Archive for the ‘David B. Hart’ Category

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On God and god 2 – David Bentley Hart

October 3, 2013
By giving the name "God" to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could someday genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems. The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.

By giving the name “God” to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could someday genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems. The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator. He has taught at the University of Virginia, Duke Divinity School, and Providence College (RI).  A selection from his book The Experience of God from Yale University Press.

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At a trivial level, one sees the confusion in some of the more shopworn witticisms of popular atheism: “I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden,” for instance, or `All people are atheists in regard to Zeus, Wotan, and most other gods; I simply disbelieve in one god more.” Once, in an age long since vanished in the mists of legend, those might even have been amusing remarks, eliciting sincere rather than merely liturgical laughter; but, even so, all they have ever demonstrated is a deplorable ignorance of elementary conceptual categories.

If one truly imagines these are all comparable kinds of intellectual conviction then one is clearly confused about what is at issue. Beliefs regarding fairies are beliefs about a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional shape and rational content as beliefs regarding one’s neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all.

Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same conceptual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found. We can, if nothing else, disabuse ourselves of belief in certain gods by simple empirical methods; we know now, for example, that the sun is not a god named Tonatiuh, at least not one who must be nourished daily on human blood lest he cease to shine, because we have withheld his meals for centuries now without calamity.

God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for either photons or (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or sacramental or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principles; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him, or at least find out his address.

The question of God, by contrast, is one that can and must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, potency and act, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. Evidence for or against the existence of Thor or King Oberon would consist only in local facts, not universal truths of reason; it would be entirely empirical, episodic, psychological, personal, and hence elusive. Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

Now, manifestly, one should not judge an intellectual movement by its jokes (even if one suspects that there is little more to it than its jokes). But exactly the same confusion shows itself in the arguments that many contemporary atheists make in earnest: For instance, “If God made the world, then who made God?” Or the famous dilemma drawn, in badly garbled form, from Plato’s Euthyphro, “Does God command a thing because it is good, or is it good because God commands it?”

I address both questions below (in my third and fifth chapters, respectively), so I shall not do so here. I shall, however, note that not only do these questions not pose deep quandaries for believers or insuperable difficulties for a coherent concept of God; they are not even relevant to the issue. And, until one really understands why this is so, one has not yet begun to talk about God at all. One is talking merely about some very distinguished and influential gentleman or lady named “God,” or about some discrete object that can be situated within a class of objects called “gods” (even if it should turn out that there happens to be only one occupant of that class).

As it happens, the god with whom most modern popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge” (demiourgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but that came to mean a particular kind of divine “world-maker” or cosmic craftsman. In Plato’s Timaeus, the demiurge is a benevolent intermediary between the realm of eternal forms and the realm of mutability; he looks to the ideal universe -the eternal paradigm of the cosmos -and then fashions lower reality in as close a conformity to the higher as the intractable resources of material nature allow.

He is, therefore, not the source of the existence of all things but rather only the Intelligent Designer and causal agent of the world of space and time, working upon materials that lie outside and below him, under the guidance of divine principles that lie outside and above him. He is an immensely wise and powerful being, but he is also finite and dependent upon a larger reality of which he is only a part. Later Platonism interpreted the demiurge in a variety of ways, and in various schools of Gnosticism in late antiquity he reappeared as an incompetent or malevolent cosmic despot, either ignorant or jealous of the true God beyond this cosmos; but none of that is important here.

Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo. And he is a god who made the universe “back then,” at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God.

And the same is true of all the other new atheists as far as I can tell. To be fair to all sides, however, I should also point out that the demiurge has had some fairly vociferous champions over the past few centuries, and at the moment seems to be enjoying a small resurgence in popularity. His first great modern revival came in the Deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a movement whose adherents were impatient with the metaphysical “obscurities” and doctrinal “absurdities” of traditional religion, and who preferred to think of God as some very powerful spiritual individual who designed and fabricated the universe at the beginning of things, much as a watchmaker might design and fabricate a watch and then set it running.

In David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion this is the view of God advanced by Cleanthes and then elegantly dismantled by Philo (the traditional metaphysical and theological view of God is represented by Demea, though not very well, and against him Philo marshals an altogether different -and much weaker -set of arguments). And, while Deism had more or less died out before Darwin’s day, the philosophical support, has never entirely lost its charm for some.

The recent Intelligent Design movement represents the demiurge’s boldest adventure in some considerable time. I know that it is fashionable to heap abuse upon this movement, and that is not my intention here. After all, if one looks at the extraordinary cornplexity of nature and then interprets it as a sign of superhuman intelligence, one is doing something perfectly defensible; even some atheists have done as much (the brilliant and eccentric Fred Hoyle being a notable example).

Moreover, if one already believes in God, it makes perfect sense to see, say, the ever more extraordinary discoveries of molecular biology, or the problem of protein folding, or the incredible statistical improbabilities of a whole host of cosmological conditions (and so on) as bearing witness to something miraculous and profoundly rational in the order of nature, and to ascribe these wonders to God.

But, however compelling the evidence may seem, one really ought not to reverse the order of discovery here and attempt to deduce or define God from the supposed evidence of design in nature. As either a scientific or a philosophical project, Intelligent Design theory is a deeply problematic undertaking; and, from a theological or metaphysical perspective, it is a massive distraction.

To begin with, much of the early literature of this movement concerned instances of supposedly “irreducible complexity” in the biological world, and from these developed an argument for some sort of intelligent agency at work in the process of evolution. That would, of course, be a fascinating discovery if it could be shown to be true; but I do not see how in principle one ever could conclusively demonstrate such a thing. It could never be more than an argument from probability, because one cannot prove that any organism, however intricate, could not have been produced by some unguided phylogenic history.

Probability is a powerful thing, of course, but notoriously difficult to measure in the realm of biology’s complex systems of interdependence, or over intervals of time as vast as distinct geological epochs. And it would be quite embarrassing to propose this or that organism or part of an organism as a specimen of an irreducibly complex biological mechanism, only for it to emerge later that many of its components had been found in a more primitive form in some other biological mechanism, serving another purpose.

Even if all this were not so, however, seen in the light of traditional theology the argument from irreducible complexity looks irredeemably defective, because it depends on the existence of causal discontinuities in the order of nature, “gaps” where natural causality proves inadequate. But all the classical theological arguments regarding the order of the world assume just the opposite: that God’s creative power can be seen in the rational coherence of nature as a perfect whole; that the universe was not simply the factitious product of a supreme intellect but the unfolding of an omnipresent divine wisdom or logos.

For Thomas Aquinas, for instance, God creates the order of nature by infusing the things of the universe with the wonderful power of moving of themselves toward determinate ends; he uses the analogy of a shipwright able to endow timbers with the power to develop into a ship without external intervention. According to the classical arguments, universal rational order — not just this or that particular instance of complexity — is what speaks of the divine mind: a cosmic harmony as resplendently evident in the simplicity of a raindrop as in the molecular labyrinths of a living cell.

After all, there may be innumerable finite causes of complexity, but a good argument can be made that only a single infinite cause can account for perfect, universal, intelligible, mathematically describable order. If, however, one could really show that there were interruptions in that order, places where the adventitious intrusions of an organizing hand were needed to correct this or that part of the process, that might well suggest some deficiency in the fabric of creation.

It might suggest that the universe was the work of a very powerful, but also somewhat limited, designer. It certainly would not show that the universe is the creature of an omnipotent wisdom, or an immediate manifestation of the God who is the being of all things. Frankly, the total absence of a single instance of irreducible complexity would be a far more forceful argument in favor of God’s rational action in creation.

As for theistic claims drawn from the astonishing array of improbable cosmological conditions that hold our universe together, including the cosmological constant itself, or from the mathematical razor’s edge upon which all of it is so exquisitely balanced, these rest upon a number of deeply evocative arguments, and those who dismiss them casually are probably guilty of a certain intellectual dishonesty. Certainly all of the cosmos’s exquisitely fine calibrations and consonances and exactitudes should speak powerfully to anyone who believes in a transcendent creator, and they might even have the power to make a reflective unbeliever curious about supernatural explanations.

But, in the end, such arguments also remain only probabilistic, and anyone predisposed to explain them away will find plentiful ways of doing so: perhaps the extravagant hypothesis that there are vastly many universes generated by quantum fluctuations, of the sort Stephen Hawking has recently said does away with any role for God in the origin of the universe, or perhaps the even more extravagant hypothesis that every possible universe must be actual (the former hypothesis reduces the odds considerably, and the latter does away with odds altogether). But in a sense none of this really matters, because ultimately none of these arguments has much to do with God in the first place.

This is obvious if one considers the terms in which they are couched. Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. He clearly thinks that talk of God’s creation of the universe concerns some event that occurred at some particular point in the past, prosecuted by some being who appears to occupy the shadowy juncture between a larger quantum landscape and the specific conditions of our current cosmic order; by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe, whose job was to nail together all the boards and firmly mortar all the bricks of our current cosmic edifice.

So Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary if there were some prior set of laws — just out there, so to speak, happily floating along on the wave-functions of the quantum vacuum — that would permit the spontaneous generation of any and all universes. It never crosses his mind that the question of creation might concern the very possibility of existence as such, not only of this universe but of all the laws and physical conditions that produced it, or that the concept of God might concern a reality not temporally prior to this or that world, but logically and necessarily prior to all worlds, all physical laws, all quantum events, and even all possibilities of laws and events.

From the perspective of classical metaphysics, Hawking misses the whole point of talk of creation: God would be just as necessary even if all that existed were a collection of physical laws and quantum states, from which no ordered universe had ever arisen; for neither those laws nor those states could exist of themselves. But — and here is the crucial issue — those who argue for the existence of God principally from some feature or other of apparent cosmic design are guilty of the same conceptual confusion; they make a claim like Hawking’s seem solvent, or at least relevant, because they themselves have not advanced beyond the demiurgic picture of God.

By giving the name “God” to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could someday genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems.

The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.

Anyway, at this point I shall largely leave the new atheists, fundamentalists of every adherence, and Intelligent Design theorists all to their own devices, and perhaps to one another, and wish them all well, and hope that they do not waste too much time chasing after one another in circles. If I mention them below, it will be only to make a point in passing. From here onward, it is God — not gods, not the demiurge — of whom I wish to speak.

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On God and god 1 – David Bentley Hart

October 2, 2013
Yet the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God -especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.

Yet the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God -especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator. He has taught at the University of Virginia, Duke Divinity School, and Providence College (RI). A selection from his book The Experience of God from Yale University Press.

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There are two senses in which the word “God” or “god” can properly be used. Most modern languages generally distinguish between the two usages as I have done here, by writing only one of them with an uppercase first letter, as though it were a proper name -which it is not.

Most of us understand that “God” (or its equivalent) means the one God who is the source of all things, whereas “god” (or its equivalent) indicates one or another of a plurality of divine beings who inhabit the cosmos and reign over its various regions. This is not, however, merely a distinction in numbering, between monotheism and polytheism, as though the issue were merely that of determining how many “divine entities” one happens to think there are.

It is a distinction, instead, between two entirely different kinds of reality, belonging to two entirely disparate conceptual orders. In fact, the very division between monotheism and polytheism is in many cases a confusion of categories.

Several of the religious cultures that we sometimes inaccurately characterize as “polytheistic” have traditionally insisted upon an absolute differentiation between the one transcendent Godhead from whom all being flows and the various “divine” beings who indwell and govern the heavens and the earth. Only the one God, says Swami Prabhavananda, speaking more or less for the whole of developed Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, is “the uncreated”: “gods, though supernatural, belong … among the creatures. Like the Christian angels, they are much nearer to man than to God.”

Conversely, many creeds we correctly speak of as “monotheistic” embrace the very same distinction. The Adi Granth of the Sikhs, for instance, describes the One God as the creator of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. In truth, Prabhavananda’s comparison of the gods of India to Christianity’s angels is more apt than many modern Christians may realize.

Late Hellenistic pagan thought often tended to draw a clear demarcation between the one transcendent God (or, in Greek, ho theos, God with the definite article) and any particular or local god (any mere “inarticular” theos) who might superintend this or that people or nation or aspect of the natural world; at the same time, late Hellenistic Jews and Christians recognized a multitude of angelic “powers” and ,,principalities,” some obedient to the one transcendent God and some in rebellion, who governed the elements of nature and the peoples of the earth. To any impartial observer at the time, coming from some altogether different culture, the theological cosmos of a great deal of pagan “polytheism” would have seemed all but indistinguishable from that of a great deal of Jewish or Christian “monotheism.”

To speak of “God” properly, then -to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth -is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, untreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.

God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all.

Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things.

Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

By contrast, when we speak of “gods” we are talking not of transcendent reality at all, but only of a higher or more powerful or more splendid dimension of immanent reality. Any gods who might be out there do not transcend nature but belong to it. Their theogonies can be recounted -how some rose out of the primal night, how some were born of other, more titanic progenitors, how others sprang up from an intermingling of divine and elemental forces, and so on -and according to many mythologies most of them will finally meet their ends.

They exist in space and time, each of them is a distinct being rather than “being itself,” and it is they who are dependent upon the universe for their existence rather than the reverse. Of such gods there may be an endless diversity, while of God there can be only one. Or, better, God is not merely one, in the way that a finite object might be merely singular or unique, but is oneness as such, the one act of being and unity by which any finite thing exists and by which all things exist together. He is one in the sense that being itself is one, the infinite is one, the source of everything is one. Thus a plurality of gods could not constitute an alternative to or contradiction of the unity of God; they still would not belong to the same ontological frame of reference as he.

Obviously, then, it is God in the former -the transcendent sense in whom it is ultimately meaningful to believe or not to believe. The possibility of gods or spirits or angels or demons, and so on, is a subordinate matter, a question not of metaphysics but only of the taxonomy of nature (terrestrial, celestial, and chthonic).

To be an atheist in the best modern sense, however, and so to be a truly intellectually and emotionally fulfilled naturalist in philosophy, one must genuinely succeed in not believing in God, with all the logical consequences such disbelief entails. It is not enough simply to remain indifferent to the whole question of God, moreover, because thus understood it is a question ineradicably present in the very mystery of existence, or of knowledge, or of truth, goodness, and beauty.

It is also the question that philosophical naturalism is supposed to have answered exhaustively in the negative, without any troubling explanatory lacunae, and therefore the question that any aspiring philosophical naturalist must understand before he or she can be an atheist in any intellectually significant way. And the best way to begin is to get a secure grasp on how radically, both conceptually and logically, belief in God differs from belief in the gods. This ought not to be all that difficult a matter; in Western philosophical tradition, for instance, it is a distinction that goes back at least as far as Xenophanes (c. 570–c. 475 BC).

Yet the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God — especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side — is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.

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God, Gods, and Fairies — David Bentley Hart

June 4, 2013
Beliefs regarding fairies concern a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional and rational shape as beliefs regarding the neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all.

