Do flies go to heaven? Hart, Feser, and Maximus on the beatific vision

David Bentley Hart and Edward Feser have been at it again (here, here, here, and here), this time with regard to question of whether animals (and other parts of non-human creation) will be redeemed and sustained in the eschaton. Hart says yes, Feser says no. In his most recent post on the matter, Hart writes the following:

The issue is not whether animals can “see God” … [R]ather, it is whether we can see God apart from cosmic nature. In The System [of manual Thomism], a medievalist of my acquaintance likes to say, “God is a species of discursive knowledge, the ultimate Concept,” while the vision of God is essentially ratiocinative, a kind of eternal Q.E.D. For Feser, certainly, the final human knowledge of God is indissolubly bound to a capacity for abstraction.

As Denys or Maximus would say, however, God is … the source and end of all knowledge and desire, sensible, appetitive, or rational, present in all as beyond all, and yet as more original than all. And, of course, even for the deified intellect, God could never be simply an external object of rational cognizance, some external “other thing” delivered over to theoretical contemplation; as Nicholas of Cusa says, creatures “see God” precisely by seeing God’s act of seeing all things, and so by participation in God’s knowledge of himself in his Logos. And this must entail, for embodied finite creatures, seeing everything that lives and dwells and is held together in the Logos in its final glory, the whole fabric of creation transfigured and finally made complete [emphasis added].

Though he never, as far as I can tell, explicitly responds to Hart on this point, Feser disagrees sharply: “the beatific vision … rather leaves everything else in its dust. And I submit that if you won’t miss sex when you’re in Heaven, it’s a safe bet that you’re not going to give much thought to Fido either.” Besides, he challenges in one of his follow-up blog posts, would those in Hart’s camp really argue that not only dogs and horses, but bacteria and flies will play a role in the beatific vision? If not, why not? How, in principle, would the situation of flies differ from that of dogs?

I can’t speak for Hart, but Feser’s question seems like a fair one. Hart’s position, as far as I can tell, does require him to affirm the eschatological durability of flies. And more generally speaking, this question about eschatological buzzers highlights an important difference (in emphasis if not in substance) between Thomistic and Orthodox thought.

Following Aquinas, Feser takes natural creaturely essences to be the sorts of things described by Aristotelian metaphysics: composite quiddities formally instantiated in material particulars. As such, the essences of creatures can be known — for the most part — through the medium of natural reason (though, to be fair, Aquinas himself acknowledges that of our own power we cannot so much as exhaust the essence of a fly).

Orthodox thought has no issue with understanding creatures in this manner, but considers this approach profoundly inadequate and incomplete if undertaken in isolation. This is because, from the Orthodox perspective, the truest and most properly natural knowledge of creatures is the kind afforded only by noetic vision and obtained only through ascetic contemplation; such knowledge is not only of formal structures and characteristic functions, but of the divine logoi in and by which creatures exist. As Andrew Louth explains,

Natural contemplation is so called because at this stage the mind is able to contemplate the logoi that lie behind the natural order. In Christian usage, this notion of the logoi can be traced back to Origen: they are the principles in accordance with which everything in the cosmos was created through the Word of God, the Logos.

Maximus the Confessor elaborates that “When the intellect naturally apprehends all the logoi in beings and contemplates within them the infinite energies of God,” it comes to consider scientific inquiry “ineffective and its method useless, for it provides the intellect with no means of understanding how God … is present in the logos of each thing in itself, and in all the logoi together, according to which all things exist” (Ambiguum 22). Only insofar as the human intellect understands creatures (1) as expressions of God the Logos and (2) in their unique, divinely intended logoi does it truly understand them at all. And, given the Fall, such understanding is borne only of ascetic struggle and freedom from irrational (alogikos) passions.

For Maximus, then, creaturely essences are not exhaustively or adequately dealt with by, say, Aquinas’ On Being and Essence. To know dogs qua dogs means knowing the logos of dogs, which cannot be sufficiently perceived by analysis of genus, species, and so on. These categories and this approach can only describe essences as they are perceived in fallen creatures and from the natural vantage of fallen intellects. What they cannot do is describe creatures in a truly or naturally essential way.

Which brings me back, finally, to Feser’s question about flies and the beatific vision. It seems entirely plausible to me that flies — as divinely intended creatures — will afford saints vision of God in the eschaton. It also seems plausible to me, however, that our vision of flies in their intended logos will differ drastically from our vision of them in our fallen, passion-ridden, and sinful state. This difference will be due not to God’s altering of their fundamental nature (as Aquinas would likely suspect), but to the renewal of our minds before the logoi of God.

According to Maximus, the logoi are no less than “portions of God,” and it is therefore unintelligible to speak, as Feser does, of a vision of the God apart from His logoi. As he writes in Ambiguum 7,

One Logos is many logoi, and the many logoi are one Logos. According to the creative and sustaining movement of the One outward to the world, in a way that is appropriate to God, the One is many; according to the thoughtful, pedagogical elevation of the many to the one, God’s Providence as if to the ultimate cause of all things or to the center of the straight lines that proceed out from him . . . the many are one.

