“To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably”

Currently, the most popular way of defending the notion of an eternal torment is an appeal to creaturely freedom and to God’s respect for its dignity, but there could scarcely be a poorer argument—whether it’s made crudely as by William Lane Craig or elegantly by Eleonore Stump, it is going to fail. It wouldn’t if we could construct a metaphysics or phenomenology of the will’s liberty that was purely voluntarist, purely spontaneous, though even then we would have to explain how an absolutely libertarian act, obedient to no rationale whatsoever, would be distinguishable from sheer chance or mindless organic or mechanical impulse, and so any more free than an earthquake or embolism. But on any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented towards the good and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil. One can take the evil for the good, but that doesn’t alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it and so never having been free to choose it. It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them, or his respect for their freedom, than to say that a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.

David Bentley Hart

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55 Responses to “To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably”

  1. Very good. Reminds me of Moltmann’s main point in his article “The Logic of Hell“:

    “The logic of hell is nothing other than the logic of human free will, in so far as this is identical with freedom of choice. The theological argument runs as follows: ‘God whose being is love preserves our human freedom, for freedom is the condition of love. Although God’s love goes, and has gone, to the uttermost, plumbing the depth of hell, the possibility remains for each human being of a final rejection of God, and so of eternal life’ (198). Does God’s love preserve our free will, or does it free our enslaved will, which has become un-free though the power of sin? Does God love free men and women, or does he seek the men and women who have become lost? It is apparently not Augustine who is the Father of Anglo-Saxon Christianity; the Church Father who secretly presides over it is his opponent Pelagius. And it is Erasmus who is the saint of modern times, not Luther or Calvin…

    The logic of hell seems to me not merely inhumane but also extremely atheistic: here the human being in his freedom of choice is his own lord and god. His own will is his heaven — or his hell. God is merely the accessory who puts that will to effect. If I decide for heaven, God must put me there; if I decide for hell, he has to leave me there. If God has to abide by our free decision, then we can do with him what we like. Is that ‘the love of God’? Free human beings forge their own happiness and are their own executioners. They do not just dispose over their lives here; they decide on their eternal destinies as well. So they have no need of any God at all. After a God has perhaps created us free as we are, he leaves us to our fate. Carried to this ultimate conclusion, the logic of hell is secular humanism, as Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche already perceived a long time ago…

    The true universality of God’s grace is not grounded in ‘secular humanism’. It is on that humanism, rather — as the logic of free will shows — that the double end is based: heaven — hell, being — non-being. But the universality of God’s grace is grounded on the theology of the cross. This is the way it was presented by all the Christian theologians who were criticized for preaching ‘universal reconciliation’, most recently Karl Barth…

    Judgment is not God’s last word. Judgment establishes in the world the divine righteousness on which the new creation is to be built. But God’s last word is ‘Behold, I make all things new’ (Rev 21:5). From this no one is excepted. Love is God’s compassion with the lost. Transforming grace is God’s punishment for sinners. It is not the right to choose that defines the reality of human freedom. It is the doing of the good.”

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    • 407kwac says:

      Great quote. I entertain a species of Orthodox universalist hope (one that does not preclude the possibility of hell’s suffering in the intermediate state for those whose repentance was not completed in this life) because I find it the most logically and spiritually coherent of what seem to be the options out there, given all of the biblical and patristic data included in the Orthodox spiritual tradition.

      Karen

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    • Great Comment Matthew – Left me refreshed & positive in head and heart.
      Cheers!

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  2. Shane says:

    Hello Fr. Al,

    Why would a Christian universalist reject the possibility that a person could continue to give in to false or disordered desires without end? To take a trite example, let’s say I love cookies (as, in fact, I do!), but I know it’s not good for me to eat a cookie every time I want one. Yet, even though I don’t eat a cookie every time I want one, nonetheless I still eat cookies way more than I should. So far as anyone can tell, this pattern never changes in my life; perhaps it worsens gradually. Why is it impossible, from a Christian universalist standpoint, for such a situation to continue?

    Thanks.
    Peace,
    Shane

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    • 407kwac says:

      Perhaps because your love of the cookie is related to physical appetites you will no longer have beyond the grave? Because you will, perhaps for the very first time, be able to see clearly the only One who satisfies all your deepest longings and know Him as the True Object of all your desire (when you come before Him in the particular judgment)?

      Is it possible or reasonable to envision both the physical drives and fantasy that fed your disordered gluttonous urge as having been destroyed through the separation of soul from body? It only remains then to overcome the anguish and torment of regret of having spent your earthly life living in such a way as to thwart your union with Him. The Church teaches this is impossible apart from the prayers of the Church and the grace of God, which is why we pray even for the departed, who can no longer change the way they have lived while in the body.

      It is actually very easy for me to see how we may be released from base sins rooted in the body’s appetites through death. It is more difficult for me to imagine how we might be set free from more serious spiritual sins where we have become very invested in the prideful self-delusion of the false self. Yet, even here it is the teaching of St. Maximus that even this sort of idolatrous love of the false self is rooted in an irradicable love of God more fundamental still to our human nature than all idolatrous loves we have pursued in our spiritual blindness.

      Karen

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Shane. I touch on this question in my last two review articles of Jerry Walls’s book Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: “The Irrationality of Hell” and “Is Hell a Place You’d Want to Visit?” As you’ll see, I think Tom Talbott gets the better of the argument, but others, of course, disagree.

