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Friday, February 25, A.D. 2011
Kristor Elucidates the Darkness

I asked Kristor to flesh out the arguments that he made in “Kristor Promotes Ignorance,” wherein he claimed that we need ignorance to explain homo lapsus lest we fall for unacceptable metaphysical positions. He complied:

Here is an explication of the three jumps that occurred early in my last, that I thought each called out for some explanation. I apologize for the fact that it wanders a bit, and repeats itself from time to time. I apologize also for its great length. Rather than being a coherent, economical piece of argumentation, it is the record of an exploration of new territory, in which I encountered a number of new insights. Each time that happened, I saw fit to connect the novel concept back to what had gone before, and that had prepared its ground. That process in turn yielded new fruits. As you will see, what follows is itself an example of the stepwise, stumbling exploration of conceptual space that it discusses.

These are the three jumps:

1.  How is the unintelligibility of evil related to the Socratic doctrine that ignorance is the factor of vice?
2.  How is it that if ignorance is not the factor of vice, anamnesis is false?
3.  How would the falsehood of the Socratic doctrine of anamnesis undermine the Aristotelico-Thomistic doctrines of Divine omnipotence and necessity?

Jump 1 is rather straightforward for anyone passing familiar with Platonism, I think. Perhaps I don’t need to spell that one out. Oh, what the hell, I ought to be thorough. If evil is utterly unintelligible, then ex ante ignorance about it is metaphysically necessary for any non-omniscient being: there is, metaphysically, no possible way that a non-omniscient being who has not yet experienced the wages of sin could even begin to know what they are, in any concrete way. Such an innocent being would not understand why it was a bad thing to be alienated from God, or to die, or to suffer, because all of those concepts (including “bad”) would be to such a creature utterly meaningless, incommensurable with anything he had ever known. For before he Fell, he would have known only unalloyed good. And as you pointed out, there is no way to make sense of evil in terms of good; but, unfortunately, there are no other terms available to us, whatsoever; the only terms we can possibly use – and this is an analytical truth – refer to gradations of Good. Evil is non-being, and what is not cannot be denoted by reference to itself, but only by reference to what it is not. That’s why we call it “no-thing.” So, there is no way to explain pain to someone who is utterly unfamiliar with it. To someone who has never seen green, but has seen red, we can say, “green is a color, the way red is a color, but different.” Our interlocutor will have some notion, however inexact, of what we mean by “green,” or at least of what sort of thing we mean by the term. But someone who has never seen at all will have no idea what we are talking about in saying “green” and “red,” and we will have no way to explain it to him. So with pain. Someone who has suffered burns, but never a broken bone, can have some idea how much a compound fracture would hurt. Someone who had never suffered would find suffering as such inconceivable. “Suffering” and “pain” would be empty categories to such a one – unless he were omniscient, and had always known what they signified.

An unfallen creature who knew what evil is like would never decide to Fall; but no unfallen creature can know what evil is like. So, Socrates is correct that ignorance of the true nature of vice, and therefore ipso facto also of virtue, is the source of our first turn to the former from the latter.

Jump 2 is harder.

There is a common objection to the doctrine of anamnesis, that asks, “If all of us already implicitly know all about trigonometry, why is trig so hard to learn? Why do we have to learn it at all? Why don’t we all just know it, without having to think about it and puzzle over it? The fact that we must in fact work very hard to understand trig means that we don’t all know from the get go about trig, or by extension about virtue and vice.” Now, this objection is easy to answer: that we know or instantiate all the eternal truths implicitly, by virtue of our mere participation in being, does not mean that we know or instantiate them all explicitly. One can’t be all things: one can’t wholly embody all the truths about vegetables, and also embody the truths about animals. Only some truths are compossible to, or in, a finite being. So also with a finite rational intellect: it cannot contemplate all truths at once, but must treat of them a few at a time, seriatim, and stepwise parse their relations, that stretch out infinitely far into the limitless conceptual distance. Such is our predicament, as worldly creatures.

St. Thomas argued that angels needn’t undertake this laborious process of ratiocination in order to know truths; he thought they knew all truths simultaneously and directly, by being in that relation to God proper to their natures – by being, that is, always immaculately turned toward him in love, worship and adoration. Directing their gaze unremittingly toward God, they directed their gaze toward the entirety of truth. Apprehending him, they apprehended that entirety in a single glance. And this is perhaps what the saints enjoy in the Beatific Vision. They see everything, both eternal and contingent, all at once. So, a finite being can know all the truths only by virtue of apprehending them in God. Thus to see all things through God, is to be unworldly. An unworldly being may participate in a world, of course, as the angels participate in ours, or the saints participate in Heaven; but does so through God. Unworldly creatures are oriented – an apt word – toward God, and their adaptation to a world is a derivate of that orientation.

For worldly beings, the relation is reversed. Worldly creatures are adapted to a world, and their orientation toward God is a derivate of that adaptation. They may enjoy the Beatific Vision, but they must do so by means of participation in a world – they must climb a Jacob’s Ladder. This is by no means an impossible feat, for everything that is tells the Glory of God. This is the Doctrine of General Revelation; and the factual truth of that Doctrine is in the first place the basis of our capacity as creatures to repent and turn to God. We are fitted to God, as wax to the mold; mens capax dei. In the second place, it is the basis of anamnesis. Thus natural theology, nature mysticism, and natural science all have a shot at genuine verisimilitude, and may offer access to truth, in just exactly the same way that human mathematicians have a shot at true mathematical insight. Nor, therefore, is sinfulness entailed by worldliness. Heaven is, after all, also a world. But the difficulty for worldly beings is that they are distracted by their prior attention to other creatures from the direct apprehension of all truth in God. Thus distracted, their vision is obscured; they see through a glass only, and darkly. This limitation of their vision does not entail their Fall, but does make it possible, and indeed not unlikely.

Furthermore, one needn’t turn first from unworldliness to worldliness in order then to Fall. Lucifer did not. He Fell from Heaven directly. All that is needed, in order to Fall, is creaturely freedom – or rather, technically, license – and ignorance of sin’s actual meaning – i.e., of its experiential character.

So far, so good: anamnesis has withstood that challenge. Worldly beings can know only a portion of the eternal truths at any one time. Thus it is impossible for worldly creatures to attain complete simultaneous comprehension of trigonometry, or of virtue and vice. No matter how much they may be able to comprehend at any one time, they cannot comprehend the whole of math, virtue, or vice. How could it be otherwise, since, as I pointed out in my last, no creature can simultaneously comprehend even the truths at work even in an internal combustion engine?

But NB that while “worldly creature” is not just a way of saying “Fallen creature,” nevertheless any creature of our world is ipso facto a bit infected with the Fall. Even the good and faithful subatomic particles that constituted Hitler’s body were forced by their fidelity to that portion of the Logos proper to their nature to a complete cooperation with his monstrous evil. A causal order requires of the creatures participant therein that they should account for each other, fully; only thus may a coherent world be stitched together. So, an evil particle anywhere in a coherent causal order queers the whole shooting match. All the other particles thereof are deflected from their paths toward the Good by the inertial influence of an evil particle. This is how all of us are infected ab initio by Original Sin. Original Sin is not at first our own; but we do inherit it, so that it is an aspect of our natural, Fallen constitution.

