In this series of “illuminations,” I quote passages from David Bentley Hart’s collection of essays The Hidden and the Manifest that I have found particularly instructive. I hope they will generate good discussion.
Back in mid-May 2015 David Hart visited Eclectic Orthodoxy and publicly confirmed what many of his readers suspected–namely, he believes that God will ultimately reconcile all human beings to himself. David would probably insist that he’s been pretty clear about this all along, beginning with his first major work, The Beauty of the Infinite. If one combs through his writings, one will find multiple statements that seem to imply apokatastasis, yet always with a measure of reserve. In his comments on this blog, David removed all doubt. The word quickly got out and Eclectic Orthodoxy lit up like a Christmas tree. Six weeks later he presented a provocative lecture at a conference at the University of Notre Dame. In this lecture he raises important questions about God’s responsibility for evil and suffering:
The first theological insight I learned from Gregory of Nyssa—and I suspect the last to which I shall cling when all others fall away—is that the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not merely a cosmological or metaphysical claim, but also an eschatological claim about the world’s relation to God, and hence a moral claim about the nature of God in himself. In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness. And in Gregory’s thought, with an integrity found only also in Origen and Maximus, protology and eschatology are a single science, a single revelation disclosed in the God-man. … For him, clearly, one can say that the cosmos has been truly created only when it reaches its consummation in “the union of all things with the first good,” and that humanity has truly been created only when all human beings, united in the living body of Christ, become at last that “Godlike thing” that is “humankind according to the image.
My topic, though, is not Gregory’s theology, but only the principle that the doctrine of creation constitutes an assertion regarding the eternal identity of God. It is chiefly an affirmation of God’s absolute dispositive liberty in all his acts: the absence of any external restraint upon or necessity behind every decision of his will. And, while one must avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s decision to create as an arbitrary choice made after deliberation among options, one must still affirm that it is free, that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent on the world’s, and that the only necessity in the divine act of creation is the impossibility of any hindrance upon God’s expression of his goodness. Yet, paradoxically perhaps, this means that the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable. For, as the transcendent Good beyond all beings, he is the transcendental end of any action of any rational nature; and then, obviously, the end toward which God acts must be his own goodness: he who is the beginning and end of all things. And this eternal teleology, viewed from the vantage of history, is a cosmic eschatology. As an eternal act, creation’s term is the divine nature; within the orientation of time, its term is a “final judgment.” No matter how great the autonomy one grants the realm of secondary causes, two things are certain. First, as God’s act of creation is free, constrained by neither necessity nor ignorance, all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision. And, second, precisely because God in himself is absolute, “absolved” of every pathos of the contingent, his moral “venture” in creating is infinite. For all causes are logically reducible to their first cause; this is no more than a logical truism, and it does not matter whether one construes the relation between primary and secondary causality as one of total determinism or utter indeterminacy, for in either case all “consequents” are—either as actualities or merely as possibilities—contingent upon their primordial “antecedent,” apart from which could not exist. Moreover, the rationale—the definition—of a first cause is the final cause that prompts it; and so if that first cause is an infinitely free act emerging from an infinite wisdom, all those consequents are intentionally entailed—again, either as actualities or as possibilities—within that first act; and so the final end to which that act tends is its whole moral truth. The traditional ontological definition of evil as a privatio boni is not merely a logically necessary metaphysical axiom about the transcendental structure of being, but also an assertion that when we say “God is good” we are speaking of him not only relative to his creation, but (however apophatically) as he is in himself; for in every sense being is act, and God—in his simplicity and infinite freedom—is what he does.
Between the ontology of creatio ex nihilo and that of emanation, after all, there really is no metaphysical difference—unless by the latter we mean a kind of gross material efflux of the divine substance into lesser substances (but of course no one, except perhaps John Milton, ever believed in such a thing). In either case, all that exists comes from one divine source, and subsists by the grace of impartation and the labor of participation: an economy of donation and dependency, supereminence and individuation, actuality and potentiality. God goes forth in all beings and in all beings returns to himself—as, moreover, an expression not of God’s dialectical struggle with some recalcitrant exteriority, but of an inexhaustible power wholly possessed by the divine in peaceful liberty. All the doctrine of creation adds is an assurance that in this divine outpouring there is no element of the “irrational”: something purely spontaneous, or organic, or even mechanical, beyond the power of God’s rational freedom. But then it also means that within the story of creation, viewed from its final cause, there can be no residue of the pardonably tragic, no irrecuperable or irreconcilable remainder left at the end of the tale; for, if there were, this too God would have done, as a price freely assumed in creating. … Precisely because God does not determine himself in creation—because there is no dialectical necessity binding him to time or chaos, no need to forge his identity in the fires of history—in creating he reveals himself truly. Thus every evil that time comprises, natural or moral—a worthless distinction, really, since human nature is a natural phenomenon—is an arraignment of God’s goodness: every death of a child, every chance calamity, every act of malice; everything diseased, thwarted, pitiless, purposeless, or cruel; and, until the end of all things, no answer has been given. Precisely because creation is not a theogony, all of it is theophany. It would be impious, I suppose, to suggest that, in his final divine judgment of creatures, God will judge himself; but one must hold that by that judgment God truly will disclose himself (which, of course, is to say the same thing, in a more hushed and reverential voice). (“God, Creation, and Evil,” pp. 339-341)
If God is eternal and omniscient, and if he has created the world ex nihilo in absolute freedom, is he not then ultimately responsible for all contingencies and outcomes? And what about hell?
