More on the philosophical problems raised by belief in an afterlife reward or punishment
Originally posted on Eclectic Orthodoxy:
3) “The free will theist’s understanding of hell is, in any case, utterly inconsistent with the New Testament teaching about hell” (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 171).
God does not damn, we damn ourselves; God does not cease to love and tender his unconditional forgiveness, we reject his forgiveness and alienate ourselves from his eternal fellowship; God does not inflict eternal suffering, we bring this suffering upon ourselves through our obdurate impenitence. This is the critical contention of what has become the dominant understanding of eternal perdition in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and mainline Protestantism. It is known as the free will defense of hell and was popularized in C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce (for a succinct presentation of the basic models of damnation see Thomas Talbott, “Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought“). It is difficult to know when…
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This follows on from my previous post, which was a simple expression of desire and yearning for liberation in the song Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys. But liberation from what? What are the chains which hold you fast? It is the big question – and different religions answer in different ways. Religions such as Buddhism usually characterise those chains as ones of ignorance and desire and suffering. In Hinduism the word Moksha expresses the idea of freedom from these marks of reincarnation. In Christianity the emphasis is more moral – the chains are ones of sin and thus death. As often happens, the reading I was doing today was saying a lot about this yearning for liberation, and the entrapment of the human being. For A2 students perhaps wondering what this has got to do with the exam – stay with me to the end!
As usual I have been doing one of my favourite things – reading about Tolkien! In particular the excellent ‘Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision’ by Craig Bernthal. I have based much of what I say here on his chapter ‘Penance, Reconciliation and Their Refusal’ in that book.
For Tolkien evil is something by which we are caught. There is a strong element of addiction in all those who are caught by evil in The Lord of the Rings – not just those who are caught by the Ring, but for instance Pippin with the Palantir etc. This is something especially fresh to me at this moment because in preparation for Lent – and hopefully beyond it – I have decided to try and break my dependence on mobile devices and social media by selling both my smartphone and my tablet.
This may seem extreme – ‘haven’t I got any self-discipline?’, people have said to me; ‘just stop checking them so much, there’s no need to go that far.’ My answer to that is – would you say to an alcoholic ‘just have a little glass of whisky – have you no self-control?’ Of course they haven’t, that’s the point, and whilst I don’t think my compulsion to check my phone and go on social media is quite that bad yet, I have become aware over the last few months of a rather negative impact of all these things on my life. Quite apart from the fact that I have not really read any actual books for years, when I used to a lot, (no time to – I have twitter to check!) my sleep was cut down because I would be on my phone until the early hours, I found myself forced by Facebook into a projecting a distorted version of myself and recognised rather a lot of ego investment and pride in what I was doing, which sometimes made my interactions with others negative. These are probably just some of the negative effects of having constant access to social media on mobile devices. I’m sure there are limited positive effects, but for me they have been massively outweighed by the downside mentioned above.
I mention all this not to further mire myself in pride – look how abstemious I am! – but to give a practical example of the results of effectively chosen renunciations. I have been more productive, at peace, calmer and happier this week than I have for a long time, all by giving stuff up. It will become more difficult as I realise that I cannot rely on things like Google Maps or Kindle on journeys! But as renunciation goes this has been fairly easy! I’m not quite ready for the hair shirt and bread and water yet!
My point is it is very easy to become caught in the technological age. You find whole hours have gone by just staring at your phone. For many people this is fine. They are happy playing candy crush saga or whatever. But I have too much that I want to do. I don’t want to obliterate myself, to numb my awareness. I want to stay awake. I need to stay awake – to be vigilant in a moral sense, but also to create – you cannot create without life making some kind of sharp and shocking splash against your skin every now and again. Those who create, be it art or poetry or whatever, I would guess have found working ways of allowing life to sabotage their carefully planned and controlled creative environments, but not sabotage too much. It’s a tightrope walk, creativity.