Now notice that at its very inception from God, every occasion of existence is innocent. So long as a novel occasion attends first to God – so long as it loves the LORD our God with all its heart, soul, mind and body – it will not Fall. But if such a novel occasion is taking up its place in a Fallen world, it will participate in that world’s Fall, by virtue of the necessity imposed upon it by its participation in any given world, that it conform itself to the causal order thereof. And to participate in a Fallen world is to forget God, at least a bit. It is to forsake the Beatific Vision. And this is something that a novel creature could elect for itself only on account of its ignorance of the full meaning of its decision.

The Fall is not just something that happened at the very beginning of things, that doomed all subsequent occasions, although it is that indeed. No. It is more. Like creation, the Fall is reiterated at each new moment. For think of it: what is it that prevents the world as a whole from a decision to repent completely of its sinful past, and turn to the LORD, right now, right this very minute? Nothing. Any creature may turn to God at any time, and live. So, all creatures could thus turn. They do not. The evil order of this world perdures. And this happens because the Fall is reiterated by each new creaturely occasion of this world. Such reiterations can occur only because each new creature, as wholly innocent at its inception, is ignorant ex ante of the consequences that must follow from a decision to Fall. Any creaturely occasion that fully comprehended the consequences for itself of a Fall from Grace would remain obedient; but no creature that has not Fallen can fully comprehend the consequences of such a Fall. No innocent creature is competent to such a decision.

How, then, is all this related to anamnesis?

The necessary integrity of all truths requires that the Socratic doctrine of anamnesis be true. Nothing can exist that does not implicitly express the whole truth. So, any truth is in principle necessarily available to the introspection of any existent being. But, finite creatures must ratiocinate in order to apprehend truth, and may err in so doing. They are, therefore, necessarily ignorant of the whole truth.

Yet when they discover the truth – and by “truth” I mean now metaphysical truth of the sort that Plato understood as the only object of what could properly be called “knowledge” – they find it completely compelling. Once grasp a truth, and thenceforth the notion of believing otherwise is impossible to entertain seriously, the effort to carry through upon it perverse and pointless. To see what I mean, try earnestly to believe with all your heart that 2 + 2 = 5.

This happens because the achievement of new knowledge is the recognition of truths we had already implicitly expressed by our very being. So, the compulsion that a truth discovered exerts upon us is a measure of the agreement engendered by our faithful credence therein, between our rational will and our whole being, and indeed between that will and being as such. When we learn a truth, we discover what we have always enacted by our very existence, but without ever having explicitly recognized the fact. Learning the truth, we learn more about who we truly are. We learn why we have acted always as in fact we have – and, often, why we have always wanted to act in a certain way, and failed.

If then it were really possible to disbelieve a truth once discovered, that would be tantamount to a bit of self-murder. It would be, not just amnesis, but amnesis undertaken willfully, purposely – undertaken, that is, in the full anamnetic knowledge that the undertaking of amnesis was not really meant, was a kind of lie. It would be a decision to embody falsehood and evil; but since these things don’t exist, that would make it an attempt to enact non-being. To enact non-being as such is not possible. Only positive goods can be enacted. Non-being cannot be instantiated.

And to intend amnesis would be to intend to instantiate non-being. It can’t be done. To demonstrate that this is so, try believing with all your heart that 2 + 2 = 5.

Here, then, is the reason that the falsehood of the Socratic doctrine that ignorance of truth is the factor of vice would entail the falsehood of the Socratic doctrine of anamnesis: if it were indeed possible to enact a contravention of a metaphysical truth, and really genuinely to believe that contravention after one had already discovered its falsehood, then that truth would not really be true, and one would not have embodied it implicitly from the get go, and thus would not already have known it implicitly, so as through anamnesis to discover it. If it is in fact possible for a fully informed being to disbelieve a metaphysical truth, then there just is no metaphysical truth, nominalism is true (despite the fact that “nominalism is true” is self-refuting), and knowledge in the Platonic sense – including anamnesis – is impossible.

So, in order to believe a contradiction of a metaphysical truth, an innocent creature would have to be ignorant of its truth. The only way to err, then, with respect to metaphysical truths – the truths of mathematics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, theology, metaphysics, and so forth – or to behave in contravention thereto, is on the basis of ignorance thereof.

This holds, NB, only for innocent beings. For beings who have already Fallen, the situation is much more complicated, and dire. For Fallen beings, it is quite possible to behave in contravention to the truth, despite their understanding thereof. Indeed, it is easy. God forgive me, I know this to be so. Operating under his own steam on the data of his history, a Fallen being cannot but replicate the Fall; cannot but destroy himself altogether in the end. Grace only can save such a one. Oh, LORD, make haste to help us.

On, then, to jump 3. How would the falsehood of the Socratic doctrine of anamnesis undermine the Aristotelico-Thomistic doctrines of Divine omnipotence and necessity? This one is really the most straightforward of the lot, once you have taken on board what I have just said about jump 2.

Being per se and all the truths thereof are both necessary and incontrovertible. If we could truly enact a metaphysical falsehood – by, e.g., saying truly that “2 + 2 = 5” – this would not be so. In that case, there would be no metaphysical truths. And, if there were no metaphysical truths or metaphysical necessities – these are just two different ways of indicating the same reality – then there would be, not only no Divine necessity or omnipotence, but no God.

There is much here to mine. I shall attempt to respond to at least some of Kristor’s points soon. Until then, please reflect, in all the good meanings of the word.

Here are the previous posts for this thread:

“Orthodoxy and Evolution”

“Kristor on the Fall”

“Evil Christians”

“Unde Malum”

“Kristor Promotes Ignorance”

Update: See my response with “Before Choice,” followed by “Kristor Poses Evil Problems.”

Posted by Joseph on Friday, February 25, Anno Domini 2011
OrthodoxyPatristicsScriptureNon-ChalcedonianismProtestantismRoman CatholicismCommentsPermalink
Monday, February 21, A.D. 2011
Kristor Promotes Ignorance

Lapsarian loquaciousness lingers here on Arimathea, as Kristor graciously invests his considerable talents to help us understand the fall. For the full background thread of this post, please see “Orthodoxy and Evolution,” “Kristor on the Fall,” “Evil Christians,” and “Unde Malum.” Kristor has responded to my criticism in “Unde Malum,” and he defends his theory that the fall occurred due to ignorance. I need some time to think about his response, but I would like to share his argument as today’s entry. I am not posting Kristor’s genteel introduction because my narcissism requires starvation rather than indulgence.

. . . Over many years of wrestling with this issue, I had finally arrived at ignorance as the only possible way by which the first sin could have happened. I have never been wholly satisfied with the notion, but then I have never found anything else nearly so adequate. And it seems to me that there must be a way to make sense of the Fall; for after all, it happened: it is an actual fact of being, and since being is intelligible, this fact too must be somehow intelligible. I agree with you about the utter unintelligibility of evil, yet it seems to me that its unintelligibility is deeply connected with our ignorance. Indeed, I would suggest that they are coterminous. For, could Socrates have been just wrong about the pivotal role of ignorance in sin? Would that not make him wrong also about anamnesis? And would it not also make Aristotle and Aquinas wrong about the omnipotence and necessity of God?

