“All through our life Christ is calling us”

All through our life Christ is calling us. He called us first in baptism, but afterwards also; whether we obey his voice or not, he graciously calls us still. If we fall from our baptism, he calls us to repent; if we are striving to fulfil our calling, he calls us on from grace to grace, and from holiness to holiness, while life is given us. Abraham was called from his home, Peter from his nets, Matthew from his office, Elisha from his farm, Nathanael from his retreat; we are all in course of calling, on and on, from one thing to another, having no resting place, but mounting towards our eternal rest, and obeying one command only to have another put upon us. There is nothing miraculous or extraordinary in his dealings with us. He works through our natural faculties and circumstances of life. He calls us again and again, in order to justify us again and again—and again and again, and more and more, to sanctify and glorify us.

It were well if we understood this; but we are slow to master the great truth, that Christ is, as it were, walking among us, and by his hand, or eye, or voice, bidding us follow him. We do not understand that his call is a thing which takes place now. We think it took place in the Apostles’ day; but we do not believe in it, we do not look out for it in our own case. We have not eyes to see the Lord; far different from the beloved Apostle, who knew Christ even when the rest of the disciples knew him not. When he stood on the shore after his resurrection, and bade them cast the net into the sea, “that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Lord.”

Now what I mean is this: that they who are living religiously, have from time to time truths they did not know before, or had no need to consider, brought before them forcibly; truths which involve duties, which are in fact precepts, and claim obedience. In this and such-like ways Christ calls us now. There is nothing miraculous or extraordinary in his dealings with us. He works through our natural faculties and circumstances of life. Still what happens to us in providence is in all essential respects what his voice was to those whom he addressed when on earth: whether he commands by a visible presence, or by a voice, or by our consciences, it matters not, so long as we feel it to be a command. If it is a command, it may be obeyed or disobeyed; it may be accepted as Samuel or St. Paul accepted it, or put aside after the manner of the young man who had great possessions.

We need not fear spiritual pride in following Christ’s call, if we follow it as people in earnest. Earnestness has no time to compare itself with the state of others; earnestness is simply set on doing God’s will. It simply says, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth; Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” Oh that we had more of this spirit! Oh that we could take that simple view of things, as to feel that the one thing which lies before us is to please God!

Let us beg and pray him day by day to reveal himself to our souls more fully; to quicken our senses; to give us sight and hearing, taste and touch of the world to come; so to work within us that we may sincerely say, “With your counsel you guide me, and at the end receive me with honor. Whom else have I in the heavens? None beside you delights me on earth. Though my flesh and my heart fail, God is the rock of my heart, my portion forever” (Psalm 73:24-26).

John Henry Newman

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What is Deification?

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C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and the Free-Will Defense

1igavethemfreewillCOLCP.jpg~original.jpegWhy did God create a world filled with evil and horrific violence? In the midst of World War II, C. S. Lewis offered what has become a classic Christian response:

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.1

Lewis’s presentation does not explain hurricanes, earthquakes, and other forms of natural evil; but it does provide a relatively satisfying resolution to the problem of moral evil. The freedom of human beings is a great good that makes possible the greatest good—eternal union with God. God, of course, knew the risks in creating genuinely free rational beings, but clearly he thought it was well worth taking—and, suggests Lewis, so should we.

Decades later philosopher Alvin Plantinga would elaborate upon the free-will defense in his book God, Freedom, and Evil. He summarizes his argument thusly:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world contain­ing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.2

We might dispute whether the horrific costs of freedom in fact justify God’s creational wager, but it seems commonsensically obvious that human freedom and divine deter­mi­na­tion are mutually exclusive, compatibilist arguments notwithstanding. Many philosophers and theologians agree. But what kind of freedom is Plantinga presupposing? He offers this definition: “If a person is free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain from performing it; no antecedent conditions and/or causal laws determine that he will per­form the action, or that he won’t.”3 Nowadays this is called libertarian freedom.

The strength—and weakness—of the free-will defense is its asserted relinquishment by God of his sovereignty over the actions of created rational beings. Humanity enjoys genuine freedom, outside, so the libertarian believes, the control and determination of its Creator. As Hugh J. McCann puts it: “Some of what goes on in the world is not under God’s control but under that of his creatures—who are created neither willing nor failing to will the things they do, and have to fill in the blank themselves.”4 We alone are responsible for our actions.

  • We freely turn our wills against God’s commandments and good ways.
  • We freely choose disobedience and sin.
  • We freely inflict violence upon our fellow creatures.
  • We feely exploit the natural resources of our planet.
  • We freely oppress our neighbors.

“The price of freedom,” explains McCann, “is moral evil. But moral evil is to be laid first at our doorstep, for it is we who choose it; God merely permits our choices and, as far as he sees fit, enables them to be efficacious.”5

The free-will defense, however, comes at significant cost—the possible failure of God’s creative project. He has given humanity libertarian freedom for the purpose of friendship and communion; but the fulfillment of this goal is beyond his determination. Our freedom effectively obliterates divine providence. All God can do is sit back and hope.

