Finding the God Who is Love

The love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for human beings is absolute and uncondi­tional. This fundamental truth of the gospel bears repeating. It bears repeating because we Christians seem to forget it all too easily. We know the evangelical words of our faith—

  • “God is love”
  • “Christ died for the ungodly”
  • “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”
  • “This is my body which is broken for you”
  • “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”
  • “We have seen the True Light; we have received the Heavenly Spirit; we have found the True Faith, worshiping the Undivided Trinity, who has saved us”

—and we can recite from heart the parable of the prodigal son and the stories of Jesus and the paralytic and the woman caught in adultery. Yet we seem to prefer a different, more oppressive narrative. It goes something like this:

Because we sin and repeatedly sin, God is angry with us. But if we repent of our sins, he will change his attitude, restore fellowship, and bring us into heaven, if we persevere and die in a state of grace.

Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants tell different versions of the story, but the narrative remains constant: God is a God of conditional love. If we fulfill specific conditions, God will be to us loving and merciful; if not, wrathful and punishing. God is Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde. Which one we meet depends on our performance.

And so I reiterate: the love of God for human beings is absolute and uncondi­tional. God does not love us because of anything we have done. He does not love us because we are virtuous or obedient or kind; nor does he cease to love us when we disobey his commandments and fail to love as we should. He does not cease to love even when we commit evil. God’s love for us is unmerited, unqualified, unreserved, immutable, infinite. We cannot earn it, no matter how hard we try; we cannot lose it, no matter how hard we try. He does not change his mind. The Father of Jesus Christ is eternally and hopelessly in love with the creatures he made in his image.

The Dominican theologian, Fr Herbert McCabe, rejoiced in the unconditional love of God and found it curious that Christians would want to believe in a deity of wrath and retribution:

It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this, that God deals out to us what we deserve. It is not, I suppose, really odd that other people should; I suppose it is the commonest way of thinking of God, for God tends to be just a great projection into the sky of our moral feelings, especially our gut feelings. But I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all. (“Forgiveness,” Faith Within Reason, p. 155)

Recall the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32). The younger son takes his inheritance and squanders it in a far country. Eventually he finds himself hungry and destitute, pigs his only company. In despair he acknowledges to himself, and later to his father, how his sin has altered his relationship with his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” But what precisely has changed? Has the father ceased to love his son? Has he become the angry patriarch the prodigal now fears him to be? On the contrary, the father has been waiting for his son to return, and upon seeing him in the distance, he jubilantly rushes to greet him and welcome him home. The father has not changed in his love for his son. What has changed is the son. In his alienation and guilt, the prodigal is no longer capable of seeing his father as he really is. He has created his own alternate reality. Instead of a parent abounding in love and care, he has substi­tuted an overseer of exacting justice. The best he can now hope for is that this wealthy man might have pity upon him and take him on as one of his servants. And so it is in our relationship with God:

Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemna­tion of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymas­ter, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us. (pp. 155-156)

The father does not need to be persuaded to forgive and welcome his son. He does not need to be cajoled or appeased. He does not need to change his mind. He loves his son. Period. That is his truth. All the son needs to do is to see his sin for what it is and acknowledge himself as a sinner—and at that moment he ceases to be one. His contrition is the divine forgiveness. All the rest is celebration and feasting: “This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us” (p. 156).

God doesn’t change his mind about us, McCabe declares; God changes our mind about him—again and again and again. McCabe is direct and pointed:

His love for us doesn’t depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love. Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else, into this punitive ogre, this Satan. Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it doesn’t matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense he doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns. We damn ourselves because we would rather justify ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves by the infinite love of God. (p. 157)

I was more than a tad shocked when I first read these words. How can our sin not make a difference to God? If we could ask McCabe this question, I think he would first remind us precisely who and what God is. God is not a being within the continuum of the cosmos. He is not a part of the world. He is not a god. He is the infinite plenitude of Being who surpasses the world he has made. The world makes no literal difference to God. This is what we mean when we speak of the divine aseity, and this is what we mean when we declare that the transcendent Deity created the world from out of nothing. He did not have to create the universe. If he had chosen not to, his glory would not have been diminished one whit, nor is he happier because he did do so. God plus the world is not greater than God alone. The world does not add anything to the Creator; it does not change or affect him. The mutuality that marks beings within the world does not characterize God’s relationship with beings. Ultimately the world cannot make a difference to God. God is God, and we are the finite manifestations of his love. Robert Sokolowski describes this as the “Christian distinction”:

In the distinctions that occur normally within the setting of the world, each term distinguished is what it is precisely by not being that which it is distinguishable from. Its being is established partially by its otherness, and therefore its being depends on its distinction from others. But in the Christian distinction God is understood as “being” God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world. Thus the Christian distinction is appreciated as a distinction that did not have to be, even though it in fact is. The most fundamental thing we come to in Christianity, the distinction between the world and God, is appreciated as not being the most fundamental thing after all, because one of the terms of the distinction, God, is more fundamental than the distinction itself. (The God of Faith and Reason, pp. 32-33)

God is more fundamental than the distinction between Creator and creature. Whereas beings are defined by their relations with other beings, such does not obtain between God and the world. Beings stand alongside each other and interact with each other; they share a world together; but none of this obtains with God and beings. As McCabe states: “God cannot share a world with us–if he did he would have created himself. God cannot be outside, or alongside, what he has made. Everything only exists by being constantly held in being by him” (“Freedom,” God Matters, p. 14). God is outpouring Love who sustains, upholds, indwells all that is. In him we live and move and have our being. Again McCabe: “God is the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves” (“The Trinity and Prayer,” God Still Matters, p. 59)

Once we understand the Christian distinction between divinity and the world, we are positioned to discern the limitations and anthropomorphism of the biblical stories we tell about God. Stories we must tell, for God presents himself to us by story, as story–yet the figurative nature of these stories must be recognized, if the Christian distinction is to be respected.

