Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 7)

Can Almighty God effect the universal reconciliation of human beings, while respecting their libertarian freedom and autonomy? This question brings us to the heart of Thomas Talbott’s proposal and will occupy the final articles in our review of The Inescapable Love of God. Talbott accepts the Arminian construal of freedom: “Insofar as freedom and determinism are incompatible, free choice introduces into the universe an element that, from God’s point of view, is utterly random in that it lies outside of his direct causal control” (p. 167). On the basis of this understanding, the Arminian argues that not only is it possible for human beings to embrace evil definitively and irrevocably set their wills against the divine will, but God is ultimately helpless to do anything about it. Not only is he helpless to prevent our self-damnation, given the self-imposed limits upon his omnipotence, he is also helpless to rescue us from our perdition. While the Arminian does not know beyond a shadow of a doubt that some, many, or most human beings will suffer everlasting separation from their Creator, he will not be surprised if such is the case. Hell is the unavoidable, but finally acceptable, consequence of human freedom—collateral damage, as it were.

In response to Arminian damnation, Talbott advances three propositions:

(1) “The very idea of someone freely rejecting God forever is deeply incoherent and therefore logically impossible” (p. 170).

Talbott asks us to consider the example of a young boy who puts his head into a fire and keeps it there, despite the intolerable pain, despite all pleas from his parents and friends. What would we say about this boy? Is he acting rationally? morally? freely? responsibly? Would we not think, rather, that something must be terribly wrong with him? Perhaps he suffers from congenital analgesia. Perhaps he is overwhelmed by self-destructive impulses. The point Talbott is making is that other necessary conditions besides the absence of coercion obtain in order for an action to be judged a free action. A minimal degree of rationality is also needed. “That which is utterly pointless, utterly irrational, and utterly inexplicable, “he writes, “will simply not qualify as a free choice for which one is morally responsible” (p. 172).

Everyone agrees that eternal damnation represents the absolutely worst thing that can happen to a human being. It is not just tragic; it is the maximal tragedy. So why would a rational being make such a choice for himself when it contradicts his fundamental good and makes impossible his own happiness? We can entertain such a decision if it rests upon ignorance, deception, pathology, or addiction; but all such conditions result in diminished capacity and therefore diminished freedom.

Of decisive consideration here is the coincidence between the ultimate happiness that we will for ourselves and the ultimate happiness that God wills for us:

Let us now begin to explore what it might mean to say that someone freely rejects God forever. Is there in fact a coherent meaning here? Religious people sometimes speak of God as if he were just another human magistrate who seeks his own glory and requires obedience for its own sake; they even speak as if we might reject the Creator and Father of our souls without rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizophrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives. … But if God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what, at the most fundamental level, we want for ourselves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our needs should be met. So if that is true, if God wills for us the very thing we really want for ourselves, whether we know it or not, how then are we to understand human disobedience and opposition to God. (p. 172)

When I first read Inescapable Love three years ago, this paragraph in particular jumped out at me. My readings in the moral theologies of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, mediated in particular by Servais Pinckaers, had prepared me to receive Talbott’s argument. Here is the secret of the universalist hope. The good that we desire for ourselves and the good God desires for us are identical! At any given moment we may not be able to see this profound truth of our lives, due to our egotism, violence, and alienation; but no matter how hardened our hearts become, we remain creatures made in the image of God. God, and only God, can satisfy our deepest desires.

In order, therefore, for a person to irrevocably reject God and the happiness that union with him brings, he must irrevocably reject the happiness that he yearns for. “So if a fully informed person should reject God nonetheless, then,” Talbott concludes, “that person, like the boy in our story above, would seem to display the kind of irrationality that is itself incompatible with free choice” (p. 173).

Would a God of absolute love permit this to happen? We pray that he would not. Yet isn’t the Arminian God impotent before our self-chosen hells?

(Go to Part 8)

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36 Responses to Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 7)

  1. This argument, at least as stated here, seems to have the implication that nobody sins freely. All sin is already utterly pointless, etc., qua sin, and it is clearly the case that people do, to use the image, stick their heads in the fire and keep them there for at least a while — a very long while, often, by our usual standards, although only a drop in the bucket measured against forever. It’s not difficult to find obvious cases of this kind of obstinate self-destructiveness on the scale we actually see it. So I take it that the fact that damnation adds ‘forever’ to this has to be doing some very substantial work in Talbott’s argument that isn’t obvious from this summary. (You mention it twice, but it doesn’t play a role in the arguments actually given here.)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Brandon, you might want to take a look at this chapter from the first edition of Talbott’s book to get a better idea of his argument. My short summaries are unhelpful in some ways, I know: “God, Freedom and Human Destiny.”