God’s “fate” lies almost completely in the hands of his creatures. No matter how concerned and loving he may be, no matter how powerfully he may attempt to win us over, we are on this view out of God’s control. Thus there is always the chance, however remote, that his plans for us will be utterly dashed, that his overtures to us will be rejected—even to the point, one supposes, of our all being lost—that as technology advances we will use our freedom to wreak ever greater horror, and that when it comes to finding friends, creation will for God turn out to be a complete disaster. Willingness to take chances may be laudable in some cases, but to entrust an enterprise of this importance to the beneficence of our tribe must surely be deemed irresponsible.6

Orthodox Christians know that the divine project has in fact not failed, at least not com­pletely. Every day we venerate the blessed Theotokos; every day we invoke the saints and ask for their intercessions. At least some of our fellow human beings have made it to heaven. But if the libertarian is correct, matters might have turned out very differently and still might not turn out very well. Just ask the damned.

5237d321eff227a3a269b4fa8c3312fa.jpg~original.jpegHuman beings may have libertarian freedom, but apparently God does not. Like the gambler anx­iously waiting to hear which horse won the race at Pimlico, he is condemned to await the results of his creatio ex nihilo wager. Nor does the appeal to divine fore­knowl­edge help the situation. The attri­bute of eter­nity gets in the way. Boethius, for exam­ple, resolved the problem of divine omniscience and creaturely freedom by positing God’s timeless observation of past, present, and future. All that has happened and will happen is available to his gaze in an eternal now. His knowledge of temporal reality is given to him in direct experience. He does not see events before they happen; he sees them as they are happening in simultaneous appre­hension. In this way the freedom of human beings is secured. If the divine fore­knowl­edge were quite literally foreknowledge, then we would be fated to do whatever God foresaw us doing. Our destinies would then be as predetermined as the destinies of the ancient pagans living under the dominion of the Moirai. Prevision implies necessity and fate. But because God’s vantage point is outside of time, he sees our doings at the moment they are accomplished, and thus our freedom is preserved. Whatever we have done, whatever we are doing, what­ever we will do, we might have done otherwise.

The Boethian construal of divine omniscience, however, does nothing to secure God’s prov­idential direction of history. As a passive observer, the Creator remains helpless before the freedom he has granted human beings. He stands on the mountain top and watches us live out our murder and treachery, but his location in eternity does not give him any advantage in effecting his providential ends. Consider the case of the nefarious Professor Smith. While visiting his disabled mother, he notices her handicapped parking hangtag lying on her dresser table. While she’s not looking, he slips it into his pocket. God sees this happen as it happens, but constrained both by his timeless perspective and the creaturely freedom he is self-sworn to preserve, he is unable to incorporate his knowledge of Smith’s misdeed into his plans.

In order to wield effective control over the course of history, God has to know as creator how the decisions and actions of creatures with libertarian free­dom will go. Only then can he arrange the progression of events in such a way to take full account of our behavior in achieving his ends. God may intend, for example, that Smith’s mother not be greatly inconvenienced by her disability, and so may be disposed to do something to compensate for Smith’s misdeed. If he is timeless, however, he cannot wait to see what Smith does and then react. Only a temporal God can do that. A timeless one must provide for this contingency “from eternity”: he must undo the damage as part of the one act in which he creates the entire universe—or perhaps we should say, as much of the universe as Smith’s freedom allows him to create. And it is hard to see how God can do this effectively if, as creator, he is in the dark as to what Smith will do. He could, of course, set up some insurance—say, by arranging for Mrs. Smith to have a spare parking permit. But he cannot, at least with any semblance of economy, insure against any and every rotten trick her son might come up with, not to mention the potential misdeeds of the thousands of other villains who could do her harm. Indeed, the countless opportunities free creatures have to exercise their freedom, the complexities of their possible interaction, and the immensely varied conse­quences of their actions might have would seem to offer next to no hope of successful prediction, thus leaving the Boethian God in a hopeless position from which to exercise meaningful providence over the world. Still less can we see how such a God would be able to do things like answer prayer, or empower his spokespersons to make accurate prophecies of any future event on which human agency might impinge. While the Boethian position does well with the problem of omniscience, then, its implications concerning God’s power and sovereignty are completely disappointing.7

But is God as impotent before the freedom of humanity as the free-will defense requires?

(26 December 2016; rev.)


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, chap. 3; also see “The Problem of Evil.”

[2] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 30; cf. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Ibid., p. 29.

[4] Hugh McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 79.

[5] Ibid., pp. 77-78.

[6] Ibid., p. 83.

[7] Ibid., pp. 81-82.

(Go to “The Impossible Worlds of Molinism”)

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Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 6

by John Stamps

Remember Los Angeles in Blade Runner? Industrial pollution has befouled the City of Angels. There is no more sunshine in LA, only nonstop acid rain. And the rain is cold, hard, and disgusting. That pretty much describes the third ring of the Inferno. Except I’d much rather live in the bleak, dystopian LA of Blade Runner than Dante’s Inferno.

At the third ring am I, where the rain falls
eternally, accursed, ponderous, cold —
changeless in rhythm, changeless in quality.
Thick knobs of hail, snow, water foul as ink
pour down forever through the gloomy air
and soak into the ground to make it stink.

This is the circle of Hell reserved for gluttony.1 It’s foul, disgusting rain pelts its miserable inhabitants endlessly into the ground. These poor souls will never be warm again.