Christians proclaim the forgiveness of God; but what precisely do we mean when we say that God forgives us? In human relations we forgive some­one who has offended us. Offense is something deeper than injury. If someone injures us accidentally, we may deserve compensation but we do not require an apology. But if someone offends us, if someone attacks us or harms those we love, then apology, and perhaps much more than apology, is needed. Atonement must be made, restitution provided. Still one thing more is needed, though, if fellowship is to be restored: the injured party must surrender his right to vengeance. He must forgive. Only thus can both offender and offended be healed and recreated.

The language of offense, atonement, and forgiveness has been appropriately transferred to the relations between God and man. “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love”—so begins a traditional Latin form of the act of contri­tion. Similarly, a preparatory prayer for communion composed by St John Chrysostom begins: “O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficiently pleasing that Thou shouldst come under the roof of the house of my soul, for it is entirely desolate and fallen in ruin.” It is vitally important for us to speak words like this to God; but it is equally important to recognize their figurative intent and limits:

God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re-creative and redemptive side of forgiveness. All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

We can forgive enemies even though they do not apologize and are not contrite. But such forgiveness … does not help them, does not re-create them. In such forgiveness we are changed, we change from being vengeful to being forgiving, but our enemy does not change. When it comes to God, however, it would make no sense to say he forgives the sinner without the sinner being contrite. For God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner. God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God. It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us. (God, Christ and Us, pp. 121-122)

The language of faith is filled with conflicting images of God—the image of the wrathful God who hates our sin and requires propitiation; the image of the God who endures our iniqui­ties, who is long-suffering and abounding in mercy; the God who punishes the wicked and forgives the penitent. These conflicting images are helpful, necessary, and unavoidable. But it is also necessary, says McCabe, for us to think clearly:

The initiative is always with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of God is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom. (pp. 16-17)

McCabe’s emphasis on the priority of grace may strike some Orthodox readers as too Augustinian. What about synergism? Do we not still have to cooperate with God? And of course this is true. But too often the popular understanding of synergism forgets the divine transcendence and reduces God to a being within the world, as if God does the hard work, dragging us 90% of the way up the hill of salvation, but then drops us and leaves us to climb the rest of the way ourselves. God does his part, but now it’s up to us to do ours—repentance is our autonomous work. But God is not a thing alongside us. He is our Creator and the transcendent source of our being and freedom. Divine grace does not compete with creaturely agency. As Met Kallistos Ware observes, “the inter-relationship between divine grace and human freedom remains always a mystery beyond our comprehension” (How Are We Saved?, p. 36). Faith is a gift and therefore always a surprise. In the midst of spiritual death we miraculously discover within ourselves the ability to call upon the Savior: “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner!” As St John Cassian writes, “He puts into us the very beginnings of salvation” (Conf 13.18). We understandably think of divine absolution as occuring after we have confessed our sins and done our works of penance, yet the reverse is the literal truth. God takes the initiative in everything. The faith and repentance that restores us to our Father just is his forgiveness of our sins. “At every point,” Ware explains, “our human cooperation is itself the work of the Holy Spirit” (p. 43).

The God of the gospel is not the Jekyll and Hyde of our nightmares. He is not a God we need to appease. He is not a God we need to persuade to forgive. He is not a God who puts conditions on his mercy and care. He is, rather, the Father who hurries to us in love, only in love, relentlessly and passionately in love. We search for the God who is Love, yet in truth he has already found us and prepared the banquet of salvation.

(24 March 2013; rev.)

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“You did not receive weapons so that you might sit at ease, but so that you might fight!”

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.”

What does “then” mean? After the Spirit descended, after the voice from heaven said: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. The amazing thing is that scripture says it was the Holy Spirit who led him there!

All that Jesus did and suffered was for our instruction.

He consented to be led into the desert and to do battle with the devil so that when the baptized were assailed by greater temptations after baptism than before they would not be troubled as though this were something unexpected, but would remain steadfast, bearing them all nobly.

You did not receive weapons so that you might sit at ease, but so that you might fight!

The reasons God does not prevent the onslaught of temptations are these.

First, so that you may learn that you have now become much stronger;

then, so that you may remain modest, for you will not be puffed up by the greatness of your gifts if temptations can humble you;

next, because the wicked demon may doubt at first whether you have really renounced him and the test of temptation will convince him of your total desertion;

fourth, to confirm you, who are now stronger and steadier than iron;

fifth, to give you clear evidence of the treasures committed to you.

The devil would not have attacked you if he had not seen that you have been raised to a position of great honor.

Notice where it was that the Spirit led Jesus—not into the city or the market place, but into the desert. Since Jesus wished to entice the devil he gave him his opportunity not only by his own hunger, but also by his choice of place.

The devil usually attacks people when he sees them alone by themselves. He does not dare to do so when he sees them together with others.

It is for this reason especially that we should frequently meet with one another. If we do not we may become an easy prey for the devil.

And so, the devil finds Jesus in the desert, in a trackless wilderness.

Consider how vile and wicked the devil’s approach is, and what sort of opportunity he watches for. He does not come near when Jesus is fasting, but only when he is hungry.

You should learn from this the great value of fasting and that no weapon is more powerful against the devil. After baptism you should not be filled with food and drink from a well-laden table, but should rather devote yourself to fasting.

Jesus fasted not because he himself had any need to do so, but to give us an example.

St John Chrysostom

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“Forgiveness is what matters most of all; to be forgiven, to be contrite for mortal sin is the most tremendous thing that could happen to you in your life—so of course it is very easy”

I think we are all accustomed to the teaching that the Catholic Church is not meant to be a community of great saints—a collection of the righteous and holy as distinct from the sinners. We all know it is also meant for sinners, for people who haven’t yet made it to great sanctity and maybe don’t show much sign of doing so. Now I would like to put in a word for the doctrine that the Church is also not meant to be a community just of great sinners either; it is for mediocre sinners as well. I think we should realise that mediocre sinners have a definite intelligible place in the Church and if we don’t grasp this we shall never really take seriously the penitential season of Lent that we are just starting.