But those are some pretty big jumps. Let me pull back, a bit. Let me sum up what follows by saying, simply: if a thing is absolutely unintelligible to us, is it not

metaphysically impossible

for us to know anything about it? And does not that metaphysical ignorance suffice to provide for the possibility that we might turn toward it, without knowing what we were doing?

What is, is ipso facto intelligible. To the extent then that a thing is existentially depraved, that depravation is in itself unintelligible. As you say, we reckon the defect of a thing by reference to the perfection of its nature. That part of the whole virtue of a man that is lost by his surrender to alcoholism is not known in itself. Rather we compare the remnant virtue of the fallen man to the virtue of the perfect man, and tot up their positive values, and then take note of the difference between the sums thereof. The drunk are slovenly, perhaps, and smelly; the sober, in general, not so much. So noting, we apprehend in either sort of men positive values, actual habits of becoming and properties of being. The drunkard’s depravation is unintelligible in se, and incalculable; the negative of virtue is just nothingness, which has no mete or measure. So, we cannot reckon it in our calculus of goods. How could it be otherwise? For

non-being has no goods

. And any depravation of being, however trivial, is through and through just a portion of sheer nothingness, no? It has no properties, for it does not exist to have them. So, it cannot be even apprehended, let alone comprehended. Indeed, it is immense; not that it is large, so much but that it is, in the original sense of “immense,”  immeasurable, incommensurable with anything that is. Thus the merest jot or tittle of sin is equal to the whole infinite difference between being and non-being; is an abyss without bottom. This is part – just one part – of the reason that only God had the ontological resources to redeem our fallen nature. God has the power to redeem sin because it is the power to create ex nihilo.

Alright: if evil is simply unintelligible, then it simply cannot be known; there is nothing about it that we can grasp, because there is nothing to it, at all. So, we cannot but be ignorant about it, ex ante. Indeed, even ex post, we cannot know it directly, but only by virtue of its consequences in the derogation of our being.

We all “understand” what it is like to err out of ignorance, because we have all done it. We are all ignorant. So we “see” how it could have come to pass for Satan, that he found himself in a state of sin, without having recognized beforehand what that would mean for him, what its consequences would be for his life. Indeed, it seems that this is the only way Satan could have found himself in such trouble; if he had known beforehand what he was getting himself into, his decision to get into it would be incomprehensible; indeed, it would be metaphysically impossible. But I don’t think that this sort of understanding amounts to comprehension of evil in its essence, there being no such thing out there to comprehend. It amounts only to recognition of a shared misadventure. In that sense, only, do we “understand a mistake due to ignorance.”

You say, “the choice is not an arbitrary one, as between unknown paths.” But it is. Because evil is utterly unintelligible, we could not have known the path of evil before we took it; and until we had taken it, we could not have known how precious our life was, by contrast, before we Fell. You can’t know what you’ve got, till it’s gone. Before we Fell, we understood neither the nature of the Fall, nor the full value and beauty of our innocent obedience.

And this, it seems to me, is why the myth of Eden puts the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil at the very center of the story, and of the Garden. Before Adam and Eve ate of that Tree, they were ignorant even of their nakedness; no alternative thereto had ever occurred to them. They had no idea why anyone would ever want to hide or cover anything in the first place. And their very first acts after they ate were to cover, and to hide. It cannot be that this crucial aspect of the myth indicates nothing at all to us about how the Fall happened. What does it tell us? Not having Fallen, Adam and Eve did not know what it was to Fall,

and they did not, therefore, know that they had not Fallen


Notwithstanding all that, can we make sense of the original decision to sin? Can we discover the inner logic that undergirded that decision? No. Nor did I mean to suggest that we could. The appeal to ignorance, rather, suggests that there is no order or logic to the original decision to sin, because it was, not a decision to sin – not a decision intentionally aimed at pain and death – but just to do something that was not yet fully understood. That decision was like the thrashing about of an infant, who by his thrashing rolls himself off his changing table, and so plummets to the floor. The baby’s thrashing is not disorderly or illogical – indeed, it may be an expression of overflowing joy, of pure untrammeled orderliness and goodness, so far as they may be expressed in a baby – but it is not informed, or therefore constrained, by knowledge of what a fall from the changing table could mean: it is ignorant of falling. It is ordered only by such simple, exquisite goods as he so far comprehends. The appeal to ignorance, then, just is an appeal to the ultimate unintelligibility of evil.

It is difficult, from our fallen perspective, to conceive of a state of utter ignorance of the wages of sin. But if the world is a creation of a perfectly good God, such a state was a metaphysical necessity for at least the first instant of the first creaturely career.

The abyss of evil in se is as sheer and dark to us as non-being. We may gaze into that abyss, but we can never see it. We cannot comprehend it, the way we comprehend intelligible things like engines or syllogisms.

Yet do we, when all is said and done, comprehend engines or syllogisms? No; what a vain conceit! They are intelligible, to be sure; but who has plumbed their uttermost depths?

But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living. The depth saith, It is not in me: and the sea saith, It is not with me. … Whence then cometh wisdom? Seeing it is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air.

Destruction and death say, We have heard the fame thereof with our ears.

God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof. For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven; To make the weight for the winds; and he weigheth the waters by measure. When he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the lightning of the thunder: Then did he see it, and declare it; he prepared it, yea, and searched it out. And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.

Socrates agrees with Job: to depart from evil is understanding; so, to be evil is to want understanding.

I really appreciate the following point: “This is part – just one part – of the reason that only God had the ontological resources to redeem our fallen nature. God has the power to redeem sin because it is the power to create ex nihilo.” I have never considered that before, but I find it very insightful. I also like the clever teaming of Socrates with Job at the end. Maybe Plato did study with the Hebrews when he was in Egypt. I tend to think that he and his teacher received their inspiration more directly, but the spark of the divine is evident, regardless.

Update: Kristor explains his arguments more fully in “Kristor Elucidates the Darkness.” See my response with “Before Choice,” followed by “Kristor Poses Evil Problems.”

Posted by Joseph on Monday, February 21, Anno Domini 2011
OrthodoxyPatristicsScriptureNon-ChalcedonianismProtestantismRoman CatholicismCommentsPermalink
Friday, February 18, A.D. 2011
Unde Malum

Forgiveness Sunday is still a few weeks away, but the entries this past week have largely concerned the fall. In his comments to my “Orthodoxy and Evolution” post (followed by “Kristor on the Fall” and “Evil Christians”), Kristor notes that the cosmos had been tainted before the fall of man by the initial angelic/demonic rebellion against God. When I responded to Fr. Andrei’s interpretation of Genesis, I did not consider this first rebellion at all. I think that something like Fr. Andrei’s interpretation could avoid my criticisms if we took account of the original theomachy.

Kristor suggests that this initial fall, like the following human fall, occurred because of ignorance. For why else and how else would creatures rebel against the source of their being? Being necessarily imperfect and lacking omniscience, they rebelled against God and turned their back on their origin and destination. I do not accept this interpretation, but my argument will be long and, to use a Kristorism, anfractuous.

At the outset, let us acknowledge that we rational beings want to understand being. We are agents of truth, and our minds are oriented toward knowing reality. In our fallen cosmos, we are aware of its fallenness, and we naturally seek to understand it. So, we seek reasons to understand why beings reject their creator. We attempt to comprehend evil.