Cerberus the fearsome three-headed dog-monster is the fitting guardian of this ring of the Inferno. In the Aeneid, Virgil distracted Cerberus by throwing honey-cakes into his ravenous mouths. By now, Virgil realizes Cerberus is simply a dog and dogs will gobble down anything. He picks up two big fistfuls of disgusting hellish muck and throws it into Cerberus’ mouth and they simply walk past.

Passing above the shadows in the press
of that thick rain; and fixed our soles upon
what seemed their persons, but was emptiness.
Each one of them, flat on the earth, lay prone,
until one jerked himself up to a sit
as soon as he perceived us passing by.

These poor souls will never be full again either. Their emptiness will never be satisfied. The punishment for their gluttony is they completely lack all substantiality and gravitas. The never-ending rain flattens them into the filthy muck. One poor soul—aptly nicknamed “Hog”—described why each person ends up in a different circle of the Inferno:

They dwell among the blackest souls below,
weighed to the pit by different faults.
Go far enough and you will find them all.
But when you have returned to the sweet world,
I beg, remember me to someone there.
I say no more, and no more will respond.

We never learn his real name. He’s just Ciacco, the Hog. No gluttons are listed by their real name. They’re just nameless, faceless fat slugs sunk into the slime and sludge.

Ostensibly Canto 6 is about gluttony. But in reality, it’s all about love. Love is deeply connected to our appetites. We’re human after all. When we declare we love coffee, we love pizza, we love chocolate ice cream, we speak truthfully. Pee Wee Herman’s stock reply to all such claims was, “If you love pizza so much, why don’t you marry it?” But the point is, we are married to our appetites. Pitiful Ciacco was unlawfully wedded to pigging out on spaghetti alla puttanesca and swilling too many flagons of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Our appetites can horribly disfigure our loves out of all possible recognition. We become weighed down by what we love.

Dante and the 14th century medievals lived in a very different thought world than the 21st century California. Seven hundred years ago, gluttony was a well-established mortal sin in medieval Florence and throughout Christendom. Gluttony was still a deadly sin in 18th century Puritan New England. I’d be hard-pressed to say when exactly gluttony stopped being a deadly sin. In all such theological matters, I defer to C.S. Lewis, or in this case, Screwtape. Screwtape scolds his obdurate nephew Wormwood:

The contemptuous way in which you spoke of gluttony as a means of catching souls, in your last letter, only shows your ignorance. One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled about it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess.2

The sin of gluttony is only one of the major differences between us moderns and the medievals of long ago. The medievals deeply feared how deadly vices like pride, greed, lust, envy, wrath, sloth, and yes, gluttony would corrupt their city. The Seven Deadly Sins do not just injure the individual; they injure the polis. We’ll see repeatedly in The Inferno how Dante and the citizens of the various rings of Hell ask each other how Florence is doing. Dante wants to know if Ciacco knows something he doesn’t about the city they both love:

Ciacco, your distress
weighs on my heart and summons me to tears.
But tell me, if you know, where they will end,
our party-riven city and its people.
Have we a single man of justice there?
Say why such discord has assailed the town.

The connection between the deeds of the individual and the well-being of the polis has a long and distinguished philosophical pedigree, going back at least as far as Plato’s Republic. We cannot separate questions of individual virtue and the common good of the city. For complicated reasons, we moderns have severed the connection between the virtue of individuals and the well-being of our communities. The moral shaping of individuals no longer matters to the cities we inhabit. But if we have ears to hear, Dante warns us that the very same vices that misshape our bodies ultimately will misshape our communities. The habits of our heart—and our stomach—really do matter in the cities we live in. Our souls and bodies need training to feel pleasure at the right things at the right time in the right way. Quite rightly, the church encourages us to discipline our appetites by regular fasting so that we can properly love both God and our neighbor. “The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days” (Luke 5:35). The ordo amoris, the right ordering of our loves, applies just as much to our bellies as to our very naughty bits, per Monty Python.

At the end of this canto Virgil and Dante encounter Plutus, the god of wealth. In Canto 7, we descend into the fourth and fifth rings of the Inferno, where dwell the avaricious and the wrathful.

P.S. Watch the Inferno, Canto 6 video by Brian Williams from 100 Days of Dante. It’s excellent.


[1] Wikipedia offers a reasonably useful definition of gluttony. “Gluttony (Latin: gula, derived from the Latin gluttire meaning “to gulp down or swallow”) means over-indulgence and over-consumption of food, drink, or wealth items, particularly as status symbols.”
[2] Screwtape’s entire letter about gluttony is worth reading and pondering.

(Go to Canto 7)

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“What husband but our Lord ever died for his wife, and what bride ever chose a crucified man as her husband?”

In his mysterious plans the Father had destined a bride for his only Son and presented her to him under the guise of prophetic images. Moses appeared and with deft hand sketched a picture of bridegroom and bride but immediately drew a veil over it. In his book he wrote that a man should leave father and mother so as to be joined to his wife, that the two might in very truth become one. The prophet Moses spoke of man and woman in this way in order to foretell Christ and his Church. With a prophet’s penetrating gaze he contemplated Christ becoming one with the Church through the mystery of water. He saw Christ even from the Virgin’s womb drawing the Church to himself, and the Church in the water of baptism drawing Christ to herself. Bridegroom and bride were thus wholly united in a mystical manner, which is why Moses wrote that the two should become one. With veiled face Moses contemplated Christ and the Church: the one he called “man” and the other “woman” so as not to reveal the full splendor of the reality.