The trouble as I see it is that we tend to use such inflated language about sin that we simply can’t take it seriously, it becomes unreal; it doesn’t say anything clear and concrete to the mediocre sinner. Let us be clear, of course, that the people who are really welcome to the Catholic Church are the murderers, rapists, torturers, sadistic child-molesters and those who evict old people from their homes—it is for loving, welcoming and forgiving such members that the Church exists. But I would guess that many of you, perhaps even a majority, do not come into any of these categories. A lot of you are mediocre sinners, and the season and liturgy of Lent, the season of penance ought to say something directly to you … The fact is that there is mediocre sin and it has its own rightful place and is to be treated for what it is and not as though it were a total abandonment of God and his love (but in a mild way).

Like all wise men, Cardinal Newman said a number of foolish things in his time and I think the most foolish of them was his remark that it would be better to see the whole universe consumed in flames than to commit one venial sin. We all know that can’t be true; we can’t say it seriously and the result is that we can’t take venial sin seriously at all. Now I think we should see it for what it is in its own right, not just as a poor relation of mortal sin.

When I was a child we used to play cards for peculiar little white curly things called cowrie shells the way grown-ups played poker for money. I have never seen cowrie shells in any other context or used for any other purpose, but for us they had the same sort of purpose as grown-up money. Not to call venial sins ‘sins’ is a little like calling these cowrie shells money. I mean they are not very small units of money, like farthings, they are not money at all; but they have just the same function as money in their own context. Venial sin, mediocre sin, is related to real sin, mortal sin, rape and murder and torture, in much the way that cowrie shells are related to money. Venial sins are not very small mortal sins, they are not sins at all in that sense; but they are structurally similar. As we say in the schools: the word ‘sin’ is used ‘analogically’ of them.

At one time when I was living in the United States some friends of mine belonged to a clandestine organisation which helped young men who didn’t want to be conscripted into what they rightly saw as an unjust war in Vietnam to escape to Canada and Sweden and such places of refuge. In this organisation some people worked very hard and others were less energetic or frankly careless and lazy and unreliable and a bit of a nuisance, but they were all devoted to the cause. There was one especially charming and energetic young man who as it transpired engaged in charmingly and energetically betraying the whole set-up to the police; with the result that it was broken up and several people went into prison.

Now there is all the difference in the world between being lazy or a nuisance to your comrades and betraying the whole project; that is the difference between venial and mortal sin. As St Thomas says: one is about how you do the job; the other is about not doing it at all, but something else. The job, of course, is loving God.

There is a lovely passage, one of my favourites, in which he says that your love for God can never gradually cool, or be chipped away or slowly diminished. It can only be totally lost by mortal sin; venial sin is not a matter of cooling and loving God less—well, what’s wrong with it then? It is a matter of loving the things of this world too much, perhaps dangerously too much, and failing to express and grow in your love of God.

Venial sins all carry an ecclesial health warning: sinning can seriously damage your health (your spiritual health).

Every sin, in any meaning of the word, has two sides to it. On the one hand it is some kind of neglect of God’s love—whether a total rejection (and option) for something else) as in mortal sin, or simply not expressing your gratitude enough in your daily life as in venial sin—on the other hand all sin involves an attachment to, even addiction to other lesser good things, the things of this world. Forgiveness of sins deals with the first part—whether it is the miraculous grace of conversion and contrition by which we are turned back to God from mortal sin, or the grace of increasing charity by which we pull ourselves together after venial sins.

Forgiveness is what matters most of all; to be forgiven, to be contrite for mortal sin is the most tremendous thing that could happen to you in your life—so of course it is very easy. You do not have to work at being forgiven; you only have to accept it, to believe in the forgiveness of God in Christ, in his eternal unconditional love for you.

But sin, any sin, even venial sin, has given you a kind of addiction to lesser things, the things of this world, so besides being forgiven we need to break out of this addiction. For the only way to God is in Christ; and Christ’s way to God was through crucifixion and death to the resurrection. There is no other way. The only way to God is through death. Christ did not die for us instead of us. He died to make it possible for us to die and rise again in him. And this is hard. We have to go through the crucifixion too. We can do it because God’s love for us makes it possible to die in Christ; but we have to do it. I have to go through the painful process of curing my addiction, kicking my habit, ‘drying out’ or ‘cold turkey’ or whatever.

Even the mediocre sinners need to begin to die, to practise the art of death, of denying themselves, of taking up the cross and following Christ.

And this is what Lent is for. It reminds us that we come through death to life, through denial of self to our true selves, and it helps us to start the process—so that we may be ready for the final Easter when we rise in glory and freedom to live for eternity in the love of God.

Herbert McCabe

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“While Christ Himself was fasting in the wilderness, He defeated our tempter by force and took away his power against mankind”

Moses fasted for many days. Awaken your minds, I entreat You, and lift them up at this opportune time, in company with Moses when he went up the mountain towards God. In this way may you start off afresh on your ascent, and be lifted up together with Christ, who did not merely go up a mountain but up to heaven, taking us with Him. Moses fasted for forty days on the mountain and according to the Scriptures he saw God, not darkly but face to face (Exod. 24:18). He talked to Him as someone would speak to his friend (Exod. 33:11, Deut. 34:10). He learnt from God and taught everyone about Him: that He is He Who eternally Is (Exod. 3:14) and will never cease to be, that He summoned what did not exist into existence, brought all things out of non-being and will not let them fall back into non-existence. In the beginning He brought the whole visible creation out of nothing all at once, just by a nod and His will. “In the beginning”, it says, “God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. i:i), not empty of course, nor without all that lies between them. The earth was interspersed with water, and both were full of air, animals and plants of various kinds, whereas the heavens were full of the various lights and fires, from which the universe is formed. …

