Von Balthasar’s hopeful almost-universalism

In Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?, Hans Urs Von Balthasar takes as his starting point that the Bible contains “irreconcilable” statements on the ultimate destiny of humanity. There are passages that hold out the threat of everlasting punishment, but there are others that speak hopefully about the ultimate reconciliation or restoration of all things. Von Balthasar says that there are a variety of responses that have been made to this, but what we can’t do is simply write off either set of statements.

And all of [these responses], indeed, must come to terms with the notion of a primarily cyclical apokatastasis, without, arrogant or unconcerned, simply dismissing the horrifying thought that brothers and sisters of Christ, created by the Father for Christ, who died for them in atonement, may fail to reach their final destination in God and may instead suffer eternal damnation with its everlasting pain–which, in fact, would frustrate God’s universal plan of salvation. If we take our faith seriously and respect the words of Scripture, we must resign ourselves to admitting such an ultimate possibility, our feelings of revulsion notwithstanding. We may not simply ignore such a threat; we may not easily dismiss it, neither for ourselves nor for any of our brothers and sisters in Christ. (p. 237)

In general, Von Balthasar sees damnation as something self-inflicted. God’s will to save is universal, and he rejects any doctrine of double predestination. But the possibility remains that some will reject God’s love. This possibility–enunciated in many places in the Bible–must be taken seriously. At one point, Von Balthasar refers approvingly to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which imaginatively portrays the self-damnation of those who won’t (can’t?) accept God’s love.

Yet Von Baltahasar believes that hope can have still have the last word. Not as a theoretical or speculative matter: we don’t know that everyone will be saved. Nor, for that matter, do we know that anyone will be damned. He is a staunch foe of presumptuous certainty on either side of this question.

But given God’s desire that all will be saved, we can hope that, somehow, the divine love will ultimately win over even the most recalcitrant heart. This doesn’t mean there will be no punishment–there may be a penultimate “purifying fire” necessary to purge those parts of us which are incompatible with God’s Kingdom. But we can–and should–hope that God’s mercy will prevail. For Von Balthasar, this is an existential not a theoretical or dogmatic stance: we should treat each person we encounter as someone who is destined for eternal life.

I was already largely convinced of something like Von Balthasar’s position before I read this. Though I’m definitely sympathetic to universalism, on balance I think it’s better to let the scriptural warnings stand and avoid dogmatism on this. As Von Balthasar likes to put it, we are under judgment, but our judge is Christ, who is the merciful Savior.

Models of God and the Christian life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–partly inspired by my recent reading of Schleiermacher and my re-reading of Paul Tillich–about how the way we “model” God affects our understanding of the Christian life.

As is well known, Tillich defined God as “the Ground of Being” or “being-itself.” These, he said, were the only non-literal terms applicable to God. Everything else, including personal categories, were symbols that do not apply literally to God.

Along similar lines, philosopher of religion Wesley Wildman has in several essays distinguished between what he calls “determinate entity” theism and “ground-of-being” theism. The former pictures God as an entity–usually personal in nature–with a definite character. The latter tends to portray God in more impersonal, mystical terms–as the non-anthropomorphic ontological “ground” or “abyss” that gives rise to the empirical world. Each way of thinking about God has its problems, but Wildman opts for ground-of-being theism.

The Christian tradition has always included both approaches. Wildman argues that the high medieval synthesis of Thomas Aquinas was in fact an attempt to articulate a personalistic theism within a mystical, neo-Platonic ground-of-being conceptual scheme. (He is skeptical that Thomas actually succeeded, calling this synthesis “paradoxical.”)

This isn’t just a theoretical issue; it has profound effects on how we understand the religious life. To paint with a somewhat broad brush, personalistic “determinate entity” theism tends to characterize the religious life in relational and moral terms. Salvation is being brought into a correct or restored relationship with God (for Christians this happens through the mediation of Christ), and expresses itself in concrete, public actions to serve the well-being of the neighbor. By contrast, “ground-of-being” theism sees the relationship to the divine in more impersonal, mystical terms–and emphasizes a more inward, contemplative approach to the religious life. (To oversimplify greatly, these can be understood as broadly “protestant” and “catholic” approaches.)

