by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
We are made for joy and love and creativity. We are embodied because the care of the soul requires human touch and beauty, music and vision in order to thrive. Yet we live in a broken, wounded world. Everything good and necessary is so easily corrupted, abused, lost, and wasted. We often bear our torment within ourselves, carrying it wherever we go. I, myself, frequently sorrow over existence. I am not good at life. I was born two months premature in an era where survival was by no means certain. My parents and grandparents prayed ardently that the tiny babe might live; and evidently he did or he would not be writing you now. To what end? Life is often a burden and a disappointment. I have a gift of language and a poet’s sensitivity. I have devoted decades of my life pursuing wisdom, but most days the weather of my soul is a perpetual Scotland. It is a kind of betrayal of the heartfelt love gifted to me by my family who hoped and prayed so passionately that I might live and have the opportunity to experience this life. And surely, they knew or know that I am different and stubborn and weirdly sensitive, a canary in the mine singing vatic songs and complaining of being misunderstood.
Some people think the Christian teaching on the Fall is a gloomy, pessimistic doctrine. They could not be more wrong. Assume for a moment that this is not a broken world, that history, as Hegel noted, is a slaughterboard, an empty, adventitious chronicle without providential care, without resources beyond the limits of a shrewd animal. Indeed, this is the world that people think we inhabit. As James Arraj sketches it, “the stone is made the explanation of the cathedral. Biology and psychology are nothing but physics in disguise. The intricate order the universe manifests is caused by random mutations and the survival of the fittest” (The Mystery of Matter, p. 149). The highest levels of education largely exist to inculcate just such a view of reality. And we have ordered our notions of wealth and leisure, labor and entertainment, social relations and value upon what is taken to be cold logic and scientific knowledge. The apathy of youth and the coddled, neuralgic bathos of their protests are symptomatic. The deep disease is spiritual. They have been assured that there are no grand narratives when humanity is made for stories. They have been encouraged to pursue pleasure when joy is the soul’s delight. They have been told love is a trick of selfish genes or the manifestly sentimental twaddle pushed off by advertising and bad cinema. They have forgotten the divine springs of inspiration and turn the human vocation to participate in God’s act of creation into Gnostic contempt for nature, celebrating deviancy as freedom.
We are Plato’s fevered city and the sickness is grave indeed. I began this meditation with confession, because I don’t want to pretend to be putting one over on anyone. Rhetorical gifts and a modicum of erudition is not a flourishing wisdom. My life has been longing and failure and paralysis before powers and thrones I despise and resist ineffectively. Though on my better days, I would still choose this path — or I assent to a path chosen for me — for surely there is a providential care and my temperament and my kin are not an accident. Like Jacob, I wrestle with angels. I struggle to rise above bitterness and anguish. I walk with a limp. Because of this, I refuse to be satisfied with a gospel that does not answer to the abyssal depths of the heart. And too often, the Tradition seems to me to be offering a mess of pottage. Yet many Traditionalists consider my understanding of the gospel to be heretical. If they are charitable, they think it a perhaps forgivable saccharine indulgence that bends the realism of the gospel towards a dangerous and unfounded optimism. Ironically, the very aesthetic of a pliable virtual world, of Hallmark cards and mawkish romance that I abhor is attributed to the theological vision I hold to be true.
For example, a well-known Thomist with a penchant for polemic recently penned an explanation for why the option of eschatological annihilation of the damned is metaphysically incoherent. I happen to agree with him on this point, but our reasoning differs dramatically. I suppose I might as well name him. Edward Feser is one of those staunch Thomists who resist the kind of “creative retrieval” of Aquinas exhibited by someone like Norris Clarke, for instance. None of what follows will convince Feser, nor am I engaged in a properly argued refutation. When I allude to Dr. Feser, he merely stands in as a representative for a broad Tradition with a large consensus, though there is a roughly dialectical stance towards some of his determinations regarding the nature of the person, freedom, and eternity. So, for what it is worth, I offer the following. The first two I have written about numerous times.
1) Traditionalists consistently do not see any potential impugning of God’s goodness in a creation where some or many end up in eternal hell. I am not really sure that Feser isn’t so unreconstructed in his sensibility that he wouldn’t actually be fine with a purely retributive model of justice. But even if he embraces the modernist fig leaf of a self-chosen hell, nothing in his argument addresses the implications of creatio ex nihilo. Would a good God who is not in any way compelled to create truly assent to a creation where the potential cost was such an eternal torment? (It does not matter if souls “choose” their eternal deformation. They are suffering, nonetheless, precisely the privation of the flourishing excellence that God intended for them in their creation. Even if they are supposedly insensible of their loss, it is ridiculous to assert that God and those in communion through theosis would lack awareness or compassion for those trapped in such a state.) Further, as David Bentley Hart clarifies, this traditional view of creation actually makes the allowance for such a creaturely damnation part of the necessary economy that makes creation possible in the first place. Logically, then, the suffering souls in hell become the engine that permits and sustains whatever part of the creation actually attains eternal beatitude. Not only is this a perverse metaphysical picture, but it subtly denies the victory of Christ’s Cross in addition to positing a creator god hardly to be distinguished from Descartes’ malicious devil.