Beliefs regarding fairies concern a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional and rational shape as beliefs regarding the neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all.

This is a nice follow up to the reflections of Giorgio Buccellati on the Trinity Spermatiké we posted a short while ago. A reblog from First Things.

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One of the strangest claims often made by purveyors and consumers of today’s popular atheism is that disbelief in God involves no particular positive philosophy of reality, much less any kind of religion or creed, but consists merely in neutral incredulity toward a certain kind of factual asseveration [vocab:  The solemn or emphatic declaration or statement of something: "a dogmatic outlook marks many of his asseverations"].

This is not something the atheists of earlier ages would have been very likely to say, if only because they still lived in a culture whose every dimension (artistic, philosophical, ethical, social, cosmological) was shaped by a religious vision of the world. More to the point, it is an utterly nonsensical claim — so nonsensical, in fact, that it is doubtful that those who make it can truly be considered atheists in any coherent sense.

Admittedly, I suppose, it is possible to mistake the word “God” for the name of some discrete object that might or might not be found within the fold of nature, if one just happens to be more or less ignorant of the entire history of theistic belief. But, really, the distinction between “God” — meaning the one God who is the transcendent source of all things — and any particular “god” — meaning one or another of a plurality of divine beings who inhabit the cosmos — is one that, in Western tradition, goes back at least as far as Xenophanes.

And it is a distinction not merely in numbering, between monotheism and polytheism, as though the issue were simply how many “divine entities” one thinks there are; rather, it is a distinction between two qualitatively incommensurable kinds of reality, belonging to two wholly disparate conceptual orders. In the words of the great Swami Prabhavananda, only the one transcendent God is “the uncreated”: “Gods, though supernatural, belong . . . among the creatures. Like the Christian angels, they are much nearer to man than to God.”

This should not be a particularly difficult distinction to grasp, truth be told. To speak of “God” properly — in a way, that is, consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Bahá’í, much of antique paganism, and so forth — is to speak of the one infinite ground of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.

God so understood is neither some particular thing posed over against the created universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a being, at least not in the way that a tree, a clock, or a god is; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are. He is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom all things live and move and have their being. He may be said to be “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things.

To speak of “gods,” by contrast, is to speak only of a higher or more powerful or more splendid dimension of immanent reality. Any gods who might be out there do not transcend nature but belong to it. Their theogonies can be recounted — how they arose out of the primal night, or were born of other, more titanic progenitors, and so on — and in many cases their eventual demises foreseen. Each of them is a distinct being rather than “being itself,” and it is they who are dependent upon the universe for their existence rather than the reverse. Of such gods there may be an endless diversity, while of God there can be only one. Or, better, God is not merely one — not merely singular or unique — but is oneness as such, the sole act of being by which any finite thing exists and by which all things exist together

Obviously, then, it is the transcendent God in whom it is ultimately meaningful not to believe. The possibility of gods or spirits or angels or demons, and so on, is all very interesting to contemplate, but remains a question not of metaphysics but only of the taxonomy of nature (terrestrial, celestial, and chthonic). To be an atheist in the best modern sense, and so to be a truly intellectually and emotionally fulfilled naturalist in philosophy, one must genuinely succeed in not believing in God, with all the logical consequences this entails.

And the question of God, thus understood, is one that is ineradicably present in the mystery of existence itself, or of consciousness, or of truth, goodness, and beauty. It is also the question that philosophical naturalism is supposed to have answered exhaustively in the negative, without any troubling explanatory lacunae, and that therefore any aspiring philosophical naturalist must understand in order to be an atheist in any intellectually significant way.

Well, as I say, this should not be all that difficult to grasp. And yet any speaker at one of those atheist revivalist meetings need only trot out either of two reliable witticisms — “I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden” or “Everyone today is a disbeliever in Thor or Zeus, but we simply believe in one god less” — to elicit warmly rippling palpitations of self-congratulatory laughter from the congregation. Admittedly, one ought not judge a movement by its jokes, but neither should one be overly patient with those who delight in their own ignorance of elementary conceptual categories. I suppose, though, that the charitable course is to state the obvious as clearly as possible.

So: Beliefs regarding fairies concern a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional and rational shape as beliefs regarding the neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans.

Beliefs regarding God concern the source and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all. Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same conceptual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found.

God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for photons and (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principles; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him.

The question of God, by contrast, is one that must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, act and potency, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. Evidence for or against the existence of Thor or King Oberon would consist only in local facts, not universal truths of reason; it would be entirely empirical, episodic, psychological, personal, and hence elusive. Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, pervades every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

All of which is to say (to return to where I began) that it is absurd to think that one can profess atheism in any meaningful way without thereby assenting to an entire philosophy of being, however inchoate one’s sense of it may be. The philosophical naturalist’s view of reality is not one that merely fails to find some particular object within the world that the theist imagines can be descried there; it is a very particular representation of the nature of things, entailing a vast range of purely metaphysical commitments.

Principally, it requires that one believe that the physical order, which both experience and reason say is an ensemble of ontological contingencies, can exist entirely of itself, without any absolute source of actuality. It requires also that one resign oneself to an ultimate irrationalism: For the one reality that naturalism can never logically encompass is the very existence of nature (nature being, by definition, that which already exists); it is a philosophy, therefore, surrounded, permeated, and exceeded by a truth that is always already super naturam, and yet a philosophy that one cannot seriously entertain except by scrupulously refusing to recognize this.

It is the embrace of an infinite paradox: the universe understood as an “absolute contingency.” It may not amount to a metaphysics in the fullest sense, since strictly speaking it possesses no rational content — it is, after all, a belief that all things rest upon something like an original moment of magic — but it is certainly far more than the mere absence of faith.

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Edward Feser, David Bentley Hart, and Natural Law — Steven Wedgeworth

April 28, 2013
One can claim that religious faith goes all the way down and claim that basic reason is objective and capable of compelling public persuasion. This is because people do not have to know how or why something is true to still know that it is true. Most self-evident truths operate efficiently apart from self-reflection. The Christian natural philosopher and natural-law thinker is not denying the comprehensive nature of faith, but he is saying that this faith can be rationally demonstrated as a good and necessary thing. Additionally, he claims that basic morality is not only helpful and attractive but inescapable, and it is so on absolutely reasonable grounds.

One can claim that religious faith goes all the way down and claim that basic reason is objective and capable of compelling public persuasion. This is because people do not have to know how or why something is true to still know that it is true. Most self-evident truths operate efficiently apart from self-reflection. The Christian natural philosopher and natural-law thinker is not denying the comprehensive nature of faith, but he is saying that this faith can be rationally demonstrated as a good and necessary thing. Additionally, he claims that basic morality is not only helpful and attractive but inescapable, and it is so on absolutely reasonable grounds.

Yet another point of view I would like to feature here on the Feser/Hart dustup. So much of what the two have written is for master or doctrinal classes in theology and philosophy. Steven Wedgeworth is the editor of The Calvinist International. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. A Presbyterian pastor and classical school teacher, Steven lives in Jackson, MS. He recently weighed in with an opinion that helps us interpret and learn from the exchange.

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Edward Feser administers a much-needed corrective on the subject of natural philosophy and natural law in this response to David Bentley Hart. Before Dr. Feser’s article, the original piece from Dr. Hart was mostly applauded by other noteworthy names like Rod Dreher, Alan Jacobs, and Peter Leithart. We will not reproduce all of Dr. Feser’s argument, but we will highlight a few key points to show how he demonstrates that these critics are actually confused about the basic points of the natural law position. And in their confusion, these critics end up furthering the modernist cause they seek to defeat.

Dr. Feser begins by pointing out the existence of two schools of natural law: the classical (or “old”) natural-law theory and the “new natural-law theory.” These two schools hold some ideas in common, but they disagree on some important fundamentals. Dr. Feser summarizes:

What the two approaches have in common is the view that objectively true moral conclusions can be derived from premises that in no way presuppose any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition. Rather, they can in principle be known via purely philosophical arguments. Where the two approaches differ is in their view of which philosophical claims, specifically, the natural law theorist must defend in order to develop a system of natural law ethics.

The “old” natural law theorist would hold that a broadly classical, and specifically Aristotelian, metaphysical picture of the world must be part of a complete defense of natural law. The “new” natural law theorist would hold that natural law theory can be developed with a much more modest set of metaphysical claims – about the reality of free will, say, and a certain theory of practical reason – without having to challenge modern post-Humean, post-Kantian philosophy in as radical and wholesale a way as the “old” natural law theorist would.

Both sides agree, however, that some body of metaphysical claims must be a part of a complete natural law theory, and (again) that these claims can be defended without appeal to divine revelation, scripture, etc.

The problem with Dr. Hart’s critique, among other things, is that he conflates the two schools. He seems to affirm the truth of the “old” natural-law theory, but then he uses modernistic assumptions, those held by the “new natural-law theory,” to explain why the old theory, while still true, has no persuasive power. In doing so, however, he must grant that some of the new positions are also true, or at least true enough not to publicly contest, which is all very strange and self-contradictory.

Dr. Feser explains how Dr. Hart’s practical skepticism is itself incoherent:

[He] supposes that even if our nature directs us to certain ends that constitute the good for us, reason could still intelligibly wonder why it ought to respect those natural ends or the good they define. But this implicitly supposes that reason itself, unlike everything else, somehow lacks a natural end definitive of its proper function, or at least a natural end that we can know through pure philosophical inquiry. And that is precisely what classical natural law theory denies.

In the view of the “old” natural law theorist, when the metaphysics of intellect and volition are properly understood, it turns out that it cannot in principle be rational to will anything other than the good.  The fusion of “facts” and “values” goes all the way down, without a gap into which the Humean might fit the wedge with which he’d like to sever practical reason from any particular end. Hart simply assumes that this is false, or at least unknowable; he doesn’t give any argument to show that it is. And thus he has offered no non-circular criticism of the classical natural law theorist.

Here we see that so many of the new classicists, many of whom write for First Things and Pro Ecclesia, are themselves still thorough-going modernists. Individual reason, even if only for the sake of criticism, is the one thing privileged enough to critique contextualization.

Thus the criticisms of Hume and the alternatives of Kant are mostly accepted. But then, in modernism’s wake, classical philosophy and theology are held up as an aesthetically-attractive anchor to the subjectivist dilemma, but, importantly, one still subjective in nature. In other words, these Christian philosophers choose to hold to classical positions, but they acknowledge that this is a subjective value whose utility is only truly discernible after the fact.

This leads to very pressing problems, namely a basic relativism and its apocalyptic solution which is invariably utopian and violent. Dr. Feser explains how the first dilemma results from an equivocation:

Sloppy popular usage aside, “supernatural” is not a synonym for “metaphysical” – as Hart himself implicitly acknowledges with the phrase “supernatural (or at least metaphysical),” quoted above. What is supernatural is what is beyond the natural order altogether, and thus cannot be known via purely philosophical argument but only via divine revelation. Metaphysics, by contrast, is an enterprise that Platonists, Aristotelians, materialists, idealists, philosophical theists, atheists, and others have for millennia been engaged in without any reference to divine revelation.

The classical natural law theory asserts a specific metaphysical framework, to be sure. And it acknowledges that this is controversial, as Dr. Feser also does. But it does not acknowledge, and has not acknowledged, that the project of metaphysics itself is wholly “supernatural,” dependent on some sort of apocalyptic intervention into the normal order of things.

To do so would make metaphysics dependent upon special revelation, which would make it non-rational and subjective at bottom. Such a position fits perfectly within postmodernism, but it is directly at odds with the earlier tradition. That tradition said that certain metaphysical truths were self-evident and necessary for all other rational discourse. “The contrary” was, to borrow a phrase from other Christian transcendentalists, “impossible.”

Certain truths have to be the case in order for reason to be coherent, and since reason itself is necessary to dispute reason’s coherency, those truths’ existence is itself necessary or self-evident. Thus objective truth is itself self-evident and capable of being appealed to. For Dr. Hart to consign metaphysics to supernatural revelation is to forfeit this claim of objective reality.

Dr. Feser does not miss the fact that this postmodern Christian philosophy is itself a product of secularist advances. He writes, “Notice also the rich irony of a thinker who urges us to trust in divine revelation rather than natural reason, and who appeals to a secularist philosophical argument in order to make his case!”

Instead of defeating secularism, which Dr. Hart has claimed to at least attempt, the result is actually a furtherance of the secularist foundation. The practical result is actually more identity politics with the claim that “Christians” or “religious people” are a class-in-miniature who have something rich to offer the larger market of ideas.

One will see this same phenomenon replicated in Neo-Orthodoxy, Radical Orthodoxy, and certain forms of “worldview” thinking. Instead of argument, we will see appeals to “apocalyptic” transformation through a sort of event-metaphysics.

All of this leaves us with the hopeless contest of competing ultimate worldviews. While it is true that only persuasion will bring a person from one competing position to another, reason has traditionally been the vehicle, or at least one of the primary vehicles, which enables persuasion to be compelling. Apart from it, we are left with fideism or, worse, coercion. Dr. Feser illustrates the futility of the “apocalyptic” methodology:

And then there is the question of why anyone else should accept the revelation – of the missionary activity that, as I’m sure Hart would agree, the Christian is called to. If you are going to teach an Englishman Goethe in the original, you’re going to have to teach him German first. If you’re going to teach him algebra, you’d better make sure he already knows basic arithmetic. And if you’re going to preach the Gospel to him, you’re going to have to convince him first that what you’re saying really did come from God, and isn’t just something the people you got it from made up or hallucinated.

That’s why apologetics – the praeambula fidei, the study of what natural reason can and must know before it can know the truths of faith – precedes dogmatics in the order of knowledge, and always will. The theologian who thinks otherwise is like the Goethe scholar who screams in German at his English-speaking students, telling them what idiots they are – and deriding those who would teach them German as engaged in a “hopeless” task.

All one can say to this is Amen. John Warwick Montgomery made the same point in his essay “Once Upon an A Priori.” Without some inescapably common reason, call it what you will, all we are left with is a shouting match. Or perhaps, as in the current case, what we’ve got is simply marketing.

We will have much more to say about this topic in later essays. For now we will leave our Christian readers with this reassurance. One can claim that religious faith goes all the way down and claim that basic reason is objective and capable of compelling public persuasion. This is because people do not have to know how or why something is true to still know that it is true. Most self-evident truths operate efficiently apart from self-reflection. The Christian natural philosopher and natural-law thinker is not denying the comprehensive nature of faith, but he is saying that this faith can be rationally demonstrated as a good and necessary thing. Additionally, he claims that basic morality is not only helpful and attractive but inescapable, and it is so on absolutely reasonable grounds.

