Finally and at long last, we arrive at David Bentley Hart’s fourth meditation in That All Shall Be Saved. This is my favorite chapter of the book. It certainly is the philosophically meatiest and most challenging, which is probably why most reviewers to date have virtually ignored it. One reviewer was content, for example, to assure us that St Thomas Aquinas had provided us the solution to the problem posed by Hart—namely, the impossibility of definitive and irrevocable rejection of the Good by a rational creature whose happiness is the Good—but without sharing with us the details of Thomas’s solution. Perhaps I am expecting too much from a book review. The simple fact is most of us lack the philosophical competence to address the substance of Hart’s key arguments. One needs to have read the relevant writings of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, St Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, and St Maximus the Confessor, along with a dash of Aquinas. That’s a tall order. I certainly do not qualify. (I’m a blogger, dammit, not a philosopher.) Yet here I am, daring to wade into waters in which angels fear to swim.
Hart controversially asserts that human beings are doomed to happiness with God, yet should it be controversial? Both Eastern and Western Christianity have taught that the human being, created by the Word in the image of the Word, exists in dynamic orientation to its transcendent Creator. God is the Good, Beauty and Truth we desire and seek. As St Augustine memorably stated: “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” (Confessions I.1). We cannot help but to crave fellowship with our Creator and consummation in him. This is how we have been made; this is who we are by nature and grace. We were not created in a neutral state in relation to divinity, as if it were possible for us to generate abiding happiness on our own terms. Our freedom is not a mode of indifference. The human being is nothing less than insatiable thirst for the divine, a spirited and inspirited ever-seeking for the One who is our completion and fulfillment. In the words of St Maximus the Confessor: “God, who created all nature with wisdom and secretly planted in each intelligent being knowledge of Himself as its first power, like a munificent Lord gave also to us men a natural desire and longing for Him, combining it in a natural way with the power of our intelligence” (Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy and Virtue and Vice 5.100). God has created humanity for communion with himself. Apart from him we cannot find happiness. He is the power and fulfillment of our searchings, the origin and end of all human desire. Every finite good that we seek in this world betokens the transcendent Good to which we are ordered. We desire anything and everything because of our original desire for God as the transcendental Good and Beautiful; we seek to know anything and everything because of our original intellectual appetite for God as transcendental Truth. “Even in desiring to flee God,” remarks Hart, “we are desiring God as the ‘good end’ we seek in godlessness” (EO, 4 May 2015). Simultaneously the plenitude of being and immanent ground of existence, the infinite Creator is our supreme beatitude and therefore our final cause and end. Henri de Lubac once asked Maurice Blondel: “How can a conscious spirit be anything other than an absolute desire for God?” Exactly.
Given that we are created by God for union with God, Hart’s assertion that humanity is destined to eternal bliss makes perfect sense. God will have his way with us, one way or another, not by force or coercion but by his very Goodness and the appetition he has placed in our hearts. The following passage summarizes Hart’s fundamental thesis:
The more one is in one’s right mind—the more, that is, that one is conscious of God as the Goodness that fulfills all beings, and the more one recognizes that one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in him, and the more one is unfettered by distorting misperceptions, deranged passions, and the encumbrances of past mistakes—the more inevitable fis one’s surrender to God. Liberated from all ignorance, emancipated from all the adverse conditions of this life, the rational soul could freely will only its own union with God, and thereby its own supreme beatitude. We are, as it were, doomed to happiness, so long as our natures follow their healthiest impulses unhindered; we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue. This is no constraint upon the freedom of the will, coherently conceived; it is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good: a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. A rational nature seeks a rational end: Truth, which is God himself. The irresistibility of God for any soul that has truly been set free is no more a constraint placed upon its liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst; to choose not to drink in that circumstance would be not an act of freedom on his part, but only a manifestation of the delusions that enslave him and force him to inflict violence upon himself, contrary to his nature. A woman who chooses to run into a burning building not to save another’s life, but only because she can imagine no greater joy than burning to death, may be exercising a kind of “liberty,” but in the end she is captive to a far profounder poverty of rational freedom. (pp. 40-41)
We will unpack this passage (and many others) in future installments, but the essential point is plain enough. The desire for God is intrinsic to human nature. In our fallen existence, we do not experience this desire in its purity and perfection. It can be temporarily forgotten; it can be perverted and corrupted and twisted from its proper goal; but ultimately it can be neither extinguished nor eradicated. If it could be, we would, at that very moment, cease to be human. As Catholic theologian Stephen Duffy puts it:
In the concrete nature of fallen humanity there is an interior, absolute desire of the Kingdom that correlates with the universal salvific divine will. This determination is an existential. It is prior to all personal options and persists through all possible acceptances or rejections of one’s end. Whatever one does, one remains interiorly ordered to absolute communion with God. (The Graced Horizon, p. 23)
Once we grasp the truth of humanity’s primordial desire for the Good, the traditional claim that human beings might freely give themselves over to everlasting misery becomes increasingly problematic. Surely the burden of proof rests upon the defenders of hell.