2) Almost all the tradition post Augustine lacks awareness of the pleromatic unity of humankind. However, one can discern a witness that stretches from the patristics to modern times. Nyssa knows of it. Origen, too, but one isn’t supposed to mention him. I think Dostoyevsky and Charles Williams knew about it. But as I have frequently asserted, if Triune Being is the archetype of truly personal being, then the relational aspect of personhood is not some elective association. Rather, our relations are metaphysically an irreplaceable constituent of our unique personhood. It is more in line with a blithe modern individualism to think that the loss of any being to an eternal hell is not in any manner a diminution of my own personhood and hence, flourishing beatitude.
3) I also surmise a tendency of self-congratulatory elitism in a moral diagnosis that can make such “clear metaphysical judgments.” I recollect Marilyn McCord Adams in Christ and Horrors reflecting upon the typical Catholic view of Communion where the Eucharist is reserved for those in a perfect state of grace. One can certainly understand the desire of the medieval Church to have a higher standard of sanctity and to ask that clerics and parishioners strive for holiness. I do not condemn such aspirations. Yet surely the grace of the Eucharist, as Adams avers, is a grace for wounded souls. It is the deeply flawed, struggling, difficult soul that needs it most, not those who comfortably embrace the offer of grace. Analogously, Traditionalists often appear to offer salvation to those least in need of it. (I speak colloquially, for obviously we are all deeply in need of rescue.) In any event, I always wonder about folks like Feser. Like many of them, I acknowledge the value and intellectual coherence of a virtue ethics, but unlike them, I also embrace the “outburst of the heart” exemplified in the theological existentialist impulse of figures like Berdyaev and Shestov. One may regard this as “irrational” or one may discern a suffocating “rationalism” in the builders of systems that seek to comprehend love. I do not believe the celebrated silence of Thomas at the end of his life is a repudiation of his estimable work. There is much wisdom in it, but as Alasdair MacIntyre recognized, it is a mode of inquiry meant to keep one open to an infinitely mysterious reality. Love is always ecstatic, is always renewed in wonder, even if it’s subtle sweetness is sometimes lived out in a companionable domesticity that keeps in reserve the night from which the sun of love emerges. Some scholars have reduced Thomas’ silence to the result of a stroke brought on by overwork and perhaps a concussion due to striking his head against a tree limb. Plausible, perhaps; I prefer to imagine his silence wrought in child-like awe before the overwhelming artistry of God’s love. This, I think, may have been gifted him.
4) Indeed, I simply don’t believe that any of us are pure wheat, even the saints. Bad hagiography cannot bear the alloy of human frailty. At minimum, if many who seek Christ are a mixture of wheat and tares, this means that our approach to the Good is enmeshed in confusion, sin, and imperfect union. It is this awkward and unseemly mélange that God kenotically abides in patience for He is not a destroyer of the good. Rather than see this imperfection, this “persistence amidst tares” as an indication of a preference for false goods over the genuine Good, I take it to be a delusion that continues to affirm that the soul is made to desire the Good. Now Feser wants to assert that post-mortem, the soul is “trapped in amber” in the condition attained at the moment of death. (I actually prize Dante as a poet, whilst abhorring his infernalist eschatology. But one of the things I find disturbingly capricious is the way some soul is “saved” after a “life of crime” by a last minute “Ave Maria,” whist others are irredeemable victims of “untimely accident.”) The whole picture of grace as a kind of game of musical chairs invites forms of neurotic religious life, scrupulosity, and obsessive individualism — one becomes a hypochondriac regarding whether one is currently in a state of grace, etc. And like all hypochondriacs, it results in a damaged, egocentric life that is largely joyless and lacking in generosity. Anyway, I think the Traditionalist mindset lacks generosity . . . and mirth, though it remains austerely convinced. It has its metaphysical ducks in a row and just try to find a flaw in its syllogistic logic. What is the gospel next to logic?
5) I suspect that often a persistence in evil is not only a delusional, inept, if you will, search for the Good, but also, and here is where the Church needs imagination and to think more deeply, partly a reaction against the lack of mystery and amplitude in the concept of the Good as it is taught and exhibited in the lives of the “faithful.” Machiavelli painted a picture of heroic amoralism where the leader “prudentially” is “beyond good and evil.” Machiavellian wickedness, like the initial impression of Milton’s Satan, is clever, interesting, daring, and victorious. In contrast, the good man is represented to be a gullible dupe. Dante certainly understood evil better. At the metaphysical nadir of Satan’s cold hell, evil is a bestial inanity. Yet the point here is that persistence in evil is sometimes due to the dull, undesirable, at times grotesquely sentimental image of the Good that no one of proper sensibility could desire. And occasionally what we take for evil is a principled refusal. Again, to reference Hart, the theological idol of voluntarist and nominalist provenance is actually a repugnant devil. To be an atheist in regards to such a god is to be closer to the true God. Historically, the Jews and early Christians were thought atheist, as was Socrates, because they uniformly rejected the deformations of paganism as unworthy of God.