After the marriage celebration came Paul. He saw the veil covering their splendor and lifted it, revealing Christ and his Church to the whole world, and showing that it was they whom Moses had described in his prophetic vision. In an outburst of inspired joy the apostle exclaimed: This is a great mystery! He revealed the meaning of the veiled picture the prophet had called man and woman, declaring: “I know that it is Christ and his Church,” who were two before but have now become one.

Wives are not united to their husbands as closely as the Church is to the Son of God. What husband but our Lord ever died for his wife, and what bride ever chose a crucified man as her husband? Who ever gave his blood as a gift to his wife except the one who died on the cross and sealed the marriage bond with his wounds? Who was ever seen lying dead at his own wedding banquet with his wife at his side seeking to console herself by embracing him? At what other celebration, at what other feast is the bridegroom’s body distributed to the guests in the form of bread?

Death separates wives from their husbands, but in this case it is death that unites the bride to her beloved. He died on the cross, bequeathed his body to his glorious spouse, and now every day she receives and consumes it at his table. She consumes it under the form of bread, and under the form of the wine that she drinks, so that the whole world may know that they are no longer two but one.

St Jacob of Serugh

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Larger, Wider, or Greater Hope?

In the 19th century. universal salvation was commonly referred to (at least by universalists) as the “larger hope” and less commonly (so I surmise) as the “wider hope.”

Seven or eight years ago I took to speaking of universal salvation as the “greater hope.” I do not recall if I read the phrase somewhere or whether my brain creatively trans­posed “larger” into “greater.”

While I’m tempted to conform my personal usage to the “larger” and “wider” usage, my personal attachment to the “greater” seems to be greater. Old habits are hard to break.

Which one are you—a larger, wider, or greater hoper?

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Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 5

by John Stamps

Today in Canto 5 we actually step into Hell. No loitering in a castle garden engaged in quiet conversation with the virtuous damned. The second circle of Hell is The Infernal Real Deal.

The best part of the Inferno are the monsters we meet. If you remember your Harry Potter, one of my favorite characters is the Sorting Hat. It examines you and decides what Hogwart house you belong in—Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or (gulp) Slytherin.1 Minos is the sorting house of the Inferno. But there are no fun and games about Minos:

Horrible Minos grunts there like a bull,
weighs all the sins and sends the wicked down
according to how far he winds his tail.

If you didn’t willingly confess your sins to your priest on earth, you unwillingly end up confessing them to Minos, “the sin-connoisseur.” If Minos winds his tail around himself two times like some grotesque belt, you end up where we are now—the second circle, reserved for the lustful. If he belts himself three times, you’re headed into the circle of hell reserved for gluttons. And so it goes.2

Why are people condemned to the different circles in Hell, where Minos has placed them? We can point to the obvious vices the damned have fallen into – here it’s lust, next it’s gluttony, then it’s avarice, and so on, deeper and deeper into the Inferno. But there’s one rather startling explanation behind their condemnation—“they have lost the good of intellect.” (Canto 3.18) For Dante and the medievals, intellect wasn’t mere computation. They would have a difficult time understanding our obsession with bits and bytes beyond any possible count, a bad infinity of ones and zeros. Reason isn’t the accumulation of yet more and more information. But once we step away from our laptops for a minute, you and I also realize reasoning is more than just IQ. As we’ve learned over recent months, some incredibly smart people can believe some pretty stupid things. Red-hot passions influence how we think. And they distort the results we come up with. And don’t get me started about ideology-driven thinking, or the lack of “thinking” thereof. There is such a thing as “emotional IQ.” A STEM major won’t guarantee that you see into the inner meaning of things. In fact if you weren’t careful, you might have excluded them at the outset.

Canto 5 explores what happens to us when love breaks bad. Dante explores how lust consumes us.3 I won’t speak about the female species of the human race. A little below, we’ll hear Francesca da Rimini’s self-serving confessions, or rather, the rationalizations4 of her adultery. But certainly we men all too often think with our penises. Cognition tainted by horniness is not a pretty sight.5 When we fail to control our desire by a properly-formed intellect, the results are Hell. We’ve stepped into the Inferno and we don’t even know it. Dante’s descent into the Inferno is actually our own journey into the depths of our hearts, to see what lurks hidden there:

And when they fall before the ruined slope,
ah then the shrieking, the limits, the cries!
Then they hurled curses at the power of God.
I learned that such a torment was designed
for the damned were wicked in the flesh,
who made the reason subject to desire.

When we’ve lost the good of the intellect, our hungers become insatiable but we are never filled. We’ve lost the proper ordering of our loves—what St Augustine calls the ordo amoris. C.S. Lewis describes the right kind of love as “the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.”6 The best education doesn’t just shape our minds, it forms what we love, or rather, what we ought to love. But you and I simply don’t think in the way that Aristotle, Dante, and Lewis think is the right way to think. Love always wins, no matter how you love, no matter whom you love, and no matter whom you injure by your impulsive choices.

