The Goodness of God and the Freedom of Man Sacrificed on the Altar of Universalism: or, Two Brief but Powerful Arguments Against Everyone Going to Heaven

In Destiny and Deliberation, Johnathan Kvanvig mounts an impressive attack on universalism on two fronts: the goodness of God and the freedom of man, and, to this reader at any rate, has given more than ample reason to doubt the truth of universalism. Perhaps what makes this so persuasive to me is that the arguments are purely philosophical – no retreat to contentious translations or traditions are possible here, no invoking of controversial thinkers to place universalism on firmer ground. If these arguments work, universalism is simply not an option. Kvanvig is working with what he calls ‘McTaggert’s dilemma‘, but I actually think that if we bracket that to the side, the challenge to universalism is even starker. The arguments proceed roughly as follows. The truth of universalism is either contingent or necessary – i.e., universalism is a possibility or it’s an impossibility. The former attacks the goodness of God, and the latter attacks the freedom of man.

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Aquinas and Russell Against Anselm

In his essay on the ontological argument in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of ReligionGareth B. Matthews makes an interesting observation about one of Aquinas’s lesser-known objections to the argument. The objection is fleshed out by reference to Russell’s theory of definite dsecriptions, and forms a pretty solid argument against Anselm. Continue reading

A Conversation on Theology Learning From Philosophy

Fellow blogger Kevin Davis and I recently had a stimulating conversation on the Facebook on the very broad issue of theology learning from philosophy – here’s the edited version, with my words in bold:

There’s some tentative steps being taken towards integrating some aspects of Philosophy of mind with theology, with regard to the Incarnation – how, for example would we fit in Jesus and classical two-natures christology into a contemporary understanding of mind – but right now its baby steps. Part of the problem is that PoM is a very, very technical field (and I’m definitely no expert), and the sub-fields can be even more obscure and dense. Especially once to get into the continental stuff, which is just (at times) ridiculous. Even still, granting some work towards getting theology and PoM to talk to each other, its usually not very integrative. It ends up being X theory of mind poured over Y theory of Incarnation – like chocolate syrup poured over vanilla ice cream, instead of integrating the two together or even coming up with an entirely new theory or framework.  I guess, in short, what theologians need to do is actually be able to converse with it in a way that isn’t just theological supremacism, and try to develop, in fluent conversation with PoM, a theological understanding of mind that could be set within the context of Christian doctrine.

The specialization of which you speak is really the culprit for why the two disciplines ignore each other. I had an email exchange with a philosophy of religion guy who was bashing systematic theology guys for ignoring what’s happening in philosophy. That’s a worthwhile criticism, of course, but I basically told him that until philosophy can move beyond its dozen or so impasses and give us a cohesive vision (Hegel and Kant being the last examples of this) then theologians have no compelling reason to move beyond their own confines. Even the recent resurgence of scholasticism is only a historical retrieval, by and large, and not a seriously constructive endeavor in our time.

I think part of the issue there turns on just whether or not theology, or to what extent, theology can be or should be informed by other disciplines. A philosopher of religion may want a theologian to pay attention to developments in philosophy of religion , but most theologians, almost by definition, are going to argue against that kind of interaction. Lots of contemporary Protestant theology is like that. There are exceptions, though. James KA Smith has done some work along these lines, but even he tends to just put out a ‘Christian pragmatism’, which, like I mentioned earlier, isn’t really a method to write home about. 

Are you arguing that philosophy ought to be a more Systematic endeavor than it currently is? I generally tend towards the opposite nowadays. I’m not sure if philosophy is the kind of thing that’s meant to be systematic.

Yes, I think philosophy should be more systematic and wide in scope. As such, it would be far more interesting. Yes, theologians for the last two centuries have worked hard to secure the independence of theology as a science in its own right and with its own objective ground and with its own criteria for making truth claims. So, as for whether theology should be “informed by other disciplines” I would want to know what the object and criteria are for the discipline in question. If it is linguistics, for example, it can be very useful for theology, even while theology maintains perfect fidelity to its object. I would say the same for much of science and perhaps for much of philosophy of mind.

