The Good of Mortal Life to the Eternal One

Orthospherean Bruce Charlton writes:

Non-Christian religions are often good at explaining the eternal perspective, and arguing in favour of an eternal perspective which shrinks (sometimes to microscopic levels) the importance of mortal life. But they tend to have trouble explaining why mortal life is of any value at all: why bother with it?

Mainstream Orthodox Christians also often have the same trouble – but this is not intrinsic to Christianity, but is a consequence of building in inappropriate Greco-Roman derived philosophy, and then seeing Christianity through its lens.

In one of his weaker arguments against theism, Bertrand Russell made the same point: to an infinite, eternal being, how could petty evanescent human affairs be even noticeable, let alone worthy of his attention? Wouldn’t he be rather too busy with the collisions of galaxies to worry himself over whether little George is grieving over the loss of his toy airplane?

The argument collapses the instant we realize that, being omniscient and omnipotent, the Eternal One cannot be “too busy.” His cognitive resources are infinite. They cannot be used up. So he values every hair, every sparrow, every moment of every trivial thing, as much and as perfectly as it can possibly be valued. He feels George’s pain with all the intensity of George’s own experience. No thing whatever is too small or unimportant to escape his notice, and his care.

Orthodox Christianity has no trouble at all explaining the value of mortal human life from the perspective of eternity. Every new mortal life is an incipient immortal life, each of which – being everlasting – will generate an infinite number of valuable events, an infinite quantity of beauty. Each new human life increases the beauty of creation infinitely.

Nor has orthodox Christianity any difficulty explaining the value of mortal life that does not persist everlastingly. What good is a moment in a morning’s flight of a mayfly to the Eternal One? All the good that there is to that moment. It is a prejudice of the immortal rational soul that the experiences of mortal souls are not enjoyed by God. Think of how we love our pets. This is how God loves them; except that, as knowing their feelings perfectly, he loves them far more thoroughly and accurately than we could.

It is a mistake to think that an evanescent event passes out of God’s awareness, the way it does with us. To him, all events are present at once. He feels the joy and beauty of each moment of each flight of each mayfly, not in passing, but eternally.

44 thoughts on “The Good of Mortal Life to the Eternal One

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  3. Russell has a good deal in common with other Christophobes: He ignores the richness of the theology, preferring to construct a comical-simplistic scarecrow, which he then beats to death with his rhetorical stick. He then congratulates himself on having obliterated what he in fact ignored.

  4. “Non-Christian religions are often good at explaining the eternal perspective”
    Would love to have an example provided of this.

  5. Kristor,

    This is an excellent response to someone who has a very poor grasp of Christianity. Charles Taylor’s argument that modernity is built upon an “[over]affirmation of the ordinary life” is a more convincing diagnosis. Divinizing ordinary life got us where we are. To move beyond modernity we have to figure out a way to reverse this trend not place more undue emphasis on mortal life.

    Every new mortal life is an incipient immortal life, each of which – being everlasting – will generate an infinite number of valuable events, an infinite quantity of beauty. Each new human life increases the beauty of creation infinitely.

    This seems to be the prime rationale for why Christians have always distinguished themselves in their opposition to infanticide/abortion.

    • I would suggest rather that the problem Taylor means to get at (or does, perhaps; I have not read him) is not so much the consecration and theosis of ordinary life as such, but the opposite: worship of *Fallen* ordinary life – of the Lie about what life is, that destroys life. Ordinary life as properly lived – as redeemed and resurrected – consists of endlessly variegated episodes in an endlessly reiterated Sanctus & Benedictus qui venit. To this all the Christian mystics attest: whether we know it or not, ordinary life down to its meanest bits is a sacrament, effulgent with Glory.

      How not, since the Eternal One is involved in every bit of it, as making them all?

      To be at all is to be created and loved by the Eternal One.

      • Of course, it could well be the case that drawing attention to the fact that “ordinary life down to its meanest bits is a sacrament” is a very bad idea for the overwhelming majority of people.

