Epistolary Adumbrations: Death, Life, and the Creatio ex Nihilo

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

The following post was originally two parts of what constituted a small dialogue between myself and a young woman who questioned certain aspects of David Bentley Hart’s arguments regarding the nature of freedom and the possibility of universal salvation. M. first averred that the Christian tradition and saintly testimony held against the latter, but the most pressing element of her speculative inquiry had to do with a hypothetical babe destined for hell. She wondered if one might conceivably choose to birth a child that one knew beforehand would irrevocably choose separation from the love of God? Could such a choice be justified, with evident analogical applications to infernal eschatology? My initial response provoked more probing questions. M. was not persuaded that individual persistence in alienation from the Good was necessarily irrational. More clarification was needed to indicate how modern conceptions of freedom degrade to mere mechanism. M. then introduced the matter of the whence of identity and proposed a hypothetical brother, John, who was different from M. Wasn’t it just an accident of historical chance that M. was M. and not John? Might she not reasonably think and judge differently if she were other? M. categorized this existential possibility as the “arbitrary” nature of identity. She then pressed me on some of my earlier assertions. Might God be constrained by logical contradictions? Would it make sense to say that God can square the circle? (Implicitly, perhaps, can God create free beings who must certainly choose the Good?) M. speculated that coming from nothing meant the individuating element in identity was indeterminate and a limit to God’s capacity to destine all to salvation just as squaring the circle is an abrogation of logic. M. returned to the image of an eternally tormented person. This bit is rather lovely, so I hope she will not be offended if I quote her:

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.

M. went on to clarify that she was trying to see if one might discover a way to honor the good of the person and pronounce the creation good even if the person chooses unending hell. M. neither rejects, nor accepts Hart’s Christian universalism. At this point, she is testing the arguments and probing for weaknesses. She is not a philosopher or a theologian, but her reflections denote a winsome desire to discover truth and to press difficult matters, unwilling to avoid perplexities or to neglect astonishment before the beauty of being. I have not attempted to erase the somewhat casual tone of personal response, though I made a few minor word changes. None of what follows is strictly a defense of Hart’s arguments, though I admire his thought and find his theological vision especially congenial. In any event, any weakness of argument is entirely my own.

M., 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 most gifted 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 towards 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.

M., 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 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 refuses 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.

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10 Responses to Epistolary Adumbrations: Death, Life, and the Creatio ex Nihilo

  1. Tom says:

    I love you Brian Moore.

    Fr Al, I’m technically challenged, but isn’t it possible to offer a ‘Print’ button option for individual posts that would print out just the elements of that post (excluding a blog’s other sidebar features)? Otherwise, printing a copy (which odd-balls like prefer to do) involves manually highlighting the post, pasting it into a Word doc, cleaning it up, then printing it. And as you know, I’m lazy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My own grappling with universalism, or at least the universalist hope was mediated through my own readings in Tennyson and Eliot more so than through a theological tradition (not to say either of these poets don’t grapple with weighty theology). Tennyson’s words in In Memoriam LIV have stuck with me since I first encountered it as a high school student a couple decades ago:

    …That nothing walks with aimless feet,
    That not one life shall be destroy’d
    Or cast as rubbish to the void
    When God hath made the pile complete…

    What I appreciate about this blog and thinkers like DBH is that they have given not only an aesthetic argument for universalism but the full weight of intellectual inquiry and theological reflection that makes the appeal of universalism more than a vague hope. This isn’t to say that the aesthetic of poetry is deficient, as a general rule I find far more truth value in the great poets than I do in much of the theology and philosophy that fills my bookshelves. All to say, thanks Brian for the thoughtful post.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      I am convinced that in paradise theology and poetry shall be thoroughly indistinguishable. What else can love be but the embrace of all with all?

      Liked by 3 people

    • I love these verses from In Memoriam as well! To continue…

      That not a worm is cloven in vain;
      That not a moth with vain desire
      Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
      Or but subserves another’s gain.

      Behold, we know not anything;
      I can but trust that good shall fall
      At last—far off—at last, to all,
      And every winter change to spring.

      So runs my dream: but what am I?
      An infant crying in the night:
      An infant crying for the light:
      And with no language but a cry.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Now for the question that I’d be interested to hear an Orthodox approach to. I’m sure to a degree my own Reformed heritage bleeds into the question, but, doesn’t universalism entail a form of compatibilism between election and freedom that is reflected broadly in the Reformed tradition?

    It seems to me that even the thorny problems in Calvin’s double-election (though I do not personally hold this view) disappear in universalism, because even if one takes the most deterministic reading of divine sovereignty, this poses no meaningful threat to free will.


  4. Mike H says:

    Thanks for this Brian.

    I love all of the George MacDonald. A quote of his that goes well with your thoughts here:

    “Low-sunk life imagines itself weary of life, but it is death, not life, it is weary of.”

    This, I think, is a manifestation of that “prior” irrevocable giftedness of being (though it often doesn’t appear as “gift”) that ends (telos) in God and His “serene mirth”.

    Liked by 1 person

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