Hm. I guess it would depend on how we mean ‘systematic’ here. If we mean a body of work that is largely consistent in theme, content, method, etc, then I agree. I’m not much for the idea of systematic philosophy in the style of systematic theology, though. I think the two have different subject matter (however this may cash out). Theology has a much more determinate set of answers, whereas in philosophy and metaphysics its a question as to whether or not determinate answers can even be had.

That’s a good point about “determinate set of answers” and, of course, the means by which those answers are given or acquired. It’s true that when it comes to metaphysics, which would surely be a fundamental feature of any systematic philosophy, the theologian has plenty of reasons to worry — especially if that theologian has any gravity toward Barth. Nonetheless, it is surely an impoverishment today that we do not have a Plato, that is, someone who can speak of the “transcendentals” of our being, even if the theologian must come along and revise the material.

To give you another example, Iris Murdoch was very influential for me in my philosophy courses at UNC-Charlotte, especially her book ‘The Sovereignty of Good’, though she is best-known for her novels. Murdoch was an atheist, but she strenuously sought for a credible account of reality. And even under Barth’s majestic spell, I am free to use Dame Iris in my theology, and Barth would approve.

I see part of the issue as being just exactly what we mean by ‘use’ or ‘revise’. Pelikan gives a good account of this kind of revising in ‘Christianity and Classical Culture’, where he examines the Capposicians use, modification and rejection of the philosophy of their day (not entirely dissimilar from what Barth did). I tend to feel that it ends up cashing out to a mostly conceptual use, which is vulnerable to charges of just being linguistic, in which case, I wonder, can we really say we are ‘using’ said ideas?

That’s an interesting question, but I don’t think it reduces to concepts or language. There is “material” in Plato or Murdoch’s concept of the Good that is retained (or, better yet, grounded) in the Christian concept. As I see it, this is what Balthasar was doing with all three divisions of his “trilogy.”

True enough. My objection is overstated. Another significant aspect is that not only does theology have necessarily determinate answers, its answers are also normative and binding in a way that metaphysics and philosophy isn’t (or perhaps even can’t be). The theological judgments of Niceae and Chalcedon are normative and determinative – a theory of the mind or a theory of substance isn’t, at least not in the same way. If it is, then we’ve simply replaced theology with philosophy.

This is the really difficult part of this whole discussion, and I don’t have a ready answer. It relates to my master’s thesis at Aberdeen, where I tried to discern Newman’s claim that dogmatic “certainty” is unique in regard to its object but similar in regard to broader epistemic certainty (e.g., “Great Britain is an island” — Newman’s example) in how the mind is settled or satisfied. Or else, how would we know it is certainty? Or how would we know what “certainty” or “knowledge” (vs. “opinion”) even means? This is still a quagmire for theologians.
A quagmire indeed. One wonders of there isn’t a bit of Cartesian-ism floating about here in the sense if being preoccupied with method (as Francesca Murphy noted in ‘God is Not a Story’).
Both Francesca and Webster — my two professors at Aberdeen — would tell me that. But I still can’t shake it. We do not need to be interested in method as a Cartesian (the self is the basis of truth) in order to be interested in method (knowledge needs subject-critical criteria). How can the object provide the method for this criteria? That’s where theologians are stumbling. Catholics have the advantage of having the church (a magisterial institution) as part of the object; Protestants do not. This is why Gnosticism or something like “radical” “actualism” is always a danger for Protestantism.
As far as contemporary theologians go, this is something that irks me – a failure to actually engage in these distinct fields (I’m not directing this at you or Murphy or Webster). There’s lots of talk about ‘radical metaphysics’, ‘evangelized metaphysics’ and the like. But no one wants to do metaphysics, or epistemology in the way that such radical-ness would require. Because most radical things end up looking suspiciously like ideas that already are common coin, they just come with a side of ‘accept it or your not in line with (my interpretation, usually Hegelian/apocalyptic, of the) Gospel. And that’s not revisionary, its just lazy.
Somebody asked a similar question recently on whether ‘evangelizing metaphysics’ is a legitimate task. I had roughly the same answer:

(1) No, because ‘evangelizing metaphysics’ = accept how I interpret the Bible or you’re an idolator, as evidenced here. Jenson is just as bad. (2) For all the talk about evangelizing metaphysics, no one actually wants to evangelize metaphysics. They want to talk about vague ‘natures’ or why ‘substance’ is the devil. If theology is to evangelize metaphysics, it needs to start by engaging with metaphysics, actual metaphysics, not what theologians think metaphysics is. This means that an evangelized metaphysics would need to be able to answer specific metaphysical questions and problems – for example, what would an ‘evangelized metaphysics’ say about Quines rejection of the a priori? Or identity theory? Or whether metaphysics is a discipline that has determinate answers? Or the ontology of abstract objects? Or problems in modal logic? Answers to these questions have to be more than standard answers with ‘God’ tacked onto them to be deserving of being called ‘evangelized metaphysics’. (3) I’ve yet to see an actual argument for why we need ‘evangelized metaphysics’ that doesn’t turn on prior assumptions that typically aren’t questioned.

I would, however, want to lay some blame on the philosophers, as I did above. You rightly say: if theologians want to “evangelize” metaphysics, they need “to start by engaging with metaphysics, actual metaphysics” — but this is where the theologian is left questioning. Whose metaphysics? (to quip on MacIntyre) Is there such a thing today? Is it coherent and worthwhile or just a flash in the pan? Does it command a following and a school of serious disciples? If philosophy is not a wasteland of reductive strategies to “unmask” power, then what is it in the academy today? There are contrary voices, of course, but the theologian finds it exceedingly difficult to hear amidst the cacophony.
That’s a good corrective. And, of course, there is no shortage of debate as to whether or not metaphysics is worthwhile. And, given dramatic changes in just what metaphysics means over the last hundred years, this makes it even more difficult. There really isn’t an easy answer.

Theology’s Necessary Propositional Content

Either Gods revelation does or doesn’t have some degree of propositional content. If it does, then it can be ‘analyzed’ if we make that content explicit. From there, we can examine the propositional content in such a way that it can either be rejected or accepted. If it can be accepted, then it is true, and if its true, then it’s a fact. And thus, we can comprehend it. This wouldn’t turn on rationalism vs. empiricism – you’d have to argue that revelation doesn’t have propositional content – which is quite a thing to argue – in order to falsify it. And if it’s argued that revelation qualitativly different, then it’s a stretch, if not entirely false to call it propositional, and if it can be known as true or false, then it’s not qualitativly different.

Speaking of God…

Speaking of God can be tricky. The first and rather obvious (to me, anyway) problem is that God is uncreated, while we are created. From this, it seems to follow that nothing that we experience in the created order can refer to God, since God’s existence would be unlike anything that we have experienced. Or, at least, nothing can refer to Him in an unqualified way. This is what I’ve believed for years, and still do, though I realize now that things are a bit more subtle than I’ve usually taken them to be.

The question here is just exactly how can our words refer to God? Do our words refer to God or have meaning in reference to God because, say, God ‘makes’ them (as Barth might say)? Do our words refer to God because there is some kind of similarity between God and creatures, as Aquinas might say? Do our words have an intrinsic ability to refer to God, as Katherine Sonderegger argues in her recent work?

