A Critique of Aquinas’ 99th Question in the Summa On the Justice of Hell

I aim to critique Aquinas’ 4th reply in the ST on “whether by divine justice an eternal punishment is dealt out to sinners.” I maintain that Aquinas’ reasoning in this particular reply is either false, meaningless, or contradicts more central presuppositions he makes about God.

Here is the objection, and then his reply. From article 1.

Objection 4. Further, no one wishes that which is not desirable for its own sake, except on account of some advantage. Now God does not wish punishment for its own sake, for He delights not in punishments [The allusion is to Wisdom 1:13: “Neither hath He pleasure in the destruction of the living,” as may be gathered from I-II, 87, 3, Objection 3]. Since then no advantage can result from the perpetuity of punishment, it would seem that He ought not to inflict such a punishment for sin.

Reply to Objection 4. The everlasting punishment of the wicked will not be altogether useless. For they are useful for two purposes. First, because thereby the Divine justice is safeguarded which is acceptable to God for its own sake. Hence Gregory says (Dial. iv): “Almighty God on account of His loving kindness delights not in the torments of the unhappy, but on account of His justice. He is for ever unappeased by the punishment of the wicked.” Secondly, they are useful, because the elect rejoice therein, when they see God’s justice in them, and realize that they have escaped them. Hence it is written (Psalm 57:12): “The just shall rejoice when he shall see the revenge,” etc., and (Isaiah 66:24): “They,” namely the wicked, “shall be a loathsome sight* to all flesh,” namely to the saints, as a gloss says. [“Ad satietatem visionis,” which St. Thomas takes to signify being satiated with joy; Cf. Supplement:94:3]. Gregory expresses himself in the same sense (Dial. iv): “The wicked are all condemned to eternal punishment, and are punished for their own wickedness. Yet they will burn to some purpose, namely that the just may all both see in God the joys they receive, and perceive in them the torments they have escaped: for which reason they will acknowledge themselves for ever the debtors of Divine grace the more that they will see how the evils which they overcame by its assistance are punished eternally.”

His first reason for defending God’s justice with respect to those in hell, which is vague, is that the divine justice is “safeguarded.” This rather assumes than proves his point. For the question is not “is justice safeguarded” but how is it safeguarded? He does not say.

More importantly, if God is forever unappeased, as he says, or if the suffering of hell never appeases, then how is justice truly served? Is it then not truly served? But hell exists to display God’s justice. In what sense is justice displayed, then, if it is never fully served? For justice is that which admits of no degrees. It just is the dealing of an appropriate penalty when one is due.

Let’s put it again. Is divine justice appeased in the damned? If it is not, then it cannot be served – that is, justice cannot be evident – for justice just is an act of appeasement. Therefore it is false to say that God’s justice is displayed in the damned. On the other hand, if it is appeased, then the point Aquinas makes is simply not to the purpose and is untrue. I imagine he wanted to avoid saying God’s justice was “appeased” in the damned, however, for that word implies some finality such that the amount of punishment could finally reached. But if that was the case, punishment could in principle be at some point fully paid and continual suffering would not occur. But since hell is never ending, that could never occur.

I know some say that the damned continue to sin and thus accrue more debt. But the point remains. Either there is a point at which justice is fully paid with regard to the saved, or there is not. If there is such a point, then, what happens after that point could not itself be a result of previous punishment. Thus the damned could conceivably make a free movement towards God and repent. If you say they cannot possibly repent, I ask why. If it is because of previous sin, then you’re really presupposing some punishment that still exists in their nature which inclines their will towards wickedness. In which case, punishment was never really paid off in the first place. On the other hand, if there is no point at which justice is met in the damned, then their being in hell does not display God’s perfect justice. At most it would be but a defeated justice; seeing as, whatever ideal to which “imperfect” justice was approximating would be something in God’s mind which he was aiming at but never achieving.

But more than this, this whole line of reasoning assumes that the divine justice is not equally appeased in the just who are saved. Would Aquinas hold that those in heaven do not perfectly appease and therefore display the justice of God through Christ’s saving work? If the saved can show the justice of God, then God’s justice need not require eternally tortured souls to exist in order for it to be displayed. In fact, is it not true that God’s justice is more displayed in the saved? If it is not, then suffering souls show forth God’s justice more than the work of Christ does. But if it is true that the saved show God’s justice more, then God not only does not show his love in the lost as greatly as in the saved, but neither does he even show his justice in them as clearly. For the saved show forth more both God’s justice and his love. Why then did God create the lost, if his justice was more poorly shown in them by their own suffering than it would be by their perfection and beatitude? Did God do what he could have done better and which, had he done it better, would have rid the universe of countless souls suffering for all eternity? Did God create a hell that need not exist in order to display a justice that could more brightly shine?

Or are we to think that the divine justice is as equally displayed in both the saved and lost? But then how could it be better to be the former rather than the latter? If the goodness in the saved is their relation to God and the fullness of being in which they participate, and if they as equally display the same attribute of God as the lost, then how can their be any distinction between them?

Justice is something which does not admit of degrees. Insofar as something falls short of the divine justice, that thing is unjust, for justice justice just is the perfect instance of what ought to be present. Therefore it is not even coherent to talk about the divine justice justifying the existence of hell since it is an instance of falling short of displaying justice.

Second, Aquinas says that the damned exist so that the elect can see the torments that they were delivered from and rejoice in this. But here Aquinas has not consistently followed through his own notions of predestination and the simplicity of God. If it were possible for the saved to have been lost, then it were possible for God to know otherwise than he knows. But should God know otherwise than he knows, then God would be different than he is. But God cannot be different than he is, since he is necessarily his own act of understanding. This act extends to “contingent” truths that God brings about (Aquinas thinks.) But, since both God’s will and knowledge are absolutely necessary, it is not possible for God to will or know otherwise than he does. In which case there is no way predestination – which is God’s will – or God’s knowledge of the predestined, could be different.

Consider: if God is necessarily his own act of will and knowing, then, what God knows is necessarily true. Otherwise, what God knows could possibly be false, and either a) God could possibly be mistaken; or b) God could possibly know other than he knows. But if what God knows could be otherwise, then God himself could be otherwise, since he could know something otherwise than he knows. But God is absolutely necessary and possesses no distinctions at all. Therefore he cannot be otherwise than he is. Otherwise he would not be God, and we could trace back to something before God that was absolutely necessary and simple that explained him.

Thus, since God cannot be otherwise than his act of knowing, what he knows cannot be otherwise than what it is. In which case, whoever is saved, cannot not be saved, for then it would be possible for God to know something different than he in fact knows. But then, another reason for the existence of hell – that the saved will see what they would have had to endure had they not been saved – cannot be true.

Here’s the same point put another way. On Aquinas’ theology, all that exists, is either God – that is, the divine essence – or a creature. Now, predestination is either God and therefore identical to the divine essence, since God is identical to his attributes, or it is a creature. If it is a creature, then it could be otherwise. That is, it could either have some different propositional content in terms of who was saved, or it could fail to exist altogether. But if it is a creature in this respect, then God cannot have necessarily in himself the truth of predestination, since it is contingent. God cannot act on himself. Therefore he cannot make himself know that something is true which is possibly false (i.e. which is only contingently true.) Otherwise God would act on his own knowledge of what is merely possible and antecedently contingent and make such things actually determinate to one side of their inherent possibility. But if God did this, then he would be divided into a before and after: he would have a necessary part of himself and a contingent part. There would be a what he knows “in himself” and what he knows “after he determines himself.” This is impossible for a timeless first principle. It is also impossible on Aquinas’ own theology, where God is actus purus, wholly immutable, without any accidents, parts, or composition.

On the other hand, if predestination is simply the divine essence itself – if, that is, it just is God knowing the truth of those who are predestined – then it is as absolutely necessary as the divine essence itself. But if predestination is necessary, then it is impossible for those who are saved to have been lost. In which case it is false that they would rejoice in seeing in the damned some fate that they “otherwise” would have had to endure. For it is impossible for something necessary to be otherwise; and predestination, being identical to the divine essence, could never have been otherwise either.

Thus, both Aquinas’ lines of reasoning in defending the justice of hell are wanting. The first, that the divine justice is safeguarded, fails because it is unintelligible to say that justice is the type of thing that can be displayed imperfectly: it just is the right recompense. The phrase “imperfect justice” is akin to being “a little pregnant.” Justice is either present, or it is not. There is no in between. Thus, if we argue that hell exists in order to display God’s justice, that simply amounts to saying that it exists to display that justice imperfectly in the case of the damned – which is the same as saying that hell does not display it at all. Second, the divine justice can more fully evident in the saved than the lost. This is only false if we believe Christ’s saving work somehow fails in some respect to show forth God’s justice perfectly. But if it does, then all those incorporated into it show God’s justice. Therefore the damned show forth God’s suffering more poorly than the saved, and so their ultimate happiness in heaven cannot be sacrificed for this great good of showing God’s justice, since that justice is more perfectly seen supposing that they are eternally perfected in heaven. Third and finally, since the saved, on Aquinas’ view, fall under the predestination of God, and since God is simply his own act of understanding, and since God understands his act of predestination, it follows that the saved cannot have been lost unless God himself were different. But God cannot be different. He is the necessary principle which explains all things which themselves become different over time. Were God different – or even possibly different – you would have to trace this possibility back to some necessary first principle which explained that fact. But one part of God cannot explain another part of God. Therefore, since God is absolutely necessary, what he predestines cannot fail to occur: therefore the saved could not have possibly been lost. Thus, the second reason Aquinas gives for the existence of hell is one that is meaningless, since the saved could not possibly think – unless they were eternally deceived – that they really could have been lost, since it was not logically possible for God not to know that they would not be saved.

 

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Not One Sparrow

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.” Matthew 10:29

We generally think that things could have been otherwise than they were. I took this way to work, but I could have taken that way. I married this person, but I could have married that one. I narrowly escaped this accident, but I could have been killed.

Is it really possible – in reality – for things to be otherwise though? Consider, if something were otherwise, you’d have to give a reason why it was so. We think: I took this way to work, but I could have taken that way. But then we say: but I didn’t take that way, because I needed to get gas. Now what we have done is simply inserted a reason why things went the way they did. But we have not explained how they could have went otherwise.

Presuppose some action that could have been different. Now, there is a reason why it was what it was, and not otherwise. We needed gas, or we fell in love, or we turned the wheel right at the last second. To say it really could have been different we would have to subtract the reason why it in fact wasn’t. But that reason was there. Therefore the outcome was not – could not have been – different. Unless you presuppose some additional reason: I needed gas but I had enough in the tank and I was running really late. But then again we are not showing how a thing could have been different, but only stating why it was what it was.

You see, when we explain events, we simply multiply the reasons why they were so. But if that is how we explain events, it can’t be the case that the events could have been otherwise. For an event to truly be able to be other than it was, it must be true to be able to presuppose exactly the same data, and posit as equally realistic, two opposite outcomes. We must be able to say, “given x, therefore either y or not y.” Now, if that is true, then there is literally no reason why a thing happens rather than not. For any reason we give would serve as a necessitating cause. But that is exactly what we are denying. Even given the reason, a thing could either happen or not. That is, a thing’s happening or not happening is equally possible. Therefore, why the thing happens cannot be explained by some cause. All that can be said is: “it just happened. There was no reason.”

Do we suppose we could point to a free agent? What about that free agent, though? We cannot point to some state of mind, some internal feeling, some state of will, some motive. For all those things, remember, are not reasons which actually explain the event, since, given all the same datum, the event could either follow or not. All we can do is point to the agent as a whole and say “the event came from he agent. Not for any reason. It just happened.”

Now consider this from the perspective of God. People are fond of saying “God created because he wanted to display his glory” or “he created for others to share in his blessedness.” Yet, if creation is an utterly free act, then none of these reasons explain creation. For God need not “want” to display his glory or have others share in his blessedness. Or even if you suppose he must necessarily want these things, he can equally not act on his wants, else creation itself becomes necessary. Therefore no motives in God actually explain his freely creative act.

Thus, if we suppose creation really could have been otherwise, and if we suppose it is a truly free act, then our answers to the question of “why did God create” eventually terminate in the simple statement: there is no sufficiently compelling reason. He just did. Given any reason we could submit, those reasons could still exist and creation not come about.” In fact, the whole thing is a tautology. God created because God created. We have not explained anything.

