Saturday, January 31, 2009

'Lapsing into Nothingness'

Etienne Gilson has the view that all good, created things have a tendency to ‘lapse back into nothingness’ (words of Gilson’s, I think). This may look like the claim that all created beings have such a tendency so that, given enough time, everything that could slip back will slip back into non-being. According to Gilson rational beings are especially prone to this since the avoidance of imperfection, of the slip into non-being, requires their self-control, which they may fail to exercise. Some do not like such a proposal, perhaps because it is speculative, or because it is at odds with the goodness of the creation, and that it leaves one with a form of the free will defense against the incompatibility of the existence of moral evil with a world created good by God. A word about each of these in turn.

If this is speculative, it is so in a way that has been endorsed from the time of Augustine, if not before. Augustine held that the human and angelic beings were created mutable, that is with a liability to fall and to depart from the standard or level of goodness with which they were originally endowed by God. Perhaps this means that given enough time those possessing such a liability would in fact mutate, unless awarded a grant of the upholding power of God. Is this speculative? Surely it follows from the fact that angels and mankind fell than they were liable to fall, they possessed the capacity (or better, the incapacity) to fall. If A fails then A has the capacity to fail, when (in the words that are almost precisely those of the Westminster Confession) A is ‘left to the liberty of its own will’ .

Is such an account at odds with the goodness of creation? The creation was created good, but was it created as good as could be? Some thinkers, such as John Hick, have made the objection that there is a fatal incoherence at the heart of any theodicy that involves a fall.

The creator is preserved from any responsibility for the existence of evil by the claim that He made men (or angels) as free and finitely perfect creatures, happy in the knowledge of Himself, and subject to no strains or temptations, but that they themselves inexplicably and inexcusably rebelled against Him. But this amount to a sheer self-contradiction.

Of course there would have been a sheer self-contradiction if God has made angels and men such that they were impeccable and then they had fallen. For it is not consistent to suppose that creatures incapable of falling nevertheless fall. But if we suppose that God made mankind without sin, good but not as good as could be, and made the angels likewise, then there is no contradiction. It’s not at odds with the goodness of the creation precisely because different grades of goodness, or different grades of being are conceivable, as we are seeing. There is the degree of goodness that is indefectible, the goodness of God himself; and there is the degree of goodness that is defectible, that degree with which humankind was originally created. And if created beings, who are defectible, defect, then the sort of being/goodness that they then enjoy is lower still, just as the degree of goodness enjoyed by the beatified, whose goodness is by God’s grace now rendered indefectible, is greater than that. None of this is to speak of the other degrees of existence those possess which occupy lower rungs on the ladder, lower animals and the inanimate creation.

Does it leave one with a form of the free will defense? Well, yes it does. Arminians and libertarians more generally have no monopoly of the use of this idea. As we have already noticed, the Westminster Confession states that man was created ‘under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which is subject to change’. (IV. Ii) This is certainly a form of a free will defense, surely?

This scheme of things, with the idea of degrees of being, and therefore of the privative notion of evil, is not simply a speculation of a Roman Catholic such as Gilson, it is also embedded in Reformed theology. I’ll briefly try to show this in the case of Calvin. Strangely enough, there are places in which it seems that Calvin deliberately downplays that degree of goodness in which God originally created humankind. In a work of his on providence, The Secret Providence of God, published in 1558, Calvin refers to the man who was originally created as quae fluxa et caduca erat, ‘weak and liable to fall’. This corresponds with what he wrote in the Institutes, ’Adam, therefore, might have stood if he chose, since it was only by his own will that he fell; but it was because his will was pliable in either direction, and he had not received constancy to persevere, that he so easily fell.’ ‘Nor was it reasonable for God to be constrained by the necessity of making a man who either could not or would not sin at all. Such a nature would, indeed, have been more excellent’. So according to Calvin man ‘easily fell’ because he was inconstant, and there is a ‘more or less’ to excellence in natures; some natures are more excellent as natures than others, and so it is possible to arrange these in a hierarchy – God, incapable of sinning, angelic creatures and human creatures, capable of sinning; angelic and human creatures actually sinning; non-human animals, and so on.

Adam was left to the liberty of his own will, and so he sinned by an act of his will. So free will, in this case the exercise of the choice beween good and evil courses of action, plays a part in theodicy for the Reformed. But – and this is one important respect in which the standard Christian account of the Fall differs from the modern idea of a free will defense - Adam could have been so endowed as to be impeccable. There is a world in which unfallen Adam does not suffer from the mutability he was created with; however, there is a time in this world when he does not suffer from such an incapacity. Though it is perhaps worth adding that for Calvin creaturely impeccability is a divine gift, for no creature has nor can have righteousness a se.

So there is good reason to think that quite a bit of sense can be made of the idea of sin as privation, a loss or lack, and of degrees of being, and even of a free will defense, provided that such notions are properly qualified. So, in the case of the free will defense, as endorsed by the Westminster Confession, it claims that Adam’s mutability meant that his nature was such that he could stand or he could fall; not that, as regards his nature, he must fall; or that as regards his nature, he must stand. When thinking simply of the sort of nature Adam had, then the fall was not inevitable, any more, from the decree, the fact that Christ possessed normal bones meant that they would be broken. Possessing such bones, they may be broken and they may not.

Of course, in giving the fuller story of the Fall, as in giving the fuller story of the fate of Christ’s bones, we have to have in mind not only the nature of those who fell, but the relevant divine decree. In the case of Christ’s bones, there is a divine prophecy that they would not be broken. They will not be broken not because they are supernatural, unbreakable bones, but because by divine providence Christ’s ordinary bones are kept from being broken. Similarly in Adam’s case: he falls not because, given his nature, the fall is inevitable, but because it was divinely decreed that his mutable nature should in fact mutate, and that he should fail. This is why, in discussing the nature of Adam, Calvin in effect counsels us to take one issue at a time: the nature of Adam, that’s one issue; and then then his fate, that’s a second issue.. ‘It were here unreasonable to introduce the question concerning the eternal predestination of God, because we are not considering what might or might not happen, but what the nature of man truly was. Adam, therefore, might have stood if he chose……’

A peccable Adam lacks something that an impeccable Adam possesses, a lack which has immediate moral and spiritual implications that being a one-eyed person as against a two-eyed person does not carry. Isn’t this lack a privation, and isn’t such privation at least, a moral lack or loss, even if there are some privations that do not have such immediate moral or spiritual consequences?