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

Friday, October 08, 2010

"Efficacious grace": why not everybody?

As I understand the concept, grace is "efficacious" when it ensures that there will be no "mortal" sin, i.e. when it ensures that the recipient will never lose the divine life within. St. Thomas Aquinas thought some people were granted efficacious grace, and some Catholic theologians argue that Mary Mother of God had it, perhaps from her conception and certainly from the Incarnation. That would explain the tradition of East and West that Mary was "sinless." She didn't just happen to have avoided serious sin; the way in which she was "full of grace" ensured she would be free of serious sin, and thus a fitting vessel to be Mother of what St. Augustine called "the whole Christ": Jesus plus the Church-over-time. Such grace was merited not by her, but only by the Passion of her Son. Yet I have found that, when non-Calvinist Christians hear the claim that anybody has been granted efficacious grace, they immediately ask: why didn't God do that for everybody? The question is asked as though the absence of a knockdown answer would be a reason to disbelieve in efficacious grace. I shall argue that it would not be.

Call the hypothesis that God grants everybody efficacious grace 'EEG' for short. The first thing I'd say is that the above question presupposes something we cannot know: ceteris paribus, God would have good reason to give everybody efficacious grace. Now one might object at once that we surely can know there is such a reason: it would just be "better" for people if God precluded the possibility of serious sin. If EEG is possible, then that supposition seems reasonable enough. And it must be conceded that EEG is logically possible, in that it would be compatible with God's goodness and power, prescinding from what's actually been created and redeemed. But that doesn't establish that EEG is really possible. Countless things are logically possible for God which, all the same, are not possible given what he's already done. That's part of what motivated the old and crucial distinction between God's potentia absoluta and God's potentia ordinata.  The former is a much broader category than the latter, and the mere fact that EEG falls within the former is no reason to believe that it also falls within the latter. So far, we have been given no reason to believe that EEG is possible given the general order of creation God has actually decreed—and that's aside from the question whether anybody's actually been given efficacious grace.

That "general order" of things is, I take it, the proximate reason why we all (with the few usual exceptions understood) inherit "original sin"—a state of alienation from God that only our first parents did a thing to bring about. Unless the general order of creation is such as to ensure the inheritance of original sin once the first sin was committed, there's no particular reason to believe that original sin is anything more than an arbitrary imposition on those who aren't responsible for it. Of course God is incomprehensible: we can't fully wrap our minds around God's essence or even his providence. But as the Pope argued well in his Regensburg address, that does not mean that any of God's actions are arbitrary. Even when God's "reasons" for doing certain things are opaque to us—which they often are—and even when they are not necessitating—in the sense that, if we knew them, they would not show that God had to do what he did rather than not—just their being God's reasons suffices to make his actions rational. For God is, among other things, Wisdom itself.

Now given that God has decreed a general order of things within which innocents inherit original sin, there's no reason to believe that EEG is possible without violating that order. Why? Well, as a matter of fact, God doesn't give efficacious grace to most people. If that choice is not arbitrary, that's almost certainly because everybody's getting it would undermine the integrity of said order, which would be tantamount to overthrowing it. At any rate, I can't think of any other reason, and I would never say as a Catholic that God arbitrarily decrees that some people are guaranteed heaven while most are not. It's more reasonable to suppose that he has his reasons for giving efficacious grace only to a few. Hence if, as is generally understood, God's decreeing the general order of things is eternal, then it's not possible for him to do anything to undermine that order's integrity. This is why, in general, miracles must be rare—at least relative to the sum total of events. But God can still do occasionally what he cannot do in the general course—such as grant efficacious grace.

It won't do to object that my defense is idle because the putative "general order of things" already entails the falsity of EEG. For the original question has force only on the supposition that EEG is possible given the rest of said general order—i.e. that EEG is really possible, not just logically possible. Only then could it be argued that it would have been "better" for God to have given everybody efficacious grace, ceteris paribus. But my argument is, precisely, that there is no reason to adopt the original supposition.

Even so, there is another objection worth considering. It can be posed by reframing the original question. The question is no longer, simply, why God doesn't grant efficacious to all if he grants it to some; the question rather, becomes why God decreed that order of things in the first place, when he could have decreed a different one in which EEG would have been the case, or at least possible. Although that question cannot be answered with doctrinal certainty, it is at least a fair question.

My answer, I believe, is traditional: God has good reason for decreeing an ordo salutis characterized by infinite, radical mercy rather than one in which that degree of mercy would be unneeded. An order in which nobody seriously sinned would be one in which either nobody is called to theosis at all or nobody is allowed to lose the divine life to which we are called. Theosis, assuming that's our vocation, would be a given and a guarantee, not a process which can fail by human choice. But the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of the Son indicate that God had reason to manifest his love for us as infinite, radical mercy. The Passion would not have occurred if serious sin had not, and would not have manifested the degree of mercy it does if serious sin had not been virtually ubiquitous. The virtual ubiquity of such sin is incompatible with EEG. Yet it is not only compatible with, but apparently necessary for, the degree of mercy and love that God actually shows us. And that very degree of mercy is reason enough for Love itself to show it.

