Divine morality (2)

Divine morality might mean this: the inability for God to cause the immoral, or that the immoral arises from the absence or deformation of the divine in things.

In this sense, neither evil nor any of its consequences can follow the act of creation but only the deformation of secondary causes. So, for example, it would be impossible for God to create human beings for punishment, since the punishment only follows evil. In this sense any double predestination is incoherent and impossible.

Divine morality

Divine goodness is often called moral goodness. What does this mean?

A march through the virtues makes things complicated: God is obviously not sober, chaste, or moderate in his diet – he’s not brave or long-suffering or moderate in humor.

For all that, moral goodness can’t mean that God is as perfect a God as a virtuous man is a perfect man, since goodness in this sense would not even be moral. A perfect grasshopper or bacterium would be perfect in the same way. Still, we also can’t argue from something being a duty for man to it’s being a duty for God, nor is it obvious that what is bad for a man to do would be bad for God to do. Divine goodness is properly moral, but not in the sense that we are bound together with God by a common duty or under a common set of demands.

A straightforward virtue ethic or deontology don’t seem to capture divine morality, so is God utilitarian? Does he maximizes outcomes? By eschatology, maybe? There might be some sort of theodicy in all of this, but it leaves off the religious dimension of a God who cares for what is happening now.

Many no doubt have insisted from the beginning that God is moral because he loves, is merciful, is just, etc. Here too the differences are striking and difficult to assimilate. Divine mercy extends far beyond what is reasonable for humans to practice, and there is an inherent problem in explaining divine justice in the absence of any meaningful sense of divine duty. Sans duty, it seems to follow that whatever is given is not owed, so any good given is mercy and every evil given is gratuitous.

So where does this leave us in trying to assess the goodness of God? I have no doubt that a human being would be a monster if he acted like the God described by Ivan Karamazov, and this would be true even if I imagined the human being as disembodied and hyper-intelligent. A disembodied, hyper intelligent human still has obligations and duties, which presumably are identical to the duties I have when I become aware of abused children in danger of dying from exposure. The continued abuse of such children no doubt counts as a good reason not to believe in the existence of hyper intelligent disembodied intelligences that are bound to the world by ties of duty. Alas, the refutation is hollow since no one has ever believed in such a being. Right?

A (pre) criticism of Apokatastasis

David Bentley Hart’s defense of apokatastasis will be released tomorrow. I’ve pre-ordered a copy and plan to read it several times, but so far have only read a pre-published chapter and excerpts from reviews.  Since I’ll lose my freedom to take things out of context tomorrow, I ought to get this criticism of one of the excepts out now.

My main difference with Hart is that I’m convinced of the Augustinian-Thomistic metaphysics of evil while Hart would, I’d suspect, side with Origen:

If all are not saved, if God creates souls he knows to be destined for eternal misery, is God evil? …What is not debatable is that, if God does so create, in himself he cannot be the Good as such, and creation cannot be a morally meaningful act: It is, seen from one vantage, an act of predilective love; but, seen from another–logically necessary–vantage, it is an act of prudential malevolence. And so it cannot be true. We are presented by what has become the majority tradition with three fundamental claims, any two of which might be true simultaneously, but never all three: that God freely created all things out of nothingness; that God is the Good itself; and that it is certain or at least possible that some rational creatures will endure eternal loss of God. And this, I have to say, is the final moral meaning I find in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo…

That All Shall Be Saved, p. 90-91 (as quoted here)

Here’s the opposing view:

1.) God creates creation, i.e. the ordered totality of the angelic universe(s?) and physical cosmos throughout history. Henceforth the universe. 

2.) The universe is an ordered whole like a house or termite mound or Bavaria.

3.) Not everything acting and living within an ordered whole necessarily works for the good of the whole. The good of a house and the good of a termite mound can obviously conflict, e.g. over the same piece of wood or the same lebensraum.

4.) In such a scenario, the death of the termites is good for the house even if obviously bad for the termites. Conversely, if some building project wanted to bulldoze a termite mound to put up apartments, the bankruptcy of the building company would be bad for the company and good for the mound.

5.) While the goods and evils in (4) are specified relative to each other, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo specifies that the universe as such is created,  with everything in it standing to it as part to whole. So creatio ex nihilo proves that what is good for the universe is good in itself even if it is bad for some part of the universe.

6.) This is Augustine’s point in his easily-misunderstood metaphor that the painting is good by having the black in the right place. The point is that the same thing can be evil for some nature but good itself if good for the whole. It’s one and the same bankruptcy that’s good for the termites and bad for the building company. If anything acting and living in the universe works against the good of the universe, then, sad to say, its destruction will be good in itself even if per se bad for what is destroyed.