      Can I envision (apart from divine intervention) an individual surrendering to disordered desires over and over again, ad infinitum? Sure I can. But such a person is captive to his passions and therefore, by definition, incapable of freely and rationally choosing hell as his eternal destiny. Talbott discusses this at some length in his book The Inescapable Love of God. I commend it to you.

      Alcoholics know that they cannot stop their drinking by the mere exercise of will. What is the first step toward sobriety: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” There’s something quite mysterious about the “conversion” that happens in the life of the addict. It of course involves the exercise of the will, yet there’s also something more. There’s surrender … and grace.

      I realize that the above hardly begins to answer your question and generates a host of new questions. We all know addicts who have been in treatment numerous times and afterwards return to their drug of choice. But the mere fact that we recognize that they need treatment tells at the very least that their freedom is impaired, to some degree or another.

      So what is God going to do with all of us sin-addicts?

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    • No Man's Land says:

      The fact that you choose to eat cookies way more than you should is merely the result of you being ignorant of the degree to which the distant evil (unhealthy end–diabetes, heart disease, cancer, shorter life, etc) exceeds the more immediate pleasure (tastes good, momentary comfort, etc). In other words, the pleasure you derive from eating cookies is out of proportion to the larger pleasure of a healthy and long life. It is what Plato called being ignorant of the art of measurement, an inability to properly weigh “excess and defect and equality” in terms of pleasures and pains.

      And we are all of us guilty of being ignorant of the art of measurement, so don’t feel bad. 🙂

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  3. Jonathan says:

    “No one can freely will the evil as evil.”

    I find this assertion incredibly sanguine. Moreover, like Shane, I have personally refuted it on an almost daily basis. I think universalists need to stop chasing the ignis fatuus of free will.

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    • 407kwac says:

      I don’t find it sanguine to admit that no one can desire the evil of suicide (I have three extended family members who have committed suicide), for example, if they did not first mistake it for some reason as a greater good than the alternative. Nothing can be properly judged for what it is apart from a clear perspective of its place in light of what is eternal. Where this is obscured as it is in some measure for even the believers among us (St. Paul says “we see through a glass darkly”), it is not hard at all for me to accept that a desire for what is evil cannot be considered to be truly “free” in a meaningful way. This strikes me as a very biblical understanding (Romans 7 is another passage that comes to mind here). It seems to me the will is only truly free to the extent it is set free through personal encounter with Christ.

      Karen

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      • Jonathan says:

        To me, the plain sense of what DBH has written in this excerpt is wrong. Anyhow, it is a view of human psychology that makes no sense inside a (modern Catholic) confessional, or in a criminal court, or on the stage of a tragedy. One can prevaricate, and posit competing layers of consciousness deeper than any scheme Freud would ever concoct, or defer to the eschaton, but I think that’s dodging the point. I’m not denying that we see through a glass darkly and make mistakes, get into bad habits, give in to temptation, etc. Who could deny this? What gets me most is the part where Hart says we cannot freely will evil. I don’t understand why anyone would want to make this weirdly genteel claim. Because it is obvious to me that sometimes we don’t just struggle to peer into the darkened glass and see something that’s not really there, sometimes we deliberately take the glass and shatter it on the ground. People freely will and execute evil all the time, in full knowledge and by their own admission that the nature of their intention is evil, or morally wrong. People premeditate elaborate schemes of wrongdoing. They deliberately, with great artistry and cunning, betray and cheat one another, and go to astounding lengths to conceal themselves from what they know to be rightful, not merely legal or ‘socially constructed’ moral censure. It is not all just missing the mark and falling short. We also have the capacity to take careful aim and nail the wrong target in the bull’s eye. To me, this aspect of our nature is “truly ‘free’ in a meaningful way,” as opposed to some sort of seeming freedom. I don’t deny the profound truth of what Paul is saying in Romans 7. I’m saying there’s an even nastier side of things he doesn’t cover there. Shakespeare captures this truth in the character of Iago in the play Othello. More recently, the great novelist Cormack McCarthy, in his novel Blood Meridian, presented a portrait of the full human capacity for evil that I find hauntingly true.

        If the will is only free through personal encounter with Christ, then we live in a world where very few people have free will, and moreover one in which it is impossible to verify whether any particular individual has it. Now, maybe that’s the case. But if so, it undermines the utility of the concept of free will in a fairly major way. In any event, it is certainly not the kind of free will Hart is talking about here. He seems to be saying that we all have a free will, and that for this reason none of us can truly be said to will evil as evil. Hart seems to be equating evil with error. Furthermore, he casts the good as tantamount with the desirable. Willing and desiring seem to amount to the same thing, too, a proposition I find iffy at best. Hart says that all that’s needed for us to will, or desire, the real good in lieu of our mistaken ideas of the good (totally distinct from willing evil) is some sort of overwhelming encounter with that real good — a personal encounter with Christ, you might insist. But this claim, too, seems problematic to me. The spiritual life is full of all sorts of ups and downs, reversals and divagations. It’s not a one-off event. We lose sight of the truth even once it’s been vouchsafed to us. Or we catch a glimpse of reality but have no idea how to act on that fleeting revelation, and perhaps even blunder worse in trying to catch another glimpse. That dark glass stays dark this whole life long, even when we don’t deliberately break it. This is an empirical fact, not a metaphysical proposition.