But once you remove the external traps that are there to catch you, it is not all plain sailing. A subtler form of trap lies in wait within, a tendency which the external technological traps were just there to exploit once it manifested. This is the inner disposition of restlessness. This is a much more difficult trap to renounce. [see Josef Pieper – Leisure; the Basis of Culture]
Returning to the Biblical basis of this, the Old Testament Covenant was a life or death choice. The choice of evil meant you were ensnared by death, and as Bernthal points out St. John says much the same thing: “He that loveth not, abideth in death” (1 John 3:14)
“Death is a condition you enter while alive, and you abide in it – you accept it, you don’t struggle, and your conscience grows numb” – The way Bernthal puts it echoes my fear that midway on my life’s journey I begin to blunder off the path, being full of sleep:
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder
Off the true path.
Dante, Inferno, Canto I
The entrapment, the capture, is a slow process; you don’t presumably realise where you have started to go wrong until it’s too late. Persistence in sin makes you go spiritually blind, as Feser puts it here (Sex Part II – Aquinas on the daughters of lust), which explains a lot.
That abiding can be turned around – he that loveth, abideth in life, clearly, and this is the ‘life to the full’ that Jesus speaks of, which comes from drinking of the waters of eternal life that He gives us. Graham Ward says:
“The goal of contemplation is a mutual discerning – to know even as I am known. The knowing is a condition of being, a condition in the Johannine texts that is often described as abiding (‘meno’ – to stay, to stand, but transitively, to await, to expect.)”
The paradigmatic case in all Tolkien’s work of this abiding in death is Smaug. This dragon is possessed by what he possesses: his hoard of gold. He abides with death – a reign of pure quantity as Guenon put it – every last gold piece counted, and unable to rise from the hoard in case something goes missing. He is therefore bound to the tomb of his cave. This grasping or appropriation Tolkien uses as an analog of our epistemological appropriation, our inability to let the known be known without somehow attempting to make the known into an image of ourself, is a reverse case of that ‘knowing as we are known’ which is abiding in love. We must constantly practise renunciation in order to allow things to be as they are, not what we want them to be.
Heidegger takes the moment of death, cutting as it does across all our plans and intentions, as a spiritual opportunity, as it presents us with the possibility of absurdity and therefore invites us to live life authentically. At least, this is what I take him to be saying! Heideggerians correct me if I’m wrong! When life is lived ‘as rite not as flight’ then we are learning how to die well, which is surely the aim of a good life.
In the Silmarillion, men, when rejecting death, enter into a deeper spiritual death. They lose vibrancy and joy. The mark of being captured by evil is joylessness, lack of merriment or gaiety. How do we avoid this? Interior battle is Tolkien’s answer – look at how many battles there are in the Lord of the Rings – but most of them go on in the inner forum of conscience of the characters. We need all the spiritual weapons we can muster for these battles – waybread, the phial of galadriel, the elven rope – all of these gifts which save Frodo and Sam are sacramental or prayer related. We have been given help in the battle.
To go back to Dante, in the Inferno, the negative gravity of sin pulls him into hell – he cannot ascend the hills he has come down, and must go through hell to escape. ‘Sin creates a proclivity to sin’. In the Catholic tradition, this is why confession is so important. Herbert McCabe:
“The fire of hell is God. God is terrible and no man can look upon him and live, he is a consuming fire. To be safe in the presence of God you must yourself be sacred, you must share in God’s power and life. To have come into the presence of God without this protection is damnation. That is one picture of hell, the fundamental biblical one…
But hell is also the inability to accept death. The damned man is he who does not die in Christ, for whom death is therefore not a means of resurrection to new life. He is not able to make the act of self-sacrifice required of him. He is unable to see why he should. I picture the damned as spending their time continually justifying themselves to themselves, constantly showing how right they were and why they have no need to repent…
All the souls in hell, I think, are quite convinced that they have been damned unjustly. The analogy I find most useful is that of the child who has lost his temper and is sulking. He wants of course, to return to the affection of his friends, but he is blowed if he is going to apologize, his pride keeps him out even though he wants very much to return. Everybody is fully prepared to have him back if he will only make the gesture of returning, but this he finds himself unable to do. He cannot perform the self-abandonment required. He is unable to die.