6) This is not to whitewash persistent, addictive evil. I have already affirmed Dante’s/Thomas’ privative metaphysics of evil. Moreover, I am no bleeding-heart liberal. I am more given to Swiftean satire, melancholia, and misanthropy for the whole miserable mass of imbecilic humanity. The first really intellectual book I remember reading is Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society. When one is confronted with evil, particularly wickedness of such cruelty and malice as to invite speculation that devils must be exacerbating such malice, hatred for evil is just and necessary. But can this ever be the last word? My view is that each unique person has an incommunicable role, no matter how humble or seemingly negligible — but nothing and no one is negligible. There is a Sophianic Wholeness that requires the entirety of the Cosmos for the realization of God’s “it is good.” I see the Last Judgment as a “resetting of the spiritual eye/heart” — for all true seeing is “cardiognosis.” The separation of wheat and tares is to decisively know the distance between one’s unique logoi chosen in Christ from “before creation” or from the “alpha” and what one has attained in time. Some will have had no chance to achieve this teleological destiny. They were aborted or died in infancy. Others are limited by genetic abnormalities, catastrophic illness, or horrific circumstances so that the ambit of possible action is severely curtailed. Everyone will have an incomplete, imperfect actualization. Some will have built with nothing but straw . . . but if God’s giving is truly agapeic, the primal passio essendi remains. Why should this gift be withdrawn? If one asserts that it is not withdrawn, with the proviso that it is a gift doomed to be rejected and abused, I say such a conclusion is to misconstrue gift. Love is meant to be requited; the gift is not gift unless it is ultimately received. Grace is either victorious or not. I continue to think that Thomists, fundamentalists, a certain kind of traditionalist Orthodox, etc. are locked into a pagan metaphysics where difference is intrinsically agonic, not harmonious. (John Milbank is good on this in Theology and Social Theory.) Hence, they are satisfied with the victory of the warrior, the conquest of the foe where the enemy is subjugated or annihilated. But God did not make death . . . the victory of Pascha is not so meager.
7) So, like Bulgakov, I question the notion that the person can be reduced to what is no longer in any significant sense a “will.” I’m sure Feser sees no illogic, and intelligent Traditionalists may assert that I am changing the terms of the argument and that so long as one assents to Feser’s premises, the logical consequences follow. I still discern at least the suggestion of an aporia in his claims. What separates modern, libertarian notions of freedom from those of “classical, virtue ethics” is precisely the understanding that the will is directed by the intellectual grasp of the Good. If the latter becomes impossible, one is no longer capable of freedom. This is merely to reiterate that metaphysical freedom is equivalent to the sanctification of theosis. The truth will set you free. Or, as Christ repeatedly asserts and shows in his action, liberty is to do the will of the Father — not in a model of obedience after the arbitrary “command theory” of voluntarism — but following the proper consideration of divine simplicity — freedom is convertible with the perfect flourishing of being that is the plenitude of divine aseity. The chief point here is that the traditional infernalist wants to claim a perduring will to remain in delusion, but this can only be a madness, not a genuine choice of the will, because such choice is dependent upon the availability of the Good as a guide to the will. In reality, Feser, like my beloved C. S. Lewis, contemplates “remains” that are no longer human and therefore no longer in need of our compassion. (All that, however, fails to take into account the objections stated above, especially #1 and #2.) For infernalists, the Last Judgment is a radical loss of vision of the Good. As I said in #6, I believe it is a clarifying of the Good. One sees God without the distorting lens of bad theology and the harm of having lived in a fallen world. God is a healer and a lover; his Justice is his Mercy — this, too, derives from the simplicity of God. Thomists think, “Oh, isn’t it better to have heaven and hell where hell is an exhibition of God’s justice.” The rationale is that heaven is mercy alone. Balthasar disdained this “balancing picture” that required the “black of damnation” for the “light of salvation.” Such an aesthetics is hardly that of the glory of the gospel of Christ.
8) If God’s justice is his Mercy, the proper conclusion of his Creation is the perfection of the Eighth Day. It is true that we will have to lucidly understand and acknowledge the evil and deformation in our lives. To be honest, however, I suspect that often there is good in our evil and evil in our good. When we strive to be holy, there is an intractable and residual egotism only the Cross can kill. If our evil choices are inseparable from an imperfect desire for the Good, isn’t it more likely that the full revelation of the Good would ultimately result in the actual choosing of the Good? Feser has asserted a metaphysics whereby this kind of redirection of choice is impossible. As a counter-argument, one might propose Gregory of Nyssa’s ever increasing advance into the infinite Good. I see no reason why such an advance could not or would not include a remedial “time” in which the damage of sinful dereliction is undone.