but completely realistically and ontologically those discourses of the Savior in which He identifies Himself with every human being” (Icons and The Name of God, p. 150) so that, indeed, every true name comes as command and gift from the generous storehouse of Christ’s own being, and Rosenstock-Huessy is trustworthy when he announces that authentic names are always theophoric, then one must discard the indifference of the nominalist for whom the name is a useful conven­tion, and also every ideological notion of humanity that, as Péguy recognized, took over the immemorial sacrificial economy and permitted the desolation of every person in the past and present in the name of a fantasy of autonomously achieved paradise, a never arriving immanent eschaton feasting vampiri­cally upon all of history as a city of the dead and dying. Rather, one must live in the tension between Sherrard’s iconic prototypes which are both protological and eschatologi­cal and one’s empirical, temporal, developing self which is in status via.

In this respect, part of the healing of final judg­ment is to be enlightened as to one’s irreplaceable uniqueness, and to know that to participate in Christ is to be given an eternal revelatory task, to unlock divine treasures for the joy of all that only you are summoned to release. It is also to under­stand that the divine-human reality is a priest­hood that brings together all of the cosmos, raising what to the ontic realms looks like an insignificant, mathematical unity, one grain of sand is much like another, into a degree of care that must appear madness. “Christianity … is the salvation of the whole world,” says Berdyaev, “of each and all, down to the last grain of dust” (The Meaning of the Creative Act, p. 266). Ecclesial reality is meant to entail the entire divine-Humanity, the Nyssan unity. This is not, as one fella (I suppose it was Douglas Farrow) rather casually dismissed as a subjective idealism equal but opposite to nominalist error. Rather, it is to discern, as Yannaras indicates, that “the Church … does not simply represent a sociological or moral fact or a ‘religious’ manifestation of fallen humanity. The Church is an ontological reality, the existential fact of a ‘new’ human nature, which communes wholly with the Godhead” (Person and Eros, p. 270). The result is an annulment of the insular self, the Enlightened rational individual, and many other mythological chimeras. “It realizes existence as love and eros, not as survival as an atomic individual” (p. 270). Person is fundamentally a divine mystery, but insofar as we approach our calling to become sons and daughters of the Father, we approach that sacred gift which is also a mission and the joy of creative freedom. Surely this is the essential point in Hart’s explica­tion of Pauline typology in the story of Jacob and Esau. “Esau have I hated,” grumbles a bad reader. Hart reminds us: “Esau, we must remember, is not finally rejected in the story of the two brothers; he and Jacob are reconciled to the increase of both” (p. 136). Furthermore, there is a hint of divine glory that comes to Esau – “Seeing your face is like seeing God’s” (p. 136). Yet note, it is the speech of Jacob that announces the gift. Grace comes through Israel to the late arriving brother. Whatever person signifies, it is nothing so mean as the finite ego anxious before mortality and concerned that measures conformed to its imaginative limits define the reality of eternal identities.

(Go to “The Freedom of God and Saints”)

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Dr Moore has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas. He has been a contributor to Eclectic Orthodoxy since before the beginning of time. There is, it must be said, no truth to the rumor that he comes from a family of Druids or that he will drink only plum wine, though it is possibly true that he prefers cats to humans, allowing for exceptions. He is the author of the recently published tale of Noah and the ark, Beneath the Silent Heavens.