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      I contend, Brandon, that to date no free will theist has yet provided a sufficently complete analysis of free choice for us even to assess its implications. Still, I agree with you that, IF all sin were “already utterly pointless,” then no one would sin freely. So now I must ask why you think that all sin, even when committed in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and illusion, is utterly pointless. Are you suggesting that a man who robs a bank has no discernible motive for his action? Part of the issue here may rest upon what it might mean to say that an action is utterly pointless. An action is utterly pointless in my sense only when the context in which it occurs permits no possible motive for doing it, not even a sinful or a selfish one.

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      • I don’t think one can say that, because any action can be trivially assigned motives: for instance, to do the action in question. If one disallows such easily assigned motives, one arguably runs into immediate problems in characterizing the motivation of habitual action, since with habitual action it can easily be the case that there is no assignable motive beyond just doing the action. (And, of course, on the other side, having only this minimal motive may still be quite consistent with very rational action.)

        But IF there were actions that were motiveless, sins would be very obvious candidates for them; for one thing, there’s a plausible argument to be made that whatever is actually sinful in an action arises out of defect of motive rather than any actual motive. There are, at least accounts of moral psychology in which this is arguably true: Nicolas Malebranche’s account, for instance, in which sin is quite literally a stopping short rather than a doing. And it is always a necessarily pointless stopping short, for that matter, since there can be no good reason for failing to follow through to the action’s ultimate end. If someone fails at something, you don’t ask what their motive was for the failure.

        However, that aside, I’m still not sure how you are getting utter pointlessness in your sense into the equation at all, unless it somehow follows from the fact that in hell one is not merely sinning but sinning forever. That is, after all, what rejecting damnation entails: that it is not possible to sin forever, so the ‘forever’ seems to be the only thing that could be making any difference here.

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        • Grant says:

          lf death shall be destroyed and God will be all in all and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, how can be sin, a lack of realized humanity and decay (which is part of death). With sin being part of and tied to death it it’s full aspect of privation and enslavement and drift to non-being, how can it be forever when we are told death shall be destroyed and in all creation God will be all in all, having become king fully at last, all things being set free from futility and subjection to corruption in being and nature, a prom8se grounded and assured in the ressurection of the Lord Jesus. Death will be no more anywhere, so how can be sin forever, to say such would be to say that promise is untrue, since then death and sin would hold dominion forever in some areas putting the lie to those promises. People and aspects of creation would be left enslaved forever, again declaring the ptomise of the rescue of all things by God in Christ as untrue, so humans will be forever enslaved in thought and being, they shall not be free, and that I cannot agree with as it denies to me these promises and certain hope assured and confirmed in the ressurection and ascension of Jesus to Lordship over the whole world.

          Also in relation to some of the discussion on freedom, I don’t see how you can separate the acting free from being ever more free in our nature and being, and that won’t ever be fully realized until the completion of the ressurection of the dead (or at least begun to be). If we are not fully free and rational in nature, if we not opperating in our full humanity and not free if death, we can hardly act completely free. Freedom can only make sense in the positive, as a release, growth and development in nature and environment to being more the human and person we are called to be, to be more and more renewed in the likeness and image of God, that only as we become free more and more in nature, from death’s dominion and it’s effects at all levels (internal disordered passions, abuse, mental and physical illness and their effects, environmental and societal effects, physiological and mental pressures, and myriads of other iinterconnecting factors) and come more and more into our full being from non-being are we more and more free, and therefore can act free. It is not simply a negative in given a choice to act or releasing more obvious external constraints, for if you aren’t free in being and nature you cannot act in freedom either.

          We must be ever more free to be able to act freely, and so on one level to various distinctions we might have some idea of what we do, in a confused and disordered manner, reaching in all our desires to that beauty and life beyond that is transcendent to even the most base and desructive attempt to interact and particpate in that reality and life. But more deeply we don’t know what we do, as the Lord said of His killers and tormentors, and of all of us ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do’, and only be truly engaging by God’s grace engaging the reality of the Life of God in the Messiah can we even begin to be free to dimiky know and therefore act in motlre freedom and love. Only to the extent our nature and being is more free are we free to act freely, and be consumed by the things and corruption and warping by the nothingness and decay of death and the drift and enslavement to non-being is to be completely irrational, and lack any freedom of action and therefore ability to act, choice or respond freely in any way.

          And this is something we still really know, someone suffering from severe mental illness and effects their thinking and living in many areas, their very ability to function, we know they are not fully free and require help, healing and assistance to live and act, and in a deep way are not fully rational or free in their actions and choices. And same of people suffering some form of brain damage or are in some manner mentally handicapped, they are not fully free to to realise and act, because they are not fully free in nature and being, it being unable to fully express itself under the more obvioys manifestation of death. Yet what we fail to realise is what is more obvious true of someone hit with such illness and affliction is true of all of us, it only appears more clearly there than with others (and as a result they may be more free as they might more easily respond to God and His healing then we can, and might be more alive if we had eyes to see it).

