by David Bentley Hart
John Panteleimon Manoussakis has written a “review” of That All Shall Be Saved: “Salvation à la Hart.” I did not find it to be germane to my book when I first saw it, and so had no intention of responding to it. But, at the urging of certain former students, I have come to realize that silence can be a discourtesy when someone has taken the trouble to say something meaningful about one’s work, positive or negative. And I suppose I really must be grateful to Manoussakis for having at least attempted to write a serious review of the book. Given the passions that the topic of universal salvation tends to provoke, I have been obliged to endure more than a few petulant screeds scarcely bothering to disguise themselves as reviews, and so far have seen no critiques of any solvency. And so the effort to do better is greatly appreciated. That said, however, whatever Manoussakis may have intended to write, what in fact he has succeeded in producing is an engagement with arguments I have never made, while entirely failing to follow the ones I did. Perhaps this is partly my fault; my manner of exposition might be a touch too labyrinthine for him. But I suspect that the real problem is that he read the text only superficially, having already in his imagination superimposed upon it some other text he had expected to find there, and so failed to notice what was really in front of him. At numerous junctures, in fact, his inattentiveness to what the words on the page are actually saying is almost painfully obvious.
For instance, he claims that I myself believe that, according to Christian tradition, angels are entirely bodiless intelligences (something I have repeatedly denied in all my scholarly writings on the matter). He has entirely missed my point here. It is a Thomist orthodoxy that angels are disembodied intelligences (and hence each its own species), and I merely point out that Thomists therefore contradict themselves in claiming both that immaterial beings cannot alter their intentions and that angels fell. Elsewhere he claims that I interpret the word aiōnios in the New Testament in light of Plato’s use of the word in the Timaeus; in fact, I mention Plato’s use of the word as one episode in a larger history of the word’s applications down the centuries; but I quite clearly state that, as found in Christian scripture, it is probably best understood as a reference to the olam ha-ba, the age to come (this is why the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed appears to employ the phrase zōē tou mellontos aiōnos as a fair equivalent of the biblical phrase zōē aiōnios). More bizarrely still, Manoussakis seems to think that somewhere in the book I deny that sin can or will be punished by God, and even that I deny that there is a hell. I have no idea how he could have reached that conclusion, unless he believes (for reasons known only to him) that there is no such thing as a punishment that does not go on forever and ever, or that hell is not hell if it is remedial rather than merely retributive, or that punishment is by definition only retributive and never remedial, or that retribution must be eternal … (or something along those lines). In any event, this is all a tissue of misprisions.
In the end, the result of Manoussakis’s casual habits as a reader is that his characterizations of my book are repeatedly and even absurdly inaccurate, and his attempts to respond to it correspondingly vacuous. This is a pity. The actual case made by the book has the very great virtue of being formally irrefutable. That is not to say, I hasten to add, that it is necessarily true. By formally irrefutable I mean only that, given the premises from which I am working, the conclusions I draw—even those that require the most elaborate deductive argumentation—follow ineluctably. If one understands the book’s argument completely, one cannot fail to see that its conclusions are necessary logical entailments of that argument. So, if one is to defeat the case I make, one must both understand it in its entirety and then successfully demonstrate that its premises are false. Manoussakis, alas, has done neither.
Actually, what is probably most surprising about Manoussakis’s take on the book are the unexpectedly enormous gaps in his own understanding of philosophical and theological history it appears to expose, as well as a remarkable logical haziness on some fairly crucial philosophical loci. He seems especially confused on the issue of the relation between freedom and reason in classical Christian thought. At one point, in fact, he tries to correct me on this matter by way of Augustine—the stolen pears story from Confessions II in particular—which is surpassingly odd, since my position is entirely drawn from Augustine. True, it is also the position, in varying form, of all the Platonists, of Aristotle, of all the major Church Fathers, of Aquinas and the great scholastics, of Nicholas of Cusa, of both Florovsky and Bulgakov—even of Kant and Iris Murdoch—but it is Augustine who gave it its deepest and richest elucidation. (I would advise Manoussakis to look up the phrase non posse peccare, to re-read the story of the pears, and then, just for further elucidation, look at Thomas’s very Augustinian treatment of the matter in the Summa Theologiae I-II, qu. 78.) Admittedly, Augustine does not (as I do in my book’s Fourth Meditation) employ his understanding of rational freedom to refute the popular “free-will defense” of everlasting perdition; but that is only because such a defense would never have occurred to him in the first place. That is all matter for another time, however (I shall be publishing on the matter in the near future).
