Defining Terms and a Recap

Update:  I have edited this post and the following posts in this series slightly to make the taxonomy of various forms of  universalism clearer.

Let’s recap what we’ve discussed here and here, and do so in a more focused way.

First, to be clear in the following, we’re going to have to define some things in a fairly consistent way, since there are some subtleties involved.

“Universalism”, at least in a Christian context, is the belief that all humans will eventually be saved.  Details about how this happens and intermediate purification vary, but for what we’re doing here, the given definition is sufficient.

“Hard universalism” is really the source of the problem, since it’s ambiguous.  In the strictest sense, it means the belief that all humans will definitely be saved.  Alternately, a hard universalism could say he knows all will be saved.  The probability of universal salvation is 1 (same as 100%, for non-math people).  I’m going to call this strict definition of hard universalism–well, “hard universalism”, and abbreviate it HU.

“Soft universalism” (SU) is in fact a rather soft and squishy term.  It means the hope that all will be saved while not maintaining that such universalism is certain or can be known.  This is vague, however–does it mean one hopes with no opinion as to the hope’s likelihood of being realized?  In short, does it mean one must remain agnostic?  Or may one speculate on the odds?  From some discussions I’ve had, it seems that many who hold SU think it’s theologically or even morally wrong to say anything beyond “I hope all will be saved,” without speculating beyond that.  There’s really only one theological justification for such a view that I can think of, and I’ll deal with it in the next post.  Meanwhile, I think one can say “I hope, rather than know, that all will be saved, and the likelihood of it is X.”

Now for reasons I’ve discussed in the earlier posts, I don’t think the salvation of all (or any, or none) can be known with 100% accuracy.  Theology aside, there are simple epistemological reasons for this–who can claim to know what God does?  Thus, any belief in universalism is a belief in a possibility, not a fact. However, people may differ over what they consider the possibility–or probability, statistically speaking–to be.  It has to be above 0 (else there’d be no probability of it at all) and below 1 (otherwise it would be certain, which seems impossible to ascertain).  Different people may set low odds–say, 0.01–or high odds–e.g. 0.99.  Even if one sets odds at 0.99999999999, one is short of absolute certainty, and thus not HU properly so-called; however, at that level, one is pretty darn sure.  

This “pretty sure” belief in universal salvation I’m going to call “optimistic universalism”, or OU.  Obviously, it isn’t clearly distinct from SU.  However, there is a difference in effect, if not in principle.  It’s different to say, “A giant asteroid may hit the Earth tomorrow,” and “The sun will rise tomorrow.”  Both statements are true, but they obviously differ enormously in likelihood, and they affect the beliefs we have about the cosmos and the way we order our lives in different ways.

Thus, while OU as I define it is not analytically different from SU, and both are distinct from HU, I think it is useful and defensible to speak of these options as three separate categories.

To be perfectly clear, when I said previously and less accurately that I embrace hard universalism, I meant what I’m now calling OU:

1.  I hope (but cannot know with certainty) that all will be saved.

2.  I think that beyond mere hope, it is permissible to entertain a likelihood of universal salvation.

3.  I believe, based on my understanding of the Christian religion and the nature of God as I understand it, that this likelihood is high, 99% +, though I re-emphasize that I do not know this with certainty.

In short, my belief is <i>analytically</i> distinct from HU and is actually a form of SU; but <i>functionally</i> it is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from HU.

Now let’s look at these points from the perspective of Catholic theology (given that I’m Catholic myself, and this discussion, while not exclusively directed to Catholic teaching, presupposes a Catholic framework).

A.  For anyone who accepts the validity of the Second Vatican Council and the Popes and bishops since then, point 1–that one may hope for the salvation of all–cannot be held to be heretical.  If one insists on this, then at least one Pope, many bishops, and (arguably) much of the teaching of Vatican II is heretical; and this, from a Catholic perspective, is not possible.  I’ll save specific discussions of infallibility for a future date and probably a different series.

B.  There seems to me no good reason to reject point 2 above on doctrinal grounds, or to declare it  heretical.  The only argument I can think of (which, again, I’ll deal with next) is that it’s morally imprudent; but that’s very much different from saying it’s heretical or impermissible.

C.  So, given that from a Vatican II perspective 1 can’t be heretical; and given that there seems no reason for arguing that 2 is heretical; then the permissiblity, and importantly,  the non-heretical nature, of 3 seems unassailable.

Therefore, it seems that OU as I’ve defined it is not–and cannot be–heretical or disallowed by current Catholic teaching.  So now, onward!