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Nature Loves to Hide — David Bentley Hart

April 25, 2013
It does not then represent some grave failure of natural reason that philosophy cannot achieve definitive moral demonstrations, or that true knowledge of the good is impossible without calling upon other modes of knowledge: the (ubiquitous) supernatural illumination of a conscience -- a heart -- upon which the law is written, Platonic anamnesis (of the eternal forms or of what your mother taught you), cultural traditions with all their gracious moments of religious awakening (Jewish, pagan, Christian, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, and so on), prayer, inspiration, the cultivation of personal holiness, love of the arts, and so on. Ultimately the world is a cruel and relentless place and we are not of it because we can interpret its moral fundamentals through the full range of our human capacities and senses, physical and spiritual.

It does not then represent some grave failure of natural reason that philosophy cannot achieve definitive moral demonstrations, or that true knowledge of the good is impossible without calling upon other modes of knowledge: the (ubiquitous) supernatural illumination of a conscience — a heart — upon which the law is written, Platonic anamnesis (of the eternal forms or of what your mother taught you), cultural traditions with all their gracious moments of religious awakening (Jewish, pagan, Christian, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, and so on), prayer, inspiration, the cultivation of personal holiness, love of the arts, and so on. Ultimately the world is a cruel and relentless place and we are not of it because we can interpret its moral fundamentals through the full range of our human capacities and senses, physical and spiritual.

I think Feser and Hart rather talked past each other, but the event of my two favorites being in some kind of disagreement with each other really became a learning experience for me. Feser is much more capable of defending and presenting purely philosophical arguments whereas Hart tends to fade into reveries that emphasize the being of the world: “To encounter the world is to encounter its being, which is gratuitously imparted to it from beyond the sphere of natural causes, known within the medium of an intentional consciousness, irreducible to immanent processes, that grasps finite reality only by being oriented toward a horizon of transcendental ends (or, better, “divine names”).” is a sentence Feser would never produce. I don’t think you need to choose sides here but can feel an allegiance to both the Christian natural philosopher (Hart) and a kind of natural-law thinker (Feser) Both advocate a  comprehensive nature of faith, and believe their faith can be rationally demonstrated as a good and necessary thing. Morality is inescapable, and it is so on absolutely reasonable grounds.

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Two issues back, I spoke ill of a modern form of natural law theory that unsuccessfully attempts to translate an ancient tradition of moral reasoning into the incompatible language of secular reason. Because of an obscurity I allowed to slip into the fourth paragraph, several readers imagined that I was speaking in propria persona [from Latin "for one's self," acting on one's own behalf, generally used to identify a person who is acting as his/her own attorney in a lawsuit.] from that point on, rather than on behalf of a disenchanted modern rambling among the weed-thronged ruins; and some were dismayed.

Edward Feser, for instance, issued a robust if confused denunciation, accusing me of numerous logical errors I did not commit and of being a Humean modernizer who doubts reason’s natural orientation toward the good. I suppose I should savor that as a refreshing change from the invective I usually attract; but, honestly, what most interested me about Feser’s argument were its fallacies, chief among them a notably simplistic understanding of such words as “revelation” and “supernatural.”

There is an old argument here, admittedly. Somewhere behind Feser’s argument slouches the specter of what is often called “two-tier Thomism”: a philosophical sect notable in part for the particularly impermeable partitions it erects between nature and grace, or nature and supernature, or natural reason and revelation, or philosophy and theology (and so on). To its adherents, it is the solution to the contradictions of modernity. To those of a more “integralist” bent (like me), it is a neo-scholastic deformation of Christian metaphysics that, far from offering an alternative to secular reason, is one of its chief theological accomplices. It also produces an approach to moral philosophy that must ultimately fail.

Before completing that thought, however, it might help to rehearse just a few of the conceptual obstacles our age erects in the path of natural law theory. So:

First. Finality’s fortuity. Most traditional accounts of natural law require a picture of nature as governed by final causality: For every substance, there are logically prior ends — proximate, remote, or transcendent — that guide its existence and unite it to the greater totality of a single cosmic, physical, moral, social continuum embraced within the providential finality of the divine. They assume, then, that from the “is” of a thing legitimate conclusions regarding its “ought” can be discerned, because nature herself — through her evident forms — instructs us in the elements of moral fulfillment.

In our age, however, final causality is a concept confined within an ever more beleaguered and porous intellectual redoubt. One can easily enough demonstrate the reality of finality within nature, but modern scientific culture refuses to view it as in any sense a cause rather than the accidental consequence of an immanent material process.

Within any organic system, for instance, ontogeny is fruitfully determined by strict formal constraints, but these are seen as the results of an incalculably vast series of fortuitous mutations and attritions, and therefore only the residue of an entirely stochastic phylogeny. Hence nature’s finality indicates no morally consequential ends (much less the supereminent finality of the Love that moves the stars), but is rather merely the emergent result of intrinsically meaningless brute events.

Second. Dame Nature, serial murderess. Even if final causality in nature is demonstrable, does it yield moral knowledge if there is no clear moral analogy between natural ends and the proper objects of human motive? After all, our modern narrative of nature is of an order shaped by immense ages of monstrous violence: mass extinctions, the cruel profligacy of an algorithmic logic that squanders ten thousand lives to fashion a single durable type, an evolutionary process that advances not despite, but because of, disease, warfare, predation, famine, and so on.

And the majestic order thus forged? One of elemental caprice, natural calamity, the mercilessness of chance — injustice thrives, disaster befalls the innocent, and children suffer. Why, our deracinated modern might ask, should we believe that nature’s organizing finality, given the kinds of efficient causes it prompts into action, has moral implications that command imitation, obedience, or (most unlikely of all) love?

Third. Elective priorities. Assume, however, that we can establish the existence of a moral imperative implicit in the orderliness of the world, as perceived by a rational will that, for itself, must seek the good: Does that assure that we can prove what hierarchy of values follows from this, or how we should calculate the relative preponderance of diverse moral ends? Yes, we may all agree that murder is worse than rudeness; but beyond the most rudimentary level of ethical deliberation, pure logic proves insufficient as a guide to which ends truly command our primary obedience, and our arguments become ever more dependent upon prior evaluations and preferences that, as far as philosophy can discern, are culturally or psychologically contingent. Consistent natural law cases can be made for or against slavery, for example, or for or against capital punishment, depending on which values one has privileged at a level too elementary for philosophy to adjudicate. At some crucial point, natural law argument, pressed to disclose its principles, dissolves into sheer assertion.

Fourth. Theory’s limits. The most gallantly errant of Feser’s assertions is that, because reason necessarily seeks the good, there exists no gap into which any “Humean” separation of facts from values can insinuate itself. But obviously the gap lies in the dynamic interval between (in Maximus the Confessor’s terms) the “natural” and “gnomic” wills: between, that is, the innate yearning for the good that is the primal impulse of all rational life and the particular acts of judgment and choice by which finite individuals live.

The venerable principle that the natural will is a pure ecstasy toward the good means that, at the level of our gnomic deliberations, whatever we will we inevitably desire as the good (for us); it does not mean that philosophical theory can by itself prove which facts imply which values, or that the good must naturally be understood as an incumbent “ought” rather than a compelling “I want.”

Feser asserts that “purely philosophical arguments” can establish “objectively true moral conclusions.” And yet, curiously enough, they never, ever have. That is a bedtime story told to conjure away the night’s goblins, like the Leibnizian fable of the best possible world or the philosophe’s fairy tale about the plain dictates of reason.

The question relentlessly left open in all of this is what “reason” really is. It is perfectly possible to believe that the whole natural dynamism of our reason and will is toward the good, and even to desire a true moral cultural renewal, and yet still to deny that natural law theory provides a sufficiently rich or logically coherent model of how the intellect can know moral truths. There is nothing scandalous in this unless one creates a false dilemma by imagining a real division between the discrete realms of supernatural and natural knowledge.

Feser thinks of revelation as an extrinsic datum consisting in texts and dogmas, and of the supernatural as merely outside of nature, and believes there really is such a thing as purely natural reason. From that perspective, one cannot deny philosophy’s power to demonstrate objective moral truth without denying reason’s intrinsic capacity for the good. Like a Kantian (the two-tier Thomist’s alter ego), one must believe that philosophical theory’s limits are also reason’s.

These divisions are illusory. What we call “nature” is merely one mode of the disclosure of the “supernatural,” and natural reason merely one mode of revelation, and philosophy merely one (feeble) mode of reason’s ascent into the light of God. Nowhere, not even in the sciences, does there exist a “purely natural” realm of knowledge.

To encounter the world is to encounter its being, which is gratuitously imparted to it from beyond the sphere of natural causes, known within the medium of an intentional consciousness, irreducible to immanent processes, that grasps finite reality only by being oriented toward a horizon of transcendental ends (or, better, “divine names”). There is a seamless continuity between the sight of a rose and the mystic’s vision of God; the latter is in fact implicit in the former, and saturates it, and but for this supernatural surfeit nothing natural could come into thought.

It does not then represent some grave failure of natural reason that philosophy cannot achieve definitive moral demonstrations, or that true knowledge of the good is impossible without calling upon other modes of knowledge: the (ubiquitous) supernatural illumination of a conscience — a heart — upon which the law is written, Platonic anamnesis (of the eternal forms or of what your mother taught you), cultural traditions with all their gracious moments of religious awakening (Jewish, pagan, Christian, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, and so on), prayer, inspiration, the cultivation of personal holiness, love of the arts, and so on.

There is no single master discourse here, for the good can be known only in being seen, before and beyond all words. Certain fundamental moral truths, for instance, may necessarily remain unintelligible to someone incapable of appreciating Bach’s fifth Unaccompanied Cello Suite. For some it may seem an outrageous notion that, rather than a collection of purportedly incontrovertible proofs, the correct rhetoric of moral truth consists in a richer but more unmasterable appeal to the full range of human capacities and senses, physical and spiritual. I, however, see it as rather glorious: a confirmation that our whole being, in all its dimensions, is a single gracious vocation out of nonexistence to the station of created gods.

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A Christian Hart, a Humean Head — Edward Feser

April 24, 2013
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism.

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism.

Edward Feser, the author of  The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and Aquinas, tells us the background to the Natural Law questions raised by David Bentley Hart: classic vs. new natural law theory and how they differ in approach. According to Feser, Hart appears to have confused the two and appealed to a theological position as untenable as the position he is criticizing.

The argument reminds me of a recent dustup between Bill O’Reilly and other conservatives over the former’s criticism of “bible thumpers” in the gay marriage debate. While O’Reilly was sympathetic to the biblical arguments against gay marriage, his advice was that they would not convince the public at large.

Hart is sympathetic to natural law theorists but feels that the harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate, are not as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine. Needless to say, bible thumpers and natural law theorists take high umbrage at such cavalier dismissal of their claims.

Feser explains what is really going on in the background.

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In a piece in the March issue of FIRST THINGS, David Bentley Hart suggests that the arguments of natural law theorists are bound to be ineffectual in the public square. The reason is that such arguments mistakenly presuppose that there is sufficient conceptual common ground between natural law theorists and their opponents for fruitful moral debate to be possible.

In particular, they presuppose that “the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation.” In fact, Hart claims, there is no such common ground, insofar as “our concept of nature, in any age, is entirely dependent upon supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions.”

For Hart, it is only when we look at nature from a very specific religious and cultural perspective that we will see it the way natural law theorists need us to see it in order for their arguments to be compelling. And since such a perspective on nature “must be received as an apocalyptic interruption of our ordinary explanations,” as a deliverance of special divine revelation rather than secular reason, it is inevitably one that not all parties to public debate are going to share.

Now I have nothing but respect for Prof. Hart and his work. But this latest article is not his finest hour. Not to put too fine a point on it, by my count he commits no fewer than five logical fallacies: equivocationstraw manbegging the question,non sequitur, and special pleading.

He equivocates insofar as he fails to distinguish two very different theories that go under the “natural law” label. He also uses terms like “supernatural” and “metaphysical” as if they were interchangeable, or at least as if the differences between them were irrelevant to his argument.

These ambiguities are essential to his case. When they are resolved, it becomes clear that with respect to both versions of natural law theory, Hart is attacking straw men and simply begging the question against them. It also becomes evident that his conclusion — that it is “hopeless” to bring forth natural law arguments in the public square — doesn’t follow from his premises, and that even if it did, if he were consistent he would have to apply it to his own position no less than to natural law theory.

Let’s consider these problems with Hart’s argument in order. Who, specifically, are the “natural law theorists” that he is criticizing? He assures us that “names are not important.” In fact names are crucial, because it is only by running together the two main contemporary approaches to natural law that Hart can seem to have struck a blow against either.

So let’s name names. What we might call the classical (or “old”) natural law theory is the sort grounded in a specifically Aristotelian metaphysics of formal and final causes — that is to say, in the idea that things have immanent natures or substantial forms and that in virtue of those natures they are inherently directed toward certain natural ends, the realization of which constitutes the good for them. Accordingly, this approach firmly rejects the so-called “fact/value dichotomy” associated with modern philosophers like Hume.[Professor David Oderberg will walk you through this debate that is found at the root of empiricist philosophy.]

Classical natural law theory’s most prominent historical defender is Aquinas, and it was standard in Neo-Scholastic manuals of ethics and moral theology in the pre-Vatican II period. In more recent decades it has been defended by writers like Ralph McInerny, Henry Veatch, Russell Hittinger, David Oderberg, and Anthony Lisska. (In the interests of full disclosure — of which, regrettably, self-promotion is a foreseen but unintended byproduct, justifiable under the principle of double effect — I suppose I should mention that I have also defended classical natural law theory in several places, such as my book Aquinas.)

What has come to be called the “new natural law theory” eschews any specifically Aristotelian metaphysical foundation, and in particular any appeal to formal and final causes and thus any appeal to human nature (at least as “old natural law” theorists would understand it). It is a very recent development — going back only to the 1960s, when it was invented by Germain Grisez — and its aim is to reconstruct natural law in terms that could be accepted by someone who affirms the Humean fact/value dichotomy.

In addition to Grisez, new natural law theory is associated with writers like John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, William May, Robert P. George, and Christopher Tollefsen. (Once again in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that like other classical natural law theorists, I have been very critical of the so-called “new natural lawyers.” But it is also only fair to point out that Hart’s argument has no more force against the “new” natural law theory than it does against the “old” or classical version.)

What the two approaches have in common is the view that objectively true moral conclusions can be derived from premises that in no way presuppose any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition. Rather, they can in principle be known via purely philosophical arguments.

Where the two approaches differ is in their view of which philosophical claims, specifically, the natural law theorist must defend in order to develop a system of natural law ethics. The “old” natural law theorist would hold that a broadly classical, and specifically Aristotelian, metaphysical picture of the world must be part of a complete defense of natural law. The “new” natural law theorist would hold that natural law theory can be developed with a much more modest set of metaphysical claims — about the reality of free will, say, and a certain theory of practical reason — without having to challenge modern post-Humean, post-Kantian philosophy in as radical and wholesale a way as the “old” natural law theorist would.