Seeing the Logos certainly will therefore involve “seeing everything that lives and dwells and is held together in the Logos”: to see the many logoi simply is to see the one Logos, and vice versa. And this final vision will very possibly involve seeing not only dogs but even flies (however strange this prospect appears from our present vantage), all united indivisibly with ourselves in Christ, by whom the Father has “reconciled all things to Himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1.20).

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St Symeon the New Theologian on self-examination

At all times you should fear God, and every day you should examine yourself to see what good things you have done and what bad things. And you should forget what was good, lest you succumb to the passion of self-esteem. But where what was bad is concerned you should weep, confess, and pray intensely. This self-examination should take place as follows: when the day has ended and evening has come, ask yourself how, with God’s help, you have passed the day. Did you judge anyone, speak harshly of anyone, or offend anyone? Did you look impassionately at anyone, or did you disobey your superior with regard to your duties and neglect them? Did you become angry with anyone or occupy your mind with useless things while in church? Or, overcome by lethargy, did you leave church or depart from your rule of prayer? When you see that you are guiltless on all counts — which is impossible, for ‘no one is free from stain, not even for a single day of his life,’ and ‘who will boast that his heart is pure?’ — then cry out to God, full of tears: ‘Lord, forgive me all my sins, in thought or act, conscious or unwitting.’ For we offend in many ways, and do not know it. (Practical and Theological Texts 121)

Athanasius, Aquinas, and Chesterton on the tangible evidence of Christ’s work

Athanasius wrote that the proof of Christ’s saving work “is clearer through visible facts than through arguments,” and proceeded to demonstrate it as follows (in De incarnatione 30 and 46):

For since the Savior works so many things among human beings, and daily in every place invisibly persuades such a great multitude, both from those who dwell in Greece and in the foreign lands, to turn to his faith and all to obey his teaching, would anyone still have doubt in their mind whether the resurrection has been accomplished by the Savior, and whether Christ is alive, or rather is himself the Life? Is it like a dead man to prick the minds of human beings so that they deny their father’s laws and revere the teaching of Christ? Or how, if he is not acting — for this is a property of one dead — does he stop those active and alive so that the adulterer no longer commits adultery, the murderer no longer murders, the unjust no longer grasps greedily, and the impious is henceforth pious?

When did human beings begin to abandon the worship of idols, except since the true God Word of God came among human beings? Or when have the oracles amongst the Greeks and everywhere ceased and become empty, except since the Savior revealed himself upon earth? … And when, in short, did the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish (1 Cor 1.18-24) except when the true Wisdom of God revealed itself upon earth? For formerly the whole inhabited world and every place were led astray by the worship of idols, and human beings regarded nothing else but idols as God. Now, however, throughout the whole inhabited world, human beings are deserting the superstition of idols, taking refuge in Christ, and worshipping him as God … And, what is amazing, is that while there were thousands of diverse objects of worship, and each place had its own idol, and that which was called a god by some had no power to pass over into the neighboring place to persuade those of the neighborhood to worship it … only Christ is worshipped by all as one and everywhere the same. And what the weakness of idols could not do — persuade even those dwelling nearby — this Christ has done, persuading not only those nearby, but simply the entire inhabited world, to worship the one and the same Lord, and through him God, his Father.

Aquinas picked up on this theme in Summa Contra Gentiles 1.1.6:

[The] wonderful conversion of the world to the Christian faith is so certain a sign of past miracles, that they need no further reiteration, since they appear evidently in their effects. It would be more wonderful than all other miracles, if without miraculous signs the world had been induced by simple and low-born men to believe truths so arduous, to do works so difficult, to hope for reward so high. And yet even in our times God ceases not through His saints to work miracles for the confirmation of the faith.

And Chesterton, finally, concluded his Everlasting Man along the same lines:

For this is the last proof of the miracle; that something so supernatural should have become so natural. I mean that anything so unique when seen from the outside should only seem universal when seen from the inside.

[…] The mystery is how anything so startling should have remained defiant and dogmatic and yet become perfectly normal and natural. I have admitted freely that, considering the incident in itself, a man who says he is God may be classed with a man who says he is glass. But the man who says he is glass is not a glazier making windows for all the world. He does not remain for after ages as a shining and crystalline figure, in whose light everything is as clear as crystal.

But this madness has remained sane. The madness has remained sane when everything else went mad. The madhouse has been a house to which, age after age, men are continually coming back as to a home. That is the riddle that remains; that anything so abrupt and abnormal should still be found a habitable and hospitable thing. I care not if the sceptic says it is a tall story; I cannot see how so toppling a tower could stand so long without foundation. Still less can I see how it could become, as it has become, the home of man.

[…] If it were an error, seems as if the error could it hardly have lasted a day. If it were a mere ecstasy, it would seem that such an ecstasy could not endure for an hour. It has endured for nearly two thousand years; and the world within it has been more lucid, more level-headed, more reasonable in its hopes, more healthy in it instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, than all the world outside. For, it was the soul of Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ, and the soul of it was common sense. Though we dared not look on His face we could look on His fruits; and by His fruits we should know Him. The fruits are solid the fruitfulness is much more than a metaphor, and nowhere in this sad world are boys happier in apple trees or men in more equal chorus singing as they tread the vine, than under the fixed flash of this instant and intolerant enlightenment, the lightning made eternal as the light.