        What Hart writes here looks to me much more like an Enlightenment model of human nature than anything I recognize in the western Christian tradition or from my own experience of life and of Christian conversion. I think I would sooner say that ultimately there is no such thing as evil than admit that a person cannot freely will evil. As for the existence of a “prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire,” I’m agnostic on that point. It sounds more pagan than Christian to me. Even if it’s so, I don’t see how it prevents consciously desiring and accomplishing evil. I’m not going to go seduce a woman and then come tell my wife that she can’t be mad at me because of the prior transcendental orientation of my desire.

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        • Mike H says:

          DBH’s doesn’t seem to be saying that once a person (even momentarily) recognizes the good as good that a person becomes instantly and naturally incapable of ever choosing to do anything that’s recognized as evil. At least not the way that I read it.

          His point, the way I read it, is that a person cannot recognize and choose evil merely because it is evil – as an end in itself. Yes, obviously we all do things that we recognize to be evil according to a perceived standard, whether internal or external. But is there ever a case where some greater “good” (twisted though it may be) is not in view?

          I’m thinking of Milton’s Satan – “Evil be thou my good.” (Just saw that Fr Aiden referenced this same quote).

          Choosing to eat cookies (to go with the example above) even though they may have harmful effects on me isn’t the same thing as eating them for the sake of their harmful effects alone. If a person did eat cookies intentionally for the harmful effects, I’d have to question if there was (even unconsciously) some other end in mind – that the intended harmful effects were going to be used for some other perceived “good” end – or if there is some kind of addiction going on, something that wouldn’t make it a “free” decision.

          I think that there is always some internal process of weighing the alternatives going on, not in a conscious and rational “list the pros and cons” sort of way, but in a way that may be largely hidden from our conscious selves.

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        • No Man's Land says:

          “What Hart writes here looks to me much more like an Enlightenment model of human nature than anything I recognize in the western Christian tradition or from my own experience of life and of Christian conversion”

          Well, that cannot be right. It is Plato. Read what Socrates says in Protagoras

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jonathan, yours is a serendipitous comment, as I just read a passage in Hugh McCann’s Creation and the Sovereignty of God that speaks to your concern:

      Our primary aim in wrongdoing is always some anticipated good. Indeed, the entire idea that one could will something for the sake of the evil in it has a paradoxical ring—rather like saying one could believe something insofar as one takes it to be false. The guiding purpose of a thief is not to steal but to gain wealth, and the things wealth can bring; the coward who flees the battlefield wishes not to abandon cause and comrade, but to preserve his life. (p. 117)

      This is not some Enlightenment innovation. As McCann notes in a footnote, it was a commonplace in medieval philosophy (see, e.g., Aquinas). It has its roots in Plato and Aristotle.

      You comment that you disprove Hart’s claim every day in your life. I’d like to respectfully challenge your interpretation. If sin were a matter of choosing evil as evil, you would be playing out Milton’s Paradise Lost on a daily basis: “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost,” Lucifer declares, “Evil, be thou my good.” But these words are spoken by Lucifer only after his fall into eternal perdition, as he begins to realize the utter futility and infinite cost of his rebellion. A more realistic scenario of human sin is expressed in the story of the Garden. Eve is persuaded by the tempter that eating the fruit will benefit her: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:6). “Father forgive them,” our Lord declares from the cross, “for they know not what they do.”

      What would it mean to will evil for the sake of evil? I honestly do not know what this means and doubt it has a coherent meaning. There is, after all, no such thing as pure evil. That was the heresy of Manichaeism. Thus the Church Fathers spoke of evil as privation. It is always parasitic upon the good.

      I do understand what it means to choose a lesser good instead of a greater good. That is the pattern of my life. It takes multifarious forms. Perhaps I am mistaken about the real goods of my happiness. Perhaps I prefer immediate pleasure to delayed pleasure. But always I am driven by the quest for happiness, no matter how perverted my desires have become. Herbert McCabe puts it this way:

      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. (God Still Matters, p. 185)

      Needless to say, the analysis is not driven by the universalist hope. It is driven, rather, by the biblical affirmation we are created in the Image of God, dynamically oriented to the Good.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Father, thank you for the response. To a great extent I agree. Your comparison of Paradise Lost and the Genesis story (not as it appears in PL) is very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way before and will have to think on it some more. Right now, though, I’d say that the sin of our first parents in the Garden doesn’t seem to me a good model for all subsequent, postlapsarian sin. It would more likely be Milton’s Satan, in the comparison, who would furnish a model for our sinfulness, because he, like us, is already fallen, whereas Adam and Eve were not yet fallen in the moment of the Fall.

        On the matter of PL there is a well known phenomenon whereby readers at least since the late 18th century have overwhelmingly found Satan very compelling, the heavenly scenes and angelic utterances excruciatingly boring, and Adam (not so much Eve) a bit stodgy most of the time. There is a very excellent book on Paradise Lost by Stanley Fish, called Surprised by Sin. Perhaps you know it. Fish’s idea in that book is that Milton intended his poem to function in just that way. He actually intended Satan to be the most human character. He also intended us to realize how twisted we are when we recognize the appeal that his depiction of Satan holds for us, hence the being surprised by (our) sin. This is the most compelling interpretation of Paradise Lost I have ever read, and it probably shines light on my own position. I realize comparing oneself to Milton is not exactly to defend one’s orthodoxy, but there you have it. Ich kann nicht anders. Then again, I’ve never been convinced Milton was quite the heretic people seem to think he was.

