by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
The subtitle of David Bentley Hart’s first meditation which seeks the God revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ: “the moral meaning of creatio ex nihilo.” It is worth noting that this is a Christian innovation. Creation in Genesis does not explicitly contemplate a metaphysical nothing. Bulgakov makes salient remarks upon God as Creator. God is uniquely beyond questions of freedom and necessity as they are posed for finite creatures. God does not need creation in order to realize potency. God does not act from lack. Yet it is equally mistaken to surmise that the creation is extrinsic to God’s identity. Philip Sherrard often writes of the iconicity of creation, of its theophanic quality. Christ as the head of divine-humanity acts to bring the cosmos to divinized perfection. “It is true, as St. Maximos puts it, Christ is ever wishing to perform the miracle of His Incarnation in all things. But this does not imply any incompletion in Christ. It implies incompletion in the present state of creation” (Human Image: World Image, p. 124). Hart recollects the centrality of Gregory of Nyssa’s insight that creatio ex nihilo goes beyond cosmological and metaphysical claims to assert eschatological affirmations that fundamentally disclose the God who has called creatures into existence. “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” (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 68). No other assertion in Hart’s entire book is as important. This is the key interpretive stance upon which all else rests. Hart then further explains that within “this eternal teleology” it is the final judgment that “brings all things to their true conclusion” (p. 69). Any crude conceptions of judgment as retributive or the mere handing out of evaluations as to merit or fault misses the role judgment plays as that which enacts the flourishing of the creation God has always intended.
Several things happen here that bother the theologians. Those Thomists more Aristotelian than Christian may firmly declare the role of final causality in drawing creatures to the divine, yet the divinity of the Stagirite, as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus recognized, might be off serenely paring his nails whilst beings dazzled by divine beauty yearn for union. Hart returns us to Job who in questioning justice and suffering is asking God to disclose himself (and as the poet Czeslaw Milosz declared, the whirlwind is not enough!) “Precisely because God does not determine himself in creation – precisely because there is no dialectical necessity binding him to time or chaos, no need to shape his identity in the refining fires of history – in creating he reveals himself truly” (p. 72). To which, Max Scheler might respond that “if we attempt, starting from the knowledge of the world, to deduce the existence of God, the presence in the world of even a single worm writhing in pain would be a decisive counter-argument to such a deduction” (quoted in S.L. Frank, The Meaning of Life, p. 49). Of course, folks over the centuries have become inured to such suffering and frequently dismiss it. Aquinas contemplates a resurrected cosmos of rational agents and minerals, leaving the abundant lives and suffering of the beasts and vegetation as “outside history” as any Hegelian could hope for. At this point, one can expect a hand raised and an objection about secondary causality to be stated – and this will ultimately be tied to the further objection that God may rationally order moral agents towards union with divinity, but that the integrity of creaturely freedom precludes determining that choice. I call this the “not even God can” assertion. This will be addressed later, but the commitment to a certain conception of rational agency and freedom along with callousness towards much of the cosmos is worth remark. But Hart says that “every evil that time comprises, natural or moral (which is, in this context, a largely worthless distinction, since human nature is a natural phenomenon) is an arraignment of God’s goodness” (p. 72). Granting that Incarnation, Resurrection, Triune revelation is all a proleptic “answer” to human perplexity, one remains mired in a world of horrors. Hart concludes the initial stage of reflection upon God’s identity with grim oration: “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” (p. 73). Though what I wrote just now is not quite correct. Hart does not end precisely with those words. Rather, he adverts to the daring of St. Paul who could not rest easy with the thought that God might be capricious, that the divinity should contemplate creatures called from the nothing only to be vessels of wrath.
What follows is a diatribe against the idolatry of “the broad mainstream.” Augustine lamenting Origen’s tender-heartedness; Pascal, “assuring us that our existence is explicable only in the light of a belief in the eternal and condign torment of babies who die before reaching the baptismal font,” Calvin “telling us that hell is copiously populated with infants not a cubit long” (p. 76) and so on. Hart shakes his head at such hyperbolic moral confusion, at “incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions … the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned” (p. 78). Though, of course, most folks might agree that this is a bridge too far and plausibly indicate that there are still those who sink into monstrous wickedness, Hitler and Genghis Khan, serial killers, torturers, and pedophiles, sinners we find so repugnant it is not hard to wish them recompense for the horrors of their acts, to exile them from bliss. (And really, as George MacDonald explained, they will surely pay the last farthing. No one is spared love’s reckoning.) That there are insidious acts of malice and gratuitous cruelty so common they are not noticed, that we frequently torture ourselves and each other invisible to public censure, well, that is somehow more tolerable, we are sinners, after all.