      • Hah! Very good point. But then, the thing about realizing that all being is somehow sacred is that you can’t do it if you are committed to doing evil. The world is holy to the holy. The commitment to evil forecloses the option of sanctity.

      • Yes, I’m with you. But eating chocolate cake until I explode is part of ordinary life. So, it’s a sacrament, right?

        The sacramental nature of ordinary life is a deeper spiritual insight than “Certain things are right; certain things are wrong; here’s how you tell the difference.” But, because it is deeper, it needs to be learned after. There’s no side entrance to the pool of wisdom. Or, more accurately, only the Holy Spirit Himself knows where it is.

      • I don’t know; eating to explosion does not strike me as a normal part of life for most people …

        Eating can be sacramental, but gluttony is a sin. It forestalls theophany – or rather, it forestalls the apprehension of theophany.

        And, yes: first avoid evil; then and only then can you start toward sanctity.

      • I don’t know; eating to explosion does not strike me as a normal part of life for most people …

        People of Walmart is an excellent website.

    • This seems to be the prime rationale for why Christians have always distinguished themselves in their opposition to infanticide/abortion.

      I don’t get it. If every mortal life is an incipient immortal life, then what difference does it make if the mortal life is cut short?

      • That’s not a bad question, actually.

        The fact that we are immortal does not mean that our acts in this life are unimportant. On the contrary: they signify infinitely, for they redound forever, to our detriment or to our benefit, and to those of our fellows.

        A life cut short here below is a tragedy because the beauties it might otherwise have realized, and then in turn the beauties to which they might subsequently have given rise, are foreclosed forever. E.g.: a man aborted can father no children, who can father no children, who … Then also, a baby aborted can never be baptized, and must therefore approach the rest of his immortal life still encumbered by Original Sin. That does not mean he will certainly be damned, but it is nevertheless a permanent hindrance to him. Our mortal disadvantages are real, and permanent. So the cost we impose upon our selves and upon our fellows by our sins is just as infinite as the beauties we might possibly realize over the course of an everlasting career.

      • I don’t get it. If every mortal life is an incipient immortal life, then what difference does it make if the mortal life is cut short?

        Heaven, Hell, all about the same. Whatever.

  6. Can God get bored? Non Christian religions sometimes view creation as some kind of experiment God embarked upon because He was bored. I don’t know if a perfect being could be bored as boredom seems to be an imperfect state. On the other hand an infinite being should be able to experience all states boredom included.

    • No, God can’t be bored, for precisely the reason you cite. Nor can He conduct “experiments,” out of “boredom” or anything else. Experimentation implies imperfect knowledge of the final outcome of the experiment conducted, including every phase of it. Which also is of course impossible for an all-knowing Being such as God *must* be.

      • That’s not a presumption of “knowing the mind of God,” Winston. It is, however, presuming to know something of God’s nature and attributes. If the words “boredom” and “experiment” mean in context what they mean in normal everyday usage, then it is indeed impossible for a perfect, omniscient Being to experience the former, or engage in the latter.

      • Winston:

        Whatever has been logically deduced about God – His nature and attributes – had already been thoroughly worked out long before the notion ever entered my mind that I should probably look into it. So to answer your question directly, no, I have not (properly speaking) logically deduced anything about God; I have merely studied the logic of the giants who came before me and acknowledged its inescapability.

        But in any case, and if we are using the forgoing terms in their normal, every day usages, the logic is inescapable.:

        If God exists then there are certain things about Him – about His Be-ing and Exist-ence – that *must* be true of Himself and of Himself alone. E.g., He must be eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, perfectly contented in Himself and so forth. Otherwise He would not be God and therefore wouldn’t exist. Which is not possible, but that is a slightly different (albeit related) subject than the one we’re discussing currently.

        Working under the assumption that God in fact *does* exist (because He *must* exist), it is inescapable that He *must* also “possess” certain characteristics and attributes unique (in the most stringent sense of the term) to Himself.