At this point, the only objection I hear is one that I've heard before: EEG is false because efficacious grace is per se incompatible with human freedom. Whatever would preclude human freedom is a fortiori incompatible with a free response to divine grace, which is what God beckons each of us to make. Hence there can be no efficacious grace for anybody, not just for everybody.

But there is a fairly obvious response to that objection. It is the belief of East and West that baptized infants who die before becoming psychically capable of serious sin go to "heaven," i.e. live forever in a state of blessed union with God. For them, theosis is a given not a process—at least not in this life. Is any Christian theologian prepared to say that such fortunate souls are mere automata who, as such, cannot love God? Of course not. If, as the present objection rightly assumes, love requires freedom, then such souls are free even though they've never had any opportunity to commit actual sin. By the same token, all the blessed in heaven are unaable to sin. Accordingly, there's no reason to suppose that some small minority of adults on earth can gain the privilege of incapacity to sin only at the cost of their own freedom or of God's justice to the rest of us.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Back, with evil

Apologies to my vast readership for the weeks of silence. At the beginning of September, I moved from NYC for a new full-time teaching job in Syracuse, which has turned out to be fairly demanding. At the same time, my father is terminally ill and my elder daughter is about to get married—in England. For reasons I won't explain further, my new job makes it much easier to deal with such family matters than staying in NYC would have. So I take this job to be providential. Even so, for the past six weeks I have been kept too busy for blogging. I probably shouldn't be blogging even now, but I can't help it. Another natural-theology issue keeps niggling at me.

I mean, of course, the so-called "problem of evil." I've written about that standard conundrum several times before, most notably here, and I'd love to write a book about it. My excuse for adding to the already staggering literature on the topic would be to show, rigorously, why most of said literature is irrelevant, and to tease out what is relevant. The main purpose of this post is to briefly explain why, and to state the appropriate lesson.

Last month, philosophers James Chastek and Alex Pruss made arguments that serve nicely as a point of departure. But only as a point of departure. First, Chastek's conclusion:
Christianity is utterly incoherent without the doctrine of original sin, which promises and insists upon the suffering and toil of the human race as a consequence of the divine goodness (namely, his justice). We can call this doctrine impossible or absurd, but we can’t very well say that we get the idea that God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent from Christianity and then turn around and say that we have no idea why the human race suffers. Omnipotence and omnibenevolence are a part of a package deal with original sin.
Next, Pruss' conclusion:
In the face of eternity, a finite amount of suffering is just a blip. But does it not beg the question to suppose eternal life in responding to the problem of evil? Not at all. The problem of evil is an argument against theism. Theism makes eternal life for any created persons very likely. Thus, if the problem of evil is to make a significant dent in the probability of theism, the problem of evil has to work even if there is eternal life, or else a good argument against eternal life is needed.
What's helpful about such arguments is their reminder that classical Christian theism, as distinct from a deracinated, generic philosophical theism, goes some way toward showing how an answer to the problem of evil is possible. Such an answer, I argued in the paper linked above, would be defense rather than theodicy. It would not explain how God is justified in presiding over all the unmerited suffering we find in the world, but it would show that his doing so is logically compatible with his being both all-powerful and perfectly good. And if my argument in that paper is sound, then defense is all anybody—theist and non-theist—has a right to expect.

But how, exactly, do Chastek and Pruss help? They invoke the Christian-theist doctrines of original sin and an everlasting afterlife, respectively. I want to argue that, in conjunction with certain other doctrines, that of original sin entails that God could not have prevented our first parents' sin from depriving their descendants of grace without trashing the created order of things. Now Chastek thinks the inheritance of original sin is required by God's "justice." But if that's so, it's only remotely, insofar as God's justice requires that he not trash the created order of things. For the descendants of our first parents did not deserve to inherit such a deprivation: none of us, prior to conception, did a thing to deserve anything, bad or good. But the inheritance of the deprivation is balanced out by the offer to all of an unmerited share in the divine nature. That entails everlasting life. None of us, of course, deserve everlasting life either. If we are all (with the usual few exceptions understood) conceived without grace, we are all called by grace to unmerited glory. That balance is itself just, even though neither end of the scale by itself is fair. This life isn't about fairness. It's about mercy.

Of course none of that shows that God had to set things up in such a way. Nothing could show that. Some would even argue that God is immoral for setting things up that way. Odd as that may sound, it's an argument worth taking seriously. But for the reasons Chastek and Pruss give, it cannot be plausibly argued that such a setup shows that divine omnipotence and omnibenevolence are mutually incompatible on a Christian account of those attributes. That takes the logical sting out of the problem of evil. Raising the problem is a lament and a question; its mere existence is not a logical demonstration of any anti-Christian conclusion.