Posted in Book Reviews, Brian Moore, David B. Hart | 5 Comments

A Most Peculiar Story: The Eternal Teleology of Divine Creation

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

The subtitle of David Bentley Hart’s first meditation which seeks the God revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ: “the moral meaning of creatio ex nihilo.” It is worth noting that this is a Christian innovation. Creation in Genesis does not explicitly contemplate a metaphys­ical nothing. Bulgakov makes salient remarks upon God as Creator. God is uniquely beyond questions of freedom and necessity as they are posed for finite creatures. God does not need creation in order to realize potency. God does not act from lack. Yet it is equally mistaken to surmise that the creation is extrinsic to God’s identity. Philip Sherrard often writes of the iconicity of creation, of its theophanic quality. Christ as the head of divine-humanity acts to bring the cosmos to divinized perfection. “It is true, as St. Maximos puts it, Christ is ever wishing to perform the miracle of His Incarnation in all things. But this does not imply any incompletion in Christ. It implies incompletion in the present state of creation” (Human Image: World Image, p. 124). Hart recollects the centrality of Gregory of Nyssa’s insight that creatio ex nihilo goes beyond cosmological and metaphysical claims to assert eschato­logical affirmations that fundamentally disclose the God who has called creatures into existence. “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” (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 68). No other assertion in Hart’s entire book is as important. This is the key interpretive stance upon which all else rests. Hart then further explains that within “this eternal teleology” it is the final judgment that “brings all things to their true conclusion” (p. 69). Any crude conceptions of judgment as retributive or the mere handing out of evaluations as to merit or fault misses the role judgment plays as that which enacts the flourishing of the creation God has always intended.

Several things happen here that bother the theologians. Those Thomists more Aristotelian than Christian may firmly declare the role of final causality in drawing creatures to the divine, yet the divinity of the Stagirite, as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus recognized, might be off serenely paring his nails whilst beings dazzled by divine beauty yearn for union. Hart returns us to Job who in questioning justice and suffering is asking God to disclose himself (and as the poet Czeslaw Milosz declared, the whirlwind is not enough!) “Precisely because God does not determine himself in creation – precisely because there is no dialectical neces­sity binding him to time or chaos, no need to shape his identity in the refining fires of history – in creating he reveals himself truly” (p. 72). To which, Max Scheler might respond that “if we attempt, starting from the knowledge of the world, to deduce the existence of God, the presence in the world of even a single worm writhing in pain would be a decisive counter-argument to such a deduction” (quoted in S.L. Frank, The Meaning of Life, p. 49). Of course, folks over the centuries have become inured to such suffering and frequently dismiss it. Aquinas contemplates a resurrected cosmos of rational agents and minerals, leaving the abundant lives and suffering of the beasts and vegetation as “outside history” as any Hegelian could hope for. At this point, one can expect a hand raised and an objection about secondary causality to be stated – and this will ultimately be tied to the further objection that God may rationally order moral agents towards union with divinity, but that the integrity of creaturely freedom precludes determining that choice. I call this the “not even God can” assertion. This will be addressed later, but the commitment to a certain conception of rational agency and freedom along with callous­ness towards much of the cosmos is worth remark. But Hart says that “every evil that time comprises, natural or moral (which is, in this context, a largely worthless distinction, since human nature is a natural phenomenon) is an arraignment of God’s goodness” (p. 72). Granting that Incarnation, Resurrection, Triune revelation is all a proleptic “answer” to human perplexity, one remains mired in a world of horrors. Hart concludes the initial stage of reflection upon God’s identity with grim oration: “every death of a child, every chance calamity, every act of malice; everything diseased, thwarted, pitiless, purposeless, or cruel; and until the end of all things, no answer has been given” (p. 73). Though what I wrote just now is not quite correct. Hart does not end precisely with those words. Rather, he adverts to the daring of St. Paul who could not rest easy with the thought that God might be capricious, that the divinity should contemplate creatures called from the nothing only to be vessels of wrath.

What follows is a diatribe against the idolatry of “the broad mainstream.” Augustine lamenting Origen’s tender-heartedness; Pascal, “assuring us that our existence is explicable only in the light of a belief in the eternal and condign torment of babies who die before reaching the baptismal font,” Calvin “telling us that hell is copiously populated with infants not a cubit long” (p. 76) and so on. Hart shakes his head at such hyperbolic moral confusion, at “incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions … the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned” (p. 78). Though, of course, most folks might agree that this is a bridge too far and plausibly indicate that there are still those who sink into monstrous wickedness, Hitler and Genghis Khan, serial killers, torturers, and pedophiles, sinners we find so repugnant it is not hard to wish them recompense for the horrors of their acts, to exile them from bliss. (And really, as George MacDonald explained, they will surely pay the last farthing. No one is spared love’s reckoning.) That there are insidious acts of malice and gratuitous cruelty so common they are not noticed, that we frequently torture ourselves and each other invisible to public censure, well, that is somehow more tolerable, we are sinners, after all.