As I’ve said before, my general religious orientation is toward the personalistic, relational approach. This is in part because it seems more consistent with religious practice as I understand it. It’s very difficult for me to understand how one is supposed to pray to or receive a moral demand from “the ground of being,” for example. I’ve also been influenced here by John Wesley’s insistence that Christian holiness is social holiness–a journey outward into the world of the neighbor’s need, not an inward journey to the depths of the self.

But as Wildman notes, ground-of-being theism avoids certain problems that plague more personal understandings–such as the problem of evil. And “ground-of-being” metaphors help highlight the need to avoid excessive anthropomorphism in our thinking about God–which can exacerbate our tendency to create god in our own image. So are these necessarily exclusive ways of understanding God, or can they complement one another?

Problems of omnipotence, omniscience, and temporality

In his book Pascal’s Fire, Keith Ward writes:

…ultimate mind is the actual basis of all possible states. It is the only being that must be actual, if anything at all is possible. It is thus uniquely self-existent, not deriving its existence from any other being. Its nature is necessarily what it is–there are no possible alternatives to it, since it is the basis of every possibility. It can be spoken of as omniscient, in the sense that it conceives or generates all possible states, knows what they are and knows that there are no more than it conceives. It can be spoken of as omnipotent, in the sense that it brings whatever is actual into existence from the realm of possibility, or it generates actual beings with a derivative power to make some possible states actual. Nothing that comes into being can have more power than ultimate mind has, since the latter is the source of all actuality.

It might well be as well to note that these definitions of omniscience and omnipotence are not exactly the same as the ones classical philosophers have often given. Many philosophers define omniscience as knowledge of absolutely everything, possible, actual, past, present and future. They define omnipotence as the power to do absolutely anything that is not self-contradictory. The definitions I have given are more restricted than that. They do not entail that God knows what will be actual in the future. Perhaps God leaves the future open for radical freedom. And they do not entail that God can do absolutely anything. Perhaps God leaves, or even must leave, finite reality to follow its own inherent laws of development.

Yet we can still say that God knows everything that is possible and actual (the future may not be actual yet) and that God is the most powerful being there could possibly be and the ultimate source of all things that come into being. This leaves open the question of exactly which possible states can be made actual adn whether there are restrictions on what possible states can be actual. Though such an ultimate mind can sensibly be called omniscient and omnipotent, this may not be enough to satisfy some religious believers. It is enough, however, to satisfy the requirements of being an ultimate explanation of the universe. (pp. 132-3)

Elsewhere Ward speaks of God’s “temporality,” as the divine experience of a succession of states. God is still trans-temporal in the sense of transcending the multiple processes of temporal succession posited by relativity theory. But Ward argues, contra the classical view, that it is a perfection, not an imperfection, for God to experience the flow of new experiences and new possibilities for creativity, in response to real relationships with creatures.

God can enter into many different times, acting and responding in them, while also existing in a trans-temporal way. We cannot imagine this trans-temporality of God, but it should not be conceived as a totally immutable and static existence. It might be better conceived as a transcendent agency that acts incessantly in many temporal streams, manifesting its changeless perfection in continual creative activity, sensitive awareness, and overflowing goodness. (p. 216)

Obviously a lot of argument would be required to establish this position with any confidence, but I think there are two root insights that motivate it. The first is that, if God does not experience temporality in some sense, then God’s knowledge is, paradoxically, limited. That is, there’s a mode of experience that God has no knowledge of. The second is that God, according to the Bible and much religious experience, exists in responsive relationship with God’s creatures. For this to be a genuine relationship and not an illusory one, God must be able to actually enter into the flow of time and, potentially, be affected by it. Classical Christian thought limited this to the Incarnation, but Ward goes further than that here.

So, if there is a temporal aspect to God’s existence, then we can begin to see why omniscience might still allow that God doesn’t know certain things. If there are genuinely undetermined events (and there may be quite few for all we know), then even God would only have probably knowledge of how they are going to turn out. As Ward says, God knows all possible states and all actual states, but non-actual future states would not necessarily be part of God’s knowledge.

I always feel a bit impious even speculating about this stuff.