At the creation first one thing was brought into existence, then another, then another and so on in turn. Last of all came man (Gen. 1:26), who was worthy of God’s greater honor and consideration both before and after his creation. All the visible world was made before him for his sake. Immediately after the foundation of the world, before he existed, the kingdom of heaven was made ready for him. A divine Counsel concerning im preceded him, and he was created by God’s hand and in His image. He did not take his whole being from matter or the visible world, like the other living creatures did, but only his body. His soul he took from the heavenly realms, from God Himself when He breathed life into him in a way that defies description (Gen. 2:7). Man was a great wonder surpassing all else, towering above every­thing, superior to all. Man was capable of knowing God, as well as receiving Him and declaring Him, and was most certainly the highest achievement of the Creator’s sublime majesty. He had paradise for his home, specially planted by God (Gen. 2:8ff). There it was his lot to have sight of God, speak to Him face to face and receive a counsel and command­ment from Him concerning the fasting appropriate to that place (Gen. 2:16-17). If he kept and observed this, he would remain free from death, toil and pain for ever.

Alas, he chose the treason of the serpent, the originator of evil, in preference to this commandment and counsel, and broke the decreed fast. Instead of eternal life he received death and instead of the place of unsullied joy he received this sinful place full of passions and misfortunes, or rather, he was sentenced to Hades and nether darkness. Our nature would have stayed in the infernal regions below the lurking places of the serpent who initially beguiled it, had not Christ come. He started off by fasting (Matt. 4:2, Luke 4:2, cf. Mark 1: 13) and in the end abolished the serpent’s tyranny, set us free and brought us back to life, as Moses foretold (Deut. 18:15, 18-19, Acts 3:22; 7:37). After fasting on the mountain Moses received tablets, the work of God (Exod. 31:18), and later received again, on a second set of tablets, the law written by the finger of God (Exod. 34:1-4). He instructed the holy nation in the law and by his work he hinted at, and showed a glimpse of, Christ’s future ministry. As Moses appeared as the liberator and savior of Abraham’s race, so later Christ did the same for the whole human race.

Elijah, when he too had fasted forty days (I Kgs. 19:8), saw the Lord on the mountain, not in fire, as the elders of Israel had earlier (Exod. 24:9-10, Deut. 5:23), but passing beyond the fiery vision by his God-pleasing fast, he saw the Lord in the sound of a light passing breeze (I Kgs. 19:12 LXX). He had approached more closely to our Lord’s words, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). For the sound prefigured the Truth and the preaching of Him who is Truth Itself, which rang out round all the ends of the earth, and the passing breeze prefigured the Spirit and grace.

From this vision while fasting Elijah also received power to anoint a prophet in his stead and bestow upon him a double portion of the grace he possessed, and to mount up above the earth in mid-air (2 Kgs. 2:9-11). This pointed clearly towards Christ’s ascension from earth to heaven which was to happen later (Acts 1:9-11). While Christ Himself was fasting in the wilderness, He defeated our tempter by force and took away his power against mankind (Matt. 4:1-11, Mark 1:13, cf. Luke 4:1-13). Having at last put down his tyranny, he set our nature free and handed him over for sport to all those willing to live according to His Gospel. In this way He fulfilled the words of the prophets and by His works inscribed grace and truth upon the symbolic events which took place in ancient times.

You see the benefits of fasting, and how it has made us worthy of so many great gifts? Even from its opposite, unlimited eating and self-indulgence, it is possible to see the advantage of fasting. For the last two weeks our city was given over to gluttony and lack of self-restraint, and straight away we had troubles, shouting, fights, disturbances, shameless songs and obscene laughter. But this week when the fast came it made everything more honorable. It took us away from frivolity’s expensive cares, stopped us tolling for the sake of our useless stomachs, set us instead to works of repentance and persuaded us not to labor for the food which perishes but for the food which endures to eternal life.

St Gregory Palamas

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Universal Salvation: What are the odds?

There are different kinds and degrees of hope. There is the hope that tomorrow will be a bright and sunny day, given that the weatherman says there’s only a 5% chance of rain. We might call this an almost-certain hope. There was the 3:2 hope that Secretariat would win the 1973 Kentucky Derby. We might call this a confident hope. There is the 50-50 hope of the coin-flipper that the quarter will fall heads instead of tails. Let’s call this a neutral hope. And there is the hope of the Texas Holdem player that he will hit his one-outer on the river and make quads—a truly desperate hope. Our hopes range the gamut of probabilities.

Dare we hope for the salvation of all?—to this question Met Kallistos Ware tenders a cautious yes. God’s love for mankind is unconditional and absolute, but human freedom precludes us from affirming anything stronger than an antinomic hope:

If the strongest argument in favor of universal salvation is the appeal to divine love, and if the strongest argument on the opposite side is the appeal to human freedom, then we are brought back to the dilemma with which we started: how are we to bring into concord the two principles “God is love” and “Human beings are free”? For the time being we cannot do more than hold fast with equal firmness to both principles at once, while admitting that the manner of their ultimate harmonization remains a mystery beyond our present comprehension … Our belief in human freedom means that we have no right to categorically affirm, “All must be saved.” But our faith in God’s love makes us dare to hope that all will be saved. (Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, pp. 214-215)

What kind of hope is the hope for universal salvation? As formulated by Ware, clearly it is impossible for us to assign a probability to universal salvation and thus impossible for us to know whether we may confidently, moderately, or even desperately hope—indeed, “hope” may be the wrong word in this situation. “Faith is hope anticipated,” Richard John Neuhaus explains, “and hope is faith disposed toward the future.” I hope God will raise me and my fellows from the dead, because I believe that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and I have faith in him and his promises. But when we address the question of universal salva­tion, we face a different situation. God’s desire to save all appears to be limited by human free choice. As Paul Evdokimov remarks, “God can do all things but force us to love him.” Freedom excludes determination. God may offer the Kingdom, but he neither coerces nor manipulates. Surely at least one person will dig in their heels and definitively and eternally reject God, and if one, then why not a thousand or a million or a billion? How can we speak of hope for universal salvation when all of our experience leads us to expect the damnation of many? Frederica Mathewes-Green offers what most would consider the more rational judgment:

So I don’t think we can assert with any confidence that everyone is going to be saved, and certainly we have not, throughout Christian history, throughout the history of all denominations until recent centuries, and of course in our Orthodox Church. The assumption has always been that some people are going to spend eternity in torment, because that’s what Jesus says, that there will be an outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There’s got to be somebody there making those noises. It’s not like it’s a “Halloween sounds” cassette. Those noises are being generated by someone in agony, and as horrible as it is to think about, that’s where our faith has always come down.