Following many wise men, I propose that such a natural desire cannot be satisfied, and such is due to the perverse anti-nature of evil that defies the normal order. We Christians hold that God is all good and that God created the world from nothing. As such, the world is good, but it is good in a derivative way. It is not truly perfect, as it is not God, but it is an image of perfection. This good reflection of God manifests in space and time the manifold beauty and order of God’s eternal ideas. I am a Platonist, and I think that these ideas are eternally in the mind of God, reflecting the infinite multiplicity inherent in the divine essence. If God is beyond being, then the ideas are the beingness of being—the eternal, fully intelligible, logical hierarchy of being. As a Platonist, I subscribe to this because it, and it alone to my knowledge, safeguards the integrity of our knowledge. It is the necessary assumption of man, and it presents the only metaphysical system not damned eventually to lead to nihilism. Those are strong claims, but such a position is whither I have gone in my own pitiable search for wisdom. Nominalism and “realism-lite” fall apart under fundamental considerations. Yet, this post is not a defense of Platonism but rather a response to Kristor’s explanation of Lucifer’s fall.

If we grant that the world is good—that being is good—then what is evil? For evil is not something created. Rather, it is the perversion of being, wherein creatures fall short of being what they are—what they were created to be. The exact understanding of this idea has varied a bit. Some philosophers and theologians hold that evil is simply the lack of goodness, and any lack of goodness implies evil. As such, creation by definition would be good insofar as it exists, but it would also be evil as it is not God. Therefore, according to this view, evil is a necessary consequence of God’s creating in that he brings something into being besides himself. Such a view, then, explains the problem of evil by making it an unfortunate requirement of reality.

I do not accept this view. I would say that the necessary imperfection of creation allows for the possibility of evil, but I would not call such imperfection evil itself. I, rather controversially, distinguish between types of imperfection. There is the imperfection of creation’s not being God. There is also the imperfection of what the Peripatetics call potentiality. Then, there is the imperfection that we see as unnecessary and blameworthy, which we call evil. For if the lack of goodness of creation were necessary evil, then wouldn’t the various levels of imperfection within that imperfect cosmos be contingent evil? As such, I argue that they are really different imperfections. God is perfect. God eternally has the idea of an oak tree, which is less perfect than God; it lacks every perfection not inherent in the idea of oak tree. There are particular oak trees in time and space; they are even less perfect than oak tree-ness because they cannot manifest the bountiful fullness of the idea. Each particular oak tree will not be all the others, and therefore each oak tree falls short of the plenitude of oak tree-ness. These particular oak trees exist at divers stages of development in time, starting with acorns. Acorns are thus even less perfect, being oak trees only potentially. Then, there are diseased particular oak trees, rotting away and dying. Lastly, there are dead oak trees, not to mention images of oak trees that other beings may create. These examples show several levels of being manifesting God’s perfection imperfectly.

So, I would argue that evil is a form of corruption that deteriorates being. It is a characteristic of fallen nature, and this is why I found Fr. Andrei’s interpretation so difficult to accept. For it seems that an unfallen cosmos would appear radically different from the world that we experience in time and space. Only the noblest activity of our mind is able to glimpse being not in a state of decay. Some Platonists think that such a world is the ideas themselves; they hold that instantiation in time and space requires generation and decay. That is certainly true for the world of particulars as we perceive it, but I do not know if it must be true of the world on the level of particular beings. We have no access, it seems, to any other world that manifests the ideas in time and space without corruption. Perhaps, Eden was different. Perhaps, the eschaton will be different. We just do not know.

As rational, deliberating beings, men experience another kind of evil than existential evil. We have intimate experience with moral evil, and I believe that it horrifies us even more so than bodily corruption. For there is an orderly system to nature with generation and decay. Even if such an order requires death and loss, we can still see a certain beauty and logic to it. It is certainly this insight that leads men like Fr. Andrei to propose that the laws of fallen nature are divinely intended. As I wrote, I do not believe so, though God has made some fine lemonade from the lemons of the fall. The cosmos, even marred and corrupt, exhibits the divine splendor majestically. Existential evil, it seems, only bothers us to a degree, though I am not minimizing the horror of suffering and mortality.

In contrast, we fail to see any such beauty or order in moral evil. Moral evil, whether our own or another’s, repels us. We can only tolerate it by ignoring it or attempting to justify its wickedness. For, as wicked, moral evil is by nature undesirable and intolerable.

Both Dionysius the Syrian (the “pseudo-Areopagite”) and Augustine of Hippo offer excellent analysis of the metaphysics of evil. As Kristor occasionally reminds us, to the extent that something is, it is good. Therefore, every soul that desires and everything that every soul desires are good. For it is impossible to desire evil as such. What, then, is moral evil? Moral evil is desiring things contrary to nature—contrary to their appropriate priority in the hierarchy of being. A drunk may desire a particular pleasure, and the pleasure itself is good. Yet, the drunk sacrifices many higher goods, such as the integrity of his reason and possibly the well being of his family, for the lower pleasure that he seeks. The drunk, insofar as he is a man, is good. The pleasure is good. Yet, his particular disordered choosing is evil. Moral evil, then, is a disorder of the soul’s deliberative and appetitive faculties. This idea of disorder can be used to think of evil more generally; it is a disorder—a marring—of God’s plan. Of course, divine providence may use such disorder to bring about good, but that does not make the disorder good.

Such reminds me of Tolkien’s brilliant cosmogony in the Silmarillion, the Ainulindalë. The fall in Tolkien’s mythology occurs because the chief of the Ainur whom Eru creates to assist in the shaping of the world through music refuses to follow the chosen composition that Eru makes. This rebellious Ainu is named Melkor, and Melkor’s dissonance disrupts the song of creation. However, Eru uses this dissonance and incorporates it into the composition, such that the world produced manifests sorrow as well as joy in its beauty.

Why, though, would anyone attempt to alter the composition of the master composer or thwart the blueprint of the divine architect? The classic explanation is pride, wherein the creature values himself over God. Note that the creature is good, but God is better, and creatures desire God over themselves according to proper judgment. The disordered priorities in pride incur the fall. Yet, why would that happen?

I mentioned that we naturally desire to know the world, and being aware of its fallen state, we attempt to understand evil. Yet, I stated that we cannot understand evil. For evil is not. It seems that being is intelligible and that what is intelligible is. That being is intelligible is a necessary assumption of any philosophical approach to the world that does not refute itself. If I proposed that the world was not intelligible, then I would be guilty of making a claim about the world about which I just stated that I cannot make a claim. I would undermine myself as a speaker. That the intelligible is follows from our reflecting on metaphysics. Ideas are that which primarily exist; they are fully intelligible, and they are not contingent in the way that becoming things seem to be. Even if we do not experience such ideas in time and space through empirical observation, we can still talk about them and reason about them. We do not think about nothing; we think about objects that have being or about intersections of being, as when we take various parts and put them together to imagine a chimera. Such may seem strange to folks who take concrete particulars as their touchstone of reality, but it does make sense when you accept that particulars are not the metaphysical foundation of being. Rather, they are the “showing up” of ideas, or the ideas instantiated in time and place. Being so limited in our experience, it would be presumptuous for us to hold that non-contradictory ideas are non-existent everywhere. We cannot affirm that they instantiate somewhere without evidence, but given the plenitude of the cosmos, there very well might be worlds with unicorns and cyclops. What we do know is that such ideas are intelligible and that we can reason about them with other rational minds. In that, they exist.