The Life You Can Save 2

In part 2 of The Life You Can Save, Singer considers some of the psychological obstacles to giving more, as well as some ways they might be overcome.

Chapter 4 reviews some research that provides a measure of insight into our reluctance to give to strangers living in extreme poverty. For instance, people are less likely to give more generously if they

don’t think it’s going to an identifiable individual;

are being asked to give to foreigners rather than their compatriots, even if, impartially considered, the foreigners are far worse off (Singer compares the response to victims of Hurricane Katrina to the response to victims of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia; Americans gave $6.5 billion to victims of Katrina, which claimed 1,600 lives and gave $1.54 billion to victims of the tsunami, which killed 220,000 people);

perceive the effort as futile (the “drop in the ocean” effect);

responsibility is diffused–people are less likely to step forward when others are around and not doing anything;

don’t believe that others are giving too–that is, people don’t like to fee like suckers or have their sense of fairness violated; or

associate giving with a monetary reward–studies indicate that a society built around the “cash nexus” reduces people’s sense of connection to others in the community.

Singer then goes on to discuss some recent theorizing about the connection between ethics and evolution and how our evolutionary history might have conditioned us to be less giving to distant strangers. Some of the psychological obstacles to giving discussed above reflect what philosophers sometimes call our moral intuitions–our reflexive judgments about right and wrong. And to some extent, evolutionary theory can shed light on these intuitions. For instance, since for most of history human beings lived in small tight-knit groups, it makes sense that people with an innate preference for the interests of members of the group (versus the interests of outsiders) would flourish.

However, as Singer points out, intuitions that may be the legacy of our evolutionary history are subject to reasoned criticism. Preference for kith and kin and or the sense that I ought only to help those I can individually identify might have served our ancestors well, but they don’t necessarily provide sufficient moral guidance for our very different world:

Patterns of behavior that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce may, in today’s very different circumstances, be of no benefit to us or our descendants. Even if some evolved intuition or way of acting were still conducive to our survival and reproduction, however, that would not, as Darwin himself recognized, make it right. Evolution has no moral direction. An evolutionary understanding of human nature can explain the differing intuitions we have when we are faced with an individual rather than with a mass of people, or with people close to us rather than those far away; but it does not justify those feelings. (pp. 60-61)

But Singer isn’t so naive as to suppose that we are all going to be guided by impartial reason rather than feeling. In fact, following a tradition in moral philosophy that goes back to David Hume (and includes Adam Smith and Darwin himself), Singer sees feelings–or “moral sentiments”–as an important part of ethics. Contrary to some accounts of evolution as producing creatures that are purely egoistic and competitive, a more complex and accurate picture reveals a mix of self-regarding and other-regarding elements in our psychological make up. The trick is to encourage the latter and to try to bring them into closer alignment with an impartial evaluation of the interests of all people.

Creating this “culture of giving” is the topic of chapter 5. Singer explores various ways in which a higher standard for giving away one’s wealth has become a norm in certain communities. For example, a group of philanthropists started a group several years ago called the 50% League, which was dedicated in supporting members in giving away at least half of their wealth. Much of what we consider normal or adequate is defined by our peer group, so changing the expectations of that group (or joining another one) can make a real difference in terms of how much we feel comfortable giving away.

Along the same lines, Singer identifies some other factors that can help people give more, such as (1) being open about what we and others give; if we think others are doing it, we’re more likely to do it too; (2) linking giving with identifiable recipients, as with some programs that ask donors to “sponsor” a child in another country, even if their donations aren’t going exclusively or directly to that child; (3) “nudging” people in the right direction as some corporations have done by making giving to a charitable cause something that employees must opt out of instead of opting in to; and (4) challenging the norm of self-interest.

The last is one of the more interesting discussions in the book so far. Singer argues that we are actually prone to describing our actions in terms of self-interest even when we’re acting generously and to over-estimate the degree to which self-interest motivates other people. One study, for instance, found that people vastly overestimated the extent to which men would oppose increased medical funding for women’s health issues. Singer also discusses an experiment which showed that students were less likely to return a lost envelope containing $100 after taking a semester of economics! Having to some degree internalized the axiom, common to so much economics, that people act purely out of self-interest, they changed their behavior accordingly! Even though there is ample evidence that people often act from motives other than self-interest, we seem intent on unmasking apparent altruism to reveal darker motives beneath. But the evidence seems to be that motives can be encouraged or discouraged, at least to some extent, by social and cultural norms.

