there is something analogous to freedom and personhood at every level of reality

Since procession and reversion are in reality the same relation of dependence, a thing’s being made to be by God is not in any sense prior to its desire for him. Rather, the generation of the being consists in its tending toward God no less than in its coming from him. Thus reversion, as the activity of the being, is the being’s share in its own being made to be. As in Plotinus and Proclus, the product has an actively receptive role in its production, and if it does not exercise this activity it cannot exist. For Dionysius, God cannot make beings without their active cooperation, for without that activity they would not be anything. In every being, including animals, plants, and inanimate things, there is an element of ‘interiority’, of selfhood, an active share in its own being what it is and so in its own being. At the level of rational beings, this interiority takes the form of self-consciousness, of personhood and freedom. But the principle that any being’s reversion is creative of it means that there is something analogous to freedom and personhood at every level of reality, even in inanimate things.

Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric Perl

every possibility of evil inherent in the conditions of finite freedom is conquered while actually bringing free spiritual natures into existence

Creation is not the magical conjuration into existence of something that possesses all the attributes of the past without actually possessing a past. Surely that must be true, right? If it were, then there would be no such thing as free rational creatures, but only fictional characters summoned into existence in a preordained state of character.

So, the issue of evil isn’t a utilitarian calculus, it’s a matter of the process whereby nothingness and every possibility of evil inherent in the conditions of finite freedom is conquered while actually bringing free spiritual natures into existence. But spirit can exist only under the conditions of those rational conditions that logically define it. To ask why God did not create spiritual beings already wholly divinized without any prior history in the ambiguities of sin—or of sin’s possibility—is to pose a question no more interesting or solvent than one of those village atheist’s dilemmas: can God create a square circle, or a rock he is unable to lift? A finite created spirit must have the structure of, precisely, the finite, the created, and spirit. It must have an actual absolute past in nonbeing and an absolute future in the divine infinity, and the continuous successive ordering of its existence out of the former and into the latter is what it is to be a spiritual creature. Every spiritual creature as spirit is a pure act of rational and free intentionality away from the utter poverty of nonbeing and toward infinite union with God. This “temporal” or “diastematic” structure is no less intrinsic to it than is its dynamic synthesis of essence and existence, or of stability and change. And that means that even the first stirring of a created spiritual nature’s existence must be a kind of free assent to existence on the part of the creature.

…Yet again, to say that evil is not necessary in itself does not mean that the possibility of evil–possibility, not necessity–is not present in the “venture” of creation. To say that a negative possibility is entailed in something is not to say that there is any intrinsic necessity for or positive value in the actualization of that possibility. When surgery is performed to remove a tumor, it is possible that there will be nerve damage. That does not mean that nerve damage is an intrinsically good or necessary aspect of surgery. The possibility of a falling back toward evil and nothingness is entailed in the creation of a free finite spiritual being, almost by definition. That does not mean that the actual falling back toward evil and nothingness is in itself a necessary or good “part of the journey.” But, in the course of God overcoming evil and nothingness in finite free spiritual creatures, it may happen. Happily, one would like to believe, God does not cease to conquer that evil, in this age or the age to come.

David Bentley Hart (in the comments here)

when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real

In the passage below from The Great Divorce (end of Chapter 13), the protagonist (who is clearly C.S. Lewis) holds a dialog with his great Teacher (who is clearly George MacDonald). At one point, Lewis says to MacDonald:

In your own books, Sir, you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.

MacDonald responds:

Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will  be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions. …Because all answers deceive.

MacDonald goes on to make his case:

If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality.

There’s so much to consider in The Great Divorce. I suppose that my first question is actually just what Lewis is seeking to do with MacDonald. It almost seems as if Lewis is seeking to recast his great teacher within this heavenly setting as more of a mystic with regard to “final things” than MacDonald chose to be within his own writings during his lifetime. In any case, Lewis does not seem to come down clearly on the final state of things outside of time other than to make his case that “it’s ill talking of such questions. …because all answers deceive.” In the course of making his case, Lewis makes some big claims with regard to the nature of time, goodness and freedom (to name just a few concepts touched upon).

Without further comment, here is the core of the conversation between Lewis and MacDonald. It picks up just after a generous, glorious, joyfilled female saint has tried her utmost to win over her self-centered and theatrical husband, only to watch him be swallowed up (rather literally) by his own false image of himself:

‘And yet . . . and yet . . . ,’ said I to my Teacher, when all the shapes and the singing had passed some distance away into the forest, ‘even now I am not quite sure. Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his selfmade misery?’

‘Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life.’

‘Well, no. I suppose I don’t Want that.’

‘What then?’

‘I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on Earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.’

‘Ye see it does not.’

‘I feel in a way that it ought to.’

‘That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.’

‘What?’

‘The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.’

‘I don’t know what I want, Sir.’

‘Son, son, it must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.

‘But dare one say—it is horrible to say—that Pity must ever die?’

‘Ye must distinguish. The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of Pity, the Pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth, the pity that has cheated many a woman out of her virginity and many a statesman out of his honesty—that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.’