“Not even God can” means that, yes, God desires creatures to freely choose communion with the Good. Only, sadly, the price for such freedom is not just the capacity to err, but the possibility of irremediable failure. If God wants creatures to choose love and life (and of course he does,) then God must allow for the chance that some will refuse eternally. What can one do? So when a sober, realist philosopher quotes Aquinas when Thomas states that “many good things would disappear if God did not allow some evil to exist” – (and this is undoubtedly true and entirely commendable if taken in a penultimate sense directed towards the world not yet brought to perfection) – what is apparently intended is the kind of accommodation to death Hart found endemic under the rubric of religion in his fine article “Death, Final Judgment, and the Meaning of Life,” included in the excellent collection The Hidden and the Manifest. But do not fret if you lack that estimable volume. Hart relentlessly hammers this crucial theme in his meditation on God. “This is the price of creation, it would seem. God, on this view, has `made a bargain’ with a natural evil. He has willed the tragedy, not just as a transient dissonance within creation’s goodness, leading ultimately to a soul’s correction, but as that irreducible quantum of eternal loss” (p.83). In short, the utterly tedious, pragmatic, taken for granted exchange whereby the living purchase a moment of existence at the cost of another’s death that marks the fallen world is inscribed as part and parcel of the gospel. Apart from the radical forgetting of the Eucharist as a complete rejection and subversion of such a “natural” mode of existence, bargaining brought into the eschatological elicits a query about the economy of such transactions. “What would the mystery of God becoming man in order to effect a merely partial rescue of created order truly be, as compared to the far deeper mystery of a worthless man becoming the suffering god upon whose perpetual holocaust the entire order of creation finally depends?” (p. 85). The overt triumph of celestial bliss turns out to run on an infernal engine – “is hell not then the innermost secret of heaven, its sacrificial heart?” (p. 83)

What is exasperating is that this casual expediency is somehow thought an adequate res­ponse to the logic of creatio ex nihilo. It is as if the constraints settled upon a demiurge were somehow implicitly made acceptable for the Christian understanding of God. But the very point of creatio ex nihilo, to pedantically repeat what is apparently not self-evident, is that there are no such constraints. But let us pretend that God is, in fact, chained to limits that require at least the palimpsest of sacrificial economy, even if like a lucky gambler, no losses are actually incurred. The same proponent of imperfect liberty made paradigmatic for human beings and thus an intrinsic constraint upon what God can accomplish asserts that God does not create out of any necessity. The aseity of divine plenitude is not increased an iota by creation. Hence, God is not compelled to create by this view, yet God does create. The sage announcement that “not even God can” appears to accept without argument that a good God could conceivably entertain such a creation at the cost of risking at the very least the possibility of eternal damnation (or, for a minority faction, the annihilation of those who “refuse God”). One should test the eschatological imagination that is operative. On one side, the poison of necessary losses, of some residue of evil, is allowed to perdure into the escha­ton. On the other, perhaps divine madness, an ecstatic holy joy that is alive with mirth because life does not bargain with death. It may appear childish to the realist, those uphold­ers of the necessary repudiated by Shestov, rejected by Christos Yannaras in his short mono­graph Against Religion, winsomely countered by “that little girl, hope” in Péguy’s great poem, but as Balthasar emphasized, to such children belong the kingdom of God.