We would seem to be at an impasse. We may dare to hope that all will be saved; but that hope appears to be a hope beyond hope, a hope against hope. Yes, there are many passages in the Scriptures that intimate, even promise, the universality of salvation; but the bound­ary of human freedom remains—and with it looms the horror of everlasting torment. Ware posits two irreconcilable principles—divine love and human freedom—and declares that “the manner of their ultimate harmonization remains a mystery beyond our present comprehen­sion.”

A comprehensive analysis of human freedom is necessary at this point, but I am unpre­pared to offer one. The topic, as they say, is beyond my pay grade. The literature is extensive and intimidating. Contemporary philosophers seem to fall into two camps—compatibilists and libertarians. But there are also hard determinists and radical incompatibilists, both of whom deny free will. And then there are the classically inclined, like David Bentley Hart, who speak of freedom, not in terms of choice, but as union with the good. It’s all very confusing.

It is generally believed that the Orthodox Church is committed to a libertarian under­stand­ing of free will. God does not determine or coerce human actions: the human agent deter­mines his own actions and always remains free to do otherwise. Let us assume for the moment that the libertarian account is true and faithfully represents what Christians should believe. Let’s also assume that some version of the free-will model of hell is true. How might we then understand the possibility, and likelihood, of universal salvation?

Consider the following five statements, with brief commentary:

1) Human beings are created by the Holy Trinity to enjoy eternal fellowship with the Holy Trinity. God is our supreme good, supernatural end, eschatological fulfillment, and true happiness.

Humanity is not created in a neutral stance vis-à-vis its Creator. We are created by God and our ultimate desire is always for God. This, I take it, is what it means to say that humanity is created in the divine image. St Augustine memorably prayed: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

2) To turn away from God is to turn away from our supreme good and thus to turn away from true happiness. By our sin we create our own hell and doom ourselves to ever-increasing anguish.

No universalist worth his salt denies hell. We know too well its misery. We know, and fear, the possibility that in the end we might irrevocably choose self over the Good. God does not damn; we damn ourselves. God simply allows us to experience the terrible consequences of our disbelief and sin.

3) God will not permit us to irrevocably decide against union with him based on either insufficient information or disordered desire.

In the words of Thomas Talbott: “If I am ignorant of, or deceived about, the true consequences of my choices, then I am in no position to embrace those consequences freely; and similarly, if I suffer from an illusion that conceals from me the true nature of God, or the true import of union with God, then I am again in no position to reject God freely” (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 174). Similarly, if I am enslaved to my destructive desires and passions, then I am not in a position to make a free decision. Just as addicts are incapable of making free and responsible decisions until they have secured liberation from the drugs that enslave them, so those who are in bondage to their passions are incapable, to the degree they are so bound, of free decisions and actions—they could not have done otherwise.

4) God never gives up on any sinner; he never withdraws his offer of forgiveness; he never abandons his children to the torment of the outer darkness.

God has not set a time limit on the offer of salvation, nor has he configured the afterlife to render it impossible for sinners to repent and turn to him. God loves every human being with an infinite and absolute love. He truly wills the good and salvation of all (1 Tim 2:4). Like the good shepherd, he searches near and far for the one lost sheep; like the woman who loses one of her ten coins, he turns his house upside down until he finds it (Luke 15). Jesus has and will reconcile all to himself. He will not be without his brethren for whom he died and rose again.

5) When a person surrenders to God in death or in the afterlife, his orientation is definitively stabilized and his eternal bliss confirmed.

After death the redeemed no longer have the freedom to reject God, for their freedom has been fulfilled in the beatific vision. Theologians advance various arguments to explain this truth, but all agree upon it. In heaven, once saved, always saved.

The above statements can, I think, be worked into a valid argument for universal salvation by someone trained in logic and deductive reasoning. No doubt changes should be made and new premises added. The first premise is uncontroversial and widely accepted in the orthodox tradition. The second premise expresses the free-will model of hell that has become dominant in Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and mainline Protestantism. The third premise is rarely considered and therefore probably controversial. The fourth is definitely controversial, as it denies a widely held belief in Catholicism, Protestantism, and a large segment of Orthodoxy; yet the possibility of post-mortem salvation has been affirmed by some Eastern Christians throughout the history of the Church and is supported by the Orthodox practice of praying for the departed. The final premise is uncontroversial and enjoys ecumenical assent. The above premises can no doubt be formulated in better ways. I welcome suggestions. I’m a blogger, dammit, not a theologian.