“Not even God can” means that, yes, God desires creatures to freely choose communion with the Good. Only, sadly, the price for such freedom is not just the capacity to err, but the possibility of irremediable failure. If God wants creatures to choose love and life (and of course he does,) then God must allow for the chance that some will refuse eternally. What can one do? So when a sober, realist philosopher quotes Aquinas when Thomas states that “many good things would disappear if God did not allow some evil to exist” – (and this is undoubtedly true and entirely commendable if taken in a penultimate sense directed towards the world not yet brought to perfection) – what is apparently intended is the kind of accommodation to death Hart found endemic under the rubric of religion in his fine article “Death, Final Judgment, and the Meaning of Life,” included in the excellent collection The Hidden and the Manifest. But do not fret if you lack that estimable volume. Hart relentlessly hammers this crucial theme in his meditation on God. “This is the price of creation, it would seem. God, on this view, has `made a bargain’ with a natural evil. He has willed the tragedy, not just as a transient dissonance within creation’s goodness, leading ultimately to a soul’s correction, but as that irreducible quantum of eternal loss” (p.83). In short, the utterly tedious, pragmatic, taken for granted exchange whereby the living purchase a moment of existence at the cost of another’s death that marks the fallen world is inscribed as part and parcel of the gospel. Apart from the radical forgetting of the Eucharist as a complete rejection and subversion of such a “natural” mode of existence, bargaining brought into the eschatological elicits a query about the economy of such transactions. “What would the mystery of God becoming man in order to effect a merely partial rescue of created order truly be, as compared to the far deeper mystery of a worthless man becoming the suffering god upon whose perpetual holocaust the entire order of creation finally depends?” (p. 85). The overt triumph of celestial bliss turns out to run on an infernal engine – “is hell not then the innermost secret of heaven, its sacrificial heart?” (p. 83)
What is exasperating is that this casual expediency is somehow thought an adequate response to the logic of creatio ex nihilo. It is as if the constraints settled upon a demiurge were somehow implicitly made acceptable for the Christian understanding of God. But the very point of creatio ex nihilo, to pedantically repeat what is apparently not self-evident, is that there are no such constraints. But let us pretend that God is, in fact, chained to limits that require at least the palimpsest of sacrificial economy, even if like a lucky gambler, no losses are actually incurred. The same proponent of imperfect liberty made paradigmatic for human beings and thus an intrinsic constraint upon what God can accomplish asserts that God does not create out of any necessity. The aseity of divine plenitude is not increased an iota by creation. Hence, God is not compelled to create by this view, yet God does create. The sage announcement that “not even God can” appears to accept without argument that a good God could conceivably entertain such a creation at the cost of risking at the very least the possibility of eternal damnation (or, for a minority faction, the annihilation of those who “refuse God”). One should test the eschatological imagination that is operative. On one side, the poison of necessary losses, of some residue of evil, is allowed to perdure into the eschaton. On the other, perhaps divine madness, an ecstatic holy joy that is alive with mirth because life does not bargain with death. It may appear childish to the realist, those upholders of the necessary repudiated by Shestov, rejected by Christos Yannaras in his short monograph Against Religion, winsomely countered by “that little girl, hope” in Péguy’s great poem, but as Balthasar emphasized, to such children belong the kingdom of God.