        I admit that I do not find privatio boni to be an adequate definition of evil. I don’t think God created an actual, existent evil either. Neither am I Manichaean. I think we (or any rational, moral creature, like angels perhaps) create evil in instances other than when we fall short of the good, which shortcoming is also, to be sure, a kind of evil. I believe that, being made in God’s image, we are endowed with some degree of real creative power. Synergy I guess this is called. Well, if it’s real then it means evil is more than just getting it wrong. As near as I can reckon it anyway.

        I don’t know that I have much of an argument. I only know that when I apply the privatio boni model to real life it comes up short, it doesn’t ring true. Not all the time. Much of the time it does. Much of the time Jesus’ words from the cross are just what a Christian should have foremost in mind when pondering evil — especially the evil he thinks he sees in his neighbors and loved ones. But I just can’t fathom something like the Catholic confession of a “mortal” sin — with its three conditions of being a grave matter committed in full knowledge with deliberate consent — being somehow “not knowing what you’re doing” or mistaking an evil for a good. What are we asking forgiveness for if not willful, conscious transgression? I don’t think God condemns us for error born of ignorance (although it is surely right to repent of that as well, once we’ve been made to recognize it). I didn’t always feel this way, but lately I’ve come to appreciate the western Church’s condemnation of the stubborn persistence in mortal sin. That is something I believe people can really do, and it is not, to my mind, a phenomenon that the description of evil and consciousness DBH articulates can account for.

        The point of contention might lie in this: I doubt that having a goal is synonymous with perceiving a good, that desiring X always means “intending the good that I perceive X to be.” If you were a lawyer defending a client accused of premeditated murder, would you bring that argument to court? But the really revealing site, for me, is the confessional. When a person says, “I did a terrible, disgusting thing, and I knew it was evil and illicit, but I did it anyway for the pleasure I thought it would afford me, and in fact did afford me” — this is not to confess to an intellectual error, but to a perverted will. Saying that evil is merely the mistaking of an evil for a good, first of all implicitly counts evil as a positively existent thing (which construal, as I said, I’m fine with), and secondly supposes that acts of evil follow from intellectual errors. There’s my problem. We’re supposed to be talking about the will. Either it is perverted — fallen — or it is not. Our overall nature may be oriented toward the good, but that doesn’t mean our will is in this life. The intellect is clouded, the will is defective. I’m all for giving people the benefit of the doubt. The Gospel ethic says this is what one must do. But sometimes you do it and people make you look the naive fool. Again, the Gospel says when that happens you turn the other cheek. Nevertheless, one doesn’t deny that it happens.

        I like the McCabe quotation much better than the excerpt from Hart. I just remain unconvinced by my own life experience that a statement like McCabe’s goes far enough. he is describing what happens much of the time, not all the time. Like I said, I recognize this isn’t really an argument in the intellectual sense. But I don’t know how one trumps one’s own perceptions with a purely intellectual argument. As Hart seems to suggest, sometimes we need a sort of epiphany, and maybe I haven’t had it, or not the right one.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I agree with you that in terms of our daily live, the privatio explanation of evil is not very helpful. But I don’t think it was intended to be helpful at that level. It’s a philosophical reflection on what evil must be if God has created a good world. Bottomline: goodness does not need evil to be good, does not need evil to exist; but evil needs the good.

          For me, all of this flows from the assertion of the creatio ex nihilo. In my opinion, we can only entertain the Luciferian option because we have forgotten what must be the case if we are material creatures.

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          • brian says:

            I think this is right, Father.
            I can emotionally understand a Manichean response to the world, even; a strong sense of malice that works against the good. One of my favorite poets, Czeslaw Milosz, felt this very much. Nonetheless, it cannot be the metaphysical truth of reality if creatio ex nihilo is true and the Creator God is good.

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  4. Marc says:

    I think this is why I must no longer waste my time on this blog site. The blog owner and those who post here are far too arrogant for this Orthodox Christian. They have all for the most part bought into the Platonic concept of inherent immortality of the human soul, which is a pagan and demonic lie of the first order. The clear choice revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures is between eternal life or eternal death (annihilation). Eternal torment is a construct of Satan the devil the father of all liars, and those who believe that God will not destroy (annihilate) evil spirits and human beings.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Fare thee well, Marc. Thanks for participating in our discussions.

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      • Marc says:

        Thanks for giving me the opportunity to express my thoughts Fr. Aidan. In the end, I see very little difference between your concepts of universal salvation and Fr. Whitehead’s concepts of eternal conscience torment. They are both based upon the pagan concepts of inherent immortality of the soul, and Satan’s lie, “you shall not surely die.”

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        • 407kwac says:

          Marc, the pagan concept of the immortality of the soul, if I understand this correctly, is the belief that we are intrinsically immortal, part of a universe not created out of nothing, but that is an emanation of the Divine and thus co-eternal with God, and, consequently, to teach we inherently contain within ourselves the Divine nature, and not just that we have been created bearers of the Divine image with the potential for receiving the life of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling.

          Orthodox teach humanity has had this divine life conferred on us *by grace* through God’s union with our human nature in Christ and His triumph on our behalf in His Ressurrection from the dead. It is this latter understanding of the soul’s conditional “immortality” conferred through Christ’s Pascha upon which both Orthodox who anticipate the possibility of eternal torment and those who anticipate the possibility of salvation for all depend.