(Go to “Hell, Creatio ex Nihilo, and the Gamble of Creation”)
(I posted a lengthy comment and after I was directed to sign into my WordPress it disappeared, so please excuse me is this is posted twice)
Suppose you are given the miraculous revelation that, should you marry and have kids, your first born son will be more evil than Hitler in heart and deed. And suppose it is revealed that even after his death, when finally freed from all delusion, he will still somehow prove to be forever and eternally unrepentant. And this revelation reveals that all persons are only condemned in complete freedom from delusion. This means that while your son can cause much earthly suffering and pain, he cannot be the cause of any of his victims’ damnation. And suppose you are also given a vision of the day he is born, and how your heart burns with love for him as you kissed his little fingers and toes. And this is not a selfish love, but one that is generated and sustained completely by the worthiness of the his being. You understand that despite his horrific end, your love for your son burns with equal unending eternity due to his foundational beauty and worth. And, finally, suppose it is revealed that should you decide not to marry and have kids you will be lacking in nothing, and in no way be hindered in attaining perfect, selfless love in theosis. Knowing the horrors entailed, what would you do, give him his beautiful and worthy existence or not? If you yield to his beauty and worthiness are you really blameworthy of evil?
I understand that it is posited that to be free of delusion means one will then desire their true Good, which is God, but is this really what the early church fathers expressed? Or do they imagine a situation where one is perfectly aware of God as truly their own good, free of all delusion, and yet still somehow choose against their own good in rejection of Him?
Hence D B Hart’s insistence, I suppose, that all evil is indeed delusion.
Thomas Talbot made the point that if God is supremely and perfectly good, and contains the sum total of all goods, and hell has no good that God does not, to rationally choose hell without delusion is impossible. For a choice to be rational there must, by definition, be a reason for it. That is, there must be some suppposed good one expects to gain by one’s choice, or some supposed evil which one expects to avoid. Creation ex nihilo means there is literally no good outside God, so to choose hell because one believes there is something to be gained thereby that cannot be gained with God is necessarily to be deluded. Likewise, God is perfectly good, so to reject God through fear of some evil if one accepts him is again necessarily to be under a delusion. If, on the other hand, one chooses hell over God without any rationale at all, that cannot be a rational choice to do so.
A person cannot experience with clarity the perfectly rational and the utterly absurd and chaotic at the same time? Can we not hate with a perfect hatred? Or, can we not be like Albert Camus’ main character in the Stranger? Meursault didn’t need a “reason” to act when he pulled the trigger, but his act was indeed free.
Also, (and I ask this with sincerity, because I am not very learned concerning the church fathers) is the consensus of the church fathers in agreement with Talbot and Hart on this point? Would they agree with them that my above hypothetical scenario is an impossibility?
The actions of a madman are completely free from external constraints, but can’t realistically said to be a “free choice”. I’ve not read the Stranger, but as I understand from what I have (just now) read about it, the character kills through total indifference to life and death – a quintessential example of evil through delusion, the belief that there is no purpose to life and an absence of having experienced emotion, joy or love.
I’m by no means an expert on the Church Fathers, but evil as absence of good is from Augustine.
Michelle, Hart anticipates your objection in the following passage. See what you think? Do you find it persuasive:
“To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”
To know the good is a personal, existential experience of the delights of goodness within one’s bosom, without any epistemological gap whatsoever. So, to have such an existential experience of the good necessarily drives out our existential experience of the “perfect hatred” I posited above. Both existential states are impossible within a person at the same time, so long as epistemological gaps are not allowed.