However, even if giving is the right thing to do, and psychological obstacles to giving more can be overcome, will it actually do any good? The next part will look at the many questions surrounding the effectiveness of giving to people in extreme poverty.

Faith and economics

A conservative evangelical questions his uncritical embrace of laissez-faire economics.

When you think about it, the marriage between evangelicalism and free market capitalism is downright odd, and, as far as I can tell, largely confined to the U.S. (British evangelicals, for instance, seem quite a bit more left-wing on economics than their American counterparts).

I’m not saying that a Christian can’t be a free market libertarian; in this sinful and imperfect world we have to use our reason to determine the best set of social arrangements. But it does, on its face, seem strange that Christians, of all people, should think that the unhampered pursuit of self-interest would maximize the social good.

A libertarian counterargument might be that only laissez-faire provides sufficient check on various centers of power that would otherwise tend to become concentrated. But, whatever might be the case in the anarcho-capitalist utopia, in our world the concentration of economic power is a reality that seems to many people to require a public counterweight (anti-trust laws, regulation, etc.).

I don’t personally think that there’s any ideal social and economic system from a Christian point of view. We’ll always be responding to changing circumstances in a somewhat ad hoc fashion. But Christians can bring certain principles to bear on the discussion, such as a concern for the worst off members of society, an insistence on the dignity of the human person, and care for God’s creation. Implementing these principles, though, will require a knowledge of the principles of economics and an awareness that trade offs are inevitable.

Too, there’s a certain wisdom in the idea that the market has to be subordinated to human ends and needs. The market was made for man, not man for the market, we might say. This would seem to imply some role for public and democratic control of the economy, limited though it might be by the dangers of over-regulation.

This article from sociologist Peter Berger, though written in 1993, still seems pertinent, particularly this part:

It is clear that a market economy, once it has reached a certain level of affluence, can tolerate a considerable amount of governmentally managed redistribution. This, of course, is the basic lesson to be learned from the coexistence of capitalism with the welfare state. It should also be clear that this tolerance is not without limits. If political redistribution reaches a certain level, it must either send the economy into a downward spin (wealth being redistributed faster than it is produced) or dismantle democracy (to prevent those whose wealth is to be redistributed-a population which, as redistribution expands, will be very much larger than the richest group-from resisting). Now, it would be very nice if economists and social scientists could tell us just where this level is-one might call it the social-democratic tolerance threshold. Right-of-center parties in Western democracies perceive a very low threshold (each piece of welfare state legislation another step on “the road to serfdom”); left-of-center parties believe in a very high threshold, and some in that camp seem to think that there is no limit at all. What evidence there is clearly does not support either the disciples of Hayek or Swedish social democrats; but neither, unfortunately, does the evidence locate the tilting-point. Once again, a sort of “interim ethic” is called for, full of uncertainties and risks.

An “interim ethic” is a far cry from a blueprint for utopia, whether of the left or right. But it seems singularly appropriate for Christians to the extent that they recognize the complexities and frailties of a fallen world.

Evolution, creation, and human uniqueness

There’s an account making the rounds of a recent debate between atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett and Christian theist Alvin Plantinga. One of the issues that comes up is the compatibility between Christianity (or theism more generally) and evolution, a perennial topic of interest here at ATR.

Dennett seems to see them as incompatible. Plantinga not only thinks they are compatible, but makes the stronger argument that believers in evolution ought also be theists, because only theism adequately accounts for our ability to understand the world in the ways required by modern science, as opposed to being just adaptive enough to get by. In other words: if naturalism is true, we have no reason to trust our ability to know that it’s true!

That’s a difficult argument to evaluate, and I’m not particularly interested in trying right now. In fact, I probably disagree with Plantinga almost as much as I would with Dennett, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. However, I do have a dog in the fight about the compatibility between theism and evolution.

