Universalism and the Vision of the Good

God wills our good, and our good is God. Human personhood and divine personhood thus mysteriously coincide in the depths of the human being. God has created us with an insatiable hunger for him that we might become who we were created to be—adopted sons of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This natural desire for communion with the Holy Trinity is the secret of the universalist hope. Using the language of Aquinas and Protestant Scholasticism, John Kronen and Eric Reitan state the argument:

Rational creatures, by definition, can choose based on reasons—that is, they are motivated to act not merely by instinct or appetite, but by the recognition that certain apprehended truths (reason) entail that a course of action is good to do. Saying that rational creatures are ordered to the good means two things: first, when they directly and clearly encounter the perfect good in unclouded experience, they will recognize it as the perfect good; and second, the perfect good (which, by definition, is the standard according to which all other goods are measured) would, under conditions of immediate and unclouded apprehension, present itself as overridingly worthy of love. Creatures’ subjective values will thus spontaneously fall into harmony with the objective good, with all choices reflecting this proper valuation.

Put another way, immediate awareness of the perfect good will so sing to the natural inclinations of the soul that love for the good will swamp all potentially contrary affective states. One would have every reason to conform one’s will to the perfect good and no reason not to. This latter point gains further strength from the Christian notion that what is prudentially good for rational creatures (what promotes their welfare) does not ultimately conflict with what is morally good—both are realized through union with God. Unclouded apprehension of the perfect good will thus harmonize prudential motives such that every rational creature presented with a clear vision of God would have every reason to love God and no reason to reject Him.

From all of this it follows that God could guarantee uniform salvation-inducing motives in rational creatures simply by presenting an unclouded vision of Himself. God’s doing this certainly seems metaphysically possible, and hence within God’s power; and if (as Aquinas maintained) free acts are not random but motivated, it follows that any rational creature presented with the vision of God will freely but inevitably respond affirmatively to the promise of loving union. (God’s Final Victory, p. 136)

The logic may be impeccable, but Orthodox sensibilities will probably find it too abstract, rationalistic, and “Western.” Entering into deifying union with the Lord is so much more than careful calculation and assessment of gains and losses. I’m sure Kronen and Reitan would agree. What is needed is for an Orthodox theologian to translate the Augustinian argument into the Eastern idiom. We need the visionary and prophetic exposition of … Fr Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov!

(Return to first article)

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11 Responses to Universalism and the Vision of the Good

  1. I find the argument very curious, since historically it is not what would be considered an argument for universalism but for the impeccability of saints — “unclouded experience” of good would have been seen as requiring prior rescue from sin, which clouds every experience of good. So on that rather standard view it either begs the question (by assuming that the people in question have already been cleansed from experience-clouding sin) or posits a contradiction (by requiring that God give experience of Himself free of the clouding of sin to sinners without removing the clouding of sin). And if one were to take the beatific vision simply to be the culmination of a process, as I think Reitan has suggested at times, then we’re really just back at square one, with the inevitable question of how one establishes the universal repentance required for universal salvation without already assuming it.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I’ve been trying to think how Messrs Kronen and Reitan might respond to your comment, Brandon (in fact, I was kinda hoping they might make an appearance); but in their absence let me take a stab.

      Is what they are proposing—viz., that God could efficaciously reveal himself to the “damned” (i.e., those who die in a state of mortal sin) in such a way that they would see that God is their true good and the realization of all their desires and thus overwhelm all hostile and negative dispositions—metaphysically possible for God?

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      • There are two ways to take the question: either we are talking, as the original argument is talking, about a beatific vision, or we are talking about revelations short of beatific vision.

        In the Western tradition, beatific vision just is the complete adherence of mind and will to God that is Heaven. So if we are talking beatific vision, the question is equivalent to asking whether people in a state of mortal sin can be in Heaven while still being in a state of mortal sin. But since a state of mortal sin is by definition that state which is inconsistent with this kind of full union with God, there isn’t much sense to be made of it: to have the beatific vision, one must already have repented one’s sins and been saved by God’s grace, so beatific vision cannot be what guarantees that people repent their sins.