Being is intelligible, and that which is intelligible is. Moreover, we Christians hold that something is good insofar as it exists. Therefore, we get a relationship among being, intelligibility, and goodness—a basic principle in Christian Platonism. Accordingly, evil is unintelligible. For evil is not good, and if it were intelligible, it would have being and therefore be good. Our awareness of evil is not positive awareness; rather, it is an awareness of a lack of being where there should be being. It is a form of knowledge that is not knowledge—wherein we somehow grasp that worst type of imperfection. We know that a pot is broken from knowing what a unbroken pot should be. We know what infirmity is by understanding health. It is odd to speak about evil. As I wrote previously, to speak about evil is to bastardize language, as we are dealing with a perversion of the order of being that taints everything that concerns it, including thought.

Yet, we wish by nature to comprehend, and this is why attempts to rationalize evil—to make it intelligible—are quite normal and understandable. However, an evil that has been rendered intelligible is no longer evil. Pangloss never conceives evil because he refuses to accept it as the malicious disorder that it is. Unpleasant necessities are not evil; they are simply rules that we, in our ignorance, do not understand and, not seeing their point, would rather them be otherwise.

I fear that Kristor’s explanation of Satan’s choice incurs this criticism. For a mistake due to ignorance is understandable. In such a scheme, the input delivered an expected output, and if we do not like the result, we can blame the designer. Yet, I do not wish to blame God. I also do not think that Satan’s fall was necessary. If it were, it would again make evil a constituent of reality and therefore intelligible. Rather, Lucifer’s preference of himself over God, just like Adam’s choice in the garden, is absolutely unintelligible. In this context, we are dealing with moral evil, and such evil choices contravene an intelligible moral calculus. We cannot make sense of it; there is no reason, no contributing factor, no excuse—evil is that bizarre parasite of being for which there can be no rational account. We thus see why myth is necessary to convey the story of the fall in Genesis; the lesson defies λόγος.

The precondition of ignorance and imperfection is necessary but not sufficient to explain the fall. Ignorance allows for such an unfathomable move, though it seems to me that not all ignorance is culpable. That any unfallen creature would turn away from its source and prefer the lower to the higher seems to follow another trajectory than trying the unknown because it is unknown. For the choice is not an arbitrary one, as between unknown paths. Rather, it is the deliberate rejection of the source of being for nothingness. It seems that such a choice ought to be impossible. For desire only aims for the good, but disordered desire chooses wrongly. Underlying that disorder, though, at the very heart of sin, is the unintelligible choosing of nothingness over being, though perhaps under the mistaken guise of being and goodness. Because we make such mistakes, Kristor and others trace the fall to ignorance. Yet, such a move only pushes the problem of intelligibility back another step. Ultimately, it just does not make sense. It cannot be known because it is not.

Update: Kristor responds in the next, snarkily named entry, “Kristor Promotes Ignorance,” and he explains his argument further in “Kristor Elucidates the Darkness.” You may read my response in “Before Choice,” followed by “Kristor Poses Evil Problems.”

Posted by Joseph on Friday, February 18, Anno Domini 2011
OrthodoxyPatristicsScriptureNon-ChalcedonianismProtestantismRoman CatholicismCommentsPermalink
Thursday, February 17, A.D. 2011
Evil Christians

I plan to respond tomorrow to Kristor’s comments to my post, “Orthodoxy and Evolution,” the topic of which was continued in “Kristor on the Fall.” Today, though, I would like to consider the prevalence of evil in Christianity. No, not like that! This isn’t the New York Times. Rather, I think that Christians are more wont than others to think deeply about evil, and I suspect that we are best constituted intellectually to do so. Evil is a special problem for us. For almost all pagans, evil is just a fact of reality; it is not something that holds much interest. The problematic aspect of evil for pagans simply means that it is to be avoided when possible; there is no inherent metaphysical puzzle. For the Abrahamic traditions, however, evil becomes a metaphysical thorn in one’s theological side. For we monotheists believe that God is the really real and that God is entirely good. Creation, then, is the product of God, having no origin or constituent reality apart from God. Whence, then, comes evil? For we follow not Zoroaster or Mani; we do not interpret the history of being as a perennial war between the forces of light and darkness. For us, light is all that there is, and darkness is merely the absence of light. The metaphysical status of evil is entire parasitic, though such a metaphor only suggests what is truly unintelligible. To speak of evil is necessarily to bastardize language.

Given this Abrahamic legacy, why do I propose that Christians have the peculiar burden of conceiving evil? After all, are not rabbinical Jews also the heirs of Job’s lessons? I think that Christians have thought more about theodicy simply because Christianity is more hospitable to philosophy than rabbinical Judaism, wherein the legal emphasis saps mental and spiritual energy. Despite the fact that rabbinical Jews have a long tradition of educational achievement and notwithstanding the natural advantages in intelligence so prevalent in the rabbinical community, there were not many Jewish philosophers after antiquity. I doubt that the legalistic focus of the rabbinical community was fertile ground for spirits such as Philo. Maimonides and Spinoza come to mind as the exceptions, though Spinoza represents the beginning of the secular age. Following Jewish emancipation and the widespread rejection of rabbinical tradition, there has been an explosion of Jewish intellectual activity in every philosophical domain. I attribute the paucity of Jewish philosophical contribution during that long interim to the rather antiphilosophical training of rabbinical study. After Spinoza, rabbinical Jewish philosophers have philosophized in tension with their rabbinical heritage. Strauss comes to mind as the best and most self aware example of this tendency.

I suspect that a similar explanation holds for the Mohammedans. In the first centuries of the Crescent’s conquest, there were many formidable philosophers who continued the Greco-Roman tradition. Yet, as the theologians (really, legal scholars) gained control of intellectual activity, fields besides legal theory became barren in the Dar al-Islam. I do not understand this history, though. It is possible to have a legal focus and still to have a flourishing culture of inquiry. Averroes was a lawyer, and yet he was one of the greatest philosophers of his time. Then, again, we have Thomas More. I suppose that exceptions will always surface.

Christians, however, have always engaged philosophy, as we can see in every age from Paul’s speeches to the pagans to Benedict XVI’s addresses today. While there have always been intellectual anti-intellectuals like Tertullian, Athens has always had a place in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. Christians have also faced legalistic temptations, but even the law of God for Christians has been more of an exercise in natural law thinking than an exposition of particular commandments. The general commands in the gospel invite broad reflection rather than casuistry. Furthermore, as a matter of history, Christians were absorbing and transforming Greco-Roman culture just as the rabbinical Jews were purging such from their scripture and tradition.

So, Christians have historically been more engaged in and open to philosophy. What does this have to do with the problem of evil? Well, let us contrast a philosophical discussion of the problem of evil with one that works within a legal framework. The philosophical approach will examine all aspects of the problem of evil, forcing a religion to deal with rather indelicate questions. For it is in the nature of a believer to fall before God and to submit to a higher wisdom. The problem of evil, though, requires God to be put on trial in a way. For it is an explicit inquiry into the justice of God that calls into question basic theological and metaphysical doctrines. By contrast, an inquiry into the problem of evil within the context of religious law does not impugn the goodness of God or of God’s law. Rather, it presupposes the goodness of the law to comment and act upon the human condition, where the problem of evil is one of human moral failing. The law’s reputation is only reinforced as the legal scholar notes the sagacity and justice of the divine legislation.