Both sides agree, however, that some body of metaphysical claims must be a part of a complete natural law theory, and (again) that these claims can be defended without appeal to divine revelation, Scripture, etc.

Now Hart characterizes natural law theory in general as committed to the reality of final causes, indicates that he affirms their reality himself, but then (bizarrely) appeals to Hume’s fact/value dichotomy as if it were obviously consistent with affirming final causes, uses it as a basis for criticizing natural law theorists for supposing conceptual common ground with their opponents, and concludes that it is only by reference to controversial “supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions” that natural law theory could be defended. This is a tangle of confusions.

For one thing, if there were a version of natural law theory that both appealed to final causes in nature and at the same time could allow for Hume’s fact/value dichotomy, then Hart’s argument might at least get off the ground. But there is no such version of natural law theory, and it seems that Hart is conflating the “new” and the “old” versions, thereby directing his attack at a phantom position that no one actually holds. The “new natural lawyers” agree with Hume and Hart that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” but precisely for that reason do not ground their position in a metaphysics of final causes. The “old” or classical natural law theory, meanwhile, certainly does affirm final causes, but precisely for that reason rejects Hume’s fact/value dichotomy, and in pressing it against them Hart simply begs the question.

It seems Hart thinks otherwise because he supposes that even if our nature directs us to certain ends that constitute the good for us, reason could still intelligibly wonder why it ought to respect those natural ends or the good they define. But this implicitly supposes that reason itself, unlike everything else, somehow lacks a natural end definitive of its proper function, or at least a natural end that we can know through pure philosophical inquiry. And that is precisely what classical natural law theory denies.

In the view of the “old” natural law theorist, when the metaphysics of intellect and volition are properly understood, it turns out that it cannot in principle be rational to will anything other than the good. The fusion of “facts” and “values” goes all the way down, without a gap into which the Humean might fit the wedge with which he’d like to sever practical reason from any particular end. Hart simply assumes that this is false, or at least unknowable; he doesn’t give any argument to show that it is. And thus he has offered no non-circular criticism of the classical natural law theorist.

Of course such a non-Humean view of practical reason is controversial — though I defend it in Aquinas, and other classical natural law theorists have defended it as well — but the fact that it is controversial is completely irrelevant to the dispute between Hart and natural law theory. For no natural law theorist denies that some controversial metaphysical conclusions have to be defended in order to defend natural law theory. That is true of any moral theory, including secular theories, and including whatever approach it is that Hart favors. Certainly it is true of the Humean thesis about “facts” and “values,” which is just one controversial metaphysical claim among others. Having to appeal to controversial metaphysical assumptions is in no way whatsoever a special problem for natural law theorists.

It also has nothing whatsoever to do with claims about the supernatural order. Sloppy popular usage aside, “supernatural” is not a synonym for “metaphysical” — as Hart himself implicitly acknowledges with the phrase “supernatural (or at least metaphysical),” quoted above. What is supernatural is what is beyond the natural order altogether, and thus cannot be known via purely philosophical argument but only via divine revelation. Metaphysics, by contrast, is an enterprise that Platonists, Aristotelians, materialists, idealists, philosophical theists, atheists, and others have for millennia been engaged in without any reference to divine revelation. So for Hart to insinuate that its dependence on metaphysical premises entails that natural law rests on divine revelation, “supernatural” foundations, or “an apocalyptic interruption of our ordinary explanations” is simply a non sequitur.

On the other hand, if all Hart means to assert is that natural law theorists suppose that the metaphysical commitments crucial to their position are uncontroversial, then he is attacking a straw man. No natural law theorist claims any such thing. What they claim is merely that, however controversial, their position can be defended via purely philosophical arguments and without resort to divine revelation. And if its being controversial makes it “hopeless” as a contribution to the public square, then every controversial position is hopeless.

Including Hart’s. Which brings us to special pleading. For what exactly is Hart’s alternative approach to moral debate in the public square, and how is it supposed to be any better? Is a theological position like his — with its appeal to the supernatural, to “apocalyptic interruptions,” and the like — less controversial than natural law theory? Is it more likely to win the day in the public square? To ask these question is to answer them.

Nor could Hart plausibly retreat into a quietist position that refuses to engage with those who do not already share his fundamental commitments. For one thing, there is nothing quiet about his book Atheist Delusions, which was presumably intended as a contribution to the public debate over the New Atheism, not as a mere sermon to the circle of his fellow believers. That presupposes enough conceptual common ground with those who disagree with him for them to understand his position, controversial though it is, and in principle come to be swayed by his arguments. If Hart can do this, why can’t natural law theorists?

Here we see one of several ways in which Hart’s position is ultimately incoherent. Insofar as he applies his criticisms consistently he will find that they undermine his own view no less than the natural law theorist’s.

Suppose Hume’s stricture against deriving an “ought” from an “is” really were well-founded. It would follow that the purely theological ethics to which Hart seems committed, no less than natural law theory, cannot get off the ground. For statements about what has been divinely revealed, or what God has commanded, would be mere statements of “fact” (as Hume understands facts), statements about what “is” the case. And how (given Hume’s account of practical reason) does that tell us anything about “value,” about what we “ought” to do?

The most we can have are the merely hypothetical imperatives Hart rightly (if inconsistently) derides as insufficient for morality. If we happen to care about what God has said, then we’ll do such-and-such. But that tells us nothing about why we ought to care. Hart, like so many other Christian philosophers and theologians eager to accommodate themselves to Hume and other moderns, fails to see that he has drunk not a tonic that will restore youthfulness to the Faith, but a poison that will kill the modernizer no less than the traditionalist.

Notice also the rich irony of a thinker who urges us to trust in divine revelation rather than natural reason, and who appeals to a secularist philosophical argument in order to make his case. Here Hart recapitulates a muddle that one finds again and again in those who would absorb nature into grace, or otherwise do dirt on mere natural theology and natural law in favor of revelation alone. They inevitably appeal to premises that cannot be found in revelation itself, because there is no way in principle to avoid doing so.

For what is it in the first place for something to be revealed? How can we know it really has been? Why accept this purported revelation rather than that one? If the answers are supposed to be found in some purported revelation itself, how do we know that that was really revealed, or that its meta-level answers are better than those of some other purported revelation? And why wouldn’t such a patently circular procedure — appealing to a purported revelation in order to defend it — justify any point of view? It is only from a point of view outside the revelation — the point of view of our rational nature, which grace can only build on and never replace — that these questions can possibly be answered.

And then there is the question of why anyone else should accept the revelation — the missionary activity that, as I’m sure Hart would agree, the Christian is called to. If you are going to teach an Englishman Goethe in the original, you’re going to have to teach him German first. If you’re going to teach him algebra, you’d better make sure he already knows basic arithmetic. And if you’re going to preach the gospel to him, you’re going to have to convince him first that what you’re saying really did come from God, and isn’t just something the people you got it from made up or hallucinated.

That’s why apologetics — the praeambula fidei, the study of what natural reason can and must know before it can know the truths of faith — precedes dogmatics in the order of knowledge, and always will. The theologian who thinks otherwise is like the Goethe scholar who screams in German at his English-speaking students, telling them what idiots they are — and deriding those who would teach them German as engaged in a “hopeless” task.

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Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws — David Bentley Hart

April 23, 2013

natural law theory

Natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature — both social and personal—and deduce binding rules of moral behavior from it. But is it, after all, simply a fact that many of what we take to be the plain and evident elements of universal morality are in reality artifacts of cultural traditions. David Bentley Hart thought he was stating the obvious. Many took offense and the back-and-forth gave the rest of us a great opportunity to see what the fight was all about. First round to Mr. Hart follows. Some of the reactions tomorrow.

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There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be — according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated — perfectly coherent. My skepticism, moreover, has nothing to do with any metaphysical disagreement. I certainly believe in a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate. I simply do not believe that the terms of that harmony are as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine.

That is an argument for another time, however. My chief topic here is the attempt in recent years by certain self-described Thomists, particularly in America, to import this tradition into public policy debates, but in a way amenable to modern political culture. What I have in mind is a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. This, it seems to me, is a hopeless cause.

Classical natural law theory, after all, begins:

  1. From the recognition that the movement of the human will is never purely spontaneous, and that all volition is evoked by and directed toward an object beyond itself.
  2. It presupposes, moreover, that beyond the immediate objects of desire lies the ultimate end of all willing, the Good as such, which in its absolute priority makes it possible for any finite object to appear to the will as desirable.
  3. It asserts that nature is governed by final causes.
  4. And, finally, it takes as given that the proper ends of the human will and the final causes of creation are inalienably analogous to one another, because at some ultimate level they coincide (for believers, because God is the one source in which both participate). Thus, in knowing the causal ends of nature, we should be able to know many of the proper moral ends of the will, and even their relative priority in regard to one another.

So far, so good. But insuperable problems arise when — in part out of a commendable desire to speak to secular society in ways it can understand, in part out of some tacit quasi-Kantian notion that moral philosophy must yield clear and universally binding imperatives — the natural law theorist insists that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation.

Thus, allegedly, the testimony of nature should inform any rightly attentive intellect that abortion is murder, that lying is wrong, that marriage should be monogamous, that we should value charity above personal profit, and that it is wicked (as well as extremely discourteous) to eat members of that tribe that lives over in the next valley.

“Nature,” however, tells us nothing of the sort, at least not in the form of clear commands; neither does it supply us with hypotaxes of moral obligation. In neither an absolute nor a dependent sense — neither as categorical nor as hypothetical imperatives, to use the Kantian terms — can our common knowledge of our nature or of the nature of the universe at large instruct us clearly in the content of true morality.

For one thing, as far as any categorical morality is concerned, Hume’s bluntly stated assertion that one cannot logically derive an “ought” from an “is” happens to be formally correct. Even if one could exhaustively describe the elements of our nature, the additional claim that we are morally obliged to act in accord with them, or to prefer natural uses to unnatural, would still be adventitious to the whole ensemble of facts that this description would comprise.

The assumption that the natural and moral orders are connected to one another in any but a purely pragmatic way must be logically antecedent to our interpretation of the world; it is a belief about nature, but not a natural belief as such; it is a supernatural judgment that renders natural reality intelligible in a particular way. I know of many a stout defender of natural law who is quick to dismiss Hume’s argument, but who — when pressed to explain why — can do no better than to resort to a purely conditional argument: If one is (for instance) to live a fully human life, then one must . . . (etc.). But, in supplementing a dubious “is” with a negotiable “if,” one certainly cannot arrive at a categorical “ought.”

In abstraction from specific religious or metaphysical traditions, there really is very little that natural law theory can meaningfully say about the relative worthiness of the employments of the will. There are, of course, generally observable facts about the characteristics of our humanity (the desire for life and happiness, the capacity for allegiance and affinity, the spontaneity of affection for one’s family) and about the things that usually conduce to the fulfillment of innate human needs (health, a well-ordered family and polity, sufficient food, aesthetic bliss, a sense of spiritual mystery, leisure, and so forth); and if we all lived in a Platonic or Aristotelian or Christian intellectual world, in which everyone presumed some necessary moral analogy between the teleology of nature and the proper objects of the will, it would be fairly easy to connect these facts to moral prescriptions in ways that our society would find persuasive. We do not live in such a world, however.

It is, after all, simply a fact that many of what we take to be the plain and evident elements of universal morality are in reality artifacts of cultural traditions. Today we generally eschew cannibalism, slavery, polygamy, and wars of conquest because of a millennial process of social evolution, the gradual universalization of certain moral beliefs that entered human experience in the form not of natural intuitions but of historical events.

We have come to find a great many practices abhorrent and a great many others commendable not because the former transparently offend against our nature while the latter clearly correspond to it, but because at various moments in human history we found ourselves addressed by uncanny voices that seemed to emanate from outside the totality of the perceptible natural order and its material economies.

One certainly may believe that those voices in fact awakened us to “natural” truths, but only because one’s prior supernatural convictions prompt one to do so. To try then to convince someone who rejects those convictions nevertheless to embrace those truths on purely “natural” grounds can never be much more than an exercise in suasive rhetoric (and perhaps something of a pia fraus).

The truth is that we cannot talk intelligibly about natural law if we have not all first agreed upon what nature is and accepted in advance that there really is a necessary bond between what is and what should be. Nor can that bond be understood in naturalistic terms. Even if it were clearly demonstrable that for the majority of persons the happiest life is also the most wholesome, and that most of us find spiritual and corporeal contentment by observing a certain “natural” ethical mean — still, the daringly disenchanted moralist might ask: “What do we owe to nature?”

To his mind, after all, the good may not be contentment or even justice, but the extension of the pathos of the will, as Nietzsche would put it: the poetic labor of the will to power, the overcoming of the limits of the merely human, the justification of the purely fortuitous phenomenon of the world through its transformation into a supreme aesthetic event. What if he should choose to believe (and are not all values elective values for the secular moralist?) that the most exalted object of the will is the Übermensch, that natural prodigy or fortunate accident that now must become the end to which human culture consciously aspires?

Denounce him, if you wish, for the perversity of his convictions. Still, after all hypothetical imperatives have been adduced, and all appeals to the general good have been made, nothing would logically oblige him to alter his ideas. Only the total spiritual conversion of his vision of reality could truly change his thinking.

To put the matter very simply, belief in natural law is inseparable from the idea of nature as a realm shaped by final causes, oriented in their totality toward a single transcendent moral Good: one whose dictates cannot simply be deduced from our experience of the natural order, but must be received as an apocalyptic interruption of our ordinary explanations that nevertheless, miraculously, makes the natural order intelligible to us as a reality that opens up to what is more than natural. 

There is no logically coherent way to translate that form of cosmic moral vision into the language of modern “practical reason” or of public policy debate in a secular society. Our concept of nature, in any age, is entirely dependent upon supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions. And, in an age that has been shaped by a mechanistic understanding of the physical world, a neo-Darwinian view of life, and a voluntarist understanding of the self, nature’s “laws” must appear to be anything but moral.

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The Anti-Theology of the Body –David Bentley Hart

September 6, 2011

I occasionally check out the David Bentley Hart Appreciation Page to see what has surfaced. This is a splendid review of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, with a focus on the Trans-humanists in our midst (elsewhere I call them Diabolists, recalling G.K. Chesterton’s view of the situation) As is my custom, I have added paragraphs and bolded portions for those of us who read (or is browse?) on the web.

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To ask what the legacy of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body might be for future debates in bioethics is implicitly to ask what relevance it has for current debates in bioethics. And this creates something of a problem, because there is a real sense in which it has none at all — at least, if by “relevance” one means discrete logical propositions or policy recommendations that might be extracted from the larger context of John Paul’s teachings so as to “advance the conversation” or “suggest a middle course” or “clarify ethical ambiguities.”

Simply said, the book does not offer arguments, or propositions, or (thank God) “suggestions.” Rather, it enunciates with extraordinary fullness a complete vision of the spiritual and corporeal life of the human being; that vision is a self-sufficient totality, which one is free to embrace or reject as a whole. To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life.

Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research. The fabrication of clones, the invention of “chimeras” through the miscegenation of human and animal DNA, and of course the termination of supernumerary, dispensable, or defective specimens that such experimentation inevitably entails are in every case irredeemably evil.

Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.

In a wider sense, though, I would want to argue that it is precisely this “irrelevance” that makes John Paul’s theology truly relevant (in another sense) to contemporary bioethics. I must say that what I, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, find most exhilarating about the Theology of the Body is not simply that it is perfectly consonant with the Orthodox understanding of the origins and ends of human nature (as indeed it is), but that from beginning to end it is a text awash in the clear bright light of uncompromising conviction.

There is about it something of that sublime indifference to the banal pieties and prejudices of modernity that characterizes Eastern Orthodoxy at its best. It simply restates the ancient Christian understanding of man, albeit in the somewhat phenomenological idiom for which John Paul had so marked a penchant, and invites the reader to enter into the world it describes. And at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection — or, one might almost say, ignorance — of any dualism between flesh and spirit.

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul — whether we believe in the soul or not — as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may “enter” the fetus sometime in the second trimester.

But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit.

John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a “mere” physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.

The far antipodes of John Paul’s vision of the human, I suppose, are to be found at the lunatic fringe of bioethics, in that fanatically “neo-Darwinist” movement that has crystallized around the name of “trans-humanism.” A satirist with a genius for the morbid could scarcely have invented a faction more depressingly sickly, and yet — in certain reaches of the scientific community — it is a movement that enjoys some real degree of respectability.

Its principal tenet is that it is now incumbent upon humanity to take control of its own evolution, which on account of the modern world’s technological advances and social policies has tragically stalled at the level of the merely anthropine; as we come to master the mysteries of the genome, we must choose what we are to be, so as to progress beyond Homo sapiens, perhaps one day to become beings — in the words of the Princeton biologist Lee Silver — “as different from humans as humans are from…primitive worms” (which are, I suppose, to be distinguished from sophisticated worms).

We must seek, that is to say, to become gods. Many of the more deliriously visionary of the trans-humanists envisage a day when we will be free to alter and enhance ourselves at will, unconstrained by law or shame or anything resembling good taste: by willfully transgressing the genetic boundaries between species (something that we are already learning how to do), we may be able to design new strains of hybrid life, or even to produce an endlessly proliferating variety of new breeds of the post-human that may no longer even have the capacity to reproduce one with the other. (For those whose curiosity runs to the macabre, Wesley Smith’s recent Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World provides a good synopsis of the trans-humanist creed.)

Obviously one is dealing here with a sensibility formed more by comic books than by serious thought. Ludicrous as it seems, though, trans-humanism is merely one logical consequence (if a particularly childish one) of the surprising reviviscence of eugenic ideology in the academic, scientific, and medical worlds. Most of the new eugenists, admittedly, see their solicitude for the greater wellbeing of the species as suffering from none of the distasteful authoritarianism of the old racialist eugenics, since all they advocate (they say) is a kind of elective genetic engineering — a bit of planned parenthood here, the odd reluctant act of infanticide there, a soupçon of judicious genetic tinkering everywhere, and a great deal of prudent reflection upon the suitability of certain kinds of embryos — but clearly they are deluding themselves or trying to deceive us.

Far more intellectually honest are those — like the late, almost comically vile Joseph Fletcher of Harvard — who openly acknowledge that any earnest attempt to improve the human stock must necessarily involve some measures of legal coercion. Fletcher, of course, was infamously unabashed in castigating modern medicine for “polluting” our gene pool with inferior specimens and in rhapsodizing upon the benefits the race would reap from instituting a regime of genetic invigilation that would allow society to eliminate “idiots” and “cripples” and other genetic defectives before they could burden us with their worthless lives. It was he who famously declared that reproduction is a privilege, not a right, and suggested that perhaps mothers should be forced by the state to abort “diseased” babies if they refused to do so of their own free will.

Needless to say, state-imposed sterilization struck him as a reasonable policy; and he agreed with Linus Pauling that it might be wise to consider segregating genetic inferiors into a recognizable caste, marked out by indelible brands impressed upon their brows. And, striking a few minor trans-humanist chords of his own, he even advocated — in a deranged and hideous passage from his book The Ethics of Genetic Controlthe creation of “chimeras or parahumans…to do dangerous or demeaning jobs” of the sort that are now “shoved off on moronic or retarded individuals” — which, apparently, was how he viewed janitors, construction workers, firefighters, miners, and persons of that ilk.

Of course, there was always a certain oafish audacity in Fletcher’s degenerate driveling about “morons” and “defectives,” given that there is good cause to suspect, from a purely utilitarian vantage, that academic ethicists — especially those like Fletcher, who are notoriously mediocre thinkers, possessed of small culture, no discernible speculative gifts, no records of substantive philosophical achievement, and execrable prose styles — constitute perhaps the single most useless element in society. If reproduction is not a right but a social function, should any woman be allowed to bring such men into the world? And should those men be permitted, in their turn, to sire offspring? I ask this question entirely in earnest, because I think it helps to identify the one indubitable truth about all social movements towards eugenics: namely, that the values that will determine which lives are worth living, and which not, will always be the province of persons of vicious temperament.

If I were asked to decide what qualities to suppress or encourage in the human species, I might first attempt to discover if there is such a thing as a genetic predisposition to moral idiocy and then, if there is, to eliminate it; then there would be no more Joseph Fletchers (or Peter Singers, or Linus Paulings, or James Rachels), and I might think all is well. But, of course, the very idea is a contradiction in terms. Decisions regarding who should or should not live can, by definition, be made only by those who believe such decisions should be made; and therein lies the horror that nothing can ever exorcise from the ideology behind human bioengineering.

Transhumanism, as a moral philosophy, is so risibly fabulous in its prognostications, and so unrelated to anything that genomic research yet promises, that it can scarcely be regarded as anything more than a pathetic dream; but the metaphysical principles it presumes regarding the nature of the human are anything but eccentric. Joseph Fletcher was a man with a manifestly brutal mind, desperately anxious to believe himself superior to the common run of men, one who apparently received some sort of crypto-erotic thrill from his cruel fantasies of creating a slave race, and of literally branding others as his genetic inferiors, and of exercising power over the minds and bodies of the low-born. And yet his principles continue to win adherents in the academy and beyond it, and his basic presuppositions about the value and meaning of life are the common grammar of a shockingly large portion of bioethicists.

If ever the day comes when we are willing to consider a program, however modest, of improving the species through genetic planning and manipulation, it will be exclusively those who hold such principles and embrace such presuppositions who will determine what the future of humanity will be. And men who are impatient of frailty and contemptuous of weakness are, at the end of the day, inevitably evil.

Why dwell on these things, though? After all, most of the more prominent debates in bioethics at the moment do not actually concern systematic eugenics or, certainly, “post-humanity,” but center upon issues of medical research and such matters as the disposition of embryos who will never mature into children. It is true that we have already begun to transgress the demarcations between species — often in pursuit of a medical or technological benefit — and cloning is no longer merely a matter of speculation. But even here issues of health and of new therapeutic techniques predominate, and surely these require some degree of moral subtlety from all of us.

Am I not, then, simply skirting difficult questions of practical ethics so as to avoid allowing any ambiguity to invade my Christian absolutism? Perhaps. But it seems to me that the metaphysics, dogma, and mysticism of “transhumanism” or Fletcherite eugenics hide behind, and await us as the inevitable terminus of, every movement that subordinates or sacrifices the living soul — the life that is here before us, in the moment, in all its particularity and fragility — to the progress of science, of medicine, or of the species. That is to say, I dwell upon extremes because I believe it is in extremes that truth is most likely to be found. And this brings me back to John Paul II’s theology of the body.

The difference between John Paul’s theological anthropology and the pitilessly consistent materialism of the trans-humanists and their kith — and this is extremely important to grasp — is a difference not simply between two radically antagonistic visions of what it is to be a human being, but between two radically antagonistic visions of what it is to be a god.

There is, as it happens, nothing inherently wicked in the desire to become a god, at least not from the perspective of Christian tradition; and I would even say that if there is one element of the trans-humanist creed that is not wholly contemptible — one isolated moment of innocence, however fleeting and imperfect — it is the earnestness with which it gives expression to this perfectly natural longing. Theologically speaking, the proper destiny of human beings is to be “glorified” — or “divinized” — in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, to become “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4), to be called “gods” (Psalm 82:6; John 10:34-36). This is the venerable doctrine of “theosis” or “deification,” the teaching that — to employ a lapidary formula of great antiquity — “God became man that man might become god”: that is to say, in assuming human nature in the incarnation, Christ opened the path to union with the divine nature for all persons.

From the time of the Church Fathers through the high Middle Ages, this understanding of salvation was a commonplace of theology. Admittedly, until recently it had somewhat disappeared from most Western articulations of the faith, but in the East it has always enjoyed a somewhat greater prominence; and it stands at the very center of John Paul’s theology of the body. As he writes in Evangelium Vitae:

Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase.

John Paul’s anthropology is what a certain sort of Orthodox theologian might call a “theandric” humanism. “Life in the Spirit,” the most impressive of the texts collected in the Theology of the Body, is to a large extent an attempt to descry the true form of man by looking to the end towards which he is called, so that the glory of his eschatological horizon, so to speak, might cast its radiance back upon the life he lives in via here below.

Thus, for John Paul, the earthly body in all its frailty and indigence and limitation is always already on the way to the glorious body of resurrection of which Paul speaks; the mortal body is already the seed of the divinized and immortal body of the Kingdom; the weakness of the flesh is already, potentially, the strength of “the body full of power”; the earthly Adam is already joined to the glory of the last Adam, the risen and living Christ.

For the late pope, divine humanity is not something that in a simple sense lies beyond the human; it does not reside in some future, post-human race to which the good of the present must be offered up; it is instead a glory hidden in the depths of every person, even the least of us — even “defectives” and “morons” and “genetic inferiors,” if you will — waiting to be revealed, a beauty and dignity and power of such magnificence and splendor that, could we see it now, it would move us either to worship or to terror.

Obviously none of this would interest or impress the doctrinaire materialist. The vision of the human that John Paul articulates and the vision of the “trans-human” to which the still nascent technology of genetic manipulation has given rise are divided not by a difference in practical or ethical philosophy, but by an irreconcilable hostility between two religions, two metaphysics, two worlds — at the last, two gods. And nothing less than the moral nature of society is at stake.

If, as I have said, the metaphysics of transhumanism is inevitably implied within such things as embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, then to embark upon them is already to invoke and invite the advent of a god who will, I think, be a god of boundless horror, one with a limitless appetite for sacrifice. And it is by their gods that human beings are shaped and known. In some very real sense, “man” is always only the shadow of the god upon whom he calls: for in the manner by which we summon and propitiate that god, and in that ultimate value that he represents for us, who and what we are is determined.

The materialist who wishes to see modern humanity’s Baconian mastery over cosmic nature expanded to encompass human nature as well — granting us absolute power over the flesh and what is born from it, banishing all fortuity and uncertainty from the future of the race — is someone who seeks to reach the divine by ceasing to be human, by surpassing the human, by destroying the human. It is a desire both fantastic and depraved: a diseased titanism, the dream of an infinite passage through monstrosity, a perpetual and ruthless sacrifice of every present good to the featureless, abysmal, and insatiable god who is to come.

For the Christian to whom John Paul speaks, however, one can truly aspire to the divine only through the charitable cultivation of glory in the flesh, the practice of holiness, the love of God and neighbor; and, in so doing, one seeks not to take leave of one’s humanity, but to fathom it in its ultimate depth, to be joined to the Godman who would remake us in himself, and so to become simul divinus et creatura. This is a pure antithesis. For those who, on the one hand, believe that life is merely an accidental economy of matter that should be weighed by a utilitarian calculus of means and ends and those who, on the other, believe that life is a supernatural gift oriented towards eternal glory, every moment of existence has a different significance and holds a different promise.

To the one, a Down syndrome child (for instance) is a genetic scandal, one who should probably be destroyed in the womb as a kind of oblation offered up to the social good and, of course, to some immeasurably remote future; to the other, that same child is potentially (and thus far already) a being so resplendent in his majesty, so mighty, so beautiful that we could scarcely hope to look upon him with the sinful eyes of this life and not be consumed.

It may well be that the human is an epoch, in some sense. The idea of the infinite value of every particular life does not accord with instinct, as far as one can tell, but rather has a history. The ancient triumph of the religion of divine incarnation inaugurated a new vision of man, however fitfully and failingly that vision was obeyed in subsequent centuries. Perhaps this notion of an absolute dignity indwelling every person — this Christian invention or discovery or convention — is now slowly fading from our consciences and will finally be replaced by something more “realistic” (which is to say, something more nihilistic).

Whatever the case, John Paul’s theology of the body will never, as I have said, be “relevant” to the understanding of the human that lies “beyond” Christian faith. Between these two orders of vision there can be no fruitful commerce, no modification of perspectives, no debate, indeed no “conversation.” All that can ever span the divide between them is the occasional miraculous movement of conversion or the occasional tragic movement of apostasy. Thus the legacy of that theology will be to remain, for Christians, a monument to the grandeur and fullness of their faith’s “total humanism,” so to speak, to remind them how vast the Christian understanding of humanity’s nature and destiny is, and to inspire them — whenever they are confronted by any philosophy, ethics, or science that would reduce any human life to an instrumental moment within some larger design — to a perfect and unremitting enmity.

 

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The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth — Geoffrey Wainwright

October 20, 2010

Geoffrey Wainwright holds the Cushman chair of Christian Theology at Duke University. This is a review of David Bentley Hart’s seminal work on Christian aesthetics as it appeared several years ago in First Things. As warned at the end, it is a difficult book. I’ve attempted it a couple of times and simply did not have the background to appreciate it. I’m hoping my current readings in aesthetics will help me get over the hump. While Hart often writes for a broad audience, this is really a book for theologians or those in a master’s program. It does less to introduce topics than to comment on them, thus requiring of the reader a level of knowledge that is not necessary for Hart’s other writings. I bought it though so I am damn well going to see my way through it.

Few, if any, other theologians could have written The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. The elegance of its style and the sophistication of its arguments are backed by knowledge of languages ancient and modern, familiarity with secular philosophies of the last third of the twentieth century, and a deep commitment to classic Christianity. Writing in polemic and apologetic mode, David Hart exposes the inconsistencies and inadequacies of a postmodernism that inexplicably continues to fascinate some Christian thinkers. When he turns dogmatic and evangelistic, Hart aims at an account of the faith that — like Jesus himself and his gospel — may prove strangely attractive and peacefully persuasive.