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 06/11/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I’m not sure the probability of metaphysical things works in percentages, but I understand your point; you think it’s okay to have a sort of moral certitude of universal salvation.

    In itself, I’d agree that’s not heretical, actually. I wouldn’t call it hard universalism, though; that’s just scandalously confusing it seems. I’d call it “optimistic soft universalism,” or something like that. And would even identify it as similar to my position (though I’d say I have “a sneaking suspicion” that it’s true rather than “99%+ certainty”).

    However, your claim that it’s impossible to know ANYTHING with absolute certitude sort of eliminates the distinction between hard universalism and “strict hard” universalism by rendering the latter epistemologically impossible. Or not? Unless you admit the Certainty of Faith exists and is absolutely certain, and that your certainty of universal salvation is NOT the Certainty of Faith, that universalism is not a dogma…there would seem to be problems.

    But you don’t seem to be claiming it’s a dogma, so most people would call that soft universalism (albeit a highly optimistic one.)

    • It’s epistemologically impossible for me to know that there is life in the Andromeda Galaxy–the distance is too great to get there or receive a signal from there–but it’s not metaphysically impossible. There may well be life there, and as far as we can tell of astrophysics, biology, etc., it’s fairly probable; we just can’t know it. I have no way of knowing SHU is or isn’t correct; but it may be the case metaphysically (we’ll eventually find out, but not in this life). Thus, to say that I don’t know, epistemologically, if it’s the case, doesn’t eliminate its metaphysical or analytical distinction from HU or SU.

      It is true–as I acknowledge–that HU is not clearly distinct from SU, metaphysically; but practically, it’s the difference between my level of certitude that the sun will rise tomorrow (extremely high, but less than 100%), and the certitude of an asteroid striking Earth tomorrow (extremely low, but greater than 0%). Both events are unknown and (partly) unknowable (I can’t even in principle know for sure that either will or won’t happen), but there seems to be a clear practical distinction. Thus, though the terminology is admittedly a bit loose, I defend the distinction I’m making between SHU and HU.

      In my original post on universalism, I was careful to make these distinctions, by the way, though I didn’t fully unpack them:

      It’s really a cop-out to say, “I can’t know that all will be saved, but I hope they will.” That’s true enough; but I can’t know that any will be saved; I can’t know that there’s life after death at all; I can’t even know that there’s a God. There’s a reason that in referring to such things we speak of faith.
      Therefore, I’ve decided to just “out” myself and say that I’m a full-bore, hard universalist. The specific theological details of that I’ll save for the future [i.e. here and the following posts]; right now I’m just stating where I’m coming from. Sure, I still don’t know that I’m right; but I don’t know that I’m right about the afterlife or religion in general.

      (my emphasis)

      I didn’t say anything different from what I’m saying here, but you were a bit trigger happy and called me a heretic. Oh, well–at least you admit here, reading the fuller treatment, that this view is not heretical.

      I’m not sure I agree with the concept of the so-called “Certainty of Faith”, at least as typically defined. I think it’s a weasely Scholastic attempt to have one’s cake and eat it, too. We have “faith” (which by definition is not certain), but it’s a certain faith since faith is a supernatural gift of God, etc. I suspect that a large part of this was to develop a stick with which to beat heretics, dissenters, etc. by accusing them of deliberately erring, or what you’d call mauvaise foi.

      The difference between us on this is probably more a matter of perspective or attitude. I get the impression from things you’ve said over time that you consider it inappropriate or vaguely indecent to go beyond a “hopeful” or “sneaking suspicion” type of universalism. I disagree, and I give a fuller discussion of that issue here, FWIW.

      In any case, I’m glad you at least acknowledge that we may be closer than you’d thought, and that at least I’m not in material heresy (not that such bothers me that much, but that’s a very complicated issue in itself). Anyway, have a nice Thanksgiving!

  2. There is, in fact, NO way to say life in other galaxies is “probable” given they we have only one data-point; even WITH an abundance of complex organic molecules on earth since the first occurrence of life…still a spontaneous new tree of life has not arisen parallel to the original. So we really have no way of saying how probable something is based on one data-point.

    As for heresy, “optimistic soft universalism” is not, as long as you’d admit there is a state called Hell which is the logical consequence of dying in a state called mortal sin which is the result of certain sorts of acts of moral agency, with certain conditions. But that maybe those conditions are not met or that grace gets everyone to repent (freely) in the end (indeed, it is only the Thomistic notion of grace which could be infallibly efficacious AND still free; but its this same notion which would exculpate God for “arbitrary” damnations; a bit of a catch-22 for your “more than good hope” arguments).

