Wednesday, July 22, 2020
Hart, hell, and heresy
Well, yikes, as the kids say. Hell hath no fury like David Bentley Hart with his pride hurt. At Eclectic Orthodoxy, replying to of his book . In response, I’ll say only a little about the invective and focus mainly on the substance. Since there’s almost none there, that will save lots of time. And since Catholic Herald gave me only 1200 words to address the enormous pile of sophistries that is his book, I would in any case like to take this opportunity to expand on some of the points I could make in only a cursory way in the review.
First let me reply to the two substantive points Hart makes in his response. In my review, I noted that it was “centuries” after the time of Christ before universalism was floated within Christianity. Hart says I am wrong and cites as among “the earliest witnesses” (whether friendly or hostile to universalism) Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Jerome, and Augustine – all fourth or fifth century writers. For the reader whose math is rusty, that would place them… centuries after the time of Christ. Of course, above all others we have to consider Origen, who was a third century writer. Which, if your math is still rusty, would put him… centuries after the time of Christ.
Hart misunderstands a criticism I raise against his views about free will. He writes:
[Feser] claims, for instance, that from my treatment of the nature of rational freedom I “infer that no one is culpable” for his or her wicked choices… Where on earth did he get this weird idea that I anywhere deny human culpability for sin?
But that is not what I said. What I said is that Hart infers, from the fact that as rational creatures we are made for God, that we are not culpable for “any choice against God,” specifically. That is to say, he infers that we cannot be culpable for a sin of the kind that would damn us, of the kind that would separate us from God forever. And that is indeed a major theme of his book (one he reaffirms in his reply to my review). I did not attribute to Hart the view that we are not culpable for any of the sins we commit. To be sure, in my review, I did go on to say:
Furthermore, if a choice is non-culpable because it is irrational, how can we be culpable for any bad thing that we do (given that bad actions are always contrary to reason)?
But obviously, what I am saying here is that this is an unintended consequence of Hart’s arguments, not that it is a thesis he actually intends to affirm.
Hart puts heavy emphasis in his book on the irrationality of acting contrary to an end toward which our nature directs us. Of course, he is right about that much. The trouble is that he fallaciously reasons from this correct premise a mistaken conclusion about culpability, because he persistently fails to distinguish:
(a) an end the pursuit of which is in fact good for us, given our nature, and
(b) an end the pursuit of which we take to be good for us (whether it really is or not)
Now, acting against either (a) or (b) would be contrary to reason, but not in the same sense. In particular, a person might act against (b) because of confusion, duress, passion, or something else that clouds reason. And that can certainly affect culpability. For example, suppose that you say something extremely rude and uncalled for to your mother, because she just roused you from a deep sleep or because you are heavily medicated and not thinking straight. We would not hold you culpable for such behavior, because we know you weren’t thinking clearly. If you had been, you would never have done such a thing, because you yourself take it to be good to be respectful of your mother.
But suppose instead that you are fully awake, stone cold sober, and calm, but that you nevertheless say something extremely rude and uncalled for to your mother. Here we typically would regard you as culpable, and we might be even more inclined to do so if you refused to admit that you had done something wrong but tried to rationalize it. Now, here too you would be acting contrary to reason or irrationally, but not in the same way as in the first example. In particular, your act would in this case be contrary to reason in the sense that it conflicted with what is actually good (as opposed to what you’d fooled yourself into falsely thinking was good). But your act would not be irrational in the sense that it resulted from confusion, duress, passion, or other factors of the kind that prevent clear thinking. And that is why we would regard it as culpable.
Hart’s mistake is conflating these two sorts of case. He thinks that since choosing to reject God would be irrational in the sense in which any action that is contrary to (a) would be, it follows that it would be irrational in the sense that would mitigate culpability, as actions that are contrary to (b) often are. But that doesn’t follow. And this erroneous conflation would also entail that we would not be culpable for any bad action that we commit, since any bad action (and not just explicitly rejecting God) would be contrary to (a).