        Simple Be-ing (God, and only God) cannot change for better or worse, He is who He is eternally – I AM THAT I AM. Whereas complex being, which is to say all creatures, *can and do* get better or worse. This is why we contingent, complex beings can experience boredom and engage in experimentation – because we are, unlike God, *not* perfectly contented in ourselves, and we can learn or grow in knowledge and wisdom. An all-wise, all-knowing Be-ing like God cannot possibly grow in knowledge or wisdom, nor can He experience boredom.

      • I appreciate the response. I would only say that not being God myself I cannot know His mind. I assume this is true with the giants you reference as well.

      • Well, … mankind is not given to know much of anything about anything *by his own lights* best I can tell.

        Not being winstonscrooge myself I cannot know his mind in certain ways. I can, however, know certain things about winstonscrooge that (1) he shares in common with all human beings, and (2) he himself chooses to reveal to me about himself.

        There are certain things about winstonscrooge that I can discern with a reasonable degree of accuracy by way of reading him and communicating with him. The more intimately I get to know winstonscrooge the more knowledgeable I will become of who he is, his general characteristics, his nature and personal attributes, his strengths and weaknesses and so on. You get the idea.

        Knowing who God is and what He is is not that much different in certain respects. This shouldn’t be all that surprising to us since God chose to reveal to us that we are made in His image and likeness. So we human beings take on some of the divine characteristics, albeit very imperfectly.

        What mankind in general, and men in particular, know about God and His mind comes by way of revelation – general or special – and through His chosen agents. He has not left us in ignorance of who and what He is.

      • Terry has nailed it. But Winston, you have opened a deep issue. God suffers; he feels the grief of little George over his airplane, and he feels George’s boredom at school. How can a perfect being suffer? Suffering is just experiencing; so is knowing. These are all different ways of characterizing the process of feeling the facts of another being. So when God suffers George’s boredom, what that means is not that he suffers the boredom as his own, but rather that he perfectly understands George’s suffering *as the suffering of someone who is not God.* So God’s perfection is nowise injured by his feeling of the suffering of his creatures. On the contrary, his perfect knowledge, understanding and compassion for his creatures are aspects of his perfection.

        But what about the suffering of Jesus? In Jesus, God did not simply know about manhood from the outside, as it were, but rather took on manhood himself, and knew about it from the inside. And then, he suffered in his own divine manhood all the pain generated of all the sins of all men, from Adam through to the Last Man, not just as the pain of other creatures than himself, but as his own. As he himself told us (Matthew 25:40), it was not just that he suffered in sympathy with his creatures, as with his compassion for little George in the matter of the toy airplane, but also that he himself suffered in his own body the pain inflicted by every human sin upon any creature as if he were the direct object of that suffering. Say for example that the reason for the loss of George’s airplane was that a ruffian at school beat him and stole it from him. Jesus would then have been the one beaten; the suffering would have been his own.

        How does God in Jesus suffer directly, without at all vitiating God’s impassibility? It is important first to understand what we mean by “impassible:” not that God cannot suffer or feel, but rather that God cannot feel pain or want; nothing can blemish the Divine beatitude. This, not because God’s joy infinitely outweighs any finite amount of creaturely pain, although it certainly does: all creaturity whatever is infinitesimal in every respect in comparison with God. But it’s more basic than that.

        Being omnipotent, God has already won all victories, despite all creaturely defeats, and indeed by means of them. Nothing whatever, no matter how vicious and evil, can fail to have played its role in salvation history, and in the ultimate and permanent rescue and restoration of creation that God knows is won already. So God’s joy is nowise ever sullied. God’s torture and death on the cross were his own Providential saving act, his act of mighty power, the tremendous coup in virtue of which he destroyed death. The Passion of our Lord is a palmary instance of God’s overwhelming total victory; Christ took the suffering due to our sins with the same sort of joy that a mighty father feels in hoisting his infant son, with the exception that while a human father must pay some small cost in energy to lift up his baby, God paid nothing: the redemption of the world reduced his store of redemptive power not a jot.