Some critics point out that evolution would seem to be a circuitous and wasteful means of bringing humans into existence if that was the creator’s sole intention. But there’s no reason for a Christian, or any other variety of theist, to think that creating human beings was God’s sole purpose in creating.

It’s quite plausible–and indeed I think true–that God’s purposes, so far as we can discern them, include bringing into existence the entire array of creatures that exist and have existed for their own sake, not just as a means to the end of creating humans. I see no reason, for example, to think that God isn’t quite fond of dinosaurs, considering they were around for a lot longer than we have been.

Clearly Christian theology is committed to some kind of unique status for human beings. Though we should be wary of confidently stating what that is. After all, the gospels teach that God goes to excessive lengths precisely for the ones who least deserve it. So it could be that we’re special in our unique ability to ruin things.

However we come out on that issue, though, it’s perfectly consistent with Christianity to say that the purpose of the evolutionary process is to bring into existence not only humans but the entire bewildering array of creatures, each of whom in their own way reflect something of God’s glory. Humans, with our intelligence and potential for spiritual awareness, are one, but by no means the only, reflection of that glory.

(Link via John Schwenkler)

Is marriage sacred?

In arguments about gay marriage you sometimes hear suggestions that we should have a strictly civil version of marriage (or union) for the public realm that applies to gay and straight people alike, while leaving “sacred” marriage to religious bodies. This may or may not be a good idea, but what I wonder is whether there’s good reason for thinking of marriage as “sacred” in the first place.

In the Lutheran tradition, at any rate, you could argue that marriage is part of the “kingdom of the left”–God’s ordering of civil institutions for the sake of human well-being in this world. Lutherans don’t see marriage as a sacrament, and it’s debatable whether it should be seen even as especially sacred, at least any more than any other legitimate calling. The justification for marriage, like any other institution belonging to the left-handed kingdom, is that it conduces to human well-being. It’s not a matter of salvation, which belongs exclusively to God’s right-handed rule: the proclamation of free grace, forgiveness, and salvation in Christ.

What this line of thinking might lead to is not the abandonment of civil marriage, but the abandonment of religious marriage! This isn’t necessarily to say that churches shouldn’t continue to bless marriages; churches properly bless a whole host of things. (I once heard a gay Christian point out that churches bless everything from pets to apartments, so why couldn’t they bless his relationship? Good question!) What it does mean is that the church, in blessing such a union, isn’t creating some special “religious” relationship. Rather, it’s recognizing that union as a place or station in life where people can serve God, grow in virtue, be restrained from sin, learn to love each other, and contribute to the common good. But there wouldn’t be any reason to talk about “religious” marriage as having some sort existence distinct from or parallel to “secular” marriage.

Obviously, this position won’t be acceptable to Catholics and others who regard marriage as a sacrament. But in the case of Protestants, for whom the church’s raison d’etre is the proclamation of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament, it’s far from clear to me what authority we have for investing various human institutions with “religious” or quasi-sacramental significance.

I’m not at all wedded to this position (you’ll pardon the expression), but it’s worth thinking about.

Intolerable

I was doing some online research on website development for a project I’m working on and came across this statement:

It’s an established fact that Internet users today are increasingly impatient and intolerable.

Indeed!

At the risk of becoming a one-note blog…

I don’t really want to be in the position where I feel like I have to blog about everything that appears in the media on animal rights, especially since the same arguments tend to get repeated over and over again. But since this piece appeared in the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section, it might be worth looking at where it goes wrong.

The author, Russell Paul La Valle, writing about the Spanish Parliament’s impending protection of great apes, explains why animals can’t have rights:

Should animals have rights? The quick and only logical answer is no. A “right” is a moral principle that governs one’s freedom of action in society. This concept is uniquely, and exclusively, human — man is the only being capable of grasping such an abstraction, understanding his actions within a principled framework and adjusting his behavior so as not to violate the rights of others. The source of rights is man himself, his nature and his capacity for rational thought. To give rights to creatures that are irrational, amoral and incapable of living in a rights-based environment makes a mockery of the very concept of rights and, ultimately, threatens man.