To forestall misunderstanding, let me again make it clear that I am not saying that Hart explicitly or knowingly makes these fallacious inferences. I am saying that his discussion of rationality and freedom implicitly and inadvertently trades on such fallacies. And that is one reason I said that his book is a “mess” philosophically.
So much for the actual intellectual substance of Hart’s reply. The rest is vituperation of an intensity and repetitiveness that is unusual even for Hart. Judging from his replies to readers in the comments section, this owes primarily to the last paragraph of my review, which clearly has gotten under Hart’s skin. That is understandable – indeed, I knew that that paragraph would upset him, though that is not the reason I wrote it. I wrote it because what I say there is true, and because to have said anything milder would simply not have done justice to the gravity of Hart’s offense against orthodoxy, or to the danger his writings on this subject pose to souls.
I’ll come back to that later. I do want briefly to comment on Hart’s rhetoric before returning to more substantive matters. As to the content, it’s mostly not worth responding to. At this point we’re all used to Hart’s shtick about how stupid, ill-informed, unscholarly, untalented, morally depraved, etc. I and his other critics are compared to himself. Reading through this stuff, all you can do is tap your foot impatiently and think “Fine, whatever, let’s get to something interesting already.” I will confess to being a little annoyed by his repeated false accusation that I am a liar. I have many faults, but that is not one of them. I did read your book, David, every word. It was my bedtime reading for a couple of weeks. Ask my poor wife, who had to endure a new and more violent expletive every time I turned another page and encountered yet another fallacy. (“What, do you have Tourette’s?” “No, it’s DBH.” “Ah.”)
Anyway, here’s the more important point that must be made about Hart’s rhetoric. He and his fans like to pretend that when his critics object to it, what they are concerned about is etiquette. No, what we are concerned about is logic. Hart and his admirers are so inured to his reliance on the ad hominem that they seem unable to perceive just how much of the heavy lifting it is doing in his writings, and how manifestly sophistical it looks to those outside the fan club.
Again and again in That All Shall Be Saved, complex philosophical and theological lines of argument are casually brushed aside after at most a cursory analysis, on the grounds that only “thorough conditioning,” “self-deception,” “collective derangement,” “emotional pressure,” “willful[ness]” and the like could get anyone to take them seriously (pp. 18-19, 45). A Thomist line of thought is breezily dismissed as “not ris[ing] to the level of the correct or incorrect” and “utterly devoid of so much as a trace of compelling logical content,” and thus something which “can recommend itself favorably only to a mind that has already been indoctrinated” and “been prepared by a long psychological and dogmatic formation to accept ludicrous propositions without complaint if it must” (pp. 20-21).
Yet other ideas are said to be not worth taking seriously because they have “less to do with genuine logical disagreement than with the dogmatic imperatives to which certain of the disputants feel bound,” or “because it is what they want to believe” (p. 28). Views Hart disagrees with are alleged to reflect only the “naïve religious mind at its most morally obtuse” (p. 12), are claimed to attract only those inclined to “accept… moral idiocy as spiritual subtlety” (p. 19), or are said to reflect “a picture of reality that… [is] morally corrupt, contrary to justice, perverse, inexcusably cruel, deeply irrational, and essentially wicked” (p. 208). And so on, and on and on and on.
This is, of course, exactly the sort of relentless question-begging ad hominem abuse one sees in every dime store New Atheist tract. Whether it is Richard Dawkins or David Bentley Hart, the basic rhetorical tactic is the same: The arguments are too awful to be worth considering in any detail, because the people giving them are so stupid and dishonest; and we know that these people are stupid and dishonest because they give arguments that are too awful to be worth considering in any detail.
And whether it is Dawkins or Hart, the problem with this is not that it is rude. The problem is that it is a merry-go-round of circular reasoning.