Anyone in hell who was sorry for his sin would of course instantly be in heaven; the point of hell is that this does not happen.”
And I know I will be loosened
From the bonds that hold me fast
And the chains all around me
Will fall away at last
Expression of yearning for liberation in the future – eschatological and romantic – certain knowledge that freedom will be attained in the arms of the beloved – this is mystical writing – the reason I love The Waterboys!
In a previous post I discussed the philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife, and ended with a parable from Dostoevsky about an old woman and an onion. I was asked what I thought would have happened if she hadn’t kicked out, shaking off the hangers-on, and whether it would conflict with traditional notions of afterlife reward and punishment.
I think the first thing to say is that in the Christian tradition we can never talk about simply ‘my’ salvation – it is always our salvation – so the old woman was wrong to think that she could be justified in kicking the others off – she is not the one to decide how God might work with that one good action of hers – or rather if she does set herself up as the arbiter of that she will be sinning – and equally our bad actions have consequences that we cannot foresee. I think this can be seen in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil’, and I think this is a key part of what Father Zosima means when he says of man:
“But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. […] Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and knows no satiety.” (The Brothers Karamazov 4.1.2)
Certainly this was also Von Balthasar’s view. It is our salvation not my salvation – it is also our sin, not other’s sin – which is a temptation we all know well, to point the finger of blame – in fact Zosima goes further even than this:
“make yourself responsible for all the sins of men […] by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.” (6.3.g)
If we do not take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, lest ye be judged, for as ye mete out, in the same measure it will be meted to you” and keep constant vigil on our thoughts, we will end up cooperating with evil. It is not enough just to follow the laws. This interconnectedness of all humans on the moral level is taught by all the great saints and mystics, as well as by Christ himself.
What does this mean then for the old woman? She could have brought people out of hell with her one little onion. The fact that she did not remain still and started selfishly kicking indicates that if you spend a lifetime nourishing mean-spirited habits, those habits will eat into any spark of goodness and grace that you have offered in your life, such that, whilst that single act of generosity would be enough to save not just one but many, it would be overcome by the darkness of habitual sin – such is the gravity of accumulated vice – or karma as it is known in the East.
Looking in more depth at the kicking out at the hangers on – I think this act of violence was as Rowan Williams says “the determination to distinguish dimensions in the other that exceed what is chosen and granted”.
Because the giving of the one small onion, even in its finitude and apparent paltriness as a moral action, nonetheless reflected the absolute gratuity of the universe as gift, it was strong enough to pull out many when received back as gift from the angel.
But the old habitual ‘instrumental mentality’ takes over, and as soon as the old woman makes the decision about what can or cannot be granted to the other, the fragility of that same gift in relation to freedom is revealed.
To end with some more from Rowan Williams:
“Because all of them [the issues that arise in Dostoevsky’s fiction] are in one way or another grounded in the question of what we owe to each other, they are all of them connected to the problem of lack of depth [what Charles Taylor calls the ‘buffered self’] and the instrumental mentality which flows from this. Owing something to another is a recognition that what my relation with that other properly involves cannot be reduced to what I decide, to what I choose to “grant” to the other. And the inexpressible or inexhaustible hinterland of the other is precisely what exceeds my choice and has no need of my license.