For starters, it’s just not true that we only ascribe rights to beings capable of grasping abstractions, understanding their actions within a principled framework, and adjusting their behavior so as not to violate the rights of others. Infants, children, the severly mentally retarded, the comatose, and those suffering from dementia all have rights, but none of them meet this stringent set of conditions. They depend on others to press their claims and protect their legitimate interests, which doesn’t stop them from being rights-bearers. Why shouldn’t the same hold for animals?

Personally, I’m not wedded to the language of rights. I think it serves some useful purposes, particularly in setting strong moral limits to what may be done to recognized rights-bearers. But the language of rights can easily be taken, as it seems to be here, to mean that morality is fundamentally an agreement between rational adults to respect certain limits in their treatment of each other for the purposes of furthering their self-interest. When morality is conceived of in these terms, “marginal” cases tend to be pushed to, well, the margins of moral concern. The weak, the mentally disabled, and those who don’t meet a certain level of “rationality” end up morally less important.

This “contractualist” understanding of morality manages to ignore what are, for most of us, the lion’s share of our duties to others. Duties to family, friends, compatriots, ancestors, posterity, distant strangers, animals, the biosphere, and God don’t arise from agreements between self-interested parties. Giving undue prominence to quasi-contractual relationships seriously distorts the broader moral landscape.

Furthermore, it’s contestable whether all animals are “irrational” and “immoral” if this is taken to mean that don’t exhibit these capacities to any degree. Evolutionary theory should lead us to expect that animals exhibit degrees of rational and moral behavior, and experience bears this out. “Rationality” is not something that appears, full-grown in all its majesty, only with human beings.

Mr. La Valle continues:

Unlike most mammals or other types of creatures, humans are not born with instinctual, inherited knowledge of how to survive. Rather, man’s survival is achieved through reason, which allows him to integrate the facts of his surroundings and apply this knowledge to use and shape the natural world for his preservation and advancement. This includes the use of animals, whether for food, shelter or other necessities.

As the Nobel laureate Joseph Murray has observed, “Animal experimentation has been essential to the development of all cardiac surgery, transplantation surgery, joint replacement, and all vaccinations.” Indeed, animal research and clinical study is paramount in the discovery of the causes, cures and treatments of countless diseases, including AIDS and cancer.

Cruelty to animals is of course repugnant and morally indefensible. Yet we should not lose sight of who we are or of our place in the world. Yes, humans have a responsibility as stewards of our domain, but not at our own expense or with the mentality that a cat is a rat is a chimp is a person.

Once again Mr. La Valle betrays an odd and extremely outdated view of animals’ lives. Modern studies of animals hardly support the idea that all non-human animals live solely according to instinct, and not by learning from their environment and applying that knowledge. Recent decades have seen an explosion in the understanding of the social and emotional lives of animals. La Valle, by contrast, seems to be operating with something like a Cartesian understanding of the difference between human and non-human animals.

It’s also odd, to say the least, to infer that because human beings are superior in at least some ways to non-human animals that they are licensed to use animals for whatever purposes they deem necessary. One person who certainly didn’t hold to human/non-human egalitarianism, and who was philosophically light-years away from, say, Peter Singer, but opposed the heedless exploitation of animals was C.S. Lewis:

We may find it difficult to formulate a human right of tormenting beasts in terms which would not equally imply an angelic right of tormenting men. And we may feel that though objective superiority is rightly claimed for man, yet that very superiority ought partly to consist in not behaving like a vivisector: that we ought to prove ourselves better than the beasts precisely by the fact of acknowledging duties to them which they do not acknowledge to us….If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, or capitalists for the same reasons. (“Vivisection,” from God in the Dock)

It’s good, of course, to oppose cruelty to animals, but in practice this all too often means opposing cruelty only when no human interest (expansively defined) is at stake. For instance, if our animal cruelty laws don’t prevent factory farming or cutting open the brains of apes for research purposes, how sincere is our professed opposition to cruelty? If we hold that that any human interst, no matter how trivial, always trumps the vital interests of animals, how different is that really from “might makes right”? To talk about “animal rights” means, at the very least, that animals don’t exist for our sake, or as raw material for our purposes, but have their own lives to lead and a claim to being left alone to lead them.