          And might the prayer ‘Father forgive them they don’t know what they do’ become that which we can take into our lives as we interact with those around us and in the world, including and especially those we find our enemies or who do thins to us or in the world we abhor rightly, and see Christ in them.

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  2. Mike H says:

    “Everyone agrees that eternal damnation represents the absolutely worst thing that can happen to a human being. It is not just tragic; it is the maximal tragedy.”

    There is so much in this post to chew on, but this is what pops out to me the most. It’s the statement that stays with me and haunts me. In my own experience growing up in an Arminianish belief system (where God wants to save all but can’t), the obvious and necessary outcome that existence = ULTIMATE TRAGEDY is the elephant in the room. I’ve heard a lot of justification for it, a lot of “But look over here!” and “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”, but not much acknowledgement of what it is – a Story written by the God revealed in Christ in which God is helpless to write an end other than “ULTIMATE TRAGEDY” which takes the form of God sort of helplessly shrugging his shoulders as his creation destroy itself.

    “Would a God of absolute love permit this to happen? We pray that he would not. Yet isn’t the Arminian God impotent before our self-chosen hells?”

    What is divine love, and how far does it go? For all of the philosophical, biblical, and theological complexities, I just can’t buy that the one thing that God can’t save us from is ourselves.

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  3. tgbelt says:

    TomT: “…free choice introduces into the universe an element that, from God’s point of view, is utterly random in that it lies outside of his direct causal control.”

    TomB: How does it follow that whatever lies outside of God’s direct causal control is “utterly random”? That doesn’t follow. In any case, libertarian choices aren’t “utterly random” events. And though they’re not determined by God, that’s not to say they’re not circumscribed and limited in options and context. God can determine the options between which we’re free to choose, and (next point below) it needn’t be the case that the option to say ‘No’ to God must (in the end) constitute an irrevocable choice.

    Fr Aidan: On the basis of this understanding, the Arminian argues that not only is it possible for human beings to embrace evil definitively and irrevocably set their wills against the divine will, but God is ultimately helpless to do anything about it.

    TomB: I’m going to choose the fattest most expensive cigar for you to buy me (;o) because the idea that libertarian choice necessarily entails a capacity to ‘irrevocably’ reject God keeps returning. But such a capacity isn’t necessary to libertarian choice. As a libertarian, I agree with TomT that “the very idea of someone freely rejecting God forever” is in the end meaningless. I’m guessing that by “forever” he means “irrevocably” because “forever” is never completed, so there’s no way anyone can ever successfully traverse it in their rejection of God. So he must mean “irrevocable” here; an irrevocable rejection would determine the future forever. But there’s nothing about libertarian freedom that requires one to suppose a capacity for irrevocably rejecting God is inherent to such freedom per se.

    TomB

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      No typos, Tom? 🙂

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      Hi Tom,

      I did not mean to imply that “whatever lies outside of God’s direct causal control is ‘utterly random'” simpliciter. I meant to imply only that it is random from God’s perspective in the sense that he does not causally determine its occurrence. The idea of an event lying outside of God’s direct causal control gives the full sense, in other words, of its being utterly random from God’s perspective, as I was here using that expression. Because it is random in that sense, God must work around it in some way or another.

      Thanks,

      -Tom

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tom Talbott and Brandon, do you agree or disagree with the following statement:

    To do good is to choose the highest good; but to fail to do this, to sin, is not to choose evil. Nobody chooses evil, it cannot be done. When we sin what we do is choose some trivial good at the expense of God’s friendship. Sin is sin not because of the thing we positively choose: the human satisfaction, the pleasure or the power. It is sin because of what we fail to choose, what we sacrifice for the sake of a minor good. Sin is sin because we have opted not to grow up to our flourishing, our happiness which is life in God’s love and friendship. (Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters, p. 185)

    Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that this is germane to the present discussion about motivationless actions. What do you think?

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    • tgbelt says:

      Love the quote. Totally agree. I’m interested though; is there something I’ve said (perhaps my position on libertarian choice?) that leads you to suspect I’d disagree?

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Nope.

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      • tgbelt says:

        Follow up. So we agree that what’s needed to make libertarian choice rational is a certain epistemic distance—i.e., enough clarity and ambiguity to make it possible both to accept and reject competing options as possible means to some perceived ‘good’. I don’t know how philosophically commonplace that is; just thinking out loud. My point is, I agree with TomT that choosing for or against God must be ‘rational’. Unless I’m misunderstanding, he seeks to guarantee a ‘terminus ad quem’ for the reconciliation of the wicked in the removal of all ambiguity. God collapses epistemic distance (in the sense relevant for choosing God) to zero. All ambiguity is removed and so God becomes the only rational choice. Reject God becomes psychologically impossible because there’s no ambiguity left upon which to world-construct our way toward rejecting God as a means of securing some perceived good.

