“There is something amoral in that play of life that is death”

What again of the torment of evil? Evil too shows a monstrous idiocy that demands hyper­bolic thought beyond the whole. Gnosticism saw the problem of evil as the problem of the creator God: the tyrannical God of jealous power. Classical monotheism’s manner of putting the problem is continuous with the question of “wise willing” – disjunction seems to eventu­ate if we make a conjunct of God’s goodness and power. If God is all good, he would will all to be good – but evil exists, hence he is less than all powerful. If he is all powerful, he could will all good; again, evil exists and hence he is less than all good.

If the creator’s power extends to all, is the creator not responsible for evil? Creative power becomes coercive determination, and evil itself is one form of that coercive determination. And yet one of the deepest sources of holding God as creator is a hyperbolic trust that nothing but good can come from God. Even if God is agapeic, is he not complicit in evil by letting it be and enacting a divine self-limitation? Is this last different from a complicity that inculpates God: self-reserving is self-absenting, hence a benediction on malediction? Does not the goodness of the creator evaporate in the very effort to affirm the goodness? If abso­lute goodness lets evil be, absolute goodness seems not absolute goodness. For there are sins of omission as well as commission. Unlike Pontius Pilate washing his hands, being good sometimes means – getting one’s hands dirty. To be and do good is to go among the evil. Is this what an agapeic God would have to do, give up the invulnerable self-congratulation of the beautiful soul?

Does the story of the Fall answer the enigma? It names it, it does not dispel it. It gives heed to disruption in the order of creation, in our will to be as a god, possessing knowledge of good and evil. We will to be master of being’s equivocity, and in the process fall deeper into the equivocity. We become subject to it in the will to make it our subject. It is our will to elevation that produces our degradation. We do not throw ourselves down, rather we seek to be our own self-creating source of full transcendence, and the lack in our erotic will to be thus sovereign turns back into itself and becomes subject to its own void. This sovereignty makes void. Genuine sovereignty points to partnership with the divine other. It gives itself up in obedience to goodness.

Even if we make some sense of moral evil by attribution to our will, the issue is evil relative to creation, not just the human creature. Does the story of the Fall name the malignancy, the sometimes demonic energies unloosed, energies other to human will? There seems evil in excess of the moral evil we can impute to any human agent. Do we invoke a more than human agency (not quite as the Gnostics do, but not entirely unlike)? There seems no a priori reason to rule this out.

The lion devours the lamb, the spider the fly, the fox the hen. The cat plays coldly with the captive bird our human kindness would let go. There is something amoral in that play of life that is death: bored supremacy teasing the trembling bird with cruel illusions of being free, pinioning at the kill its flight in careless claws: love loving to disport with life, with death. Did the God creating the cat’s cold eye decree too this disport?

In originating creatures, God communicates but reserves power to allow their power to be. God’s power is absolute relative to the coming to be, but it is cooperative relative to the becoming of created beings. Since world is not God’s self-doubling, for there to be creatures as other, God must let another be as other, and in that grant of freedom freely abdicate univocal determining power for cooperative communication. In the reserve of divine patience, the gift of freedom sometimes means allowing by doing nothing, sometimes secret rejoicing with the creature, sometimes anonymous coaxing, sometimes persuading silently. The reserve of the divine cannot be separated from the finesse: intimate companionship with the mortal creature, devotion to its good, courtesy to its singular integrity. God is esteem for the gift, honoring the promise that we are come to redeem.

The unconditioned activity of the divine is conditioned relative to the world as the creation of the unconditioned activity. The conditioned relation goes with the act of creation, and hence to act in oblivion of the gift given would be to rescind the creation as other. So long as the world continues to be thus conditioned, the relation is not rescinded. Its rescinding would be the end of the world. Till then freedom is open and the redemption of its promise possible.

The primordial origin is not abstract or indefinite, not indeterminate, but overdetermined as overfull. And so, regardless of what the world comes to be and affects God with respect to the conditioned relation, there is the prior fullness of eternal life, and nothing changes this. Yet this fullness relates to creation, and its intermediating work is to bring this to fullness also. It does not always succeed, and in this there is a loss of promise, perhaps failure beyond redemp­tion, perhaps damnation. This does not deprive the primordial fullness of its full­ness; the fullness is overfull just because it alone has the power to take into itself the most devastating of losses and destructions, and what happens then, we do not know. Only God as absolute can suggest to us that perhaps, perhaps, what is damned for us, I mean absolutely lost, is given reprieve or another chance. Who among us can say?

William Desmond

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14 Responses to “There is something amoral in that play of life that is death”

  1. Mike H says:

    Haunting. Hopeful yet cautious. There are no satisfying answers imo.

