David Bently Hart’s Universalism Challenged

I would like to return to a paper I mentioned in a previous post, the article is one by David Bently Hart (in the previous post, I was working from a reading of his paper, but here is the actual paper itself). In the previous post, my focus was on Hart’s critique of the Calvinist doctrine of Reprobation, and the pre-ordination of the damned. His solution is universalism, or apocatastasis, in this post I want to examine and challenge his solution. David Bently Hart Lays out his position thus:

If God is the good creator of all, he is the savior of all, without fail, who brings to himself all he has made, including all rational wills, and only thus returns to himself in all that goes forth from him. If he is not the savior of all, the Kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare. But, again, it is not so. God saw that it was good; and, in the ages, so shall we.

I acknowledge the problems he brings up with eternal damnation and reprobation, I agreed with them in the previous post, however I don’t think that these problems force us into universalism. If we allow for a form of open theism along with an annihilationist view, I think we can imagine an eschatology that may fit better with scriptural exegesis than that of Universalism, all the while avoiding the theological, moral and logical problems that come with reprobation and eternal damnation. Before we do that let’s take a look at some of David Bently Hart’s arguments on which, I believe, his position stands, he says:

In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness.

Then he says later:

For, as the transcendent Good beyond all beings, he is the transcendental end of any action of any rational nature; and then, obviously, the end toward which God acts must be his own goodness: he who is the beginning and end of all things. And this eternal teleology, viewed from the vantage of history, is a cosmic eschatology. As an eternal act, creation’s term is the divine nature; within the orientation of time, its term is a “final judgment.” No matter how great the autonomy one grants the realm of secondary causes, two things are certain. First, as God’s act of creation is free, constrained by neither necessity nor ignorance, all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision. And, second, precisely because God in himself is absolute, “absolved” of every pathos of the contingent, his moral “venture” in creating is infinite. For all causes are logically reducible to their first cause; this is no more than a logical truism, and it does not matter whether one construes the relation between primary and secondary causality as one of total determinism or utter indeterminacy, for in either case all “consequents” are—either as actualities or merely as possibilities—contingent upon their primordial “antecedent,” apart from which could not exist.

So let me summarize the argument.

  1. Creation ex nihilo means that God’s creation was entirely free dependant on nothing else.
  2. This creation must encompass the beginning and end of creation, the eschaton is included in the creation.

Let’s pause here. I mostly agree with those points, but we need to look a little closer. Scriptures like Isaiah 46:9-11 or the Alpha and Omega statements in revelation and others tell us that at a certain level point 2 is true. But what that gives us is the end result and the beginning, and that the purpose of creation must be realized in the eschaton. Let’s continue summarizing the argument:

  1. All causes are logically reducible to their first cause if one accepts determinism
  2. If one accepts indeterminism, the possibilities are still consequences of their first cause.
  3. Thus, all causes are ultimately reducible to Gods creation ex nihilo.

So here is where things get sticky. God created human beings as free agents, in his image; let’s say that this means we have a kind of libertarian freedom. Does this force us to have to choose between indeterminacy and determinacy? I don’t think so. David Bently Hart rightly points out that God’s creation is not constrained by necessity but neither is it an arbitrary choice made after deliberation. So there are two visions of choice that are from the beginning written off. One is a determined choice determined by some necessity, i.e. I ate taco because of the genetic predisposition I had toward spicy food, I was near a taco stand I was hungry, I smelt it, and so on, all the physical conditions determined by the laws of nature caused me to eat the taco which I experience as a choice. The other is the totally free but arbitrary choice, i.e. I can eat a taco or a pizza, I am not predisposed to eat either, I can pick either, there is nothing driving me to one or the other, I am totally free to choose, and I choose a taco, but I just as well could have chosen pizza as the choice was spontaneous and arbitrary. Neither of these visions of Choice apply to God’s free choice in creation. God’s free choice is an expression of his goodness, only self-determined by his own goodness.

If we accept that, which I think we should, could we possibly apply the same kind of choice that God made in creation (which is very difficult to conceive of) to human moral choice? Could that not be partially what the Imago Dei is?

I’m not going to get into the whole open-theism debate right now (perhaps in a later post), however if one posits open theism along with creation ex nihilo, then one would have to say that in a certain way God’s creation “gets away from him.” So the creator creates creators who themselves create moral outcomes ex nihilo.

As far as I can tell this is the only way we can actually say that God loves us without that love being just a word with no semantic content. As David Bently Hart points out (making a different point) that when we say that a word means one thing when applied to God but another in the human sense, we render the word meaningless. Equivocality reduces theological language to nonsense.

Whatever one’s theory of what love is, it seems impossible to apply the word “love” to a relationship between a wholly determined being with no causal power outside of what is determined in creation and the Creator. If we take the Calvinistic view of full divine pre-destination and pre-ordination of the will then I really don’t see what the difference could be between human beings and the rest of creation other than humans appear to be making free moral choices. What the image of God could be other than a kind of cheap puppet that has aspects that could be mistaken for divine aspects, akin to a movie character who is scripted to have emotions being mistaken for actually having those emotions.