The cast of characters who inhabit this circle of Hell are fascinating. They did what they willed—they did what they desired without any consideration of consequence—and ended up damned. Let’s start with Semiramis, the “whorish wife” of Ninus. Dante tells us, “she altered lust to just by her decree.” Tony Esolen’s translation captures the nuance of the Italian quite nicely. She transmogrified what is licit (“licito”) into what is desired (“libito”). Shades of Sigmund Freud!

Dante sees Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, Tristan—all condemned to Hell because their loves were disordered. But the star of Canto 5 is Francesca da Rimini. Her confession charms us as it charmed Dante. Of course the problem with her charm is it bypasses our intellect. We must be wary of her. She portrays her adulterous love for Paolo as a transcendent passion that justifies her adultery:

Love that flames soonest in the gentle heart…
Love, which allows no loved one not to love,
seized me with such a strong delight in him
that, as you see, it will not leave me yet.
Love led us to one death.

And clearly Dante is charmed by her and inquires further:

But tell me, in the season of sweet sighs,
how did it happen, what made Love give way
that you should know the truth of your desires?

But again, listen to the bald facts. We mustn’t let pity overtake our reason. Francesca and her handsome brother-in-law—yes, Paolo is her husband’s brother—are reading to each other the not-so-innocent story of Guinevere and Lancelot.

We were alone and innocent and felt
No cause to fear.

Wrong. They had every reason to fear. One not-so-innocent kiss led to another and another and finally they ended up in each other’s arms, naked and not ashamed, although they should have been.

And we read no more that day.

No, you did not. But you should have.

Her husband, the brave but crippled Giovanni Maletesta, caught them in flagrante delicto (their affair lasted ten years, not simply one night of regret) and ran them through with his sword. And thus Francesca and Paolo are love-bound together, for all eternity, two spirits tossed about like doves caught in a whirlwind. Their spirits are completely out of control, all because they let their passions run amok. Pleasure overtook reason in directing the will, as Jane Kim instructs us in her most excellent 100 Days of Dante video.

When you’ve lost the good of the intellect and reason has become the slave of the passions7—or if you’ve been tutored by David Hume that reason ought to be the slave of the passions—the consequences are always fatal, whether you see them or not.

But I will add this caveat: if you can hear the stories of these poor damned souls without pity, then something else is wrong with your intellect.

Canto 6 deals with everybody’s favorite vice—gluttony.



[1] I shamelessly pilfered this analogy from the 100 Days of Dante video.
[2] You might be asking yourself, as I did, why wasn’t Minos in the first circle of Hell? Because his belt didn’t fit. The citizens there had no sins.
[3] A bard almost as profound as Dante expresses the problem of unchecked desire this way:

Well, I’m hot blooded, check it and see
I got a fever of a hundred and three
Come on baby, do you do more than dance?
I’m hot blooded, I’m hot blooded.

[4] I do mean “rationalization” in the classic Freudian sense. That is, “rationalization is a defense mechanism in which controversial behaviors or feelings are justified and explained in a seemingly rational or logical manner in the absence of a true explanation, and are made consciously tolerable—or even admirable and superior—by plausible means.” That sums up Francesca in a nutshell.
[5] From the Urban Dictionary. Every time I consult it, I realize how hopelessly out of touch I am.
[6] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.
[7] Good God, what was David Hume thinking in his Treatise of Human Nature? (II.3.3) Yet nothing describes better the intellectual furniture of modern men and women.

Posted in Dante, John Stamps | 2 Comments

Immaculate Virgin: Postdestined Before the Ages

“Most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary.” Panagia, Achrantos, Theotokos, Aeiparthenos—the titles abound, not only in the private prayers of Eastern Orthodox Christians but in the public liturgies and offices. A prayer to the Theotokos in Small Compline begins with these words: “O spotless, unde­filed, incorrupt, immaculate, pure Virgin, Lady Bride of Christ.” In the Divine Liturgy, after the solemn consecration of the Holy Gifts, we sing the Axion Estin:

It is truly meet and right to bless you, O Theotokos,
Ever-blessed and most-pure mother of our God.
More honourable than the Cherubim,
And beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim,
Who without corruption gave birth to God the Word,
True Theotokos: we magnify you.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is first among the saints, the most holy and pure, beloved by God above all creatures. Her icon is prominently located to the immediate left of the Royal Doors. The original Akathist Hymn, composed by St Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century, is devoted to her. Mary is the Mother of God and Mother of the Church. Many of the Eastern liturgies conclude with words of supplication to her: “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

A profound veneration of the Panagia unites Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers, yet in the eyes of most Orthodox this common faith was tragically broken in 1854 by Pope Pius IX’s papal bull Ineffabilis Deus:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

Must this dogma divide the Churches? John Panteleimon Manoussakis, Orthodox monk and philosopher, thinks not. Whatever concerns we might have about the specific formu­la­tion of the Latin dogma (what does the “stain of original sin” really mean? to what extent does the definition require an Augustinian understanding of original sin?), he believes that a crucial truth is hidden in it.

