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

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Unclogging the drains

When asked why he focused so much on matters of logic and philosophy of language, Catholic philosopher Peter Geach replied: "Somebody's got to unclog the drains." I too feel called to unclog the drains, albeit by means of different specialties. One way I do that is to rebut a charge leveled against the Catholic Church rather often: to wit, that her development of doctrine sometimes involves negating claims supposedly made in the past by her full authority. The notion that those who exercise the solemn Magisterium discredit their authority by somehow missing the fact that they keep contradicting others who have exercised it is ultimately as silly as it is common. Now a similar sort of charge is sometimes leveled against myself and my intellectual allies: to wit, that we are at odds with each other on this or that point. Even when I'm tired and out of sorts, nothing motivates me to write more than a criticism like that.

At first I missed the most recent version when it popped up a few months ago at Energetic Procession. There Perry Robinson, an Orthodox thinker with whom I have disagreed before on a few other key issues, was responding to an eloquent post by my friend, Fr. Al Kimel, on Disbelieving the Predestinarian God. What exercised Perry was his apparent belief that he himself has been unfairly criticized in the past by Catholics partial to Fr. Al for rejecting the Augustinian account of predestination, which Fr. Al now and also rejects. As he writes (emphasis added):

...Kimel appears to quite strongly reject the idea that God selects persons in a deterministic fashion for salvation while passing over others. This is quite strange since this is exactly the same position as can be found in lots of Catholic doctors and theologians albeit in a variety of nuanced ways. (Aquinas, Scotus, Anselm, Albert) At bottom, it is still essentially the same view. How Kimel is going to reconcile this fact with current Catholic teaching would be worthwhile to consider. Even more curious is the fact that against the Orthodox claim that I have advanced regarding the Augustinian and Scholastic position, Kimel is silent on criticising Michael Liccone’s endorsement of this position. Liccione is quite clear that the reason why some are elected and some are not is that God loves some persons “more than others.” If such a view is repulsive to Kimel, how strange it is to find that Kimel doesn’t extend this repulsion, charges of serious error, etc. to Scotus, Aquinas or Michael Liccione. It is also strange that Kimel finds such a view repulsive and damaging and yet it is quite an acceptable view in Catholicism, holding a very high theological status and long pedigree. A difference of opinion is one thing, but repulsion, heresy and such things are quite another.

Let's get clear on one point first. The doctrine that Fr. Al clearly rejects is that of double predestination: the idea that some people are predestined to salvation and others to final damnation. Like Perry, I too reject that doctrine: I believe that grace sufficient for salvation has been granted to all, even to unbelievers. Ever since her confrontation with the heresy of Jansenism, the Catholic Church has clearly affirmed as much. Whether, by contrast, Augustine or other Catholic thinkers actually affirmed DP has been long debated; but I agree with Fr. Al's scholarly judgment expressed thus:

I know that I traduce the vast theological work of St Augustine. Augustine speaks profoundly of the love and mercy of God throughout his homilies and tractates. In his De Trinitate he brilliantly unfolds the mystery of the triune God who is infinite love. But the controversy with the Pelagians forced him to subtly divorce love and grace. Augustine did not explicitly draw the conclusion of double predestination, yet how close he came. Driven by the logic of irresistible grace, he found himself incapable of affirming the universality of the salvific will of the Creator. But for anyone of sensitive conscience, the fine distinction between reprobation and preterition hardly matters. The damage is done. Both positions call into question the truth and reality of God’s love for the individual sinner. Am I the object of divine love or divine hatred?

Because of Augustine's influence on this point, many Western Christians have indeed been haunted by the idea that God might well hate them. Because of my life experience, I myself have occasionally wondered as much. But I chalk that up to spiritual immaturity: an emotional response that contradicts and occasionally threatens to overwhelm my intellectual convictions. I have never for a moment believed that the Catholic Church actually teaches as much or expects me to believe it. Nor does Perry suggest that DP was ever the solemn teaching of the Catholic Church: he presents it, rightly, as a highly influential theological opinion. What, then, do I believe?

When I claim that God "loves" some people "more" than others, I mean that he calls some to a higher level of participation in his divine life than others. In that sense, some get "more grace" than others. So much has always seemed obvious to me: Padre Pio, e.g., is a greater saint than I am or ever will be, and that's not just because he happens to have made more right choices than I have. He just has more spiritual gifts than I do. But this goes beyond the merely personal: it is arguably a matter of divine revelation.