        The suffering of Jesus, then, was an instance of Divine rejoicing.

      • Kristor:

        The suffering of Jesus, then, was an instance of Divine rejoicing.

        That is a very difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around! The difficulty of it is compounded of course by the fact that Christ’s suffering was/is more intense (by orders of magnitude, to speak in inadequate human terms again) than the combined suffering of the entire human race throughout its entire existence. Or so I take it.

        In any case I’m glad winston raised the issue initially because I had almost become complacent about the subject and forgotten how very important it is in itself, as well how important it is for mortal man to contemplate well for his own edification, as well as that of his fellows.

        You made the point in another comment to the O.P. that every minute occurance in God’s universe is exceedingly meaningful to Him. Quite! I *try* to point this out to people in my sphere of influence whenever opportunity arises that there is quite literally not a single thing, regardless of how *seemingly* unimportant to them, one can do (or not do, for that matter) that doesn’t in some way, shape, form affect (for better or worse, positively or negatively) someone else, or numbers of someone’s else. I don’t think they always “get it.” But that is probably, at least in part, because I’m not especially good at explaining it.

        Anyway, great post and great discussion!

      • Thanks, Terry! I love these discussions, because they always end up teaching me something.

        I doubt that your interlocutors have trouble understanding your point because of your inarticulacy. It seems to me more likely that the reason is the intellectual bogglement that almost instantly overtakes us the moment we begin to try to think about infinity.

        We try to comprehend infinity under the terms of finity, naturally enough. But that just can’t work. It leads to all sorts of paradoxes and absurdities. The proper procedure is to think of finity under the terms of infinity; to take infinity as prior, and finity as subsidiary and derivative. And here’s the amazing thing: not only is it impossible to think straight about infinity under the terms of finity, but *it is impossible to think straight about finity under its own terms, too.* To think straight about finity, you *must* treat it under the terms of infinity.

        It took me decades to figure this out. It’s one of my Philosophical Skeleton Keys, a huge time saver. It makes all sorts of difficulties simply vanish. I should write it up as a post, now that it’s on my mind.

      • Kristor:

        I should write it up as a post, now that it’s on my mind.

        I definitely look forward to reading it!

  7. It is a mistake to think that an evanescent event passes out of God’s awareness, the way it does with us.

    Sort of like the NSA then.

  8. @Terry Morris: “He has not left us in ignorance of who and what He is.”

    He has not left us in ignorance of [part of] who and what He is. There is far more to who and what God is than our finite minds can possibly comprehend. Therefore, beyond what has been revealed to us, we cannot possibly know the mind of God. ( For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part … 1 Corinthians 13:12). I think that is the general point that was being made.

    It seems the idea being proposed is that we should be humble about what we claim as the attributes of God. We have been been given information about some of the divine attributes. We haven’t been given information about all of them.

    We can presume that God does not get bored in the way humans get bored. But we have no knowledge about whether there is a “boredom” (for lack of a better term) that only God can experience.

    God could sit for an eternity and do nothing. But, we have evidence that God has acted in eternity. What is the cause that moves God from eternal inertia to activity? (Rhetorical) There is an answer to that question that may (most certainly?) involve explanations and words totally unknown to the human mind. Something moves God from eternal inertia to activity. Using the word “boredom” is an inexact human attempt to make that point – knowing that no word that we know will probably be the correct one.

    • The traditional Christian term for what moves God to create is “love.”

      Remember too that under classical theology, God’s act of creation is not disparate from his act of being himself. So, it is not as though God was first alone for a while, and then eventually got busy and created the world. In eternity, there is no such thing as “a while” or “eventually.” Nor is it coherent to think that in eternity there is such a thing as “getting” from one state of affairs to another.

      • RichardP:

        Allow me to explain how I mean in my initial reply to your comment above.

        In my comment to winstonscrooge – from which you extracted my statement and made the subject of your post – I wrote the following (enclosing the analogical paragraphs explaining how my ability to know certain things about winstonscrooge relates to having or gaining knowledge about God):

        Well, … mankind is not given to know much of anything about anything *by his own lights* best I can tell.