If creation is such a free act, how does God explain it? Given God, creation either can be or cannot be. God is absolutely identical in either case. We typically think of creation as coming from something when that something has in it an internal state of intending to create. The artist wills to paint: therefore, he creates a painting. But this cannot be the case with God. For God “willing” to create cannot really be anything in God. Else God would create, simply by being God: that is, necessarily, since God is necessarily God. But then what in God, or what about God, explains the fact that creation comes from him?

Some say that creation is simply a relation of dependence. What is made depends on God. It is related to him: therefore creation is simply the world, qua dependent on God. God himself is no different whether or not creation exists. In the same way an object of knowledge is no different whether or not our minds are actively perceiving it, so, too, creation is seen as simply the relation of dependence on being related to God as the mind is related to its knowing an object.

But what sense can be made of the word “creation” if this is true? Does an object “create” my knowledge of it? If it does not, then why say that God creates the world, simply because the world is ordered and related to him? Yet if the object does create my knowledge, then does the object know that it is creating my knowledge? If it does, then, since the creation of my knowledge is contingent, then the object could also know that it does not create my knowledge, since it could exist without creating my knowledge. That is, since the object either could or create me as knowing it, then the object either could or could not cause itself to know either that I know it or do not know it.

If creation is a truly free act in the sense that it could have been otherwise, and if God knows all things, then God could know that he created or that he didn’t create. He could know either that a created world exists, or that it does not. But then God would have to cause himself to be in whatever cognitive state he is in. But how could God cause himself? He would have to exist prior to himself and act on himself. This is impossible for a timeless being, or a first principle. Or is God in time, temporally creating himself from moment to moment? But then why suppose God causes the world, since the world on its own temporally becomes from moment to moment? And what timeless principle stands back and unites all becoming existence into a unified instance of being?

Does one say that God simply knows that the world “could” exist? Given God, and supposing the act of creation is free, the world can either exist, or not. Therefore, the existence of the world is necessarily possible. God being omniscient must know this necessarily. But the world, evidently, exists. Therefore if it could not exist it exists contingently. Therefore God must also know this. Therefore he must know both that the world could exist and that it actually exists, which is a contradiction. If God knows only the possibility of the world and not its actuality, he is not omniscient, for it is true that the world exists. If he knows both its possibility and actuality, he knows two contradictory things. If he knows only its actuality, then it is not true that it is necessarily possible: for it is only contingently possible and contingently actual.

But, actually, there is a solution to these contradictions. To see it requires us understanding two things. i) Possibility refers not to a thing’s ability to be otherwise, but to its actually being what it will be, at some time. That is, a thing is possible only if it actually comes to be. A seed is possibly a tree, only if in fact it becomes one. If there is no time in which a seed becomes a tree, it is not possible for a seed to be a tree.  ii) “Possibility” also resides simply in our imagination. When we say “I could have gone to work a different way” that does not mean that we actually could have – that is, given all that actually occurred up to that moment, another result could have ensued – but that we can imagine not having gone to work the way we did. We can imagine a different result ensuing, given all the datum up to a certain point. This is simply because we are not omniscient.

Obviously we can imagine all sorts of things. When someone asks us, “what finger am I holding behind my back” we say and think things like “it could be a one or a two.” But really, the number is what it is. Our ignorance does not supervene on the reality and make that reality possibly something other than what it in fact is. Is it raining in Japan today? May be we say. But this is not true. It either is or it is not. We do not know of course. So we think the reality could be either one. But that is merely us imagining reality in different ways. The reality itself is what it is.

There is another absurdity in thinking that things could be other than they are if one believes in the uniformity of nature and a God who does miracles. Why should nature uniformly produce the same effect? Given all the same data fed into her, if everything could be other than it is, then the fact that nature continues to behave as it does is inexplicable. It may just as well behave otherwise. Remember, given that God creates freely, you can posit God and also posit absolutely anything in the creation. Do you think that God is bound to the rules of nature? But he created those rules, freely. That is, the rules need not have came about. Or was it only possible for those rules to come about or not come about, but not a different set of rules? Then God cannot create any conceivable rule? God then, if he creates, must necessarily create this way. Then we can imagine some rules which are not logically impossible but which God cannot bring about: but then he is not omnipotent, for he cannot do what we deem something not logically impossible. You see, if anything possible can possibly come about, then our whole understanding of the uniformity of reality breaks down. For it could follow a totally unpredictable pattern. There is just as much reason, given God, that nature should be predictable as that it should not be. But supposing what we mean by “God creates” is simply an instance of God creating these rules of nature, then we are simply saying that God does what he does. And, necessarily, if God does x, he does x. Therefore if God creates he necessarily creates; and what he creates is just these laws of nature.

Aristotle’s argument against the idea that all things take place by necessity amounts to this: if it were so, then deliberation would be in vain. But that, of course, does not follow. Deliberation cannot be in vain, for it infallibly produces its effect. Indeed nothing can be in vain, for all things are necessarily and inextricably connected to what they produce. In fact, an awkward consequence would follow if things really could be other than they were going to be. For, supposing a person deliberates, he still could choose otherwise, if effects don’t necessarily follow their causes. Indeed what difference would deliberation make, if we could suppose the exact kind of deliberation all the way up to the moment of the decision, and if either decision could equally come about?

Why not then conclude that all truth is necessary? I do not see what we lose. If it somehow makes the world less marvelous because God necessarily creates it, or that it necessarily exists, then God himself must be less marvelous because he necessarily exists. Nor should there be a worry that there is some “outside” force necessitating us to do some action we would not otherwise do. For there is no action we would “otherwise” do. There is only what we in fact do, which cannot be other than what it is.

Taken as a whole, the entire universe must be what it is. Therefore it could not be otherwise, and still be itself. Do we suppose that each thing has some accidental properties that it could have had, and remained the same? That God knows the essential in each thing, and also the accidental? But the accidental must necessarily still be accidental. Hence, each essential thing must necessarily possibly have all of its accidents. But then if God creates a thing with only such and such accidents, when it could have had other ones, then once again he is creating his own knowledge of the actual thing, which supposes he acts on himself, which is impossible. If an actual thing is “essentially this, with the accidents of either p or not p” then, unless there is some time in which the thing either has p or not p, the thing becomes a timeless divine idea with contradictory properties. For instance, say God necessarily knows Adam is essentially a human, but only accidentally existing. Therefore in God’s mind Adam either exists or does not exist: i.e. Adam necessarily possibly exists. But to say a thing possibly exists is to say it does not in fact exist, but it could. But then existence is not an accident in Adam, but the default and necessarily essentially true condition of Adam, presupposing God does not give him existence. But we can equally presuppose that God gives him existence. Therefore God must know both suppositions: i.e. he must know both that he freely gives Adam existence and that he does not, which is impossible.

To create a thing is to stand in a relation of causing that thing. Therefore the thing must be an effect. But if God creates, then in virtue of that very thing God has become a cause. God then has caused himself to be a cause. We say God acts on creation: this “on” seems rather to presuppose something already existing. But if God simply creates without presupposing anything, then, still, this action somehow brings about an effect – or rather it just is an effect. But then somehow God as cause brings about his own effect. That is, God somehow in creating becomes his own effect, which is inconceivable.

The problem in conceiving of God as a cause of this thing called the world is that it reduces that which is supposed to transcend the category of “things” altogether to “a” thing. If God is “being” how can he be “a” being? To put him in relation to something is already to put him in a subject-object relation, which presupposes being as that which both subject and object participate in. But then God would be finitely participating in himself, which is impossible.

I am often driven to Naturalism. What need is there for God? You have all that is – the world. It simply is. It is the great thing which we encounter: the everything that can be encountered, the all in all. When you take this reality – this all that is – and try to incorporate God into the picture, where does he go? What purpose does he serve? As a cause of the world? But why does the world need a cause? It is all that is. Further, we have seen that if God causes the world then he stoops down into the story of things that exist in the all that is. He becomes this thing that causes this other thing. But both things partake of existence and share in some bigger reality that involves all there is.

Is then what I call the world simply my finite experience of God – of “being”? Is what I call “possible” simply what my mind happens to be conceiving in relation to existence itself? This is very close to pantheism, but less problematic than traditional conceptions of the Creator-created relation.

I experience the world. I do not experience God. But the world exists. Therefore, if God is the pure act of existence, I must be, in experiencing the world, somehow experiencing God too, since the world’s existing is somehow a participation in God’s existing. The word “existing” must overlap somehow when applied to God existing and the world existing, or I could not use them of both. But then experiencing the world I do experience God.

If the world simply necessarily exists, what need is there for anything else? The principle of unity which makes all things one. We have the uni-verse. The together-thing. The one-song of all existence. There must be something that unites it all, that makes it all intelligible, that holds it all together. There must be some ultimate binder, some root, some first knowing, some foundation of all Truth. There must be a providence, a governor, a mover, a guider, behind all. There must be a singular heart to the whole thing. There has that which, as Plato said, has no opposite: that which necessarily is, and therefore necessarily explains. Trace all things back and back, and you arrive at it. You must, else all else is but instrumental and nothing is ever explained. This necessity you get to – which cannot not be – must be. Thus it has to be itself. It is itself, and since it is itself, it must be so; it must be what it is. And since it can’t be otherwise, once you posit it, all that it means, all that it does, all that it thinks, all that it binds, all that it explains, must necessarily follow and be connected to it as well.

A Yearning: A Meditation on Myself

My soul longs for a union to all that is – to have dwell in me, and me dwell in, all loveliness, all beauty, all goodness, all humanity: yea every person, every possible person. My heart longs to pour itself out and abandon itself and release itself into everything, and so find itself. I yearn to be in closest union to all I can be in union with: yet I can be in union with everything. Therefore, I want everything.

I do not, cannot bear to, leave anything behind. To let go of some relation I have to life, to existence, to humanity, to person, to animal, to creature, to factual truth, would be to let go of some part of myself, since somehow in that unique relation, I am found. I am truly present in the relation, even if it is only in my conscious feeling towards all that can possibly come into my mind, in such a way that I am uniquely. To take away a piece of what I have felt and known, would be to take from my soul some cavern, some filling place that the relation itself satisfied. Such would make me less than I am capable of being: therefore, less than myself.

I cannot understand myself. The what I am hides ever behind the that I am. It mocks me, drives me to madness, allures me, sweetly whispers to me. What am I? I scream it at the world. I howl it while lying in bed in the thickness of night. I laugh it to meaningless in the absorption of some pleasure. I analyze it to pieces in the intensity of thought.

What is behind my “me” – my image of myself that I present to myself? I can only know myself by thinking back upon myself. I have to stop thinking “through” – that is, I have to interrupt my unattended flow of thought – to look back upon the trail my thinking has just left in the sand. Yet even this looking back is not a direct looking at. I cannot get a hold of myself, cannot stop myself to stare at myself. It is a constant hitch, a constant dissolution from one moment to the next. I first simply find myself thinking something, unintentionally, and then my intention comes to bear on it. There is this ever shifting dance. One cannot be either intentional or unintentional for very long when one is examining onself.

People say sorrow is evil. But how can that be? Every emotion, be it as supposedly evil as coming straight from the devil himself, is driven to its manifestation from love. Love is the driving force as well as the goal to which all human feeling relates. Does a man weep for loss? It is because he loves not loss, but loves that which is lost. Somehow the distance between him and the object causes in him a love which shows itself in tears. Yet were it not for love – yea love unspeakable – no tears would come. To wish to abolish tears from the world would be to wish that it made no difference whether we lost what we loved. But then how could we love, if our having what we love made no difference to us? We cry, not because there is some evil in us, but because there is so much good breaking upon us that we wish to tears that we could unite ourselves yet closer to it. Sorrow is but the hearts cry and desire for more of what it believes with all its heart is lovely.

I will not touch on other emotions at the present. Suffice to say, an emotion is a thing that moves us, hence the word e-motion. But if we are moved, we are moved toward something; and if something then something, at least in some respect, good and desirable. Every motive of action, thought, feeling, will – every conceivable relation a human may have consciously towards some object – springs from love. That is, from desire. To say something is desirable is just to say that it is somehow lovely. Somehow, what is seen in the thing, is seen as worthy of love.