Assume, for the moment, that all five statements are true. How confident may we be that God will bring all humanity to salvation? The quick, too quick, answer: we don’t know. Every human possesses free will, we continue to insist, and is thus free to make the ultimate Luciferian decision: “Evil, be thou my good.” But why would any rational being make such a decision, with full and immediate knowledge that only God is his true good and happiness and that rejection of the divine offer of salvation must bring only misery? Perhaps a person might delude themselves about this truth for a while, but as the agony and despair intensi­fies, how long can he hold out until the truth crashes down upon him? How long before absolute reality shatters all illusions? How long before his finite resources are exhausted and he hits bottom? Can we seriously entertain the possibility that this person, any person, might everlastingly persist in his hopeless quest for autonomy and independence? What is the gain? What is the rational motive? What are the odds? The example of Satan is ubiqui­tously invoked at this point, yet is it even possible for a person to deliberately choose evil for the sake of evil? Herbert McCabe thinks not:

When we sin it is entirely our choice of something instead of God’s friendship. To come to God’s friendship in Christ is to choose a good, the greatest good and the greatest good for us; and the creative and gracious power of God is in us as we freely make this choice. It is both our free work and God’s work. To do good is to choose the highest good; but to fail to do this, to sin, is not to choose evil. Nobody chooses evil, it cannot be done. When we sin what we do is to choose some trivial good at the expense of choosing God’s friendship. Sin is sin not because of the thing we positively choose: the human satisfaction, the pleasure or the power. It is sin because of what we fail to choose, what we sacrifice for the sake of a minor good. Sin is sin because we have opted not to grow up to our flourishing, our happiness which is life in God’s love and friendship. (God Still Matters, p. 185)

If this is true for ordinary sins committed in this life, how much more so must it be true for the eschatological exercise of one’s fundamental orientation towards God. Talbott main­tains that the notion that a free rational agent might decisively, definitively, irrevocably reject his supreme good is incoherent: “For no one rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could possibly prefer an objective horror—the outer darkness, for example—to eternal bliss, nor could any such person both experience the horror of separation from God and continue to regard it as a desirable state” (“Towards a Better Understanding of Universalism,” in Universal Salvation?, p. 5). Hart emphatically concurs:

But, on any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. 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. (“God, Creation, and Evil,” p. 10)

Yet perhaps the libertarian construal of freedom requires the option of choosing alienation from the Creator and the absolute misery it brings. Despite the revelation given in the afterlife, perhaps a person can still hang on to the delusion that he can bear the isolation and torment. Perhaps, for no good reason at all, a person can still choose a destiny that contra­dicts his intrinsic good and happiness. “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven!” we cry. As absurd and self-destructive as such a decision must be judged, perhaps we cannot declare it impossible. And let us further stipulate that God will honor the individual’s refusal to repent and will allow that person to everlastingly endure all the natural consequences of his decision. If this is so, can we still entertain a reasonable and confident hope of universal salvation? Eric Reitan believes that we can.

The Reitan Maneuver

In his essay “Human Freedom and the Impossibility of Eternal Damnation,” Reitan analyzes the free-will model of hell. Like Talbott, Reitan is skeptical of the proposal that a rational agent might voluntarily choose a destiny of utter misery. Can we, he asks, imagine someone freely choosing an infernal state of being “knowing that doing so will doom them to eternal alienation from everything of value?” (Universal Salvation?, p. 133). Moreover, can we imagine this person enduring the ever-increasing loneliness, despair, and torment for all eternity, never once wondering whether he has chosen wisely? Perhaps he originally chose separation from God under the illusion that it wouldn’t be so bad, that he could still find some measure of happiness; but this is a false belief. There is no happiness divorced from deifying union with God. Is it really possible, Reitan asks, to cling to a false belief forever when it produces only ever-increasing misery? Is it not more likely that the punishments of hell will eventually shatter all illusions and bring one to that point where one can only desperately cry out, “Jesus, help me”?

The doors of hell are locked only from the inside; but according to the libertarian, the damned inexplicably never turn the key. Reitan states the matter this way:

On the progressive view of DH [the doctrine of hell], the doors of hell are locked from the inside—that is, God never withdraws the offer of salvation. Hence, if any are damned eternally it is because they eternally reject God’s offer. It’s not enough to turn God down once. It must be done forever.

We are assuming that, to have libertarian freedom on the matter of our eternal destiny, we must be able to reject God’s offer of salvation even when we know what we are doing and are not in bondage to sin. But this means that it must be possible for us to make a choice that we have no motive to make, and every motive not to make. To say that this is possible is not to say that it is likely. In fact, it seems clear that, however possible it may be for us to act against all our interests, it is very unlikely at any moment that we would actually do so. But in order for someone to be eternally damned, the person must not only make this unlikely choice once. The person must unwaveringly choose to reject God at every moment for the rest of eternity, even though the person sees absolutely no good reason for doing so, has every reason not to do so, and has absolutely no compelling desire to do so. Is that really possible? (p. 136; also see John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory, chap. 8)

But if we hold to a libertarian understanding of human freedom, then it must indeed be possible for a person to reject God for no good reason whatsoever when he has every compelling reason to surrender to God and experience the absolute Good that is the good he desires for himself. The state of alienation is infinitely inferior to the state of salvation: if the agent goes ahead and chooses it anyway, this must mean either that his decision is grounded on delusion or pathology or that it is purely random and arbitrary.

Reitan advances two responses to this formulation of damnation. First, is libertarian freedom as valuable as it is often claimed?

Libertarian freedom as described does not seem worth having. In fact, as described, I sincerely hope that I lack it. The capacity to eternally act against all of my motives would introduce into my life a potential for profound irrationality that I would rather do without. And if I exercise my libertarian freedom as described above, dooming myself to the outer darkness without reason, I sincerely hope that God would act to stop me—just as I hope a friend would stop me if I decided to leap from a rooftop for no reason. I would not regard the actions of that friend as a violation of any valuable freedom, but would see it as a welcome antidote to arbitrary stupidity. (p. 137)

Yet even if extreme libertarian freedom obtains, Reitan believes that we may still have a guarantee, or at least mathematical certainty, of universal salvation. He proposes this thought experiment:

Imagine a box of pennies, spread out heads-side up. Suppose that the heads-side of each penny is covered with a thin film of superglue, such that if the penny were to flip over in the box it would stick to the bottom and remain heads-side down from thereon out. Imagine that this box is rattled every few seconds. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that there is no chance of the pennies getting stuck to the walls of the box or anything like that. Let us suppose, furthermore, that for any penny that is heads-side up at the same time that the box is rattled, there is exactly a fifty percent chance that after the box is rattled the penny will land heads-side up, and a fifty percent chance that it will land heads-side down. Once a penny lands heads-side down, however, it sticks to the bottom of the box and remains that way, regardless of how much the box is subsequently rattled. Let us imagine, furthermore, that the box is rattled every five seconds indefinitely, stopping only once all the pennies have landed heads-side down and become stuck that way.