‘And what is the other kind—the action?’

‘It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil. Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: but we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.’

‘You say it will go down to the lowest, Sir. But she didn’t go down with him to Hell. She didn’t even see him off by the bus.’

‘Where would ye have had her go?’

‘Why, where we all came from by that bus. The big gulf, beyond the edge of the cliff. Over there. You can’t see it from here, but you must know the place I mean.’

My Teacher gave a curious smile. ‘Look,’ he said, and with the word he went down on his hands and knees. I did the same (how it hurt my knees!) and presently saw that he had plucked a blade of grass. Using its thin end as a pointer, he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identified it without this aid.

‘I cannot be certain,’ he said, ‘that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye certainly came.’

‘But—but,’ I gasped with a feeling of bewilderment not unlike terror. ‘I saw an infinite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up. And then this country on top of the cliffs.’

‘Aye. But the voyage was not mere locomotion. That bus, and all you inside it, were increasing in size.’

‘Do you mean then that Hell—all that infinite empty town—is down in some little crack like this?’

‘Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.’

‘It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.’

‘And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. If all Hell’s miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into that Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Pacific itself is only a molecule.’

‘I see,’ said I at last. ‘She couldn’t fit into Hell.’

He nodded. ‘There’s not room for her ’ he said ‘Hell could not open its mouth wide enough.’

‘And she couldn’t make herself smaller?—like Alice, you know.’

‘Nothing like small enough. For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.’

‘Then no one can ever reach them?’

‘Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend—a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.’

‘And will He ever do so again?’

‘It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not Work that Way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.’

‘And some hear him?’

‘Aye.’

‘In your own books, Sir,’ said I, ‘you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.’

‘Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.’

‘Because they are too terrible, Sir?’

‘No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. The Lord said we were gods. How long could ye bear to look (without Time’s lens) on the greatness of your own soul and the eternal reality of her choice?’

a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy

Wendell Berry on Heaven and Hell:

I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves in it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

Wendell Berry in A World Lost.

though bodily Joseph was indeed a slave

Let our tears flow with those of Jacob, who weeps for his celebrated and sober-minded son; for though bodily Joseph was indeed a slave, he preserved the freedom of his soul and was lord over all Egypt. For God prepares for His servants an incorruptible crown.

Bridegroom Matins (Great and Holy Monday)
(Our newest icon, put together for this Holy Week.)

God is there before me in the being of all that is not him

God gives us just enough to seek Him, and never enough to fully find him. To do more would inhibit our freedom, and our freedom is very dear to God.

…Even now I look out at a cat huddled down in the adder’s fern, at a fresh wind nagging the sheets on the line, at hills like a green sea in the east and just beyond them the priory, and the magnificent puzzle is, for a moment, solved, and God is there before me in the being of all that is not him.

And yet sometimes I am so sad. Even when I have friends over often for tea or canasta, there is a Great Silence here for weeks and weeks, and the Devil tells me the years since age seventeen have been a great abeyance and I have been like a troubled bride pining each night for a husband who is lost without a trace.

From Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen.

you must not ask for so much

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

Lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On a Wire” (recorded 26 September 1968 in Nashville and included on his 1969 album Songs from a Room).

the implied restraints of faithfulness

For some time now, I have been growing in my understanding of how many cultural disorders are related to hatred of limits. The aspiration to limitlessness was embedded in the first temptation and the original sin, it informed the earliest docetic and Gnostic heresies, and it inspired the founding intellects of modernity. Many sincere Christians still have some sense that being limited is an effect of sin, rather than a condition of the Creation. Both Genesis accounts of Creation (in chapters 1 and 2) resound with the establishment of boundaries—in time, in space, in ontology, and in vocation. God created all things (including his image-bearers) to thrive within limits, and he then asserted that this circumstance of Creation is very good. After delivering the mandate to serve as his regents and stewards over all Creation, God reminds Adam and Eve that they are creatures who are bounded. They do not exist independently, but must turn to the earth (from which they came and to which will return) for food, for the stuff of life. But not all the food in the Garden was on the menu. Man was limited and needy in his created state, and his continued fellowship with God required the recognition of boundaries.

Almost all human cultures have pursued the task of defining and governing boundaries in human behavior. Philip Rieff argued (in The Triumph of the Therapeutic) that every culture survives “by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood.” The story of modern Western culture, however—a culture built around the ideal of the sovereign self—is a story of the abandonment of restrictions and restraints in the name of human freedom. Our institutions have increasingly been defined in terms of encouraging liberation from limits rather than cultivating a conscientious honoring of limits.

…With echoes of numerous theologians who have related the imago dei to our essential relationality, Berry questions the understanding of freedom that dominates modern culture. “In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom’ for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom of Words, ‘free’ is etymologically related to ‘friend.’ These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved.’ We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. All this suggests that our ‘identity’ is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.”

Ken Myers rarely has a thought that is not backed up by much reading and reflection. These thoughts of his from an online posting spoke volumes to me in several areas.