    Could this not also argue that if none at all were saved, nothing and no one at all, that the divine fullness is not in any way deprived? I understand that a God that “needs” creation in order to be “full” is a problem, but neither does that alternative seem palatable.

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  2. brian says:

    Mike,

    I think a lot of Desmond’s implicit dialogue is aimed at Hegel and the idea of an impoverished origin that dialectically attains plenitude as a result of an historical process. Such a beginning “erotically” reaches out towards the other in order to answer for an initial lack. The other is ultimately subsumed back into what Desmond would describe as a kind of “higher univocity” whereby the being of the other is “domesticated” as an achieved possession. In contrast, Desmond alludes to an Originary Plenitude in order to articulate a generous gifting of the other “for the sake of the other.” The kind of agapeic care and concern Desmond discerns cannot be entertained by any sense of perfection that remains at the conceptual level, whether in Aristotle or in Hegel’s version of “thought thinking itself.” (It is the opposite of Eucharistic giving where creation is raised to a divinized flourishing beyond natural capacities.) In short, Desmond’s metaphysics is compatible with the gospel in a manner the others or not.

    It is a different question whether one can accept the notion that agapeic gifting might be eternally vanquished by creaturely refusal. In my opinion, the aseity of TriUne God is a flourishing perfection that does not need the creation. The question of whether God so understood would entertain a risk that accepted (because possible) the ultimate loss or eternal suffering of any creature is perhaps a theological question outside the scope of a purely metaphysical investigation. George MacDonald, David Bentley Hart, among others, have denied that God’s goodness would allow for creation under those constraints. I have written on this as well and I have yet to see an refutal that did not simply evade the actual argument and fall back on some form of genuflection before traditional infernalist interpretations.

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    • Mike H says:

      Thanks Brian. That’s helpful. Can’t expect answers to questions that aren’t in view.

      When I say “there are no satisfying answers”, I don’t mean Desmond in particular. This is a difficult, personal subject (as it is for most people) & I haven’t found any answers that fully suffice.

      I suppose my own thoughts boil down to this – the way that I see it, “fullness” isn’t a purely metaphysical term. If it were, the way that the argument is put forth here, any creaturely ends at all can affirm a divine fullness. But as you say, perhaps that’s a different investigation.

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      • I think some questions cannot be answered. Possibly, because we cannot know the answer here on the earth; because our minds cannot hold the answer; the answer cannot be translated into the language our minds speak. Possibly, because the question itself is a kind of illusion, a nonsense question; that if we could see the true nature of reality, we would see that the question itself makes no sense, the assumptions on which it is based are partial mis-understandings.

        The Love of God is the Answer and Reason of all things: but how clearly do we see the Love of God? The clearer we see the Love of God, the clearer we will see everything else – a clarity which may, oftentimes, be expressed by knowing that we do not know or cannot say.

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Brian & others, over on Facebook, Karl White commented on the above passage from Desmond:

    Beneath all the rhetoric, though, lies the same old issue: God could have decreed that ‘freedom’ entailed something other than ripping each other’s guts out, whether we’re speaking of man or beast.

    How would you respond to him?

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    • nathanieldrakecarlson says:

      That this is the freedom that we have and that we comprehend as such does not mean that it is all the freedom there is or could be.

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    • Jonathan Geltner says:

      I like what Nathaniel says.

      I’m not aware that God has ever decreed that freedom is one thing or another. In my understanding freedom is a concept of human description with various applications. Here it seems to mean a kind of letting be, a negative gift. I do not think we are dealing with an equation but a mystery. The FB comment is not the equivalent of stating that God could have decreed that 2+2=5. And by the way, could he have done that?

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    • Grant says:

      I would first say we have to affirm where his statement comes from, it is a reaction to something truly horrific that we often don’t notice and very rarely in it’s full nature. That is because we are apart of it, it’s in our blood, flesh and bones, our minds, relationships and evironment. We come from billions of years of a fallen creation, on both hospital to life yet hostile to it, destruction is woven into the fabric of our creation and ourselves. There is a terrible and frightening mystery in evil, in death and as Christians our first response should be to feel that.

      To often the instinct is to jump straight to God’s defence (in truth more the defence of our own world-view which is being challenged by such sentiments, since God such finite systems and answers). But we should not be so defensive, we stand before something that we cannot give any fully satisfactory or perhaps even any partial answer to. We should in my belief accept that, and face it and see it for the mystery that mocks us.

      Could it have been otherwise, how can we know, with classical theism I don’t think so, since I don’t think God deliberated between possible worlds, that would not be God I don’t think. All we can do is point to Christ and His Incarnation, which is the centre and summit of creation, in Him is the truth of God, creation and God’s love and purpose towards it revealed. Of God who unitied creation into Himself, it’s suffering, twisting, warping, and tagged incompletion, agony, confusion and pain. Shares it, not just for humanity but all creation throughout the span of our finite time and space drawn into His infinity of Love and Life. He overcomes it, defeats it and destroy this effect of death, so mysterious because it is nothing, this entrapment and pull to non-being, a privation not anything that can be pointed, only a terrible effect everything present. And that promise of the Resurrection that He will destroy it, and restore all that has been lost, and bring all completion and fullness of life.