Let us play out the Triune logic that grounds the specific logic of creation. The generosity of divine Fatherhood is always already the gift of everything to the Son with nothing held back. And the gift is not held in suspense. There is no period of tragic questioning. No, love in its fullness is not simply the gift with a kind of pagan magnanimity that doesn’t care if the gift is accepted or not. The gift is not yet fully gift without receptivity which inevitably entails a return of love. (There is nothing here of calculation, of the gift as establishment of prestige and the onus of obligation as Mauss inferred in antique customs.) The Son receives the gift and joyfully requites Love. But go further: this is no enclosed garden, an idyll of two. It is a plenitude of resourceful surprise. The Father knows himself in the Son, the Son knows the Father in the gift, mutual delight is expansive, other directed, the creative Spirit who plumbs the adventurous depths of the known but ever to be discovered infinite Event that is the act of Esse. It is only existence understood as mere survival, a register of bare, univocal “thereness,” the thin gruel of the miser’s “hyparxeolatry” that does not know existence is infinite, reciprocal love, the living out of divine gift. (Hart unleashes this metaphysical metaphor early on page twenty. He is always good for at least a few uncommon silvered verbal bullets, a joy to vates everywhere and something less to the dour thrift of Anglo-American analytic philosophers, but we say this just in passing.) Theology content with a generosity that thinks everything is given when it is still possible for the gift to end in ruin is culpably lacking in appreciation for what is fitting for divine Fatherhood. The gift is not fully given until received in gratitude and offered in reciprocal delight. Hart is entirely correct when he concludes, “if he is not the savior of all, the Kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare” (p. 91).
In The Enigma of Evil, Christos Yannaras writes that “generations of human beings, which means hundreds of millions of personal existences, have been born and are being born leading their lives and departing from life under the shadow of a distorted, repellent version of the Church’s gospel” (p. 77). Hundreds of millions of personal existences might very well look like tradition, but the truth of the Spirit is not determined by plebiscite, no matter how venerable. Against “self-interested goals, animosities fueled by egocentric fanaticism, psychological compensations for insecurity,” Yannaras juxtaposes the voice of Isaac of Nineveh who cries out “Do not call God just, for his justice is not discernible in what pertains to you.” Judgment, indeed, begins to look rather sketchy with God. Isaac continues, “And if David calls him just and upright, his son revealed to us that rather he is good and kind. For he is good to the wicked and impious.” It makes one rage to see the vile prosper, especially when the anawim, God’s poor, so often bear the brunt of mundane violence and institutional neglect. Sophists of every stripe game the system and live in luxury whilst the seeker after wisdom is frequently condemned to wretched penury, loneliness, the incapacity to give succor when the beloved falls ill and dies. Much of the vehemence that animates traditionalists is not savage insensitivity, but groaning protest that the ledgers acknowledge the cruelty and rank injustice of our experience in this world. It’s a mistake to simply chastise folks for revulsion at what is despicable to the point of horror. But the kindness spoken of by the Syrian is not worldly success, but an eschatological promise of universal well-being. The justice of God is not a cold, forensic commutation of penal sentence. It is healing, gift, illumination, and, yes, vengeance, but not as men understand the word. If Isaac is representative of a saintly majority or appears an eccentric is not probative. What matters is whether or not he speaks from within the intimacy of God’s care. Yannaras declares “this is one of the examples of the ecclesial mode of questioning or denouncing the juridical associations/influences that the (necessarily time-bound) language of the evangelical and apostolic texts can elicit” (p. 92). A crucial move is made here. Where the fragile ego may seek refuge in authority and denounce any mode of life that actuality locates freedom in the leap into divine existence, one is drawn by the beauty of the infinite beyond a form of rote repetition of moralistic literalisms. Hence, Yannaras concludes, “It is an example and indication that even in the ‘most sacred’ texts (the most respected because of their historical proximity as witnesses to the event of the epiphany of God) are not turned into idols within the Church” (pp. 92-93). Likewise, when Hart avers that the Book of Revelation is possibly an arcane text of figurative code by a Jewish Christian who believed in keeping the law of Moses (pp. 106ff,) the essential matter lies not in a specific reading of biblical texts, but in the way a particular mode of interpretation fosters or militates against participation in the life of Christ. Hart is careful to indicate the clarity of universalism in the Pauline texts and the ambiguity of other New Testament verses with the caveat that no New Testament passage unequivocally teaches eternal damnation if read with sufficient scrutiny for context and intention. While exegesis is certainly important, it is not proof against equivocity or craven obeisance to authority or forms of understanding that subtly resist the dynamism of the Spirit. The latter requires a deft creativity able to discern the architectonics of biblical genre, the loadbearing points in scripture, the sinuous, mystery-bearing shape of a narrative that ever refuses closure into a pious “just so.” One shall nearly always be able to find sufficient textual evidence to fuel various sides of disputed controversies. The Arians were adept at quoting scripture, too. Ecclesial experience is greater than historical conditions and communal expectations that gave birth to scriptural witness. Even as the Spirit instructs and nurtures by such means, God is not constrained by the spiritual limitations of prophets, priests, and sages. Of course, those who think of the Bible as a datum of univocal facts will refuse all this as existential recklessness. If one can rely upon an entirely objective and comprehensive accounting of relevant facts, Christians might then merely calculate. Faith is almost nugatory once one has accepted the initial conditions of possibility. Discernment is then merely differentiating between those who “accept the facts” and those who “prevaricate” by saying “do not call God just.”
