by Pastor Tom Belt
Bach’s Chaconne for Violin is 12 to 15 minutes of—well, forgive me for putting it this way—the eucharist ingested through the ears, a divine liturgy of pure music. I have well over a dozen recordings by different world-class violinists interpreting this masterpiece. I love every one of them. They’re all faithful to Bach and no two of them are the same.
Recently here at Eclectic Orthodoxy, Dr. Chris Green contributed a thought-provoking post on a persistent question regarding human free will and the possibility of the final reconciliation of all things. Chris engages a piece by Orthodox theologian Nicholas Loudovikos who argues (however cryptic the last sentence of his piece may be) that through the free exercise of their wills human beings may finally confirm their destiny in an irrevocable separation from God. The possibility of such absolute foreclosure is entailed, argues Loudovikos, in the very nature of free will granted us by God. A great deal has been said in objection to this free will defense of hell, and Chris zeros in on several of the objections: it over-values free will as a good in and of itself, it severs the exercise of the will from its divine ground and teleology, and it entails an unacceptably dualistic or two-storied worldview.
I don’t have any disagreement with Chris on these matters. What I’d like to do here is simply reflect upon attempts to bring into harmony belief in a certain (libertarian) understanding of the will, on the one hand, and belief in the final reconciliation of all things to God in Christ, on the other hand. Now, these days I’m tending less toward philosophical and more toward poetic and aesthetic ways to conceive of things. As I tried to describe in God wills our improvisation and Creation at the Improv, using music and art to frame the conversation regarding free will, what the world gives to God is what it gives back to God in improvisation upon and within the grace of being:
You are the themes, the scope, the rhyme
We improvise upon in time,
Are not made less giving away
Your temporal form to what we say;
These forms are what you will to be,
A mirror of your Trinity.
This entire post attempts to unpack those lines. Now, I have a particular interest (virtue or a vice, I can’t tell) in the libertarian understanding of choice, so if my bias skews my reflections here, I’ll be happy to receive clarification and help from others. It’s been a pleasure to learn a great deal from my conversations here at Fr. Aidan’s. I believe, however, that I do appreciate the deeper concerns in Chris’s post. In fact, I share them. Essentially they describe the irresistible teleological orientation of the will toward God (the Good) and thus God as the will’s only possible final resting place. This follows simply from the nature of created being grounded in the unconditional love that creates and sustains it. So the possibilities of Godward movement are already irrevocable given the nature of divine love as the free act that calls us into being. That divine creative act itself is an invitation that constitutes the will’s irresistible orientation toward transcendent goods.
The kind of “absolute narcissism,” then, that Loudovikos describes hell as would be an absolute hopelessness. It would be teleological foreclosure, and that’s the problem, for nothing God creates can fail to possess its being and existence as an invitation to move Godward. This openness to God is given to us as a creative act of love. We don’t first exist and only then relate our existence to God’s invitation as a kind of addendum to the fact that we exist at all. On the contrary, to be at all is to be invited Godward.
Allow me a slight detour here. Some might suggest that in understanding the will to be thus grounded teleologically in God, we have left a libertarian notion of the will behind. One friend cautions me:
So far as I can tell from what you have written, you are passionate to maintain real choice and intentionality as aspects of human willing. First, I do not think one has to be a libertarian to affirm such. Second, I don’t think modern libertarian views can rationally justify intentionality because intentionality requires a metaphysics of the soul that they explicitly or implicitly deny (because the soul is only understood as soul within a metaphysics that is counter to their presuppositions). Modern phenomenology had to rediscover and then give greater attention to intentionality because it had been lost by the current of various modern conceptions…
Naturally, you are not defending any of these modern deformations, but my point is that between Aristotle or Aquinas and the pre-modern articulation that allowed a hard-fought understanding of human liberty to emerge and what we have now are many different conceptions that subtly, covertly, or overtly color the way people use terms today, including those libertarians who carry a sort of “common sense” affirmation of human freedom. Left undiagnosed are precisely those illicit tonalities from various metaphysical conceptions or emotive sympathies that have embedded themselves in modern consciousness so that many exponents of freedom also affirm elements that militate against a fully rational understanding of freedom…
[W]hen people hear ‘libertarian’ today, they hear what you do not affirm. They do not hear what you are defending. The term itself is not useful to you. You may want to add a qualifier like “archaic” libertarian or some such, but that is to introduce an idiosyncrasy that will likely not catch on enough to allow for differentiation.
I’m very grateful for this caution and want to take it sincerely to heart. I agree that to use the term “libertarian” without the necessary qualifications miscommunicates. And perhaps to qualify it sufficiently would weigh any discussion down unnecessarily. I’m not sure. But David Bentley Hart is careful to make the distinction in his response to me on this very question:
If you look at the quotation you cite from my Notre Dame address, I speak only of an “absolutely libertarian act,” and the qualifier is important. Only that conception of libertarian freedom could possibly make sense of the free will defense of hell, because it utterly severs the “gnomic” indeterminacy of the will from the will’s natural teleology. But of course it is also a nonsensical picture of the will in that it is impotent to account for intentionality, and in that pure spontaneity cannot be true deliberative freedom. But, yes, certainly there is such a thing as libertarian freedom of the will, precisely in respect of that transcendent end that liberates the will from aimless and convulsive spontaneous impulse.