In my review, I noted that a couple of Hart’s arguments imply a position that “is hard to distinguish from a pantheism that blasphemously deifies human beings.” In his response, Hart takes exception to this charge, though curiously, he does not tell us exactly how I’ve misinterpreted the remarks from his book that I cited as evidence. Let me now quote the relevant passages at greater length. I am going to highlight certain especially important lines, but please read each excerpt in it’s entirely for context. First, here is a passage in which Hart approvingly cites a view he attributes to Gregory of Nyssa:
Such is the indivisible solidarity of humanity, he argues, that the entire body must ultimately be in unity with its head, whether that be the first or the last Adam. Hence Christ’s obedience to the Father even unto death will be made complete only eschatologically, when the whole race, gathered together in him, will be yielded up as one body to the Father…
For Gregory, then, there can be no true human unity, nor even any perfect unity between God and humanity, except in terms of the concrete solidarity of all persons in that complete community that is, alone, the true image of God…
Apart from the one who is lost, humanity as God wills it could never be complete, nor even exist as the creature fashioned after the divine image; the loss of even one would leave the body of the Logos incomplete, and God’s purpose in creation unaccomplished…
I am not even sure that it is really possible to distinguish a single soul in isolation as either saint or sinner in any absolute sense. (pp. 142-44)
I will put to one side for present purposes the question of whether Hart has interpreted Gregory correctly. The point is that Hart clearly accepts the views he describes. A few pages later he makes the following further remarks:
We belong, of necessity, to an indissoluble coinherence of souls. In the end, a person cannot begin or continue to be a person at all except in and by way of all other persons… Yes, the psychological self within us – the small, miserable empirical ego that so often struts and frets its hour upon the stage of this world – is a diminished, contracted, limited expression of spirit, one that must ultimately be reduced to nothing in each of us if we are to be free from what separates us from God and neighbor; but the unique personality upon which that ego is parasitic is not itself merely a chrysalis to be shed. There may be within each of us (indeed, there surely is) that divine light or spark of nous or spirit or Atman that is the abiding presence of God in us… but that light is the one undifferentiated ground of our existence, not the particularity of our personal existences in and with one another. As spiritual persons, we are dynamic analogies of the simplicity of the divine life of love, and so belong eternally to that corporate identity that is, for Gregory of Nyssa, at once the “Human Being” of the first creation and also the eternal body of Christ.
But, then, this is to say that either all persons must be saved, or none can be. (pp. 154-55)
End quote. I think it should be obvious why these passages imply a kind of mitigated pantheism that collapses the distinction between God and the human race (even if they don’t go the whole hog of collapsing the distinction between God and the world in general).
In the first passage, Hart treats the entire human race as one big blob that only collectively makes up “the body of the Logos,” and without every single part of which Christ’s obedience to the Father is “incomplete.” This implies that the second Person of the Trinity is incarnate not just in the individual human being Jesus of Nazareth, but in the entire human race considered as one lump. What else could it mean to say that only all human beings together make up “the body of the Logos”? How could Christ’s obedience to the Father be incomplete apart from universal salvation, unless all human beings collectively make up his human nature?
In the second passage, Hart tells us that the individual ego must be “reduced to nothing” and that what will remain is a “divine light” or “Atman” that is to be identified with “the one undifferentiated ground of our existence, not the particularity of our personal existences in and with one another.” That sounds pretty much like Vedantic pantheism, right down to the term “Atman.”
Perhaps Hart would say that I am taking his colorful language too literally. The problem with that response, though, is that unless this language is taken literally, it will fail to do what Hart wants it to do, namely serve as an argument for universalism. The first passage will support universalism only if every single human being is literally part of Christ’s body, so that Christ’s human nature cannot be fully obedient to the Father unless every single human being is ultimately obedient. The second passage will support universalism only if every single human being is part of one big lump that is in turn literally identical with the divine nature.
I don’t know if Hart intends to blur the distinction between God and human beings. It is possible that he is simply reasoning in a sloppy way and doesn’t see the implication of what he is saying. I am claiming only that his argument does have that implication, or at least that if it does not, he owes us an explanation of how he can avoid it. This is another reason his book is a “mess” from a philosophical point of view.
Analogy and goodness
One of the big themes of Hart’s book is the problem he thinks the analogical approach to theological language – which, of course, we Thomists are very keen on – poses for the doctrine of eternal damnation. For if God allows anyone to suffer everlastingly, how can he be good in a sense that is truly analogous to the goodness we attribute to human beings?