      In Him we can see dimly what creation should be, that this isn’t His desire and He has nether left creation or us to suffer under it, not will it have it’s say forever, and that it has already been conquered.

      Is that satisfactory, I don’t think so, more just a statement of confused hope, but I think a sure hope. Will that answer a non-Christian or defend our world-view probably not. As I said I don’t think we can now, just refect and meditate before the mystery that mocks us all. Only in the end, in the great unvielling at the completion of the Resurrection and God becomes all in all will we see clearly and may understand things better and have an answer that why things were this way, why God’s Providence worked through the Fall in such a manner. And it tells us the Fall is much bigger then just humanity, just as Christ’s salvation is much greater than just us humans either.

      Anyway not much help, I find sometimes knowing creation is dynamically with intelligences connected with all aspects of creation helpful. Paganism intuition here wasn’t so much wrong as in need of clarification, since we can see the same vision glimpsed in the Old Testament and even more in the New Testament a comos full of fallen and dark powers twisted by death. Even those not so may not have have become so diminished and confused in vision may not truly understood God and His purposes until this was unveiled in Christ. In this I find the first parts of the Silmarilion helpful. But this only a possible image, one I find helpful with some indication to be somewhat true at least.

      But in the end I do think we need to accept that this is a mystery, one we cannot answer this side of the Resurrection, and feel the force of it. In the end we just look to Christ to know that creation is not as God wishes it, that death, futility and it’s horrors are His enemy and it will pass.

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    • God could have created man in freedom and in bliss with no possibility of corruption, and thus free of all violence. Man could be free and could trust in God without fear, without doubt, even without questions. But I think we speak nonsense if we claim that man, that is, created flesh and blood and spirit, could instantiate in the created world trust in the Father in the face of the full spectrum of despair without the aporia in question (or something like it). To be clear, trust in the Father could exist without the impenetrable darkness that envelops this world, but “trust in the face of the full spectrum of despair” could not exist without the absurdity of the “guts.”

      To cleave to the Father in the midst of black nihilism, to trust Him although we witness man and beast “ripping each other’s guts out,” only in such a world can man be the created-flesh-blood-spirit who trusts the Father in the full spectrum of despair. Through the lattice of these guts he witnesses both the nothingness from whence he came, that is, the ex nihilated negation that he is without God and the ecstatic Love of the Father who alone Is. We bear witness to the cosmos that He is the infinite Good, the infinite ex-nihilating Lover in spite of the absurd. In short, trust in the face of the absurd cannot exist without the absurd.

      And then, of course, there is sin. The surd running through our hearts, the distrust of the Father. Through those “guts” we undo the knot of distrust, the distrust of the Father which we inserted into the cosmos, into paradise. That distrust of the Father is a gnawing privation within and only through trusting the Father in the surd can the Light disperse the special kind of darkness to which we are addicted. The ultimate despair is staring at sin within one’s own heart and is the closest to nothing that can be without complete annihilation. The absurdity of the “guts” is the only space for the reversal of the distrust of the Father in the cosmos. The Living One has taken our flesh so we might follow His: “My God why have you forsaken me?” and yet “Not my will but your will be done.” The Crucified One makes possible trust in the Father in the midst of the surd of sin.

      But there are some things that even the God-Man cannot experience, repentance as a sinner and despair as a created human person. Thus, our participation in the Passion as created, sinful, human persons is utterly unique in the created order. Forgive me for quoting such a long passage, but Raissa Maritain’s (Jacques’ saintly wife) letter to a mother tortured by the death of her child keeps coming to my mind. I’ll whittle it down as much as possible:

      “That Pasch of which the Lord said, ‘I have desired to eat this Pasch with you’–you are eating it now with our Savior: the Pasch of the Passion and of the Crucifixion, through salvation comes to men. Through your sorrow and your patience you are co-redeemers with Christ. God has suddenly plunged you both into the very heart of this reality: redeeming suffering. And when one knows by faith (that is to say, with all possible certitude) the marvels he works with our suffering, with the substance of our crushed hearts–can one coldly refuse him? ….. Making up what is lacking in the Passion of Christ. What is lacking to it is development in time. Jesus suffered only during a certain time. He cannot himself develop his Passion and death in time. Those who consent to let themselves to be penetrated by him to the point of being perfectly assimilated to him, accomplish throughout the whole length of time, what is lacking in his Passion. They have consented to become flesh of his flesh. Terrible marriage, in which love is not only strong as death but begins by being a death, and a thousand deaths. ‘I will espouse the in blood. I am a bridegroom of blood.’ …… There is also a fulfillment of the Passion which can only be given by fallible creatures, and that is the struggle against the fall, against the attraction of the this world as such, against the attraction of so many sins which represent human happiness. That gift Jesus could not make to the Father; only we can do it. It involves a manner of redeeming the world, and of suffering, which is accessible only to sinners. By renouncing the good things of this world, which in certain cases more numerous than one might think, sin would have procured us–by giving to God our human and temporal happiness, we give him, proportionately, as much as he gives us, because we give him our all, the widow’s mite of the Gospel.”