When I yearn for union with everything! Ah, what can mere words hope to convey here? They stagger along after thought and feeling. The brain fumbles to try to understand itself by forming “words” so as to present to itself some intelligible account of what just occurred to it. Yet what occurs in feeling and in loving, is indescribable. To the man who has never loved, what could words tell him? You may as well describe the concept of color to a blind man. Yet if a man has loved, then words do not convey to him some new reality. They merely stir up within him that which has already taken root and been felt. Words, therefore, are but the misty leftover of feeling, ever trying, and ever failing, to bring back that which was. Sometimes this is better than not trying at all, and sometimes it is not.

Likewise with “proofs,” say for God’s existence. What is a proof but simply the going back over some conscious experience? To prove a thing, the thing proven must already be present in the presentation of the proof, else we could never get to it. You can never get to some thing which you’ve never conceived, never had any notion of at all. First you must have the conception: and that, you do not prove, you simply find. “If x, then y. X, therefore y.” But we must already be familiar with what is contained in the “if” – that is, with x. Otherwise we could not proceed. A man could not understand a syllogism that started “If abracadabra” – for it would mean nothing. A proof therefore is simply the mind playing with its own past conscious experiences: rearranging them, trying to harmonize them, trying to pin them down to something definable – to some sort of after the fact must be.

I personify an object: say a flower. I look at it and feel beauty, joy, harmony. I think back upon a memory – what is a memory? – and feel warmth, love, meaning. What is this? What is occurring? I am somehow loving myself when experiencing these things. That is, my experiencing them and enjoying them is a form of me experiencing myself and enjoying myself. Yet I am not only loving myself, but loving something other than myself, the relation of the other to me causing itself even more love in myself. The only thing more lovely than me loving myself, is me loving the relation I have to that which is other than myself, for now I have more to love, yea more love itself.

I look into the eyes of a child. What wonder! What mystery, what potential, what miraculous profundity of life and newness! To know the child as carrying these things, simply is to love them, for they are inherently lovely. The word “love” therefore is used to cover all things whatsoever we enjoy, whether in thought or feeling or action or imagination or relation. Love is this infinite word which simply defines and describes our existing as perceivers, as feelers, as persons who act – who go toward some end. To describe a human being is to call it nothing else than a lover.

My mind constantly seeks to systematize, rationalize, justify. It seeks answers in which it can rest. It seeks a peace which must be so, not a mere possible – therefore shakeable – foundation. Sometimes I feel I have such a place. Sometimes I do not. Perhaps I am only describing my own feelings – perhaps I am only talking to myself – when I think and try to understand the world, when I try to say “how it is.”

Enough for now.

5. The Reflection of God’s Glory

“in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Hebrews 1:2

Let each man ask himself and answer himself in most honest fashion: why do you believe that Jesus Christ shows you God? Why is it that you want the Incarnation to be true? And why do you think of yourself as a “Christian”?

All answers a man may give, save one, are defeatable and destructable. All answers a man may think, save one, are stunted attempts to reach out towards our highest calling and our greatest freedom and bliss. The one answer that is unshakably sure and undeniably true, is this. We believe in Christianity because we believe that Christ reveals the one great truth of existence: that the human condition is divine. Christ shows us that to be human, is to be like God. Yea, for God is infinitely more human than any human being.

Do you think you could be a Christian because an authority has demonstrated to you a string of irresistible arguments that some man two thousand years ago came back to life after he was crucified? Or do you suppose you could be a Christian because your father or mother was one, or that a tradition of thinkers, or those you admire who have gone before you, were Christians? Do you think, reader, that you could be a Christian because you are afraid to be anything else, as if your fear of unknown and unexplored religions has any bearing on their truth or falsity? No, friend. You cannot be a Christian – that is, a true Christian, or a true anything, for that matter – for those reasons. The only reason thick enough to give thy bones marrow is this. To be a Christian means to feel and believe and trust that every human being is a reflection of God; is of a value infinite – immeasurable – yea that even in thyself there is the unfathomable and inexhaustible richness of love and life and being itself, for we participate in divinity. Unless one believes this and clings to it – unless this be the ultimate ground upon which you take your stand – your faith will be defeatable. Unless you believe that God is goodness and loveliness and life, and that humanity is but this very truth wrote out in the universe in us, unless, that is, you believe the very human condition is a partaking of the divine nature, you build your house upon the sand.

To the thinker who would dispute me, and who would claim between the divine and human an infinite, unrelatable gulf, I ask: what is God? Life, you may say, or goodness, or love, or happiness. You may say he is intellect and will and freedom. Go even to the most all encompassing description: say God is being itself. Give whatever definition you please. I ask: are we not living? Are we not good? Have we never loved or had happiness? Have we not intellects and wills and freedom? Indeed, are we not, ourselves, beings? For any word we give to God, we give it because we have already partaken of the reality that the word signifies. Otherwise, we could not give it. The word used would be meaningless when applied to God, for either we would be denying what we mean by the term when applied to him, or affirming the meaning, and denying that that is what it means when said of God. Therefore we are already, as it were, necessarily acquainted with God, even before we name him. We participate in him. We are somehow rooted in him and draw our entire being and reality from him. We are and our conscious thoughts must be reflections of him. We are his images; his analogies; his gestures; his representations.

The metaphysician claims that God knows all things by knowing himself. God knows “beings” by knowing “being” – that is, by knowing himself. But if we are beings – if, that is, we participate and are instances of existence – God himself in knowing himself must have us in himself. “Being itself” surely includes all instances, all modes, all expressions, of “being.” But then we are in God essentially. We are in him as closely as he is in himself.

God therefore is thinking every one of us.  He is not thinking about us – no, that is a far paler because far falser and more detached notion. We must get closer. God is thinking us, reader. And not just us. Every atom in the universe is a live, divine thought. Theologians often talk of God standing back and seeing the universe out in front of him all at once. But that cannot be how God knows his creation. It suggests a far less intimate picture than what the father heart of God is capable of. If God knows us at all, he must know us with the same infinite depth in which he knows himself, for we are simply God’s own thought of himself, as he conceives himself as we are understanding him.

Humanity, then, is the Son of God. But if a Son, then of the same nature. Nothing can come from another, unless that thing be first in the other from which it comes. It is absurd to think that some reality could come to be that was not first rooted in God, himself the infinite and unconditioned reality. Where would such a novel, unknown, unsaturated thing come from, except from that which contains, knows, and saturates all things? If we must be able to penetrate the mysteries of creation and the self existence of God in order to have faith and hope and peace and joy, we are of all men most pitied. But, although we cannot plumb the depths till they are dry, we can squint our eyes just enough to get a hint of what these things may mean.

When a person creates, what is in the made thing, was in the one that made it. Indeed the more perfect and skillful the maker, the more this is true. There is not one note in the symphony that was not somehow already within the one who made it. The greater the artistic expression, the more fully it displays the artist himself: that is, his inner life. Thus creation, that is, how we know reality, with all our feelings and conscious existential experiences, must somehow reflect and be traced back to God. What we experience must somehow be in God, not in such a way where our conscious experience is nothing like the life of God, but where, the life of God takes up our experience perfectly, because God simply is the ideal from which our derived experience is born. Even were our experiences illusions, still, these illusions would be felt illusions. Therefore they would be phenomenon, existences or instances of felt being that demand an explanation – a root. Therefore if there is a God and a source of all finite existences, these existences must be precontained and pre-existing in him.

What, then, can it mean to say that God in himself does not know suffering or pain or fear or weakness? These, if they are nothing else, are still among the most significant things we are aware of. That is, they are conscious experiences that exist in his creation. Indeed, all we know – all we can think or even describe – about reality is nothing other than some conscious experience. There is as it were a collapse between the universe as “unperceived” and it as “perceived.” The former thought is but a fiction, an unthinkable, unnameable nothing. All we know is what we consciously experience. Therefore all creation must be, as far as we are concerned, consciously felt phenomenon. Such phenomenon are therefore things that God has made. Must God not then know them if he has made them? Not know them in the sense of having an historical or analytical knowledge of them, which would be not to know them, but to know about them. But must God not know them in their most fundamental reality: their being – their essence – their what they feel like? And what is the essence of a feeling except the very feeling itself? To know it other than to know it as felt would be simply not to know it. A blind man may know all about colors but who would say he really knew the color blue?

Feelings are things – they are beings – come somehow from God’s heart. Therefore he must know them infinitely and perfectly. And why can we not say with the classic theologians that God knows these things the same way he knows all things – by knowing himself? May not God’s act of himself, of him being himself – involve somehow a suffering, a pain, yea a crucifixion, a death, a rising, and a triumph? And may not our experiences of these things, singular and fragmentary in our conscious being, exist somehow in him in some ineffably harmonious way?

What if God, himself, is simply the prime instance of will, of life, of self? What if God is the absolute affirmation of being, over against non-being: infinite life ever asserting itself against death?

If God knows all pain, friend, he also knows the overcoming and conquering and reconciling of all pain. Believe this; or believe not in God at all. For how could God be worth believing in unless he was identical with the being better than pain? Should we believe that God is finally destroyed by suffering? That would be to assert that death is stronger than life: yea that evil is stronger than good. Even if this were so, what good would it be to believe it? If at the very heart of being there existed eternal death and the negation of all value, why submit to that? Because it is true? But that has not been proven. Nor would it matter if it were, as loyalty to truth is simply one more assertion of the primacy of the good – of Being – over against non-being. Or should we think that God knows not pain at all, as it being something that somehow is not rooted in and sprung from and reflective of him? Yet how then could it exist, how could it be? Do we think there could be some mode of being that is not found in being itself, some modality of existence that is not accounted for by existence itself?

No, brothers and sisters. We must either believe that the source of our life and all that surrounds us and the destination towards which we are moving, is all perfect and gloriously beautiful and lovely; or we must be like the Nordic men of old who fought against the gods, even knowing that the Armageddon of the cosmos was inevitable. Otherwise – why be at all? To be is to be for something. Therefore we cannot believe in nothing. Therefore, God, who is the ultimate justification of our act of being, must be, and must be all that he can be, all that we can conceive him to be. That is, he must be infinitely perfect, beautiful, good, divine, lovely. Else he is not strong enough to justify our own hopes, our own faith, our own act of to-be-for-something. Anything else than the greatest God there can be is not enough to justify humanity’s attempt to exist and live towards an infinite principle.

“If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Ah, friends! How glorious, how radiant, how sublime this truth is! We approach it hesitatingly, only because we are afraid it may be false. We do not want to hope too high, lest God be found to disappoint. No! Let us boldly approach the throne of grace. Our Lord says that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father.

If then we have seen Christ weeping, we have seen God. If then we have seen him laughing, or sleeping, or loving, or wondering, we have seen God. If then we have seen him dying, beloved, yea and rising again, we have seen God. If we have seen the humanity of Jesus, then we have seen the heart-core of the universe out of which we came.

What could it mean to say that God suffers in his human nature, but not in his divine nature, if the “person” of God has both a human and divine nature? Is the “person” of God more than the “nature” of God? Or is God more than or other than God? I care not to dispute a system of theology born and defined by a metaphysics of an ancient race, the race having no conception of the theology, nor the theology having any other thought-tool to understand its own revelation than the race. I wish only to assert that the humanity of Christ show us, truly and really, God himself: the divine. If Christianity is not this, then I am not a Christian, for I cannot understand what the religion means when it tells me that Christ is God’s Son.

The human heart of Jesus, his emotions, his conscious feeling, his will, his wishes and desires: to know these things, is to know God. It is to know the purpose of our being and our relation to the source from which we came. It is to find ourselves and to become most fully real and alive.

I ask the honest seeker after Christ’s way with man, what would his heart think about a soul who was eternally lost, eternally at enmity with the source from which he came, eternally miserable and tormented? If he would be moved to grief, would that not mean that God’s heart too would be so moved? There can be no disunity between the will of Christ and the will of the Father. The two must will the same. Or would Christ submit his own love for and brotherhood with the lost – would he crucify it – to a will which does not care that there are any lost at all? Christ then would be the most pitied, most suffering man. He would wish to save his kindred, yet must sacrifice his love of brother and sister to keep true his love of  father! Is Christ’s heart eternally so crucified? If so, then what hope have we of heaven, if we shall be united to him? Shall heaven be mingled with such unspeakable sorrow, greatest of all in the greatest heart himself, the heart of the Son of Man? Or does that heart eventually cool, eventually “accept” – a horrible word – the will of God? Shall the love he had for the lost be such as to become as if it never were, as if he never loved? Shall he grow to look upon his former love and sorrow as things of insignificance? Weak love were it so. May we be spared from such an affection! Or shall the heart of Christ begin to beat with a love which rejoices in the very lostness of the lost? Will Jesus enjoy the suffering, the separation, of those whom shall never have the only thing that can ever reconcile their soul and make them at peace? Who that has ever known the face of love or even seen the faintest glimpse of her form would say she could ever bare such a countenance?

