Note: my comments presuppose that readers are familiar with MM’s classic article; so I recommend reading at least as far as his page 9 (about halfway through his paper) before continuing on. I will be often alluding to things he has written without always quoting them.
I will post up commentary on subsequent parts as I complete them; and I expect I’ll attach a collated doc file of my commentary at the end for convenience.
********************** JRP vs. Michael Murray vs. Three Versions of Universalism (Part 1: “Naive Universalism”) ******************
Michael Murray’s essay on three varieties of universalism aims at a critical assessment of the logical coherency of those varieties, attempting to show how even the second and third “sophisticated versions” in his list “fall prey to difficulties related to those facing the [first] naive view”. He acknowledges that no one appears to have endorsed the simplest version of universalism, but discusses it anyway in order to “set out some critical apparatus that will be useful later”.
Personally, I have in fact met some people who endorse (and have even argued for, with some sophistication!) what Michael calls “Naive Universalism” (hereafter NU): “the view that upon death all persons are instantly transformed by God in such a way that they fully desire communion with God and are thus fit for enjoying the beatific vision forever”. Michael reports that author Marilyn Adams at least entertains the possibility that “it may be better, all things considered, to instantaneously transform some who are unregenerate at death” (Michael’s phrasing), and provides footnote references for her work related to that suggestion.
Michael’s first objection to NU, is that (to put it briefly) if God can just poof people instantaneously into being loyal followers of His, then God could do that right now just as easily–but obviously doesn’t. God allows (if not outright requires) persons to be evil instead in this earthly life.
Michael’s actual objection is phrased in terms of evil being experienced by persons, which is something of a category jump from how he described the notion of NU that he is supposed to be criticising. Of course, evil is experienced by persons who are not loyal to God, too. But the point of NU, as he described it, is that God instantaneously makes people loyal to Him and so fit for living in heaven. This category jump introduces an immediate technical invalidity to his critique, which ought to be repaired. Until then, in order to keep topical parity, I will try to interpret Michael’s rebuttals in terms that focus on the principle of NU (as he describes them.)
So for example, his characterizations of gratuitous and nongratuitous evil may be (even!) more carefully presented as follows:
(NGE) a disloyalty to God is nongratuitous if, and only if, (a) there exists some outweighing intrinsic good (G) such that it was not within God’s power to achieve G without either permitting disloyalty to God or permitting some other evil at least as bad as disloyalty to God; and if (b) there is not some further good G*, which is both exclusive of G and greater than G, which could have been secured without permitting disloyalty to God or some other evil at least as bad as disloyalty to God.
(GE) a disloyalty to God is gratuitous if, and only if, it is not non-gratuitous.
On the NU picture (as presented in Michael’s article) all human beings end up in perfect communion with God, enjoying the beatific vision forever, due to some act of God’s power entirely independent of (and entirely in disregard of) the individual choices a person makes and the beliefs a person adopts during this earthly phase of our existence when we may possibly choose to be disloyal to God instead. “Why, one is led to wonder, would God put us through such a pointless exercise?”
NUs of my acquaintance (I am not one myself, and have argued against them on occasion) would say that this is so we can better appreciate the good of loyalty to God, by comparison with our previous life of disloyalty which results in the suffering of our evil: we suffered from our evil; other conscious entities suffered; and God (though voluntarily) also suffered. This stronger appreciation of being good and the results of being good, by contrast, is more (and better) of an appreciation than we would have otherwise had if we never had sinned, and it’s something that couldn’t have been provided otherwise without sin.
I am not saying I agree with this myself–for one thing the logic edges into the notion that God outright induced sin for purposes of this greater good and thus for perfecting communion with Him. (Which is hardly a position a trinitarian theist can coherently take: that the good of interpersonal common-union requires disloyalty to be experienced for purposes of appreciative comparison.) But this kind of explanation seems logically coherent within the range of Michael’s critique; and (within that range so far) I don’t think it misses satisfying Michael’s conjunct (b).
