by David W. Opderbeck, Ph.D.
As mentioned at the end of my previous post, David Bentley Hart’s argument in That All Shall Be Saved depends on a specific understanding of human freedom and the will. In response to the “free will” argument that “Hell’s gates are locked from the inside,” Hart makes two crucial moves. First, he defines “freedom” not as “libertarian” freedom to choose one thing rather than another, but rather as the ability to act in accordance with one’s created nature. Second, he relies on Maximus the Confessor’s distinction between the “natural” and the “gnomic” will for the argument that all rational creatures ultimately must choose to be united with God.
“Libertarian” and “Compatibilist” Freedom
In the contemporary analytic philosophy lingo, Hart’s first move is a kind of “compatibilism” about human freedom. I personally agree with this move. More precisely, I agree that the modern analytic categories of “libertarian” and “compatibilist” freedom produce confusions when they are abstracted from the pre-modern contexts in which debates about free will and determinism first arose in Ancient Near Eastern/Hebrew, Greek, Christian, and Islamic thought. In other words, without transcendence — without God — the very notions of “freedom” and “the will” make no sense. “Freedom” is choosing the good; choosing evil is not a “free” choice but an irrational dissolution of the will into bondage. That was the view of most of the Church Fathers and Doctors prior to modernity, and I’d say its the view reflected in the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets, the Gospels, and Paul’s letters.
Many — perhaps most, outside some Calvinist and Thomist circles — contemporary theologians and philosophers of religion disagree. They argue that libertarian freedom is essential to human moral responsibility. This is the view, for example, of one of the leading current defenders of the free will defense of Hell, Jerry Walls: Hell: The Logic of Damnation and Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. I don’t want to try to recite the different moves in that debate, because in the end I basically agree with Hart on this point. It’s fair to note, however, that this is a Very Big Question with many possible shades of meaning, and it seems impossible to adjudicate one camp as completely wrong and the other as completely right.
Maximus on Adam, Christ, and the Will
But even if we adopt a classical compatibilist view of human freedom, we’re left with the reality of sin. The fact is, we choose unfreedom. Why? And if we choose unfreedom now, why should we think we’ll turn around and choose freedom sometime in the distant eschaton?
For Christian thinkers of various stripes, the “why” question always centers on what happened with Adam in the Garden. Hart skewers the crude Augustinian view of original sin, but the difference between humanity now and humanity in the Garden was important to all the Church Fathers. This was certainly the case for Maximus the Confessor. In fact Maximus’s doctrine of the “gnomic” will is directly tied to his understanding of the nature of humanity before and after the Fall.
Like Origen, Maximus believed that Adam was in a state of spiritual perfection before the Fall. While Origen believed Adam fell from a state of dispassionate rest into a state of embodied strife, Maximus’ view of the prelapsarian Adam was more dynamic, with a state of motion that should have moved towards God into rest but that instead went in a different direction (see Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor, 67). So while Maximus corrected what he thought were distortions in Origen’s thought, Maximus also thought there was something fundamentally broken in human psychology that related to Adam’s fall into our current kind of embodiment.
Problems with Maximus’ Protology
Some aspects of Maximus’ understanding or prelapsarian humanity — not unlike the similar views of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa — remain so indebted to Platonism that they seem to deny the goodness of the material creation. Most significantly, in Maximus’s view, before the Fall there was no sexual differentiation or sexual reproduction, at least for humans. The need to have sex — to lose control of one’s self in the pleasure of orgasm — in order to reproduce, for Maximus, is a consequence of the Fall (see Ad Thalassium 61: “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression,” in On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 131-144). And because each human being since Adam comes into the world through the “unnatural” passion of sex, all humans are born into a stream of imperfection.
For Maximus, our “gnomic” will is that part of us that perceives a choice between such “unnatural” passions as sex and our natural created good. The “natural” will, oriented to the spiritual goodness of our prefallen state, remains, but we do not always follow the rational course of our natural will and instead choose unnatural passions through the gnomic will. The purpose of ascetic Christian practice is to tame the gnomic will and thereby to learn to live according to our natural will — that is, to eliminate the tendency to “choose” unnatural passions and instead to receive freedom from the passions in our natural created being. Christ is able to heal humanity because, having been born of a virgin and not through the “unnatural” process of sexual intercourse, he has only a natural human will and not a gnomic will (see Ad Thalassium 21, “On Christ’s Conquest of the Human Passions,” and Ad Thalassium 42, “On Jesus Christ, the New Adam Who ‘Became Sin,'” in Blowers and Wilken, 109-114, 119-122; Difficulty 41, in Louth, 156-162). Maximus’ overriding concern in his connections between protology, Christology, and eschatology is to show that the “divisions” in creation are not “natural.” “Division” is not how the creation is meant to share in the goodness of God, who is one. The central “division” is the conflict in the human will. The “division” between male and female, resulting in differences that produce conflicts, is one that must be overcome.