Thus the author of the Gospel of John speaks of "the Beloved Disciple"(probably himself) and, at several key narrative moments, contrasts that disciple with Peter. Some exegetes explain that as, among other things, a symbolic contrast between the charismatic and the institutional sides of the Church, the former being more highly valued than the latter. That seems to me true as far as it goes. What Hans urs von Balthasar called "the Petrine charism" exists to serve the more fundamental "Marian charism" of the Church, which the Beloved Disciple more clearly manifested than the other apostles, including Peter, whose headship is nonetheless not denied. Now does the fact that one disciple is called "the" Beloved mean that the others are not loved? Of course not. God loves each of them with a love inconceivably greater than that which they have for themselves or each other. The same goes for Christians in general, indeed people in general. That some are loved to a peculiar degree does not mean that all are not loved to a degree sufficient, and more than sufficient, for their eternal beatitude. For "God wills that all be saved and come to know the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). We're all meant to be "up there." Some are just meant to be further up than others. If you're Catholic or Orthodox and don't believe that, ponder the fact that the Virgin Mary is the only human person whom Tradition calls "spotless" and "all-holy." Among Christians, she is by far Satan's most powerful adversary. She is God's great love.

The Virgin Mary is the test case. It is inconceivable to me, as a Catholic, that she might have been damned. She received grace not only more than sufficient for salvation, but grace of a degree incompatible with the possibility of damnation. Nothing else would have been compatible with her appointed role in the economy of salvation. Thus, I believe that she at least was irresistibly predestined to salvation. That definitely does not mean she was deprived of all freedom: one can be predestined to an end without being rigidly predetermined to adopt any particular means to the end. I have no doubt that, within her destiny, she made many choices that could have gone otherwise. I believe that others are predestined to salvation: for instance, some baptized people, such as infants or mental defectives, called home by God without their intellects and wills having developed enough to make them capable of morally significant choices in this life. I sometimes wish I had been one of those people. But like many others, I am called to a spiritual combat the outcome of which is in no way predetermined. I do not believe that means that God doesn't love me with an infinite love. For all I know, it might mean that I and people like me are actually called to a higher degree of sanctity than are those who make it to heaven without any spiritual combat. Just as I believe some people have been called to a higher level of participation in the divine life than I, so I believe that I have most likely been called to a higher degree than still others. And of course none of this is about merit. It is what I call a positive mystery: intelligible given, in this case, the truth about the divine nature, but by no means necessitated by the divine nature.

If it can be said at all that some are "passed over" by divine design, the most that could mean is that God does not go out of his general way with all of us to save some of us. He loves such people; he gives them grace enough and more than enough for their salvation; but within those conditions, he leaves their ultimate fate up to them. I believe I am one such person. I do not believe that to be an injustice to me or to those like me. It reveals the same divine mentality as is revealed in the parables of the prodigal son or the day-laborers.

The standard retort to that picture, which I have seen Perry and others deliver, is: "If God irresistibly predestines some to salvation, why not all? Why bother with the whole drama of sin and redemption?" My answer is: we don't know, and it doesn't matter that we don't know.

We don't know because we can't know. Therefore, nobody should be expected to know. Admittedly, in Perry's theological universe, where nobody is irresistibly predestined to salvation, one can come up with a tidy explanation for the drama. Freedom, understood as a choice between good and evil that is not predetermined by any factors outside our control, is necessary for both personhood in general and for our love of God in particular. Now I agree that freedom so understood is necessary for some, such as myself, in the economy of salvation. But the cases of the Virgin Mary, the more spectacular saints, and baptized people who die before reaching "the age of reason" lead me to believe that it is not necessary in all cases. And I can think of no theological reason why that should not be so. It is of course incompatible with certain philosophical accounts of libertarian freedom. But as a believer, I say so much the worse for those accounts.

In offering such a response, I cannot speak for Fr. Al. He may well have a different view about the doctrine of single—as opposed to double—predestination which I have affirmed. But I am at one with him in rejecting DP, and I believe the doctrine I have affirmed to be fully compatible with what he has said.

Just unclogging one more drain. I hope that helps a few readers to get things flowing.
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