But then this is my question: On your post titled, “Hartian Illuminations: Incarnation and Impassibility,” I questioned Robert Fortuin whether “God is like a magnet for us, since he is our natural proper end. But he is a peculiar kind of magnet, since he does not forcefully snatch us shards of metal off the ground, but rather stimulates and persuades us into a natural drawing nearer to him, of which requires our cooperation. And the closer we get the stronger this peculiar magnetism of his gets, eventually seizing us from ever being able to turn away from him,” of which he concurred. This means the closer we get to our “magnet” the smaller the epistemological gap gets, but does it ever really close? Would we not have to know God in his essence is order for it to truly close? And so long as there is a smidgeon of a gap there is the possibility of a choice to either cooperate or not cooperate. Maybe for the righteous their is an eternal “choosing to cooperate,” since the gap can only grow increasingly smaller as we eternally grow in Christ, without ever becoming God in his essence (closing the gap completely)? Maybe it can only be “nearly” impossible to turn away?? Like a faithful marriage. The longer I’m married the more I love my husband, but I can never say it is truly ‘impossible’ for me to be unfaithful to him, though it is nearly so.
And, again, what I would really like to know is does the consensus of the church fathers tend to agree with Hart or myself on this issue?
Michelle, you may find my article “The Dogmatic Status of Apokatastasis” of interest.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Given that all Orthodox agree that the redeemed in heaven are no longer capable of separating themselves from the love of God, Michelle, I think we must posit the possibility of closing the “epistemological gap.” Hence the distinction between the divine essence and divine energeia is probably not relevant here.
We are back to the questions that you pose about Hart’s position and his response in the passage I quoted above.
I would say my that my 80 year old Grandparents, having been together since they were 15 yrs old and happily married for 60 years now, are past the point of being capable of divorcing each other. Of course, divorce is still a possible reality for them in one sense -they technically are “capable” of divorcing, but in another sense it is an impossibility -it simply ain’t gonna happen. And my point here is while the entire Orthodox Church has always agreed the redeemed are no longer capable of divorcing themselves from God, has the Church actually fleshed out all the details as to in what way, exactly, the redeemed have been rendered incapable? Because the hairy details could prove pertinent in either solidifying or expelling the conclusion that the epistemological gap has indeed been closed.
Regarding your question about the patristic consensus on the nature of human freedom and choice, no such consensus exists, and certainly no particular position has been dogmatically defined. The closest I can think of where the Church came close to speaking on the subject (and it’s not very close at all, though perhaps still relevant) is the Synod of Orange.
Hence we are still left with wrestling with Hart’s key claim:
Most of us, I suspect, forget that we are created with a natural desire for God, a desire which can only be satiated by God and in God. He is our only freedom. The saints in heaven are truly free, for their desire for God is fulfilled; and for this reason they are no longer capable of alienating themselves from God.
Also, has this idea that God is our only freedom, due to his being our only natural desire, ever been officially dogmatized by the Church? Is this fleshed out in one of the councils? Or is it also just another uncontested belief held by the majority throughout the centuries (similar to the majority belief in an eternal hell)? As your Sergius Bulgakov post points out, actually fleshing these things out are important to their actual dogmatization.
And, just so you know, I’m not just trying to be obstinate with all these questions. I’m just new to most of this, but genuinely trying to figure out the legitimacy of universalism. I want nothing more than for universalism to prove true, but I’m not sure that Hart’s eruditions are fool-proof. But, like I said, I am just now starting to really dig into this stuff, so I have a long way to go.
Oh, Michelle, of course I don’t think you are being obstinate. My apologies if the tone of my comments in any way suggested that. You are asking good questions about a difficult and contentious issue.
Regarding your question about freedom and the natural desire for God: no, it has never been dogmatically defined by the Church. You will find it taught in Church Fathers like St Gregory of Nyssen, St Augustine of Hippo, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Thomas Aquinas.
LikeLiked by 1 person
(And, just in case you were wondering, this is the same Michelle that has previously commented on this series. I just changed my gravitar.)
I have no idea why, but you initial comment was sent to the spam queue but your reposting was not.
I wrote out a response offline, which does not take note of anything beyond your initial post. Hence, some of what I say may be anticipated in the subsequent back and forth. Fwiw:
I am not convinced there is uniformity among the patristics on this issue, nor is it evident that they have all reflectively pronounced on the metaphysics of freedom. Diverse saintly opinion aside, the helpful guidance of tradition does not absolve us from responsibility for working through the merit of metaphysical arguments or the agapeic implications of the gospel of Christ. One may deliberate wrongly about the Good, but apart from a teleology directed towards the Good, the intellectual capacity that founds a free choice is meaningless. One is left with spontaneous reactions more akin to mechanist models of causation than the freedom of a person. One chooses the Good because one always aims at the true Good, even when deluded into mistaking evil for Good. The notion that freed of delusion, one might continue to choose against the Good is incoherent (albeit, a popular incoherency). But do not confuse willing for some sterile mental action, it is always a product of the whole person; desire is larger than a mere mental calculation. Furthermore, the conatus essendi (the striving, choosing individual with an eros towards self-determination) is first the passio essendi (the gifted being, porous to the divine). The failures of secondary freedom are not on par with the loving gift of divine origination. God cherishes the singular person and continues to give the gift of being in spite of deformations by the individual who chooses badly.