Hart thinks this is a devastating objection, but in fact it can be answered fairly quickly. The crucial issue here isn’t really analogy, but goodness. And in fact it isn’t even goodness in general, but the goodness of punishment, specifically. As writers on the controversy over the doctrine of hell often point out, universalists and defenders of the doctrine typically operate with two very different conceptions of the purpose of punishment, each of which can be independently motivated. A retributive conception of punishment takes the fundamental end of punishment to be the restoration of the right order of things by the infliction of just deserts, even though there are other ends as well. By contrast, a rehabilitation-centered view of punishment sees the reform of the offender as the fundamental end, even though it too might recognize other ends.
Now, if you see punishment as fundamentally a matter of rehabilitation, then it is understandable why you would think that everlasting punishment cannot be a good form of punishment. For such punishment, being everlasting, will never yield rehabilitation. By contrast, if you see retribution as the fundamental end of punishment, then everlasting punishment can be good, if the offender really has done something to deserve it.
What sort of offense could deserve it? The traditional Thomist view, which I have defended elsewhere (see the posts linked to below), is that at death the will of an offender can be locked onto evil in such a way that a damned soul perpetually, freely chooses bad actions. And it thereby merits perpetual punishment.
You may or may not think this view is at the end of the day plausible, but the point is that if it is correct, and if the retributive view of punishment is also correct, then there is indeed an analogy between the goodness that human beings exhibit when they inflict deserved punishments, and the goodness God exhibits when he inflicts everlasting punishment. So, contra Hart, it isn’t really analogy per se that is the key issue here, but rather the retributive theory of punishment and the Thomist account of the fixity of the postmortem soul.
Again, see the links below for more on the Thomist account of the soul’s fixity after death; and see for a defense of the retributive theory of punishment.
The parallelism problem
Hart has nothing to say in response to the scriptural arguments I gave in my review, other than a hand-waving appeal to authority, especially his own authority. This is, of course, another part of Hart’s standard shtick. When backed into a corner on patristic or scriptural matters, he will always tell you just to shut up and listen to what the experts say, or at least to what the “real” experts (i.e. the ones who agree with him) have to say, or – let’s cut to the chase – to what his favorite expert (DBH himself) has to say. This has exactly the same probative value as an argument of mine would have if I rested it on my authority as a philosopher – namely, none at all. It’s a rhetorical ploy to impress the rubes, that’s all.
Now, the scriptural basis of the doctrine of hell is a big topic, and for present purposes I will make just a few points. Consider first what I’ll call the parallelism problem for attempts, like Hart’s, to argue that scriptural passages making reference to “everlasting punishment” and the like are better translated as warning only of punishments to last “for the age.” The problem is that if the translation is consistent, then we will have to say that the reward of the just is no more everlasting than the punishment of the wicked is. For example, Matthew 25:45-46 says:
Then he shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me. And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting. (Douay-Rheims translation)
The same word (aionion) is translated “everlasting” in each case. Hence if we deny that Christ is really threatening the wicked with everlasting punishment, then to be consistent, we also have to deny that he is promising everlasting life to the righteous. This is a very old objection; Augustine, for example, puts great emphasis on it. For that reason, I am sure that Hart and his fans will be inclined to dismiss it as old hat, if they deign to respond to it at all. What matters, though, is whether it is correct, and Hart gives us no reason at all to doubt that it is.
The parallelism problem crops up in Revelation as well. For example, Revelation 4:9-10 says:
And when those living creatures gave glory, and honour, and benediction to him that sitteth on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever; the four and twenty ancients fell down before him that sitteth on the throne, and adored him that liveth for ever and ever.
And Revelation 10:5-6 says:
And the angel, whom I saw standing upon the sea and upon the earth, lifted up his hand to heaven, and he swore by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things which are therein; and the earth, and the things which are in it; and the sea, and the things which are therein.
