Sunday, March 16, 2008

Death, Naturally (Thinking about Entropy)

There has been no small amount of thought dedicated to the philosophical proposition that death is somehow "unnatural." I suppose that there is some truth to that idea if by "nature" one means ousia, in the intensive sense of the universal principle causing a thing to be what it is, but that is a tautology at best (eternal ideas can't die). But on this Passion Sunday, I hazard to say that it cannot possibly be true as applied to the human physis, the ousia as actually embodied in human beings. We are dying from the moment of birth; our life as humans entails this.

The physis, the embodied nature of humanity, is both finite and material, and it is in this that our death becomes certain. Our causality might best be described as the causality of dust. We make nothing, and every sort of action we take, even merely persisting in existence, destroys something else. There is no option for stasis; even our inaction is destructive, and we are always on the clock. The ONLY way that this destruction becomes purposive is if it serves the purpose of making a transition into a higher order (N.B., I have heard that Scotist metaphysics organizes form in terms of orientation to higher order, and that would seem to be in the same spirit). But the destruction is inevitable; the only question is whether what we break is broken in order to make something better.

St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, understood this concept of ordo as well as anyone else. I believe this is what underpinned his notion of grace, in that it was not that nature was evil so much as limited. It would never suffice to merely focus on any created thing for its own sake, which would simply turn the creature to its own destruction. On the contrary, the capacity for this higher order can only be found in the use of things for God in His divine providence (see this excellent lecture by Vernon Bourke for St. Augustine's explanation of enjoyment, use, and delight in use). Ultimately, divine providence orders everything, even the acts of evildoers, which is the manner in which even evil is turned to greater good. Indeed, this simply reveals the true nature of what evil does by embracing its own destruction; what the evildoer sought to accomplish is destroyed in the very act.

The difficulty is that we lack even the possible capacity to grasp the full implications of our own destructive power. That is the inherent difficulty involved in the difference between ousia and physis that I mentioned earlier. The man as particular and material is knowable only indirectly with respect to some act, but destruction is built into our nature. Again, St. Augustine knew this, but his knowledge in this regard has ironically been used to charge him simultaneously with Platonism and Manichaeanism. He is charged with Platonism for arguing that it is only through some divine infusion of sapientia in the form of the divine ideas themselves that people can have knowledge (see this example). Then, he is charged with Manichaeanism for supposedly asserting that evil is built into the material nature of man. As against both extremes, I elect the middle: I believe he is speaking of nothing other than the real finitude of man's mode of existence. The virtues themselves might well be eternal, but our mode of realizing them certainly is not. Our causal mode is both finite and destructive, and those sorts of elements require not merely scientia but sapientia to regulate well in their application.

This also opens up the possibility of inculpable inadvertence, where our will is turned wrongly simply because we did not know the way to turn it. Unintentional sin is not a notion that receives much favorable press, because we immediately assume that inculpable acts do not bear guilt. And perhaps this is true, but perhaps they were also our (foregone) opportunity to make the world a better place. Perhaps we squandered our destructive causality in such a way that something was broken without anything being fixed.

My personal example comes from this very Palm Sunday Mass. On the way, my wife was packing snacks to keep my little ones occupied, knowing that the Passion Sunday Gospel was liable to exhaust their attention span. I saw her putting some juice into the bag, and I questioned whether we needed to bring juice, primarily because I thought it had a higher mess potential than, say, Cheerios, which are relatively easier to pick up. Truth be told, I can't say that it wasn't also in my mind that it is much easier for me to supervise children with more controllable snacks and that it might spare me some irritation when my son decides he enjoys the juice box more as fire hose than source of sustenance. But she said it would be better for the kids as compared to the risk to carpet and pew if we were diligent, so I went along. It turned out that a diabetic lady two rows in front of us fainted during Mass, and her family had brought no snacks along, so we ended up giving her my son's juice box before the paramedics arrived.

Of course one could not attribute to me knowledge of this at the time, but without my wife's wisdom, that little tendency toward inattention and lack of effort on my part could have been the difference between this woman being conscious or comatose when the paramedics arrived. Now I don't think that this was sinful lack of effort (my objections could even be considered reasonable even apart from consideration of my own personal effort). But pace Fr. William Most, it gave me a much better understanding of how John of St. Thomas might well have been right when he said that inculpable inadvertence in response to sufficient grace, not by way of fault, could justify God in depriving one of efficacious grace later. We give too much credit to knowledge in the moral sphere and not enough to wisdom, and God only knows what sorts of particular situations we might encounter. This has only been multiplied in the circumstances of original sin and the multiplicity of the human nature, in which we are all born into human nature in variegated occasions completely beyond our control, subject to a death sentence from birth.

St. Augustine's point then seems to be a quite simple one: since we don't know what or why these opportunities comes to one and not another, and since God has no obligation to give any particular set of opportunities to us, we ought to pray sincerely that we are given not only what we need, but even the guidance to do the best when we are given it. This is no different in kind between the answer that Mike Liccione gives and has given with regard to the mystery of evil and the particular historical biography, so I will not belabor the point further. I simply note the the finite and destructive nature of our causality and the inability to know enough analytically to guarantee that we are not disrupting order uselessly means that humility and prayer is never out of order, so that we will not even squander what little we have.