        The problem a libertarian like myself might have with this is that I think I have good reasons to suppose that the choice for God—or let me say, God’s purposes for our existence—metaphysically require our choosing our way into relationship with him (minimally) libertarianly. The integrity of the created person rests in part upon the integrity of the distinction between divine and created agencies, and when your guarantee some desired choice (of another) through removing all capacity for making undesired choices, you’re essentially collapsing divine and created agency and thus objectifying the person; i.e., just choosing for them.

        But is it loving to leave someone (not irrevocably!) to suffer in their freely chosen hell just for the sake of their freedom? Well, not for the sake of their ‘freedom’. But for the sake of love—I’d say yes. What if we turn the question around—Am I prepared to objectify persons to bring their suffering to an end? Am I really loving you and securing the greatest hypostatic existence possible for you if I make it (psychologically) impossible for you to do anything but choose to love me? Would this not amount to my making you simply the occasion for ME to choose MYSELF? I don’t see that it rises much above that? See what I mean? It’s that libertarian space (however small, I don’t know) that I think secures whatever measure of personal integrity the other has. Were God to overwhelm us with such clarity as to make refusing him impossible, would God really get what he desires?

        TomB

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        • Michelle says:

          “Am I really loving you and securing the greatest hypostatic existence possible for you if I make it (psychologically) impossible for you to do anything but choose to love me? Would this not amount to my making you simply the occasion for ME to choose MYSELF? I don’t see that it rises much above that? See what I mean? It’s that libertarian space (however small, I don’t know) that I think secures whatever measure of personal integrity the other has. Were God to overwhelm us with such clarity as to make refusing him impossible, would God really get what he desires?”

          As one who truly desires the salvation of all in the end out of love, this is the best argument I’ve ever heard against a guaranteed apokatastasis as its presented here by Tom Talbott, persuading me not to adopt such an apokatastasis equally out of love for all.

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        • Michelle says:

          “God’s purposes for our existence—metaphysically require our choosing our way into relationship with him (minimally) libertarianly.”

          Yes, this hits the nail on the head. God’s purpose for us is not merely that we find our happiness in Him, since being created in His Image determines this as the only possible happiness for human beings, but rather that we find our happiness in Him through a relationship between “equals,” so to speak. We are “equals” in that we co-create this mutual relationship with God. God graces us with the honor of being His equal in co-creating our relationship with Him precisely by means of maintaining our libertarian freedom. Should we lose our libertarian freedom by an elimination of our epistemological distance from God, then we likewise lose our creative powers necessary for building mutual relationships along with it. For freedom is the integral ingredient of empowerment for acts of creation by a person.

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        • Tom Talbott says:

          Hi TomB,

          You wrote: “My point is, I agree with TomT that choosing for or against God must be ‘rational’. Unless I’m misunderstanding, he seeks to guarantee a ‘terminus ad quem’ for the reconciliation of the wicked in the removal of all ambiguity. God collapses epistemic distance (in the sense relevant for choosing God) to zero.”

          Sorry, my friend, that it has taken me so long to respond to this. But in the second edition of the book, I try to make it clearer than I did in the first that God has no need to collapse the “epistemic distance” between himself and us “to zero” in order to checkmate each of us in the end; instead, he need only permit us to experience the very condition of separation that we sometimes confusedly choose for ourselves. In fact, so I argue in a new chapter, it is a free will theodicy of hell, not universalism, that ultimately requires of God that he interfere with human freedom in morally inappropriate ways. Father Kimel touches on this argument in Part 9 of this series, and I give an ever so brief statement of it in section 4.2 of my article on Heaven and Hell for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is available at the following URL:

          http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heaven-hell/#ArgAgaFreWilTheHel

          But I give my most complete statement of the argument in Chapter 12 of the second edition.

          Anyway, as usual, you penetrate to the very heart of an issue. Thanks for bringing this up.

          -Tom

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      Although I do not disagree with that quotation, Father, I might put my own emphasis in a slightly different place. Clearly, we all emerge and begin making choices in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and illusion, and we sometimes sacrifice a greater good for a more minor one precisely because we have failed even to discern the greater good. Indeed, one of the principal illusions that makes sin possible, I believe, is the illusion that we can in some way benefit ourselves at the expense of others.

      But it is a nice quotation. Thanks for sharing it.

      -Tom

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    • So if we choose to commit the sin of murder because, in our egotistical perversity, it gives us a sense of satisfaction to have control over another life, this is a “trivial good?” Really?

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      • Grant says:

        It is whether whatever the motivation, even such as the desire to exert your influence and power as above, and we should remember that such is a reality of almost all human life, we do this and have had it done to us constantly, even our buying of goods and our economics. When this dehumanization and destruction of another climaxes in their death in murdering the other it is the full expression of this damaged and warped for of human interaction.