Meanwhile, Revelation 14:9-11 says:
And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice: If any man shall adore the beast and his image, and receive his character in his forehead, or in his hand; he also shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mingled with pure wine in the cup of his wrath, and shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the sight of the holy angels, and in the sight of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torments shall ascend up for ever and ever: neither have they rest day nor night, who have adored the beast, and his image, and whoever receiveth the character of his name.
And Revelation 20:9-10 says:
And there came down fire from God out of heaven, and devoured them; and the devil, who seduced them, was cast into the pool of fire and brimstone, where both the beast and the false prophet shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
Now, if you are to deny that the latter two passages really describe punishment of the wicked that will last “for ever and ever,” then to be consistent you will also have to deny that the first two passages describe God as living and receiving adoration “for ever and ever.”
Now, Hart’s method for dealing with Revelation in general is to feign agnosticism. That particular book, he claims, is so filled with allegory and apocalyptic imagery that we just can’t know what it is really saying (pp. 107-8).
But there are a couple of problems with this dodge. For one thing, Hart is guilty of special pleading. , where the topic of whether there will be animals in the afterlife is concerned, Hart insists that we know perfectly well what eschatological passages from scripture mean, and that they must be given a literal reading. Yet oddly, when such a reading would conflict with his universalism, he throws up his hands and says “Gee, who can know what passages like that are really saying?”
For another thing, not every passage in Revelation is equally obscure. Yes, it is not always easy to discern the significance of the book’s symbolic references to, say, locusts arising from a bottomless pit, or a whore riding a scarlet beast. But various other specific passages are clear enough, as is the general theme of the final victory of the saints and the final defeat of the wicked. It is simply not plausible to claim that the references in Revelation 14 and 20 to the everlasting punishment of the wicked are any more obscure than the references in Revelation 4 and 10 to the everlasting life of God.
Another move some universalists have made is to bite the bullet and affirm that the reward of the just is not, after all, any more everlasting than the punishment of the wicked. But there are a couple of problems with this move too. First, it is simply not a natural reading of passages like the ones from Matthew and Revelation, which are clearly intended to tell us, with finality, how the human story ends. No one without a universalist axe to grind could possibly read them and come away thinking that they are merely telling us: “The righteous will be given a reward that lasts for a long time – a whole age! – but, you know, who knows what will happen after that?”
Secondly, the “bite the bullet” strategy simply won’t work for passages like the ones from Revelation 4 and 10. It would be quite absurd to suggest that Revelation is telling us only that the deity will live to a ripe old age.
The teaching of Christ
Matthew 25:46 gives us only one example of how much less reassuring the Christ of scripture is than the Christ who exists in Hart’s imagination. Consider Matthew 12:31-32:
Therefore I say to you: Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.
Now, exactly what this “unpardonable sin” amounts to requires analysis, but for present purposes what matters is that Christ tells us that there is such a thing. But Hart tells us that there is not. Why should we believe Hart over Christ? Or if Hart were to tell us that Christ didn’t really mean it, why on earth should we believe that? As I said in my review, Hart makes Christ more “merciful” at the cost of making him incompetent. Hart insists that the true Gospel is that all will in fact be saved, indeed must in fact be saved. Yet Christ, his divinity notwithstanding, was somehow so tongue-tied that he not only never managed to say this himself, but actually said things that imply the opposite!
Then there is Christ’s famous remark about Judas, which in my opinion is the single most chilling thing anyone has ever said: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed: it were better for him, if that man had not been born” (Matthew 26:24). Now, you have to strain things very greatly to try to escape the conclusion that Judas is damned. The way some try to do this is to read Christ’s words as a warning to Judas rather than a description of his actual fate. I don’t think that is plausible, but even if it were, it does not help the universalist. Indeed, the “warning” interpretation presupposes the falsity of universalism. Christ could hardly be warning Judas of eternal damnation if eternal damnation was not even possible in the first place!