          Karen

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          • Marc says:

            Karen, Immortality is a gift of God given in the resurrection. Those who are born again through baptism into the Church experience the spiritual first resurrection that is confirmed in the particular judgment when the body dies (see Revelation 20:6), or as “wise virgins,” when the Second Coming begins (see Matthew 25:1-13). Those who do not experience the first resurrection are subject to the second death (annihilation) in the lake of fire (Gehenna) prepared for Satan and the demons. God has chosen not to sustain the life of over 90 percent of the creatures we know he has created, it is pure satanic pride to believe that God will not destroy those who remain in rebellion to His Kingdom.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Marc, I’m trying to give you a gracious exit. Let’s consider this conversation closed, okay? God bless.

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          • Marc says:

            Just trying to answer Karen’s questions on my way out Father. I hope we will all share in the illumination of the Kingdom of God at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

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          • 407kwac says:

            Marc, I know from your previous comments on this site we both find the notion of the eternal conscious torment of the wicked intolerable in light of the mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Best, perhaps to acknowledge that and leave all other judgment to the One before whom alone all hearts are open and laid bare.

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  5. masha says:

    Oh, I don’t think the cookies are a good example of willing evil— nor any addictive behavior, for that matter, whether it be sugar, nicotine, or cocaine.

    I think we choose unhealthy behaviors because we actually *do* believe they are doing some good for us, and that that good is greater than the “evil” unhealthiness we “know” is true and bad for us. An interesting example is the psychology behind the book, “Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking.” The entire premise of the book is to demonstrate to the reader that the reason one can’t quit is because doesn’t actually want to, and then it helps the reader want to quit. In other words, it reveals to the reader the presence of a disordered will, then helps restore sanity to the will.

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  6. Edward De Vita says:

    Just to be clear here, DBH does not state that we cannot freely will evil. What he says, rather, is that we cannot freely will evil as evil. This is a very different statement and, as it stands, a fairly uncontroversial one within both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Indeed, if we were able to will evil as evil, it would mean that our nature is ordered toward evil, in which case our actions would not even be truly evil since they would not have any good to fall short of.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Forgive me, Edward, but this is not clarifying, not to my poor wits. The issue was the free part, not the qualification of evil as itself, which makes little sense to me. Evil as evil — as opposed to evil as what? The good? As the Mad Hatter said, Don’t let’s be silly. DBH is saying that if I am fully aware that an act is evil, I cannot freely (whatever that means) will to do it, because “evil” apparently means something that is inherently undesirable, rather than inherently wrong or offensive to God. I could only will to do evil if I was confused about what is my true telos, what I should really be desiring sub specie aeternitatis. And he is saying it because he wants to simultaneously assert that an individual cannot definitively reject God, and that an individual deserves the epithet “free.”

      The truth is that a human being is not an exercise in logic. I can at once desire two contradictory ends, one good and one evil. I can do this without knowing which is which, or I can do this in full cognizance of which is which. It is also possible for me to be torn between two mutually incompatible goods (without knowing which is the greater, if there can be such a comparison). In this case I have to forsake one good for the other. In other words I have to will a privatio boni. This could, I suppose, be an instance of willing the evil as something other than evil.

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      • AR says:

        Jonathan, if you restate the problem statement in positive form, you’ll see that the explanation you ruled out as “silly” is actually what’s being implied here.

        “It is impossible freely to desire evil as evil”

        =

        “Everyone who wills evil wills it as good, or wills it out of constraint, or both.”

        If you don’t understand the statement in its positive form, then it is likely you never understood it in its original negative form, either.

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      • brian says:

        Jonathan,

        I think you are getting hung up on the distinction between an existential/psychological reality and metaphysical truth. Your last sentence is accurate. I cannot, unfortunately, adequately respond to you (this horrible necessity called work.) I appreciate Cormac McCarthy as well. Blood Meridian is indeed a tremendously compelling portrait of evil. Nonetheless, I will have to concur with the plurality of voices in this thread that all creatures are ontologically ordered towards the good. No choice is involved in this. It is a given, prior to choice. Ontologically, by nature, we are designed to seek the good.

        When the most twisted, perverse figure chooses to act in the most abominable manner conceivable, we are right, of course, to be repulsed, to find it disgustingly vile and wicked. It is all that. The fury of justice will want to reap vengeance on such. This is not even a case of incommensurable goods and having to choose one at the expense of another or of deliberately choosing a lesser good. It is wickedness chosen as wickedness. All the same, if the person says “evil, be thou my good,” it is still an act paradoxically aimed at the good, for in that deliberation, somehow the person has misconceived evil as the authentic good. Even if the person considers his or her own pain, humiliation, or annihilation as preferable to other alternatives, the choice is hamartia, a missing of the mark. The mark never changes, however.

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  7. Edward De Vita says:

    Jonathan,
    I’m just on my way out for a short vacation, so I can’t respond in depth. Briefly put, we humans have no freedom with regards to desiring our own happiness. We always desire it. And whatever we do, we do in order to attain it. If there were no real good to which we were ordered by nature, there could be no moral culpability. The same is true in the order of being. If there were no truth to which our intellect is ordered, there could be no falsehood — no mistakes in our thinking.
    If I get a chance, I’ll say more on this when I get back

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  8. Jonathan says:

    I think I’ve said my piece, folks. Thanks very much for all your responses. Edward, have a good vacation! If anyone cares to write more in answer to my difficulties, I’ll of course be grateful. But I don’t expect any such thing.