        But while in all cases is evidently not good to person murdered and suffering, and not really good for the murderer, damaging and fracturing the relation to both the person and others, and of engaging the life of God through them and finding and engaging their true life and being, the motives are still a very disordered and warped attempt to achieve or reach towards a flourishing of the human nature and person. To escape death, and attempt to communicate and express their validity as person, to survive some perceived and distorted threat to their person or life and protect their life and reach fulfilment, in fear eliminating perceived threats to their reaching that good to express their humanity, to establish their significance, meaning and value, and try and avoid death, tragically embracing it more fully instead.

        And in such state they only understand and act to reach for this at the expense of the other and so cut themselves off from others, full more under the power of death and it’s anti-creational nothingness and their nature becomes more warped and disordered, more enslaved to destruction, under the path of Gehenna, enslaved to passions and diminishing their nature and meaning.

        But behind and at the core of not just a specific act but the life and behaviour that prompts it in all it’s expressions (whether it involves killing someone finally or not) it remains a warped and disordered attempt to God, to what is perceived to provide flourishing of their nature and person, an attempt deep down to escape death and find and gain true happiness, liberty, freedom of being, which are all good things found ultimately in relation to and with God, but with such terrible and darkened understanding and warping of mind and nature they think this destructive use of others and attack is the path of it and give themselves more to the self-delusion that it is so, coming up with various justifications, even if it is one that declares the evil good by exulting in it.

        But aims that miss the mark completely but reach beyond those events are good, but the application to reach them terribly warped and filled is darkness and disorder, and results in an actual diminishing and turn from true nature, personhood, life and significance and joy, and embraces death rather than life.

        In this it is a ‘trivial good’ which isn’t a comment that the evil we do means nothing, it means a great deal and requires great heal and cost for restoration and reconciliation and completion of our humanity in Christ, but that it is an attempt to good in a quick and disordered way that misses the mark completely and ends up actually damaging us rather then realizing or moving towards true good which is the way we actually achieve our true desires, aims and personhood.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Grant, I want to thank you for your comments in this thread. Clearly you and I are on the same page, but you are articulating the matter for more substantively than I ever could. Thanks!

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          • Grant says:

            I just hope they help contribute to helping people think through things and that something positive can be gained from them despite grammatical mistakes, undoubted error and areas of shortsightedness and blindness and despite disagreements, as I have from your pieces and many other responses by commentators to this and other threads. I value your blog highly and think you provide an excellent service and forum for reflection.

            On a related note to some of the discussion on this thread over divine and human causality and free action I found this piece on a blog article discussing Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas book that has some relevance which I quote below:

            “As Turner clarifies, failure to adequately think ‘God’ leads to a faulty conception of grace. Turner points to the ubiquity of the ‘free will defense’ among theologians and its mirror image, Calvinistic determination. We tend to fall into the trap of either/or thinking: ‘unfailingly efficacious grace and human freedom are mutually exclusive, either the one or the other’ (156). But this only creates an idolatrous conception of God, of a God who exists on the same plane with creatures.

            Unless the ground is in this way cleared conceptually everything will be amiss theologically. But when once the logical ground cleared and the space is opened up, the theology of grace is no longer entangled in the logician’s dilemma that would entail the affirmation of the infallible work of God’s grace only at the expense of the freedom of our human consent to it. More positively, the space is thereby cleared for an understanding of the relation between creature and Creator in terms of the mutuality of friendship that requires neither the erotic’s erasure of identity nor the oppositions that would set the work of justification and sanctification in competition with human choice and free consent. Grace is all: it is friendship, reciprocity, freedom, life shared, equality mutually sustained, Creator and creature ‘interinanimated’ in love” (167-168).”

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Karen, I know that at first glance it all appears preposterous. How can evil actions be deemed as the seeking after trivial goods; but I think it makes sense when one considers the human person as one created with an unquenchable desire for the Good.

        Here’s another McCabe quotation for you:

        There are no such things as evil desires, there is only evil disproportion in our desires; human evil, moral evil lies in sacrificing great things for the sake of trivial things, it lies in the failure to want happiness enough (God Matters, p. 36)

        For McCabe (and St Thomas, I think) there is no such thing as pure evil. Human beings may act horribly wickedly and become profoundly perverted beings; but they can never become 100% evil.

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        • Thanks, Father and Grant.

          I confess I was to a degree playing a bit of a devil’s advocate in my comment here, because I don’t really disagree in principle that the desire for God is the underlying motivation for all we do–even when it gets perverted into sin. The distorted, but still basically good, will is, obviously, much more difficult to see in some sins’ expressions than others. I have difficulty with using the phrase “trivial good” to describe the perversion of this drive toward God onto things other than God in the kind of sin I described, but it is there all the same. (It’s easier to see gluttony as the attachment to a “trivial good” for example. Enjoying food is not, in itself, a sin; however, murder is.) In my example, I would say the need to continue to exist (i.e., for being), and to feel significant and that we matter, has been perverted into an inordinate lust for power over another.