If a nutshell could contain this theological world of a book, it might suffice to put its thesis thus: Modern and soi-disant postmodern philosophies remain trapped in some very ancient antinomies and perennial dialectics that bespeak an ontology of violence; by contrast, the gospel offers an ontology of peace, whereby the unity and diversity of creation are embraced — analogically and participatively, redemptively and eschatologically — in the triune God who is manifested and imparted in historical concreteness in Jesus Christ. Such compression, however, would render banal the subtlety and richness of this remarkable work.

An introduction sketches the book’s key terms and thereby adumbrates its themes, especially the principal pair of beauty and the infinite, which (it is the author’s contention) Christian theology uniquely thinks together. God’s infinity is not formlessness but rather the beauty of a boundless agape, eternally and freely shared within the Trinity. This beauty — this exceeding weight of glory (kabod) — is displayed in the creation, which God brings into being without any “need” to do so. Created beauty — whose human form is Christ — is that in which God delights, made possible by creation’s very distance from God, a distance that can be traversed in utterly gracious gift and freely repeated return. God’s infinity is what allows the incessance of the gift and the endlessly modulated variety of the return.

The first third of the book launches into a critical history of Western philosophy — with its most recent phase of “late modernity” in the foreground — and its recurrent failure to allow itself to be opened up by “the Christian interruption.” Kant and the Romantics are guilty of a gnostic trivialization of the concretely beautiful in favor of the “sublime” as the veil of the unrepresentable. Nearer the present, the Gallic gurus and their own Germanic masters get their comeuppance. For all his passing nods to their occasional insights, he finds Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Levinas massively wrong in their respective accounts of being.

While thus clearing the ground, this first main section also hints at the alternatives that will be offered in the rest of the book. There Hart provides a “minor dogmatics” arranged under the headings of Trinity, creation, salvation, and eschaton. The governing concept is the trinitarian perichoresis: the life of the divine persons is that of eternal mutual self-donation and self-reception, which “unnecessarily” overflows as the act of creation and brings home the creatures in salvation. The author’s debts in the tradition are chiefly to Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor from the East, and to Augustine and Bonaventure from the West. On the Western front, a nuanced reading of Anselm introduces some qualification into the Abelardian soteriology that is currently in favor and that (in an Eastern mode) predominates in this book. Not surprisingly, it is Hans Urs von Balthasar who emerges as the most influential theologian among the moderns.

God the Holy Trinity constitutes the aboriginal peace. The Christian understanding of God is as “a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting, and joy.” In the divine and aboriginal ontology, therefore, difference is peaceful, not conflictual, and distance allows communion rather than entailing separation. “Creation is divine glory, told anew, and so its aesthetic variety is nothing but the different modes and degrees with which participated being is imparted.” The dialogical character of God — Father and Son as address and response in the radiance of the Holy Spirit — allows the Christian story to be itself enacted, then told and thought.

Theology is sustained by “the love of beauty” (philokalia). In this perspective, Bach can be deemed “the greatest of Christian theologians”: “[N]o one as compellingly demonstrates that the infinite is beauty and that beauty is infinite. It is in Bach’s music as nowhere else, that the potential boundlessness of thematic development becomes manifest: how a theme can unfold inexorably through difference, while remaining continuous in each moment of repetition, upon a potentially infinite surface of varied repetition.”

Sin and the fall are allotted no special chapter in this dogmatics (perhaps fittingly so, given that the nature of evil is a “privation of good”), but viewed as violence they run as a negative thread throughout the author’s entire argument. As Hart graphically puts it: Christian thought “treats this pervasive violence, inscribed upon being’s fabric, as a palimpsest, obscuring another text that is still written (all created being is ‘written’) but in the style of a letter declaring love.” Sin is a refusal of the invitation to taste and see the goodness of the Lord, a suppression of the divine gift possible only as “a perverse display of will.” It shows itself in the “all but impossible” failure to love God and neighbor.

Salvation comes by and in Christ, whose presence and history affect our entire race. His incarnation repeats the divine gift of creation; his life and death render the perfect human response; his resurrection inaugurates a new world, the true world restored to itself. The Christian claim and gospel is that the peace associated with the beginning and end of things “do[es] not merely stand outside human history, but enter[s] into it decisively in the resurrection of Christ; the peace of God — the shalom of creation and of the day God declares His rule out of Zion — has a real historical shape and presence, a concrete story, one which has entered into human history as a contrary history, the true story God always tells, in which violence has no place but rather stands under judgment as provisional, willful, needless: nonbeing. The Christian tradition is nothing if not the evangel of this eschatological peace offered in the present moment, as the true form of difference and the style of its transmission: the evangel, that is, of the crucified as the Lord of history, in the perpetual power of the Spirit.”

For the human being, subjective entry into the “new” world occurs when one is attracted away from the earthly city, founded (as Augustine knew) upon violence, and one’s hitherto misdirected desires are aroused by the objectively, divinely beautiful. One is thus restored and reshaped according to the image of God now manifest again in Christ. The perfection toward which one strives — St. Paul being interpreted in light of Gregory of Nyssa’s notion of epektasis — is limitless, given the inexhaustibility of the God to be enjoyed.

The positive exposition in the dogmatics is offset by the criticisms made of twentieth-century theologians whose chief indebtedness in intellectual history is to Hegel. Against any move that makes the world and its history constitutive of God, rather than revelatory of Him, Hart insists upon the divine apatheia, the doctrine that the divine nature is beyond suffering and change, the status of which he rescues from that of a contemporary theological swearword.

In a brilliant chapter that sets against Attic tragedy the “trinitarian drama of the cross and empty tomb,” the author castigates Donald MacKinnon and, to a lesser degree Nicholas Lash (Jürgen Moltmann is not dignified with a mention), for offering a suffering deity who in the end is not able to save. The resurrection is not to be considered as the vindication of the crucifixion but rather of the crucified Christ. The divine kenosis (God’s self-emptying) is always simultaneously a plerosis (God’s fullness). Even Balthasar is slyly rebuked for his “Holy Saturday” theology “with its broad rejection of the traditional triumphalistic imagery of hell’s harrowing (a rejection, mercifully, that is progressively moderated in successive volumes of his [Balthasar’s] Theodramatik).”

In concluding the book, Hart returns to the philosophical attack. He effectively deconstructs the deceptively benign hermeneutics of pluralism that is patterned after “the market’s endless fluidity” and has, in fact, its own clandestine master narrative (“the story of no stories”), its own metaphysical assumptions (“the truth of no truths”) that set limits to the claims of other narratives.

In truth, no neutrality is possible. Some other master narratives (Hart does not say which or how) may have features that make them a preparation for the gospel, but they are all there, at any rate in part, to be defeated by the Christian story. At least in the context of Western culture, Nietzsche’s “Antichrist” is the ultimate rival, whose story of violence the Christian story includes and contradictingly surpasses. The “war of the narratives” is a fight to the death that — in the nature of the case and counter to some historic instances — must be conducted by Christians without violence, peacefully. The cost may be martyrdom.

Despite “the Church’s frequent failure to embody the good it proclaims,” the “loveliness of the practice of Christian charity” belongs to evangelical witness. The “motion of charity,” exemplified in the saints, may draw the viewer into “another radiance, another ambit of vision, a different aesthetic of being, in which one finds some measure of liberation from the self and its baser impulses.”

My most substantial hesitation about the book concerns its failure to put a brake on the drive toward universalism that Gregory of Nyssa propels. Hart coyly admits that “Orthodox tradition does not authorize” him to defend Gregory’s “inevitable” universalism. But he himself seems relieved, on his own account, to notice a tendency in Eastern theologians to view hell, if not as (with Gregory) simply “purgation,” then as self-inflicted privation rather than perdition. That, however, may not take seriously enough what Maximus says about the eschatological encounter of all persons with the kingdom of God, either according to grace or apart from grace — which might make hell “the absolute proximity of God’s glory without the interval of the gift.” It is not clear that an account of evil as nonbeing requires that nothing shall in the end be lost.

If it were possible to wish that an already long book should be longer, I might plead for a somewhat thicker description of the “beauty of Christ” beyond the few allusive strokes Hart offers. The transfiguration of Jesus receives no attention, which is odd for an Orthodox writer. The systematician’s characteristic task, of course, differs from that of the exegete, the iconographer, the liturgist, and the hagiographer — yet one could wish for more passages like the biblical encomium on wine, the interpretation of Peter’s tears, and the last-page evocations from the Gospel stories of the risen Lord’s encounters: with Mary Magdalene in the garden, with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and with the seven fishermen at the lakeside.

The book makes dazzling use of the riches of literate English, while shunning the puerile puns of the postmoderns. It is also studded with instances of splendid invective, all of it, of course, grounded in an aboriginal — and leading to an eschatological — peace.

Unless you have a week to spare, don’t — yet — pick up this book. If and when you are ready to devote several days of close study to it, read it and you will be amply rewarded. This magnificent and demanding volume should establish David Bentley Hart, around the world no less than in North America, as one of his generation’s leading theologians.

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A Discussion On the Meaning of Suffering

June 15, 2010
 

Thousands of stateless Rohingya people have fled to Kutupalong makeshift camp in Cox’s Bazar District after being driven from their homes. Nearly 29,000 people find themselves camped on a patch of ground with no infrastructure to support them, posing a serious threat to health. Bangladesh 2010

The following exists by way of a series of links(some now broken) on the site of Touchstone Magazine. It is derived from an article David Hart wrote (Tremors of Doubt) which came to be a longer article in the WSJ (reading selections here) and finally a book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?

The article precipitated the falling out I had with Jerome that became the subject of the Failing Fellowship post a while back so I followed the back and forth between the distinguished participants in this exchange closely. Although I was unfamiliar with William Luse, Anthony Esolen is someone I deeply admire.

I’ve really only bolded the portions of David Hart’s arguments because I consider it important and one that many Christians don’t fully comprehend. The fact that two intellectuals such as Luse and Esolen have some trouble following it is instructional to say the least. Along the way they say some very interesting things but the day is clearly Dr. Hart’s, IMHO.

 Tremors of Doubt:What kind of God would allow a deadly tsunami? by DAVID B. HART
Friday, December 31, 2004 12:01 A.M. EST

On Nov. 1, 1755, a great earthquake struck offshore of Lisbon. In that city alone, some 60,000 perished, first from the tremors, then from the massive tsunami that arrived half an hour later. Fires consumed much of what remained of the city. The tidal waves spread death along the coasts of Iberia and North Africa.

Voltaire’s “Poëme sur le désastre de Lisbonne” of the following year was an exquisitely savage–though sober–assault upon the theodicies prevalent in his time. For those who would argue that “all is good” and “all is necessary,” that the universe is an elaborately calibrated harmony of pain and pleasure, or that this is the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire’s scorn was boundless: By what calculus of universal good can one reckon the value of “infants crushed upon their mothers’ breasts,” the dying “sad inhabitants of desolate shores,” the whole “fatal chaos of individual miseries”?

Perhaps the most disturbing argument against submission to “the will of God” in human suffering–especially the suffering of children–was placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by Dostoyevsky; but the evils Ivan enumerates are all acts of human cruelty, for which one can at least assign a clear culpability. Natural calamities usually seem a greater challenge to the certitudes of believers in a just and beneficent God than the sorrows induced by human iniquity.

Considered dispassionately, though, man is part of the natural order, and his propensity for malice should be no less a scandal to the conscience of the metaphysical optimist than the most violent convulsions of the physical world. The same ancient question is apposite to the horrors of history and nature alike: Whence comes evil? And as Voltaire so elegantly apostrophizes, it is useless to invoke the balances of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in God’s hand and he is not enchained.

As a Christian, I cannot imagine any answer to the question of evil likely to satisfy an unbeliever; I can note, though, that–for all its urgency–Voltaire’s version of the question is not in any proper sense “theological.” The God of Voltaire’s poem is a particular kind of “deist” God, who has shaped and ordered the world just as it now is, in accord with his exact intentions, and who presides over all its eventualities austerely attentive to a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Not that reckless Christians have not occasionally spoken in such terms; but this is not the Christian God.

The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities” — spiritual and terrestrial — alien to God. In the Gospel of John, especially, the incarnate God enters a world at once his own and yet hostile to him –”He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not”– and his appearance within “this cosmos” is both an act of judgment and a rescue of the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature.

Whatever one makes of this story, it is no bland cosmic optimism. Yes, at the heart of the gospel is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the victory over evil and death has been won; but it is also a victory yet to come. As Paul says, all creation groans in anguished anticipation of the day when God’s glory will transfigure all things. For now, we live amid a strife of darkness and light.

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering–when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s–no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms — knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against “fate,” and that must do so until the end of days.
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William Luse, who has written for Touchstone, responds to David Hart’s Wall Street Journal article on the Indian Ocean tsunamis:

I read David Hart’s “Tremors of Doubt”, which you linked to, and a few lines caught my attention. He says:

The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all.

Of course, I am no theologian and may not possess a theologian’s understanding of “ultimate meaning,” but I had always thought that human suffering and death did have meaning, and that it was Christ’s own that allowed us to see it. In a world not created for suffering, our first parents let it in (that “primordial catastrophe” to which Hart refers), implicating not only themselves but all their descendants as well in the guilt for it and the restitution that must be made to God. What makes this imputation of universal guilt most difficult to bear is not merely the fact of suffering, but the suffering of innocents (the “infants crushed upon their mothers’ breasts”). We are all guilty, but some are guiltier than others. We don’t understand why the (relatively) innocent must suffer in the company, and sometimes at the hands, of the implacably evil or indifferent. Our sense of justice (and, we hope, God’s) demands that punishments and rewards be distributed according to our just desserts, and that if we cannot see it in this life, it will be completed in the next.

But Hart refers to Voltaire’s ‘deist’ God — “who has shaped and ordered the world just as it now is, in accord with his exact intentions, and who presides over all its eventualities austerely attentive to a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality’ — and says that, though Christians sometimes speak in these terms, “this is not the Christian God.” And I agree, but he then goes further:

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering — when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s — no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends.

I agree that it might be prudent in the crisis of grief to swallow the “banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels”, but how is it that they become odious? And it might be wise in that same moment to bite one’s tongue on the matter of God’s good, though mysterious, ends. But how does mention of them become blasphemous, as though He would be offended by our acknowledging His providence, or by submitting our minds to His in matters beyond us?

Perhaps I’m misreading him, or reading too much into his piece, but Hart seems uncomfortable with Christians who speak of God as the great (though mysterious and secretive) balancer of accounts, as when he notes: “And as Voltaire so elegantly apostrophizes, it is useless to invoke the balances of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in God’s hand and he is not enchained.”

People who “utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels” (with or without a license) are saying one thing and one thing only: we either have faith in those counsels, and His “good ends”, or it’s all a big nothing. Either the suffering of those innocents participated in Christ’s own, bearing spiritual fruit for themselves and for all mankind, or…what? Nothing. Suffering has meaning. It can save us. (Can, not must.) To me, it would be a great sorrow and a pity to find out in eternity that it were not so.