“God is love.” What does it mean? It means that God, being identical to Love itself, must possess in himself all possible modalities of love, the possibilities themselves being but our finite ways of getting at the infinite and necessary reality. If Christ shows us the Father, I ask, does Christ’s crucifixion not also show us, in its own way, the Father’s crucifixion? If it does not, what purpose then for the crucifixion? What lies have been sown, how many hearts mistakenly warmed, by the thought that self-abnegating suffering is a supreme instance of love itself – and therefore a reflection of the heart of God? To empty oneself out for another, to take upon oneself the suffering of another, yea to be willing to suffer, to undergo pain, is itself a mode – a form – of love. Therefore it must somehow exist in God himself: else God himself could learn some new lesson in love founded outside himself, and so would not himself be Love primal and absolute.

Does this notion of God smack of weakness? Does it sound as if I am tainting the otherwise spotless bliss of an impassible God? The theologians who claim that God’s inner life is above suffering and consists only in undisturbed bliss have failed to see that even “undisturbed bliss” is simply one finite, human emotive-experience. In itself it only captures a sliver of human life. Therefore how could it encapsulate the wholeness that is the full Life of God? To fix on any single human experience and to set that up as the totality of God’s inner plenitude is both bad metaphysics and exegesis. Each of our descriptions of God is really just the taking of a single image and trying to slap it on an infinite reality which cannot be defined by any single image. We are like one lying in bed on a cold night who, when he pulls the blanket to cover his neck, straightway exposes his feet. We cannot capture God in one image. We are better off trying to juggle all the images, to hold on to each not at the expense of the rest but at the same time as them, than we are in setting up only one as the ultimate. We must resist the urge to oversimplify. It is too easy to set up a single conscious experience – say of happiness or joy – and identify that with God. God is infinitely more than we can imagine, not less. To know him, we must look at humanity – that is, we must look at Christ – who is the very mystery of God himself, and in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

 

4. His Offspring

“Even as some of your own poets have said: ‘For we too are his offspring.’ ” Acts 17:28

The idea that we are the offspring of God, is one of the most glorious, beautiful thoughts that can ever pass through the mind of man. Though man hold it in the secret chamber of his heart, and though he roll it through his all expansive soul for ages upon ages, he shall never exhaust the depths of its mystery. The contemplation of the idea is like the looking into a rose: the more a man does it, the more wonderfully incomprehensible, the more harmoniously rich he finds it. The idea sends pulses, like spirit-nerves, to the very core of his being and touches on that in him that is one with God. This relation between maker and made, between infinite fecundity and finite expression, must be inexhaustible for all eternity. If we should ever get to the bottom of it, it would be less than it is.

The Apostle in his letter to the Colossians declares that the universe was created through Christ. Such a declaration is not a trouble for the one who holds the reality in profoundest awe and hopeful faith. Rather, it is unspeakable joy. Since the soul senses somewhat the all encompassing grandiosity of the reality it dimly sees, the vague vision through the midst awakens an ever deeper yearning for closer and closer unity to its very truth. That truth is this: our being is forever rooted in, held together by, and reaching towards, Jesus Christ, the awful and inexorable divinely human love.

To create, I say, is a thing no man shall ever comprehend. What notion does man have of creation? He can, it seems, form no conception of an absolutely creative action. Where man simply rearranges already existing things, God makes the very things themselves. Where man puts together his novels and paintings out of bits of words and colors, God creates men who are themselves the living characters in his stories and works. A man would make a Frankenstein, sewing together dead flesh and bone. God would make an Adam, who is himself a living soul: a uniquely God-made being, unrepeatable: a thing itself.

All puzzles relating to God’s predestination and man’s freedom would be resolved if we but had a proper notion of what precisely it means for God to create. The closer we attain to the truth of this notion and the more we purify it from falsehoods, the closer, too, we shall get to understanding the relations between God and man; and the more the contradictions which threaten to destroy our faith dissolve, and leave room for the mystery to lie open and bare.

All notions of God, however primitive, have in them some notion of truth. The danger is not to think of God in primitive ways, but to think of him in only such ways. We must remember that Christ himself grew up worshiping a God who would seem to many theologians today to be far too anthropomorphic.

Regarding primitive notions of God, there is for example the Deistic one: the God who, having made the world, then stands back and allows it to evolve and unwind haphazardly. While this idea honors the fact that God has, so to speak, thrown the world off himself, and while it upholds the distinction between God and the world, it falters in that it implies that what God makes is somehow unaccounted for by him, somehow absolutely “outside” him. How could a world come forth from the heart and mind and will of God, ever be outside God? Where would the world exist, if not in God? And where would the supposedly random possibilities be born, if not in God? But if they are born there, they are also known there, infinitely. A possibility in God’s bosom is as known as an actuality, and therefore as accounted for an as loved. Or again, how could the world go on, haphazardly or not, if not by God’s creative intention? Where would such potencies come from – such possible evolutions, the fact that these-things-can-go-this-way – if not from his hands and thought? Any way that a thing may turn out must already be rooted and grounded in the divine nature of the Maker. Thus there is no sense in which God could create and “then” let the world be. For the “then” – the comings to be in the thing he has made – has already been accounted for in his act of creating in the first place. Even if God should say “I will create this with the possibility of going this way or that,” the very “this way or that” – that very polarity, those very options themselves – have sprung from him. Therefore, even the possibilities of the world’s outcome must be rooted in him. Yet at the same time, neither does God determine “beforehand” what will happen in the world, as if, God having so determined things, now the world is stuck with such a fate. God creates us, not so that we fulfill the script of some prewritten play. He creates us as actors in the very play of the drama of the universe. We are not souls cast for certain roles. We are are roles.  God does not create men who are predestined; he creates predestined men.

To think, is to imitate God, for God is essentially a thinking being. (Perhaps, indeed, he is just thinking being itself.) Therefore to think, friends, is not an evil, but a good thing. Let us see if we can think a little about creation, and get a far off glimpse of the outline of something which may help throw our questions into more light.

What does it mean to create? That which comes to be, before it is, is not. Yet, before it is, it somehow exists in that which makes it. The artist precontains his art; not in the sense that he sees his picture as it will be before he makes it; but in such a way that all the depth and harmony and beauty of what he produces is, somehow, rooted in his art-soul. This rootedness is not something present to his consciousness. It is something deeper, more primal. That which comes to be – that which the artist creates – is but a finite reflection of what in itself is in him in an infinite and therefore not totally communicable mode: it is the artist’s inner life, beauty, love, form, richness. Yet this “innerness” is again not identical, nor even the same thing as, his consciousness of his art. The inner life of the artist is not the same thing as his awareness of his inner life, which he knows through his art. His creation but pays homage and resembles the essential and undivided idea in him of what he possesses in his profoundest being; yea his existence – his own to be – itself. The created thing then is a re-creation of the artist himself. It is a reproduction to himself of what is in himself, and therefore what he is himself. Yet creation never exhausts the one who creates. There is always something more that is not poured into the thing made. The reproductive and creative faculty is potentially infinite, since the infinite form of being, latent in a man’s mind, dwelling deeper than his conscious self, is inexhaustible. The creative man is like the miner who, no matter how deeply he burrows into the depths of the mountains, yet finds more and more gems, each unique, none unrepeated before.

For this reason the one who creates is always somehow more than what he makes. It is the man who produces the thing. The thing does not produce the man. Therefore in him there is more than what he produces. I do not say that that which is made is therefore itself exhaustible, least so by the one who made it. Indeed, the meanings themselves in a particular creative work may be infinitely more than what the artist ever intends. My point is simply that, the thing made comes from, and is therefore rooted in and traced back to, the maker. The maker is the source; the made, that which issues from the source: the first the cause, the second, the effect: the first the Creator, the second, the created.

We approach then the question upon which the whole mystery of our existence revolves: that between the relation of ourselves as made, to God as maker. If God is to be responsible for the world – if he is to be its creator or cause – he cannot be identical to the world. It being an impossibility for a thing to create or make itself, God therefore must be distinct from the world. And yet, as himself being the highest good, the infinite act of love, the pure instance of to be, there is no lack in him which drives him to create. In God himself there is no divine need to be met, no itch to be scratched, no lacking which he could go on to obtain, supposing some other condition were met besides his own act of being himself.

God, then, simply by being himself, cannot be less than himself: that is, less than infinite. Yet he can create. How comes this “can” to attach to him? If God cannot attain some new mode of being since he is infinite being itself – the idea of “new mode” simply being the imagination’s mistaken idea of some form of life which he did not previously possess and which he then acquires – how does it make sense to say God “can” do anything? What possibility can be ascribed to the infinite necessity? What potency can enter into the all-perfect actuality? What process of becoming can ultimate being undergo? Supposing God created, would he not change? Would he not “go from” existing without a world, to now existing with one? Would he not at one moment will and know only himself; and the next, will and know both himself and the world? And if so, would this not mean that he somehow attained some new mode of being – therefore that he was limited and less than all he could be? Where would such a limitation come from? How could his old-finite transform into some now new-finite, and what infinite would subsume these two finites? Would not such a subsuming infinite itself be God? If not, and if God is then able to be divided up into what he could and could not be, would not there be some law above him, some larger definition of God-possibility, which gave him the potential ranges of his own existence?

How could the ultimate explanation of everything which begins to be itself begin to be in some way? Would not this movement in God not entail that God acted on himself to bring himself into such a state of knowing and willing the world and that he therefore created himself, in which case the distinction between created and creator becomes meaningless?

The possibility of God being other than himself: is this grounded in God? If no, then where does it come from, God being the ground of all reality and all possibility whatsoever? If yes, then how is it a true possibility, seeing as God must necessarily be God: that is, all that he is, all that can be, himself?

Surely God cannot create himself. If there exists a necessary being, he cannot cease to be: therefore he cannot begin to be: therefore he cannot be created. Neither could God eternally create himself, for that would suppose him both forever giving to himself that which he was already receiving from himself. At least, should God do this, what God brought about in himself would be as necessary as himself: in word, it would be something, not contingently made, but naturally begotten. It would be God from God and Light from Light. Such a relation could only be between the Father and the Son; not between the Creator and the Creature.

Still, God does, evidently, create. He creates the world and us conscious beings who contemplate creation. Therefore, by that act, God does become now, at least to us, what he was not before: that is our Father. Whereas in himself he is simply Father to the Son; in relation to us, he is the Father of the universe he need not make. Does God not begin to stand in such a relation of willing? Does he not begin know the fact of the contingent universe’s existence?

Theologians often talk of God standing back and “seeing” the world out in front of him: all of time is “out there” for him to inspect and absorb. In reality, however, this cannot be how God knows the world. He is not eternally receiving data from his creation; nor is he – absurdly – separated from it by just so much space, as a man’s eyeballs are three feet away from the book he is reading. Such images between God and the creation suggest a relation far less intimate than what is at the heart of the Father, who made the world through his Son. If God knows us at all, he must know us with the same infinite depth in which he knows himself. We are beings: he is being. Therefore, in knowing himself perfectly, he knows us perfectly too. Yea, insofar as he penetrates the mystery of himself and is in closest contact with himself, he must, of necessity, be in that same contact with us. A metaphysician could say that God, in knowing infinite being infinitely, knows too finite being infinitely. Therefore there is no reason for God to look outside himself to inspect the world standing over and against him to know it. He knows it simply by knowing himself.

The knowledge of any contingent fact, then, is not a fact “in” God’s mind, like a sentence or proposition resting there, that need not rest there. God is not in an internal mental state based on the gratuity of the world, as if, were the world not to exist, God would then be in some different internal mental state. God necessarily knows all intelligible being, all reality. The fact that some of that reality exists freely is not some item inside him: it is simply the fact that the free world itself exists, and is drawn towards and directed to God. Even this very directedness, this contingency, is something in the world itself, and not in God.