For Dostoevsky one of the characteristic motives in planned violence, individual or political, is the determination to extinguish dimensions in the other that exceed what is chosen and granted. And the contemporary cultural scene is one which strongly suggests that there is more than one style of violence directed against these rebel dimensions in humanity: to take the most obvious example, the global economy works on the assumption that local solidarities and patterns of shared meaning are all accidental to the fundamental practice of human beings in the world, which is the unrestricted exchange of commodity and currency. All particulars are levelled or assimilated to each other on the principle that everything has an exchange value that can be clearly determined. And the principle is applied equally to objects and to practices and skills: hence it becomes possible to quantify quite strictly the value of activities that were formerly regarded as given meaning by their intrinsic human worthwhileness, and surrounded accordingly by informal cultures and disciplines. The point at which the activity of nursing the sick can be expressed in terms of a producer supplying a customer is the point at which the culture of nursing the sick begins to disappear. It is replaced by contractual negotiations of power between the two interests represented, producer or supplier and consumer: whose will is going to be secured and protected? What do I need to concede in negotiation so as to secure the maximum amount of liberty for my future choices? And when such contracts cease to be satisfactory, there is no relation left; the other has ceased to be properly instrumental to my will and can be safely discarded.”
Originally posted on Typewriters and latch-keys:
Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in God. But he’s furious with him. I can sympathise.
His God is an “utter maniac” who, despite being “all seeing, all wise, all kind, all beneficent”, sits by while children die of bone cancer.
Judging by the reaction to his rant, this is the God that other people have in mind too. It’s a God I’ve had in mind, and railed at, and hated.
So I’m not dismissive of the rant, because this isn’t a God plucked from nowhere, a cartoonish fantasy that nobody with a faith has ever squared up to.
Fry knows this, because he starts his speech by describing it as “what’s known as theodicy” (Wikipedia: “the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil”). People of faith have been engaged in this attempt for thousands of years: philosophers and theologians, and those with the…
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“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; they kill us for their sport” Gloucester – King Lear (IV. i. 36-37)
A lot of attention is being paid to a clip of Stephen Fry talking about what he would say to God if he died and found himself at the Pearly Gates.
There’s a few things I want to say. Firstly, the problem of evil is generally recognised as a very difficult, even intractable, challenge to theism – perhaps the one challenge which is capable of shaking even the strongest believer’s faith. That doesn’t mean attempts haven’t been made to solve it – they are called theodicies (‘God-justification’), but there is a great deal of debate about whether they succeed. One problem with trying to answer the problem of evil and suffering is that believers often fall into the trap of platitudes which underestimate the experiential force of evil and suffering – platitudes such as “God moves in mysterious ways”, or “everything happens for a reason”. Clearly such responses are not sufficient and deservedly provoke the mockery of atheists. Most theists however, don’t do this – Byrne, whilst speechless, at least didn’t try, and neither have recent Popes when asked.
Probably because of the way he was asked the question, the particular form that Fry frames it in here is as a protest against a cruel and capricious God. This kind of standpoint is usually called ‘protest atheism’. According to this position, God is taken as existing, but then evidence such as Fry presents is brought to show that no-one could justifiably worship such a God – supposedly all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing – who could allow such things to take place in His creation. I would guess that most protest atheists who use this argument now do not actually believe in God – they just use the argument as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the believer’s view. And of course we know Fry doesn’t believe in the God with whom he gets so angry in this interview, so I guess we have to take that as a piece of acting on Fry’s part (to me this seems rather insincere and hollow, I suspect Bertrand Russell’s similar response to the same question was not delivered with quite the same sense of fake outrage, but then again, Russell was a philosopher who had thought deeply about these things, not a media luvvy and actor with a large vocabulary…I know; ad hominem….).