It is then no surprise that the profound treatment of the problem of evil has come from Christian thinkers, especially ones well acquainted with the philosophical tradition. Note that I previously mentioned that almost no pagans have an interest in the problem of evil. The Greek philosophical tradition shows some counterexamples. To see the problem of evil, one must have a Parmenidean understanding of the stakes involved. One must consider being as such rather than merely commenting on various phenomena that one witnesses. For only an attempt to get to the ultimate will make contradiction problematic. Oppositions (such as good and evil) as diverse elements of reality are not that interesting. Yet, when one tries to get to the really real, such oppositions become very important. For how do both opposites inhere in or come from the same source?

In addition to this Parmenidean concern, one must have an understanding of the good. Whether we attribute his awareness and love of the good to Diotima or to his daimon, we must admit that the pagan Socrates devoted his life to pursuing the good, even unto death. Providence combined Parmenidean metaphysical inquiry with the Socratic devotion to the good, and God thus created Plato. Beyond the Platonic legacy, I know of no other pagan for whom there really is a problem of evil. Evil just is. For Platonists and their heirs, evil is not. Christians knew the same truth, and they took the spoils of Egypt from philosophy.

Update: See “Unde Malum,” “Kristor Promotes Ignorance,” “Kristor Elucidates the Darkness,” “Before Choice,” and “Kristor Poses Evil Problems” for this post’s continuation.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, February 17, Anno Domini 2011
OrthodoxyPatristicsScriptureMohammedanismNon-ChalcedonianismPaganismProtestantismRabbinical JudaismRoman CatholicismCommentsPermalink
Wednesday, February 16, A.D. 2011
An Icon in the Church of the Poison Mind

A few weeks ago, my friend Andrew sent me one of the weirdest “God Stuff” news stories that I have seen: “It’s a miracle: Boy George returns 300-year-old stolen picture of Christ after bishop spots it on star’s wall while watching TV.” It is not that strange that George O’Dowd would have an icon of the Lord in his house. After all, he formed the group Jesus Loves You after the Culture Club disbanded. His parents were also Irish immigrants, and it is hard to breed piety out of those micks; consider the Kennedys. Moreover, O’Dowd probably appreciates the gospel in a New Agey sort of way.

The remarkable thing is that a Cypriot bishop was watching a human interest story about Boy George—and with such interest as to notice the stolen icon. I suppose that we all have our quirky pastimes. Still, it’s a funny story, and the article’s group photograph induces grinning.

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, February 16, Anno Domini 2011
Monday, February 14, A.D. 2011
Kristor on the Fall

Kristor, who frequently shares his wisdom on Auster’s View from the Right, has added his profound thoughts to my post, “Orthodoxy and Evolution.” Moreover, the American Orthodox Institute blog, The Observer, now features the entire post. I have been thinking about the issue over the weekend, and I am dissatisfied with my first objection to Fr. Andrei’s theory. It is quite muddled. When we are dealing with such fundamental and ultimate matters as the unfallen world and, by association, the eschaton, we have entered a realm of metaphysical questioning that makes me sympathetic to Kant when he warns about the transcendent temptation. The difficulty involved reminds me of the human attempt to comprehend the underlying metaphysics of Christ’s incarnation or ascension. We just do not have the relevant insights. However, I do believe that echoes of such knowledge permeate the world. So, I do not wish to judge such understanding impossible, but I realize that I am grasping in the dark to make sense of some very basic questions, such as what are we really meant to be according to the divine plan? What would unfallen creation look like? Is such the same as redeemed creation? Is there a distinction between the necessary imperfection of creation, as that which is not God, and sinful imperfection? Are instantiations in time and place of the ideas in the mind of God inherently imperfect in such a way that they imply or are contiguous with fallen nature, or is it possible for reflections to be good as reflections?

I do not know, but I have been pondering these questions for many years, and their possible answers impact my attitude toward Fr. Andrei’s proposal. It is possible, I suppose, to hold his interpretation and to attribute our blindness of and obtuseness toward the world simply to the distortion of our spiritual faculties. Yet, I think that the difficulty of seeing God in all things is not only our problem. I may harbor an irrational bias here, but I think that human ignorance and the failure to see the world clearly are not simply the result of human failure. Understanding involves both the mind and the object known; intellection takes two to tango. That it is so difficult to think rationally about being makes me suspect that the world is less intelligible than it should be in our fallen state. Fr. Andrei’s interpretation removes man from the cosmos so radically that it reminds me of Cartesian dualism, wherein the human mind, separate from the world, thinks about and acts upon the world. A Christian could defend Fr. Andrei (and Descartes) by appealing to the special status of man wherein God gives man spirit, which seems to put man in a radically different relationship to the rest of creation. Yet, I would reply that such spirit is what makes us be able to transcend the bounds of space and time, as our thought may consider any link in the temporal chain of causality or any magnitude of space. We may contemplate spiritual realities and rise above the limitations of our animal nature. Our spiritual nature allows us to exist on multiple levels of being, but such does not mean that we are not truly still animals that are part of the rest of creation. Fr. Andrei’s Eden story lends credence to this disembodied Cartesian view that lays the foundation for several species of modern spiritual perversion. Is it accidental that non-human death seems so trivial in such a scheme? For the Cartesian, everything besides the human mind is mere mechanism—the playing out of matter in motion. I do not doubt Fr. Andrei’s best Christian intentions, but in seeking to accommodate a materialist, mechanistic world view, he may repeat the Christian metaphysical surrender of early modern thought. Such a view of the world has no place for the transcendent. The fall, affecting both man and the world, produced a situation where such horizontal ideas are not only possible but persuasive.

In my previous post and in this one, you may get the impression that I have indicted Fr. Andrei for nominalism, Humean skepticism, and the Cartesian mastery of nature. Not so, though I have not written or explicated well. Obviously, Fr. Andrei believes in Orthodox doctrine. His theory accepts the fall of man. However, I worry that his interpretation of Genesis has the faint odor of these noxious humors, and my hypersensitivity toward such poisons has triggered an allergic reaction of the spirit.

Far more interesting than my ramblings are Kristor’s reflections on the fall. Kristor notes what I have overlooked—namely, the prior fracture of being that the Adversary represents.

[Kind words of introduction snipped]

I have thought about the Fall a bit. I, too, cannot gainsay the impression that evolution is a fact. It seems to me no more remarkable, or difficult to explain, or for that matter easy to explain, than motion in general, of which it is a department. I, too, am not interested in whether the world was created all at once a moment ago, and only seems to stretch back so very far into the past, or whether it really does stretch very far back into the past, so that its creation has, from a creaturely perspective, “taken time.” Sub specie aeternitatis - that is to say, in very truth - there can be no difference between these two alternatives. Yet whether temporal procedures really do, in an absolute sense, take time or not, it is apparent that we are from our own creaturely point of view - the only one possible to us - temporally ordered, so that each moment of our experience stands as deriving from a set of causes - from, i.e., a past - and ordered to a set of consequences - toward, i.e., some futures.