Let us play out the Triune logic that grounds the specific logic of creation. The generosity of divine Fatherhood is always already the gift of everything to the Son with nothing held back. And the gift is not held in suspense. There is no period of tragic questioning. No, love in its fullness is not simply the gift with a kind of pagan magnanimity that doesn’t care if the gift is accepted or not. The gift is not yet fully gift without receptivity which inevitably entails a return of love. (There is nothing here of calculation, of the gift as establishment of prestige and the onus of obligation as Mauss inferred in antique customs.) The Son receives the gift and joyfully requites Love. But go further: this is no enclosed garden, an idyll of two. It is a plenitude of resourceful surprise. The Father knows himself in the Son, the Son knows the Father in the gift, mutual delight is expansive, other directed, the creative Spirit who plumbs the adventurous depths of the known but ever to be discovered infinite Event that is the act of Esse. It is only existence understood as mere survival, a register of bare, univocal “there­ness,” the thin gruel of the miser’s “hyparxeolatry” that does not know existence is infinite, reciprocal love, the living out of divine gift. (Hart unleashes this metaphysical metaphor early on page twenty. He is always good for at least a few uncommon silvered verbal bullets, a joy to vates everywhere and something less to the dour thrift of Anglo-American analytic philosophers, but we say this just in passing.) Theology content with a generosity that thinks everything is given when it is still possible for the gift to end in ruin is culpably lacking in appreciation for what is fitting for divine Fatherhood. The gift is not fully given until received in gratitude and offered in reciprocal delight. Hart is entirely correct when he concludes, “if he is not the savior of all, the Kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare” (p. 91).

In The Enigma of Evil, Christos Yannaras writes that “generations of human beings, which means hundreds of millions of personal existences, have been born and are being born leading their lives and departing from life under the shadow of a distorted, repellent version of the Church’s gospel” (p. 77). Hundreds of millions of personal existences might very well look like tradition, but the truth of the Spirit is not determined by plebiscite, no matter how venerable. Against “self-interested goals, animosities fueled by egocentric fanaticism, psy­chological compensations for insecurity,” Yannaras juxtaposes the voice of Isaac of Nineveh who cries out “Do not call God just, for his justice is not discernible in what pertains to you.” Judgment, indeed, begins to look rather sketchy with God. Isaac continues, “And if David calls him just and upright, his son revealed to us that rather he is good and kind. For he is good to the wicked and impious.” It makes one rage to see the vile prosper, especially when the anawim, God’s poor, so often bear the brunt of mundane violence and institutional neglect. Sophists of every stripe game the system and live in luxury whilst the seeker after wisdom is frequently condemned to wretched penury, loneliness, the incapacity to give succor when the beloved falls ill and dies. Much of the vehemence that animates tradition­alists is not savage insensitivity, but groaning protest that the ledgers acknowledge the cruelty and rank injustice of our experience in this world. It’s a mistake to simply chastise folks for revulsion at what is despicable to the point of horror. But the kindness spoken of by the Syrian is not worldly success, but an eschato­logical promise of universal well-being. The justice of God is not a cold, forensic commuta­tion of penal sentence. It is healing, gift, illumi­nation, and, yes, vengeance, but not as men understand the word. If Isaac is representative of a saintly majority or appears an eccentric is not probative. What matters is whether or not he speaks from within the intimacy of God’s care. Yannaras declares “this is one of the examples of the ecclesial mode of questioning or denouncing the juridical associations/influ­ences that the (necessarily time-bound) language of the evangelical and apostolic texts can elicit” (p. 92). A crucial move is made here. Where the fragile ego may seek refuge in authority and denounce any mode of life that actuality locates freedom in the leap into divine existence, one is drawn by the beauty of the infinite beyond a form of rote repetition of moralistic literalisms. Hence, Yannaras concludes, “It is an example and indication that even in the ‘most sacred’ texts (the most respected because of their historical proximity as witnesses to the event of the epiphany of God) are not turned into idols within the Church” (pp. 92-93). Likewise, when Hart avers that the Book of Revelation is possibly an arcane text of figurative code by a Jewish Christian who believed in keeping the law of Moses (pp. 106ff,) the essential matter lies not in a specific reading of biblical texts, but in the way a particular mode of interpretation fosters or militates against participation in the life of Christ. Hart is careful to indicate the clarity of universalism in the Pauline texts and the ambiguity of other New Testament verses with the caveat that no New Testament passage unequivocally teaches eternal damnation if read with sufficient scrutiny for context and intention. While exegesis is certainly important, it is not proof against equivocity or craven obeisance to authority or forms of understanding that subtly resist the dynamism of the Spirit. The latter requires a deft creativity able to discern the architectonics of biblical genre, the loadbearing points in scripture, the sinuous, mystery-bearing shape of a narrative that ever refuses closure into a pious “just so.” One shall nearly always be able to find sufficient textual evidence to fuel various sides of disputed controversies. The Arians were adept at quoting scripture, too. Ecclesial experience is greater than historical conditions and communal expectations that gave birth to scriptural witness. Even as the Spirit instructs and nurtures by such means, God is not constrained by the spiritual limitations of prophets, priests, and sages. Of course, those who think of the Bible as a datum of univocal facts will refuse all this as existential recklessness. If one can rely upon an entirely objective and comprehensive accounting of relevant facts, Christians might then merely calculate. Faith is almost nugatory once one has accepted the initial conditions of possibility. Discernment is then merely differentiating between those who “accept the facts” and those who “prevaricate” by saying “do not call God just.”