Aquinas’ famous exposition and defence of analogy against the (then) competing views of eqivocity and univocity  is one of the most well-known examples of religious language. He grounds this, more or less, in what the 4th Lateran Council affirmed is a real similarity between God and man (there is, of course, in the same affirmation, the insistence that there is no similarity without a greater dissimilarity). There is a likeness in nature, upon which grace works in order to lift up or to elevate language to God. Aquinas, very broadly speaking, sees this elevation of language as a restoration of an inherent likeness in nature. Perhaps we could say that grace perfects nature here.

Karl Barth, interestingly, sees a restoration as well, though characteristically, this restoration is not one of an initial capacity perfected but of a resurrection from death to life. On their own, our words can’t refer to God – they are lifted by grace from their death of non-reference to divine life by a free miracle of God. George Hunsinger makes the point well:

‘Although human language was inherently incapable of referring to God, it was nevertheless made capable of doing so. Human language, as sanctified by grace, was at once affirmed, annulled, and elevated – affirmed in its creatureliness and annulled in its incapacity, in order to be elevated beyond itself…Analogical discourse was not grounded in some metaphysical similarity between God and the creature, but solely in the freedom of divine grace. Human language, without ceasing to be essentially inadequate, was extended to be made fully appropriate.’ (‘Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed’, p. 70-71)

Inherently incapable and essentially inadequate. Karl Barth’s life motto when it came to human language about God. Katherine Sonderegger points to a difficulty here, however, which tilts towards a pure annulling of the creature in its entirety:

‘…this divine appropriation has been carried out at the very high price of creaturely upheaval, overthrow and destruction. The “similarity” Barth spies in theological predications of God stems not from any semantic role or range of these words of Perfection but, rather, starkly and wholly, from God’s declaring them true and fit and proper. This is a kind of “forensic righteousness” in the realm of creaturely predication. Indeed, this divine comandeering and declaring follows the stern pathways of Barth’s doctrine of atonement in CD IV.1: the sinful creature must be destroyed, pushed out of the way, killed and set aside, so that the New Creation can stand in its place and for its sake. We face here a form of the Euthyphro problem in the doctrine of God, and Barth has sided with those who say that the Attribute is true because it is willed by God to be so.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 103-104)

Thus, it appears that in spite of Barth’s seeming-affirmation, all that is left is a dead creature, killed for the sake of proper predication. Barth himself has something different to say on the matter, however, in his insistence that the ‘commandeering’ is not violent, by virtue of God’s proper claim on us:

‘With our views, concepts and words we have no claim on Him, that he should be their object. He Himself, however, has every – the best founded and most valid – claim on us and on all our views, concepts and words, that He should be their first and last and proper subject…He does not perform a violent miracle, but excercises a lawful claim and makes a restitution, when, in His omnipotence, He causes the miracle to happen by which we come to participate in the veracity of His revelation and by which our words become true descriptions of Himself.’ (CD II.1, p. 229)

Hunsinger notes how, for all their differences, on this issue, Barth and Aquinas are surprisingly close:

‘The differences between Aquinas and Barth, while not unimportant, should not therefore be overstressed. Both theologians would see the elevation of human language as very much a miracle of grace, and both would see it as mysterious in its modus significandi. For Aquinas, the miracle of grace was always relative or less drastic than for Barth, for whom it was always revolutionary and absolute. For Aquinas it occurred as grace worked with a metaphysical likeness already implanted, albeit deficiently, in nature by creation, whereas for Barth it occurred as grace operated on an original incapacity in nature that could be overcome only, so to speak, by redemption from death. For Aquinas the elevation of language was perhaps finally something more like a transition from illness to health, whereas for Barth it was more like being raised from death to life. Nevertheless, both theologians saw the elevation of human language as something that greatly perfected and exceeded its capacities in a way that would scarcely be possible without a new work of grace.’ (‘Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed’, p. 73)

Sonderegger’s critique loses much of its force when confronted by Barth here, though one still feels a sting at her metaphor of Euthyphro – perhaps the doorway to epistemic anxiety is opened here. If all that makes our words refer to God is God’s say-so, lawful though it may be, then it seems easy to imagine that any word could mean anything, if God should say so. The problems of Euthyphro here are not so easily dissolved.