Is the Virgin Mary without sin or not?with this question Manoussakis moves the discussion beyond East/West polemics and returns us to the depths of the Church’s devotional faith. We cannot, of course, prove the Virgin’s life-long sinlessness by a plain reading of Scripture. Though the maiden is hailed by the angel as “full of grace,” the declaration does not guarantee her sinlessness, either before or after the Annunciation. Nor can the question be settled by appeal to the Church Fathers; their testimony is divided: St Basil the Great suggested that the Blessed Virgin doubted when she heard the prophecy of Simeon, St John Chrysostom thought that at the wedding at Cana she may have displayed vanity and pride, St Cyril of Alexandria conjec­tured that at the foot of the cross she may have entertained the possibility that Jesus had been deceived about his divine identity and mission. Yet there are many more patristic voices that speak of the immaculate holiness of the Theotokos, and in these voices the Church catholic came to recognize her voice. As Vladimir Lossky writes:

The Church’s unlimited veneration of the Mother of God which, viewed externally, might seem to be in contradiction with the scriptural data, is spread far and wide in the Tradition of the Church and is the most precious fruit of Tradition. But it is not only the fruit of Tradition; it is also the germ and the stem of Tradition. We can find a definite relationship between the person of the Mother of God and what we call the Tradition of the Church.1

From the depths of her liturgical and mystical experience, the Orthodox Church acclaims the luminous righteousness of the Panagia, the New Eve and Mother of the inhominated God. Manoussakis writes:

Is the Virgin Mary without sin or not? The doctrine that proclaims that the mother of God was sanctified at her conception comes to declare simply what every Christian, Orthodox or Catholic, has always believed about the person of the Theotokos, namely, that in her we find the most perfect human being—better yet, in her we see the true nature of a human person, a nature unaf­flicted by any sin, including the original sin. . . . The person of the Theotokos, affirmed as free from every sin, becomes an affirmation of humanity’s original capacity to be without sin, or at least it assures us that we could have been without sin; it reveals to us that sin, contrary to our experience, is not necessary. It is this and nothing more that the doctrine of the immaculate conception declares. And it declares it in unity and har­mony with the other great Marian feast, that of the Dor­mition or the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. How to explain what Christians have celebrated since at least the fifth century, that is, that Mary, even though she dies, is not dead; that her body does not see corruption but, together with her soul, experiences already the eschatological blessedness? How to explain all this without recourse to the exceptional and singular grace that the Virgin Mary received as the Mother of God? In the feast of the Dormi­tion—perhaps the most popular feast in the hearts of the Orthodox—we find the key to how the Orthodox could accept doctrinally what they already confess liturgically, namely, the sinless nature of the Mother of God.2

Clarification: when Manoussakis refers to “original sin,” he is thinking of the propensity to evil that we all share and from which Mary was, by the prevenient action of God, protect­ed. But this is not to say that she did not experience temptation; rather, she conquered it by her cooperation with divine grace.

In response to the papal promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Ortho­­dox theologians have asserted the Annunciation as the moment of Mary’s sancti­fi­cation and rebirth in the Spirit. Patriarch Bartholomew explained this position in a 2004 interview:

The Catholic Church found that it needed to institute a new dogma for Christendom about one thousand and eight hundred years after the appearance of the Christianity, because it had accepted a perception of original sin—a mistaken one for us Orthodox—accord­ing to which original sin passes on a moral stain or a legal responsibility to the descendants of Adam, instead of that recognized as correct by the Orthodox faith—according to which the sin transmitted through inheritance the corruption, caused by the separation of mankind from the uncreated grace of God, which makes him live spiritually and in the flesh. Mankind shaped in the image of God, with the possibility and destiny of being like to God, by freely choosing love towards Him and obedience to His commandments, can even after the fall of Adam and Eve become friend of God according to intention; then God sancti­fies them, as He sanctified many of the progenitors before Christ, even if the accomplishment of their ransom from corruption, that is their salvation, was achieved after the incarnation of Christ and through Him.

In consequence, according to the Orthodox faith, Mary the All-Holy Mother of God was not conceived exempt from the corruption of original sin, but loved God above all things and obeyed his commandments, and thus was sanctified by God through Jesus Christ who incarnated Himself of her. She obeyed Him like one of the faithful, and addressed herself to Him with a Mother’s trust. Her holiness and purity were not blemished by the corrup­tion, handed on to her by original sin as to every man, precisely because she was reborn in Christ like all the saints, sanctified above every saint.

Her reinstatement in the condition prior to the Fall did not necessarily take place at the moment of her conception. We believe that it happened after­wards, as consequence of the progress in her of the action of the uncreated divine grace through the visit of the Holy Spirit, which brought about the conception of the Lord within her, purifying her from every stain.

Catholic theologians will probably dispute the Ecumenical Patriarch’s description of the Latin under­standing of original sin,3 but I have my own questions for His All Holiness:

  • Was Mary ever an unregenerate sinner under the dominion of Satan?
  • Was she ever a prisoner of the passions?
  • Did she ever experience the darkening of the nous?

Even posing these questions feels blasphemous. The logic of ancestral sin would seem to drive us to affirm the sinfulness of Mary, yet Orthodox piety resists the logic.

