Friday, September 13, 2013

Heaven and Hell and Perfect Bliss II

The previous post on the Kronen & Reitan argument from perfect bliss has had some response. Eric Reitan discusses it at his blog. I think, in fact, however, that it merely underlines the explicit evaluation of my original objection: while there may be an argument for universalism from divine love, trying to run it by way of the perfect bliss of heaven is not the way to do it.

Reitan says:

By “perfect bliss” John and I mean unalloyed joy that is fitting to one’s circumstances—in other words, joy that is (a) faultless, in the sense that it is appropriate to feel that level of joy given the state one finds oneself in, and (b) maximal, in the sense that it is the greatest joy of which beings of our nature are capable. Hence, what Brandon takes to be “all that can be meant” is decidedly NOT all that can be meant by “perfect bliss”—and is, in fact, not what we mean.

If this is the case, however, then Reitan cannot appeal, as he does, to the traditional doctrine of heaven to defend his (2), because the traditional doctrine of heaven does not imply that perfect bliss in this sense is involved in the state of blessedness (although perhaps it doesn't rule it out). Since traditional doctrines of heaven take heaven to be union with God in mind and will, the complete happiness of heaven resides in possession of God as the universal and consummate Good, and the joy of heaven is the delight that follows directly on this. It couldn't be otherwise. For one thing, it is very difficult to say 'perfect' in the sense that Reitan and Kronen mean in historical Latin and Greek; the closest you can come is to say that some tendency is completed or full, and indeed, the Latin word perfectus from which we get our word 'perfect' just means 'complete' or 'having achieved its end', and only started getting something like our sense very, very late. The second problem is that the traditional doctrine of heaven was formulated in the vocabulary used by Neo-Platonists, for whom the words we usually translate as 'bliss' or 'joy' or 'delight' or 'pleasure' had a technical meaning (ultimately derived from Aristotle): it is the second completion of a complete activity, arising from the fact that it is completed under the conditions appropriate to it. In Aristotle's famous phrase, it is the bloom on youth. Talk about it being faultless would have been otiose, since it just follows necessarily from the well-completed activity, and this is not a matter for which anyone could reasonably fault anyone. While it can admit of more or less, it is always tied to a specific kind of activity and thus a specific capability or capacity. Because of this, there is really no sense in which one can talk about the 'greatest joy of which beings of our nature are capable'. Capability-indexed delights are not additive. This doesn't prevent the delight or joy or bliss of one capability affecting that of another -- scholastic theologians have extensive discussions of 'overflow', and analogous discussions can be found in non-scholastic traditional theologians -- but each capability is a distinct question and its pleasure or delight requires a distinct account.

To put it all in short: (2) can't do its job in the argument if it requires a revision of the traditional conception of heaven (logically it could, of course, but it would in terms of substance just push back the question entirely and put (2) even more into contention), and it is in doubt if it does not clearly at least draw out the implications of the traditional conception, not by a vague sense of analogy, but as actually following from the way it was actually formulated. Without actually seeing how Reitan and Kronen handle the first, I wouldn't want to jump too quickly on it; but I do claim that we are at the second: it is simply in doubt whether (2) as Reitan and Kronen mean it is an actual implication of the traditional conception of heaven. The Church Fathers could not have formulated it in this way, for instance, nor could the scholastic theologians, whether Catholic or Protestant; the vocabulary they had for discussing the matter was very different, and, as I've noted, would not have made it easy for them to be as extensive in scope as Reitan and Kronen: everything would have to have been done capability by capability, and a phrase like "the greatest joy of which beings of our nature are capable" could only possibly have meant something like 'the pleasure that arises on our highest natural capabilities achieving their end'. (If anyone would like additional confirmation on this, there's plenty to be had. Discussions of the knowledge of Christ in medieval Western theology, for instance, attribute to Christ in his mortal life on earth the full experience of the blessedness of heaven, including its delight or joy. Very obviously this could not have the implication that Christ endured no pain or suffering, and for exactly the reason I've pointed out, it was never taken to have it -- the joy of heaven is complete joy for intellect and will, our highest capabilities, and bodily capabilities, not being able to take God as a direct object, participate in this joy only by 'overflow', which is not a strictly necessary or essential feature of heavenly joy. Thus Christ on the Cross knew the infinite beatitude of the Godhead, the fulfillment and joy of the blessed in heaven, and the suffering and sorrow of a man dying by a form of torture, all at once, because we are talking in each case about different capabilities. This is only one example; other examples could be adduced as confirmation of my point here.)

The only way in which (2) is really acceptable, then, assuming that we are not also supposed to be reworking the traditional Christian doctrine of heaven, would require one to show that Reitan and Kronen's conception of perfect bliss is in fact an implication of that conception -- and at the very least, the vocabulary differences make it non-obvious. And there are other aspects traditionally associated with that conception (like the very common scholastic view that I mentioned, that Christ even on the Cross experienced the Beatific Vision) that make it difficult to see how one could argue this, although, as they are not as central to the basic conception, perhaps one could get away with a minority report approach, or, failing that, with minor revisions, while still retaining the core ideas of the traditional Christian conception of heaven.