    But a rejection of the certainty of faith (or the role of the free will in assent) would seem to be heresy.

    • You can’t determine things from a single data point, true; but one can make reasonable inferences. That planets were common was widely accepted long before we began actually discovering extra-solar planets. It’s probably reasonable to infer that life at least at the microbial level (beyond that is another matter) is common, though we have no way of knowing. In any case, my point was that stating that we can’t know X is very much different from saying that X is metaphysically unlikely.

      What you say would not exculpate God from anything. If God’s grace is infallibly efficacious while allowing freedom–in short, if God is able to convert anyone if He wants to while preserving their free will (and I’m inclined to doubt this is possible, but for the sake of argument), then anyone who is damned did not get that grace from God, which means in effect that God did not want that person to be saved. This site contains this essay aruging for the damnation of unpabtized infants and the heresy of Limbo; and this one aruges that God does not want all–or even very many–to be saved. The arguments are actually very cogent and extremely Patristic. They also jibe well with the logic you mention. Money quote, my emphasis:

      We have seen the early Fathers teach that God does not want all men to be saved. If he did, then everyone would be saved because it is incompatible with his omnipotence that he should fail to realize his intention. Moreover he would not withhold from some the gospel that he has made necessary for salvation. Rather he predestined a superlative few to salvation and damns almost everyone because he wants to.

      Put it another way: God knows from all eternity that Bob, whom He is contemplating creating will freely act so as do incur damnation. It would seem lacking in mercy to actualize a being one knows already will be doomed to eternal punishment. No matter how you contrue it, you can’t exculpate God. He’s ultimately on the hook no matter how you construe it. You might be OK with such a God, as are others; but I’m not.

      As far as the certainty of faith, that seems unintelligible. It seems to me a sort of backdoor way of getting predestination without calling it that.

  3. The microbe state is the hardest part. If you get over THAT hump, I’d imagine further evolution is basically inevitable, but the chances of a self-replicating cell coming together seems almost irreducible complex. It hasn’t even occurred on earth twice even WITH all the organic molecules laying around from the first time. Planets are “obvious” because we know matter is out there and can come together under gravity around stars. Life, on the otherhand, we already know requires, to start, an almost unimaginably lucky assembly of tiny parts, like a machine blowing together out of scraps in a junkyard. So we know its unlikely, the only question is just HOW unlikely it is. And the order of magnitude there is impossible to judge by any straightforward analysis. There are probabilities that can be generated by total possible number of quantum states in a given volume (of matter), but its unclear how many or what proportion of these states would constitute “life.”

    As for being lacking in mercy to actualize a being who will be damned, I question the presumption here that it can ever be better to NOT exist. This is like the argument that women who know they carry a genetic defect should abstain from sex to spare a child that life. The problem with this is that you can’t “spare” a merely hypothetical person from anything, you have to exist for that talk to be meaningful. There is no mercy towards Unexistant Bob. So, for example, it is wrong to speak of preventing unwanted pregnancies as “saving lives” from abortion. You’re stopping deaths maybe, but only by stopping there from being lives to die in the first place! We could stop all deaths by diabetes if we shot all diabetics. I could cure my cold by killing myself. But this is trivial, as its solving a problem by eliminating the very be-ing which is the grounds for it. This is why we must insist existence itself is a good and that its always better to exist. Otherwise you wind up with the anti-natalist logic (as that of Benatar) that even a tiny pain makes existence not worth it, makes it better to not exist, since if you didn’t exist you wouldn’t have the pain, and also couldn’t possibly “miss” any happiness or pleasure you wouldn’t know you didn’t have (since there’d be no you). But this amounts to giving an ontological primacy to suffering and to “avoiding harm” in morality, as if freedom from pain is always positive (since you’re going “up to zero” from a possible negative) but then absence of positive happiness merely neutral (since, at least, you’re not dipping BELOW zero). But giving primacy to nothingness like this is to make darkness substantial rather than light. Yet to me it seems inescapable if you speak of “the mercy of not creating,” as if life isn’t worth it if we don’t all end up in heaven, as if darkness fundamentally outweighs light. Rather, id think, the tiniest amount of Good or happiness is worth an infinity of suffering. If souls are damned in fact, we have to assume its because some good is coming from it, and indeed id argue that even just their very existence could constitute that Good. Bob can be known and loved even if he winds up damned, and that good is irreducible and incommensurable. Saying it would have been better that he not exist, that it would have been better for his (let’s assume saved/elect) mother to have had and loved some other son…is to attack the incommensurability of goods.