There is much here that a constructive Christian theology for today, sensitive to the important concerns of feminism, can critically appropriate (see, e.g., Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self). At the same time, it’s important to pause and note that Maximus’ understanding of human physicality — particularly of sex and the pleasure of orgasm — is no less distorted than Augustine’s. However we might criticize Luther and Calvin, I’m grateful that they reminded us that our bodies, in all their functions, are created good. Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora help free Christians to enjoy the beautiful gift of sexuality. A doctrine of creation that recoils from embodied humanity, including the created goodness of sexuality, is a flawed doctrine of creation.
Is the Restoration of All Humans Inevitable for Maximus?
But let’s set aside some of these specific elements of Maximus’ thought that still seem too indebted to a body-denying Gnosticism and note the obvious truth of his deep understanding of human psychology. The desire for pleasure overrides our needs for other goods, including goods of mutuality and community, such that our pursuit of what we think is pleasure paradoxically plunges us into loss and despair. We are not all heroin addicts but we all in some ways greater and lesser live like heroin addicts, throwing away the gift of our lives while chasing the dragon. This is not a unique observation of Maximus’s, but he places it into a bigger cosmic context with Christ at the center — which means with humanity, true humanity, at the center.
Maximus does not suggest, however, that this restoration is an inevitable process for any human person. Indeed, it takes faith and ascesis:
Those will alone be judged blessed who count nothing of value alongside the goods of the soul and share in the divine and eternal goods, beside which they take account of nothing whatever through any kind of care for material things, completely oblivious of wealth and health and other transient goods which the virtues transcend. (Difficulty 10, 1172C-D, in Louth, 135-136)
Passages such as this one suggest many will be lost, while the overall logic of Maximus’ vision of cosmic renewal suggests otherwise. Indeed, there is a debate in the secondary literature on Maximus over whether he in fact accepted a modified form of Origen’s doctrine of apokatastasis, or whether his occasional comments about judgment and the eternity of Hell should be taken at face value (see Andreas Andreopoulos, “Eschatology in Maximus the Confessor,” in The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor). In any event, Maximus’ emphasis on ascetic practice shows that he meant to correct the view, supposedly drawn from Origen, “that the providential order of the cosmos would suffice in itself to accomplish the return of fallen souls to union with God. . . .” (Louth, 69). Louth suggests that, “[f]or Maximus, any such idea grossly underestimates the damage done by the Fall” (Ibid.).
Contemporary Challenges for Maximus’ Account of the Will
All of the discussion above raises plenty of questions about whether Maximus’ account of the will really does all the work relating to apokatastasis that Hart ascribes to it. But even if it might, we’re still left with the question whether Maximus’ account of the will is actually true.
Maximus developed his distinction between the natural and gnomic wills in the context of a long and contentious history of philosophical and theological debates about human freedom, determinism, and providence, in the particular hothouse of the monothelite controversy (see Bronwein Neil, “Providence and the Gnomic Will Before Maximus,” in The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor; Ian A. McFarland, “Willing is Not Choosing,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 9:1 [January, 2007], 1-23). It’s fair to say the general question of human freedom and cosmic determinism is one of the biggest questions in all of the history of philosophy and theology. It’s also fair to say that the monothelite controversy reflects on the central mystery of Christian faith: how Jesus can be both fully human and fully God. We may appreciate Maximus’ brilliant insights into these questions, but the notion that he basically “got it all right” and settled the questions forever seems facially unlikely.
From a contemporary perspective, we must ask how Maximus’ insights relate to what the natural sciences have disclosed about the evolution of the universe and of life on Earth, including the evolution of homo sapiens. This question, of course, in turn raises huge methodological questions about the relationship between theology and science. I devote about fifty pages to this question (and I don’t claim to solve it!) in a forthcoming book on law, theology, and neuroscience, drawn from my doctoral dissertation on this subject, so I can’t possibly do it justice in a few paragraphs in a blog post. Let me note this: I studied with Conor Cunningham, author of Darwin’s Pious Idea, and I broadly agree with the critique Radical Orthodoxy has raised about much of the modern “theology and science” literature (and that Hart has alluded to, for example, in The Experience of God). The natural sciences are made possible because of theology — because God is the Creator — and so the “dialogue” between theology and science is not just a matter of two otherwise neutral parties sharing a pint at the local pub.
