“No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”
Five years ago David Bentley Hart delivered a now much-discussed lecture titled “God, Creation, and Evil.” When I watched the video of the lecture, the above-quoted lines jumped out at me. It was a quiet eureka moment. Everything fell into place. Of course, I said to myself, how could it be otherwise? That God is the Good whom all human beings seek I had been taught by my parish priest when I entered the Episcopal Church decades ago. I later came to hope, thanks to St Augustine, that the grace of God is irresistible. I likened it to falling in love. Does the lover choose to fall in love? Certainly not in the way one chooses to order bacon rather than sausage for breakfast. All lovers know the existential difference. Falling in love comes as astonishment and revelation. “Here is the woman I have been looking for. Here is the one who completes me.” The choice is embedded in the recognition. To be in the presence of one’s beloved is perfect joy; to be joined to her in coital congress, rapture. Lovers find each other enthralling. They see each other with the eyes of God: “You are altogether beautiful; there is no flaw in you” (Song of Songs 4:7). They are drawn together, as if by some kind of gravitational or magnetic force. Frequently they will invoke the language of slavery, even madness, when speaking of their mutual attraction—yet it is a slavery of utter freedom and an insanity of delight and truth. They are filled with an intensity of life they have never known. Their one joy is to give themselves to their beloved and become one flesh and one soul.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Lovers know they will adore and cherish each other forever. They cannot imagine a future apart from their beloved. They exchange solemn vows and promises. Their bond transcends the hardships and limits of time.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Surely this must be what it will be like when we see God face to face. All doubts and hesitations will vanish; all obstinacy forever banished. Here is the true happiness I have been searching for all my life, though I did not know it. Here is the abundant life that conquers death. Even the ecstasy of lovers will be infinitely eclipsed.
“Falling in love”—a door, I propose, through which we might enter to understand Hart’s vision of apokatastasis and human freedom. I do not say it is the best door, nor do I know if David would approve. But his writings reveal an author who is passionate about many things. Perhaps he secretly writes love poetry or watches “Shakespeare in Love” once a year. A nonsentimental case for the eroticism of the God-human relation can be made. The Holy Scriptures, after all, contain the Song of Songs, one of the most beautiful love poems in all of literature, and many of the saints have written commentaries on it. In his first homily on the Song, St Gregory of Nyssa writes:
Therefore since it is Wisdom who speaks, love her as much as you are able, with your whole heart and strength; desire her as much as you can. To these words I am bold to add, “Be in love,” for this passion, when directed toward things incorporeal, is blameless and impassible, as Wisdom says in Proverbs when she bids us to be in love with the divine Beauty.
In in his sixth homily, commenting on 3:1-8:
What is higher than to be in the One who is the object of desire and to receive the object of desire within oneself? But in this situation too she bewails the fact that she is needy for the Good. As one who does not yet have what is present to her desire, she is perplexed and dissatisfied, and she broadcasts this perplexity of her soul in her story, describing in her account how she found the one she sought.
Charles Williams speaks of romantic love as a foretaste of heaven: when we fall in love, “a sudden apprehension of the Good takes place.” Human lovers mirror our encounter with the divine. To know the Good is to desire the Good; to know Love is to surrender to Love. The metaphysics of the Good and human consciousness is difficult to grasp, but we know something about the irresistibility of love, if not by direct experience then through literature and cinema.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
We return to the featured sentences. Hart has incorporated them in That All Shall Be Saved, with minor changes:
But to me it seems impossible to speak of freedom in any meaningful sense at all unless one begins from the assumption that, for a rational spirit, to see the good and know it truly is to desire it insatiably and to obey it unconditionally, while not to desire it is not to have known it truly, and so never to have been free to choose it. (pp. 79-80; emphasis mine)
Note the addition of the response of obedience. The embrace of the Good immediately engenders the obedience of love. The will of the lover freely conforms itself to the will of the beloved. But perhaps we need to reverse the roles. In the biblical narrative God is the Lover who has, in Christ, made us the objects of his mercy. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). And this love arouses within the soul a reciprocal love for the divine lover. “For when God loves,” writes St Bernard of Clairvaux, “he desires only to be loved in return. His love’s only purpose is to be loved, as he knows that all who love him are made happy by their love of him” (quoted in The Experience of God, p. 276).
Sinners most especially know that it is only by the ravishment of God that they may attain the liberty of the blessed.