And so, we heed the words of the Gospels:
Matthew 25:24-30 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, `Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master answered him, `You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.'

Mark 4:24-25 And he said to them, "Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

Luke 19:20-27 Then another came, saying, `Lord, here is your pound, which I kept laid away in a napkin; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man; you take up what you did not lay down, and reap what you did not sow.' He said to him, `I will condemn you out of your own mouth, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank, and at my coming I should have collected it with interest?' And he said to those who stood by, `Take the pound from him, and give it to him who has the ten pounds.' (And they said to him, `Lord, he has ten pounds!') `I tell you, that to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.'"

This brings me to the (literal) subject of Passion Sunday: Jesus Christ. For it seems that He ought not be subject to this infirmity of these unprofitable servants who gain no good from their lives, and indeed, He is not. That is not to say that He is not subject to death as a human being, because He certainly is. But His hypostasis is subject to death only voluntarily and without separation from the divine will. Unlike us, He had control over the circumstances of His own birth, and this is why He assumes the entirety of the human nature that He received in particularity from Mary. On the other hand, what He destroys through His particular exercise of the human causality is never destroyed uselessly or pointlessly but always for the use of God. His personal exercise of human will is in perfect conformity to the will of the Father; thus, from today's Gospel reading of Matthew 26, He says "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." Once again, I credit another blogger(Scott Carson this time) for having elaborated the theme so well that I can simply repeat the conclusion without the explanation. Christ does not will His destruction for its own sake (He has a genuine will to self-preservation; He truly does not want to drink the cup) but He wills with the will of His Father that there is a purpose for this destruction, which can only be known through divine grace that surpasses human understanding. That is a sublime understanding of the human condition, and one that only the Son of God could experience in its full depth.

There are at least two elements of protest against this understanding that I have heard from time to time. Some suggest that there was no necessity of Christ's death but for the action of evil men. Had Adam not sinned and fractured human nature into a needless multiplicity, perhaps this would have been true, because then Adam's own death might have been the path to resurrection for humanity (I leave as beyond by theological and metaphysical competence whether Christ's Incarnation would have nonetheless been necessary, and perhaps some supernatural intervention like bodily assumption might have accomplished the transition from morality to immortality). But given the condition of humanity, I must concur with Gregory of Nyssa that Christ had to assume not only the ousia of human nature but its physis. Human nature, collectively, was subject to death as individuals, and so Christ had to have all four stages of humanity: generation, growth, death, and resurrection. Jesus might have died peacefully of old age, rather than violence, perhaps with His Body and Blood being broken and poured our metaphorically by the destructive nature of material existence. This is why I suggest that it seems at least more fitting to hold the tradition of the Dormition in that Mary suffered death in solidarity with Jesus and all of humanity, even though there are occasions of people being spared (as in Enoch and Elijah).

The other objection is that if humanity could miraculously be made immune to sin, death (by assumption), and the like, then it immediately follows that this should be done for everyone by a loving God. I think it evident from the presentation above that this simply misunderstands the cause of sin and death and the real situation of humanity as actualized in individual persons. These matters are so bound up with the individual situation that it would be impossible to generalize from one case to the whole, and I have pointed out that one would not be so presumptuous with one's own children. One could know to a moral certainty that a baptized child killed before the age of reason would go to Heaven, but one would never slay one's own children in infancy to avoid the risk of damnation for them, God has the judgment over life and death, not us. Besides, Jesus Himself did not encourage His disciples at Gethsemane to pray that they would be like Him in perfectly knowing the will of the Father, because He knew full well that this was impossible. Just as we have finite capacities for realizing the timeless and eternal virtues, so we have finite capacities in the mimesis of Christ. Instead, Jesus says in today's Gospel reading "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." That is more than adequate as an answer to any objection to what I have said here, and thus ends the meditation.


Anonymous said...

A former monastic collegue of mine posted his master's thesis on involuntary sin. I don't know if you've read it, but you can find it here:

CrimsonCatholic said...

I hadn't read it, but my immediate reaction is "so close!" I think he misses on St. Augustine, but he's following some illustrious predecessors down the wrong path. My own belief is that St. Augustine provided a sound theory as to why the gnomie was an essential part of created hypostasis and why the ordo between hypostaseis is not a matter of knowledge (scientia) but wisdom (sapientia). The problem is that Augustine uses "nature" in a more concrete sense, like Aristotle's "substance," and it gets viewed as being a statement about essence when he talks about darkened human nature. This has been pointed out with some degree of success with respect to St. Thomas, but nobody seems to be beating this particular drum with respect to St. Augustine. The result is that people more or less take for granted the explanation of St. Augustine that we find in this thesis.

Perhaps you've identified a new drum for me to beat. Reading the Unfinished Work against Julian completely revised my thinking about Augustine and convinced me that almost everything being written about him was wrong. Maybe the Bishop of Hippo could use a cheerleader.

Anonymous said...


Your post is completely irreconcilable with Christian teaching as presented in the Church's Liturgy, Fathers, and Scripture.

“God did not make death, and He does not delight in the death of the living. For, He created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For, righteousness is immortal” (Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15)

“God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it” (Wisdom 2:23,24)

"For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead." (1 Cor. 15:21)

"The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." (1 Cor. 15:26)