At the same time — and here I depart from at least some Radical Orthodoxy thinkers, at least as far as I can tell from the little they’ve written on this — a theology of creation tells us that the physical universe is real and possesses a causal integrity that allows the natural sciences to make truth claims that theology cannot simply ignore. Sarah Coakley’s Gifford Lectures, Sacrifice Regained, I think offer excellent insights about how “critical realism” in theology and science can be modified in relation to Christian metaphysics, though I disagree with many of Coakley’s conclusions about the theological import of evolution. None of this means I reject philosophical idealism tout court, but I think it does mean that if philosophical idealism is to inform a Christian doctrine of God and Creation it must result in a created order that is real, not illusory or ephemeral, precisely because the “ideas” of God are not an effervescent part of God’s being, but because God, who is and who is one, by his Logos gives creation its life, and because that creation participates in God’s own life.
Back to Maximus: the history of human evolution, which involves the development of human emotions and psychology, including, centrally, the drive to procreate through sex, extends back in time millions of years. And before primates began to diverge from other mammals about 85 million years ago, sex was central to the drives of our earlier mammilian forbears. Indeed, “Sex and Death” can be described as the core facts of evolutionary biology (see Kim Sterelny and Paul E. Griffiths, Sex and Death). Contra Maximus, humans didn’t inherit a “gnomic will” when a sexless Adam fell from a heavenly realm into the present material world. We inherited what Maximus calls the “gnomic will” through billions of years of evolution — that is, through the means God employed to create our bodies, which always entailed sex and (physical) death.
This doesn’t mean we can’t appropriate some of Maximus’ (and for that matter Origen’s) insights about the ideal nature of humanity, particularly with further help from some aspects of modern philosophical idealism (see, e.g., my article “Can Origen Help Us Understand Adam,” New Blackfriars, 99:1083, August, 2018, 561-577). I am not — most definitely not — a modern neuroscientist or evolutionary psychologist who thinks the human “will” is nothing but an epiphenomenon of evolution (if and when I finish that book, I’ll make that argument more fully). But at the same time we can’t just take Maximus’ categories, developed in a pre-scientific era and drawn from Platonic-Christian creation myths, as actual descriptions of how things were and are.
In fact, the second creation narrative in Genesis 2 and the account of the “Fall” in Genesis 3, clothed as they are in ancient near eastern mythology, seem to confirm that the “gnomic” will, the possibility of choosing against the good, was present in the Garden, before the first evil choice was made. The “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” stands alongside the “Tree of Life.” The command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the first law before it was broken, which means the choice whether to eat or not was always present in creation’s design (Gen. 2:8-16). The “serpent” was made “crafty” (“cunning”) from the start, meaning the waters of chaos could always return (Gen. 3:3; cf. the tohu wabohu of Gen. 1:1 and the Leviathan/sea serpent of Job 41).
Neither the Genesis narratives, nor Paul in his appropriation of them, nor the Greek Fathers (including Maximus), nor Augustine, properly explain why Adam made that first choice or why that first choice was metaphysically possible. The surd of Adam’s sin is a surd, whether Adam was a pre-material creature, an Augustinian superman, or the fruit of evolution’s random walk. If that first choice was metaphysically possible and Adam made it, it’s unclear why any eons of eternity will purge the possibility of such a choice from humanity, or if what might be left after such a purgation would really be “human” after all. We might wonder if this kind of “heaven” is really “hell,” where forced cognitive reprogramming lobotomizes all human difference in a kind fascist’s paradise.
In my view, where scripture leaves us here is where theology leaves us. We want the certain answers of one system or another, but we’re not given a neat, rational system, we’re given light and the waters of chaos, gardens and serpents and trees. We “see through a glass darkly” and we won’t see “face to face” until time ends. (1 Cor. 13:12.) For now, the love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things provides the substance that elude our reason. (1 Cor. 13:7.) I don’t think we can say much more with certainty than this, though I’m grateful for Hart’s efforts to do so.
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David Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Law School. In addition to his legal training, he earned an M.A.T. from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology from the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Law and Theology, forthcoming with Fortress Press this November.