Clearly Mary experienced what the Fathers referred to as the blameless passions—hunger, weariness, grief, pain. She lived under the conditions of the fallen world. She suffered and she died. Thus Lossky:

From St. Justin and St. Irenaeus onwards, the Fathers often have drawn attention to the contrast between the “two virgins,” Eve and Mary. By the disobedience of the first, death entered into humanity. By the obedience of the “second Eve,” the author of life became man and entered into the family of Adam. But between the two Eves lies all the history of the Old Testament, the past from which she who has become the Mother of God cannot be divi­ded. If she was chosen to take a unique part in the work of the Incarnation, that choice followed and concluded a whole series of other chosen ones who pre­pared the way for it. It is not for nothing that the Orthodox Church, in her liturgical texts, calls David “the ancestor of God” and gives the same name of “holy and righteous ancestors of God” to Joachim and Anna. The Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception seems to break up this unin­terrupted succession of Old Testament holiness, which reaches its fulfillment at the moment of the Annunciation, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the Virgin to make her fit to receive the Word of the Father in her womb. The Orthodox Church does not admit the idea that the Holy Virgin was thus exempted from the lot of the rest of fallen humanity—the idea of a “privilege” which makes her into a being ransomed before the redemptive work, by vir­tue of the future merits of her Son. It is not by virtue of a privilege received at the moment of her conception by her parents that we venerate the Mother of God more than any other created being. She was holy and pure from all sin from her mother’s womb, but still this holiness does not place her outside the rest of humanity before Christ. She was not, at the moment of the Annuncia­tion, in a state analogous to that of Eve before the Fall. The first Eve, “the mother of all living,” lent her ear to the words of the seducer in the state of paradise, in the state of innocent humanity. The second Eve—she who was chosen to become the Mother of God—heard and understood the angelic word in the state of fallen humanity. That is why this unique election does not sepa­rate her from the rest of humanity, from all her fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, whether saints or sinners, whose best part she represents.

Like other human beings, such as St. John the Baptist, whose conception and birth are also feasts of the Church, the Holy Virgin was born under the law of original sin, sharing with all the same common responsibility for the Fall. But sin never could become actual in her person; the sinful heritage of the Fall had no mastery over her right will. Here was the highest point of holiness that could be attained before Christ, in the conditions of the Old Covenant, by one of Adam’s seed. She was without sin under the universal sovereignty of sin, pure from every seduction in the midst of a humanity enslaved by the prince of this world. She was not placed above history in order to serve a special divine decree but realized her unique vocation while in the chains of history, sharing the common destiny of all men awaiting salvation. And yet, if in the person of the Mother of God we see the summit of Old Testament holiness, her own holiness is not limited thereby, for she equally surpassed the highest summits of the New Covenant, realizing the greatest holiness which the Church<sup can attain.4

Lossky is walking a fine line. He wants to insist upon the solidaric unity both between Mary and Israel and Mary and fallen humanity, while also claiming that “sin never could become actual in her person.” The Virgin is the summit of Old Testament holiness, yet in her theosis she also transcends it. The conception of God within her womb is her Pentecost, yet her prepurification in the Spirit begins in the womb of Anna.5

Would Manoussakis disagree with Lossky? I do not know. I’m not even sure if Roman Catholic theologians would disagree with him. Lossky dissents from the Latin doctrine of the Immac­ulate Conception because he believes it distances the Blessed Virgin from Israel; yet her exceptionality still needs to be explained, as she, and she alone, was found worthy to be the Birthgiver of the eternal Son. In the words of St Jacob of Sarug:

Our Lord descending to earth beheld all women; He chose one for himself who among them all was pleasing.

He searched her and found humility and holiness in her, and limpid impulses and a soul desirous of divinity.

And a pure heart and every reckoning of perfection, because of this He chose her, the pure and most fair one.

He descended from his place and dwelt within the glorious one among women, because for her there was not a companion comparable to her in the world.

She alone is humble, pure, limpid and without blemish, so that she was deemed worthy to be his mother and not another.6

How is it that of all the daughters of Israel, Mary alone was worthy to become the Mother of God? Whence her existential freedom from the power of sin? Eve fell from grace in Eden, yet Mary lived the entirety of her life in perfect communion with God in a world oppressed by evil and death. Neither Patriarch Bartholomew nor Vladimir Lossky offers a satisfactory explanation.

Manoussakis finds the solution in the wonderful homily of St John of Damascus, “On the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos.” When I read this homily, I was struck by the profound union between the Virgin and Jesus. John cannot speak of Mary without immediately speaking of the uncreated Deity whom she bore in her womb, and he cannot speak of the incarnate Christ without immediately praising the holiness of the woman who was found worthy to receive into her the eternal Word. It is as if the mother participates in the immaculate sanctity of her son even before he was conceived within her womb.

Mary was not an accidental product of history, nor is her motherhood accidental to her identity. In that timeless moment when God determined to become Jesus of Nazareth, he predestined Mary to be Theotokos. She is eternally the Immaculate Virgin and Mother of God:

O ever-virginal little daughter who needed no man to conceive! He who has an eternal Father was borne in the womb by you! O earth-born little daugh­ter who carried the Creator in your God-bearing arms! The ages compet­ed as to which one would be exalted by your birth, but God’s will, which had been determined beforehand, defeated the compe­ti­tion of the ages—God having created the ages [in any case]—and the last became first and were in happy possession of your nativity. Truly you became more precious than the whole of crea­tion. For from you alone the Maker received a share, [that is], the first-fruit of our dough. For his flesh is from your flesh, and his blood is from your blood, and God suckled milk from your breasts, and your lips were united with the lips of God. O incomprehensible and ineffable matters! The God of all things, having known in advance your worth, loved you; and because of this love, he predestined you, and “at the end of times” (1 Pet 1:20) he brought you into being and revealed you as Theotokos, Mother, and Nurse of his own Son and Word.7