The hypothetical about the child destined for hell sentimentally wants to focus on the inherent worth of the singular life whilst abjuring the full implications of an apparently self-determined eternal agony. All our analogies must account for the infinite distance between ourselves and the God who is Life who is Love. God is always greater than what is analogically similar. When the greatest artist creates or parents birth a child, it is still quite different from the uniqueness of creation by the unique, Creator God. We inhabit a middle world, a metaxu beset by equivocities, and are moved by desire that is at least partly driven by lack, so our judgements are in that context. When we propose the singular good of the worthy child, it is against the background of our poverty, that we come from nothing. Our valuation is always implicitly cognizant of the riskiness of being in the realm of becoming and a beginning in nothingness. By contrast, God is “always already” a plenitude of perfect aseity. The apatheia of God is both the constancy and the serenity of Love. God is not compelled by lack. Unlike our own efforts, God is not constrained by recalcitrant elements that might impede his perfect freedom to fully enact what God desires. God creates not for Himself, but for the good of the other. To say that God would accept the ultimate damnation of a creature is to say that the Triune God, who is Love and infinite, flourishing perfection, could without impugning His own goodness, bless a game of chance where the creaturely other fails to reach the delightful end of loving communion intended by God for all of God’s creation. The implicit soteriology, as Hart notes, is a creation that is founded upon the infernal victims whose unending suffering is the necessary price (because risked) for the beatitude of those who joyfully participate in the kingdom of God. In such a theology, God is not truly Good for Agapeic kenosis is equated with a humility that entertains ultimate failure as an acceptable possibility – and not fully powerful, for the intended goal is not reached.
Yet even at the existential level of the creature, such a bargain is repugnant. A beautiful, precious existence that comes to nothing, that ends in eternal suffering? Is that a gift to the one trapped in unending, infernal horror? Could a loving heart be satisfied that, well, in the end, the beloved chose to be damned, after all? It would, indeed, be a terrible indulgence not at all compatible with goodness. If we are torn by the death and suffering of the beloved, shouldn’t the radical failure of the initial promise for good be an unendurable thought? Death and Sin are abominations to God because the Agapeic Eros insists on the flourishing joy of the unique beloved — and all creatures, in my view, to the least plankton in the ocean, exist only because loved by God. (I share with Bulgakov and MacDonald the sense that the entire universe is incipiently personal, that even minerals and irrational beasts are drawn towards an unimaginable destiny of ever-deepening personhood, for we are not limited to Aristotelian essences, but in Christ constantly usher all of creation torwards a grace-full transcendence in the direction of ever new capacities for love, delight, discovery, and invention.) And still, there is blindness to the metaphysical integrity of fully human being. Hart explicates Gregory of Nyssa’s pleromatic anthropology in the wonderful essay, The Whole Humanity, “God brings the good creation he wills to pass in spite of sin, both in and against human history, and never ceases to tell the story he intends for creation, despite our apostasy from that story.” And then quoting Balthasar’s study of Nyssa: “The total Christ is none other than total humanity.” Person is inalienable from constitutive relations. If anyone is eternally in hell, then so is Christ, and so are we all.
First, you said,
“The notion that freed of delusion, one might continue to choose against the Good is incoherent”
I have a hard time buying the idea that one choosing against the Good is necessarily irrational. And if it is not irrational, then it is not spontaneously random or mechanical. I feel like, even in the midst of this natural Good there is something that remains true for a person that possibly, in a certain sense, is cause for a rational turning away. I’ll try my best to explain:
There is a certain arbitrariness in my being who I am rather than who you are. I cannot see how one escapes the arbitrariness of the circumstance of being this particular person as opposed to being that particular person. And even if I were the only created person in existence I would still find myself to be arbitrarily “me.” My brother John does not exist. My Father in heaven did not create him. Why am I this particular “me,” rather than John? In this way myself and John become equals, for at one point I did not exist, and therefore at one point I was indeed John. I was created with a desire for the Good? I only arbitrarily desire the Good, for John still does not desire the Good. This arbitrariness I possess makes my kindred affinity for John, my equal, reasonable, doesn’t it? This arbitrariness makes desiring John over my natural Good reasonable. John is suitable for me, because there is no real reason why I am not instead John. Even when I find myself in the midst of the Good itself, the arbitrariness of my being here instead of there informs me of another “existence” suitable for me. If suitable, then rational. If rational, then no longer spontaneously random or mechanical.
Anyway, you also said,
“Unlike our own efforts, God is not constrained by recalcitrant elements that might impede his perfect freedom to fully enact what God desires.”
First, question: Does anything constrain God from creating a square circle?
