David Hart continues his conversation with Anthony Esolen:
First, if I seem to be growing impatient, it has more to do with a number of communications I have received that have not been posted for general perusal; one in particular, from a pompous Calvinist who as far as I can tell is an inadvertent Moloch worshiper, put me in an especially foul mood; so excuse me. I am an admirer of Esolen's work; until his rendering of Tasso appeared I thought I could not possibly enjoy any translation as much as the old Fairfax version, with which I fell in love when I was twelve. I plan to order all three volumes of his Dante when my next check for an article comes.
Second, let us defend the created goodness of the noble pelican, one of God's grandest achievements. While I agree in principle with Esolen's remarks, I insist on this distinction: the pelican is the good creature of God, possessed of its own proper essence and nature, and as such is an analogy of the divine in its very being, whether posteriorly appropriated as a symbol of Christ or not; evil, suffering, and death—being privations—can signify God's love only through an act of divine subversion, conquest, and economy. And, then again, this is a distinction of more than passing importance.
Third, one can become lost in a thicket of pieties if one is not careful, and so miss the obvious. Here I think I have quite a good grasp on what Dostoyevsky is doing in the chapter "Rebellion"—among other things, he is making Ivan, unwittingly, an apologist for a true vision of God's goodness over against the sort of sickly Teutonized idealism that had corrupted the "religious movement" in Russia in his day, a vision that later Zosima will carry into its true depth. It is not, however, quite the vision that Esolen suggests, I think; but here more clarity would be necessary for me to judge. What is essential—and this is all I ever meant to say—is to distinguish between two understandings of God's power over creation. In one—a deist understanding—the world was created from eternity to be an intricate machinery of good and evil, darkness and light, exquisitely balanced between felicity and moral gravity, wherein death and suffering constitute necessary elements of God's creative purposes, without which he could not bring his purposes to fruition, and wherein every event is part of a perfectly coherent scheme of cosmic and spiritual harmony. In the other—the Christian understanding—God creates us for union with himself, requiring no passage through evil to realize the good in us and to divinize us, but we fall away into the damnable absurdity of sin, death, and hell, from which God then rescues us; while indeed God, in the economy of salvation, makes even death obedient to his saving purposes, he does so as the one who on the last day will judge and damn the meaningless brutality and absurdity of fallen existence, and—far from disclosing the inherent rationality and moral necessity of death—will conquer it utterly on behalf of its victims. Yes, God uses suffering and death for the good; but, no, in themselves they are contrary to the nature of the world, in enmity to God's goodness, and "meaningless" (that is, they do not possess that ontological or moral necessity that either a deist or a semi-Hegelian theologian would assign them).
Fourth—and this seems to be the sticking point—it is simply wrong to say that the scars of sin and redemption make the glory of union with God greater than they otherwise would have been. This is a tempting belief, but one that must end in absurdity. Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine (and Thomas) are wonderful curatives of this particular error. If God is the supereminent fullness of all actuality and all goodness and all love, then the kenosis of God in Christ is nothing in addition to what would have been communicated to us had we not fallen; nor is the good lacking in anything necessary to manifest itself in and to creatures. It is metaphysically and doctrinally necessary to insist upon this; not to do so compromises both God's transcendence and goodness. But that would take many many pages to unfold.
And Esolen replys:
Thank you for your reply—and for being a fan of Tasso, who does not exactly pack the stadium seats.
We agree on everything until that fourth point. I too find the Deist calculator-god as revolting as Johnson did when he lashed out against the idea in Pope's Essay on Man, and in the work of the prelate Jenyns—if memory serves me. That's the splendidly dour vision of Marcus Aurelius. It is haunted by Truth, but it's an abyss of despair.
On that fourth point, though: I understand that if God communicates His fullness to a creature, there is nothing beyond that to be communicated. But the creature receives the fullness according to its capacity. Is there a way to believe that the redeemed creature is a new creation with a wholly new, not simply restored, capacity for such blessedness? Again, God would not have required the sin-and-redemption to re-create man; but could he not have willed that it be so for sinful man? Maybe I've been teaching Paradise Lost for too long, and trying to meet the typical student's objection, that Satan does seem to have achieved a kind of victory after all. If you're not worn out by the Molochites, I'd appreciate hearing how you would respond.
David B. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and author of The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003). Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College. He has translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's Divine Comedy (Modern Library).