“Every instance of finite becoming or thought or desire subsists in the creature’s ‘ecstasy’ out of nonbeing into the infinite splendor of God”

What then, one might well ask, is divine providence? Certainly all Christians must affirm God’s transcendent governance of everything, even fallen history and fallen nature, and must believe that by that governance he will defeat evil and bring the final good of all things out of the darkness of “this age.” It makes a considerable difference, however—nothing less than our understanding of the nature of God is at stake—whether one says that God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass therein, as the proper or necessary means of achieving his ends, or whether one says instead that God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring it to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things toward his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operations of grace. And it is only the latter view than can accurately be called a doctrine of “providence” in the properly theological sense; the former view is mere determinism.

God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills. But there is no contradiction in saying that, in his omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time, God can both allow created freedom its scope and yet so constitute the world that nothing can prevent him from bringing about the beatitude of his Kingdom. Indeed we must say this: as God did not will the fall, and yet always wills all things toward himself, the entire history of sin and death is in an ultimate sense a pure contingency, one that is not as such desired by God, but that is nevertheless constrained by providence to serve his transcendent purpose. God does not will evil in the sinner. Neither does he will that the sinner should perish (2 Peter 3:9; Ezek. 33:11). He does not place evil in the heart. He does not desire the convulsive reign of death in nature. But neither will he suffer defeat in these things.

Providence works at the level of what Aquinas would call primary causality: that is, it is so transcendent of the operation of secondary causes—which is to say, finite and contingent causes immanent to the realm of created things—that it can at once create freedom and also assure that no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accomplishing the good he intends in all things. This is the same as saying that the transcendent act of creation, though it grants existence to creatures out of the plenitude of God’s being, nonetheless brings forth beings that are genuinely other than God, without there being any “conflict” between his infinite actuality and their contingent participation in it. As God is the source and end of all being, nothing that is can be be completely alienated from him; all things exist by virtue of being called from nothingness towards his goodness; every instance of finite becoming or thought or desire subsists in the creature’s “ecstasy” out of nonbeing into the infinite splendor of God. And it is for just this reason that providence does not and cannot in any way betray the true freedom of the creature: every free movement of the will is possible only by virtue of the more primordial longing of all things for the beauty of God (to borrow the language of Maximus the Confessor, our “gnomic will” depends upon our “natural will”), and so every free act—even the act of hating God—arises from and is sustained by a more original love of God. It is impossible to desire anything without implicitly desiring the infinite source of all things; even the desire of the suicide for the peace of oblivion is born of a love of self—however tragically distorted it has become—that is itself born of a deeper love from the God from whom the self comes and to whom the self is called.

This original vocation of the creature—which is the very ground of our existence—is heaven in us, and indeed hell. As Zosima tells Alyosha (again following Isaac the Syrian and a larger Eastern Christian mystical tradition), what we call hell is nothing but the rage and remorse of the soul that will not yield itself to love. The natural will must return to God, no matter what, but if the freedom of the gnomic will refuses to open itself to the mercy and glory of God, the wrathful soul experiences the transfiguring and deifying fire of love not as bliss but as chastisement and despair. The highest freedom and happiness of the creature … is the perfection of the creature’s nature in union with God. And the highest work of providential grace is to set our deepest, “natural” will free from everything (even the abuse of our freedom) that would separate us from that end, all the time preserving the dignity of the divine image within us.

David Bentley Hart

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12 Responses to “Every instance of finite becoming or thought or desire subsists in the creature’s ‘ecstasy’ out of nonbeing into the infinite splendor of God”

  1. Karen says:

    Oh, how I love a great DBH quote! (Just finished reading The Experience of God, btw. Very satisfying read and definitely mind expanding, since I haven’t had much philosophy or comparative religion. I found it much more accessible than Beauty of the Infinite.)

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  2. AR says:

    Reblogged this on Curmudgeon In Training and commented:
    This is one of those theological writings that is argued so well that everything said seems simply obvious and common-sense. Well done, David Bentley Hart, and thank you Fr. Aiden Kimel!

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  3. 407kwac says:

    Recent comments by Perry Robinson over at O&H’s most recent post on Universalism offer a critique of what he understands as DBH’s take on Maximus. Would love to see an interaction between the two of them on this. For instance, I haven’t understood Hart to be teaching “gnomic” will is permanent anywhere here–surely it can’t be in the peccable sense if Hart is a convinced species of Trinitarian Universalist. Perhaps Perry can point us to where he is getting that here as he says it’s this blog. ISTM once a human person is purged of his sin, his personal will will perfectly align with his natural will and no longer be peccable. But I’m at a disadvantage not having read Maximus. Is gnomic inherently a sinning will or only an inherently personal will, subject to sin? Is there a difference? Why or why not?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      DBH might, of course, be wrong in his reading of St Maximus; but if he is, he’s in good scholarly company. The one thing I do know about DBH: he has read widely in Maximus in the original Greek, and he has read widely in the secondary literature. As far as PR, what are his credentials? what scholarly articles and books has he published? Is he a Maximian scholar? a patristics scholar?