“God creates not for Himself, but for the good of the other. To say that God would accept the ultimate damnation of a creature is to say that the Triune God, who is Love and infinite, flourishing perfection, could without impugning His own goodness, bless a game of chance where the creaturely other fails to reach the delightful end of loving communion intended by God for all of God’s creation.”
If the arbitrariness inherent in one’s existence is always present to oneself, even while in the midst of the Good, then the option to desire an equally suitable circumstance (John is suitable for me) for oneself that is other than the Good is always present. So, while God only creates for the good of the other, He cannot erase this other “suitable circumstance” necessarily present to a being created from nothing . He is constrained from making this particular square a circle. Being created from nothing is what makes me and John equals, which is why John is always a suitable option for me. I can always ask,”why am I “me” and not John?,” illuminating my arbitrariness.
In this way God is limited by his creature’s natural awareness of something else suitable for it other than the Good. God’s inability to create from nothing without also instilling arbitrariness within the creature grants the creature the unique position of being able to stand in two contrary existential experiences at the same time, both able to simultaneously desire the Good, as well as its own non-existence with perfect clarity. And that is what rebellion is, a desire and movement towards non-existence.
Now, I understand that God needs to remain free from contingency, and therefore remain morally perfect regardless whether he does or does not create my hypothetical person. But how is that possible if God is restrained to the arising of an inherent arbitrariness within those create from nothingness? This is why I proposed the inherent worth of a singular life.
My original hypothetical scenario is, admittedly, a gut reaction forged in intuition and personal reflection. I am purposely trying to stretch the boundaries and see if I can’t break free of the presented paradigms in Hart’s thinking. And I don’t foolishly imagine I am actually succeeding, but how I do wish someone more capable of me would come along. Because that is what I really want, to see a critique from a worthy opponent. Not because I disagree with Hart, but because truth always comes better to light in an active dialectic of opposing views. And this is what universalism needs in order to ever be proven true –refining in the fire of critique.
You see, I understand the moral disparities that arise around the tragedy of an eternally self-tormented being, so I encased it in a shameless sentimentality in order to bring forth what I thought might be a valid rumination, which I will rephrase here in even more stark terms: Suppose God only creates one person. Does the innate beauty and worthiness of this one creature’s existence justify its creation, even if it eternally attempts to stifle its own potential? My point was that while it is free to rebel against its own nature, by virtue of the beauty and worth God imbued within its very being from the beginning, its rebellion cannot but fail in its endeavor. Its rebellion becomes nothing more than a free-willed swinging at the air, for it is, to its own displeasure, inescapably eternally beautiful and worthy. I imagined that only this beauty and worthiness of love is capable of overcoming the suitability of a rational rebellion due to an inherent arbitrariness in being created from nothing.
I guess this was my best at attempt creating a perfect end for a tragic figure, by putting forward the perfection of my figures existing beauty and worthiness in hopes that it would somehow render impotent the tragedy of its eternal rebellion; Does the beauty and worthiness of my son’s existence justify the suffering entailed in being a Charles Manson, raging against his own existence? If I have failed in my argument, then,well, I guess not. Rather, my Charles Manson, in his enraged writhing towards non-existence, manages to render impotent the absolute beauty and absolute worthiness of his existence, and by determination he impedes his irrevocable perfection from being an irrevocably perfect end.
But, like I said, I am not a worthy opponent. I do not have the philosophical or theological chops to construct an adequate critique. In fact, I am looking forward to you (or others who may want to chime in) tearing down all of my above arguments. Hopefully they are fanciful and misguided. You see, this intuition of my own arbitrariness (why must I be “me,” and not you? Why must I be “me,” and not my equal, non-existent John?), and the suitable and rational rebellion that follows, is something I have actually been struggling with for quite sometime now. And the perfect beauty and worthiness of my hypothetical child is something I’ve always contemplated as possibly being able to surmount it.
And I would love be able to sweep all these intuitions of mine aside in perfect confidence that Hart has adequately answered for all of this, but, regardless, I will not be completely satisfied until I hear the absolute best critique of Hart possible. Only then, after weighing both sides, could I ever venture to take up Hart’s universalism with the utmost confidence.