    As far as I can tell I do not, as per AR, fail to grasp the main proposition at stake. I simply find it literally incredible. I have tried to articulate my reasons for so finding it. I probably cannot do better here and don’t wish to cause further distraction. Brian, I think, has me pegged when he says I’m hung up on the psychological/existential reality rather than adhering to metaphysical truth. I am the annoying sort of fellow who will jettison alleged metaphysical truth if it goes against the grain of what I perceive of existence and the psyche. It is not a question (for me) of understanding propositions, but of being able to believe them and live them out.

    Here is a portion — the most important portion, as I understand it — of what I am able to believe: That God created existence out of nothing. That God created humankind in his own image, male and female. That humankind is fallen into sin and death. That Jesus of Nazareth was the Word made flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of Mary who was a virgin. He was the only begotten Son of God, and in his passion, death and resurrection he won salvation for humankind.

    If it takes more propositional assent than that to be a Christian, I guess I’m in trouble. Except you lot are mostly universalists, so I hope I’m okay in your books.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jonathan, perhaps the way to approach the question, then, is for us to ask, What are the consequences if the human being is not created with a dynamic orientation to the Good and therefore to God. This would mean, I think, that he is not created for eternal communion with God. He stands, as it were, in a neutral position vis a vis his Creator. Where then does his desire for God? Does he even have such a desire? Can he be happy apart from God? Can he determine his own happiness?

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      • Jonathan says:

        I think that in our fallen state, neutrality is indeed the position that most of us are in, most of the time, vis a vis our Creator: neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. That’s if we’re lucky. Did the Marquis de Sade have a desire for God? No. Any attempt to state that a man like Sade desired God (simply because he desired at all) is, in my opinion, a perversion of language.

        As for happiness. . . I doubt that I know much about it. But I do know that a statement like Edward’s above, “humans have no freedom with regards to desiring our own happiness. We always desire it. And whatever we do, we do in order to attain it.” — This I simply cannot affirm. I don’t know if man can make himself happy apart from God. I don’t think we usually have the faintest idea whether we’re happy or not, or how we might attain happiness if we could somehow identify it and fix upon it as desirable.

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        • AR says:

          No. Unhappy people sometimes don’t know whether they are happy or not. Happy people know they are happy.

          The same difference obtains between the same and the insane; the degenerate and the holy, the intelligent and the stupid.

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          • Jonathan says:

            Clearly, I disagree. My reading of figures as diverse as Socrates and Chesterton goes against what you say about the holy, the sane and the intelligent. But it was not my intention to argue a point in my last remark, only to answer Fr. Aidan’s question. It may not be an answer that pleases everyone, but it’s the one I’ve got. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

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          • AR says:

            Jonathan, I would not describe my attitude as “not pleased.” You’ve put yourself out there, confessed your disagreements and uncertainties, and given us all something to talk about. What could be better? So are you still open for debate, or do you feel like Alice when the pack of cards flew at her?

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          • Jonathan says:

            Alright, AR, I’ll keep this going. Give me a bit to write out a longer response back in the main tier of this thread. Maybe there’s still some interesting territory to uncover.

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          • AR says:

            Great. Can we do one point at a time? That way we know where we’ve been and what follows from what.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Sounds like a plan, guys. Thumbs up.

            Liked by 1 person

  9. Jonathan says:

    Apologies to AR that I can’t do this in a point-by-point way. Since the basic disposition or attitude I am representing here may be of interest, I’l try to flesh it out a little more in a meditative way. Hopefully these remarks will be fruitful for others. And then I’m going to have to excuse myself until the weekend, as work is pressing.

    What is happiness? In this discussion, it is practically a transcendental, what I might call the subjective transcendental. I see little difference between what is being packaged as the classical Christian teleology of happiness, and the contemporary rhetoric of self-fulfillment, both of which apparently require what strike me as simplistic accounts of human agency, or freedom. As a matter of the history of language, though, happiness doesn’t mean anything like this. The real “traditional” meaning of happiness is not some rarified metaphysical concept, but something more like luck and good fortune, wherein these denote material ease and success, without undue degrees of strife and suffering, but with a healthy smattering of challenging obstacles. When Sophocles admonishes us to call no man happy till he’s dead (and specifically, in this context, not Oedipus), it is in an ironic fashion so that we immediately realize no man can go through life such that he ends up perfectly happy. When in the US Declaration of Independence we’re promised that the pursuit of happiness is a divine right, the happiness intended is the simple, old-fashioned idea of material prosperity won with honest toil and without avoidable suffering. Obviously, this has been lost sight of, or rejected outright, in contemporary invocations of that famous phrase. We instead talk about happiness as a sense of personal well-being, and this whether we are David Bentley Hart or a Supreme Court Justice.

    As far as the basic, more material and earthly idea of happiness goes, those tragedy-loving Dionysiac Greeks got it right. And to this day, the joie de vivre of Mediterranean peoples reflects that deep awareness of the necessary balance in life between its pleasures and its pains. It’s really an awareness that any traditional, earthy culture possesses. It’s in the Old Testament in an awesome way. Both pagan antiquity and the Christian civilization of medieval Europe were really good at being happy in the earthy way. Who’s not as good at enjoying happiness and good fortune, despite possessing these in greater abundance than any society in history? Modern people. American people, who would rather pursue happiness and talk about it than enjoy it. Why is this?

