[FROM THE DUST JACKET] Leszek Kolakowski reflects on the centuries-old debate in Christianity: how to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the goodness of an omnipotent God, and how God's omnipotence is compatible with people's responsibility for their own salvation or damnation. He approaches this paradox as both an exercise in theology and in revisionist Christian history based on philosophical analysis.
In Augustinian doctrine, evil is the absence of good. God is omnipotent, and individuals are predestined to salvation or damnation. We are powerless to influence God's bestowal of grace by either word or deed; in short, God owes us nothing. Augustine's view was attacked as unduly harsh by the fourth century monk Pelagius, whose followers believed that humans can earn grace through good acts. The Church condemned this teaching as heresy, but controversies concerning evil, free will, divine omnipotence, grace and predestination continued over the centuries. In the seventeenth century, the theologian Jansenius returned to Augustinian doctrine and created his own heresy: he repudiated free will, accepted predestination, and taught that God is free to bestow grace upon the wicked and withhold it from the good; because of original sin, no one is deserving of grace.
Renowned as a philosopher with deep religious sensitivities, Kolakowski confronts this controversy. He argues that the teachings of Jansenius and Augustine both reflect the very principles and spirit upon which the Church was founded, and that to reject one is to reject the other. His central thesis -- that by condemning Jansenius, the Church also found a way to abandon its thousand-year adherence to the doctrines of Saint Augustine and embrace a modified form of Pelagianism -- is nothing short of a revolutionary interpretation.
Kolakowski continues this critical encounter with an examination of Pascal, whose powerful moral philosophy has roots in Jansenism. In his famous Wager, Pascal averred that God's existence is beyond any intellectual game. It cannot be proved rationally or made probable, but it has to be -- and in fact is -- decided practically by everybody. Kolakowski argues that, as a great scientist, Pascal could not be a Thomist but could be an Augustinian.
This unorthodox interpretation of the history of modern Christianity will provoke renewed discussion about the historical, intellectual, and cultural importance of neo-Augustinianism. Written with Kolakowski's characteristic wit and irony, God Owes Us Nothing will be required reading for philosophers, religious scholars, theologians, and historians alike.
x and 238 pages long.
[FROM TJB] Any Catholic educated before Vatican II could rebut Kolakowski's main point theologically. The author has unwittingly made the common error of regarding as God only his own mind's idea of God. Because in Kolakowski's mind God is regarded almost solely in terms of His omnipotence, and not equally in terms of His goodness (to say nothing of His many other attributes), Kolakowski entirely misses the Catholic solution to his so-called paradox, a mistake that Jansenius also made, but that St. Augustine never made. Kolakowski forgets that heretics like Jansenius are invariably dualist reductionists (:either...or..."), while Catholics invariably are inclusive ("both...and..."). Having said the above, I nonetheless emphasize that Kolakowski's book is worth reading a dozen times.
[A book review by Dennis O'Brien, the President Emeritus of the University of Rochester, that appeared in the May 3, 1996, issue of Commonweal.]
Leszek Kolakowski's basic interest is the theology of Blaise Pascal. The first section of the book, however, is devoted to an extensive discussion of the Jansenist background of Pascal's thought. This section makes for hard reading -- hard not only because the arguments of the Jansenists and their Jesuit opponents are intricate, but because they are so manifestly offensive. There is, for instance, a careful dissection of the doctrine of double predestination, a position not much discussed, I suspect, even in the descendent churches of John Calvin who thought well of the doctrine. The issue in double predestination as against simple predestination was whether when God elects some for salvation, he also elects some for perdition. The milder view is that God does elect some for salvation, but he does not directly will anyone to perdition; he simply fails to give them the effective grace they would need to be saved. Kolakowski suggests that this is a distinction without a difference. Indeed.
The proponents of predestination (double or simple ), were alike in putting forth a view of God's action which seems not only to undermine moral effort, but would seem to most twentieth-century readers downright "immoral." Thus, Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638) gives explicit approval to the work of an Irish monk that there is no salvation for dead unbaptized infants who, because they have not been cleansed of original sin, "go into eternal fire." Since it was also doctrine that the blessed rejoiced in the sufferings of the damned (rejoicing in God's justice), one must imagine the parents celebrating the suffering of their unfortunate infants. And what "justice" is there in "Original Sin" -- the visitation of the fault of Adam on all his descendants? Pascal says that if one is troubled by this strange "justice," it only shows how different (and exalted) God's justice is from our miserable human conception.