Peter Leithart and the problems with (some) Protestant ecumenism

Throughout the past year, Peter Leithart has written frequently about ecumenism and Protestant-Catholic/-Orthodox dialogue on his First Things blog. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) I have deep respect for Leithart’s work in general, but these blog posts strike me as oddly and uncharacteristically unhelpful. Helpful or not, though, these posts are very much representative of contemporary ecumenical conversation in general, in that almost every one of them hinges on two ecclesiological assumptions that are as problematic, from the Catholic and Orthodox perspectives, as they are ubiquitous.

The first assumption at work is that church “schism” necessarily and simply equates to church “division” (and therefore that both parties involved in a schism are always, to at least a comparable degree, guilty and arrogant). This assumption leads Leithart to make declarations like these:

Division is childish. It’s childish to retreat into our safe places, where everyone is like us.

We cannot have mature Christianity in the midst of our divisions, because maturation is maturation toward unity. So long as we remain divided, we remain children.

But there’s an obvious problem here: Neither Orthodox nor Catholic believers exactly believe (or at least, according their respective traditions, ought to believe) that the Church is “divided.” They believe, generally speaking, that other groups have separated themselves from the Church, and therefore that those other groups ought to return to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church whence they departed.

Of course this doesn’t mean that all non-Catholic or -Orthodox communions are equally “schismatic” in doctrine or even lineage (there’s a clear difference between Lutherans and Mormons); nor does it mean that these communions don’t often contribute worthily and superlatively to the theological conversation. But it does mean that Leithart’s declarations about “church division” only hold water from the perspective of a radically Protestant ecclesiology — which quite straightforwardly asserts that the Catholic and Orthodox communions sorely misunderstand themselves. All Leithart is really doing in making such declarations, then, is re-stating Protestant first principles and dubbing immature those (read: Catholics and Orthodox) who disagree with them. This is neither a helpful nor a charitable strategy.

Besides, putting practical considerations aside, how far is Leithart willing to extend the logic of his claims? Was the Church “childish” in dividing itself from, say, the Arians or Montanists? Are all schisms really divisions, or only some? And how might one distinguish truly “childish” church divisions from properly excommunicative schisms? Obviously, Leithart is discontent with the job the Catholic and Orthodox churches have done in distinguishing schisms from divisions, and believes himself to have somehow arrived at a better means of doing so … but this is just to say (again) that Leithart’s ecclesiology is Protestant, and that his ecumenical desire is for Catholics and Orthodox to abandon their traditional self-understandings and come to understand themselves in a Protestant fashion.

Not that any of this is offensive or necessarily wrong. It’s simply crucial to note that the same basic ecclesiological “intolerance” is operative in Protestant writers no less than Catholic and Orthodox ones. Protestants understand Orthodox in terms of Protestantism, just as Catholics understand Protestants in terms of Catholicism.

The second assumption at work here — distinct but certainly not separable from the first — is that doctrinal agreement is essentially equivalent to ecclesiological unity (and therefore that all churches are basically on equal ecclesiological and/or sacramental footing, being “divided” only insofar as they choose to disagree with each other). There’s not much that needs to be said here, since the foregoing paragraphs all address this assumption indirectly, but at least one point is worth making.

Unless I’ve missed something, Leithart never once mentions apostolic succession in his ecumenical posts. Nor does he mention (much less grapple with) the Cyprianic understanding of the episcopate as the center of ecclesiastical unity and sacramental validity. This is ecumenically problematic. From the Orthodox and Catholic perspective, apostolic doctrine is inseparably bound up with apostolic succession, and one cannot properly discuss one without the other. Thus to speak of “church unity” without any reference to apostolic succession or sacramental validity is, again, to speak in a radically and distinctively Protestant — i.e., non-Catholic or -Orthodox — way.

My point in all this is not to complain about Leithart (whom, again, I really do respect, and whose opinions I apologize for presenting extremely). I’m simply worried that the ecumenical movement he represents all too often masks its ecclesiologically dogmatic intentions with a welcoming rhetoric of “receptivity” and “unity.”

Of course the Orthodox and Catholic churches have much to learn from Protestant communions, in both belief and practice; and of course the division of the Christian world is tragic and, in a real sense, “childish.” But the mending of that division is unlikely to come from Leithart’s approach, which seeks (however subtly) to begin the conversation by demoting the Catholic and Orthodox churches to the status of Protestant denominations. Ecumenical dialogue must revolve around and wrestle with — rather than assume or ignore — the fundamental points of ecclesiological contention: sola scriptura, apostolic succession, the papal claims, and so on. The best way to do so, I submit, is to start the dialogue at the beginning of our shared Christian story, with the earliest bishops and martyrs of the Church’s life.

I’ll close this long-winded post with the far more charitable (and ecclesiologically precise) words of Gregory of Nazianzus, who so exceptionally attained the balance of truth and love that all ecumenical dialogue requires:

We seek not conquest, but the return of our brethren, whose separation from us is tearing us apart.