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
But does this not sound like some kind of determinism? Here is Hart’s answer:
For those who worry that this all amounts to a kind of metaphysical determinism of the will, I may not be able to provide perfect comfort. Of course it is a kind of determinism, but only at the transcendental level, and only because rational volition must be determinate to be anything at all. Rational will is by nature the capacity for intentional action, and so must exist as a clear relation between (in Aristotelian terms) the “origin of motion” within it and the “end” that prompts that motion—between, that is, its efficient and final causes. Freedom is a relation to reality, which means liberty from delusion. This divine determinism toward the transcendent Good, then, is precisely what freedom is for a rational nature. Even God could not create a rational being not oriented toward the Good, any more than he could create a reality in which 2 + 2 = 5. That is not to deny that, within the embrace of this relation between the will’s origin and its end in the Good (what, again, Maximus the Confessor calls our “natural will”), there is considerable room for deliberative liberty with regard to differing finite options (what Maximus calls the “gnomic will”), and considerable room in which to stray from the ideal path. But, even so, if a rational creature—one whose mind is entirely unimpaired and who has the capacity truly to know the substance and the consequences of the choice confronting him or her—is allowed, without coercion from any force extrinsic to his or her nature, to make a choice between a union with God in bliss that will utterly fulfill his or her nature in its deepest yearnings and a separation from God that will result in endless suffering and the total absence of his or her nature’s satisfaction, only one truly free choice is possible. A fool might thrust his hand into the flame; only a lunatic would not then immediately withdraw it. To say that the only sane and therefore free natural end of the will is the Good is no more problematic than to say that the only sane and therefore free natural end of the intellect is Truth. Rational spirit could no more will evil on the grounds that it is truly evil than the intellect could believe something on the grounds that it is certainly false. So, yes, there is an original and ultimate divine determinism of the creature’s intellect and will, and for just this reason there is such a thing as true freedom in the created realm. As on the cross (John 12:32), so in the whole of being: God frees souls by dragging them to himself. (pp. 178-179; emphasis mine)
Hart bites the bullet. Yes, humanity is determined to the Good, but we must not think of this determinism as a kind of violence or external coercion. It does not constrict our freedom but creates and establishes it. Apart from this innate relation of reason to the Good, the Beautiful, and the True—in other words, God—we would not will anything at all. Volition is intrinsically teleological. We act to attain a specific end we deem good. This is easy enough to see when considering how we actually make choices. Invariably we have our reasons:
At the same time, rationality must by definition be intentionality: the mind’s awareness, that is, of a purpose it seeks or an end it wishes to achieve or a meaning it wishes to affirm. Rational freedom, in its every action, must be teleological in structure: one must know the end one is choosing, and why. Any act of the mind or will done without a reason, conversely, would be by definition irrational and therefore a symptom of bondage to something outside of or lower than the rational will. It is not even very sensible to ask, then, whether a free will might not “spontaneously” posit an end for itself out of the sheer exuberance of its power to choose, and then pursue that end out of pure unreasoning perversity. Absolute spontaneity would be an unfree act, a mere brute event beyond the control of mind and desire, while merely partial spontaneity would still be guided by some kind of purpose. If you wish to prove this to yourself, you need only attempt freely to posit an end for yourself without rationale. Then again, do not bother, since you would not actually be acting without rationale; you would instead be pursuing the conscious purpose of following my suggestion that you try to act spontaneously. Anything you might willfully choose to do for the purpose of doing something arbitrary would not, in fact, be arbitrary. And you will find also that even that supposedly arbitrary act, if you conceived of it before doing it, was not really arbitrary after all, but rather corresponded to some concrete intention that you knowingly chose, and for some specific reason, out of a strictly limited range of possible options. This too you can prove to yourself. You would not, for instance, simply in order to try to prove me wrong, leap off the top of a high building. Or, rather, if you did, the rest of us would immediately recognize your action as a feat of lunacy, and therefore not truly free. You cannot actually force yourself to behave “irrationally” except in an ultimately rational way. And to seek to find a first moment of perfect mindless impulse in any free act is to pursue a hopeless descent back along an infinite regress. (pp. 173-174)
All of this, as I said, is easy enough to grasp upon analysis of specific decisions and actions. I eat the apple because I am hungry. I get in the car because I want to go downtown. I study the ant farm because I wish to understand how they organize their societal life. I give $5 to a homeless person because I want to assist him in his or her need and thus fulfill my duty to my neighbor.
But what, or who, awakens the will to act in the first place? If we stay within the Christian reading of the Song of Songs, then there can be only one answer: Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, who has created us in dynamic orientation to the transcendentals of being and thus to himself. Christ is “the transcendental horizon of reality that animates every single stirring of reason and desire, the always more remote end present within every more immediate end. Insofar as we are able freely to will anything at all, therefore, it is precisely because he is making us to do so: as at once the source of all action and intentionality in rational natures and also the transcendental object of rational desire that elicits every act of mind and will toward any purposes whatsoever” (p. 184). In the depths of the human soul, he acts upon our mind and will as ultimate source and final cause. Because we are enveloped by the Good, we are moved to pursue finite goods for ourselves and the welfare of others. Because we are encompassed by the Truth, we desire to understand stars and quasars, molecules and neutrinos, bats and cuttlefish. Because we are enfolded in the Beautiful, we seek out the delights of Beethoven’s 5th symphony and the poetry of John Keats and William Butler Yeats. In all our actions we intend the the one Lover in whom we live and move and have our being.
I know what many readers are thinking: I can still say no to God, can’t I? I could still choose eternity in hell if I wanted to, right? But can you, could you, and most importantly, why do you want to? There’s something deep in Adamic man that resists the the notion that the grace of God is ultimately irresistible. Consider Gerhard Forde’s answer to the question “But you don’t mean that grace is irresistible, do you?”
Another tricky question. But again the answer can only, in the end, be yes. “Yes, I find it to be so, don’t you?” Remember it is grace we are talking about, not force. Absolute and unconditional grace has by very definition to be irresistible, one would think. Did you ever meet someone with irresistible grace? All that means is that you are utterly and completely captivated and so cannot finally “resist.” Certainly God’s whole purpose in coming was to make grace irresistible, was it not? Do we not hope that in the end all enemies will be overcome, all opposition stilled, grace completely triumphant and God all in all? How can that be if grace is not finally irresistible? (Theology is for Proclamation, pp. 169-170)
The irresistibility of grace brings us back to Hart’s key claim that humanity possesses by its creation a natural desire for God. Every particle of our being cries out for the Good, Beauty, and Truth that is our Creator.
As a hart longs
for flowing streams,
so longs my soul
for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.