    I submit it is because we’re about five — or maybe Brian, as per his recent meditations, would say seven or eight — centuries deep into a massive civilization-wide head-trip. Instead of understanding happiness as an idea with a fairly obvious material corollary or manifestation, we’ve turned it into a nebulous notion and imprisoned it within an equally nebulous interiority or “subjectivity.” Happiness as a mode of affectivity. One result of this displacement is that anybody can, and therefore everybody should, be maximally happy — a notion the Greeks would have laughed off the stage. Sure, people do all sorts of actual things to make themselves happy, to keep up at the chase, but that’s just the problem: happiness as an endlessly deferred subjective telos, rather than as an objective state one might conceivably enjoy in this life (or might not, for reasons largely beyond control). This is the kind of happiness I am very dubious about. If there is such a quality of happiness, I doubt any of us really know what it is or are sufficiently aware of even our own infinitesimally small corners of reality to know when we might be “enjoying” it. But as I say, happiness isn’t something enjoyed any longer, it is something thought about. And when some of do think about this new kind of happiness, we conclude that it’s not necessarily something we would want, because it looks rather like complacency and boredom than some kind of moral triumph.

    And because all of us living in the modern-American-Protestant-nominalist world are so busy worrying about our teleological happiness, we also fail miserably at enjoying the traditional, earthy kind of happiness. We wouldn’t know real happiness if it was Jon Hamm offering to buy us a drink. Even this we manage to transmute from life into idea. If you feel that you have to talk about a “supposedly fun thing” (as D F Wallace might say) while it’s happening, then you’re not doing it right. I’m going to forego examples; you can supply your own easily enough.

    It’s true, Christian faith adds a layer of mystery to our lives, an ontological depth, for we are told that our lives are hidden with Christ in God. So the happiness that comes our way (note the passivity), as well as the suffering, are not the whole story. But I believe Christianity ought not, and I know for a fact that for many centuries it did not, dampen the West’s native cultural vivacity with an abstract teleological moral philosophy, like someone pulling the drapes down during the daytime in a bereaved house. If there is one thing everyone assumes about Christians, often from personal experience, it’s that they’re utterly dreary. It’s not totally true, but one should think about how this opinion has come about. And note that Catholics — the holdover from traditional Christianity — are considered more “fun” than Prots. I assume this is because Catholic culture, to the extent it’s still a discreet thing, retains that old earthy half-pagan peasant realism about what the medievals called the Wheel of Fortune. Catholics throw better parties not because they have better theology, but because they didn’t invent the industrial revolution and the categorical imperative, etc etc.

    The medieval period was happy in the sense of lucky or fortunate because it enjoyed the best of two worlds. It had the earthiness of the pagans and the mystery of the Christian revelation. And the medievals were not too comfortable. But some of us modern Westerners still know what’s what. If I can make my case for the nature of happiness by recommending one book, it would be the historical novel The Longships, written during WWII by the Swede, Frans Bengtsson. The main character is one Red Orm, and the book, one of the most delightful I’ve ever read, is the story of his luck or good fortune, which as I say is all happiness is — if it’s anything at all.

    Okay, that’s what I’ve got for now. I appreciate the encouragement to share my thoughts further. I’ll be curious to see where, if anywhere, this leads. I have to check out for a little while. As Bill and Ted say,

    Be excellent to each other

    Liked by 1 person

    • AR says:

      So perhaps we can agree to use “happy” (cognates: hap, happen, happenstance) to denote ‘the enjoyment of good fortune’ in this discussion.

      And then to denote the hypothetical fulfillment of one’s nature, can we say “perfection”?

      “Blessed,” perhaps, can denote something like “happy” but with the added implication that the good fortune being enjoyed is a gift?

      “Joy” would be a subjective state of elevated feeling. At its best, I will add, joy leaves one without any doubt about its presence, and doesn’t depend on outward circumstance. That, at least, I have experienced. Its younger sisters are glee and merriment, and its twin is delight.

      And finally, there is that wonderful expansive term: “Wellbeing.” The word ‘well’ of course, is an adverbial form of ‘good’. To “be” in a manner that is good – and to experience this activity as a state – how complete a term this is! Perhaps we can use this term to comprehend all of the above concepts and more.

      Let me know whether you agree to the terms.

      ***

      I am interested in all goods, all virtues. I believe they can all be distinguished from one another by someone with fine judgment, and yet they are all of a piece. Like hands and arms.

      Right now, after ten years of marriage, I am finally reading housekeeping books. I have recently learned that if beds are stripped and aired for an hour every day before they are made up, they feel fresh till the end of the week. I believe that my family will be happier because I am learning these practices. We recently moved to the country and live in a vineyard. I believe it is a blessing. I am happier than I was.

      When I was young, I thought nothing mattered but doing theology and living by the commandments. It has been a rough ten years. Realizing the truth about happiness, what you wrote about above, was painful and it has been a slow turn around. When we were engaged I boasted to my millie-to-be that I cared nothing for poverty and didn’t mind the rattle-trap Josh was driving. After the agony of several breakdowns we finally financed a used car and a new agony began.

      I had to face the fact that I was completely useless in that noble pursuit – the abatement of human misery. All that to say, I think we have a great deal of agreement here conceptually on the nature of what we are now calling happiness.