The bottom line is this. If universalism were true, then it could not possibly be true of any human being that it would be better for him not to be born. But Christ tells us that it is at least possible for someone to be in so sorry a state that it would have been better for him not to be born. And once again, even if Hart were to cobble together some strained reading in order to wriggle out of this conclusion, he would only succeed once again in making Christ out to be so incompetent that he says things whose face value meaning is precisely the opposite of what he really intends.
As I said in my review, Catholic readers in particular simply cannot avoid the conclusion that Hart’s position is heretical. Hart is not merely taking the annihilationist position that the wicked will be entirely destroyed rather than suffering forever, and he is not even taking the Balthasarian position that we can hope that all are saved. He makes the much stronger claim that in fact all will and indeed must be saved, and that if Christianity cannot be reconciled with this universalist thesis, then Christianity must be rejected. As I showed in my review, this extreme position is one that the Church has unambiguously condemned.
But it isn’t just Catholics who should be alarmed by Hart’s approach. Christianity claims to be grounded in a special divine revelation. Christians disagree over where this revelation is to be found. For Protestants, it is to be found in scripture alone. For Eastern Orthodoxy, it is to be found in scripture as understood in light of tradition. For Catholics, it is to be found in scripture and tradition as interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church. Christians often disagree about what scripture, tradition, and Magisterium actually say, i.e. about whether such-and-such a teaching is in fact authoritatively taught in one of these sources. But they would agree that if something really is taught by one of the authoritative sources, then we must assent to it. To reject the source itself (again, whether one conceives of this as scripture, or scripture plus tradition, or scripture plus tradition plus Magisterium) is just to reject the authority of the purported revelation, and thus to reject Christianity.
Now, Hart freely admits in That All Shall Be Saved that he is at odds with “just about the whole Christian tradition” (p. 81). His ultimate appeal is to “conscience,” against which “the authority of a dominant tradition… has no weight whatever” (p. 208). This not only goes beyond the Protestant and Orthodox rejection of the authority of the Magisterium, but beyond the Protestant rejection of the authority of tradition. It is not even scripture alone that trumps all else, but DBH’s conscience alone. And his conscience demands that Christianity conform itself, not merely to some personal theological opinion of his, but to an opinion that has traditionally been regarded as heretical! He is calling on his brethren, not to return to traditional teaching, as St. Vincent of Lerins would, but rather to abandon it, indeed to repent of it as if it were something of which the Church should be ashamed.
That Hart denies that this shows any arrogance on his part (p. 208) demonstrates only that he is delusional as well as arrogant. Though on a particular point of doctrine he aligns with Origen, in spirit they could not be farther apart. As the Catholic Encyclopedia , despite his errors:
He warns the interpreter of the Holy Scripture, not to rely on his own judgment, but “on the rule of the Church instituted by Christ”. For, he adds, we have only two lights to guide us here below, Christ and the Church; the Church reflects faithfully the light received from Christ, as the moon reflects the rays of the sun. The distinctive mark of the Catholic is to belong to the Church, to depend on the Church outside of which there is no salvation; on the contrary, he who leaves the Church walks in darkness, he is a heretic. It is through the principle of authority that Origen is wont to unmask and combat doctrinal errors. It is the principle of authority, too, that he invokes when he enumerates the dogmas of faith. A man animated with such sentiments may have made mistakes, because he is human, but his disposition of mind is essentially Catholic and he does not deserve to be ranked among the promoters of heresy.
How very far from this attitude is Hart, whose own version of “Here I stand” would embarrass even Luther. It is bad enough that he lulls Christians into a deadly complacency vis-à-vis their eternal salvation. He also teaches, by example, an impudence with respect to the tradition that is simply incompatible with a solemn affirmation of Christianity as a revealed religion. These are in no way intended as insults, but simply as a straightforward summary of the facts as I see them. And that is the reason for the harshness of the final paragraph of my Catholic Herald review. It was, I believe, well-deserved.
Much more could be said, and I have already said much of it in earlier posts, which develop lines of argument (such as the Thomistic argument concerning the fixity of the will after death) that Hart glibly dismisses, rather than offering a serious response. I direct the interested reader to them. Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch′entrate: