Sunday, January 15, 2017


By Universalism I mean the position that all are eventually saved; in other words, that the population of Hell will be zero.

Edward Feser has had several back and forths with David Bentley Hart on the issue. My point here is not to enter the debate between Feser and Hart but to consider Universalism from a different perspective.

Let us suppose that Universalism is true, and that we know it is true. Then we know that everyone will eventually enjoy eternal bliss; in particular, I will eventually enjoy eternal bliss no matter what I do on this Earth. For me, at least, this is a very dangerous thing to believe, for I am always looking for reasons to remain in my sins, which I find quite comfortable even if I know intellectually that they are essentially bad for me.

I almost wrote "ultimately" bad for me, but that isn't quite right if universalism is true, for in that case no sin is ultimately bad for me, since I will ultimately enjoy eternal bliss. But even if that is ultimately true, it is nonetheless true that I know I would be objectively happier if I were not sinning rather than sinning.

There is no hurry, though, is there, if universalism is true? I might be more perfectly happy if I shed some of my sins, but I am not unhappy and in fact I'm quite comfortable as I am. So why stress out about confronting and conquering sin? Christ in the New Testament exhorts us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow him. That's nice advice for someone with ambitions to be a saint, but I have no such ambitions. If I'm ultimately destined for eternal bliss, why go through all the hassle? As the Five Man Electrical Band sang - "Thank you Lord for thinkin' bout me, I'm alive and doin fine."

Sure, I might have to go through some pain in the next life before experiencing that eternal bliss, but that's all a little vague compared to the very real suffering and inconvenience involved with confronting sin in this life. I've never been one to seek out the hard road when the easy road is available - especially when I'm assured they both end up in the same place.

These points are not meant to be rhetorical or flip. I abandoned the Catholic faith after high school because I found it entirely irrelevant to my life. The upshot of my 70's Catholic education was that sin wasn't really a big deal, Jesus wanted to be my friend, and he was always willing to forgive anything - which, I presumed, would include ignoring him. So why not get on with the business of this world and then get back to Jesus sometime later?

It was only later when I began to understand that my Catholic "education" was no education at all that I began to rethink things. For me, the reality of sin and its eternal implications is the only reason to take Christianity seriously in the first place. If universalism is true, then sin is not (in Kierkegaard's terms) "eternally decisive."  Neither is our relationship to Christ in this life decisive. Follow him, reject him, ignore him, twice-a-year Catholic him, what does it matter? Ultimately, it won't.

I wonder if there is a mode of existence in hell that is universalist (this is NOT to claim that anyone believing in universalism is going to hell). But if universalism implies that there are no decisive eternal implications for a lack of a relationship with Christ in this life, why not in the next? Perhaps there are individuals in hell who recognize their sins but are comfortable in them, and tell themselves they will repent tomorrow, with tomorrow (naturally) never arriving. Maybe C.S. Lewis treated this idea in The Great Divorce. It's been a long time since I read that book.

I'm in danger of being one of those eternally procrastinating guys - which is why I find the idea of universalism a temptation to be rejected.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dalrymple on "Spiritual But Not Religious"

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Berlin, Theodore Dalrymple has an interesting take at City Journal.

The money quote:

The reason (I surmise) that so many people claim to be spiritual rather than religious is that being spiritual imposes no discipline upon them, at least none that they do not choose themselves. Being religious, on the other hand, implies an obligation to observe rules and rituals that may interfere awkwardly with daily life. Being spiritual-but-not-religious gives you that warm, inner feeling, a bit like whiskey on a cold day, and reassures you that there is more to life—or, at least, to your life—than meets the eye, without actually having to interrupt the flux of everyday existence. It is the gratification of religion without the inconvenience of religion. Unfortunately, like many highly diluted solutions, it has no taste.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Pierre Manent on Western Civilization

From an interview quoted at First Things:

"We do not know when the trumpet will sound. I cannot answer you in the name of some “expertise”; I can only answer “by hope.” Christian hope is based on faith. I believe that, amid the crumbling of Western civilization, which has begun, the supernatural character of the Church will become, paradoxically, more and more visible. The hatred of the world will turn against it more and more clearly. More clearly than ever the fate of all will depend on the “little flock” of Christians."