The sanctity of the Panagia must ultimately be traced back to her election by God before the ages. Predestina­tion raises for the Ortho­dox all sorts of Augustinian flags, yet it cannot be helped. There is no resolving the mystery of divine agency and human freedom (though it would probably help if we junked the “pre-” and “fore-” prefixes). The entirety of Mary’s life is grounded in the eternal plan of the Creator. That is the point of the pre­desti­nar­ian lan­guage. The election of Mary was not a matter of God surveying, in Molinist fashion, all pos­sible-world scenarios and discovering the one lucky woman willing and able to per­fectly sub­mit to the divine will. Eastern con­stru­­als of divine predes­tina­tion in terms of divine fore­knowledge often veer dangerously close to a Pelagian synergism.8 Yet neither may we think of the divine fore­ordination as in any way vio­lat­ing Mary’s freedom. With St Nicholas Ca­bas­ilas we must insist that she freely coop­er­ated with the Holy Trinity, thereby making possible the enfleshment of God:

The Incarnation of the Word was not only the work of the Father, of his Power [the Son], and of his Spirit—the first consenting, the second descend­ing, the third overshadowing—but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin. Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh that she consciously wills to offer him. Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent.9

The critical point: when God eternally wills the Incarnation, he simultaneously wills as his mother the holy daughter of Sts Joachim and Anna. The sanctity of the Theotokos both flows from her divine election and is its precondition. Manoussakis emphasizes the former:

The Damascene’s laudation expresses clearly that God did not choose Mary because she was holy—for grace would not have been grace anymore—but rather she is made holy because she was chosen to become the Mother of God. It is also expressly stated that Mary’s sanctification did not take place later in her life, neither at the foot of the cross nor by the greeting of the angel, but she was sanctified by God when God preordained the mystery of the human­ization of the Logos: before all ages.10

But does assertion of predestinating grace imply that Mary does not need the salvation of Christ? In the 13th century Duns Scotus famously argued that by his atoning sacrifice on the Cross, Christ “merited to take away this most heavy penalty [of original sin] from his Most Blessed Mother.” Ahead of time, as it were, Mary is redeemed from sin by her son, the incarnate Son. Manoussakis advances an analogous explanation, with an eschatolog­ical twist. Note how the Damascene puts it:

The ages competed as to which one would be exalted by your birth, but God’s will, which had been determined beforehand, defeated the compe­ti­tion of the ages—God having created the ages [in any case]—and the last became first and were in happy possession of your nativity.

Mary belongs not to the old age but to the Eschaton. Manoussakis calls her an “eschatological person.” The Panagia, we might say, is the first born of “the first born of creation” (Col 1:15):

Mary gives birth to Christ, but in another, more profound sense, it is Christ who “gives birth” to Mary and, through her, to all humanity. The concept of prevenient grace implies that God’s grace is not restricted by time, or at least by our conception of forward-moving time. Eschatologically speaking, an event of the past can be caused by what happens in the present, or even by what has not yet taken place. It is this paradox that the Fourth Gospel expressed in the formula “the hour is coming is now here” (John 4:23; 5:25). Christian eschatology has indeed such a retroactive effect. Is not, for exam­ple, the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mt. Tabor the prolepetic enactment in the “already” of that which, for us, is “not yet”? Is it not the Lord’s resurrec­tion the result as much as the adumbration of the common resurrection at the end of times. In the Virgin’s birth, as well in her death, we see the light of the end of times breaking into history and transforming its categories.11

Perhaps we might even say that from the future of his Kingdom, the risen and glorified Son eternally ordains Mary to be his immaculate Mother. Pre-destination becomes post-destination. We are confronted with a mystery we can neither fathom nor adequately state. In the end we rest upon the simple words of St Gregory Palamas: “God predestined Her before the ages for the salvation and reclaiming of our kind.”

(20 September 2015; rev.)



[1] Vladimir Lossky, “Panagia,” In the Image and Likeness of God, pp. 198-199.

[2] John Panteleimon Manoussakis, “Mary’s Exception,” For the Unity of All, pp. 5-6.

[3] See my article “The Ecumenical Stain of Original Sin.”

[4] Lossky, pp. 203-204; also see Virginia Kimball, “Orthodox Tradition and Mary.”

[5] On the prepurification of the Theotokos, see “Mary Prokatharthesa.”

[6] Jacob of Serug, Hom. I.620, in On the Mother of God (2011).

[7] John of Damascus, Sermo in Navitatem 7, in Wider Than Heaven (2008).

[8] See “Divine Agency and Human Free­dom.”

[9] Quoted in Kallistos Ware, “Beyond All Holiness,” p. 5.

[10] Manoussakis, p. 11; cf. Edward T. Oakes, “Sola Gratia and Mary’s Immaculate Conception,” First Things (Nov. 2007) and “Predestination and Mary’s Immaculate Conception,Pro Ecclesia 21 (2012): 281-298.

[11] Manoussakis, p. 13; also see Manoussakis, “The Anarchic Principle of Christian Eschatology,” Harvard Theological Review 100 (2007): 29-46.

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