Is the Past Permanent? A response to the TASBS review of Derek Rishmawy through Jordan Daniel Wood and Justin Coyle.

In the months leading up to the publication of David Bentley Hart’s book That All Shall Be Saved, I was as excited about the reviews that I knew would follow, as I was about the book itself. Thankfully the book did not disappoint but several of the reviews certainly did. Many focused on complaints about the rhetoric and loosely related arguments, rather than the central ideas themselves. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by Justin Coyle’s article, which may still hold pride of place for me, but I still anxiously awaited responses from Derek Rishmawy, who I thought would be critical, and Jordan Daniel Wood, who I assumed would be supportive.   

When Jordan’s review was published on the Eclectic Orthodoxy site, I tried to read it in conversation with Derek’s, but I quickly realized they were approaching their projects from different and not immediately reconcilable perspectives. Jordan focuses on a defense of Hart’s rhetoric in light of his highly beneficial elaboration of the book’s central arguments. Derek on the other hand, is one of the few critics, who I felt really interacted with the truest form of Hart’s theses. In what follows I hope to respond to Derek’s criticisms through a distillation of Justin and Jordan’s thoughts, especially in the ways they have informed my own thinking.

First, Derek reflects on Hart’s own appropriation of Maximus the Confessor contra the Origenists, as Jordan puts it, “If we can know God as he is and yet refuse him to his face, then he is not the origin and end of our rational will.” If this is true, Derek asks, then how do we view the fall of the angels who presumably had a much greater knowledge of God than our first parents. This is a point which I must confess always confused me about Maximus’ own rejection of the Origenist claim that humanity was originally united with God. It confused me precisely because of the angelic fall, which Gregory of Nazianzus described as not resulting from ignorance but from an abundance of light.

I don’t think this “gap,” as Derek describes it, in Hart’s work is necessarily fatal, because even an abundance of knowledge does not, in and of itself, negate the possibility of ignorance being the ultimate reason for the angelic fall. A prime example of this would be the difference between the older and younger brother in the parable of the prodigal son. The younger brother’s rejection is an example of immaturity resulting in a lack of knowledge, what we commonly think of as ignorance. But the older brother’s pride is a form of ignorance as well; an over confidence in his own understanding which leads to a lack of true knowledge. The younger brother in this story can symbolize the fall of our first parents through immaturity and the older brother the fall of the angels through pride.

It is true, as Derek and Maximus point out, that this seems to leave open a door to the possibility of humanity and angels “falling away” from God continually despite their increasing knowledge of his beauty. But I would argue that it only appears to leave open the door, because we know that every fall is essentially a lesson in humility and the scriptures teach us that humility and suffering are the ultimate keys to growth in divine knowledge, so that it renders the possibility impossible that humanity and angels could repeat this cycle of rise and fall in perpetuity. Also, as Justin Coyle points out in his response, this rise and fall may also reveal the truth of what Jesus’ refers to as the everlasting nature of hell, but I will return to that point later.  

Derek, concludes his review with a rejection of what he refers to as Hart’s “non-theodicy theodicy.” Derek seems to do this because he does not believe Hart’s claim that his project is not itself a theodicy. Hart repeatedly asserts that he is not claiming to know “how” God will bring about a final end devoid of the necessity for evil, which leaves Derek’s response in the awkward position of simply lacking imagination in understanding how the world could ever end without evil finally being “folded into” the good purposes of God. This reality does require imagination but it is not without precedent.

In his treatise On the Eternity of the World Aquinas mentions that, “…certain great men have piously maintained that God can make past events not to have happened, and this was not reputed to be heretical.” This sentiment is echoed in a line from the Return of the King when Frodo asks Gandalf, ““I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” Along with universalism, the belief that the past can be changed is clearly a minority opinion throughout the history of the church, but it is one conceivable way in which we can understand God’s decision to create, not as a cosmic balance, weighing the risk and reward of good and evil, but as a true revelation of his own nature.

This understanding even goes beyond C.S. Lewis’ analogy of good and evil in eternity as an “ocean of goodness compared to a thimble of evil,” which has the unintended consequence of diminishing the experience of suffering and necessitating the rebellion of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, which Derek references. If God has the power to cause evil to not exist, then we can think of hell as that place in which we suffer the separation from that part of ourselves which never should have existed, and someday will truly be cast into “non-existence” not just a “ceasing to exist.” Or as Jesus says, “at an unknown moment, the master will return and cut that man in half, and banish the hypocrite (the false self / half) to a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:50-51).

For those who are tempted to dismiss immediately the possibility of a transient past, I would encourage you to think about the church’s recent celebration of the transfiguration, and the interaction between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. In iconography Jesus is pictured on Mount Tabor, Moses on Mount Sinai, and Elijah on Mount Carmel, indicating God’s ability to interact with the past. If we combine this with the countless personal testimonies of men and women who describe interacting with the past through dreams and visions brought about by fasting, therapy, trauma, or psychedelics, then we’re all but forced to consider the possibility that the past is open to our continued interaction and God’s purification.  

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