        On the other hand, if we are talking revelations generally, the question boils down to asking whether there is any possible kind of revelation of God short of full revelation of goodness such that the sinner who receives it cannot fail to repent regardless of his or her sins. But this question is just a more specific version of the fundamental problem of universalism: what is it that would guarantee the universal repentance required for all sinners to be saved? And one would need an answer to this question in the first place to assess whether it involves any contradiction or not.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Brandon, to give Kronen/Reitan a fair hearing, we have to be willing to step out of the traditional Western heaven/hell box. I specify “Western,” because I think it may be easier for Easterners to entertain the notion being proposed. There’s a long tradition (though I’m not sure how long) in the Eastern Church that, as Fr George Metallinos writes, “Paradise and hell are the same reality.” All are brought into the consuming fire of God’s love—those who welcome that love experience it as heaven; those who hate it experience it as hell. God is either beatific vision or infernal vision, depending on our subjective state.

          This ties in nicely with Tom Talbott’s proposal discussed in “The Secret of the Universalist Hope.” All we need to do is to entertain the possibility that the damned are not irredeemably frozen in their perditional state, thus allowing for the possibility of movement from the perditional state to a purgatorial state.

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  2. William says:

    Brandon’s comment points out a significant problem in the idea of God simply presenting an unclouded vision of himself. God in fact has done this in Jesus Christ, the perfect image of the invisible God. Of course I sense that the above passage is probably thinking of something more immediate and personal than the knowledge of Christ mediated to us by the apostles and two millennia of Christian witness (which can seem contradictory and confusing to someone without any sense of how to navigate it). But the idea of an unclouded vision of God granted personally and immediately to each person reminded me of the following passage from St Symeon the New Theologian, who notes that the appearance of God in his deified flesh is not an appearance of God in his naked divinity:

    “The revelation of His divinity becomes in fact a judgment for those to whom it is revealed. No flesh could have endured the glory of His divinity as manifested naked of it’s joining and inexpressible union in the God-man. All creation would instead have been utterly destroyed both in body and soul, since at that time all were possessed by unbelief. For the divinity, which is to say the grace of the all-Holy Spirit, has never appeared to anyone who was without faith; and, if it were to appear by some paradox among men, it would show itself as fearful and dreadful, as not illumining but burning, not as giving life but as punishing dreadfully. And this is clear from the things which the blessed Paul, the vessel of election, suffered. In the encounter with the radiance of the unapproachable light which flashed around him like lightning, his vision was wounded, and rather than being illumined he was darkened. He could not see and lost even his natural faculty of sight. These things happened to him who would later become the great teacher of Christ’s Church! That man who was so great, the same man who later said: ‘The God Who said: “Let light shine out of darkness” has shone in our hearts,’ and a little later: ‘We have this treasure’ — i.e. if illumination — ‘in our hearts’ could not at that time see even the least glimmer of light. From this lesson we therefore learn that grace, on the one hand, is unapproachable and invisible to those who are still possessed by unbelief and the passions, and is seen, on the other hand, and revealed to those who with faith and in fear and trembling do the commandments and give evidence is a worthy repentance. The same grace itself incontestably brings the future judgment to pass in them. …”

    I suppose it could be said that God can provide an unclouded vision of himself that is something other than a revelation of his naked divinity, revealing only his beauty in some way, but I think it may not be possible for the beauty to be anything but fearsome when encountered by sinfulness, which “hates the light.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      William, I think you are giving up on both the infinitely resourceful God and the not-so resourceful damned too easily. If what you say is the case, there would be no point to praying for those in Hades, as they are personally oriented away from God and frozen in their hostility and alienation, like the dwarves in Lewis’s The Last Battle who cannot hear Aslan’s roar. But why believe this is the case?

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    • William says:

      Fr. Aidan, my contention here is not at all with God’s resourcefulness and ability to reach the damned in their condition in such a way as to effect their salvation. Rather, I am questioning the idea that he would accomplish this by means of some “unclouded vision of himself” in terms of a revelation of his “naked divinity” (in St. Symeon’s words), which is what the above passage seemed to me to be suggesting. And I also wanted to highlight that one might say that Jesus Christ himself is an unclouded vision of God.