This should be distinguished from the defense next mentioned by Michael (attributed to John Hick–whom Michael does not consider a proponent of NU, by the way), regarding the purpose of allowing souls to be disloyal to God in order that those souls (by being disloyal) should thereby cultivate certain character traits which will then be kept in heaven.
The obvious difficulty here is trying to come up with any character traits per se, which are necessarily dependent on having been a disloyal rebel, but which are also not only of value in communion with God but are of more value than had the creature remained always loyal. The previous NU defense (still not considered by Michael) involved an appreciative contrast acknowledged by the loyalists compared to what they recall of how things were when disloyalty was allowed: the memories carry forward as data, but not the actual character traits unique to disloyalty. Here, though, character traits uniquely provided by and through disloyalty are what the defense requires.
I am not personally aware of any attempt by NUs to appeal to this concept; and in fact Michael doesn’t quite put things like this either (though I think his critique would have been even stronger had he done so). Rather, he assumes that the NU would in fact agree that there are no character traits uniquely dependent on disloyalty which would be valuable in a communion with God; thus, those traits will either be miraculously transformed, or those persons actually carrying forward such traits unique to disloyalty will find their existence in God’s presence tantamount to a life in hell. “Those who have cultivated self-loving characters,” for example, “will not find happiness in being forced to commune with God” while keeping that unique contribution of disloyalty to their character formation.
Michael’s next critique of NU would have been better informed, I think, had he actually managed to find some NU proponents; in effect it amounts to an Arminian appeal to the importance of creaturely freedom as an explanation for evil. Calvinistic explanations of evil, though, consider persons to be created evil from their first moment of existence, thanks to the results of original sin, and in some cases were always intended by God to be finally and hopelessly evil (even when some of them had been originally created good by God from their first moment of existence). NUs, in my experience, tend to operate on a more Calvinistic understanding of free will (where they do not outright deny free will altogether, though some of them do that, too), rather than a more Arminian understanding of all creatures being provided, by God’s grace, with the ability to choose loyalty or disloyalty to God, even under the imperfecting corruption of original sin.
Put another way, every NU I have ever corresponded with, would outright deny the “libertarian” freedom Michael presents as certainly granted in Christian theology. This might open up critiques against them in other ways, but Michael proceeds on (apparently) the premise that NUs actually accept not only libertarian freedom, and not only the good of libertarian freedom, but also the necessity of libertarian freedom for good as well as for evil–thus when NU contradicts this, the NU proponent is being logically incoherent. But if NU proponents never grant the existence of even libertarian freedom per se, much less the scope expected by Michael, then this cannot be (immediately anyway) held against them when NU involves the denial, too.
It should be noted that while libertarian freedom, or something relevantly approximate to it, may be required for any soul-making style theodicy, Michael has already shown that such a theodicy is not coherent with NU anyway. This is no great surprise if NU proponents tend to reject robustly libertarian freedom or even any kind of free-will; consequently, bringing up the soul-making theodicy attempt again is pointless. On the other hand, neither is there any point trying to set up a score against other variants of universalism by this route–which would have been better left for a later section anyway–since by definition those variants don’t feature characters being simply “summarily transformed”.
Beyond this, there is probably a counter-objection to Michael’s critique, in that everyone who accepts the law of noncontradiction must sooner or later agree in principle: a person may choose to try doing something intrinsically impossible, but that doesn’t mean in the end they will be able to obtain it. Nor is their freedom (quite literally per impossibility!) being constrained in any way by such a failure–not even in the most robust sense of libertarian freedom coherently proposable. If the NU (or any more sophisticated universalist variant) somehow establishes the intrinsic impossibility of succeeding to cultivate a permanently morally vicious character, for example, there would be no logical incoherency in noting that in the end one cannot have such a permanent character. Rather, the logical incoherency would be in insisting that such a success is possible!