Though perhaps, as the provocative quote from Shestov that I began this review with suggests, there is more reason in irrational beasts than in the wisdom of say, Job’s counselors. In that aboriginal naming that is the ecstatic opening of the logoi towards the Father’s call, the rise from nothing into that insatiable joy that alone is the good creation God always serenely intends, remarks a coincidence between final judgment and creation’s journey into the nuptial banquet of the eighth day. So Hart declares, “the judgment of the cross is a verdict upon the violence and cruelty of human order and human history, and Easter the verdict upon creation as conceived in God’s eternal counsels” (p. 104). Hart conjectures that the Johannine gospel is a kind of “second reflection upon the person of Christ” (p. 127). Like Bulgakov and Balthasar before him, Hart sees in the fourth gospel an eschatological perspicuity that puts in question simplistic responses to quandaries over time and eternity. Balthasar’s emphasis on the Triduum of the Passion is turned in Hart’s evaluation into the ultimate preterist interpretation of apocalypse – “its language seems irresistibly to point toward a collapse of the distinction between the final judgment of all things and the judgment endured by Christ on Calvary, or between the life of the Age to come and the life that is made immediately present in the risen Christ” (p. 127). Hart stipulates that he does not assert an erasure of history as it were, but the eschatological horizon is hard to construe within the limits of finite conceptions. It is both proleptic and realized, and insofar as it is a trajectory of victory “hell appears in the shadow of the cross as what has always been conquered, as what Easter leaves in ruins, to which we may flee from the transfiguring light of God if we so wish, but where we can never fully come to rest” (p. 129). In Paschal light, the denunciations of Capernaum worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, the threat of the worm that shall not die, the entire panoply of dire rhetoric ascribed to Christ and made to serve as revelatory of irrevocable eternal destinies and the imperfect conclusion of God’s salvific intent appear as akin to the parables that so confused the apostles themselves who understood little to nothing before Easter and the subsequent widening of their imagination that accompanied Pentecost. Do not think the parables simple stories for simple men. They are not dumbed down moral messages meant to be understood by the uneducated. Probably only modern day enlightened intellectuals are foolish enough to believe something so obviously wrong. Likewise, Hart acknowledges that while Christ used “all sorts of imagery regarding final judgment,” “it is absurd to treat any of the New Testa­ment’s eschatological language as containing, even in nuce, some sort of exact dogmatic definition of the literal conditions of the world to come” (p. 119). That sort of itchy curiosity is very natural to the human race, as is impatience, and a desire to turn the ineffable and that which exceeds our attempts to master by finite technique and mental conception into a dogmatic possession. The intertestamental period offered numerous exotic forays into angelic realms and the like. In contrast, Hart asserts that Christ’s language offers “an intentionally heterogenous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct” (p. 119). So why disorient? Perhaps because the God delights in mirth and surprise. Perhaps because fallen men are so narrow, dim, and heartless, an apophatic reserve is necessary, keeping open a space for an ever increasing analogic ladder to inexpressible flourishing.