So I ask: am I seeing something in his words that isn’t there?

And David Hart replies:
One must attend to the meaning of “ultimate.” The story Christian doctrine tells is that sin and death are accidental to our created nature, and so they never occupied any necessary place in God’s intentions for his creatures; nor has he need of suffering and death to realize his nature or ours. Whatever good God may bring from suffering or death does not, therefore, endue (vocab: To provide with a quality or trait; endow) suffering or death with any eternal or ontological meaning in itself.

I shall skip over the matter of universal aboriginal guilt, as it presumes an understanding of original sin that is not quite in keeping with Eastern tradition, and I am of course Orthodox.  But let us grant original sin its place, and that we all sin.

Still, the notion that the suffering of, say, dying babies somehow participates in Christ’s suffering and is part of some vast providential calculus whereby God balances accounts is a Stoic parody of Christian orthodoxy, and were it true Christian teaching I should advocate apostasy.  There is no biblical or doctrinal warrant for such a view. Yes, the deaths of innocents are indeed meaningless, even if God’s providence will indeed bring good from that evil; there is no spiritual fruit to be reaped from the drowning of tens of thousands of infants, for them or for us; the reign of death in all things is not the same as the justice of every particular death in the great scheme of things; that is why Christ came to save us from suffering and death, and why God will raise the dead. This world is fallen, and nowhere does God promise to make the sum total of its suffering add up to some greater spiritual truth. Rather, through taking our suffering upon himself, he rescues us from the meaninglessness of death, and even graciously allows us to offer up our own sufferings in obedience to him.

This is the gospel: it does not announce the perfect rationality of the history of the fallen world, but the perfect love of God who overcomes the powers of this age.

I earnestly implore all who have not done so to read Ivan Karamazov’s remarks in the chapter entitled “Rebellion” in The Brothers Karamazov, and to reflect upon them.

William Luse has this further reply to David Hart:
It seems I did read [Hart] right, which disappoints me. I had no idea there was such a divergence in Orthodox and Catholic traditions on the matter of original sin. Either that or I have a poor understanding of my own faith’s teaching. But Hart seems to acknowledge that the divergence is real, not peculiar to me. As to the value of individual suffering, he holds my position as “a Stoic parody of Christian orthodoxy,” a rebuke that will sting once I confirm it to be the case. If his remark is true — “Yes, the deaths of innocents are indeed meaningless, even if God’s providence will indeed bring good from that evil” — I will find it a hard pill to swallow.

My difficulty is in seeing how their deaths can be meaningless if good can be brought from the evil. The balancing of accounts I referred to is a spiritual one, of course, and I am not quite ready to abandon it.

And David Hart has this brief response:
This is not a difference between East and West. The view that Mr. Luse has advanced belongs to neither tradition, and I wish he would make an effort to rethink the implications of what he has said. Again, I recommend Dostoyevsky as a good starting point, and Aquinas’s De Malo thereafter. And as for bringing good from evil, that still does not make evil good or necessary; it means only that God is omnipotent and loving and that the gates of hell cannot prevail against his Kingdom.

Anthony Esolen, translator of a new edition of the Divine Comedy and a contributing editor of Touchstone, responds to the conversation on suffering:
Perhaps I too am not quite sure what the word “ultimate” means. But I recall the medieval frescoes and triptychs of saints bearing their wounds as marks of glory — Saint Peter Martyr most startlingly, with the axe wound that cleft his tonsure in two — and I think that the artists perceived something important. The incarnation of Christ has allowed us men to do some things that the faithful angels themselves cannot do. We can, as Paul struggles to say, make up by our suffering what is lacking in the sacrifice of Christ; that is, we can partake of that sacrifice by uniting our sufferings with that sacrifice. We can repent, and conform ourselves to Christ; and we can die, as Christ himself died, as he would have had to die even had there been no malign Sanhedrin to condemn him. Upon Christ’s glorified body there were no bruises, no lacerations, but the five wounds remained, and, as the great hymn puts it, the faithful will one day gaze upon those glorious scars — scars which we and not the angels will share with him, because we and not the angels will have borne them.

We were not meant to suffer and die; but we sinned, and having sinned, indeed we are meant, in the re-creating Providence of God, to suffer and die, but not as Satan would have it. I must believe that the incarnation and the atoning death of Christ does not simply undo the harm of sin — does not simply restore to us a lost innocence — but delivers for us the greater glory of a victory over sin and death, a victory accomplished in us through Christ. Surely David believes this too; again, perhaps I am misconstruing his use of the word “ultimate.” But will I not always, if God should see fit to save me, be the one who suffered and repented and died in a way peculiar to myself? Will not that strange eventful history be ineradicable from my being? This hope—and for me it is an abiding hope—in the ultimate meaning of suffering seems to lie behind the strange words of Christ, illogical if a found sheep is the same sheep that once dwelt in the fold, that there is more rejoicing in Heaven at the finding of the one lost than at the keeping of the ninety nine that were never lost.

I trust I’ll not be accused of creeping Stoicism merely for noticing that adumbrations of Christlike suffering are to be found in the ideals of the best of the pagans; nor, I trust, will I be tagged as a follower of that charlatan Voltaire, who, when he rejected the Incarnation, rejected also the tremendous mystery of human suffering, and of course fell back upon a cold impersonal God whom Cicero would have found appalling, much less Boethius.

The Holy Innocents, whose feast we’ve recently celebrated, suffered the same evil as did the children who died in the recent disaster. We Christians should see in that terrible incident long ago all the blind sufferings of weeping and (relatively) innocent humanity, all of us children dying we know not why, whether it is at the hands of a Herod or in the wake of a tsunami or after the slow wasting away of our vigor. Holy Innocents, martyrs who did not know to whom you were witnesses or that you were witnesses to anyone at all, pray for us, young and old alike, that one day we may bear our wounds as gloriously as you bear yours.

David Hart replies:
I’m sorry but this is utterly irrelevant to my remarks, and has nothing to do with what Luse said either. It seems tedious to rehearse again and again this simple point, but I shall try once more: that we are allowed to offer up our sufferings to God as oblations of obedience, that we are able to find grace in the midst of our sufferings (and so on) is entirely unrelated to the claim that suffering and death in themselves are meaningful or are part of the ontological “truth” of God’s creation; it is certainly unrelated to the absurd, obscene, and grotesque claim that the sum total of suffering in the world adds up to a precisely calculated “balancing” of the score for original sin. This latter suggestion is most definitely incompatible with the message of the gospels, and indeed would make a nonsense of all atonement theology. The economy of salvation should not be confused with a Hegelian passage through the finite, nor providence with a universal teleology.

Also, the notion that a triumph over sin and death won along the hard path of fallen nature is a higher good than would have prevailed had we not fallen at all is nonsense (all talk of the felix culpa  aside); such a notion would require a view of evil as something in addition to God, something positive over against the divine, required to fecundate the good within creation. There is a very good set of doctrinal and metaphysical concerns behind the Church’s insistence upon a privatio boni view of evil.  To suggest that evil can serve to increase the good sounds marvelous and dramatic; it is also quite heretical and quite philosophically incoherent.

Anthony Esolen continues his dialogue with David Hart:
I’m a great admirer of David Hart’s work, and have actually used to good effect his brilliant article, Christ and Nothing, to bring at least one young prodigal back to sanity and the Church. So I’m in the odd position of arguing with someone whom I consider a great comrade in the current unpleasantness, if it be no presumption in a sergeant to look for comrades. But since I’m no philosopher or theologian, I’ve probably slipped on a patch or two of rhetoric.

What worries me (and, if I read him right, what worries Bill Luse) is that assertion that suffering is of no ultimate significance. Now it seems to me that the words “suffering” and “significance” can be read in more than one way. If by “significance” we mean ontological significance — that suffering adds to the created nature that God has endowed us with—then of course we must reject the proposition.

Suffering is a privation of a good that we ought to possess, as sickness is a privation of health and not a thing-in-itself. But “significance” can mean, literally, the property of being a sign of something else. In this sense, suffering—even considered as a privation of good, simply — can possess significance, if by the will of God it is a sign of something else, in this case a sign of Christ. God did not need suffering, to establish such a sign; in that sense, suffering in itself has no meaning. But God also did not need the medieval pelican, to establish a sign of the self-sacrificing Christ; pelicans in themselves bear no such significance. Attributively, by the will of God, they do bear such significance, and one of the medieval mystics, I think Richard of Saint Victor, supposed that God created the pelican precisely so that it would serve us as a sign of Christ. And maybe “attributively” is too weak a word to use, since it implies a mere notional, linguistic significance, rather than a cogent and irresistible pointing. When, for instance, Christ said, “When I was hungry, you fed me; when I was thirsty, you gave me to drink,” he was identifying the sufferings of mankind with his own. This was more than external, “forensic” imputation. Thus the suffering of human beings has meaning because it points to Christ who suffers, and because in fact it is Christ who suffers.

David may be growing impatient with me here — all this must strike him as quite elementary, as his own reference to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov struck me. I’m trying to work out my own thought; I don’t intend to be condescending. He may say that such significance is not “ultimate.” And here I think we need to look at that word “suffering.” In one sense it is a mere privation, or it is a removal of some good that ought to be there. But suppose we consider it in the same light as we consider the word “emptying.” That word even more strongly than “suffering” suggests privation; surely emptying, in itself, can possess no significance. When we empty ourselves of obedience we sin — and that sin is better described as a failure to act, an impotence, than as an act in itself. It can thus have no ultimate meaning, or even any meaning in itself at all.

But the emptying that Christ assumed for our sake is the ultimate act of grace, and perhaps had better be described as a filling: not of Himself, but of us, with Himself. Now he need not have conquered death by dying; but he chose to do so, and, more than that, he willed that “dying” be the means of our regeneration, and, as I think we are allowed to hope, of our being raised to a glory beyond that with which the sinless Adam had been endowed. In Heaven, Christ will be, and is, and has ever been, Priest and King and Sacrifice: and He has willed that our deaths here be a shadowing forth, a sign, of what He is, the Son from all eternity filling Himself with Divinity (words are failing me here) by emptying Himself in obedience to the Father.

And that seems to me to be the hope offered by Dostoyevsky. It isn’t that Marcel’s suffering and death, in themselves, signify; but they are no longer suffering and death in themselves, or, better, we now have it revealed to us that no human suffering or death is or ever was merely suffering and death, because Christ is He who suffered, and because Christ is He who was obedient unto death. Death is, through the power and wisdom of God, not what we thought it was, the cessation of bodily function: “Except a corn of wheat fall to the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

The terrible questions Ivan poses about the suffering of the innocent child are played out in the book itself, with Ivan nearly oblivious to the drama. When the real — and persecuted — lad dies, he has already become, through God’s grace, a sign of Christ, because in fact Christ was suffering in him, and the boys who form a band around Alyosha are a brotherhood, an apostolate, remembering in love the one whom they had helped to pierce. When Kolya, the leader, asks Alyosha whether, in the resurrection, they will see their friend again, and all be together, Alyosha responds that they shall — and he can say so with confidence, because the promise is that we shall see Christ, and be one in Christ.

Maybe what I’m saying is too obvious, and I’m missing a distinction between “meaning” and “ultimate meaning.”  I can’t drive from my head the marks upon the glorified Christ. They are signs. He didn’t need them. But he chose them; they are therefore His; and I hope one day, doubter that I have been, to ask to probe them, like the patron of the hardheaded, Thomas. I trust they will still be there.

David Hart continues his conversation with Anthony Esolen:
First, if I seem to be growing impatient, it has more to do with a number of communications I have received that have not been posted for general perusal; one in particular, from a pompous Calvinist who as far as I can tell is an inadvertent Moloch worshiper, put me in an especially foul mood; so excuse me. I am an admirer of Esolen’s work; until his rendering of Tasso appeared I thought I could not possibly enjoy any translation as much as the old Fairfax version, with which I fell in love when I was twelve. I plan to order all three volumes of his Dante when my next check for an article comes.

Second, let us defend the created goodness of the noble pelican, one of God’s grandest achievements. While I agree in principle with Esolen’s remarks, I insist on this distinction:  the pelican is the good creature of God, possessed of its own proper essence and nature, and as such is an analogy of the divine in its very being, whether posteriorly appropriated as a symbol of Christ or not; evil, suffering, and death — being privations — can signify God’s love only through an act of divine subversion, conquest, and economy. And, then again, this is a distinction of more than passing importance.

Third, one can become lost in a thicket of pieties if one is not careful, and so miss the obvious. Here I think I have quite a good grasp on what Dostoyevsky is doing in the chapter “Rebellion” — among other things, he is making Ivan, unwittingly, an apologist for a true vision of God’s goodness over against the sort of sickly Teutonized idealism that had corrupted the “religious movement” in Russia in his day, a vision that later Zosima will carry into its true depth. It is not, however, quite the vision that Esolen suggests, I think; but here more clarity would be necessary for me to judge. What is essential — and this is all I ever meant to say — is to distinguish between two understandings of God’s power over creation. In one — a deist understanding — the world was created from eternity to be an intricate machinery of good and evil, darkness and light, exquisitely balanced between felicity and moral gravity, wherein death and suffering constitute necessary elements of God’s creative purposes, without which he could not bring his purposes to fruition, and wherein every event is part of a perfectly coherent scheme of cosmic and spiritual harmony. In the other — the Christian understanding — God creates us for union with himself, requiring no passage through evil to realize the good in us and to divinize us, but we fall away into the damnable absurdity of sin, death, and hell, from which God then rescues us; while indeed God, in the economy of salvation, makes even death obedient to his saving purposes, he does so as the one who on the last day will judge and damn the meaningless brutality and absurdity of fallen existence, and — far from disclosing the inherent rationality and moral necessity of death — will conquer it utterly on behalf of its victims. Yes, God uses suffering and death for the good; but, no, in themselves they are contrary to the nature of the world, in enmity to God’s goodness, and “meaningless” (that is, they do not possess that ontological or moral necessity that either a deist or a semi-Hegelian theologian would assign them).

Fourth — and this seems to be the sticking point — it is simply wrong to say that the scars of sin and redemption make the glory of union with God greater than they otherwise would have been. This is a tempting belief, but one that must end in absurdity. Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine (and Thomas) are wonderful curatives of this particular error. If God is the supereminent fullness of all actuality and all goodness and all love, then the kenosis of God in Christ is nothing in addition to what would have been communicated to us had we not fallen; nor is the good lacking in anything necessary to manifest itself in and to creatures. It is metaphysically and doctrinally necessary to insist upon this; not to do so compromises both God’s transcendence and goodness. But that would take many many pages to unfold.

And Esolen replys:
Thank you for your reply — and for being a fan of Tasso, who does not exactly pack the stadium seats.