To suggest that God began to stand in some relation, would be to say that, in himself, there is not already existing in his deepest reality whatever would actually accrue to God by coming to stand in that relation. It is to assume that God would somehow gain something simply in virtue of now being related in a contingent way. But for that which is absolute plenitude of life, such a thing cannot be. Any positive that a new relation would bring about must already exist in God, else it would come to him from “outside” himself and being given to him by something else.

The coming into being of the relation of our own dependence on God, then, is something created. God being “our Father” is something created; as is the Incarnation of Jesus; as is the beginning of the cosmos. All these things are relations which God as it were presents to himself, without any change in himself. Nor does he acquire anything by doing this. What could the fullness of life and existence gain by making present to himself some created thing? Any good conceivable would be something which already existed necessarily in God, who is absolute Good itself. Any positive relation conceivable, any attainment, any act of perfecting that resulted, would already exist in the highest degree in that which caused the created thing to begin with, for the cause of this newly formed good is simply unlimited good itself. God, then, in ineffable fullness, makes present to himself a creation, without any change or perfection in himself, but only in the thing made, thereby doing good, not to himself, but to the thing made.

Therefore the relation between God and creation is entirely one sided. It is all on the side of the thing made. Indeed, it is only because of the fact that the thing made is related to God that it can be. It being a contingency, it can only be by being related to that which is necessary. The creation is explicable only in its pointing towards something outside itself: its grounding is in the necessity which it is not, but which it points to. If there is an underived and a derived, a contingent and a necessary, a creator and a created, this one-way relation must be the way of things. All that is not God but from God is related entirely to God as to its ground and source; God himself being unrelated and unconditioned. Even God’s consciousness of the changing world, his knowledge of contingencies and his willing of the world, his predestination, even these things cannot themselves be God as he is in himself. No doubt, they must point to some true reality: and in knowing these revelations of God, we are truly knowing God. Yet they do not exhaust the infinite mystery of God as God exists to himself, knowing and willing and loving himself. That mystery remains ineffable, though we can point to it, as we can the sun. We cannot look into it so as to grasp it, but we can gesture towards it, and understand in some way that it is.

All that is, is either God, or a creature. But everything other than simply God himself – anything, that is, which speaks of a God-creature reality – is itself something created; therefore, not God. Between God and the world there is no Platonic “mean” – some third thing that mediates between the two. There is not, for instance, a “decree” by which God, using this third tool, turns the world to his purposes, the tool thereby acting upon and thus coercing the created freedom that it effects. For even a decree is itself either God, or something created. But if it is not God, then what need for a decree? Why not just posit the world, as it enfolds itself towards God who is creating and drawing it to himself? Rather than being mediated, the creative providential becoming of the world is unmediated – that is, it is immediate.

In reality, therefore, there is only God, and the created world. Indeed there is only God, and God-creating-the-world, which is simply the world, as made by and related to God.

Creating from no lack, God creates because – he creates. There is no sufficient or necessarily compelling reason why. It is all self diffusive abundance. I have heard one thinker call it playfulness. Yet to clarify this it is helpful to divide in our minds God’s act of himself, and his act of creating. God’s act of creating is unnecessary to God; therefore other than God; therefore not identical to God. His creating the world is nothing in him, for then this very thing in him, would itself be something created, since it, being unnecessary, contingently accounts for the world which need not exist. Yet God himself is absolutely necessary; therefore uncaused. He must exist; neither is anything in him caused, not even by himself. The divine nature cannot be both necessary and contingent, or it would both cause and depend on himself. The distinction between cause and effect, God and the world, necessity and contingency, would then break down. No, nothing “in” or “about” God – no accidental act of will, say, or some flicker of thought that need not be there – causes the world, such that that thing’s being in God accounts for the world’s existing. Rather, God himself (nothing “in” him), freely causes the world, without any difference being “in” him by doing do. We can point to God as freely causing the world, not because something in God is different, which gives rise to the world, but simply because God, as necessary being, is that which the contingent world refers to and is grounded in. Thus God is absolutely the same whether or not the world exists.

Does this fact frighten you, friend, that God himself is “unrelated” to the world? Does it trouble you that God is not more fulfilled by your existing? It certainly ought to give us a sense of awe: anxiety even. Yet let not the consequences of the dry metaphysics destroy your faith in the redeemer of man. After all, God has given us the Bible. He has told us to think of him like a Father; and has shown us that we human beings are such that his Son died for us. We may not have been worth it, but still, Christ did it, and he told us that if we trust in him he will save us. He told us that if we believe on him, we would be one with the Father, as he himself is one with him. Christ never once told us that Plato or Aristotle showed us God: but that he – the Son – did. That is, that man there, Jesus Christ, doing the will of the Father, gives us a fuller revelation of ultimate reality than a mountain of metaphysical abstraction. For every page of systematic theology, we ought, if we are Christians, to read two pages of the gospels.

Simply because God is not “more” fulfilled by our existing, it does not follow that we are insignificant. We are made in his image. Therefore, we have in us some spark of the divine. What is more, it is by the very fact of the world’s being related to the all perfect God in the fist place that we have the most hope of the world’s perfection. For all possibilities – therefore all of the universe, yea all possible universes – must somehow be rooted in and subserve the law of the necessarily perfect one. Since all flows from and is directed to Him, nothing can be unrelated to God’s essential goodness; his necessary I-Am. It is not as if God creates possibilities, hoping they turn out good, and wishing they were rightly related to him. Rather, he makes possibilities, and, since it is he who makes them, therefore, they must turn out good and rightly related to him. There is no such thing, nor can there be, of a created possibility being unreconciled to its divinely appointed end. Such a thing would have to be unrelated to the essential necessity from which it came, suspended as an absurdity, unattached to any root of necessary good; any ultimate principle. It would be an unessential thing, itself not referred to anything essential. Such a thing cannot be, cannot exist. All contingency must have its relation to and dependence on what is of itself unreceived, unconditioned necessity. That which is by another must needs be, ultimately, referred to that which is of itself.

All that is good in the world, is found in God, in a higher degree. He possesses, that is, all goodness in an infinite act of being. There is no danger of God lacking some good which is found in his creation. Therefore there is no worry that God is less good because he is unrelated to the world. Indeed the glorious truth is simply that the world is related to God. What he makes must be perfectly good. That is, in itself, it must be a perfect example of itself. There is not a better version of this actual world that God could have made. Thanks be to the Father of Jesus Christ this is so! Were it not, the world would not be related and ever drawn towards an all perfect, absolutely beautiful principle; therefore there could be no hope for the world. Or God, being himself essentially related to the world, would be just as enmeshed in the finite battle of the world, where good is ever struggling up against evil, but never finally, once for all, asserted.

Since God cannot make the world to be God, the best he can do is relate the world to himself and make it a reflection of him. But that just is what his creating is: the relating of the world; the causing it to be and depend upon him, who is necessary goodness, life, and love. And how precisely does the Father do this? How does he perform his act of creating, his act of causing the world to be drawn towards and ever more approaching his own act of essential life and bliss? Through Jesus Christ, his Son, in whom he made the universe, and who is the reflection of God’s glory, and is the exact imprint of God’s very being.

 

 

3. As Sin Came into the World

“Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” Romans 5:12

What the Apostle meant when he wrote these words, what images of death flitted through his mind, or what metaphysical implications he supposed he was conveying, are questions which, I believe, we shall never answer in this world. Many men spend years studying what this or that thinker believed about Paul’s words here. Thus we have schools of what this or that theologian taught, and how such teaching fits into a system, with its various cogs and wheels. I do not see Paul in this passage, or, for that matter, very often at all, trying to create a definite system, except insofar as “systematizing” means to preach Christ crucified. Indeed if Paul did mean to teach any system, I think it no disrespect to say, his writing would have been a good deal more systematic.

As if a set of syllogisms, pegged up on the classroom board of the mind, could give life! Could we make a system out of life? Could we form compartments tight enough in our classifications for God’s grace not to seep through them and interpenetrate into each other?

Nothing but the living, working, human Christ in us can give life; and, if we are not in the midst of such relation with the Son of the Father, no collection of points could suffice to communicate such a thing essential. Words are poor, stunted things, hemmed and cramped by the necessity of their finite reality. When the richer medium of thought is forced to present itself in the smaller medium of word, word – at least, human word – cannot but misrepresent thought. At the very best, it hopes to avoid mistake. At the very worst, it belies grossest distortion. For the higher reality of thought has more subtlety and finer feeling; while the lower is dull and monotonous, having a kind of tasteless constancy, not rightly fit to convey the elegance of what it carries.

To know what another man thinks or teaches about St. Paul’s words is, in one respect, a very important matter. For insofar as another may see the truth in Paul’s writings that he cannot see himself, that other can help us. Yet it is of the utmost necessity to remember that our main task in reading other men’s commentaries on the apostle, is not to listen to these other men themselves – nor is our main task even to listen to Paul – but rather to listen to the truth in each. What good would it do to know what Luther or Aquinas thought about what Paul said, if that truth which Paul was straining to convey and which we were, in our inner being, grasping after, remained altogether hidden from us? Christ is the truth, and he came to give this to us. That is, he came to give us himself. This is our life. It is only insofar as we are drawing truth from the Son of man into our hearts, and only to the degree in which his truth is interpenetrating our being and saturating our brains, that reading the words of Paul or any other thinker are to us any good. Before any man think I am disparaging Paul by making such a statement, I would ask him to consider, whether or not Paul himself would have agreed with what I have said: namely, that our allegiance is first and foremost to Christ; and only to another man insofar as he conforms to the Son of Man.

If we cannot see the truth in some theologian of Christianity, though he shows us what seem the logical deductions of the words Paul or Christ, we cannot believe his teaching. This is because, in that theologians words, we cannot see the truth: that is, we cannot actually see Christ himself, who is the truth. I do not say we cannot think we believe such a man’s teaching – we may think we believe all sorts of things – but I say we cannot actually believe what another man teaches if we cannot see it as true. For how can one say he believes a thing as true which, to all his honest thinking, appears to him either intelligible, or false? Our hearts cannot beat with another man’s rhythm, nor can we feel what another feels. Unless we truly feel the truth itself, and know it as true, the light that is in us is darkness, if we so try to call it what it is not. Oh friends, we must speak of what we know. I desire beyond utterance a complete synthesis of feeling and thought: between what appears and what seems to appear, between psychological experience and brute metaphysical fact. But until we see clearly, if we speak in mists and ambiguities, if all we can do is but say “I do not see the truth, but whatever it is, it cannot be that,” if, I say, that is but all we can say and think, so we must say and so we must think. Else we call another Christ who does not seem to be Christ, in our heart of hearts.

It is with this thought that I turn, not to what some current system of theology holds to be, but what hold the apostle’s meaning to be in this passage.

The apostle says that sin came into the world through man. I take this to mean that the ultimate source and root of all sin, and therefore of all evil, is the creature. Indeed, where else could such come from? Mark you, I do not say sin and evil’s possibility comes from man: all possibility must ultimately come from God. But their actual occurrence – their entering into the world – comes from the created will freely resisting the good which God has asked it to assent to.

The second point I take is this. Sin, and its consequential evils and sufferings, once injected into the human race, must of necessity reverberate back into it in its entirety, since humanity itself is one. Mankind is a giant organism. When one part suffers, the whole suffers as well. The creation itself is but a wider example of this. The universe, wherein humanity lives and breathes and has its being, is a lovely divine family-gathering of relation and being, wherein everything is effected and impacted by everything else. Once sin enters, it must, of necessity, spread to all, must touch all. I do not say it must impact all the same way. The sin of angels no doubt has far different consequences than those of men and women; and those of men and women than those of beasts. How far up and down on the chain of being this goes, I cannot tell. My point is simply that, once the pain of evil has awoken a cry in a single heart in all the universe, it must reverberate into the ears of all who can hear, of all who are themselves able to cry. Yea even the Son of Man hung upon the cross for such a thing, and, I believe, would have, but were there the slightest sin in the smallest corner of the cosmos. For the consequences of sin must necessarily be hideous; far more so to one of perfect loving heart. That very hideousness, then, would be felt most by that Great Heart that enlightens and loves every man that cometh into the world.