The kinds of questions you are asking are important, but they cannot be adequately answered briefly. I will try, however, to indicate where I think you ought to look for some answers to your perplexities. First off, it seems to me you are confusing issues somewhat. The metaphysics of identity is a very intriguing question and I have spent a fair amount of time pondering it, but it is not synonymous with an investigation into the nature of freedom. If your local university has a good library, I recommend perusing a rather thick book by Thomas Pfau called Minding the Modern. Pfau elucidates the shift in ethical thinking that separates antiquity and the Middle Ages from modernity and its aftermath. It’s difficult for the layman to recognize that when we use words like reason and choice, the meaning is pluriform and contextualized by various historical lines of inquiry. Reason for Aquinas is different from what Locke or Hegel mean by the word. Pfau has a long section in his book entitled “The Path Toward Non-Cognitivism” which is a fairly closely argued exposition of how our ethical concepts shifted from an understanding of will directed by the intellectual attunement to the Good and habituated over time into “the habit of virtue” towards views of volition that bracket out the intellect and interpret choice as aversion to pain/avidity for pleasure, for instance. The act of will teleologically oriented by intellect to the Good was replaced by an individualism whimsically tossed about by subjective circumstances where decision is more preference than choice. The ontological fruition of a nature that was the marker of genuine freedom was forgotten in favor of what we now label libertarian proclivities. The latter may employ an instrumental reason shrewdly deployed to achieve individual aims, but the aims themselves are not rationally defensible. The modern project and its reactive post-modern variations equally produce notions of choice and freedom that reduce to some form of anti-intellectual reaction or appetite. It is in this sense that they fall under the rubric of mechanism. True liberty must always involve the intellectual perception of reality to which the will conforms.
The pithy point is this: man is created with a natural appetite for the Good. We are hungry for reality. We may vitiate a respect for truth, but we have to corrupt ourselves to do so. By nature we are ontologically open to reality. Not only are we biologically dependent on an outside world ordered by family and society, our very capacity to develop, our selving, is inextricably joined to our continuous experience of reality outside our narrow egos. The shaping of the ego is itself a process that traces out precisely our encounters with being as other. The self in a vacuum would not come to awareness of self. Furthermore, our experience of finite goods involves a trajectory towards transcendence. The limited, finite essences that we encounter are finite goods that have reality because they are gifted a participation in the Good. Being is more than the sum of the ens commune; sometimes it is helpful to speak of God beyond Being to clarify that God is more than the Whole. However we approach talk of reality, when we choose a limited good or seem to prefer a lesser good to “the Good,” we are actually always chasing The Good that makes the good Good. If you love pineapples and say, “oh, you can have God, just give me pineapple ice cream,” in the end, you will discover that you cannot have pineapple ice cream apart from God. If you have read C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, the visitors from the sad town cannot tolerate the sharpness of real grass or hold onto an apple. The goods of reality participate in the Good and when one desires a lesser good, you discover that all along you have been yearning for the Good that is the fount of all lesser goods. Something of this kind of Christian Platonism lies behind freedom as intellect directed to the Good.
I will briefly touch on identity and try to tie it back to the question of freedom. When you link the arbitrary to personal identity, you seem to be saying, “Well, I might have been someone else. I might be you or my hypothetical brother, John, who doesn’t exist, but could.” You then appear to infer that since a different person might desire something other than the Good, it would be equally rational to “like the hypothetical John” not desire the Good. First, there is the sticky matter of why one should say “arbitrary.” Arbitrary implies randomness, chance or indifference. It does not imply choice. Now, how particulars are individuated is complicated and contested. Adrian Pabst wrote a hefty, complicated book about metaphysics and hierarchy that I think touches on key questions. I agree with Pabst’s conclusion that ultimately, singular identity is not, as Aristotle would have it and some Thomists, simply the result of matter specifying a form. Rather, uniqueness comes as a gift from the Unique to the unique. So, while it might appear just accidental happenstance that you are you and not me or hypothetical John, you are you because the gift of your being was granted to you by God who chose you to be you and not anyone other. But all this is somewhat beside the point with regards to freedom. Freedom as a modern tends to understand it is untethered from intellect and therefore substantially irrational and divorced from much of reality. Nonetheless, as I adverted to above regarding the participation of limited goods in the Good, there is a teleology to our desires that escapes the “choice” of self-determination. It really doesn’t matter if Hypothetical John acknowledges the Good or not; in desiring anything, he is implicitly desiring the Good. This is part of the gift of being; an ontological desire prior to and outside any deciding between finite options. The latter is a narrow, diminished parody of true freedom, even if it is the common currency in talk of liberty.
As to whether God can square a circle, it is really a question of how best to think about God. I quote from a footnote of the redoubtable William Desmond: “Some thinkers will say that God’s power is limited by what contravenes the law of contradiction: God cannot make a square circle. The law of contradiction is to be understood in terms of the logic of univocal determination. The deeper consideration of God’s power is beyond this univocal level of consideration. The logic of God is beyond contradiction. This is not to say that God is self-contradictory, but that the unity of God is not a univocal unity subject to the determinacy of the law of contradiction. Our logic is our (italicized) logic.” It may be that Triune God squares the circle.