The qualification between an absolutely libertarian act ungrounded in a transcendent teleology that guides it, on the one hand, and libertarian choice within an irreducibly teleological orientation toward the good, on the other, is indeed crucial. The latter, Hart appears to agree, is certainly ‘libertarian’ because it recognizes the integrity of the created will’s God-given power for self-determination (even if that power can never be a power to determine itself outside reference to transcendental goods) with respect to embracing the good to which it is always oriented in one form or another. True, this minimal sense of libertarian choice is at best a temporary endowment with a view to our final freedom, but it is nonetheless real. Hart grants that “liberty of choice, then, can be at most only the possibility of freedom, not its realization” (“Freedom, Rebellion, Apocalypse“).
I think this is all a libertarian need say. But it’s an important thing to say. Is there too much of the Enlightenment in the term ‘libertarian’ to make employing it helpful? Could be. My burden is to encourage theists who believe in the libertarian exercise of the will in this minimal sense (under whatever name we refer to it) to hold to it consistently and not qualify it away in the eschaton to secure a terminus ad quem for the reconciliation of all things.
That said, I’d like to reflect upon a few items that come up in Chris’s contribution, particularly the “non-competitive” nature of divine and created willing. As Chris describes it:
[W]e need a non-competitive account of divine and human freedom. We need to understand human being and agency not as a limit to God—created by and as God’s act of self-limitation—but as existing within God’s freedom and because of it, in absolute dependence on God’s supremacy. We need a way of saying that God wills our free response and that our response is truly free just because God wills it … I would say that this should be taken as axiomatic: I am free to make of myself nothing more or less than what God frees me to make of myself.
I’ve been trying to pin down just what this “non-competitive” notion of the God-world relation means. I don’t at all think human freedom diminishes or delimits God’s capacities to be the loving, triune God he is. Nor do I think any exercise of the will can finally remove one from all possibility of resting finally in God. And I agree too that God wills to sustain us even in and as we do the evil he does not desire. Nor do I see any competition here between the irresistible teleology of the human will oriented irrevocably in God and any free exercise of the will, including any rejection of the good God wills for us, since every rejection of the good by us is at best a misrelating to our ground, a misrelating “within” the Good. But no rejection, or history of rejection, of the good by us can ever come to define our future possibilities without remainder. On this score I agree Loudovikos is mistaken.
My concern is not with “non-competitive” language in any of these senses, that is, viewed ontologically, but with such language as a theory of providence void of divine permission as such, or as a way to secure a terminus ad quem for the final reconciliation of all things by supposing God non-competitively brings about the creaturely choices he desires. Maybe everybody is beyond this concern and writing this is cathartic for me, in which case I’m grateful.
It seems to me that when David Bentley Hart describes divine agency and human freedom along non-competitive lines he’s talking about the ontology of created being oriented in an irrevocable openness to and desire for the Good. He’s not talking about the mysterious means by which God may secure specific creaturely choices when and where God wishes. Obviously if that’s what non-competitive means God would always have precisely the world he desires to have, and we know that’s not the case.
To clarify, let me present comments from Hart’s essay “Providence and Causality”:
[I]f providence is in any way a meaningful concept—if, that is, it means something more than simple determinism—it must concern a species of divine action towards creatures that truly remains a work of primary causality while also truly permitting secondary causality a real (if utterly contingent) autonomy. If in any measure this boundary is breached, however—if in any way the autonomy of contingent causes must be denied, qualified, evaded or mitigated, in order to avoid any ‘conflict’ with the infinite sufficiency or absolute sovereignty of the primary causes—then all talk of providence is rendered perfectly otiose. The minimal—if not yet sufficient—condition for any coherent account of God’s providential activity in time must be something like Thomas’s distinction between what God directly and of his nature wills, on the one hand, and what he does not will but nevertheless permits, on the other. Without such a distinction, one is forced to imagine the drama of divine grace and creaturely freedom as in some sense a competition … for apart from any proper doctrine of divine permission, secondary causality appears as nothing but a modality of primary causality, by which the sole determining cause of all events works out its positive decrees among creatures. (The Providence of God, p. 36)
It seems to me that ‘permission’ itself assumes a certain ‘conflict’ or ‘competition’ between divine and human wills. Once we distinguish between ‘natural’ and ‘permissive’ in God’s willing, we’re recognizing that God permits in one sense what he does not will in another sense. God doesn’t will our sin but permits it. He doesn’t will that people reject him but he permits it. Granted, the permission is also ‘willed’, and all that is permitted falls within the wider embrace of the scope of possibilities God provides and the grounding in God of our capacities of reason and choice. Nevertheless, God permits us to reject his will for us, and we succeed at doing so (genuinely if not finally). It seems to me, then, that God doesn’t always get what God wants (to speak in the vernacular), and this in itself betokens a certain “competition,” if you will, even though God always sustains the world in whatever state it is.