So, from our perspective, things change. They evolve. Whether species evolve or not, seems to me to be rather a trivial question, compared to the question of how things in general can evolve. For it is not easier to explain how a billiard ball is translated from one side of its table to the other, than to explain how hominids evolved from apes. If a billiard ball at point x really is, wholly and in truth, a billiard ball at point x, it seems almost impossible to understand how that same ball could ever, ever be still the ball that was completely at point x and also be now the ball that is completely at point y. You may talk until you are blue in the face about the difference between essential and accidental properties, and I shall honor your for so doing, and by the way agree with you; but it shall still seem to me that the 8 ball at x with momentum A is a totally different entity (albeit not, perhaps, a totally different sort of entity) than the “same” 8 ball at y with momentum B. For remember that for the 8 ball to change from x/A to y/B, everything in the universe had to change concomitantly, and coordinately. For the 8 ball to accomplish that translation, literally everything in the universe had to change with it; so that, at the end of the translation, the whole universe was a different universe than it had been prior to the translation. Now, how this sort of thing could be accomplished seems to me to be almost incomprehensible. So that, explaining how some macromolecules changed does not seem particularly intimidating, as a problem, by comparison.

From our perspective, then, we are in time, and things change, and it sure looks like change is ubiquitous. I see no difficulty, then, in biological evolution. The world as it now stands indicates that there were once dinosaurs, just as it indicates that there was once a thriving metropolis at Persepolis, just as it indicates that I was at the store earlier today and bought a few things, and just as it indicates that I’ve had a beer this evening – there stands the bottle, still somewhat cool.

I am not so interested then in reconciling the details of the story of the Fall in Genesis with the geological and archeological record. The idea that such a reconciliation might be needed seems to me to be a fundamental methodological misprision.  Genesis is not an accounting in natural history, it is an allegory of the basic truths about the world. And the Fathers seem to agree with me: whether or not there was ever a walled garden, or a tree, or an apple, the story is true, in just the same way that the story of the spirit of God moving across the face of the waters of Chaos is true, whether or not there were in Chaos anything that we could really compare with waters we have known.

The real difficulty for me about the story of the Fall, then, is to reconcile it with the Laws of Nature. I notice in particular that entropy seems to be a basic feature of our world. Death seems to be built into it at the most basic level; indeed, death may be the only way that physics can be sure that there is a direction to time built into the equations. What sense then can it make to talk of this world’s Fall from a prior state in which entropy did not afflict it? Indeed, is not the notion of a world where entropy does not occur incoherent? For entropy, at root, amounts to nothing more than the principle that not everything can happen. It is the law of economics, and tragedy, writ large; writ cosmologically large. A molecule cannot be forever both at point x, and also at some point over there at point y. In order for anything to happen, all the goods available in everything else that might have happened must be sacrificed. The molecule must sooner or later choose between x and y. And if it does change from x to y, the order of things – for the entire cosmos - that had before obtained will have to change with it. All the values inherent in the state of the cosmos prior to that change will also be changed: some for good, some for ill. But, since it is always going to be creatures that are doing such changing, we may rely upon their preponderant failure to achieve anything like perfection in their evolutions, so that if anything changes, we may rely upon the fact that some values will necessarily be lost forever in the process. Not only will we lose the values present in the prior state of affairs, but we will fail to achieve the full perfection of the values potentially available in the state toward which we move. Creaturely change, then, entails devolution.

How, then, could there ever have been a state of things where there was no death? How could any creature, even the angels, escape death?

This may seem like a deus ex machina, but: God. When creatures are wholly governed by God, they can in moving from x to y always be sure of increasing the beauty, orderliness, and harmony of things. They can be sure always that they are moving everything toward greater fullness of being. For God’s creative resources, his capacity to rescue a situation and provide it a path forward to a future that preserves and enhances all the values it already expresses, while at the same time opening up new creative possibilities, are infinite. There is no reason in principle, for example, why the Baroque should ever be exhausted as a source of musical novelty and delectation. There are an infinite number of Baroque compositions that could be written and performed and enjoyed. But ditto for the Classical. The Classical does not contradict the Baroque. But creatures can do only so much of either; their ontological budget is finite. Not so with God. God can supply to creatures the resources to explore the Baroque forever, and to explore the Classical, too. He cannot enable the creatures to explore them both simultaneously, any more than he could create a rock that he could not lift; but he can provide them with the resources sufficient to an everlasting project.

The Fall, then, was from that plenitude. Once turn from God, and ipso facto you turn from that fullness of being. The Fall afflicted the whole cosmos. How? Not, I think, because of the Sin of Adam. His sin came late in the game; for one of the first creatures had already fallen. Adam and Eve, when they fell, fell for man. But their Fall was not the first.

The second great problem of the Fall, it seems to me, is understanding why a being like Lucifer, chief among the seraphim, would choose to sin. The answer, I think, is the same as the answer given in the story of Eden. For why would Adam and Eve disobey God? How could they have been so stupid? Because they knew no better, before they sinned. Think about it. Until you have hit your thumb with a hammer, you don’t really know how important it is to avoid doing so. Adam and Eve were wholly innocent. They had no idea what it could mean to do wrong, or even what “wrong” was. So likewise with Lucifer when he fell. He knew everything that had ever happened since the first creation. But nothing had ever yet Fallen; he could not have known what a Fall would be like. He knew only what it was like to be an obedient seraph. What it is like to be a disobedient seraph was a thing that was incomprehensible to him, far more incomprehensible than the experience of a bat is to us. Disobedience did not seem bad to him, ex ante; for, having lived only in Heaven, he had no idea what “bad” might be. Why not, then, disobey?

So he Fell. And with him, went the whole created order. There was War in Heaven. The whole creation was turned away from God, forced by the necessity of the maintenance of good causal order among things to reckon with Satan’s Fall, and thus to be affected thereby; and has tended ever since toward death. Entropy is inescapable for any closed system. When the cosmos had turned away from God, it closed in upon itself. Grace still gets in everywhere (that’s why there is still a world from one moment to the next); but it is reliably wasted. Frittered away; God forgive me. Yet there is no ontological necessity that any creature should turn away from the Divine influx, even in the midst of this world’s turbid stream; and, it is impossible to turn away from that influx altogether and still exist. So that, to the extent things exist, they are somewhat subject to God. So, Adam and Eve might not have Fallen.

This at least is how I reckon it.

I am clearly over my head, but such is the only kind of good swim.

Update: See “Evil Christians,” “Unde Malum,” “Kristor Promotes Ignorance,” “Kristor Elucidates the Darkness,” “Before Choice,” and “Kristor Poses Evil Problems” for this post’s continuation.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, February 14, Anno Domini 2011
OrthodoxyScriptureNon-ChalcedonianismProtestantismRoman CatholicismCommentsPermalink
Friday, February 11, A.D. 2011
Orthodoxy and Evolution

Last week, I read an interesting post on The Observer of Deacon Andrei Kuraev’s “Can an Orthodox become an Evolutionist?” (original source) Deacon Andrei teaches at the Moscow Theological Academy, and he has been prominently involved in the evolution debate in Russia. He finds the “creationist” arguments offered by American Protestants problematic, and he seeks to show how biological evolution does not contradict Christian doctrine. In this article, he attempts to address traditional Orthodox concerns by offering an interpretation of Genesis that could coexist with the non-metaphysical (and hence, non-materialist) claims of contemporary evolutionary theory. Unfortunately, the article is insufficiently written and edited, owing, I assume, to Fr. Andrei’s limitations in English. However, his ideas are worth considering. I also recommend the readers’ comments, which provide additional insights.