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  4. Stephen says:

    DESIGN
    I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
    On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
    Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
    Assorted characters of death and blight
    Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
    Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
    A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
    And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

    What had that flower to do with being white,
    The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
    What brought the kindred spider to that height,
    Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
    What but design of darkness to appall?–
    If design govern in a thing so small.

    Robert Frost

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  5. brian says:

    I agree with the general sentiment that we are wrestling with mysteries. One can only make gestures towards what awaits an eschatological answering. Surely, as Jonathan notes, freedom is not a term of univocal closure and clarity. The Eastern distinction between gnomic and natural will points towards incipient potential that must move towards flourishing perfection. It is not evident to me that one could ever simply be created in a state of perfection. This is apparently not even possible for the angels. The connection between the Adamic state and the fallen state of nature is suggested by the manner in which humankind is meant to liturgically sing for all of enfleshed being. How this fits in with an evolutionary paradigm where mortality in nature would appear to precede the advent of human beings by millions of years remains an enigma. I have written elsewhere about an understanding of the Fall as metahistorical, evoking a metaphysical corruption that founds, in some way, our current experience of death-bound, entropic time. A thinker like Yannaras sees nature, as most moderns do, as itself a system of death that is transcended through the gift of personal being which is ultimately an end achievable only in theosis. I am more inclined towards Bulgakov, who reads nature via Plato and a careful appropriation of idealism. Every unique particular in its irreducible singularity, it’s “idiocy”, Desmond would say, must be reckoned as beloved and irreplaceable, but each is also intrinsically relational, and participant in community that entails not only particulars to other particulars, but elemental affinities that make for larger corporate identities that function not as abstractions, but as real unities. There is a reality in which all lions represent the Great Lion (Charles Williams) which is itself a logoi that comes from the infinite fount of the Logos made man.

    Here, we are brought to causalities formal and final that typically fall outside the purview of modern men who falsely restrict the range of their conceptions to an immanent world of efficient and material causality. Never properly asking the question of being means forgetting the initial and continuing gift, the passio essendi that makes possible all our striving efforts (conatus essendi). The latter is more easily conceived in terms of the erotics of being, whilst the hidden agape of the former recedes from our conceptual awareness and attention. The reverance for being, say, the Native American who thanks the buffalo for providing meat and hides to sustain human community, held within its piety something of the requisite sense of giftedness and relational bonds that fall outside a consciousness driven by utility and libertarian conceptions of freedom as “arbitrary choice.” The guidance of a mysterious Good that enlightens and gives the will a meaningful teleology is what drops out and one is left with an untethered, nihilist grasping that masks despair by distraction and the desperate constraint of what matters to what can be reduced to a problem and solution pragmatic orientation.

    This latter invites an “immanent eschatology” in which history is thought to provide an apotheosis to human effort. Rather than a future which should be found outside of any horizontal trajectory in time — cosmic redemption can only be discovered in the future that is TriUne God — a preference is exhibited for what can be attained through the possessive manipulation of the earth. All this is rooted in that primal forgetting that must play a significant role in whatever it means to be fallen. We are never outside of agapeic care and giftedness; to be aware of this is to keenly acknowledge a coming from nothing. The mystery of evil is equally the mystery of creation. To be called from nothing is intrinsic to created being. God does not create death. God does not intend death for his cosmos. John Milbank and Hans Urs von Balthasar, among others, allude to TriUne difference as founding the difference of creation. There may be a kenotic letting be of the divine persons that constitutes the dance of perichoresis. This is not death, but an unimaginable aspect of elemental goodness that is analogically enacted by creaturely finitude. Absent participation in divine love, however, finite difference can become violence and the gnomic choosing of destruction and death. Regardless, the capacity to fall back into nothingness is metaphysically inherent simply in the fact of being a creature. Creaturely perfection is the work of the Cross. God always provided for a path of grace. I don’t think it was required that the tiger devour the gazelle, yet I don’t see how you could ever have a creation where it wasn’t a possibility. That death should be the last word, however, was something Love would not and cannot abide.

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