But David Bently Hart see’s the free will option, and counters it, first by attacking the very notion of libertarian free will:

But there could scarcely be a poorer argument; whether made crudely or elegantly, it invariably fails. It might not do, if one could construct a metaphysics or phenomenology of the will’s liberty that was purely voluntarist, purely spontaneous; though, even then, one would have to explain how an absolutely libertarian act, obedient to no ultimate prior rationale whatsoever, would be distinguishable from sheer chance, or a mindless organic or mechanical impulse, and so any more “free” than an earthquake or embolism.

Distinguishable by whom? The subject certainly knows the difference between a decision that he or she chose and one that happened without choice, and one that seemed random. If we are talking distinguishable scientifically, then I don’t think that question is really relevant, science by definition cannot deal with intentionality, it’s a materialistic discipline, it depends on creating models predicting outcomes, which by definition could not apply to free will.

Could not the choice by self-determinate? God himself is self-determinate in the sense that he obeys no prior rationale nor are his actions sheer chance. Why could it not be the same for at least some of our actions? Of course, in a certain sense God’s choices are self-determined by his Goodness, but is God’s goodness a choice? Some would find the question to be nonsense, but if we say no then in what way is God truly free? If we say yes we are in the uncomfortable position of saying God cannot be 100% relied on, which is not only uncomfortable but seems to be unscriptural. What if we say that God’s choice of Goodness determines that his goodness necessary? That because God chose to be good he could not have done otherwise? Slavoj Zizek discusses a kind of predestination in that we constitute our own predestination. It’s a paradoxical notion, and I don’t think I’m up to giving a full defence of it, but I think we can say retrospectively God could not have not created, but that it was still a free Choice.

We can say the same time about human choice, especially when it comes to important ethical positions, such as love. Seen simply phenomenologically we experience love as a free choice, if I find out that my choice to eat a taco rather than pizza was determined by genetic and environmental factors it wouldn’t bother me that much, in fact it would kind of be in line with my intuition, but we tend to insist that choices such as truly loving someone is free. Forced love, either through coercion or some kind of necessity, seems to be fake love. At the same time, if I choose a taco over pizza I probably wouldn’t have any problem saying “I could just as well have chosen pizza, it was a random spontaneous choice,” and I would still enjoy the taco, but I wouldn’t say “I love my wife, but I could just as well have loved another girl, it was a random spontaneous choice.” Completely random love seems also to not to reach the level of authentic love.

So we have a paradox, which is why I think when it comes to choice, we cannot reduce the choices to either necessity or randomness. But this does not at all mean that the libertarian free will idea is impossible or unjustifiable, it just means that we cannot describe it in the mechanistic terms that we use to describe natural phenomenon (determined or undetermined). I think, however, we have good grounds, both phenomenologically and theologically to affirm that we make decisions.

He goes to attack the free will option be saying:

No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it. It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or of his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender respect for her moral autonomy.

It all depends on how one defines evil and good. If one defines evil as self-alienation from God, and good with alignment with Gods will then of course, someone could will the evil. If you define evil as something that is simply not the right thing to do, then of course no one can freely choose to do “not the right thing to do,” but what is the right thing to do depends on the ends intended, the point is some ends are in line with God’s will some are not.

As for the second point, I don’t think the analogy of a father and a child works. The reason a Father doesn’t grant his child the liberty he would his neighbour is because his child is not yet capable of making decisions, he’s not developed to the point where he can function independently of his father. If God made man to be moral beings, with the ability to abandon him or love him, there must be the option for the former; otherwise, there is no image of God. But what about the fire part? This is where I think the position of annihilationism comes in. Let’s again see what David Bently Hart has to say:

Not to wax too anthropomorphizing here, like some analytic philosopher of religion, but let us say God created simply on the chance that humanity might sin, and that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls might plunge themselves into Tartarus forever; this still means that, morally, he has purchased the revelation of his power in creation by the same horrendous price—even if, in the end, no one at all happens to be damned. The logic is irresistible.

And then:

for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice fall; the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager is an irrevocable intentional decision, wherein every possible cost has already been accepted; the irrecuperable expenditure has been offered even if, happily, it is never actually lost, and so the moral nature of the act is the same in either case. To venture the life of your child for some other end is, morally, already to have killed your child, even if at the last moment Artemis or Heracles or the Angel of the LORD should stay your hand.

This is true, however, I think this is Love by definition. Creation must entail a certain amount of risk if it is to include any kind of freedom, if God is to share his nature, but it is not voluntary to some degree, then nothing is shared. When you move from eternal torment to annihilationism the formula changes. Creation for damnation, or with the option of damnation runs the risk David Bently Hart points out, God creates in order to damn or potentially damn entails that damnation is built into creation and thus he is responsible for it. However, creation which is optional, and based on the decision of the creature, who can decide to be alienated from the ground of all being or be reconciled to him, is a whole different picture. All God would be culpable of in that scenario would be to allow humanity decide whether they want to be created or not.

So if we allow for two possibilities, open theism and annihilationism, we can retain free will and not be forced into universalism. The real question is whether or not the scriptures support either or those options. That will be for a later post.

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David Bently Hart’s Universalism Challenged

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