To speculate, therefore, on whether the apostle here meant physical death when referencing the consequences of the first sin, or spiritual, or at one place in the text physical and another spiritual, playing on the distinction between the flesh and the spirit, as he was wont to do, is but a trifle. It would not effect his argument, whether physical death occurred before the sin of Adam, or not. For I can well imagine a death spread across the whole earth for millions upon millions of years that was nonetheless a joy beyond words to the consciousness that freely yielded it. It is pain and evil – that is, it is suffering – which Paul’s argument touches upon. For there is a death that has not suffering as an essential constituent: namely, the self-abdication of the Son to the Father, from all eternity, done in greatest joy and bliss. Yet there is, on the other hand, a suffering and painful kind of death, that which the soul shrinks from in horror as an obnoxious intrusion onto its existence. This is such a death that was the result of sin.

Sin, and its consequent suffering, therefore, comes from the creature who, having the power to give back to God what God has given to it, and who is also, for that very reason, able to hold on to what it is commanded to relinquish, freely chooses to do what it ought not and therefore did not have to do. To speak of a sinful desire coming before the first free choice of sin I take to be an impossibility. The desire before sin blooms is the desire to have something good and is itself good. This desire meets both the self of the free creature and God in that self at a fork in the road. All up to here is good. But the choosing self must make a claim to one side, must assert itself in one direction: either for itself, or for God in itself. It is only if, choosing the lesser good of keeping itself, rather than giving itself, that the desire it had of keeping itself in the first place swells to an unhealthy proportion. The potency towards the distortion beforehand was not evil; for it also contained potency towards a more perfected love of self.

Who knows the true depth of the potency in sin, both towards evil and towards good? The death that reigns in us all from the sin of Adam is but a figure of the death that reigns in all creation – yea in Christ himself – from the first sin of Satan, or of whatever first creature there was that resisted the divine grace of God. And yet it is a seed that gives rise to the resurrection.

The apostle speaks of the first sin bringing condemnation to all men. He speaks of the free act of Adam as constituting in his progeny a state of trespass, a state of being “made sinners.” Does he mean, as some men say he does, that, since Adam sinned, now all humans that shall ever be born, even before they come to be, are under a necessary condemnation to eternal hell? Does he mean that, of each soul that is born, it has no choice but to follow its wicked and hellish desires into the flames, with its teeth barred in hatred of God; yea that this must certainly be unless God chooses to deliver it from the necessity of its choices and their consequent and just as unavoidable eternal punishment?

I ask the universe – and you too, reader – will God make creatures which cannot but hate him, and then torment them for that? Look yourself in the eyes: can you believe that? To suppose such a thing of God, is to suppose him hating what he has intentionally let loose in his creation; to suppose that he creates things which of themselves cannot but sin and then torments them for doing what he has either made them do or knew that they could not help but doing. To say that the whole predicament is due to the free sin of our first parent does nothing to remove the difficulty. It only presses on it all the more. For was the first sin a free act that could have been resisted? If no, then God punishes what cannot be avoided. And if it was not avoidable by man, then it must have been avoidable by God, else God has faced for all eternity a metaphysical necessity – another law of being outside himself – which he neither willed nor created: that of an unavoidable “first sin.”

Yet it does not follow that, because we are not damned to hellfire for the sins of Adam, we nowise become, as a consequence of his actions, burdened with his sins, even in such a way that would “make” us sinners. I take it a grand mystery, interpenetrating the relations of the universe and the spirit of every soul, that the acts of one can be inside or exemplary of the acts of another. I am not speaking of a mere legal imputation: a mere covering of the one by the other, or a counting of what one did as the work of the other. I am far from suggesting the image of the dung under the snow of an imputed righteousness. In such a system the evil of my and Adam’s sin is never really cleared away. The dung is still there in the universe of God’s creation, indeed for all creation. It is only, alas, covered and hid! And yet to who? Surely not God himself, who sees all things. Nor is it to the sinner, who knows himself to be what he is. Precious little salvation that, which takes away neither the blot nor the one who blots: neither the sin nor the sinner! How could thirsting soul or heart ever be truly glad and enjoy the bliss of the Father’s universe if he remained for all eternity – along with all his loved ones – that of which he longs to be delivered from? Man wishes to be transformed: yet, he shall never really leave the old thing he is behind. The very thing he wishes pure shall never be pure! I desire no presumption, friend. Lord Christ if there be any in me, cast it from me as far as the East is from the West. I do not want to be good so that I can tell myself that I am goodI want only to be good so that I myself may be good

The Adam living in us does not make us guilty with the same kind of guilt that comes about when we give in to the natural man. This freely giving in, this deep siding with sin in the inner self, is a thing neither conscience nor experience lets any man deny, whatever philosophical puzzles there be between the necessity and universality of sin’s occurrence and its contingency.

Certainly Christ came to save all men both from the ancestral sin of Adam, and their own personally committed sins. But the guilt from the sins we commit are very different than the state that each of us is born in. The nature that I am born with is a thing I am ashamed of, and would be ashamed of, and wish with all my heart to be delivered from and eradicated from existence, even if it was not in my very self. It would cause the same sort of feeling if it was not in me at all but in any other soul in the universe. The fallen nature ought not be. Therefore I am ashamed of it, and seek deliverance from it. The fact that it is “my” fallen nature is, in a sense, accidental. Supposing we had never fallen, we would, I believe, then being more noble and selfless than we are now, seek deliverance from such a thing for another race, and feel just as strongly, perhaps more so, than it ought to be eradicated from the cosmos. The death in us wrought by the first sin is thus a disease, a symptom of which is conscious shame, filthiness, and objective condemnation. Not condemnation to hell, but condemnation to all that is less than perfect and vital and healthy in humanity – all that is pure in thought and feeling. Such is the necessary effect on the human family of any chosen evil.

Why, you may ask, would God allow such an effect to occur, such a vast spread of suffering for the single offence of one? I have hinted on what seems to me a possibility above: that the universe is so woven together that should one string of its vast tapestry be disturbed it will effect the whole cloth. Yet if this were all, we might well end in despair. If God was not great enough to bring good out of such a thing, what would be the point of our doctrine and belief? If I cannot have trust in even a broker to invest my money because his uncertainty prevents him from guaranteeing a good return, how can I have trust in a god who himself made a world that ends, for all he knows and for all he can control, in unspeakable ruin?

Brothers and sisters. If Christ be not raised from the dead, our faith is in vain. Yet thank the Father of him that he was; for by this we see both the power and love of God. Power in that God can make all things new; love, in that he shall. In a word, God would not have let so great an evil, with such pervasive and horrible effects, into the universe and, what is more, into the conscious feeling of any of his creatures, unless he could ensure for those creates a deliverance far greater than the pains that they suffered. Where the sin in the universe abounded, the grace of God abounded far more.

Yet I know the thought that is on the mind of not a few of my readers:

“You say that God has made us free – free to submit to him, or free to reject him. If that is so, he cannot guarantee that any will eventually be perfected, let alone all.”

You mistake. To say that God has made us free to submit or reject him here or there, or in this or that, is not to say that he has made us free to ultimately reject him; that is, finally, in the deep recesses of our being, once our freedom has had its consequences worked out and shown to us.

“Therefore, what God gives, and what he is staking the whole labor and pain of the universe on accomplishing – namely, the free response of his creature, that which he cannot force by mere power – is something which, at length, he will in fact accomplish by mere power?”

No. God does not work now this way and that; but is one. His divine creative act is one; therefore the freedom he gives his creatures is one. He does not “allow” and then “overpower.” His allowing is but the first fruits of a kind of freedom which will eventually of itself give way to necessity; not from overpowerment, but in the freest “yes” any soul ever did utter.

“You speak in riddles and contradictions. If a man is free to come to God or not, not even God can ensure that he shall. Unless God removed that freedom, the very thing he gives. But that would be for God to undue what he did.”

The freedom God gives is not a static kind, which remains always where it began. It lives and grows and corrects itself. What was once possible for it yesterday, is no longer possible for it today. Who knows after so many years and experiences what it may solidify into. What God has made – yea what he has predestined – is this very process of the fructification of freedom.

All freedom is a seed which begins in a what could-be and flowers into a what cannot not-be. To the man who denies it, I ask, has nothing bad he has ever done, which he might not have, never resulted in him feeling a repentance which caused in him an act hatred of that very thing which he could have resisted? In a word, has your sin never led you to hate the fact that you could so sin, and hate that fact so much that you resolved never to sin again? And would it not be true that, had you not been allowed to sin, you would never have seen how horrible your own ability to sin was in the first place? If so, then what you did freely and what you could have avoided lead to that which you freely felt that you could not avoid: namely, detestation of your evil deed. And thank God! Were it not so, sin itself could never lead us to life. Having once sinned, and God now having no means to set us right, since he had made a freedom which would lead inevitably and irrevocably downward in the same way that righteousness leads upward, the whole race would, after one sin, be lead to irrevocable ruin.

To the man who who freely resists – that resistance will be taken up and glorified and interpenetrated into his spiritual being for all time. This does not mean it was better at the moment he did resist to resist. That would equate sin with righteousness and destroy the difference between right and wrong. It only means that it is better at the moment the man does resist that he was able to do so. This also means, I believe, no evil shall ultimately taint God’s creation once that creation is fully glorified. Whether that means that there will be a single completed state of glorification of the universe, or whether each conscious soul will itself reach this state as for all eternity God continues pouring forth more rational souls, is a question I do not know the answer to. But in either case, the point stands: for a man, it is better to be able to submit, and submit, than to be either unable to, or to able to and not. Submission makes unification with God easier and faster. It does not make unification, once attained, more unified; for unification is itself its own perfection. Once a man is fully united to God, he is completely God’s. No doubt, resistance makes attaining this more difficult and delayed. And yet God shall not for that reason leave any who resist Him finally outside for once and all. All tongues will freely and gladly confess and every knee shall bow to Him. This is not through a divine overpowering; for God is not standing by, begging and pleading with men to come to him, only to finally, after they have reached a certain point, take away their former power of freedom which he granted them in the first place, that which makes their coming all the more meaningful, because all the more of themselves. Our freedom is not of that kind. Rather, it is very freedom itself which is organically alive, which self-corrects and builds upon itself, which enlightens and enlivens its own clarity and desire and choosing. Freedom makes itself see that it is only most free when it can no longer say no, but only say yes. This is not a necessity imposed from without, not a trump card that God plays once he has ran out of all his tricks in wooing the soul. It is a self-growing revelation, where more and more, the could of freedom solidifies into its own self assented to would. It is like sleep. A man can resist sleep freely here and there; but not forever. Eventually he will fall asleep, and that freely. For even his resisting, which lay in his own power to do or not do, in the end only serves to increase his sleepiness and fuel what he will do of himself with sweetest and most glad necessity.

If this very thing were not true – if freedom did not lead towards its own perfection and clarity, and if it had the potential for final destruction as a counterpoise for ultimate union – this very thing must have come from God’s creative hand and by his intention. But how can an all good and powerful God bring forth that which has in it such a potential for evil? Are we to think that God actually desires such a possibility – that to everything He’s given freedom, that it could possibly end in its own eternal torment or demise, and that the life he is pouring into each creature every moment and that which He sent the son to save, could, in the end, be nothing more than a failed it-could-have-been? Shall the God whose heart throbs with a love unspeakably beautiful be met with a tragedy just as terrible, because of that love? Or shall his heart finally cool to where it never really mattered that such beings existed and were lost, such children who had in them dreams and hopes of union, and potential for everlasting joy in bliss that even the tongues of angels cannot declare? Shall, after ages and ages of years, the memory of even a single human being’s face, of its glorious eyes, of its heavenly potential – become insignificant to God? Or to us?

In the name of Jesus Christ, do not believe it brother. The evil cannot, even possibly, ever triumph over the good. Else it would be as equal, as powerful, as full of meaning and life. If it were even possibly victorious, good could possibly be defeated. But thank God, who will have all men be saved, whose might cannot be overthrown by any hand, nor intentions brooked by any will: the good shall never be defeated. Though it can for a time be resisted, yet even this resistance is there only by the good’s appointment; therefore it must serve its glorious and inevitable blossoming and assimilation into itself.

“If God has predestined the good things we do, then we cannot do otherwise. Thus the freedom you prize so highly is false, and all, even evil, falls again under the fatal divine necessity. Otherwise God cannot secure his end; otherwise he can’t make good his promise that “all things work together for good.”