    Saying that unless universalism is true there is no God, seems like saying the universe has no transcendent Meaning unless everyone participates in the end. But would meaning really cease to exist just because God allows a soul to choose to be damned? And saying “I don’t want to believe in that sort of God” seems like you’re saying that God’s existence depends on your belief like some solipsistic ostrich with its head in the sand. If reality is such that some people set themselves against the final meaning, and this doesn’t destroy it, we’d simply have to accept that. Now, you could say something like “The Truth is the Whole, and thus even in trying to reject the story/system, you’re part of it,” but I’m not sure being part of the Truth is the same as salvation.

    The final problem I would point out with your view is that the same argument regarding infallibly efficacious grace could also be made at the level of individual ACTS, not just lives. If God CAN infallibly give the grace of a good choice, why is there any sin ever? Why are we not all as holy and graced and virtuous and meritorious as the Virgin Mary, destined to just as much heavenly glory?? But clearly, we’re not. The world is clearly filled with sin, and so is my own life. So God is clearly not making “maximum use” of efficacious grace in this straightforward way, and wanting it to be true doesn’t change the reality we clearly see around us. Now, theodicy says, “yes but it’s for a greater good. The theo-drama of it all is better in the end!” And rightly so; the good of heaven by comparison practically “cancels out” or totally outshines the evils of this life. But the reverse is not true, unless evil is substantial; even an infinite evil or suffering (in the end only an absence) never cancels out even the tiniest good that may have come with it. If Bob’s mother lived him, then even if Bob is damned, the goodness of this live is irreducible and incommensurable and we would be wrong to say “God should have actualized some other good, some other love instead.” Bob’s mother loved Bob, not Tim, not Joe, not any of the other billions of sons-she-could-have-had, and it is a “wouldn’t trade it for the world” incommensurable good even IF Bob is damned, and how dare you suggest it should have been “traded” (say, for Tim).

    Might as well tell me it would have been better had God raised up a St Joseph instead of me, or someone with Down syndrome that it would have been better for a healthy baby to be born instead of them! No, the Good is incommensurable and cannot in anyway be accounted with evil as if evil or suffering has any positive existence that can be compared. You can’t weigh Nothing in a scale against Something.

    • I have no horse in the race as to extraterrestrial life. It’s one of those things where we’ll have to wait and see. I don’t think it will make a huge difference for the human race one way or the other, really, short of aliens landing on the White House lawn.

      I question the presumption here that it can ever be better to NOT exist.

      Jesus said of Judas, “It would be better for that man if he had never been born.” I’d also point out that for God, nothing is hypothetical.

      Rather, id think, the tiniest amount of Good or happiness is worth an infinity of suffering.

      I think you have very little company in such a view. You sometimes sound more Existentialist than Christian when you say things like this, really.

      But would meaning really cease to exist just because God allows a soul to choose to be damned?

      In some sense, yes. Since we are all latent in God, it is Meaning sloughing off part of Itself. Even C. S. Lewis conceded this much in The Great Divorce–he described it as a real defeat for God (though Lewis was not a universalist).

      If God CAN infallibly give the grace of a good choice, why is there any sin ever?

      I don’t think He can, at least not a priori. My point was that if He could do so, that doesn’t logically get Him off the hook. My opinion is that it’s logically impossible to make a truly free being do exactly what you want it to do. I elaborate here, but in short, I think that to get beings that choose for Him in true freedom, it was necessary for God to make them sufficiently separate from Him that they would inevitably fall; then He would lead them back to Him over time, and thus in the ultimate state they would be reconciled and united with Him in a way that respected their individuality and freedom. Had He made beings that couldn’t sin even in principle, they’d not have been truly free, and He’d have been putting on a divine puppet show. This is also an argument for universalism–sin is a necessary part of the process of individuation (which is a sort of “fall”), development, and re-integration with God. It wouldn’t be fair to give up some beings because the process took longer for them than for others.

      As far as what God one “can” believe it, I’m sure there are some theologies you’d find repugnant or beyond the pale. It’s not a matter of solipsism; it’s a matter of what seems most probable by the lights God gives us. Beyond that, I think we’ve pretty much beaten it to death. I find your view horrible, appallling, and not completely coherent. You find mine borderline (or fully) heretical. My view also seems to agitate you, which I don’t really get. I mean, it’s logical from my perspective to be bothered by the notion of a God who damns hoardes of people to eternal suffereing; why does my perspective bother you so much? One little blog by one little person is hardly going to cause the Church to collapse, faith in God to perish, and the world to go to hell in a handbasket!

  1. Pingback: Universalism, I Presume? « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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  3. Pingback: Legends of the Fall: Index « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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