7.) Thomas will insist that there are various ways in which the good of the whole required things that were evil for the parts, but I here only want to insist on the possibility of the same thing being evil for a part of the universe while being good for the whole, and as a consequence good in itself while evil in a certain respect. Thomas and Augustine even speculated on ways in which damnation was one of the things that is evil for the part while good for the whole, but I here make the narrower claim about what creation ex nihilo entails for what is good in itself.



Summary of the Nietzschean critique

1.) The Liberal tradition lives by two axioms: the equality of all persons and the saving power of science.

2.) Hypothesis: both axioms are borrowed from Christianity but deprived of their basis, and so taken, it is only a matter of time before we recognize they are insupportable and even absurd.

3.) Christianity provides a robust sense to the equality of all persons through universal atonement, the great commission, and the presence of Christ in the poor. The Gospel is in some sense incomplete and the eschaton cannot arrive until everyone hears the message, and all without exception are called to the ultimate fulfillment in the heavenly kingdom adn the sacraments that bring it about now. From the beginning of the Liberal tradition, however, there have been not just differing but contradictory accounts of human equality, ranging from natural law accounts grounded on providence to Marxist accounts grounded on the critique of all religion and theism. The tension between these makes equality either incoherent or groundless, and therefore a revolution waiting to happen. In times of crisis, it’s inevitable that one side breaks radically from the Liberal tradition, either by Calhoun declaring that the Declaration was a “Self-evident lie” or the new Alt-Right denying any meaningful sense to human equality.

4.) Christianity could give a robust account of the absolute value of truth: it is the devotion to a God who chose to die rather than deny the truth of his message, and who was betrayed by those who chose to deny him rather than die.

The Liberal tradition also insists that one should never deceive others and must be entirely dedicated to truth: the scientist must be “unbiased” by any allegiance to religion or politics, and a fortiori towards attaining tenure, getting recognition, etc. But does the tradition itself have the resources to back up this claim? Sure, it’s easy to see why we shouldn’t lie all the time in the sciences, but why not occasionally for a good reason like, ya know, saving the world or getting tenure? At any rate, the sense that one is free from bias almost always comes from forgetting about all the areas of investigation he leaves out.

5.) The reason why human equality or the absolute value of truth had a basis in Christianity is because they were not fundamental, but outgrowths of the divinity and passion of Jesus and the catholicity of the Church. Ever since the French and American Revolutions we’ve wanted both to be axiomatic or somehow justified apart from this, but we have deep and intractable disputes over how this is done, and we’ve fought more than one war over the whether the axioms are justified at all.



Orthodoxy in the death of God

As has been explained in generations of Phil 101 classes, Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” is not an ontological statement but an existential one, meaning that God no longer gives meaning to human life on a broad cultural scale. In other words, God is dead like disco is dead.

But if the death of God in this sense does not require atheism, then it has a possible theist or even religious expression, and so for something to be “dead” in the Nietzschean sense allows for it to get a new sort of relevance. Latin is a dead language and has been for centuries, but this is  precisely what allows it to be a sacred language. Gregorian chant is dead as an art form, but this is part of what makes it appropriate to the liturgy. Things become appropriate to the sacred realm by dying.

Something similar is true about the death of days of public fasting, episcopal and sacerdotal esteem, extravagant public mortifications, processions, etc. In response to their death, the bishops after Vatican II made all such practices purely voluntary and hoped this would lead to a bloom of experimentation with new forms of mortification and penance. While the devout are quick to notice that this was overly optimistic, those same devout haven’t done a great job keeping up their end of the deal. Part of this has been a remarkably low amount of episcopal energy in the last fifty years, which shows signs of reversing in the younger generation of priests that will form next generation’s episcopate. At any rate, this bloom in voluntary penance – whether done on one’s own or in penitential clubs like Exodus 90 – is what orthodoxy would look like after the death of God.


Note 19-19

-Can God make a rock so big that it’s not a big rock? Now that’s something deserving the name of a “linguistic philosophy”: pure language isolated from any messy connection to thought. Language existing by itself and for itself!

Or not. Why offer it as an example? As such, it’s thrown back into the world of ideas, trotted out as absurdity or criticism or something else. Seeking the thing for itself betrays it as just another Platonic participation in a noetic thing-in-itself.

Sensemaking and evil

The first theist response to the argument from evil is that God tolerates some evils as necessary for some goods. Obviously, if I thought the AFE worked I wouldn’t be a theist, but the concession that God allows evils raises important concerns that are left unaddressed.

Just what evils get tolerated? Let the imagination wander: isn’t it easy to imagine some good for which God would tolerate my life being meaningless? Could I scale up the good to the point that God could allow all human life to be meaningless? Omniscience no doubt has infinite resources to locate goods that could justify the universe turning out very badly for myself and much of what is important to me.