It is my view that the case for what is called protest atheism has not actually been put very forcefully here by Fry. It has been much more strongly argued by the character of Ivan Karamazov to his brother Alyosha in the Dostoevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky, a man of faith, could hardly be called a polemicist or apologist for theism, but he has crafted his novel as an exploration of themes of freedom, suffering and faith. After detailed historic accounts of horrific torture of innocent children Ivan says:
“… if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”
Fry, in focusing only on ‘natural evil’ – bone cancer and worms that burrow into eyes – in his argument, probably wants to avoid the classic move of theists when asked about human evil – that it is the result of free will. But in doing so he is presenting a weaker argument. There are two points to make here. Firstly, in a universe where random material processes have combined to create the conditions for organisms to compete with each other in a struggle for survival, there can be no such thing as evil or good, or if there are such realities they are simply the result of human subjectivity projected onto the world – what is evil for the blind child is good for the worm. Some might simply turn the challenge on the atheist here for them to explain what in their world view leads them to believe in evil as a reality ( and it is worth noting that some theodicies would simply point to the fact that natural evil is largely the result of the fact that there are general laws of nature which we can sometimes fall foul of – but that is bound to be the case in a universe which has a ‘way things go’) . However, it is worth remembering that the argument is focused against the believer – and it is their account of God and their account of evil which are claimed to be at odds with each other.
But secondly, even if we grant Fry the point – natural evil undermines belief in a good God – we would have to say that the examples of intentional cruelty by rational human beings against innocent children given by Ivan Karamazov are far more compelling as a challenge, simply because here we confront the reality of human evil in all its horrific strength. We are precluded even from arguing that it is justifiable on the basis of God needing to grant humans free will, or God building a future utopia on it – as Ivan says “too high a price is paid for harmony” if that harmony will somehow come out of the undeserved suffering of innocents. Surely intentional cruelty by free beings (beings who could have chosen not to inflict that suffering, and who must have known it was wrong even whilst doing it, unlike unconscious worms) is a much more difficult problem to solve than ‘nature red in tooth and claw’? After all, a flawed natural order is only one side of the coin – there is also the existence of beauty and harmonious cooperation in nature, and simply to emphasise one over the other is misleading. The evidence is ambiguous in ways that Fry won’t admit – he would be the first to talk of marvel at the intricacies of the natural order, but he certainly wouldn’t use that to point to God. He is however happy to use disharmony in the natural order to point away from God, or at least to accuse God.
A flawed natural order has been recognised as one of the signs of the workings of an evil force in a world destabilised from its original perfection by the Fall, which begins in the heavenly hierarchies of the Angels. What I’m saying here is not that people within Christianity have tried to give an answer to this problem, but that the whole Christian vision of the cosmos is based upon the reality of suffering, evil and death and the sure and certain hope that they will not have the last word, that in God, all things will be made new.
So okay, meh to Fry. He thinks he gave God a bit of a kicking. I don’t think he did particularly, when I consider how Dostoevsky answers the more serious challenges which he sets up through Ivan. I’ll explain in a bit.
His mention of the Greek gods was interesting, which is a belief he says is far more honest because they can be seen clearly for what they are – projections of human inclinations and obsessions. He knows that he would have nothing to say about bone cancer and so on if he died and went to Hades and met Pluto; the Greek gods would inflict cruelty on mortals for sport or curiosity. The take-away from this is clearly meant to be – basically all gods are projections because we can clearly see our own needs and desires written in them – but that evidence points to a pantheon of gods like the Greek ones, limited, flawed superhumans – not to the Christian God, who is as Fry notes meant to be wholly beyond our limitations as humans. Indeed, it is this very transcendence which sets him apart from all pagan gods. However, what Fry doesn’t mention is that the Christian God also became human, vulnerable, poor, broken and took on all suffering and pain. Christ crucified – this fact St. Paul famously describes as a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks – their wisdom paradoxically kept them from seeing to the real meaning of the cross; God wants to deliver us from all suffering, but he can only do this through love, which is an abiding-with, even amongst the shadows of evil and suffering.
There is no straightforward answer to the protest atheist’s challenge. There are narratives within which we can perhaps make some sense of the challenge though. I mentioned the Brothers Karamazov above. In a future post I will attempt to show how Dostoevsky frames the challenge as a conflict between rationality and love.