Against pan-utopias, divine and human

It is easy to cynically view the divine permission of evil as God green-lighting some odd Rube Goldberg mechanism that kicked evil into motion only to have “a greater good!” pop out in the end. But permission is not initiation, and it connotes a preference that the merely permitted thing not happen at all. Permission is not even an explanation of evil but a stance that takes it as a given. A God who is seen as permitting evils has to be seen as taking them as just there, as givens to be tolerated with disappointment and anguish.

Evil is a sort of anti-god in having no origin story, no principle of explanation, no originating cause, and whose existence is mystery. But all of these descriptions are mockeries of the divine originality, principation, a-causality, and mystery (there is no question here of some naive Manichean dualism).  In a similar ironic twist on revelation, evil is a god that must be overcome and die in a definitive eschatological event.

The Enlightenment dream of a best possible world as Utopia is as impossible to divine power and wisdom as it is to human wisdom. Hell is eternal, even if its presence on earth won’t be.

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8 Comments

  1. Kristor said,

    June 14, 2016 at 3:04 pm

    Ah hah! And this is why Satan and his legions do not die, and cannot be redeemed, but suffer forever: not because God is a big meanie, but because he cannot undo a troublesome fact, anymore than he can do any other logically impossible thing. A fact *just is.* If Satan has made an irrevocable election to rebel, God can’t do a thing about it; not because he is not omnipotent, but because such a doing is logically impossible.

    There is no difficulty with the notion of an irrevocable election either to Heaven or Hell, because an irrevocable election is just another term for a decision. When we change our minds, we are not revoking our former decision, but making a subsequent decision. If I decide to swerve left and then, seeing I have gone too far, decide to swerve right, the decision for a leftward swerve is not eliminated from history, but only compensated.

    Nor is there difficulty with the notion that at some point a creature can run out of decisions. Our word for that is “death.” If your last swerve steered you into the bridge abutment, you are all out of swerves.

    Aeviternal beings like Satan get only one swerve before they exhaust their supply. In a sense, Satan is dead, and has been ever since his initial defection. He has nothing more to do, no decisions to make.

    God and his legions do not die. But even for them, the best they can do is compensate for defects. Eliminating them is out of the question.

    • June 14, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      And this is why Satan and his legions do not die, and cannot be redeemed, but suffer forever: not because God is a big meanie, but because he cannot undo a troublesome fact, anymore than he can do any other logically impossible thing. A fact *just is.*

      That’s the point exactly. While I’ve been a pretty critical of brute facts over the years, they might have a role to play in the nontology of evil (which speaks volumes to the desire to dispense with cosmological arguments by invoking them).

      • Kristor said,

        June 14, 2016 at 5:04 pm

        Just so. Brute facts are not problematic in themselves, for they are just *what is.* They are what we want to comprehend, to explain. And to comprehend a thing’s explanation is to see (at least a bit) how the terms of that explanation terminate upon the Logos.

        But to deflect the force of cosmological arguments by adducing brute facts is then precisely to turn from explanation per se, and ipso facto from understanding. To adduce brute facts is to insist that, at bottom, explanation and understanding are not really possible; for it is to adduce the explanandum as explanans – or rather, as nexplanans. And to turn from explanation per se is ipso facto to turn from the Logos. Romans 1:19-21.

        As with so many skeptical or nihilist dodges, it’s an autophagous move: if understanding is impossible at bottom, then at bottom it is impossible to understand that understanding is impossible at bottom. And this autophagous aspect of the turn from Truth may be why that turn is from fullness of Being – fullness of *one’s own* being – toward something less, toward some defect of one’s proper being. The autophagy of the turn from understanding may literally devour the intellect, crippling its capacity to recover from its errors. In the limit, all that is left is an insatiable hunger – that being the torment of Hell, variously expressed in the sinner’s sensorium.

    • June 15, 2016 at 9:32 am

      “Nor is there difficulty with the notion that at some point a creature can run out of decisions.”

      There is a difficulty with the notion that a creature can run out of decisions, yet continue to exist and to be conscious.