Though perhaps, as the provocative quote from Shestov that I began this review with suggests, there is more reason in irrational beasts than in the wisdom of say, Job’s counselors. In that aboriginal naming that is the ecstatic opening of the logoi towards the Father’s call, the rise from nothing into that insatiable joy that alone is the good creation God always serenely intends, remarks a coincidence between final judgment and creation’s journey into the nuptial banquet of the eighth day. So Hart declares, “the judgment of the cross is a verdict upon the violence and cruelty of human order and human history, and Easter the verdict upon creation as conceived in God’s eternal counsels” (p. 104). Hart conjectures that the Johannine gospel is a kind of “second reflection upon the person of Christ” (p. 127). Like Bulgakov and Balthasar before him, Hart sees in the fourth gospel an eschatological perspicuity that puts in question simplistic responses to quandaries over time and eternity. Balthasar’s emphasis on the Triduum of the Passion is turned in Hart’s evaluation into the ultimate preterist interpretation of apocalypse – “its language seems irresistibly to point toward a collapse of the distinction between the final judgment of all things and the judgment endured by Christ on Calvary, or between the life of the Age to come and the life that is made immediately present in the risen Christ” (p. 127). Hart stipulates that he does not assert an erasure of history as it were, but the eschatological horizon is hard to construe within the limits of finite conceptions. It is both proleptic and realized, and insofar as it is a trajectory of victory “hell appears in the shadow of the cross as what has always been conquered, as what Easter leaves in ruins, to which we may flee from the transfiguring light of God if we so wish, but where we can never fully come to rest” (p. 129). In Paschal light, the denunciations of Capernaum worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, the threat of the worm that shall not die, the entire panoply of dire rhetoric ascribed to Christ and made to serve as revelatory of irrevocable eternal destinies and the imperfect conclusion of God’s salvific intent appear as akin to the parables that so confused the apostles themselves who understood little to nothing before Easter and the subsequent widening of their imagination that accompanied Pentecost. Do not think the parables simple stories for simple men. They are not dumbed down moral messages meant to be understood by the uneducated. Probably only modern day enlightened intellectuals are foolish enough to believe something so obviously wrong. Likewise, Hart acknowledges that while Christ used “all sorts of imagery regarding final judgment,” “it is absurd to treat any of the New Testament’s eschatological language as containing, even in nuce, some sort of exact dogmatic definition of the literal conditions of the world to come” (p. 119). That sort of itchy curiosity is very natural to the human race, as is impatience, and a desire to turn the ineffable and that which exceeds our attempts to master by finite technique and mental conception into a dogmatic possession. The intertestamental period offered numerous exotic forays into angelic realms and the like. In contrast, Hart asserts that Christ’s language offers “an intentionally heterogenous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct” (p. 119). So why disorient? Perhaps because the God delights in mirth and surprise. Perhaps because fallen men are so narrow, dim, and heartless, an apophatic reserve is necessary, keeping open a space for an ever increasing analogic ladder to inexpressible flourishing.
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Dr Moore has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas. He has been a contributor to Eclectic Orthodoxy since before the beginning of time. There is, it must be said, no truth to the rumor that he comes from a family of Druids or that he will drink only plum wine, though it is possibly true that he prefers cats to humans, allowing for exceptions. He is the author of the recently published tale of Noah and the ark, Beneath the Silent Heavens.