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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