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.
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.
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.