        […]

        What mankind in general, and men in particular, know about God and His mind comes by way of revelation – general or special – and through His chosen agents. He has not left us in ignorance of who and what He is.

        What those two sentences mean by implication is exactly what you said in your criticism of the extracted sentence I wrote. Of course I could have written “He has not left us in total ignorance of who and what He is” and perhaps saved us all the trouble. But I didn’t think it necessary given the context of the whole comment, and had I done so (and thereby saved us all the trouble) I probably wouldn’t have thought to post this:

        The desire to remove the statement from the context in which it was written, and to critique it as a stand-alone statement of belief as though it were written and posted as such, seems to me likely one of those instances of temptation to improper reduction Kristor has dedicated its own entry to here.

      • I understand this and can have faith that it is as you describe. But faith is not the same thing as knowing. In this regard I don’t know (and I suspect neither does any other human) what it is really like to exist in an eternal and timeless realm. My only point is that I would be hesitant to speak about the nature of God and His sense of existence with any kind of authority.

      • Winston:

        But faith is not the same thing as knowing.

        No it isn’t.

        In this regard I don’t know (and I suspect neither does any other human) what it is really like to exist in an eternal and timeless realm.

        Do keep always in mind that to say ‘I know what I can’t know’ is a contradiction in terms. For example, if I say that I *know* a is not b, I am implying that I *know* something about a or b, or both, that before I claimed to have no capacity of knowing. If b is utterly outside my realm of understanding, how can I say so without contradicting myself?

        Which leads us to this:

        My only point is that I would be hesitant to speak about the nature of God and His sense of existence with any kind of authority.

        Even with the “authority” to say ‘I can’t know this, therefore I would be hesitant to say it’? The implication being “and so should you”.

        We walk a fine line, sure, but also keep in mind always that *because you have so determined* does not necessarily mean that he who speaks “with authority” is not hesitant to so speak. He might be, in point of fact, more hesitant to so speak than you yourself can begin to know. Think about that.

      • I know that I come across as authoritative when I speak on such matters. So I have been told, anyway. I don’t generally feel authoritative in so doing, except when I am quite sure that I am accurately representing doctrines of the faith or arguments of other writers. Almost nothing I say is a product of my own insight, except insofar as I have been able to see what other writers mean, and to draw out the implications. My recent comment about divine impassibility, e.g., derives what authority it has from the authority of the Church Fathers, to whom we may attribute the predominance of the doctrine throughout all parts of the Church. The Fathers in turn insisted that they were not speaking on their own authority, but on the authority of Scripture and of the teaching imparted to them by the Apostles or their students.

        We learn from God’s revelation that he is ultimate. We know from metaphysics that there is no other way he could be God, properly so called. From his ultimacy, all the characteristics of God noticed by classical theology from the very beginning of the Church (aye, and from before her beginning) – simplicity, aseity, eternity, immutability, actuality, omnipotence, and so forth – follow in logic rather straightforwardly. And they all agree with revelation and with the Apostolic teaching learned and taught by the Fathers. So we can be pretty sure of them.

        None of this knowledge *about* God can give us any insight into *what it is like to be God,* of course. We can’t encompass infinity. But that we can’t know God as he is in himself does not mean we can know nothing about him. We can; we can partake him. Only thus could we know that he was infinite, and that we cannot encompass him. If we could not partake him, then – as Terry says – we could not know that we could not encompass him.

    • RichardP:

      He has not left us in ignorance of [part of] who and what He is. There is far more to who and what God is than our finite minds can possibly comprehend. Therefore, beyond what has been revealed to us, we cannot possibly know the mind of God…

      Of course. I said as much.

  9. The argument collapses the instant we realize that, being omniscient and omnipotent, the Eternal One cannot be “too busy.”

    Yeah. Fractions have both numerators and denominators. When they are both infinite, best to shut up and listen.

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