by Tom Belt, TE (theologian extraordinaire)
Many thanks to Fr Adian for the invitation to share my views on the controversial subject of “free will.” I’m grateful for Fr Aidan’s friendship, the encouraging conversations we have, and his kindness in allowing me to win our first two chess matches.
I’m not a professional philosopher, but I think it safe to say that there is nothing about the question of free will which is not controversial. And I’ll just state up front that I’m a libertarian. I’m also a universalist. For some these two beliefs make for strange brew, but I can’t here offer anything like a defense of either position. I’m more interested in simply clarifying some relevancies regarding a libertarian understanding of the will’s exercise and how this in turn shapes how one might conceive the final reconciliation of all things.
Let me start by clarifying a distinction which, it seems to me, is sometimes misunderstood or dismissed in conversations about the nature of the will, and that is the distinction between what is essential to a libertarian understanding of choice, on the one hand, and an Enlightenment view of human freedom as the absolute, unconstrained autonomy of the self on the other. My point here is simple—a libertarian notion of choice does not derive from or reduce to Enlightenment presumptions and convictions. One can be a libertarian without being beholden to modernity.
Christian thinkers who are libertarian can and do disagree with the Enlightenment view about what it means to be a “free” human being. A libertarian view of choice makes the simple claim that at least some times (not necessarily always) we are able—it “lies within our power” or it is “up to us” (and these are controversial phrases as well)—to realize either of contrary alternatives. Not an infinite number options, not options which the will itself creates ex nihilo, and not options for an unconstrained exercise of will free from all influences, contexts, or givens. In other words not, as Brian Moore describes “voluntarism,” a “concept of freedom as a will utterly unbound from the dictates of the given.” Nor is it the case that a libertarian view of choice commits one to holding such choice as the highest conceivable value. Nor are libertarians committed to viewing the will as permanently and irrevocably libertarian with respect to the Good. All these concerns may occasion well-deserved criticism of modernism and liberal, democratic, consumerist culture, but they have no necessary attachment to what is rightly called ‘libertarian’ with respect to choice. A libertarian is perfectly free (no pun intended) to hold that true freedom is created nature’s union with God in Christ wherein one is free to be what one truly is as defined by the Good.
One possible way to conceive of libertarian choice accommodating a traditional/classical view of nature and grace might be in terms of the distinction in William Desmond’s work, noted recently here by Brian Moore, between existence as conatus essendi (the inherent struggle of personal becoming) and as passio essendi (the sheer giftedness of our existing). The former describes that context required of personal becoming in which a libertarian could argue liberty of choice is maintained and existence experienced as a struggle of human becoming. Here the truth of the good/giftedness of our existing (passio essendi) is available to us, perceivable if carefully attended to, but not overwhelming the horizon of our finite perspectives and thus ending the struggle. But the passio essendi, when increasingly chosen within the context of the conatus essendi, does eventually come to define the whole of our epistemic horizon. This eventually ends the struggle as well, but through the will’s free engagement. I suggest this distinction makes all the difference. We are libertarianly free precisely because our becoming is a volitional becoming toward the will’s final rest.
Brian Moore brings up a relevant passage from David Hart’s essay “The Pornography Culture” that I find particularly interesting. Contrasting the classical view of human nature from Plato through the high Middle Ages with a modern, Enlightenment view of the self as detached and autonomous, Hart points out that classically understood, “[l]iberty of choice was only the possibility of freedom, not its realization.” Here “liberty of choice” is only a disposition for choice as the necessary means for the realization of freedom. But this, I submit, is all a libertarian need imply about free will. Our end is to finally acquire, through such choice, a non-libertarian disposition with respect to the Good. Lots of libertarian theists say this. One may thus view libertarian free will as a provisional endowment of ‘say-so’, the dispositional and epistemic openness that makes the conatus essendi the struggle that it is and the necessary means by which we come to realize true freedom.
Another relevant passage, this in the context of comments made about hell and universalism in a recent Notre Dame lecture, Hart states:
Currently, the most popular way of defending the notion of an eternal torment is an appeal to creaturely freedom and to God’s respect for its dignity. But there could scarcely be a poorer argument, whether it’s made crudely as by William Lane Craig or elegantly by Eleonore Stump, it is going to fail. It wouldn’t if we could construct a metaphysics or phenomenology of the will’s liberty that was purely voluntarist, purely spontaneous, though even then we would have to explain how an absolutely libertarian act, obedient to no rationale whatsoever would be distinguishable from sheer chance or mindless organic or mechanical impulse, and so any more free than an earthquake or embolism.
True. If libertarian free will is to be successfully deployed as an argument for the rational possibility of irrevocable loss, one would have to understand it in precisely the absolute voluntarist terms Hart describes, as something not grounded transcendentally in God and so not teleologically oriented toward the Good in all its movements. And as such it would fail for the reasons Hart points out. My point, however, is that such an understanding of choice is not essentially “libertarian” at all.
What’s to be said regarding the application of this to universalism? I’d suggest a few points. First, there’s the question of what counts as ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’ with respect to choice. I take it that what is rational is perspectively determined. And what can be viewed as rational from one perspective may not be rational from another. To Eve’s perspective, taking the fruit was rational. She saw that the fruit was “good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom.” She “reasoned” her way through to eating the fruit. Of course, what makes her choice a responsible one is that her perspective was also sufficiently informed to make choosing rightly a real possibility as well. Both choices were rational within her finite perspective. But from God’s perspective we might say her choice was indeed irrational, but that’s because God sees more and knows more. So when Hart says that to “see the good truly is to desire it insatiably,” he’s right of course. But we presently don’t see truly. We see in part, and the way to see more truly (and more clearly) is to choose the good we already see. One chooses one’s way into an insatiable vision of the good.