No, that is not how it is. All our freedom and all its consequences are bound up and enfolded in the single creative act of God. God has predestined both our freedom and His responses to our freedom: therefore he has predestined all, and yet we are free. This “all” is not an “all” which means that what occurs must have necessarily occurred or will occur. Rather, he predestines what necessarily may possibly occur, and what will necessarily follow, supposing whatever may come to pass that need not have. The contingencies are always couched in the necessities, and every contingency, once chosen, gives rise to some particular necessity, which itself presents, in due time, the next contingency. God in creating also created an all perfect, all loving, divine response to every possibility of our freedom; yea every possibility of an infinite combination of freedoms all interworking and intermingling. He has freely and creatively decided how far our yes’s and no’s go. He has set all the limits to our freely choosing. We are free to choose what we will, not to bring to pass what we will. We are not free to make God’s creative act different than what it is. God makes the choice up to us, but the consequences of our choice are still in His omnipotent and creative hands. We can control our resistance to His nudge when he allows us. At the same time, we cannot even control the next conscious thought or feeling we have after, for such things are subject to his all-making when he made the universe and took our possible resistances into account. Thus we can have the widest freedom and God may still ensure that his will is ultimately done. For it is all – the whole game of the universe – functioning under rules which he has made. And though undoubtedly there is, at particular times, a better and a worse choice for us to make, still, the fact that there is a choice between the two in the first place is a better and necessary thing in the creation itself.

In the all encompassing and originating act of creation, the risk of freedom has already been weighed; it has already been calculated and accounted for. Its effects – even all its possible effects – have been either intended or permitted for the Father’s divine and all-glorious purpose. For an all knowing and all good God then, too, all its sufferings have already been considered. Since the divine act of creation is itself a divine “yes-ing” to the universe and all that it can possibly entail, even those evils that never come about God has already stared in the face, taken into himself, and perfected in his own heart, and said “yes” to. He has eternally known all such things and still said “let it be.” Thus there is a crucifixion – yea and do not forget a resurrection – in the very act of creation itself; and this even if there be no fall – even if there be no sin. For there still could have been a fall and could have been sin; and God, knowing this, and knowing what groaning the creation would endure because of it, felt the thing worth enduring for his high and noble end.

In the creative act God has given us – at certain occasions and for a certain time – the ability to say yes to him, or no: to resist or submit. He provides the possibility of either – when indeed he does provide the possibility, which I do not grant he always does. What is more, he has lovingly and creatively decided just what the consequences of each yes or no – each “I submit” or “I resist” shall be for every soul. Who then can doubt his providence? He has accounted for all that you could do with all that He shall do. You may not be able to parse the difference between your created contingencies and his uncreated necessities, but that does not mean He cannot.

The whole matter can be summed up in a word: our freedom is still a freedom of and from and related to God: therefore, it must be destined for perfection. Nothing from the All Perfect could be otherwise.

On the other hand it would be a mistake to say that God is, in relation to us, standing back arbitrarily deciding whether he shall or shall not intervene. He is not picking and choosing, based on a whim, whereas now he is more hampered than he was a moment ago, or wishing he could do then what he does now. God is not waiting for a threshold of prayers to reach his ear which would move him to do some good he would otherwise be unable, and therefore unwilling, to accomplish. All God’s action with respect to his creatures is bound up in his act of creation itself, which is one: each moment and each choice and each consequence are connected, back from the beginning of time and extending forever infinitely, as one vast interconnected web of meaning of the two things – contingent man, and necessary God.

Because of the divine creative choice – because what is made comes from an all loving and powerful God – the evil which may infest the universe must necessarily be finite and limited. It must finally, of necessity, subserve the good. Since we have this God – the Christian God, the God of the Son of Man, who shows us his Father’s face – the freedom to do evil cannot result in infinite harm or corruption to the creation. Otherwise evil would be just as strong in its direction as good is strong in its. Sin and its effects cannot be counterbalanced equally with righteousness and its effects. Where sin abounds, thank God, grace abounds all the more. Thus whatever comes of sin cannot be eternal and infinite. It must be bent to the glory and beauty of Being and God; therefore of creation. All evil, even the evil of each individual choosing thing for that very choosing thing itself, must eventually be woven into the divine harmony of life everlasting. Else evil is as powerful as good and can have its own victory in the soil in which it takes root.

God is not a mere passive watcher of the universe, standing atop the high tower of eternity, timelessly receiving through his vision all that is. Nor is He the Platonic demiurge that does with the world as best he can. For in either case the question remains: how does what He is seeing get there; why is what he is working on so intractable that it will not be molded as he wants? Both images are helpful insofar as both convey some positive notion of God: the first in that he does not determine all that comes to pass; the second in that he is always working to bring forth more goodness and glory out of what is made. Yet neither image, as I say, is complete. I am not suggesting we can ever form a complete notion of God. But there must be more or less complete notions of Him, else Christ could not have revealed him in the greatest degree.

God is the universe’s loving creator and Father. Therefore, neither is he merely passive, nor impotent. The whole thing has sprung out of his all glorious, all perfect, triumphant, infinitely and creatively omnipotent heart. Whatever is, in whatever manner it is, exists only insofar as God has first given it its is. This applies both to the things existence as such, and to its manner of existing. All things are, simply through the divine choosing. Thus God is supremely and creatively active. Yet at the same time he has chosen to work with his creation; to infuse into it potencies which respond better when they align themselves with his all pervasive life-influence. Still, even these very potencies receive their could-be from his creative hand: and so God is only resisted insofar as he has created such a thing to be able to do so. Yet God has not decided, nor could he have, since he cannot deny himself, to be able to be resisted forever. No could-be from God could be ultimately evil. If God can be thwarted for a time, yet even this thwarting is only made so as to serve his glory – therefore the universe’s glory, therefore the creature’s glory, these being a reflection of himself.

All that is and all that comes to be, God has predestined from the foundation of the world. Not “before,” such as to do away with freedom, but “from,” so as to preserve it, as being from the Father’s creative action, who, by Jesus Christ, himself the first-born of all creation, made it so. For as the apostle tells us of the Son, in him “all things were created, in heaven and on earth.”

2. Why Judge Ye Not?

“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” Luke 12:57

It is easy, when reading the words of our Lord, to pass over some sentence of his which is couched in a larger context, and therefore to fail to see some great truth. We are eager to get to the heart of his meaning, the kernel of the truth, and, from this earnestness, we do not let our eyes rest and our hearts dwell on absolutely all that he says. We would do well to remember the words of the Canaanite woman: even the crumbs can be eaten, if they fall from the Master’s table.

This problem of not seeing our Lord’s words is compounded by the fact that, in many Bible translations, we have for us inserted paragraph breaks and summary headings, as well as superscripts and footnotes and commentaries. Such things serve to distract us from dwelling on the words of the text itself. When meditating on the words of Jesus, as well as those of the writers of the Epistles, it is of benefit to remember three things. First, our Lord spoke native Aramaic, probably of a Galilean dialect, not English or even Greek. Second, the Greek of the text is already both a language and a country removed from Christ the historical man himself. And, third, in the original text there is no punctuation: that is, there are no periods or commas, nor are there phrases and sentences which are woodenly interchangeable with our English phrases and sentences and their theologically loaded implications. The more one spends time with the Greek of the New Testament, the more one shall see that this third point is so.

Allow me to present an example. In the first case, I present the text as it reads from a common translation of the English Bible. In the second, as it reads as a transliteration of the Greek. Both are from Mark 14:21.

1). For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.

2) For indeed [the] Son of man goes as it has been written concerning him; woe however to the that-man by whom the Son of man is betrayed; good for him [it would be] if had never been born the man-that.

Now, do you see the possible difference in meaning here? In the first rendition of the text, the structure of the sentence demands that it to mean that it were better for the one who betrayed the Son of man never to have been born. In the second rendition, however, it is more naturally seen as it being good for the Son of man had not the betrayer been born. Thus here is a case which, by the mere movement of words and placing of commas, we arrive at completely different meaning of the text of the New Testament, nay even of the words of our Lord. Indeed the meaning is as different as that between night and day, one may say even of Molech and Jehovah. For the first rendition can be read, as fit in with its earlier context, as implying that Judas was predestined to do that which brought upon him a necessary fate so terrible it would be better if he had never been born. It may suggest that it may be have been better if God had never created Judas at all; as if Judas himself had any choice in either his being born or the fact that such a God could predestine his damnation. Yet in the second rendition we can more clearly glimpse a hint of that infinite compassion that Christ I think had for Judas, and, indeed for every man. It was the same compassion that groaned in his breast when, after Judas betrayed him with a kiss, said, “friend, why have you come?” For Jesus pronounces woe upon Judas in this second passage, not because of a divine fate which he could not withstand which made him betray the Son of man, but because of how low he had sunk, and how terrible his agony and self loathing must be, when he came to see that he had freely betrayed one who loved him so dearly. What more terrible thing can befall a man, than that he betray an innocent friend? Nay, a friend who loved him so much that he would gladly be tortured and crucified for his sake? And yet before we pass judgment on Iscariot, let us look into our own hearts, and see if we have not ourselves taken money from the world and helped drive the nails through the hands of our Lord.

Note well my point here. It is not to squabble about which interpretation of this verse is correct. Indeed, for the purposes of argument, I could be mistaken altogether, and Judas could have been divinely determined to betray Christ and so be consigned to Hell because of it. I mean only to show, not the right meaning of a particular text, but the possibility of the wrong meaning of it. If it is so easy to misinterpret the very words of Christ, and to draw from them interpretations and implications so vastly different, we ought to approach the New Testament with a certain profound awareness of this fact.

Neither is my aim to cast doubt upon the inspiration of the Scriptures. Though, should such a doubt arise consequently from what I shall say, I would not for that reason be silent. There are far worse things than to doubt the infallibility of the Bible, my friends. For assent as to inspiration is purely a matter of intellect, and may be held by even the most wicked willed heart. The demons believe in God, you will remember, yet that does not stay their hand; and many a man has tortured and enslaved and pillaged with the words of the New Testament on his lips. Yet I will go so far as to cast doubt upon, not the Bible, but our understanding of it, to say this. Unless you have asked yourself what you would do were you to read something in the Bible that contradicted your own purest notions of goodness and the loveliness of God, and unless you have answered which you would trust – your own honest conscience, or the words written down in the book – you cannot know God.

Suppose you read in the New Testament something from the mouth of Christ that seemed to contradict your best and truest notions of what is best and true: yea notions you may have heard from his own mouth before. Or suppose you were a modern Abraham who became convinced that God had commanded you to make a bloody sacrifice of your son. Let us go a step further. Suppose that you read in a letter from Paul some passage which seemed to logically imply that you ought to slay in your heart and mind all love you have for your fellow man and humanity, they being but potsherds to be broken and cast aside at the arbitrary will of one to whom you must bow unquestionably in obedience. It matters nothing to my purpose whether the text actually does say such things. It matters only that it could, or, if it could possibly seem to say so to you, for the two are the same. What would you do, dear brother or sister? What would you do if the Bible told you to murder every love and joy and dream you ever had, and to worship and adore – or to try thy best to adore – all that seemed to thee wicked? Would you turn to the commentary of some learned theologian to see what mazes of words could be strung to make the text unsay what to you it plainly and undeniably does say? Would you go to some saint to get his spiritual understanding of the passage and to try to conform your mind to what he had of his own labor began to believe he understood by the words? If so, what good would such a thing do? Ah, you would take the whole question off yourself, and have another answer it for you! You ought to know, friend, that buying the knowledge of God at that price would make it of no worth. For the decision – the settling of the question – must come from within you, from thyself. Thou must choose what thou shalt think, and thou shalt be the better for it, even if thou art factually mistaken, if thou choose what seems right and true. If thou art mistaken, the Lord of life and truth will set you right, so long as you keep following what thou knowest and seest to be his truth, his light, his will. If this were not so, we could not trust him. The burden – the step out onto the shaky bridge – you must take up and do, else the entire investigation, the entire reading of the scripture, the entire attempt to know God and be a disciple of Christ, is of no use.

And besides, even supposing some deliverance did come on some difficult passage by some other person, are we to imagine that for every subsequent dilemma we encounter there will always be similar clarity given? A thousand such dilemmas arise to the thinking mind who tries to be good and understand the words of the New Testament; and the more one thinks and the more one tries the more certain are such things to arise. There is no getting around the fact: at some point we must look at the thing ourselves, and with our own eyes, and speak our own judgment on the matter.