There is probably another similar counter-objection to this objection from Michael: he complains that, “on the universalist picture” (presumably only the overly simple NU variant?–or all universalism?) “you are welcome to do whatever you like, but with God, you have it His way.” If this is a weakness for NU, or for any universalism, it is also a weakness for any supernaturalistic theism at all! Even if the result is that when (using Michael’s illustrative analogy) we order fries we receive fries from God instead of a hamburger, the result we receive must be the will of God. It happens because that is His way. There is no escape from this if we happen to receive what we asked for instead of something else; and if receiving something from God other than what we happen to seek is supposed to be evidence of intrinsic logical incoherency, then any of us ought to be an atheist (or else deny that God has anything to do with our system of Nature at all, which amounts to practically the same thing) the very first time we pray for something, or even try to accomplish anything, and it doesn’t happen exactly the way we wanted it to.
Michael’s objection, then, goes too far in principle, without sufficient qualification: the “free choosing that is without autonomy” that “may go on in the universalist’s world”, is the same free choosing that goes on in Michael’s world, too, for better or for worse. For better or for worse, we don’t have God’s degree of autonomy in any case.
Here I should add that the rebuttal of Thomas Talbott, that it is better to have our autonomy ‘violated’ than to be given a permanent hell if we seek it, is not really to the point. (Not least because he isn’t actually a Naive Universalist, whom Michael is supposed to be arguing against here, remember.) We never had and never could have God’s absolute autonomy anyway. The relevant questions are whether some lesser autonomy of ours would be violated by the insta-poof NU method of salvation from sin–which seems obviously true, too–and whether this ‘violation’ really would be a bad thing (as the term ‘violation’ tends to imply. i.e., should we be calling such an action by God a violation?) The answer to the latter must be heavily dependent upon what goodness and evil means. But if goodness only means the personal loyalty to God of derivative creatures (as Michael represents the NUs believing, and as he has not tried to challenge the conception of yet), then actually it would be good of God to do whatever it took, up to and including instapoofing our minds and characters, to bring us into loyal submission to Him. It isn’t mind-rape if he or she enjoys it, right!?
I would agree with those theists (univeralist and otherwise) who reject such an act by God as an ethical violation of even a sinner. (No, it is still in fact rape if the soul enjoys it so much that she is forced to reactively comply.) But then, I don’t consider the ultimate ground and expression of good to merely be subordinate loyalty to God by derivative creatures. I am doubtful that every real NU proponent does either; but the point is that, insofar as Michael hypothetically grants such a notion of goodness without challenging it, an NU proponent who does agree with this being the most basic notion of goodness, will not be vulnerable to Michael’s attempted criticism here.
Despite these weaknesses to Michael’s most recent critiques, he does at least have a point (due to its similarity in principle to another critique of NU) that if our choices in regard to good or evil are simply overwritten by God in heaven post facto with psychological hardwiring so that only our choices for good are ‘freely’ made (any choices for evil being transformed to some nullity until a ‘free’ choice for good is made), then God could just as easily do so now before heaven. Which clearly doesn’t happen, leaving difficulty in explaining why we should expect it to happen in heaven: a difficulty not removed, by the way, for some non-universalistic notions of comparative human behavior in contrasting then to now. Arms and Calvs are at least as likely, in my experience, to try to propose this kind of behaviorial guarantee in heaven compared to our earthly lives; although I don’t consider this proposal to be intrinsic to either of their positions, any more than I consider it intrinsic to universalism.
(Ironically, when a non-universalist proponent of this idea of behavior modification tries proposing it, he is likely to be met by a rejoinder from the other non-universalist side that if this behavior guarantee was true then there would be no reason for universalism not to be true!–and since universalism isn’t true, than that’s one reason the idea is preposterous, etc.)
Next up, comments on Michael’s discussion of “Sophisticated Universalism (Part I)”.