In any event, you return to arbitrariness and John, and there is no doubt that historical contingency plays a role in our temporal experience, but again, the gift of your personal being is “prior” to time and your continuing identity is a never ending gift. You are porous to the Divine Love that chose you from eternity in a unique relation — as am I and every other singularity, as would be Hypothetical John. And each of us is by nature made for communion with God and with each other. And when we mistakenly think we can “self-determine” apart from the continual gift of being, we betray not only the generous kindness of the Agapeic Creator, but ourselves, for the integrity of our person is intrinsically a continual pouring forth of our being “from nothing” that is more deeply the act of Love that is no thing. In short, the person is a relation and there is no person apart from relation. Reason, as David C. Schindler explains in the terrific, The Catholicity of Reason, is inherently ecstatic. The “heteronomy” that Kant abjured is the signature of a flourishing reason, which means that “coming from nothing” is not an egalitarian leveling that founds “arbitrary identity”. Rather, it means that there is an aspect to each of us that cannot be comprehended even by essence, but this is “the secret of the white stone” (MacDonald has a nice sermon on this.) Hence, I do not grant that creatio ex nihilo in any manner constrains God or initiates the kind of indeterminacy you surmise in creation from nothing. (The usage of constraint by me is to distinguish between a Platonic demiurge who does the best it can with matter that offers resistance to divine efforts to eventuate the Good. There is no dualism between Creator and creation. This is almost a tautology if one grasps what is meant by Creator. God simply is not confronted by difficulties that evade divine intentions to create a cosmos that is “very good,” though flourishing excellence is for us a promise fulfilled in the eschaton.
MacDonald in one of his Unspoken Sermons recognizes that when the suicide thirsts for non-existence, it is not really oblivion that is sought, even if that is the language that is embraced. When life has broken down into bleakness, seemingly without hope, fearful, lonely, humiliating, what have you, then to fly towards nothing is an “apophatic” way of saying that the life one inherently desires is elsewhere. Death as release, as sleep from nightmare existence may be an expression of weariness and despair, but always, the deep ontological desire for life and more life remains. Analogously, if one thinks of hell as a self-chosen eternal suicide, it is still a “negative expression” of the desire for life. One may be deluded or confronted by such terrible distortions of God in the idols of religion that flight from God seems escape from oppression to life and liberty. But the life and liberty that one desires because one is that desire must conclude in God. One chooses God incognito, as it were.
I think you are right to remark the inescapable beauty of one’s gifted being. The individual ego may rebel, but the deeper person is always allied with God, so when one rebels against God, it is two against one and you rebel also against your true self. Nietzsche, I think, was in love with the kind of tragic beauty you may be attempting as a way of accepting eternal alienation. But the fierce gentleness of agape betrays such tragic posturing. The gospel is the comic vanquishing of all our efforts to undermine God’s serene mirth. And yet I cannot offer you the kind of univocal proof you may be looking for. My own belief is that “Christian universalism” simply is the gospel. Christ or nothing, but if Christ, it is surely the universe made new where “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Gospels of imperfect victory do not seem “fitting” to the God revealed by Christ. I do not believe them. Some idol may have imagined such an outcome, but not the Living God. This is still a matter of finesse. Desmond again: “wonder is the reverent yes.” Wonder is the child’s delight, astonishment before the elemental goodness of things. There is renewed wonder, later than the natural openness of the child. It is the child of grace.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I want to thank you for taking the time to respond to me so adequately. One of the greatest problems for my relentless, questioning mind is a want for guidance. There are problems to be solved, but in what direction do I go? So I especially want to thank you for helping to better sort out nature of my concern, and for the book references to help me explore the issue even further. I was excited to see that my university’s library does I indeed have Pfau’s, “Minding the Modern.” I can’t wait to dive into it!
One thing that jumped out at me in your response is this loss of antique ethical thinking we moderns suffer. I scarely see us ever regaining it in society as a whole. It’s depressing really, to think of the vast majority of Christians increasingly walking through only a darkened shell of Christ’s truth. That’s why it’s so important to have capable figures, such as Hart and yourself, and the probably many more I have yet to discover, shining flashes of light in this dark room. Those of us scrambling for the way out need your bright signals.
I particularly want to thank you for this too, “In any event, you return to arbitrariness and John, and there is no doubt that historical contingency plays a role in our temporal experience, but again, the gift of your personal being is “prior” to time and your continuing identity is a never ending gift. You are porous to the Divine Love that chose you from eternity in a unique relation — as am I and every other singularity, as would be Hypothetical John.”
This is part of what was missing in my thinking. Yes, God need not create me to be perfect God. His Godhood is not contingent upon my existence, and yet it is still true that the gift of my being has somehow always existed with him in eternity. This precludes the arbitrariness of existence. That I exist, while John still remains unexistent, is not mere accident. The idea of this particular and existent me is eternal, therefore non-existence is not suitable for me, as it is for non-existent John.