      It may be possible for this to happen, but it is surely not a logical necessity, as you seem to suggest here.

      • Kristor said,

        June 15, 2016 at 1:25 pm

        Useful pushback, thanks. A good point. I meant to suggest no logical necessity. Indeed, I hardly meant to suggest anything at all. My comments were rather a record of a brainstorm James had provoked than an argument. At most, they were a set of proposals.

        There is indeed a difficulty with the notion that a creature that cannot decide can continue to exist and be conscious *temporally.* But I’m pretty sure there is no such difficulty with respect to *aeviternal* conscious existence.

        The tail end of the brainstorm James prompted, and which has only become apparent to me as I contemplated your objection, is the notion that when a human runs out of decisions he becomes effectually aeviternal, like the angels and demons. The character of his life is then sealed unchangeably, and all that is left to it is immaculately to follow the will of him to whom he has pledged his final and ultimate authority; so that, while he responds outwardly to historical events (as ghosts seem to do), his phenomenal life has become a single moment that lasts forever. It is this immaculate faithfulness to their Lord that enables the angels to speak in the person of the Lord, and with his own voice, even though they are discrete beings.

        Aeviternity is tricky.

        The saints in Heaven by contrast live forever temporally. In a sense they get the best both of aeviternity and of temporality, because they get to make again and again the decision that Gabriel got to make only once.

        One further thought: perhaps the disembodied souls of the human dead awaiting the Resurrection are in an aeviternal state. Phenomenally, their disembodied life is one moment, even as it stretches on and on from our temporal perspective.

      • Kristor said,

        June 15, 2016 at 1:27 pm

        Should read: … the will of him to whom he has pledged his final and ultimate *obedience.*

  2. June 16, 2016 at 7:38 am

    Aeviternity, at least as used by St. Thomas, does not refer to “a single moment that lasts forever.” It refers to a sequence of moments, different from time in that it is discrete, while time is continuous. There is no special argument that something in such a sequence could not make new decisions or could not change its mind about something fundamental. Again, that may be true, but it is unproven.

  3. Kristor said,

    June 16, 2016 at 11:55 pm

    Well, that’s not *exactly* what Aquinas says:

    We say then that since eternity is the measure of a permanent being, in so far as anything recedes from permanence of being, it recedes from eternity. Now some things recede from permanence of being, so that their being is subject to change, or consists in change; and these things are measured by time, as are all movements, and also the being of all things corruptible. But others recede less from permanence of being, *forasmuch as their being neither consists in change, nor is the subject of change; nevertheless they have change annexed to them [adiunctam] either actually or potentially.* This appears in the heavenly bodies, the substantial being of which is unchangeable; and yet with unchangeable being they have changeableness of place. *The same applies to the angels, who have an unchangeable being as regards their nature with changeableness as regards choice; moreover they have changeableness of intelligence, of affections and of places in their own degree.* Therefore these are measured by aeviternity which is a mean between eternity and time. But the being that is measured by eternity is not changeable, nor is it annexed to change. In this way time has “before” and “after”; aeviternity in itself has no “before” and “after,” which can, however, be annexed to it; while eternity has neither “before” nor “after,” nor is it compatible with such at all.

    Reply to Objection 1. *Spiritual creatures as regards successive affections and intelligences are measured by time. Hence also Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. viii, 20,22,23) that to be moved through time, is to be moved by affections. But as regards their nature they are measured by aeviternity; whereas as regards the vision of glory, they have a share of eternity.*

    Reply to Objection 2. *Aeviternity is simultaneously whole; yet it is not eternity, because “before” and “after” are compatible with it.*

    Reply to Objection 3. *In the very being of an angel considered absolutely, there is no difference of past and future, but only as regards accidental change.*

    – ST I, Q10, A5

    When I said:

    … all that is left to [an angel who has made his choice] is immaculately to follow the will of him to whom he has pledged his final and ultimate obedience; so that, while he might respond outwardly to historical events (as ghosts seem to do), his phenomenal life has become a single moment that lasts forever

    What I was getting at was:

    In the very being of an angel considered absolutely, there is no difference of past and future, but only as regards accidental change.


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