Monday, July 4, 2016

On the Need for Socrates

That's what I do. I drink and I know things.
- Tyrion Lannister

There is always a need for Socrates. But at some times he is needed more than others.

Now is one of those times.

How can you tell? Because there is very little of a true philosophical spirit about.

The philosopher is a lover of wisdom. As Socrates teaches us, this doesn't mean the philosopher is a wise man. The philosopher is a pursuer of wisdom, and you don't pursue what you already have. So the philosopher is a man not wise who is driven in the attempt to become wise.

The man who is already wise is not a philosopher because he is not driven to pursue wisdom - he's got it already. The man not interested in wisdom is also not a philosopher - he is not wise but doesn't care to become so, and so he does not pursue it.

Both of these latter types are prevalent today. And both hate the philosopher, whom they (ironically) condemn as arrogant and useless.

It is part of received "wisdom" today that the great philosophical questions cannot be definitively answered. Does God exist? If so, what is His nature? What is the nature and content of true morality? What is justice? Is there life after death? Is man really free or just a slave of nature and its laws? What is the best way to organize society? And many others. The futility of philosophy.

The philosopher, allegedly, is the man who thinks he has answers to some or all of these questions. And if he has those answers, then those who disagree with him are wrong. And that is the substance of the charge of arrogance. How can he be so sure he's right and everyone else is wrong? What makes him so special? Shouldn't he be a little more humble? The arrogance of the philosopher.

And while he is out pretending to know what others don't, he could be doing something useful to actually contribute to society. Instead he whiles away his time contemplating questions that can never be really answered, and never producing anything of value. The uselessness of philosophy.

Anyone concerned that these charges might be leveled at him may be consoled that they were the same charges leveled at Socrates. They are the perennial charges against philosophers, and will always be leveled against him as long as man persists. And yet philosophers persist.

The philosophical spirit never quite dies out. For there is always someone, when the received wisdom  concerning the futility of philosophy is proclaimed, who asks the question - how do you know that? How do you know that the great questions cannot be answered? Isn't the dogma that they cannot be answered itself a Great Answer, an arrogant assertion that unjustifiably claims to know that every great thinker throughout history failed? Isn't it possible that someone, somewhere along the way, found at least some answers? How can I dismiss a great philosopher, a Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas, without ever understanding anything of what he thought?

It's rather the philosopher who is humble, isn't it? For he proclaims himself to be ignorant, but doesn't have the gall to assert that everyone else - including everyone throughout history - must have been ignorant as well. How can one possibly come to this latter conclusion?

The one feeble argument made on its behalf is that philosophers still argue about the same questions they always have, and haven't produced any "results" the way science has, or any definitive answers settled once and for all. This is often thought to be a distinctively modern argument, but of course it was made in Socrates's day against him as well. One might call it the Argument from Disagreement, and it has a peculiar nature.

For one thing, it is self-fulfilling. Merely by disagreeing with a philosophical result, for whatever reason good or bad, I create disagreement and therefore evidence against the result. That certain philosophical results are still debated may only mean that some people are incapable of understanding them or be unwilling to accept them. And that incapacity and/or unwillingness surely can't prove itself merely by existing. It's not enough merely to note disagreement; it is necessary to show that any particular disagreement has a reasonable basis, and that means doing the work of actually understanding the arguments.  But then the whole point of the Argument from Disagreement is to dismiss philosophers without having to go through the work of actually understanding them.

For another thing, there hasn't always been disagreement among philosophers, and there are answers that have received general and enduring agreement. For instance, that harm to another may only be done in self-defense or through civil processes (i.e. a trial) is not something seriously questioned anymore (whereas one of the questions Socrates debated was whether morality consists in doing good to ones friends and evil to ones enemies, a live question at the time. It doesn't, Socrates answered, and his answers form the basis of much of what we take for granted with respect to morality, whether we know it or not).