I’m excited to read Pfau’s book, and I’ll probably look into the other authors you mentioned also. Hopefully from there I will be introduced to further channels of exploration. I am more than ready to begin the journey of stripping off this cultural nihilism we are born and bred in!
Also, I’ve been exploring more of your writings on Fr. Aiden’s blog. They are quite brilliant, and have caused me to wonder if you have any published works? If so, I would be very interested in reading aquiring them. If not, then you should write a book so I can do so! 😉
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you for your kind words, Michelle. We are called to wisdom, but so few appear to search. I am working on several projects. We’ll see if any of them are ultimately published. Father posted my old reflection Ricercare today. I had not looked at it since writing it. Existentially, I am living all that, so it’s a tough slog. The world doesn’t acknowledge or reward the worthy path. In any event, I am encouraged by your enthusiasm and searching mind. Georges Bernanos had a query to God: “Why so many imbeciles?” It is pleasant when one discerns those who do not blink before the light or complacently drift along the dull, easy path.
LikeLiked by 1 person
So I’m not Eastern Orthodox (I’m an former evangelical about to be received into the Roman Catholic Church), but I do have some things to say about universalism.
1) Brian and Fr. Kimel are absolutely correct in insisting that there is not anything like a Patristic consensus on the nature of Hell. The fact that a Father as profound and intellectually solid as St Gregory of Nyssa held to universal salvation is of incredible significance. Although Origen is not officially canonized as a saint, St Gregory the Theologian speaks for many Fathers when he says something to the effect that “all of us were sharpened on the stone that was Origen”. There are even hints that St Athanasius of Alexandria might have been among the universalists. St Augustine, so controversial in the East, was himself a universalist early on in his Christian life. And we cannot justly ignore some of the ascetic universalists, such as Evagrius Ponticus, Theodore, and St Isaac the Syrian. Universalism may not be correct (to be honest, I think it is incredibly far-fetched as an eschatological position), but that does not make it a heresy. Heresy is a big word, and Christians everywhere could benefit a bit from remembering that.
2) It is possible (in fact quite easy) to construct a genealogy of belief in everlasting punishment that blames primarily Justinian for the doctrine’s popularization. I personally am more of the school of thought that the Holy Spirit led Justinian to popularize belief in everlasting Hell because it is in fact true that some will choose everlasting Hell for themselves (or at least that it is possible to do so), but I feel that way due to philosophical ideas, and not because there is anything necessarily heretical about universalism. (I will take this opportunity to insist that the case is pretty much closed that the Fifth Ecumenical Council has absolutely nothing whatsoever against universalism as such, and the attempt to make it appear that way was really pretty pathetic.)
3) In my opinion, Hart’s insistence that it is impossible to freely choose evil is misguided. It seems incontestable to me on the level of phenomenology that people are capable of intentionally refusing to choose the Greatest Good (i.e., God). In my opinion, Hart’s primary mistake is to equate choosing some lesser good with a trail that leads ineluctably upward to the Greatest Good. Of course “no one can will the evil as evil” (as Hart rightly says), but that does not mean that it is impossible for someone to settle for a lesser good such that they refuse to ever rise up the chain of goods to The Good as such. So I think that Hart is wrong to say that the movement of the will from some lesser good to The Good (God) is ineluctable.
4) I think that the universalism debate is burdened by incredible oversimplifications on both sides. The charge of “heresy” that is so often leveled against the universalists is particularly aggravating to me, as are the subtle jabs against people who are convinced that some (perhaps even ourselves, depending on our progress in the spiritual life) will be everlastingly derelict. Sometimes I feel like universalists think that I intentionally worship an image of God that is morally reprehensible, perhaps even morally evil. I would like to hope that this is not the case, and I would like to think that universalists are mature enough to give people like me the benefit of the doubt, just as I attempt to give the universalist party (which includes my beloved Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa) the benefit of the doubt. May we all reach the Vision of God in the end.
An emotionally invested reader
LikeLiked by 1 person
Well, I’m not sure what to make of a talking beard, honestly, though I suppose it is not a heresy . . . naturally, most people adhere to a non-universalist eschatology. I don’t think Hart’s polemic is directed at individuals. Like you, I am trying to follow out the logical consequences of a metaphysics that I take to be consistent with the revelation of the gospel. There’s no doubt, however, that historically advocates for an infernalist eschatology have asserted some pretty loathsome things, regarding unbaptised babies, for instance.
Anyway, I’m sure you’re a fine fella. And there’s no question that in our journey in status via, folks settle for lesser goods all the time. The point about freedom is that choice is still guided by the intellect that is teleologically directed by the Good itself in which lesser goods participate. I take it that the eschaton removes the blinders.