Second, no libertarian need suppose we are free to bring it about that God does not love us unconditionally and pursue us unfailingly, or that we are capable of irrevocably severing ourselves from the reach of those possibilities which constitute the very ground of our existence. We are asymmetrically related to the possibilities of our being and existence precisely because of the passio essendi. Thus our “liberty of choice” cannot will itself into oblivion, for the possibility to move Godward always precedes any movement of created will as its very ground. This is how I make sense of Tom Talbott’s point that no choice to irrevocably reject God can be a rational choice. Why not? Because given the metaphysics of created being grounded in the Good as its most inward reality, there can be no finite perspective on reality so privated as to foreclose upon itself all possibility of Godward becoming. I’m less sure that Talbott is keen to maintain a libertarian (as I’ve described it here) view of the will as the sustained means by which human beings realize their truest freedom. I’d be grateful to understand him better.
Lastly, there are other interesting questions about angelic wills and the glorified human will to consider. I take angelic wills to have been created libertarianly free with respect to their vocation and purpose and thus in a position of sufficient epistemic distance to responsibly confirm themselves in the Good. The conatus essendi is an inherent feature of all finite personal becoming—human or angelic—until nature realizes its telos as freedom. I suspect the obedient among the angels are thus confirmed in their orientation, whereas the disobedient shall suffer the redeeming light of God’s glory. Likewise, glorified saints shall be glorified by the beatific vision and would by definition be confirmed in a realization of the full freedom of their natures, no longer at liberty to misrelate to the Good. But the journey into such a state must, of metaphysical necessity, be taken in terms of the rational struggle of the conatus essendi, which I view in terms of libertarian becoming.
Spring 2022 Postscript
My thanks to Fr Kimel for reposting this. The debate over universalism has expanded quite a bit since 2015, and the nature of ‘free will’ remains at its center. In the original 2015 post of this piece Dr. Hart points out in a comment that he spoke “only of an ‘absolutely libertarian act’,” for “only that conception of libertarian freedom could possibly make sense of the free will defense of hell, because it utterly severs the ‘gnomic’ indeterminacy of the will from the will’s natural teleology,” a concept of the will’s exercise that Hart rightly argues is nonsensical “in that it is impotent to account for intentionality, and in that pure spontaneity cannot be true deliberative freedom.” “But yes,” he concludes, “certainly there is such a thing as libertarian freedom of the will, precisely in respect of that transcendent end that liberates the will from aimless and convulsive spontaneous impulse.”
After years of conversation, there are still those who defend an eternal hell on the grounds that our divine call to be persons in the fullest sense requires a notion of free will so absolutely libertarian as to be capable of realizing a negation of oneself proportionate to the bliss and ecstasy of theosis. Their premise is that if final union with God is to be possible, a proportionate and contradicting end (Hell) must also be possible. John Manoussakis pursues this line of reasoning, as I explored elsewhere here:
If I understand Manoussakis here, the claim that comes to us in the gift of being presents itself as an either/or choice which we must make. But given the infinite nature of the divine offer and its claim upon us, each possibility of choice is implicated in that infinity. Equally consequential futures lay on both sides of the process by which the Self determines itself relative to eternity. This just is the weight of so wonderful and awful a call. Final refusal is thus convertible in consequence with acceptance. I could be entirely misreading Manoussakis here, but I suspect he would say that all the transcendental features of consciousness he earlier describes are here found manifest, not denied. The infinite nature of God’s free concession of being, in all its possibilities, defines what is at stake in the choice, and to be at stake in a choice is to be contingent upon that choice. If not, choice is without any real integrity.
But so equivalent an implication of consequent ends (theosis on the one hand and a correspondingly eternal damnation on the other) doesn’t seem to follow logically. That choosing God involves the possibility of rejecting God on occasions or for some finite duration seems obvious enough. But that the choices for/against God must be equivalent in consequence doesn’t appear to follow, and it seems to contradict that view of transcendence already at the heart of the orthodox Christian story, that God is not a being among beings, and thus not an object of choice among objects of choice with comparatively proportionate ends. So my sense is that our end in God need not (arguably ‘cannot’) logically imply any negating end of equal consequence as the alternative to God. Indeed, there is no end other than God which could be of equal consequence to union with God.
Even if we posit the possibility of unending suffering, this would not be a proportionate end compared to human participation in divine ecstasy. As Paul imagines it, no suffering is “worth comparing to the glory to be revealed in us.” (Rom 8.18) God and hell are not two opposite but equally permanent ends. That would be to comprehend God within the finite. Theosis, then, cannot be a perpetual repetition of a divine ‘Same’, but the ever-surprising, ever-unfolding novelty of divine adventure. And an unending hell could never be, logically or in any other sense, proportionate to this. So the proportionality that defenders of an eternal hell seek in order to base a logic of eternal damnation upon cannot be had.
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(This article was originally published on 21 August 2015. My thanks to Tom for writing the 2022 postscript.)