What, would you have another man live your life for you? Would you have him raise your children and love your wife and direct every impulse of your soul – not to mention the most religious and God oriented? Would you have a man think for you and feel for you? Would you have him be a child of God for you. Would you have another be you? Would you, man or woman, have another look up into the face of Jesus for you?

It cannot be so, friends. It is dreadful to come upon the fact that we must be. For this dreadful being we must meet the burden of existence, must wrestle it, must cry out in the midst of our struggle with it, and grope for some solid ground on which to stand to fight against it. I well remember the discovery – like an earthquake of the universe reverberating into the very core of my soul – that I am my own self, my own choosing me. There was the decision of being laying in my lap to do with what I would, though I knew not where to turn with it nor where to direct my steps. Yet for all that, the fact remained unshakable. In some deep region of the spirit, we cannot escape our individuality, our own personal response to being – to God himself. The sooner we admit this, the better. For the sooner we can then cry out to the Father, knowing better our needy condition. “Lord, we know we must live in the midst of a nauseating uncertainty, reaching into regions of profoundest obscurity in consciousness and feeling. How we wish for some sure footing on things: some pure light, some faith! Help us, father, in the midst of such an existence, to stand with our chests out and assert ourselves. Help us, Lord, to be!”

Ah, brother. Until you can see that you owe your allegiance first to what seems to you good and right and true and of God, and only secondly to something else and it only insofar as it gives you clearer light into what you can already see, you are the slave to the thoughts and religion of other men. Such thoughts which, by the way, for all you know, may not even have been in the minds of the men you think that they belonged to, or at any rate not with the logical implications that you extract from their words. I can well imagine meeting Saint Paul and describing to him the system that some theologian contrived out of the few letters of his that we have in our Bibles, with all that system’s logical deductions. I can well imagine, I say, showing him such a thing, and hearing him exclaim “May it never be!” In his own explication of his own words, would he not, perhaps, reference other letters of his, myriads it may be perhaps, to modify and clarify those that have been twisted, much in the same way that we now use the epistles of the New Testament to modify and clarify some single letter or passage in that New Testament itself? Did Paul not correct the Corinthians by telling him that they had read him wrong at first? He says, “when I wrote you last, I did not mean what you took me to mean! Else, you would have to go out of the world!” Then again I would not be surprised if the apostle could not quote a single line of his own inspired words in the Bible, him having his essential life, every moment, by the Spirit rather than the letter. Perhaps the whole quest for clarity for rigid systematizing would evoke from him the cry: “I determine not to know anything among anyone, save Christ and him crucified!”

Do not be afraid of this fact, but know it well, yet neither take it further than need be: the same book in thy hands called the Bible has done tremendous benefit to humanity; yet it has also done tremendous harm. In every age there are men and women who use it to justify actions which the best Christians in subsequent ages abhor with utmost loathing in the name of Christ himself.

To whatever revelation or knowledge may exist in any man, be he an Einstein or an Aquinas or a Paul, it does no good to the one who cannot understand what is said. In that sense – in that sense – it is useless, and can serve only to darken the mind and further the distance from the light of the one who assents to what he does not see as true. Where truth is not seen but only sworn to in allegiance can exist nothing but falsity and dishonesty. Such serves naught but to increase doubt and build up plaque in the spiritual arteries that long to flow strong in them the life blood of Jesus.

I have nothing to do with apparent discrepancies in the Bible regarding facts, such as whether or not Judas hanged himself, or fell off a cliff, or did both. Rather, I speak here only regarding teachings and pictures of God which themselves reflect on and carry implications regarding his nature and the person of Christ. Let us go back to my initial hypothetical. Let us suppose Scripture says – which it in fact does say – that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. Further, let us suppose that the Bible says – which it in fact does say – that God is love, and desires all to be saved, and takes no delight in the death of the wicked, and that he is the universal Father who causes it to rain on the just and unjust alike. Thus we have on one hand a scriptural datum – God’s absolute loveliness and perfection. But let us suppose, on the other hand, that we read a passage in the Bible which seems to logically imply something about God that is inconsistent with this picture. Suppose, hypothetically, we were to read “God delights in torturing the innocent and extracting pain from the defenseless for all eternity.” Now, of course there is no such verse in the Bible. But again I want only this hypothesis in front of the mind to bring out my point, which is this.

If you cannot answer what you would do in the face of such a glaring contradiction, you cannot really know the true God, if He is good. 

If our theory of scripture leads us to conclude that God is “beyond our categories of good and evil” or that God is not what we mean when we call him Good and Loving, may the real God himself help us find another theory of scripture! For if God is in fact good and not evil – if we really can apply words to him – then we have by a mere theory of inspiration forfeited the only real way we have for knowing him in the first place.

A being to whom nothing is true or false, or everything true and nothing false, is a being unintelligible, for it may be true to deny that which we affirm of him. If therefore God really is good and not evil, if he really is love and not hate, then certain things will be true of him and certain things false of him. He will not delight in suffering for example. He does desire all to be saved. But if we say that we cannot “really” know that God is what we mean by good, then, if God were in fact really what we meant by good, we would be paralyzed in principle from knowing so. Us negating the very thing necessary to gain knowledge in the first place – namely, our own intuitions of what goodness already means to us – we would be incapable of growing in our knowledge of goodness, and therefore God, as well.

Again, to learn what something is like is to be able to form some positive conception about that thing – to say things that are true and deny things that are false about it. But if, when we run into passages in the Bible that would seem, when taken to their logical conclusions, to make God’s character no different than Satan’s, and if we accept those passages as telling truths about God even though they seem to us wicked, then there becomes no way to differentiate God from Satan. A consequence of this being that we can either form no positive conception of God, since anything at all may be true of him, or form no conception of him which is different from the devil’s. Once this occurs, friends, we have lost all ability to ever approach a good God, if such a one exists.

Consider the following train of thought. A certain reading of Paul can imply that God has predetermined some of his creation to be eternally damned and suffer unimaginable torture, apart from and before any action on the part of the creature itself. On such a reading, the creature cannot help but go the fate that such a god has predestined it to go. Consequently, on this view, God intends this – he intends to create beings in whom for all eternity he generates a necessary and infinite desire for himself, and in whom also he has eternally decreed never to give them (though he could) the very thing he is creating them to want. Nor does he take them out of being: but rather he makes their state something which itself deserves further punishment, and serve to heighten the blessed in heaven who were arbitrarily spared a similar fate.

I ask, if this picture of God can be accepted while also maintaining that God is “love” and “good” what possible picture of God could not be? If you grant that God can torture sentient beings forever who he need not have created, and who he could have saved if he wanted, simply because he enjoys it or because he can or even for any reason at all, what possible moral action would be inconsistent with his goodness? Could not such a being do anything at all, and he still be loving and good? Such an approach to God, where one attaches any possible action to his character while simultaneously affirming that that character is still “love” and “good,” makes meaningless the very words “love” and “good” to begin with. And therefore it renders knowledge of the truly good and loving God impossible.

Any idea of God or theory about how we come to know him in a text which destroys our ability to distinguish between good and evil and love and hate ultimately refutes itself. For if our theories of knowledge entail that we cannot know God’s nature as positively good and infinitely trustworthy and altogether lovely, then for all we know, God may punish us for doing exactly as he commands us to do in the very Bible itself which leads us to such conclusions about him. If all our “whites” are really God’s “blacks” what he conceives of as heaven may be what we conceive of as hell. His evaluation of meaning may be so different than ours that he may delight in torturing obedient souls rather than disobedient; and there may never be a reconciliation amenable to our intellect as to why this is so. It may just be.

“The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict.” When the two are at odds, we must hold to the goodness of God. This is not to spite the Bible, but to honor the one who gave us the Bible. For accepting a notion of Scripture which entails that God is either evil or beyond the categories of good and evil altogether refutes itself, in that it denies the possibility of any such being as a good God who could give the Bible to us in the first place for our benefit.

I know the weight and force of the Bible, brothers and sisters. I know the power and feeling and life it holds in many a mind and many a soul. I do not wish to dispute this truth with any man. But I do wish to ask questions about what the implications of the words of the Bible – at least as this or that man may understand them – mean. Does that trouble you, friend? Does it frighten you to suppose that the words on the pages that you have held so dear to your heart, and built up into a world-system of comfort and answers, may be such as to have never been uttered by the Lord or thought by his followers? Is the very hypothetical that I ask you to form where you must ask what you would believe were the Bible to say something false, is this very question something which you shrink from, nay cannot even possibly entertain?It is no matter. Thy turning the question aside will not move the question one inch. Neither does it remove the fact that you are already doing the very thing you claim to be too blasphemous to entertain. Or do you not think that you are reading the Bible and taking some of it as it seems right to you, and leaving other things, as they seem too terrible? Dost thou pluck out thy eye when thou lookest with envy? And if you do not, is it not because, regardless of what the words say on the page, the Lord could not have meant that – that is, what he said, what is plainly on the page.

Here I repeat the question: when the two conflict, what should thou trust – the goodness of God, or the Bible? It sits immovable, as uncompromising as the choice between life and death, between Christ and the world. One must encounter the Word oneself. It matters not what conclusions other men have reached about it if you cannot see their conclusions yourself. All their answers and every book of theology ever written could be piled on top of each other from the beginning of the world, and such will not tip the scales one mite in favor of thy own answer to the encounter. You must live and be and think. Do you see how useless fear is, how pointless evasion? You but postpone the inevitable, must answer in either case. Indeed you already do answer, every time you read the Word and take it into thy heart and mind and try to assimilate it into thy life. You are just as of yet unaware of your own answering thus far. Perhaps the next step for you is simply to become aware of this fact: no other man can stand between you and the words of Christ. There is no authority which you can hide behind, no other’s feet you can stand on, but those of your own. You have been doing it, perhaps at unawares, all your life. Continue to do so now, with more conscious intention, boldness, freedom, and honesty.

Or do you say that you have never yet come across such a passage which you suppose is inconsistent with what your God given conscience tells you is true? If that is honestly so, then I have no more to say to you. If you have not yet found any such thing, I think you shall, if you come to the Word seeking answers to the questions of life. And if you do not ever come to such a crisis, then you shall never be in the danger of falsely listening to the voice of God or Christ, since the dilemma on which the whole problem can even possibly arise will never be before you.

Yet I would press the man who answers but faintly, or who has not yet answered in the full at all. Have you never questioned the Bible? Has you not ever had one inkling of a feeling that the words you read did not exactly ring true to the truest and highest and best notions in thy breast? Or if thou hast not questioned the book itself, has thou not at least questioned thy own understanding of it purpose? Has thou never even asked thyself what it is and what it means, and what, if it was sent by God, it was intended to do? If you have not asked or felt these things, I do not blame you, though truly I cannot understand you. I only ask you to ask yourself: are you being true soul – that is, a true lover after the truth? Do you desire it with your whole being? If so, then you are my brother or sister, and we fight on the same side. May the Son of man come quickly, and find such faith on earth when he does alive in our own hearts.

Or do you, friend, sometimes sensing the truth approach –  it may be in the form of an uncomfortable question or unwanted logical deduction – do you shut the door of thy mind to her and sit content with thyself? Dost thou remain comfortable in thy own small world that thou hast conceived and spun out of thy own wishes or the thoughts of other men? Does such a possibility not even frighten you? Or, if it does frighten you, does it do so enough to make you long to cast off what appears to be true for very truth itself? If such ye are not, ask thyself, what could the Bible say, that ye would not accept unquestionably? Nothing at all? But what if it called black white and white black, or asserted any manner of evidently self contradictory conscious fact? If there is nothing that you would not accept and would not believe, I have no more words for you. The man who could believe anything is one who could also believe nothing. He is not sturdy enough to stand up and walk of himself, let alone to grapple with. He is such as to hold that either his best or his worst notions are equally consistent to describe an All Perfect God.

I will be misunderstood if what I have written leads any to believe that I hold that Paul or the writers of the New Testament spoke falsehoods about God or misunderstood Christ’s teaching or that Christ himself was anything less than the perfect God-man. With all my heart I believe that the New Testament is the closest thing to Jesus Christ himself as may be come across in our world today. Do you agree? If so, yet see, how even in such a thought, the preeminence of Christ holds sway with you. For the New Testament is the thing which approximates to the standard, which is Jesus. It is not Jesus who approximates to it. What we must therefore use then to interpret and read the Bible, is none other than the person of Christ himself, the Son of man, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature.”