In this situation, we would expect that eventually the rattling would stop, because eventually every single penny in the box would become stuck heads-side down. We expect this outcome even though every penny started out heads-side up, and even though at any given time a heads-side-up penny has a fifty percent chance of staying heads-side up. If the rattling continued forever, we would be inclined to say that this outcome is inevitable. (p. 138)

coin_toss_zpsd6eba78b.jpeg~original.jpegReitan argues that the question of libertarian freedom and universal salvation is analogous to the box of pennies. If we assume that God never withdraws the offer of his forgiveness, and if we assume that those who have chosen perdition remain free at any point to choose otherwise, then “there must be some possible world in which the person does accept the offer. Thus, the person who has yet to accept the offer of salvation is like the bad penny: While the person has not yet chosen to be saved, at every moment there is some probabil­ity that the person will so choose” (p. 140). Recall, the damned have every good reason to change their minds and no good reason not to: the funda­mental happiness they desire for themselves is ultimately identical to the happiness that God wills for them.

Given that the opportunities for repentance are infinite, the probability that any one person will hold out against God approaches zero. This is not to say that the probability ever reaches zero; it is still possible to say that it remains theoretically possible for someone to reject God forever. “But,” counters Reitan, “the possible world in which this occurs is so remote that there seems to be no good reason to think that it is actual” (p. 140). Thus we have what Reitan calls a “mathematical certainty” that all will freely embrace the salvation of God given in Jesus Christ.

I confess that I am reluctant to speak of a guarantee of universal salvation, as Reitan does; but Talbott’s and Reitan’s arguments should encourage us in a confident and robust hope for the salvation of every human being. God does not need to force anyone to repent of his sins and embrace heaven. Precisely because we are created for him, all he needs to do is to allow us to experience the hell that we think we want. Suffering, divine grace, and the prayers of the Church will do the rest.

(19 May 2013; rev.)


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“Why do you look for the speck in your brother’s eye?”

The blessed disciples were to be the spiritual guides and teachers of the whole world. It had therefore to be clearly seen by all that they held fast to the true faith. It was essential for them to be familiar with the gospel way of life, skilled in every good work, and to give teaching that was precise, salutary, and scrupulously faithful to the truth they themselves had long pondered, enlightened by the divine radiance. Otherwise they would be blind leaders of the blind. Those imprisoned in the darkness of ignorance can never lead others in the same sorry state to knowledge of the truth. Should they try, both would fall headlong into the ditch of the passions.

To destroy the ostentatious passion of boastfulness and stop people from trying to win greater honor than their teachers, Christ declared: The disciple is not above his teacher. Even if some should advance so far as to equal their teachers in holiness, they ought to remain within the limits set by them, and follow their example. Paul also taught this when he said: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. So then, if the Master does not judge, why are you judging? He came not to judge the world, but to take pity on it.

What he is saying, then, is this: “If I do not pass judgment, neither must you, my disciple. You may be even more guilty of the faults of which you accuse another. Will you not be ashamed when you come to realize this?” The Lord uses another illustration for the same teaching when he says: Why do you look for the speck in your brother’s eye?

With compelling arguments he persuades us that we should not want to judge others, but should rather examine our own hearts, and strive to expel the passions seated in them, asking this grace from God. He it is who heals the contrite of heart and frees us from our spiritual disorders. If your own sins are greater and worse than other people’s, why do you censure them, and neglect what concerns yourself?

This precept, then, is essential for all who wish to live a holy life, and particularly for those who have undertaken the instruction of others. If they are virtuous and self-restrained, giving an example of the gospel way of life by their own actions, they will rebuke those who do not choose to live as they do in a friendly way, so as not to break their own habit of gentleness.

St Cyril of Alexandria

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“As we human beings seek infinitely, we come to express lack infinitely, and this turns to unlimited violence when its lack is nothing but lack, turned against the surplus promise of agape”

With the hyperbole God being good, in a sense, everything is at stake. It effects how we relate to everything, as good or not. Is there a goodness to creation – in the first instance, and in the end? What is at stake is the ultimate love and what we are to love as ultimate. Love is at issue with the good, for the truly good is the lovable. If the absolutely good would be the absolutely lovable, is the issue not alone we loving, but we being loved – ultimately? We might love the good but does the good love us? To speak of God as the good seems to be both the easiest and the hardest. Easiest: this is the “highest” name, goodness itself. Hardest: here we are most challenged to avoid mere “speculation” – we are brought back to earth in terms of honesty. We must be true to what we know of goodness from the between – and what we know of evil. We might hope that God in being true keeps faith with the goodness of being. Being true is not living a lie, and this is something ontological. Must the ultimately good also be true to tragic loss? Either tragic loss is the ultimate truth, or ultimate truth passes beyond tragedy, transfigures death. Either death is the truth, or being true is beyond death. God being good faces us into the knowing of suffering, the pathei mathos. The question of ultimate evil is hyperbolic even to tragic loss.

Thus also, God being good seems the most necessary and most challenging. Necessary: a neutral God unthinkable; an evil God impossible; an immoral God hateful; and amoral God contemptible. Challenging: how think the hyperbolic in terms of immanent good; in terms of immanent evil; in terms of what is beyond the measure of our justice; in terms of what is senseless and cruel in finite life? Everything is a stake: the goodness or the pointlessness of the whole; God or nothing at all.

Our being in the between is exposed to a mingling of good and evil, and very often we define the good relative to ourselves. In that respect to think of the good would be to ponder something hyperbolic to the between and its mixed condition. How at all conceive of such a hyperbolic good, if our familiar engagement is with the mixed? Or does the hyperbolic good, so to say, mix with the mixture? If so, would it not then be itself mixed, and if so, how then still the good?