      Now, if by an unclouded vision of God one means something like an appearance of Jesus Christ to the individual soul in such a way that the soul comes to recognize him for himself, free of all the false constructs of him and his followers that have served to make him appear unpalatable or a matter of indifference, then sure, a removal of those sorts of “clouds” I think is exactly what is going to happen when Christ returns in the clouds in glory. But the language of God assuring uniform salvation simply by presenting some kind of unclouded vision of himself as written above suggests some sort of insufficiency in what God has done heretofore, and it begs the question of why God doesn’t just give us all this vision right now (St. Symeon’s passage may be an answer). It seems like the hurried end of a movie that resolves things in such a way as to make all the previous tensions a total waste of time. Maybe it’s just me. But as I said, I am not arguing at all with the idea that God is able to find a way to save the damned. I just find the solution depicted in the passage above to be unsatisfying.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        William, a thought on the fear of the insufficiency of God’s historic work of salvation. Need we fear to acknowledge the hiddenness of God’s presence both in the Incarnation and the mission of the Church? Clearly many people saw and heard Jesus and did not recognize him as the return of YHWH. Clearly many people throughout history have heard the preaching of the gospel and have not been convinced of its power and truth. I am sure that in his divine wisdom God has compelling reasons to structure the way of salvation as he has (perhaps it partially has something to do with the epistemic distance about which Tom Talbott and Tom Belt talked in another thread); but the fact remains that some (many? most?) have not responded to God’s offer of salvation (in whatever way it was presented to them) and now find themselves in a post-mortem state of alienation and perdition. What is God going to do about them, if anything? What can he do? What should he do?

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        • William says:

          Your questions/point are/is very well taken. Perhaps what I have objected to is really the impersonal language of an encounter with the good in an unclouded experience which suggests that a person encounters/apprehends what is good for himself or herself in an unclouded way in the sense of knowing the right course of action (I am perhaps not sharp enough, but I’m not certain whether Dr. Kronen’s response below clears this up). My first reading of the passage above also seemed to hint that this could come down to simply seeing the goodness and beauty of God, which would be enough to clarify everything. Perhaps that is a gross oversimplification of what is being said above, but even so, it seems as though there are reasons to believe that God cannot simply show us his beauty/goodness (i.e. his glory) because we can’t handle it (or at least those who have not been united to him cannot). I might think differently about the above passage if it seemed more clear that this good that the person encounters in an unclouded experience is in fact God himself in the person of Jesus Christ the Word of God and resurrected man — revealing himself in a way that gets past the prejudices and experiences of each person that prevented recognition and acceptance earlier. However, given what St. Symeon has to say in the passage above, I suspect that this cannot occur without some discomfort, to put it mildly, akin to what Paul experienced in his encounter with the Lord in his glory.

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  3. Dr John Kronen says:

    I do want to say something briefly about this at this time. First the older, Aristotelian, conception of “rationality” was not as narrow as the contemporary “economic” conception. It was not focused simply on assessing costs and benefits, much less on assessing those merely as they affect “me.” Aristotle believed that one of the functions of reason is to control the emotions and actions flowing from those emotions according to a rationally determined mean between excess and defect, and possessing the relevant virtues enables a person to feel the correct, or fitting amount of an emotion in any situation (sometimes the correct amount is zero, by the way). The correct emotions are those which the particular situation calls for; and though this can have some reference to the agent, it is not determined by the “self-interest” of the agent in any narrowly determined way. That it is determined by reason, in part, means that. If a person gets so angry as to shoot someone for cutting in front of him in traffic the emotion here is out of proportion to what had been done to him, and hence irrational. Nor did Aristotle’s claim that that virtue perfects human nature mean by that to say that the virtuous person is solely, or even primarily, concerned with his own well being. The virtuous person needs to have a certain self focus (since he, after all, is most responsible for forming the virtuous in himself), but he is hardly always looking out for number one. (See for instance Aristotle’s praise of the courageous person who dies for the love of his country!)

    Of course Aristotle does not rise to the level of a Christian understanding of agapic love, but I think his basic moral theory can be taken up into a higher moral perspective. At any rate, in so far as your criticism here seems to equate rationality with a type of psychological and moral egoism, and insofar as it also seems to separate reason from the emotions, it stains an older, richer notion of rationality with a much more recent notion (a notion having its roots in Hobbes). But the older notion lived on in the older British intuitionism–e.g. in Cudworth and Richard Price, and one can find it eloquently reasserted and defended by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Lewis nicely points out the way in which this older notion of rationality and reasonableness has been corrupted by the likes of Hobbes, Hume, and contemporary positivism (sometimes also called Scientism). There are other things to say about this, but I don’t have time now. The long and short of it is this–words change meaning over time and the notion of rationality you seem to be saddling Eric and me with is a more contemporary, Economic notion, it is not the older Aristotelian Scholastic notion we embrace (we are Aristotle lovers–if that is a crime, we are guilty as charged!! But then John of Damascus was an Aristotle lover too!).

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    In case anyone is wondering what the last two sentences of my article mean, I was hoping to whet everyone’s appetite for a blog series I plan to write in the next few months on the eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov. Bulgakov’s approach to universalism is similar in some ways to what Kronen & Reitan have proposed.

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