We agree on everything until that fourth point. I too find the Deist calculator-god as revolting as Johnson did when he lashed out against the idea in Pope’s Essay on Man, and in the work of the prelate Jenyns — if memory serves me. That’s the splendidly dour vision of Marcus Aurelius. It is haunted by Truth, but it’s an abyss of despair.

On that fourth point, though: I understand that if God communicates His fullness to a creature, there is nothing beyond that to be communicated. But the creature receives the fullness according to its capacity. Is there a way to believe that the redeemed creature is a new creation with a wholly new, not simply restored, capacity for such blessedness? Again, God would not have required the sin-and-redemption to re-create man; but could he not have willed that it be so for sinful man? Maybe I’ve been teaching Paradise Lost for too long, and trying to meet the typical student’s objection, that Satan does seem to have achieved a kind of victory after all. If you’re not worn out by the Molochites, I’d appreciate hearing how you would respond.

David B. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and author of The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003). Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante’s Divine Comedy (Modern Library).

Esolen and Hart Finale
David Hart responds to Anthony Esolen’s reply in last night’s Hart by the Numbers:

No, that cannot be. It really cannot, and there is not much room here for argument. The capacity of the creature for God is not elevated by sin, nor would our primaeval innocence have been a static condition. In either case, union with God must be a progress from glory to glory, an elevation of the creature to the fulfillment of the divine image within it; and to this nothing can or need give increase. An intellectual creature’s innate capacity for God, after all, could not possibly be limited to a specific scope — it must expand towards ever greater knowledge (otherwise it would not be knowledge of God at all, who is infinite and so never conformable to a finite intellectual intention). We are called to contemplate and enter into the life of God himself, and that is not something that admits of fixed degrees. How can the infinite be an “object” of contemplation except through an eternal growth in knowledge?

To think otherwise would also be to say that God’s intention for us apart from sin was deficient, that the divine image was not meant to be fulfilled in union with God as perfectly as it might be, and that union with God is an extrinsic accommodation with finite cognition. It would also mean that sin can somehow “enhance” the divine image in us.

Look, honestly, there are ten thousand very well worked out arguments on this matter, many of which are there to be found in Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Maximus, Thomas Aquinas…Henri de Lubac (et ceteri). I am not spinning out my own opinions here. And when one understands these arguments, one cannot really dissent from them. To advance the view that you want is to do damage not only to a coherent view of our created nature, but to any proper understanding of the transcendence of God’s goodness.

I really must end the conversation here, I fear; I am well past a deadline already.

Oh, but I must add one more observation on the Pelican. You do appreciate, I hope, that even the cross of Christ would not reveal to us the true nature of divine love were it not for the resurrection. In itself, death is not a sign, but only death thus assumed, thus conquered, and thus imitated. The pelican — that mighty sign of God’s goodness –  would reveal something true about God simply by virtue of its pelicanity in any possible world. This is actually quite important.

Anthony Esolen has his final say:
David Hart justly warns us against any easy and sentimental belief that it was, after all, good that Adam sinned. Scripture is unequivocal about this, as it is about what Hart calls the absurdity and brutality of our fallen world.

Sin cannot elevate the capacity of the creature for God. Nor, as he says, would our primeval innocence have been static. What exactly it would have been is the subject of great speculation on the part of theologians; but unless God had created Adam in vain, Adam’s fulfillment must have been attainable only in the contemplation of God himself.

It was not clear to Thomas, however, that even the desire for union, rather than communion, with God — the sharing of the very life of the Trinity that David so eloquently speaks of — was present by nature in Adam: “Eternal life is a good exceeding the proportion of created nature, as likewise it exceeds its knowledge and desire, according to 1 Corinthians 2:9: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man.’” Thus, when we’re talking about our capacity for blessedness — “capacity” is Thomas’s word — we are talking about two things: “Duplex capacitas attendi potest in humana natura.” One, he says, is the capacity we possess by nature, and this, says Thomas, God fills accordingly, as he does for every created thing. But the other is the capacity we possess by the divine will, that is by grace; and this indeed may be increased, nor is it to be considered a defect if God wills not to increase it (Summa Theol. III, q.1, a.3).

Thomas is answering the false assertion that the Son had to become man, even had Adam not sinned; otherwise, the argument goes, a capacity for blessedness in Adam would have remained unfulfilled, since, after Adam, and after the Incarnation, fallen man now has the blessings of grace. Now Thomas does not reply that Adam was no recipient of grace, nor does he imply that Adam’s state would have remained what it was; about the details of such a providential economy, as it would have unfolded, we have no witness. But Thomas does hold open the possibility of the felix culpa: “There is nothing to prevent human nature’s being raised up to something greater [i.e., than it had been in Adam], even after sin; God permits evil in order to draw forth from it some greater good (Nihil autem prohibet ad aliquid maius humanam naturam productam esse post peccatum: Deus enim permittit mala fieri ut inde aliquid melius eliciat). Thus Saint Paul says, ‘Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’; and the Exsultet of the Paschal Feast sings, ‘O happy fault, which gained for us so great a redeemer!’”

Thinking of such grace, then, Francis de Sales can say, with a tad more assurance than Thomas says it but with no heresy, that “our ruin has been to our advantage, since human nature in fact has received greater graces by the redemption wrought by its Savior than it would ever have received from Adam’s innocence even if he had persevered therein.” (Treatise on the Love of God).

Professor Hart’s language describing the rush of being lifted or embraced more and more deeply into the life of God, from glory to glory, with ever expanding knowledge, is as glorious as that of any prose writer I know, and is Dantesque in its ardor and sweep. He is right, Paradise must be so! Nor would I wish to think of our “capacity” for blessedness rather as a pint pot or a gallon jug.

But even in mathematics there are orders of infinity. Grant that man’s natural capacity for blessedness is infinite (because it is the infinite God who will fulfill it), it does not then follow that grace cannot raise that capacity, nor does it follow that there cannot be “degrees” of blessedness, if by “degrees” we are talking not of finite numbers but of ranks and hierarchies of endless (and endlessly deepening) bliss. Such degrees, from one blessed soul to the next, imply no defect in God’s goodness, no more than is implied by the fact that men are not seraphim, and seraphim are not cherubim. Thomas follows the Fathers in interpreting “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” as asserting such “degrees” — not fixed capacities, but still degrees, or “gradus,” to use his term (Suppl. 93, art. 2; and for the inequality of the blessed, and the diversity of their blessedness, see Summa Contra Gentiles 3.58).

Sometimes Thomas uses the language of “closeness” to describe these orders: “Quanto aliquis erit Deo magis coniunctus, tanto erit beatior” “The more closely one is conjoined with God, the more of blessedness will one enjoy.” (Suppl. 93, art. 3). This closeness is a consequence of charity, itself a gift of God’s grace.

I agree with Professor Hart about the worthy pelican’s showing forth his Creator in his natural pelicanity, original sin or no; and of course if the Cross signifies anything, or by means of anything, it is the victory of the Resurrection. But we have ventured far from the original discussion about suffering. I am not committed to the “strong” version of the felix culpa, as comforting as I have found it. May God one day show me whether it was true. I am grateful to David for his patience and his exertions in this discussion, which have helped me at least sort out my thoughts and feelings at this time, and I wish to join him in the wholehearted reverence he advises. We suffer; God is just and good. Let us not make light of the suffering. Let us place our hope in Christ, and be silent.

And David Hart, responding, brings this discussion to a close:
There may be some obiter dictum in Thomas’s discussion of the question of infralapsarian (vocab: Christian theology, chiefly Calvinist, a person who believes that foreknowledge of the Fall preceded God’s decree of who was predestined to salvation and who was not.)incarnation that would alter my view of him; I will consult your references. Incidentally, Aquinas is wrong — the incarnation is the premise of creation, with or without sin. But that is another argument.

In any event, Francis de Sales is speaking nonsense, and in fact rather silly nonsense, and if we had many many days to spend on the topic I might be able to convince you. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but there is a level of technicality that this entire discussion invites that makes this an unappealing project.

I will make only three closing observations:

1) Logically, the end for which an intellectual creature is intended — even though that end be supernatural and gratuitous — is the perfection of its nature in the highest good, which is to say union with God. It would indeed be a deficient creative act of God were he to will in the creature anything short of the consummate perfection of that union proper to the creature in its divinized state (in, that is, the condition of grace). To imagine that for a creature created in the divine image there could be a sufficient natural fulfillment proportionate to the creature’s capacity that is anything less than the supernatural elevation of his nature to the highest knowledge of God is to fail to grasp what it means to be created in the divine image. Without final grace, human “nature” cannot be complete. True, Aquinas would not seem to agree; though Henri de Lubac is very good at showing that in fact he does. Also, God wills the highest good possible for his creatures because he must: not to do so would be to fail to will the infinite goodness of his own essence (which is the sole “real” object of his will) in the reditio of all created things to him.

2) The mathematical model of greater and lesser infinities is not germane here, obviously, inasmuch as the question is one of finite consciousness of the infinite simplicity of God, not one concerning the size of a set. As God is infinite, and cannot therefore be the object of a finite intuition proportioned to eidetic consciousness, the vision of God must always be of the same simplicity — communicated by grace — ever more deeply apprehended, without surcease, term, or limits.

If this is the end to which rational creation is called, it becomes meaningless to speak of greater and lesser graces. God’s very being is manifestation of his essence in his Logos, in the light of his Spirit, and our being as logikoi (vocab: In the original creation, all rational spiritual beings logikoi)is to be joined in perfect living knowledge of the Logos, which can mean only one thing. Divinization is not an extrinsic accommodation between two objects set over against one another: it literally is our eternal act of “becoming God,” which is not something that comes in greater and lesser versions. A mathematical model of the infinite is a philosophical red herring here. Better to discuss Husserl’s discussions of intuitions following from an infinite intention, or Henri de Lubac’s treatment (better than Marechal’s or Rahner’s I think) of how the prior orientation of God’s infinity is the ground of all finite consciousness, even of finite things.

3) Whether one wants to accept it or not, the simple and incontrovertible truth is that, if sin can lead to a greater grace than would otherwise have been available, then sin and evil are positive elements of the divine will, of created nature, and even of the divine nature: there is no other actus in which creation participates, and so if evil can even occasion an increase in the good, then evil has real being and must participate in God. And since God is infinite goodness, and wills his own goodness infinitely, and since a higher good could be accomplished by means of evil, then we must believe God does in some sense will evil, and that evil therefore resides in the divine essence. I doubt you are following my argument here, as this really requires about 200 pages, and it is 1:18 a.m. as I write this; but what I am saying is simply correct. Either you believe in the privatio boni view of evil (and so in the convertibility of all the ontological transcendentals with the divine essence), or you do not; only in the latter case can you assert the “hard” version of the felix culpa, though you can no longer believe God or subsistent being is goodness as such.

Look, there are varying levels of theological discourse, I know. To my mind, all talk of the felix culpa remains always on the homiletic plane, where it does some good perhaps. I am only a student of classical Christian metaphysics and you could not pay me to give a sermon; within that metaphysical tradition, the notion that we will profit from evil more than we would have done from innocence is not only morally problematic, but renders Christian ontology and any coherently Christian understanding of God impossible.

Please, though, we have said enough.

————————–

Wither Job?

William Reichert responds to Esolen and Hart:
This exchange is fascinating, and I hope it does not end soon. However, I’m curious why none of the participants has mentioned the Book of Job. It seems a bit odd that the whole question of theodicy could be discussed without reference to Job.

I believe I understand Dr. Hart’s argument, but I am troubled by its pastoral application. Surely we’d make “Job’s comforters” look good if we responded to those who suffer by saying, “Be of good cheer: the evil you suffer is ultimately meaningless.” I don’t believe that is what Dr. Hart would say in such circumstances, but I’m afraid that’s what many people who read his article may carry away from his argument. Perhaps, however, he regards such application as the pastor’s, and not the theologian’s, responsibility

———————–

Hart Replies to Wither Job?
David Hart responds to William Reichert’s question:

It is precisely Job’s comforters I wish to cut short. Tell me, at the end of Job, what meaning — what justice — does God tell Job his particular suffering served?

Perhaps Christ’s words in Luke 13:1-5 would make my meaning clear.
[“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them -- do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”]

In any event, please, please, please try to see only this: to say that in your life of faith your suffering can be taken up into a greater good, by grace and economy (which is of course true), is different from saying that suffering and death are in themselves ontological and moral goods for God that constitute proper elements of his designs for his creatures. It was this latter view of evil as somehow IN ITSELF a positive good that bears fruit that could not by any other means have been brought forth in creation that I was identifying as a deist corruption of theology, and on this point how could any Christian disagree? Please remember what the original column was about.

Hart’s Last Word
David Hart sends this “final valedictory” letter:

No one is more annoying than the guest who announces his departure again and again but never leaves. I keep saying I am done, but obviously I am not. This is the last — honestly, the last — thing I want to say.

Since that accursed column ran in the WSJ (and I shall never again attempt to say so much in 750 words), I have received an average of 280 e-mails a day. Who knows how they find my address, but with a paper whose circulation is so great I should not be surprised. Most go unanswered, but I have foolishly replied to many. I also foolishly agreed to dash off another 2500 words on the matter for First Things as a rush job — one day — for the March issue. The result is that I am writing in ever greater haste, in an ever deepening condition of fatigue and of anxiety over the other obligations I am neglecting, and looking back over the last few exchanges I cannot help but notice a note of asperity sneaking in, and a sort of rhetorical sloppiness. So I apologize.

All I ever meant to point out in that piece was that Christians are not deists. Of course, our suffering and our death — on account of the empty tomb — can have ultimate moral and spiritual meaning. When Christ went hence, he took many captive — including even death, the final enemy. The issue addressed in the piece was whether suffering and death were ontological necessities for God and his great scheme, which no Christian who knows his tradition could possibly affirm. Thus it is wrong not only for skeptics to think that earthquakes should shake the faith of Christians (in fact they merely confirm what we believe about a fallen world), but for Christians to assume that God’s providential governance of things requires the notion that God directly wills evil in the world as the necessary vehicle of a final harmony or that every death or loss corresponds to an exact deistic calculus of the balance between felicity and morality in this world or the next. This is why Ivan Karamazov is helpful: he reminds us what we do not believe.

I shall go to my grave convinced that most versions of the felix culpa are fundamentally wrong and incoherent, and I believe that the totality of Thomas’s thought clearly backs me up (but if not, so be it). At the most rudimentary level, it seems to imply that God rewards sin more than sinlessness, that he therefore wills evil, that his righteousness is divided aginst itself, and that the good he wills (which is of his essence) must require evil to be perfect (which is monstrous). Or it implies a voluntarist divine freedom that responds to evil as a real power outside his nature with a decision to alter his primordial intentions for man (which makes God finite and evil substantial). But why argue about it? What inspires revulsion in me may inspire adoration in another. And while Francis de Sales was a fairly mediocre theologian (he was, as it happens, and this is no insult), he was a great saint, and holiness knows what mere metaphysics can never grasp.

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