We are directed to a togetherness of transcendence and immanence, mystery and intimacy in the good of being agapeic. There is something hyperbolic about being agapeic, in exceeding the determinate and self-determining measure; yet there is something intimate, since it goes to the heart of being at all, in terms of its love of the “to be” as good. We are dealing with what is “over above,” “beyond,” and always “more,” and yet is radically immanent; with what is serenely universal yet ardently engaged with the singular as such. Being agapeic is the communication of good in the intimate universal. The agapeic good is the way – making a way by not getting in the way. Following thinkers like Dionysius and Bonaventure, there is a fitting sense in which the good is the hyperbolic name par excellence for God. …

Evil sometimes seems unloosed with a life of its own, outside our best good will and power. It seems to have a power disproportionate to anything attributable to the evil we undoubtedly originate. Anguish torments us, not despite but because of the promise of hyperbolic good: Why evil at all, if the origin is good as giving “coming to be,” and if “coming to be” as issuing in creation is good? I try a reply. Creation comes to be over nothing, it is the arising of being as something and not nothing, Coming to be is double – mixing the giving of being and the possibility of (being) nothing. Out of this doubleness, beings in creation are given over to becoming: becoming what they are not yet, becoming what they are to be: exigent to be yet marked by the vulnerability of ontological fragility. The mixing of the power to be with the nothing means that the power to be, affirmative as it is for itself, is also expressed ambiguously as the power of negation. Thus any process of becoming, as open to novelty, is always the alteration of the mixing of the power to be and negation, with the possibility of disturbing either their equilibrium or the proper excess of the power to be.

How does the unruliness arise if creation is a good? The very openness of creation to novelty and freedom means that its processes of becoming are inseparable from the power of negation, which itself shows the ontological mixture of the power to be and the nothing. The possibility of not being is constitutive of the being of creation. A being’s affirmation of the power to be may refuse to consent to its own passio essendi, for this tells it of its own being given to be as something rather than nothing, and it is against this possibility of being nothing that its self-affirming power to be strives – for the most part remorselessly. Whence disequilibrium, disorder, unruliness? Through a certain inordinate hypertrophy of the power of self-mediation in the double being. Beings that are seconds want to be the primal First. I mean: beings are given for themselves, and as the promise of self-mediation; but this co-exists always with relation to the other and intermediation, first from the gift of the origin, second in relation to other finite beings. Within itself the power of self-mediation can be drawn to its own fulfillment, though never severed from its own passio essendi, and the possibility of its not being. Self-mediation can so affirm itself so that it seeks to recess or overcome the passio and the possibility of being nothing. The latter is finally impossible for a finite being, both on its own terms, and in relation to others. The double relativity is disordered in reduction to single self-mediation through an endeavor to be that is inordinately affirming of itself as the good. This is absolutizing what cannot be absolute, in the sense of ab-solo. The relation to the other is deformed, and so then also is the relation to self. Seconds given for themselves want to be First absolutely through themselves. Metaxological community is blocked, and the promise of creation betrayed. The creature’s freedom to be other turns into the dualism of opposition rather than the solidarity of community. Our porosity to the divine becomes clogged: at odds with the given character of our created being as passio essendi, we absolutize our own conatus essendi, as now circling around itself and nothing but itself. By means of this self-(en)circling conatus, impatient and self-clogged, we figure ourselves as gods. In truth, we have re-figured ourselves as counterfeit doubles of God.

In us the reduction of intermediation to self-mediation can be intensified in innerness to the point of infinity, hence can extend beyond itself infinitely in destructiveness. There is no limit to the possibility of human destruction, whereas animal destruction is finite. The lamb devoured, the lion will rest in peace, till hunger disturbs anew its satisfied self-mediation with new lack. As we human beings seek infinitely, we come to express lack infinitely, and this turns to unlimited violence when its lack is nothing but lack, turned against the surplus promise of agape still in reserve in itself, even when it is turned towards evil. There arises the infinite project of the reduction of other-being to the medium, or means of our own self-mediation. As given to be for ourselves, we make other-being be for us – for our good. One might say: We make ourselves the whole. This is being evil: being (the) whole in a non-agapeic way: being (the) whole closed to agapeic porosity. True goodness is beyond the self-enclosing whole – as the agapeic God is. We claim life. We grab. We have no claim. Life is gift.

Finite life, such as we know it, is impossible without some striving for sovereignty. We are, and are to be, self-affirming. Evil comes with a defection from the plural promise of metaxological community, when self-mediating beings, in one sense rightly affirming themselves, strive to seize sovereignty over all forms of intermediation with otherness. Making ourselves gods we rise up as sovereigns of a kingdom of death. We overlay the goodness of creation with our defection, and our kingdom comes. And yet without the promise of being itself as good no power of evil would emerge. Evil power is parasitical, growing on the forgiving enabling of the host on which it battens. Gorging itself on the good, evil curdles the honeyed milk into poison. The honey of the good may yet arrest our taste for mischief, stop us with a new savor for the truly worthy. Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost was disarmed by his first sight of the beauty of Eve; overtaken, arrested, he stood for a while enchanted, and as Milton marvelously puts it, “stupidly good.” Stupid: idiot: return to the elemental: rocked back on himself totally, taken out of himself totally: sacred stupor as involuntary amazement, and admiration. The good stuns us when, unguarded, the primal porosity of our being is briefly unclogged. The porosity decomposes the idol of self-mediation. We clot on ourselves again and close the porosity. The blood stream of life is made the carrier of death, and unless the clot is dissolved it may move and strike the heart. How does Satan clot? By returning to himself again. Satan collects himself; clots himself, makes himself impervious to beauty. He resumes his unswerving will to self-mediation, and the fire of his hate returns more fierce.

William Desmond

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