      407, all you and I can do is to consider the arguments and provisionally decide for ourselves. It cannot be solely a matter of counting heads, whether they be the heads of scholars or Church Fathers. That’s not how theological debates are resolved. The question is not “What did St Maximus believe about apokatastasis?” The question is, “What were his reasons and arguments for whatever he did believe about it?” If we can identify them, then maybe we can determine whether his reasons are convincing. That’s what the theological tradition is all about.

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      • Karen says:

        All I know about PR is here:
        https://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/about/
        I don’t know if he knows Greek. If he does, he seems essentially self-taught. And he has apparently made special study of St. Maximus (also self-taught?). Unless Robinson has done some post-graduate work, clearly DBH is the more academically learned of the two.

        The point of my comment was essentially that I would like to understand the arguments better (not having the educational background of either of these men). That’s why I was wishing for a response “from the horse’s mouth”, so to speak. I’ve found some of Robinson’s blog work informative and I respect his efforts, but The Doors of the Sea has endeared DBH to me in a special way. He spoke eloquently to my heart in that book. Right or wrong, I confess I gravitate toward those who speak to my heart, and from theirs, and whose message stirs the same impulses there in me that the Gospels do. I trust DBH will flesh out some of his thinking about St. Maximus in his next book.

        Karen

        P.S. Sorry, when I post from my iPhone. it doesn’t give me the opportunity to change my WordPress ID and use my name.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Hi, Karen. I didn’t recognize previous post as yours. For discussion of Maximus’s views on apokatastasis, you might begin with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy and Illaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis.

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          • Karen says:

            Thanks for the recommendations. I did try Ramelli’s book once, bu it was too academic for me to be accessible. The only other language I have ever learned was French (and I’m no longer proficient, even in that). If I knew Latin and Greek, it would be different. I’ll have to try von Balthasar.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Ramelli is working on a much shorter, more accessible volume on apokatastasis, intended for a wider audience.

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      • No Man's Land says:

        Father Aidan I think DBH puts his own spin on the gnomic will, but within reason it seems to me. I don’t see that it contradicts Maximus’ understanding of gnome anymore than Maximus contradicted himself on that point.

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    • No Man's Land says:

      Karen my response to Perry at O&H follows:

      This comment is a tissue of confusions.

      First, it is a decent interpretive principle to interpret one’s opponent as charitably as one can. Indeed it helps avoid erecting men of straw, as you have done.

      Second, on the gnomic will, it is not a will so much as it is a movement of the will–it is, fundamentally at least, the moving towards sin when broken or the Good when working.

      Third, Hart has never, at least not in anything I have read, said the gnomic will was permanent in the way you imagine. What he has said is that the gnomic will depends on the natural will, so that we are free to the extent that we bring the gnomic will into harmony with the natural will. That is, true freedom lies in the permanance of the natural will which, by God’s grace over time, reduces the gnomic will to itself. So that even if the gnomic will remains, in some basic sense, it is essentially identical to the natural will. και τα λοιπα

      Fourth, the gnome arises precisely because of sin, indeed it is not a thing in itself. That is, the gnome is not a will, it is a custom or orientation or habit or what have you of the will. So Christ did not have sin but did he have the human disposition towards sin? Again, the issue is not “did Christ have sin?” but “to what extent did he experience the human tendency towards sin?” I think Maximus answers differently at different times to this question, but I seem to think that our Lord did live with that sinful tendency, but was unaffected by it because he was perfectly oriented towards the Good as such. That is, Christ lived in perfect harmony with the natural will. But Christ did not lack the gnomic will, for it is not a will as such, only the habit of moving away from orienting oneself toward the Good as such, i.e., a habit towards sin, which our Lord could possess without being affected by sin.

      The point here, though, is that you seem to think the gnomic will is a will itself apart from the natural will, but that is not what Maximus thinks, and I think Hart only thinks this to the extent that the gnomic will is completely perfected (free) in the natural will. Without this distinction of ‘real’ wills, your argument falls apart.

      Fifth, again, the gnome is the movement of the will towards or away from sin. The natural will is the logos, the essential will. The point is you can live as you want (gnomic will) but you can only be free to the extent that how you live is matched up with the natural will, one’s essence. Otherwise, your freedom rests in ignorance or madness or what have you which is incoherent because it means we are free to the extent that we are ignorant or mad. This means that a gnomic will that is not, as you say, “effective” is not free or at least fully free.

      Last, the idea that God could create a world where one soul is lost is absurd. It is almost like saying God could create a world where he is not God. God is the Good as such or he is not. If he is the Good as such, he cannot, on pain of contradiction, create a world where one soul is lost. It is contrary to the divine nature. The world is contingent, but God’s nature is not, yet that is what your little thought experiment implies. So I am afraid you are confused–God cannot create the sorts of worlds you think possible, for they are logically impossible, given God is the Good as such.

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