Instead of the manifestly unsupportable conclusion that everyone in history must have been ignorant concerning the great questions, the philosopher only knows that he himself is ignorant. Whether others are ignorant as well is an open question, and he eagerly learns all he can from the greatest thinkers in the hope that maybe they actually did know something. (Spoiler: They did.)

Something Aristotle taught is that the truth is generally found between two extreme and opposing errors. And when the truth is lost, both the opposing errors become manifest. One of the errors, it seems, is thinking that the truth cannot ever really be found (and if we think about it, we could never reasonably believe this, because then it would constitute the truth we said we couldn't find.) The other extreme is thinking that the truth is found easily and without effort.

These extremes seem opposed, and they are, but they circle around and meet each other. For if we think the truth can never really be found, then all particular attempts to do so are necessarily futile, and we arrive at modern cultural relativism. I don't need to understand Confucius or Lao Tzu, Avicenna or the Bhagavad Vita because they must ultimately be as futile as Socrates and Aristotle. Justice and peace result from an acknowledgement of the relativity of culture, which masquerades as respect for all cultures, but is really a universal disrespect. If everyone would acknowledge that they can't know the truth, and that their way of knowing it is not and cannot be any more successful or legitimate than others, then the source of conflict would disappear. This degenerate form of humanitarian universalism is now culturally dominant, and it's easy to see it's appeal: It's a ready excuse to get out of the hard work of learning. The old Socratic way offered nothing but a lifetime of learning with no promise of result; the new degenerate universalism lets you do what you want without a guilty conscience.

But not really. Ultimately, that guilty conscience is why the philosopher is hated and why he is necessary. For man is a rational animal, meaning his nature is to know. The philosopher, merely by existing, reminds man of that basic fact of his nature and embarrasses him. The philosopher would not embarrass men if they did not already know, in a deep and hidden place, that they are meant to know yet they do not know. And he is hated because he exposes the easy answers that men have constructed to console themselves rather than face the truly terrifying fact that they don't have any idea who they are or what they are doing.

The modern existential philosopher might leave it at that, but he's a degenerate form. The best philosophers - starting with Socrates - offer hope that you might come to know what you are doing.

Let us, then, in the first place, he [Socrates] said, be careful of admitting
into our souls the notion that there is no truth or health or soundness
in any arguments at all; but let us rather say that there is as yet
no health in us, and that we must quit ourselves like men and do our
best to gain health-you and all other men with a view to the whole
of your future life, and I myself with a view to death.
 - Plato, Phaedo

Friday, December 25, 2015

Aristotle on Christmas

Wonderful use of Aristotle to understand the meaning of Christmas. Through Front Porch Republic:

Aristotle on Christmas.

On Twice A Year Catholics

"Judge not, that ye be not judged."

But does that mean I cannot think? I find it impossible not to think of twice a year Catholics when I am at Christmas Mass, and it is obvious that many of the congregants are unfamiliar with the Mass; and that many of them obviously have no respect for the Mass. Standing with their hands in their pockets, surreptitiously checking their iPhones, chatting with each other like they are at a pub. And of  course everyone goes to Communion, during which it is best to keep one's head down in prayer so as at least to avoid seeing how they take Communion.

Do not judge. I think that does not mean I must pretend I do not approve of such behavior. It means that it is not my place to condemn anyone for their behavior. That is the prerogative of God.

We are all sinners. Discovering the reality and nature of our own particular sins is a necessary process on the way to becoming closer to God. Although we are not to condemn others for their sins, it is generally easier to see sins in others rather than ourselves. But in seeing those sins, perhaps we can recognize the same sins in ourselves.