I’m not writing this because this bothers me – though I was bothered by it when I read a similar argument by Gary Gutting – but to clear up that my not being bothered isn’t from a reasoned argument. Everyone answers to the question of evil in life in away that makes sense, and this sensemaking draws on resources beyond what reasoning provides, even where the answer is “We can’t solve this rationally, so we can’t solve it at all” or “We’ll science our way out” or “Forget about it and play some backgammon”.

For my own part, I’d hope to grow in the Christian conviction that evil demands salvation, that there is no salvation except though belief in Jesus Christ, and that this belief is, minimally, in anyone who believes God will save his people from evil (cf. ad 3 here).


Two ideas of (fundamental) truth

Truths are more and less solid or dependable, but there are two conflicting criteria for that is ultimately fundamental.

1.) Community Approval: This sense gets its clearest expression in John Meier’s thought experiment about the historical Jesus, i.e. that the Jesus of history is what you would get if you locked an atheist, Muslim, Jew and Christian all in a basement and forced them to hammer out what they believed about Jesus. Truth in this sense is seen as the expression of a community, making the greatest truth of the largest community.

2.) The Prophetic Testimony. Community approval tends towards moderation, uniformity, setting aside what is controversial. The prophetic truth charges straight at the controversial, not qua controversial but so far as communal approval avoids controversy by intentionally setting aside what matters most to those who must get along. Groups that are passionately united by what matters most to them are either large and short lasting (nations in wartime) or long lasting and small.

Euthyphro dilemma

The eponymous character of Euthyphro suggests that the definition of piety is that which is loved by the gods and, should gods disagree, that which is loved by all the gods. 

Socrates points out that things must be pious before the gods could love them but nothing can be loved by the gods or anyone else until after it is loved. There’s no “Euthyphro dilemma” as usually understood here, but only a logical point: it’s not as if the gods could approve of your sacrifice before you offered it or that something could be loved before someone loved it.

If we stopped reading the dialogue here we might raise the question why the pious was not what is loved by the gods, but we couldn’t very well suggest that the gods are superfluous to the nature of piety, in the way that the “Euthypho dilemma” suggests that God is wholly superfluous to the nature of the moral good. The whole question of piety is how the gods are essential to it, not whether they are.

There is also no question that Socrates takes piety as integral to human goodness, since he offers a partial definition of piety as a part of justice, and the Socratic understanding of justice is clear from Republic. Rather than asking questions about justice (since he never asks questions about anything) Euthyphro leaps into trying to figure out what makes piety different from justice and be bungles the question badly, but here too his mistakes are instructive. Ultimately Euthypho conceives of piety as benefiting the gods, when in fact piety is a part of justice because the nature of the gods demands that we perfect ourselves by becoming more cognizant of them, through the elevation of the mind and discipline of the body that recognizes that all physical goods come from a non-physical source, that this spirit deserves our praise and gratitude, and that we become ennobled by recognizing it as the measure of all that is noble, elevated, true and good. Doing this in the way most appropriate to our embodied state is piety.

An ontology of CBT

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the most effective treatment for some forms of mental illness, which piques one’s interest in what its fundamental ontology might be.

While Freudian therapy sought to make the patient discover the causal history of the thoughts that made him, say, depressed, CBT rejected this approach and taught the patient how to become conscious of the thoughts themselves, recognize their irrationality, and train himself to reject them. Techniques for recognizing irrationality include recognizing that one is catastrophizing  or engaging in some other form of cognitive distortion.

Because it explicitly rejected the Freudian causal model of mental illness it was easy to take CBT as rejecting causal accounts of illness and simply treating the symptoms. Again, it was unlikely that CBT would develop an ontology since (a) it was invented by Americans (b) after people started getting disillusioned with the great European theoretical approach to psychology.

For all that, the ontology seems like one can read it right off the approach: Mental illness is irrational. Rather than the Freudian account of mental illness, which makes it a sort of reasonable response to some forgotten trauma, CBT seems like a gentle, lab-coated way to say “YOUR THOUGHTS MAKE NO SENSE! STOP THINKING THEM!” In CBT, one’s sadness requires no romantic, profound, dawn-of-life etiology explained by forbidden desires and archetypal manifestations. If anything, all these are attempts to justify and romanticize what is no more than a mistaken practical judgment about one’s own worth and his future possibilities.

In the throes of mental illness it’s easy to get trapped in the sense that one understands something that no one else gets, and to resent others who can’t see reality and myself as one sees it from within the anxiety, trauma, or suffering. But if CBT is right – and it does work – all these thoughts are illusions. One shouldn’t coddle and dwell on them any more than one would do so over any other thoughtless mistake.



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