          I, too, would find it difficult to say the human being can become 100% evil because his creation in the image of God is more foundational to his being than his fall into sin. It doesn’t seem right to believe that the devil can finally and ultimately and irrevocably undermine God in such a way. I’m not sure what than implies about fallen angels, though. They were created good, but Scripture doesn’t seem to suggest there is something redeemable about them after they fell.

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          • tgbelt says:

            I too agree in principle with Grant and Fr Aidan. Even in our evil-doing we ‘aim’ at some perceived good, that is, we aim to satisfy some legitimate desire which is good. But given the ambiguity of our contexts and finitude, our perceptions are not always accurate. The alchoholic thinks that drinking will ‘satisfy’ his desire for security, happiness, a sense of belonging, and escape from the pain of past losses, etc. All those desires are legit and it’s those he seeks to satisfy in drinking. He sees alchohol as a means to secure what we’d say are legit ends (freedom, happiness, security, friendship/belonging, safety, etc.). But I don’t think this irreducible aesthetic appetite in us makes our alchoholism or the damage it does “trival goods.” We can use the word “evil” and understand it as “privation of the good.” An no “privation” of the good is itself a “good,” trivial or otherwise.

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        • Jeremy says:

          I see it less as a “failure to want happiness enough”, but more an inability to see what brings true happiness, and a determinedness to seek happiness, or “the good life” on our terms, rather than on God’s terms, independent of God, rather than being increasingly dependent on him and integrated with his life.

          It seems like McCabe is trying to say something similar to the famous Lewis passage in the “Weight of Glory”:

          “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

          I like Lewis’ better.

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          • Tom Talbott says:

            Jeremy wrote:

            I see it less as a “failure to want happiness enough”, but more an inability to see what brings true happiness, and a determinedness to seek happiness, or “the good life” on our terms, rather than on God’s terms, independent of God, rather than being increasingly dependent on him and integrated with his life.

            Excellent, Jeremy. That paragraph seemed to me worth repeating. So I just did. Thanks.

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  5. Tom Talbott says:

    I wrote: “An action is utterly pointless in my sense only when the context in which it occurs permits no possible motive for doing it, not even a sinful or a selfish one.” And Brandon replied as follows:

    I don’t think one can say that, because any action can be trivially assigned motives: for instance, to do the action in question. If one disallows such easily assigned motives, one arguably runs into immediate problems in characterizing the motivation of habitual action, since with habitual action it can easily be the case that there is no assignable motive beyond just doing the action. (And, of course, on the other side, having only this minimal motive may still be quite consistent with very rational action.)

    Have you not here failed to notice, Brandon, the form of my own sentence quoted above? That form, as I’m sure you will agree, indicates that what follows “only when” is a necessary condition of being pointless in my sense rather than a sufficient condition. And your criticism here seems to treat that necessary condition as if it were a sufficient condition. The presence of an overwhelmingly powerful motive to refrain from some action can also render it utterly pointless, particularly when there is no non-trivial motive for doing it, and that excludes, I think, your example of normal habitual behavior. Accordingly, let’s look at the full example:

    Suppose that the parents of a young boy should discover, to their horror, that they must keep their son away from fire, lest he thrust his hand into the fire and hold it there. Suppose further that their son has a normal nervous system and experiences the normal sensations of pain; hence, the boy not only has no discernible motive for his irrational behavior, but also has the strongest possible motive for refraining from such behavior. Here we might imagine that when the boy does thrust his hand into the fire, he screams in agony and terror, but he nonetheless does not withdraw his hand. Nor does he show, let us suppose, any sign of a compulsion to get to the fire and thrust his hand into it; he sometimes just does it for no discernible reason and in a context where nothing seems to force him to do it.

    Now one might say, I suppose, that our young boy habitually thrusts his hand into fire because this is precisely what he wants to do. But given his normal nervous system and his screaming in agony and terror, such a trivial attribution of motive makes no sense at all to me, certainly not in this particular case. For unlike more normal habitual behavior, we have here imagined a case where the boy would seem to have an overwhelmingly powerful motive to refrain from such irrational behavior. Would you not agree that such irrational behavior seems utterly pointless and could not possibly qualify as an instance of free action?

    I do not claim, by the way, that there is such a thing as an action without any intelligible motive at all. If the putative action of the young boy in my example above is indeed without an intelligible motive, as it seems to be, then perhaps it is not a real action at all and certainly not a free action. But as for the issue of whether there are discernible and non-trivial motives for sin, I’m still wondering how you would answer the question I posed in my previous post: “Are you suggesting,” I asked, “that a man who robs a bank has no discernible motive for his action?”

    Thanks for the continued interaction.

    -Tom

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    • Tom,
      If it is a necessary condition for pointlessness that there be no possible motive, this is logically inconsistent with claiming that you can also get pointlessness with a motive. “A only when B” says in logical terms that if there is no B, there is no A. So I don’t think it says what you intended it to say.