In the same chapter, Hart engages Banezian or “classical” Thomistic construals of providence in terms of the praemotio:
It is not a physical necessity, therefore, but a necessity of ‘supposition’; for it lies within God’s omnipotence irresistibly to predetermine an effect as a contingent effect. In the case of the rational creature, God infallibly causes him to act through his own intellect and will. Nor are God and the creature competing causes within the act; so radically different are their proper modes of causality, and so radically distinct the orders to which they belong, that each can be said entirely to cause the act, though as superior and inferior agents. (p. 38)
To be clear, Hart disagrees with this Thomistic non-competitive view which understands creaturely choices as specifically created effects of divine willing. As I read Hart, these are not what are brought into a non-competitive relationship. What is properly viewed as non-competitive?
[A]s primary cause of all things, God is first and foremost their ontological cause. He imparts being to what, in itself, is nothing at all; out of the infinite plenitude of his actuality, he gives being to both potency and act; and yet what he creates, as the effect of a truly transcendent causality, possesses its own being, and truly exists as other than God. (p. 40)
Easily the weakest traditional argument in favour of the idea of the praemotio is that God must supply the ‘effect of being’ for each movement of the will from potency to act. For one thing, this line of reasoning simply assumes the identity of ontological causation and efficient predetermination, which is the very issue in dispute. (p. 40)
At this point in following Hart’s chapter, I couldn’t help but recall a question I put to him back in May of 2015 (see the comments section there), about the relationship between divine and created willing with respect to the final reconciliation of all things. I asked:
Might we imagine the logoi of created beings as embodying or specifying a ‘range’ or ‘scope’ … of beautiful expression and not the particular of every form? The divine will (or logoi) would terminate not in the final form of creaturely expression but in the range of creative possibilities offered to creatures to uniquely shape their expressive form.
Hart had no objections. I’m not sure everybody then recognized what a significant point this was. What Hart describes as the ontological nature of the non-competitive relation between divine and human willing (viz., the non-competiveness of our being grounded irresistibly and teleologically in an orientation to shape and determine ourselves within a scope or range of beautiful forms which is our logos) could very helpfully be described as aesthetic-synergistic in nature, not a mechanism for securing specific creaturely choices when and where God wishes (‘this’ happens now, ‘that’ happens then), but rather a mechanism by which God continually grounds us in an inescapable openness to choose responsibly until our choosing rests in its only proper-final end—God.
Again, Hart, summarizing, writes:
God’s good will and his permission of evil, then, are simply two aspects of a single creative act, one that does not differ in intention from soul to soul: God’s one vocation of all rational creation to a free union in love with himself; his one gracious permission that spiritual freedom in some way determine itself in relation to the eternal good towards which it is irresistibly drawn. (p. 46)
Someone steeped in Calvinist debate will hear Hart’s “irresistibly drawn” and think of an irresistible determination of things. That would be a mistake. Hart is after all a libertarian (see above). The irresistible divine draw here is the irresistible teleological orientation of the will in and toward the Good, similar to the law of gravity that irresistibly draws bodies toward the earth’s center. One can jump upwards and move away from the earth on occasion, but one does not thereby deny or escape gravity absolutely. One moves away from the earth under the conditions of gravity’s draw which is always present (defining the possibility and limits). Gravity makes jumping possible. The irresistibility Hart describes, as I understand him, doesn’t determine specific outcomes per se (that’s a Calvinist’s concern), it defines possibilities, and that’s the relevant point for the debate over the reconciliation of all things.
One last comment by Hart, from his presentation at the Symposium “Sursum Actio” at Notre Dame in June 2015 (found on YouTube from 28:56 to 29:55 roughly):
This I suppose is what I find most suggestive and attractive in the Scotist understanding of knowledge, and specifically the knowledge of God, and what I find somewhat lacking in certain other traditional scholastic accounts—the recognition that knowledge arising from an irrepressible loving desire is made complete in the freely given loving delight which completes the primordial movement of intellect and will as an accomplished act of supreme freedom, the loving ‘yes’ to the God from whom the eyes of the soul will never turn, given not simply as the inevitable affective consequence of an act of knowledge already complete in itself and so an automatic response, but as the actual attainment of the deepest and highest knowledge without which the intellect does not yet truly know the truth as truth.
Perhaps what I’m most interested in is stating positively the nature of that “freely given ‘yes'” which is, as Hart says, not automatically entailed in any act of knowledge until it is given, at which point it becomes an “actual attainment” which then entails, we could say, an endless expression of true freedom. But the ‘non-automatic’ or ‘non-inevitable’ nature of the movement that has to be freely traversed prevents (I think) any attempt to secure a specific terminus ad quem or end outside the gnomic-deliberation surrender of the will. What left home (gnomic-deliberative will) has to come home. This home-coming is inevitable in the sense that there is no other irrevocable home for the will but God, and that God’s unrelenting love offers itself to deliberative will and waits. It is not inevitable in the sense that God mysteriously forecloses upon the will’s gnomic-deliberative capacity for constructing a ‘no’ and so gets the ‘yes’ he desires.