However, I do see better, given Reitan's response, that the real point is not to take (2) to be true, but to force a dilemma between (2) and the existence of hell. That does make a bit more sense, but it makes the argument even weaker, because everything ends up depending on whether 'perfect bliss' as Reitan and Kronen is coherent, sufficiently precise, and adequately relevant. I'm not worried about the first -- it's never reasonable simply to demand that people show that their reasoning is coherent -- but I very much doubt the other two. The appeal to feeling and emotion worries me, for instance, because Greek and Latin, in which the traditional doctrine of heaven was formulated, are both much, much more precise about the kinds of things that we call feelings and emotions than English is; there's a lot of risk of bringing in unjustified assumptions when switching from one to the other. That's not to say that any such thing is going on, but without having in hand the argument showing how 'perfect bliss' in the Kronen and Reitan sense actually relates to the traditional conception of heaven, as actually formulated traditionally, it is not something I have any way to rule out. (But it's possible, of course, that they discuss it at greater length in their book; as I noted in the prior post, the argument is new to me.)

There's a broader problem, though. The actual point of my post was, as I said at the time, that it seems that trying to get to universalism from divine love by way of perfect bliss is a non-starter to begin with, and I think the rest of Reitan's response actually just confirms this, since I don't see why Reitan thinks that it's doing any work in his argument -- that is, the argument really seems to boil down to holding that the conclusion follows from divine love, and neither loses nor gains regardless of whether one throws this roundabout appeal to perfect bliss in the blessed into the mix or not. The basic argument is that those who love God (like the blessed) love as God loves; God loves the damned (assuming that there are any) and so is grieved over them; therefore the blessed will be grieved over them; therefore they will not have perfect bliss; therefore there will be no heaven. But given the definitions, it seems to follow directly from God being grieved about anything that heaven is impossible; the fact that the blessed are grieved is just a trivial consequence of heaven's impossibility, given that heaven involves loving as God loves, if God is grieved for anything, which he would be in this case due to divine love. The detour through the bliss of the blessed seems to contribute nothing to this; it just takes a straightforward argument -- no joy in heaven if God is grieved -- and turns it into a weaker and more roundabout argument in which we try to talk about whether the blessed could have perfect bliss if they knew there were any damned, as if the argument didn't already imply that the blessed are grieved if God is grieved, even before we get to that question. Perhaps the idea is that we have a better grasp of what God would do for the blessed than of what's involved in the experience of heaven? I'm not sure why this route is somehow important; it seems very much like a detour that does no substantive work. (I also don't quite see how Reitan's argument in the post avoids the conclusion that Christian doctrine simply implies that there is no perfect bliss in the Reitan & Kronen sense. After all, in whatever sense one may say that God would grieve for the damned, it already seems to be true that God grieves for sin; thus, God being grieved over it, the blessed are grieved over it; and being grieved over it, they don't have perfect bliss in the sense it is used by Kronen and Reitan. It's possible, though, that this could be fixed by restructuring the argument, or that an additional assumption somewhere could neutralize it.)

It turns out that Kronen also, indirectly, responded to it:

Eric and I take up exactly the sort of critique that Brandon mentions in our book and respond to it at some length. In general it is amazing to me that someone who believes that the blessed are in union with one who is love itself also believes that the blessed wouldn’t have their love of all persons increased rather than being so caught up in their OWN union with God that they take no notice of thousands suffering in hell. This makes it sound as if the union of the blessed with God is like some sort of teenage infatuation (or drug high) which cuts people of from concern for others; I think nothing could be farther from the truth. “How can you love God if you don’t love your fellow man”, applies to the blessed just as much to the pilgrims here.

I have to take my hat off to Kronen here. The argument in my post explicitly left open the question of whether one could establish universalism, and explicitly confined itself to the single argument under question, arguing that perfect bliss did not seem a viable way to make the argument -- it seems to drop out of consideration. What Kronen responds with is a vague reference to the book, a rant that does not address the matter of perfect bliss and involves a completely made-up claim (that it has anything to do with the belief that "the blessed wouldn’t have their love of all persons increased rather than being so caught up in their OWN union with God that they take no notice of thousands suffering in hell", which anyone can see from re-reading my post is explicitly not affirmed in my comment about Fr. Kimel's argument in favor of (2)) that he then takes as established so that he can talk about how the completely made-up claim 'makes it sound like', and, the straw-man duly built, can fiercely knock it down. To manage in four sentences to be uninformative, irrelevant, and false, while insinuating that someone daring to criticize an argument as weak -- just one argument -- must necessarily have an idiotic understanding of heaven and a morally depraved and potentially heretical conception of love, is a very extraordinary achievement in nonresponse.

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