(Go to “Judging Judgment Rightly”)

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Dr Moore has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas. He has been a contributor to Eclectic Orthodoxy since before the beginning of time. There is, it must be said, no truth to the rumor that he comes from a family of Druids or that he will drink only plum wine, though it is possibly true that he prefers cats to humans, allowing for exceptions. He is the author of the recently published tale of Noah and the ark, Beneath the Silent Heavens.

Posted in Brian Moore, David B. Hart | Tagged , , , , , | 41 Comments

A Most Peculiar Story: Meditations on ‘That All Shall Be Saved’

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

Poor, foolish, ridiculous men: they imagine they have already understood everything! And they are afraid lest there still be something in the universe that they do not even suspect! They are always afraid, they are always trembling. They should follow the example of non-rational beings. Look at the moth that throws itself fearlessly into the flame without asking anyone whatsoever, without asking itself, what will happen to it and what awaits it. You also, sooner or later, will have to throw yourselves into the flame where all your eternal truths will be consumed in a trice like the wings of the moth.

~ Lev Shestov

Let us bracket for the time of this essay all those who find eschatological questions reac­tionary, ignorant, yawn inducing metaphysics. As Georges Bernanos drolly noted, everyone is bound for an adventure. Each person, regardless of station, temperament, or proclivities will find themselves thrust upon an unknown road, a vagabond wandering hopeful or dis­mayed, pockets bereft of maps and short of change for death shall make hobos of us all. Those who find these concerns soporific shall discover anon if it matters or not – though admittedly they expect to discover precisely nothing. Others hold just the opposite view. Many are apt to make proclamations, whether apocalyptic and dire, these always find an audience, or indulging populist caricatures: syrupy, maudlin kitsch fitted to ethical or religious moralism, perhaps trivialized into comic figures discomfited by St. Peter at the gates of heaven, puttering about playing harps upon clouds or dismally contemplating an elevator going down. Such banality may produce a moment of impish humor. Whimsy is a minor, though amiable deity. To properly smile at wit of this kind requires a deeper courtesy that in a strange manner both playful and serious grants that reality transcends our quotid­ian sleepiness. Otherwise, one becomes inured to creation’s openness to revelation. Then the vulgar imaginary of the eschatological displays a coarseness of sensibility, a form of worldly accommodation that borders upon unbelief, for it has refused perplexity and rendered images of the ultimate that keep one from the necessary breakdown of shallow certitudes that would allow renewed wonder and penetration of vision. Ironically, a subterranean identity may be discerned between the bellicose preacher of grotesque infernal tortures and the smirking indifference of a bloke casually flipping through the pages of The New Yorker.

The central claims in David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall be Saved, whilst encompassing important aspects of metaphysics and theology, fundamentally are matters of imagination and story. Hart’s persuasive capacity is directed towards a resetting of the spiritual compass whereby the fullness of victory revealed in the gospel of Christ becomes a hearkening to Triune music, the cosmic dance of theosis at once ecstatic, communal, harmonious, and joyful. The failures of the mainstream of Christian tradition turn out to be failures of nerve, a sclerosis of wonder, mistaken forays into the eschatological too bound by mundane univoci­ties, maladroit attempts to convey divine justice, insufficient essays upon theandric energies. In short, the pious are generally formed by bad stories that accumulate around dead idols like barnacles fastened upon a foundering ship. The damage done to the initial kerygma is considerable. One might protest, as defenders of the traditional view of eternal hell do, that God would not permit widespread distortion that threatens to render the gospel opaque to millions of souls. One might equally wonder how the God can permit holocausts, rape, and childhood cancers. If one stipulates that the Church has special, providential care and the guidance of the indwelling Spirit, I offer no disagreement – except to add that the Spirit is a fount of surprise likely to bless the seventh son whilst the elders are looking elsewhere. Who says the forgotten may not rise up in joy with the shock of revelation?

