"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Eternity: do we get only what we want?

Fr. Al Kimel has posted some fine thoughts on a perennial question that the Apostles themselves asked Jesus: "How many will be saved?" Of course I didn't need to be convinced of his conclusion, which alludes to Jesus' answer: "Foreswear the counting of the saved or the damned. Strive, rather, to enter through the narrow door!" I have long thought the question itself useless. We can't even predict the result of the next election, never mind the size of the elect, which latter God has chosen, in his infinite wisdom, not to tell us. But I have long been interested in a related question: do we get in the hereafter only what we ultimately want? Whatever the answer is, it is neither obvious nor unimportant. But unlike "how many are saved?", the question is well worth exploring.

We all want eternal bliss even when it's conceived, wrongly, as a superabundance of sex (or, for some women I know, chocolate). But it doesn't follow that we all want heaven. For heaven is a state of conscious and perpetual union with God whose prerequisite is a thoroughgoing purification and reconstitution of our being. In the real world, that in turn requires suffering and death, which we don't want. Yet, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, "to will the end is to will the means to the end." So, to get to heaven one must want it badly enough to die to self spiritually so that one can die physically in some sort of union with Christ. I rather doubt that everybody wants heaven that badly.

Indeed, many traditional Christians are wont to say that the default fate for humans is damnation. From this point of view, each of us is damned unless, with divine help, we choose to do whatever is necessary to be saved. That answer seems reasonable enough. After all, Christ came to save us from the thralldom of Satan because we were, and are, incapable of doing that for ourselves; so, what is necessary for avoiding damnation is to choose for Christ. But it doesn't take a lot of critical reflection to see that such an answer must, at the very least, be seriously qualified.

First there's the consideration, which follows ineluctably from the teaching of the Church, that baptized infants who die before becoming capable of morally significant choice go straight to heaven. Others have chosen for them; they had no spiritual battle to fight. Cool. And what of others who are in no position to make what is thought to be the necessary choice in this life: infants who die unbaptized; those adults who die never having heard the Gospel at all; those who have been more or less exposed to it, but only in some toxic or otherwise misleading form which they understandably reject—what of these? Are they to be damned just for the bad moral luck of having had neither a clear opportunity to choose for Christ nor the love of some believers who choose for them? I'm not going to speak for other Christians, but I speak with the Catholic Church in affirming that God damns nobody through no fault of their own. If damnation is default, it can't be for such people. There are quite a lot of them.

Of course, purebred Augustinians will insist that inheriting original sin, which we do just by belonging to the human race, means that every human being is conceived personally guilty before God. If that is so, then those who have never had the opportunity to choose for Christ in this life are actually in a worse position than those who have. Some are forever deprived of union with God even though they have died without having made a single free choice or even known anything relevant. Others who have grown up enough to commit serious actual sin will burn forever in hell even if they have never heard the Gospel at all or have only heard it distorted. All such people belong to the massa damnata from which it is the purpose of Christ to extract the fortunate, predestined elect.

Aside from the sheer ruthlessness thereby ascribed to God, the problem with that picture is its premise: original sin as personal guilt. While that's what Augustine held, and has thus influenced many in the West to hold, that idea has never been dogmatized and is now, in fact, the opposite of the ordinary teaching of the Catholic Church. Thus CCC §405:

Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called "concupiscence". Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.

I have explained before how that development in Catholic teaching is compatible with the Council of Trent's dogmas on original sin. Unlike Augustine's view, it is also compatible with the Eastern-Christian understanding of "ancestral" sin. And so a Catholic cannot argue that it follows from the de fide doctrine of original sin that damnation is our human default fate. We are each conceived in a state of alienation from God; but it doesn't follow from that alone that such is what anybody ultimately wants, or even that anybody is just going to fall through the nets willy-nilly into hell.

What about the alternative: is salvation, rather than damnation, the default fate for humanity? That is what many Catholics today seem to believe, and it's hard to fault them for that. After all, "God wills that all be saved and come to knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4), and God's will is in some sense unthwartable. Grace sufficient for salvation is given to all, even to unbelievers. Indeed, there has never been a time when humanity has been without grace. The purpose of our creation was to be elevated by God to partake in his own trinitarian life, and that elevation is the primary theological referent of the very term 'grace'. Creation is irrevocably suffused with grace, even when we don't experience it that way. Accordingly, among those Catholics who are Catholic enough to admit that damnation is a very real possibility for people, the most common opinion now is that only people who die wanting and choosing to be damned are, in fact, damned. They are bathed in a supernal light that they hate so much, it burns.

But I don't believe that's quite right either. Consider an example of such thinking from a saint, Leonard of Port Maurice, cited by one of Fr. Kimel's commenters:

When Saint Thomas Aquinas's sister asked him what she must do to go to heaven, he said, "You will be saved if you want to be." I say the same thing to you, and here is proof of my declaration. No one is damned unless he commits mortal sin: that is of faith. And no one commits mortal sin unless he wants to: that is an undeniable theological proposition. Therefore, no one goes to hell unless he wants to; the consequence is obvious. Does that not suffice to comfort you? Weep over past sins, make a good confession, sin no more in the future, and you will all be saved. Why torment yourself so? For it is certain that you have to commit mortal sin to go to hell, and that to commit mortal sin you must want to, and that consequently no one goes to hell unless he wants to. That is not just an opinion, it is an undeniable and very comforting truth; may God give you to understand it, and may He bless you. Amen."

I have added the emphasis. Unfortunately, the syllogism is invalid.

All that follows from the premises is that voluntarily committing what one knows to be mortal sin is necessary for damnation. From that, however, it doesn't at all follow that no one is damned unless they want to be. For it is quite possible to freely commit what one knows to be "mortal sin,"—i.e., an act of a sort objectively incompatible with abiding in God's grace—without at all wanting what would be its consequence for eternity if one dies unrepentant. I daresay that happens all the time. That is why compunction and repentance, under the influence of grace, remain possible in this life for those guilty of mortal sin. If and when the sinner comes to see mortal sin in all its ugliness, they can readily turn from it toward God. Some doubtless do. Of course there are those who choose not to see and repent. But can even they plausibly be said to want hell? In most cases, I should think not.

There may well be people who prefer actual, eternal hell to living on God's terms; if they have died, their souls are certainly in hell; but there's no evidence whatsoever that such people are abundant. At any rate, if I've ever met any I didn't know it. That shouldn't surprise: preferring eternal hell to life on God's terms is too irrational, even by our sorry human standards, to be common among us. For saying that, I expect to be told by somebody that I am not cynical (oops, "realistic") enough; but I think anybody inclined to make such a criticism would be saying more about themselves than about their brethren. Among those in hell, if any, there must be some who would have chosen to live differently had they known how things would turn out.

In fact, I know of no good arguments either that we are saved only if we want to be or that we are damned only if we want to be. But that doesn't mean that heaven is a merely extrinsic reward and hell a merely extrinsic punishment, bestowed by divine decree rather than produced by our choices themselves. For those capable of making relevant choices, where they end up for eternity is, at least in part, the natural outcome of those choices. But they needn't know that in order to make the relevant choices. Where they end up may well be the result of having done what they want, but it needn't thereby just be what they want.

To acknowledge that is to become aware that some of one's most humdrum or offhand choices can be momentous. We can cooperate with grace, and in the end be saved, without knowing that's what we've been doing. But we can also oppose grace, and in the end be damned, without knowing that either. Awareness of what is thus at stake accordingly induces both humility and vigilance. When cultivated further by a sincere search for truth, those can only aid us in our spiritual combat.
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