Consider a man, a father, who is divorced and sees his daughter at Christmas. At that time he gives her gifts, talks with her, plays with her, hugs and kisses her. He tells her how much he loves her. But after Christmas and into the New Year, the daughter calls and emails her father but gets no response. In fact this continues throughout the rest of the year; she regularly calls, leaves messages and gets no answer. Then at Christmastime the next year, her father again shows up with gifts, talks with her, plays with her, hugs and kisses her and tells her he loves her. He says he is sorry he didn't return her messages but he was very busy. But he is here now. Surely she understands. And this goes on year after year.

What is the daughter to make of this? Might she think her father is simply a liar and is using and cheating her, showing up once a year to get good feelings about pretending to be the father he is not? Might she not demand that he at least show her enough respect to be honest about their relationship? Instead he forces her to be complicit in the lies he tells himself. This is worse than indifference, for were he indifferent they would at least understand each other in their lack of a relationship. Her dignity would not suffer annual humiliation at his contrived intimacy.

What is Communion but a particular and deep form of intimacy that God has granted us? To take Communion indifferently or by rote or merely as just another part of the Christmas season, is to hug your daughter once a year at Christmas. Traditionally the Church has demanded of us that we make ourselves worthy of the Sacrament of the Mass through prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Like all the Church's rules, this is for our own benefit so we don't find ourselves taking hugs from God without the prior respect for God that makes such intimacy true rather than a lie.
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor. 11:27)
It is not for me to condemn once or twice a year Catholics. But I can learn from them the danger of taking Communion lightly, and renew my resolve to prepare myself properly for Mass.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Chesterton, the Internet and Community

What would G.K. Chesterton have thought of the Internet?

We can get an idea from his essay On Certain Modern Writers originally published in Heretics and recently republished in the excellent collection In Defense of Sanity. Chesterton discusses Christianity, the family and community in this essay, and makes the point that small communities like the family force different types of people to know and get along with each other. Ironically, it is the small community that is truly more broad than the large one:
In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy; and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colors than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. 
That last sentence contains a typical Chesterton surprise. We might tend to think of "spiritual coherence and contentment" as something good, or at least not positively bad;  and Chesterton plays on that conceit, leading us along in the sentence until shocking us at the end with his view that it is actually hellacious. What is hell like? It is a place where everyone has the same kind of soul, and far from being a place of discord and conflict, in fact there is "coherence" and "contentment." It is place where everyone is content in his sins. It is not a happy place, however, and so we can conclude that Chesterton sees a distinction between contentment and happiness. I am picturing Chesterton's hell as one of drabness and dullness, where everyone is "content" with his situation only because he doesn't have the energy to do anything about it. All the souls are the same because they are all worn down to the nub. Heaven, then, must be a place of glorious diversity (in the real sense, not the PC sense, of that word) where the souls are very different, and express the energy of their difference yet in the unity of God.

Back to the theme of this post, it seems clear Chesterton would have some problems with the Internet - the chief being that it is an ideal clique-forming ground, beyond anything Chesterton might have imagined. Now one doesn't need to be in physical proximity to spend all his time with the like-minded. A few clicks of the mouse and you can find somewhere online where everyone thinks exactly like you do. The everyday encounters that bring us into contact with a variety of people - like shopping, taking the bus, going to the library - may also be minimized via online shopping. "Sociability, like all good things, is full of discomforts, dangers, and renunciations" Chesterton tells us. On the internet, as soon as you experience any discomfort or any degree of renunciation, there is always another more comfortable page to repair to.

There is no neighbor on the Internet in any real sense, and thus no place for the second great commandment. "We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour." God commands us to love the man who is given to us in our circumstances; but what if our circumstances (e.g. online existence) are such that no one is given to us?

We have, in Chesterton's words, "a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge."

Of course I can't leave off here without discussing the irony of making this point on the Internet itself.  The Internet itself is neither good nor evil - Chesterton would certainly agree with that - it is our use of it that makes it turn for good or ill. And so it is when internet "communities" begin to displace real communities that we begin to have a problem, and especially when people begin to think of online "communities" as real communities.