There are two main sections to Hart’s text. The first section has two parts. The first part of the first section frames the question. What is the question? Perhaps the question of hell; yes, perhaps that is the question, though maybe not. But first, an existential observation: no one rightly doubts the existence of hell. That is not what is in question. As Hart delin­eates the perspective of the earliest Church fathers, it was commonly agreed – “corrupted and enchained by mortality … ill, impaired, lost, dying; we were in hell already” (p. 26). I surmise for a dim set of rationalists this may appear a mere metaphor for human misery, though I take it to be a strict metaphysical truth. I, for one, have never doubted hell. Rather, I sympathize, for instance, with the sardonic, pickled, sour-doomed Dorothy Parker who once quipped, “What fresh hell is this?” Life is no doubt wondrous, filled with exquisite beauty, desire drenched, touching in its moments of innocence a cosmic child­hood that comes to all of nature, even if it is for humankind to recognize it and name its ambiguous, haunting, pristine promise, the sweetness of new life, the care, when it comes, of maternal nurture, the bounding play of the newborn as it first awkwardly braces for reality upon wobbly legs, though the warp of death is already poisoning the primal breath; contagion and evil, stark, subtle, devious, cruel, variations on darkness – who does not know this? So, the question is something else, even if partisans of a particular ideology confuse the matter and accuse those they disagree with of denying what is manifestly true.

Step back from the question concerning hell and attend upon framing. Framing is selective. It is intentionality of will, sometimes the phenomenological focus upon reality within a specific range. It is not abstract. Or better, framing itself is somewhat abstract, but it results in the concrete. Framing determines by exclusion as much as by what is positively chosen. Framing itself can be a prism, an epoch, a mode of perception that both sees and blinds, seeking the determinate within the light of its own intellectual eros, whilst necessarily abandoning what drops out, for finite intellect must always seek the whole in the fragment. In this respect, Hart wants to expand horizons so that the Christian eschato­logical imagina­tion is juxtaposed against the spiritual insights and imagery of the ultimate to be discovered outside Christian inquiry. And here, prescinding from complicating matters such as whether the compassion of the East properly cherishes the unique or if it does not ultimately sacrifice this rose, that sparrow, the little girl haplessly chasing baby chicks on Pendennis Lane to a metaphysical oneness that absorbs the once and never as a raindrop lost in the vastness of the ocean, Hart simply observes that the highest spiritual ambitions beyond Christendom evince a radically universal scope. “It would have been very hard for me to accept the thought that the ‘infinite love’ and ‘omnipotent benevolence’ of the Christian God would ultimately prove immeasurably less generous or effectual than the ‘great compassion’ and ‘expedient means’ of the numberless, indefatigably merciful bodhisattvas populating the Mahayana religious imagination” (p. 15). This last is a reminisce of Hart’s early, adolescent awareness of comparative imaginaries, the sort of thing a certain kind of orthodox would naturally expect him to outgrow as a bit of jejune cosmopolitan indulgence. Whether this chastening is warranted or not, the reality we normally attend to, like that announced in Blake’s Songs of Experience, is disappointing. One could always argue that the revelation of the gospel, though apparently more parsimonious, is at least true. Then one can blithely dismiss the pagan imagination as what — demonic lies, infantile dreams, errors and whatnot? Still, one should avoid parochial smugness. If Christian revelation is the secret of divine intimacy, the mystery of Fatherhood, the adventure of Sonship, the resourceful delight of the creative Spirit ever discovering the infinite Event of divine Plenitude, it is surely not less than what can be imagined by those with a more remote purchase on the narrative articulating the gift of life.