Sonderegger provides her own account of the ability of words to reference God that differs from both Aquinas and Barth, though of the two, Aquinas would dispute it the least:

‘Now, for my part, I say that there is indeed a fittingness, intrinsic to the creaturely word, that allows our language to reach out and lay hold of its Divine Object: just this is the “negative” Attribute”, most especially, the Attribute of Divine Hiddenness and Invisibility. Now we do not expect too much of these negative terms. They point; they glimpse; they say in ordinary and rough-and-ready way the exceeding Mystery and Dark Light of Almighty God, his Nearness as the Unseen One. Or to echo Barth’s own idiom more closely: Divine Invisibility is revealed to us in Holy Scripture. But it is not in virtue of its being revealed – and only that – that the words Hidden and Invisible aptly draw near to the one, formless, and Unique God. It is indeed that the Lord wills that His very own Reality is compatible with our naming him; he makes the creature a fit home for himself. But God is the “most liberal giver”, as Thomas Aquinas famously says, and He has set up for Himself a temple, a house, in the land of creaturely words; He gives us this gift and settles there.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 105)

Sonderegger’s theological compatibilism clears the space for the coherence of this line of thought, though one wonders if by invoking God’s ‘willing His reality compatible’ with our language, she lands in the same spot she accuses Barth of landing. Perhaps, though, her insistence of the nature of theological language being that of gift is the most pertinent here. No formal mechanisms, such as Aquinas, and no actualist grace, such as Barth – simply a gift of a loving God. Perhaps that is all we should ask for in a doctrine of analogy.

Postmodernism, a Failure of Nerve?

‘Postmodernists nearly all reject classical foundationalism; in this they concur with most Christian thinkers and most contemporary philosophers. Momentously enough, however, many postmodernists apparently believe that the demise of classical foundationalism implies something far more startling: that there is no such thing as truth at all, no way things really are. Why make that leap, when as a matter of logic it clearly doesn’t follow? For various reasons, no doubt. Prominent among those reasons is a sort of Promethean desire not to live in a world we have not ourselves constituted or structured. With the early Heidegger, a postmodern may refuse to feel at home in any world he hasn’t himself created.

 Now some of this may be a bit hard to take seriously (it may seem less Promethean defiance than foolish posturing); so here is another possible reason. As I pointed out, classical foundationalism arose out of uncertainty, conflict, and clamorous (and rancorous) disagreement; it emerged at a time when everyone did what was right (epistemically speaking) in his own eyes. Now life without sure and secure foundations is frightening and unnerving; hence Descartes’s fateful effort to find a sure and solid footing for the beliefs with which he found himself. (Hence also Kant’s similar effort to find an irrefragable foundation for science.)

Such Christian thinkers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Kuyper, however, recognize that there aren’t any certain foundations of the sort Descartes sought—or, if there are, they are exceedingly slim, and there is no way to transfer their certainty to our important non-foundational beliefs about material objects, the past, other persons, and the like. This is a stance that requires a certain epistemic hardihood: there is, indeed, such a thing as truth; the stakes are, indeed, very high (it matters greatly whether you believe the truth); but there is no way to be sure that you have the truth; there is no sure and certain method of attaining truth by starting from beliefs about which you can’t be mistaken and moving infallibly to the rest of your beliefs. Furthermore, many others reject what seems to you to be most important. This is life under uncertainty, life under epistemic risk and fallibility. I believe a thousand things, and many of them are things others—others of great acuity and seriousness—do not believe. Indeed, many of the beliefs that mean the most to me are of that sort. I realize I can be seriously, dreadfully, fatally wrong, and wrong about what it is enormously important to be right. That is simply the human condition: my response must be finally, “Here I stand; this is the way the world looks to me.”

There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony, or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida. So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’ (Alvin Plantinga, ‘Warranted Christian Belief)