      I think your example runs into problems with your reliance on discernibility, since discernibility is a matter of available evidence. In addition, while we have no discernible motive that would hold up to certain standards of rational behavior, we do have evidence that he has some kind of motive for holding his hand in the fire — namely, the evidence is that he does hold his hand in the fire and there appears to be no compulsion for it, and (at least part of) the motive that that establishes is that he does it to hold his hand in the fire.

      I had thought I answered your question — at least, I intended for it to be taken as an answer: all human actions originating with the person in question appear to have at least minimal motives, so it doesn’t make any sense to tie pointlessness to motivelessness; if we did assume that there are any actions without motives, there are plenty of accounts of moral psychology in which sins would, considered as sins, be the most plausible candidates for motivelessness, so that’s a reason to think the cases might be analogous; even that aside, when people sin, this always involves something uncompelled but irrational, even if we are more used to the sinning and so treat it as normal, so that’s another reason to think sinning and hand-in-fire analogous thus far. And for the last reason it also still seems to be the case that you must be relying on the ‘forever’ to get the idea of pointlessness, since we already know that people can reject God, sin, refuse help, etc., freely and without compulsion, for finite periods of time.

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      • Tom Talbott says:

        I guess I’m just not following you, Brandon. You wrote: “If it is a necessary condition for pointlessness that there be no possible motive, this is logically inconsistent with claiming that you can also get pointlessness with a motive.”

        Are you not here simply confusing the pointlessness of doing A with the pointlessness of refraining from A? Surely having an overwhelmingly powerful motive to refrain from A can contribute to the pointlessness of doing A. If a mother has an overwhelmingly powerful motive to refrain from torturing her beloved baby, then that might partly explain why she has no motive to engage in such torture and also why doing so would be utterly pointless.

        Am I missing something here?

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        • I don’t understand what you’re asking with regard to doing and refraining. Your claim was that an action is pointless only when in context there can be no possible motive for the action. For this reason, I don’t think your example is consistent with your claim; if you have an overwhelmingly powerful motive to refrain from X, this doesn’t in any obvious way tell us anything about the pointlessness (or not) of X; assessing the latter as you originally characterized it seems to require considering not motives for refraining from X but only motives for doing X (if any). It could be that a motive for refraining from X may “partly explain” why there is no motive for doing X, as you say; but this doesn’t seem relevant; it is only when the context provides no possible motive for doing X that pointlessness is even on the table, and that can’t be determined without considering motives for doing X.

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          • Tom Talbott says:

            Good point, Brandon. I think you are absolutely right in everything you say in this latest post, and I now see more clearly why we seemed to be talking past each other. Indeed, it looks as if I am the one who became confused in this particular exchange. Thank you for clearing that up.

            In retrospect I got things off to a bad start, it seems, with the following poorly framed sentence: “An action is utterly pointless in my sense only when the context in which it occurs permits no possible motive for doing it, not even a sinful or a selfish one.” There are two things wrong with that sentence. First, the term “possible motive” is way too strong. For even in cases of severe mental illness or brain damage, cases where most would agree that there is no moral freedom and no genuine moral responsibility, there are still possible motives for utterly irrational behavior.

            Second, my poorly framed sentence also obscured the issue, which I discuss in the book, of how to distinguish a free choice, as a libertarian might understand it, from a purely random event or chance occurrence. I thus wrote that such “a free choice requires not only indeterminism in certain kinds of contexts, but a minimal degree of rationality as well. The latter is required in order to distinguish a causally indeterminate choice from a purely random event or chance occurrence, such as the unpredictable change of state of a radium atom, and it also limits the range of possible free choice. That which is utterly pointless, utterly irrational, and utterly inexplicable will simply not qualify as a free choice for which one is morally responsible.”

            So the issue here does not concern, in the first instance, whether there are possible motives for a given choice; it concerns instead the nature of the rationality that moral freedom requires. I do hold that a fully informed decision to reject the true God (no need to inject the word “forever” here) would simply be too irrational to qualify as a free moral decision or a decision for which one might be morally responsible; hence, no one rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could possibly make such a decision. I also know that you disagree with this, even as I disagree with your view that “All sin is already utterly pointless, etc., qua sin….” But in any event, that is the issue upon which I should have remained focused in order to generate a more fruitful discussion.

            -Tom

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  6. Grant says:

    I feel the feeling of a need for a space for libertarian freedom still remains one of putting tge cart before the horse. Without fully being free in your nature and fully your nature, and to be orientated towards the telos of your created nature, that is to be human and grow more in tge image and likeness of God, to particpate in the life of God more and more, a person is less and less free, and cannot appended or understand or know clearly to act freely, to be able to make some continued action towards or not to God. It assumes there is some freedom of being that be found outside of God, outside of His continued creation of us or participation in His Life, but there is no such thing, outside God and His creation of all things is nothing and to be non-existent at all, and that would include thoughts, consciencness etc, that is ever donated and given by God, and acting on it is to always respond and respond to God and particpate in Him to various extents. God is ever present, the true transcendent reality from and in which we are percieve and are able to know and interact with anything else at all, all is done by and through Him (in Him we live, move and have our being). And all creation is both part of this interaction and reaches in often faltering ways towards God, it is nature of being, all things work through God and orientated towards Him, everything is part of this, all things are part of this and are given being and live and exist by exchanging and responding to God in all things finding it’s way to Him more and therefore full being and life and more freedom.

    And this is centrally true of humans, every act of our being and life reaches beyond itself to God, everything we do however damaging and confused is a reach towards Him and our true being (even if it has the opposite effect) and is only possible by interaction and particpation in and by Him, by His already revealed presence, the drive to become more and more in the image and likeness of God and is a choice whose deepest purpose is reaching to God, that drive of essential being is behind all act, desire and choice. To have another choice in thst regard is nonsensical to me, as there is no such thing, to choice or will to is reaching towards God, it is being, the opposite would still be a reach and motivation for God for fuliment, aims and purposes that have and end that goes beyond itself (however warped the actual desire and disordered passion has become) that ends and is orientated to God, to have being and even more consciencness and rationality even to some degree is to by the nature of being so to act in and towards Being and Reality, the foundation and terminus of being and our being in particular at all, and all aspects of it.

    There is no choice against God or act against God in that ultimate sensesense, there is only the lack of understanding and warping of our nature and corruption of death that effects us realising our humanity and particpating in and to God and growing in and to Him and the wrong actions, choices and behaviours in how we respond, react and reach towards God which places us in more confusion and darkened being and mind, and a nature that is not free, and is not living or functioning freely. But the ultimate sense is not even a choice, to have existence is to be and act and towards God, including thoughts, desires, will etc, all is of and reaches towards Him, otherwise we would not be at all, as all being and choice is already one that is always reaching and responding to God, that is what it is to be at all, to think at all, any attitude or action is founded in a response, action and desire towards God, there is real choice against, since to choose is to be abd reach in that choice beyond itself towards God, Being and Reality Himself. The other option in reality is only possible in not being, and then you wouldn’t be and would not exist to make any choice at all.

    God is not like just some other being who we can stand in some true manner independent from as thought in relation to another person as if we had existence in and of ourselves and were not contingent, and could act and be and somehow also not act towards and try to act towards God is Being Himself. That is to think of a god, however powerful and not God Himself, to act away from God rather than just disorderedly attempting to reach and interact with Him, being a damaged abd warped response does not seem cohorent to me, it not something that is possible by the fact of being at all, to be at all means you cannot non-be or act with non-being against God, since that very act and life is a act and desire towards Him however broken it is.

    And God’s love is not to be reduced to giving us some choice to just respond or not (particularly where the alternative choice gives destruction and pain and dehumanization, which doesn’t seem to provide any more true love than the supposed removal of choices suggested above does, that would be the same as someone saying respond to my love to stay by this war fire otherwise your outside to perish in the cold, that dosen’t seem any truer love or actual choice, it would remain one choice only or destruction, not two choices). Instead God’s love donates being fir creation and us in it to be and live at all, and through and in Him grow in being and love in Him more and more because He is Being, and He is Love, there is no seperating from Him or or we would not be at all. And in being damaged, warped and damaged increasingly in our response, not truly knowing what we do and under the effect of death (that of non-being warping us and enslaving us at all levels, preventing the realisation of our full nature and personhood, and so exist and live free, and to be able to think, react and choose in real freedom of being and action) the response is one of redemption and rescue from our slavery and sickness in our that we can be free. This works now where we are in different situations to strip and pierce our self-delusions and illusions and the darkening diming death has on our lives, vision and understanding to let us see more clearly and respond to light before us and being to see what we are aiming for and desire, to heal us and help us being free. The final filling of crea2and ourselves with His love and revealing fully our lives in Him who is the Truth removing any darkness of self delusion to hide in, destroyibg death and it’s effects in us is not some exercise to remove freedom but is the same salvation that comes in the Son of God uniting with humanity so we can be free, and through us all creation. The final part of liberation from futility, decay and delusion and unreality in order that we can live and be free and csn live, act, live, choice and create freely, and while as with trauma to begin if possible treatment more gently in the situation, as things become worse only removing from the situation will effect healing and liberty to be free, the enfing of illusions allows someone so darkened by them to actually be free to be able really choose and live at all. Otherwise dominated by and illusion anf warped vision of reality and decayed and unfree nature, you cannit choose, respond or truly live st all. And that is no choice, and certainly no love or the choice of love.

    I think the radical difference between God and finite created and dependent beings who have their being in and towards Him makes discussions like these and about God’s act of live towards and how He donates and creates choice and freedom radically different than it would be in thinking of responding to a version of a Deist god.

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