The second part of the first section casts doubt upon the majority consensus on eternal hell. Apart from making assertions about the significant presence of universalist interpre­tations of the gospel in the earliest centuries of ecclesial community, Hart anticipates his last meditation with a brief excursus on the synergy of the intellectual perception of the Good and the liberation of the will from debilitating illusion. “The irresistibility of God for any soul that has truly been set free is no more a constraint placed upon liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst” (p. 41). Soon after, one is treated to a sketch of various Western thinkers from Augustine to Calvin who propounded a more or less sanguinary God of inscrutable election. A parabolic reference to a tale in Suetonius about the emperor Domitian is illustrative. Domitian invites one of his stewards to a sumptuous dinner in his private apartments. The next day, the emperor has the same steward crucified, “as grand a demonstration of absolute sovereignty as one could imagine” (p. 50). Hart draws out the logic of an elective voluntarism, its arbitrary, covertly desperate need for a theater in which to display its own nihilist expression of naked power; “the God of Calvinism at its worst … is simply Domitian made omnipotent” (p. 51). The question of eternal hell is then more fundamentally a question about what God is like. Note the inference that modernist conceptions of freedom are likely to be discovered connected in some way to idolatrous views of God. And then Hart makes an important declaration that I quote at length:

Natural justice – in fact, proportional justice as such – is not the primary business of fathers. It is their responsibility to continue to love their children in all conditions, to seek their children’s well-being and (if need be) reformation, and to use whatever natural powers they possess to save their children from ruin. (What a happy circumstance, then, if a father happens to possess infinite power.) Paternal love has nothing to do with proportion; its proper “measure” is total, ceaseless abandon. (p. 54)

With the invocation of divine Fatherhood, we are invited to recall the warmth of paternal patience and solicitude narrated in Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son and perhaps to contrast such selfless, agapeic concern with the theology uncomfortably close to the diabolic sovereignty conveyed by Suetonius. And thus, we are prepared to enter into the four specific meditations that are headed by the title, Apokatastasis.

(Go to “The Eternal Teleology of Creation”)

* * *

Dr Moore has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas. He has been a contributor to Eclectic Orthodoxy since before the beginning of time. There is, it must be said, no truth to the rumor that he comes from a family of Druids or that he will drink only plum wine, though it is possibly true that he prefers cats to humans, allowing for exceptions. He is the author of the recently published tale of Noah and the ark, Beneath the Silent Heavens.

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“Faith saves, faith justifies, faith heals both body and soul”

“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus passed along the border between Samaria and Galilee, and when he entered one of the villages ten lepers came to meet him.”

What do these ten lepers stand for if not the sum total of all sinners? When Christ the Lord came not all men and women were leprous in body, but in soul they were, and to have a soul full of leprosy is much worse than to have a leprous body. But let us see what happened next.

“Standing a long way off they called out to him: ‘Jesus, Master, take pity on us.'”

They stood a long way off because no one in their condition dared come too close. We stand a long way off too while we continue to sin. To be really converted one must be converted inwardly. To be restored to health and cured of the leprosy of sin, we also must cry out:” Jesus, master, take pity on us.” That cry, however, must come not from our lips but from our heart, for the cry of the heart is louder: it pierces the heavens, rising up to the very throne of God.

“When Jesus saw the lepers he told them to go and show themselves to the priests.”

God has only to look at people to be filled with compassion. He pitied these lepers as soon as he saw them, and sent them to the priests not to be cleansed by them, but to be pronounced clean.

“And as they went they were cleansed.”

Let all sinners listen to this and try to understand it. It is easy for the Lord to forgive sins. Sinners have often been forgiven before they came to a priest. In fact, their repentance and healing occur simultaneously: at the very moment of their conversion they pass from death to life. Let them understand, however, what this conversion means; let them heed the Lord’s words: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” To be really converted one must be converted inwardly, in one’s heart, for “a humbled, contrite heart God will not spurn.”

“One of them, when he saw that he was cured, went back again, praising God at the top of his voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. Now this man was a Samaritan.”

He stands for all those who, after their cleansing by the waters of baptism or healing by the sacrament of penance, renounce the devil and take Christ as their model, following him with praise, adoration, and thanksgiving, and nevermore abandoning his service.

“And Jesus said to him: Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.”

Great, therefore, is the power of faith. Without it, as the apostle says, “it is impossible to please God. Abraham believed God and because of this God regarded him as righteous.” Faith saves, faith justifies, faith heals both body and soul.

St Bruno of Segni

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A Philosophical Case for Preferring Universalism to Annihilationism

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