      However, when I was trying to justify my conversion to respect for and pursuit of material and circumstantial goods, my justification was drawn from the conclusions:

      1) Human nature is material on a certain level. Thus we are actually made for material wellbeing in precisely the same way we are made for spiritual wellbeing.

      2) Since we are derived and dependent beings, the pursuit of material well-being involves the proper use of those material goods on which we depend. These goods are real goods; unlike a spiritual inheritance they are perishable, but until they have perished they participate in genuine goodness. In other words, good is good, whether material or spiritual. And it is the part of a Christian to regard all goods as being good. In other words, to assent to reality.

      3) When created things are good, the quality of goodness in them or about them is a participation in God’s glory. Only he is good absolutely; if anything else is good, then God is in it (in the proper way that God is in his creation.)

      Do you agree or disagree with these three premises?

      I am trying to follow the rule that in a good discussion you first define terms and mark out relevant areas of agreement.

      You can call me Alana. I apologize that I never finished our previous discussions. I was overwhelmed.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Alana, (thank you for your Christian name, it is beautiful), like I said I can’t respond properly for a day or two, but I want to say I’m grateful for the interaction and will try to pull through for you in a Kentucky minute. . . as we said in south Ohio where I grew up.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Alana, I know just the territory you inhabit. Once, when I was on my way to Henry County, KY, coming from Chicago by bike, I had a run-in with a massive Rottweiler down there in those south Indiana hills. The result was that a portion of that province made a strong impression on me, specifically the right side of my face. And yet — curiously, for such is the nature of happiness, hope, desire, and memory — a vineyard in the middle Ohio Valley (where there used to be many of them) is pretty much my idea of terrestrial paradise.

        But I’ve been living in the city too long, and it may be my wits are turning foul for it. Defining terms and sketching logical flow-charts won’t help me, I’m afraid. My mind feels opaque and I am like the Jews who debated with Jesus in the 8th chapter of John. Metaphysics feels to me these days like illusively solid pond scum (the kind caused by run-off of artificial fertilizers), and more natural life going on in the fluid murk beneath. Or it is like the foamy head on a pint of beer: pretty and fragrant, but the more you talk over that pint, the more the bubbles burst.

        But sometimes I can get it. I can get it in songs by Bob Dylan like “Highlands” and “Marchin’ to the City.” I can get it sometimes when I’m at mass (or listening to one of the great historical musical settings of the mass, and to certain other music). I can begin to get hints of it in reading literature. For example in Dante, when in the last line but three of the Commedia he calls his glimpse of the Beatific Vision “high fantasy.” I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot lately.

        I used to be able to get it when I played music, particularly Bach, but I’m not a musician anymore. And once, I’m pretty sure, I peaked through the veil to the truth of things and the saving truth, I felt my way into the sophianic depth, when I was writing a book. It wasn’t the proposition kind of book. I tried that once, though, years ago. I was working on a dissertation (not on theology), and I had an Aquinas-like moment (minus the holiness and genius) when my work seemed like so much straw and I gave it up. When I come at life and revelation that way, I don’t get it, and the not getting it just about drives me mad. However, apparently I cannot desist completely from trying.

        Let me finish by observing what I perceive as a disjunct between the sort of beautiful avowal of life’s obscurity and complexity that Brian has just shared in his most recent meditation (and elsewhere), and the “necessary” metaphysical truths that I see some people inclined to bestrew as if it were as simple and obvious as second-grade arithmetic. I suppose it’s something of a high-wire act, this looking through a glass darkly and at the same time trusting in the truth that has been revealed but which, for most people most of the time, seems almost impossible to live.

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        • AR says:

          Well, if you think I was trying to help you then we were never going to have a discussion at all, were we?

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          • Jonathan says:

            Sorry, poor phrasing. Just meant I can’t seem to define terms in a non-circular way. Definition is slippery business. I’m trying to write extra-conceptually, if that makes sense. — lyrically, reflectively, something like that.

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          • AR says:

            Well sure, definition can never be absolute. That’s why two people discussing something have to agree on definitions provisionally before they can use them to convey ideas. The definitions themselves aren’t meant to solve the problem. It’s all preliminary.

            However if you simply aren’t up to it, there’s no need to go on.

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          • AR says:

            If you disagreed with my definitions, that would be a sign that I wasn’t starting far enough back. A good discussion begins in common territory and tries to trace the point and reasons of divergence.

            But if it’s really true that you can’t think metaphysically or define words any more then it seems I must give up my attempt to survey the intellectual territory in which our disagreement lies.

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          • AR says:

            One might say that in such circumstances, real disagreement is impossible.

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          • Jonathan says:

            Well, it’s not a total loss, because I’ve figured out one point on which we clearly disagree: I don’t believe discussion need consist in agreement and disagreement. In my experience, the best discussions do not. There’s some of that, usually, but it’s not the heart of conversation, especially in matters such as these. For the most part, I don’t think the purpose of conversation and discussion is to come to consensus or to establish firm positions, and that is not what I think usually happens anyway.

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          • AR says:

            What do you think a good conversation does consist of? What does it do?

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          • AR says:

            Or to use the word employed when we began, a debate?

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        • AR says:

          I agree that city living stultifies one’s grasp of nature. The whole idea that there might be an is-ness to things, a pattern running through them, seems more remote and improbable the longer one is surrounded by things that might have been any old how.

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