By far the most maladroit of Manoussakis’s misreadings of my text is his conflation of my argument in my First Meditation with some of form of theodicy, of the sort one finds discussed by Leibniz or Bayle. It would be hard for him to have missed the mark more wildly than that (in fact, the arrow would almost have to fly backward from the bow). I have, it is true, written on the topic of the problem of evil in relation to divine benevolence and omnipotence, in The Doors of the Sea and elsewhere. But my argument in the current book has nothing to do with that issue at all, and a careful philosophical reader ought not to have made so obvious an error. Why does God permit evil? Well, for any number of reasons perhaps—most likely it has something to do with the forging of spiritual natures possessed of free will. But that is not the issue in That All Shall Be Saved. There my question has nothing to do with contingent evils of any kind; it is rather a very specific query, very clearly delineated, regarding the relationship between God’s ultimate intentionality in creation and the metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo. It is only the final form of creation in its fullness, as judged by God and as either affirming or denying God in turn, that this intentionality is expressed. Only then will the final calculus of what God is or is not willing to “pay” to bring his intended ends about come into view. Moreover, as the argument shows, in the case of eschatology uniquely, no distinction in the moral nature of that intention can be drawn in terms of a difference between what God decrees directly and what he merely permits (thus the “game-theory” logic I employ in the text); hence that final intentional horizon is of necessity a revelation not only of the nature of creation but of the eternal identity of God. At no point, does this argument advance—nor does it even imply—any conclusions regarding the means to the ends God intends (whether these include the possibility of transient evils or not). The problem of evil is not addressed. Neither is it relevant. The argument I am making in those pages is quite a new one, quite substantial, and quite easily followed if one has the will and capacity to pursue a logical point to its lair. I am genuinely shocked that Manoussakis made this mistake.
Had Manoussakis grasped the real argument, moreover, he might not have ended his review with a series of rhetorical questions that have no pertinence to my book at all. Yes, my Third Meditation argues that our personhood could never be fully intact—which is to say, as persons we could never be saved—in the absence of those other persons who make us what we are. I will not rehearse the argument here, however, as it is fully laid out in the book. I will simply note that Manoussakis has gotten himself somewhat lost in the weeds by making this an occasion for suggesting that—by my reasoning—the very memories of past evils would darken the joys of heaven. He seems to think my point is that it our memories of others that make us who we are and that therefore the memories of what we have lost would, should those others be absent, be a torment to us (which I make clear—for instance, on p. 153—is not my point). Again, the question is the very possibility of being a person at all except in relation to the whole totality of persons throughout time. And, also again, the argument is made in the text and needs no recapitulation here. All I would add, to help Manoussakis understand, is this: the memory of evil can be healed, and even redeemed; the real absence from our lives of those we love and who love us in turn, and who therefore make us who we are, cannot; even in reconciling ourselves to it, something of ourselves would be irrevocably lost.
In any event, I am still grateful for any attempt to engage the book at other than an emotional or dogmatic level. But the quality of Manoussakis’s review—both exegetically and as a feat of reasoning—is surprisingly unimpressive. So, as of yet, nothing has changed: the book’s argument remains formally impeccable and its premises have still not been credibly challenged. In one sense, this naturally pleases me. But, for someone who enjoys real debate over substantial arguments, it is also something of a disappointment.