I agree with Fr. Andrei on many points. It is necessary for educated Christians to engage philosophy and to learn from what “secular” knowledge offers. Contemporary biology overwhelmingly supports the theory of evolution, and the evidence for it, while not absolutely compelling, demonstrates to an impartial observer, who has no other commitments or interests in the judgment, that life has indeed evolved on earth. We know that evolution occurs because we have witnessed it. We also know from the vast fossil record that we have collected that flora and fauna varied much throughout the various stages of prehistory. Biological evolution explains the evidence in a coherent way that does not do violence to our understanding of the world. I have addressed creationism and Darwinism previously, noting that there are significant problems with the Darwinian explanation of evolution. However, I hold no doubts about biological evolution as such. I am, therefore, grateful for Fr. Andrei’s reflections on how evolution relates to Christian doctrine.

I learnt something from Fr. Andrei’s article that I never considered before. He notes that the biblical language stresses the actitivity of the earth itself in the stages of creation:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. . . .

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. . . .

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

This is exciting and remarkable, and I am embarrassed that I have never thought about it. The text shows that the world itself is creative and dynamic, though God creates through it. Without God, the world is nothing. Yet, at the level of creation—of the limited and of the particular—natural causality manifests the creative energies of God. It is this metaphysical attitude that makes natural philosophy possible, where there is both an eternal source of being and a temporal level of reality wherein particular beings interrelate. Natural philosophy, or “natural science,” concerns itself with the latter, while the metaphysical foundation for the intelligibility of such research rests with the former.

I also think that Fr. Andrei makes an excellent point about intellectual honesty. We should always keep in mind why we judge things so. We must not become blinded to the assumptions and motivations that cause us to render one judgment rather than another. Moreover, Fr. Andrei wisely emphasizes the distinction between Christian doctrine and theologoumena, or personal opinions about religious matters that may or may not be correct. As Orthodox Christians, we should always strive for the truth, but we should be mindful of our ignorance and limitations. Not everything has been revealed; not everything is clear. Among such issues is the debate about evolution. That said, there are problems that biological evolution raises.

I do not find the issues of the six day creation or of the young earth important. It is clear that the first part of Genesis is mythic discourse. By myth, I do not mean false. Rather, myth is not a logical or analytical exposition of the truth. The mythic involves, among other things, a poetic, symbolic narrative that conveys certain truths. After all, what is a day before the creation of the sun? Genesis is significant in the lessons about creation that it provides. God creates the world, and the world is good. Whether such is accomplished in a week or in fifteen billion years does not matter. As such, I am sympathetic to Fr. Andrei’s project. Yet, I think that there are other theological lessons essential in the Genesis story, and I think that Fr. Andrei’s interpretation fails to salvage them.

Fr. Andrei suggests that Eden does not represent the cosmos as a whole but is simply a garden—a place protected from the rest of the universe in which God places Adam. Hence, the heavens and the earth developed according to the theories of modern science, including the evolution of species from inanimate constituent elements. In the fullness of time, God placed an evolved being from that cosmos—we might guess a primitive hominid—into the Garden and gave him a rational soul. This garden was a paradise exempted from the forces of nature—the forces of decay, and therein this new creature was to mature. Fr. Andrei may follow Irenaeus in seeing Adam as an immature being who was being groomed for the cosmic role that he one day would be asked to fulfill—that of the cosmic mediator, the priest of creation, the role of which Maximus the Confessor explained so beautifully. Adam in the garden was free from death and disease. He was to be a steward of God’s creation, being above that creation. However, Adam transgressed his vocation and brought about the fall. For Fr. Andrei, this lapse did not rend the nature of the whole cosmos, but it sullied human nature alone. Adam’s sin brought death into the world, but Fr. Andrei thinks that this is only spiritual death and the consequent physical death of man alone. The consequence for the rest of creation was simply the absence of the appointed good steward.

My problem with Fr. Andrei’s proposed theory involves two points. First, his interpretation does not do justice to the cosmic consequences of the fall. As I wrote previously, it is important to remain aware of why we judge things as we do. I think that the Christian doctrine of the fall is extremely important. It explains, insofar as explanation is possible, the disconnect between the empirical evidence of a tragic world and the noetic understanding of ideals. Even if we accept that any created world will be necessarily imperfect, as it is not God, it seems that the evil in the world is worse than simply being less than perfect. We intuitively grasp that the created world is marred. Humean dismissals of the desire for and love of perfection as projected irrational wishes do not make sense. Why would the human soul hunger so ravenously for the impossible? Why would men evolve to hold, rather universally, such ideas that would make them less reproductively fit? For they invest their energy and talents in pursuing what Hume and his ilk regard as falsehoods—goals such as justice, righteousness, order, stability, and beauty. Indeed, the normal human understanding of the world is illusory according to this reductionist view. That is unacceptable to me. The universal human inclination to contrast the “ought” with the “is” indicates a fissure between the world as we find it and the world as we know it to be in its essence. Undoubtedly, this disconnect allows for much error, and projected desires along with lack of wisdom contribute to such error. Nonetheless, I think that our intuition is correct that the fallen world falls short of the intended divine pattern. Laying the blame for this shortcoming upon human beings corresponds to our own daily experience. We are doubtlessly the cause of most of our woes. That even existential evils are to be traced to human sin seems right in that it absolves God—the perfectly good—from blame. I do not worship a malign power; I worship the source of being, goodness, and truth. The story of the fall allows for that, and Fr. Andrei’s interpretation removes the cosmos too far from the fall, dismantling the basis of Christian theodicy. Furthermore, the special exemption of Eden from the laws of the universe appears inelegant, and the cosmic role of man pales in comparison to that of traditional Christian doctrine.

Second, I find it repugnant that Fr. Andrei fails to see non-human death as death. For he argues that animal death is simply the cycle of life, and we should not be bothered by it. Yet, his position seems to contradict itself. For why would God exempt the animals in Eden from death unless death itself, even for the beasts, was evil? So as not to trouble young, impressionable Adam? Yet, why would something normal and natural and good such as the generation and decay of the beasts trouble Adam unless such dissolution was indeed evil, as it surely is. Death, loss, and the irrevocability of dissolution are repulsive to us. It is not simply human death that we find lamentable. I do not understand the casual dismissal of other species’ deaths. I do not even understand the casual dismissal of the destruction of inanimate things. The nature of the world as we find it—fallen nature—continually does violence to our desire for permanence and intelligibility. The wheel of time is unsettling in its destructive character. Of course, we can see the silver lining of generation and decay—namely, generation—but half of the system is troublesome.

It is for these reasons that I cannot accept Fr. Andrei’s interpretation of Genesis. I do not know how to reconcile the Eden myth with what we know of the natural world. Yet, I am committed not to accept an attempt at reconciliation that treats either inadequately. I trust that the two views cohere, but I am unable, at least at present, to see how.

Update: See “Kristor on the Fall,” “Evil Christians,” “Unde Malum,” “Kristor Promotes Ignorance,” “Kristor Elucidates the Darkness,” “Before Choice,” and “Kristor Poses Evil Problems” for this post’s continuation.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, February 11, Anno Domini 2011
OrthodoxyPatristicsScripture • (4) CommentsPermalink
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