Why all this stirring about election, predestination, and divine grace in seventeenth-century France? Kolakowski lucidly explains the various philosophical, religious, and social strands that created such heat over these arcane theological views. Basically, there were two world views battling for supremacy: the Renaissance "vision du monde... was based on...an optimistic belief in universal harmony and a network of correspondences between microcosmos and macrocosmos." In contrast was the vision -- well expressed in Pascal -- that the world is "alien, hostile, and threatening." By and large, the Jesuits adopted the first view, Jansenists the second. A benevolent God for a benevolent world would probably not condemn unbaptized infants to the fire, but more important, he would certainly be able to overlook the peccadilloes of the libertin bourgeois and noblesse. There is no usury if the creditor takes the money as a sign of gratitude. Alms-giving is a duty, but only from our excess, but since hardly anyone has excess -- even kings, etc.
These examples were lampooned by Pascal in the Provincial Letters as examples of the pernicious Pelagianism of the Jesuit Molinists. Casuistry and excuses for bad deeds are of no value -- but neither are good deeds. The world is not benevolent, it is not a place of possible good deeds and plausible excuses; the world is unmitigated evil and sin from which we can only be rescued by divine action. We are not saved by works, but by God's free choice and grace. We are not paid back for our "goodness": God owes us nothing.
Such was Jansen's doctrine in his great unfinished treatise Augustinus. Kolakowski asks why the official church finally rejected Jansen and what seems to be the mainline of Augustinian theology. Jansenism was brutally suppressed by the state authorities, to be sure, not because of its theology, but because a Europe jittery from a century of religious warfare wanted no more sectarian conflict. The Jesuits "won" with the "semi-Pelagian" notion that humans "cooperate" with divine grace, they are not pawns of divine destiny. Kolakowski judges that it is well that the Jesuits prevailed since their view has been the church's open door to modernity's belief in change and progress. At the same time, however, he sees the quarrel between grace and goodness as a permanent tension within the Christian churches.
The second section of the book details what Kolakowski labels Pascal's "sad religion." He contrasts the Pascalian/Augustinian position to a "tragic" view. In the tragic view, the protagonist is faced with nothing but morally wrong choices -- the fault line is in the situation, not in the inherent evil of the one who acts. Under predestination the actor is wrong -- unless she has been mysteriously elected by God's grace. As Kolakowski concludes, this view has "made many Christians wonder why divine justice should be called justice at all."
God Owes Us Nothing is a brisk, clarifying discussion not only of what seems at first a quarrel best forgotten, but of perennial issues for Christian faith -- or for anyone worried about the "meaning of life." (Pascal's Pensées was not directed to believers, but to skeptics.) No matter how deep the Pelagian temptation, it finally fails somewhere before a doctrine of grace. God owes us nothing. But are the dreadful doctrines of predestination then not the inevitable outcome? Either we earn salvation through works (cooperative work even), or we are given salvation from God's mysterious will. A Christian must come to terms with Augustine, Calvin, Pascal, et al., and with all this machinery of election and divine determination. Modernity is, of course, appalled by predestination as an assault on human freedom and responsibility. However, the other, ultra-modern, "scientific" books I have been reviewing for Commonweal recently seem delighted with cybernetic or genetic determinism -- which seem to me to be just as destructive of human worth as the most ironclad Calvinism. Is determinism from above any better than determinism from below (genes)? Aren't both rejections of free will and human value?
However, this is only a book review, not a section of a Summa. I end with a suggestion. Augustine -- who got us into this mess -- was a unique figure who, it can be argued, invented the very idea of the individual and the will which is the mark of same. The Confessions is radically new: an autobiographical document, the story of an individual soul in dialogue with God. His question is not how to reduce or eliminate the will in terms of some general laws of nature, but how is this human individual will directed by that other will, the will of God. One can understand how the will of the general commands my will as a faithful soldier. Now, is "faithful soldier" just another word for "human automaton"? It often sounds that way in all the metaphysics of divine election, but that cannot be the case without evaporating the notion of "faithful" -- along with "will" and "individual." For Augustine, the individual is grounded in the One God, not dissolved into the many genes. This powerful insight tends to get expressed in whatever available metaphysical theory is hanging around. To the extent that theory loves the universal' it has a hard time finding the individual -- thus distorting a profound religious sensibility into grand and grotesque opinions about the machinery of destiny. Philosophizing about divine grace may be the root mistake.