Monday, March 14, 2022

In defense of a changing beatific vision

It is widely taken in the Thomistic tradition that:

  1. Different people in heaven have the beatific vision to different degrees, corresponding to the saints’ different levels of holiness.

  2. The beatific vision does not change with time for a given individual.

I think there is a tension between these two claims which is best resolved by dropping the no-change thesis (2). Dropping the difference thesis (1) is not an option for Catholics at least, since it’s a dogma taught by the Council of Florence.

To see the tension, note that the fact that different saints have holiness to different degrees implies that those saints who have a lesser holiness have not maxed out what human nature makes possible. And holiness is attractive to the holy, and infectious. If one saint is less holy than another, it seems likely that given a sufficient amount of time, we would expect the second saint’s greater holiness to inspire the first to even greater holiness. And then we would expect the beatific vision to increase.

We also have one New Testament case where it seems likely that a person’s level of beatific vision has increased. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes of knowing someone who, fourteen years ago, was caught up to the third heaven. It is common to take that to be a modest reference to Paul himself, and the “third heaven” to be a reference to the beatific vision. Now, eventually Paul died and experienced the beatific vision again. It seems very implausible to think that the significant number of years between Paul’s first experience of heaven and his final experience of heaven did not result in Christian maturation and growth in virtue. Thus, it seems quite plausible that Paul had greater holiness when he died than when he was first caught up to heaven, and hence by the correspondence thesis (1), he had a greater degree of beatific vision at death than at the earlier incident.

Note, too, that a Catholic cannot say that the level of holiness is fixed at the time of death, since then purgatory wouldn’t make sense. And, intuitively, we would expect heaven to be inspiring of growth in holiness!

Now, one could insist that the level of holiness is fixed at the time of entry to heaven. But if so, then we couldn’t really say that the death of a saint is always something to rejoice at. Imagine that Paul had died at the time of his first experience of the beatific vision. Then on the no-change view of the beatific vision, he would eternally have had a lesser beatific vision than in actual world where he continued to grow in holiness for over decades more.

A picture of continual growth in holiness and the beatific vision fits better with our temporality. One may worry, however, that it takes away from the picture of resting in God. However, rest is compatible with change. One of the best ways to rest is to read a good book. But as one reads the book, one grows in knowledge of its content. And if one worries that the thought that one will come to have a greater happiness should induce in one a present sorrow of longing, I think it is plausible that with perfect virtue one would no more find the expectation of greater future happiness to be a source of sorrow than a lesser saint would find the observation of greater saints a source of envy. And, coming back to the book analogy, when one reads a good book, there need be no unhappiness at the fact that there is more of the book yet to come—on the contrary, one can rejoice that there is more to come. (In some cases, there may be a weak negative emotion as one longs for the author to reveal something—say, the solution of a mystery. But not every genre will generate that.)

Furthermore, there is good reason to think that change is not incompatible with rest. Since we will have bodies in heaven, and we will flourish in body and soul, while bodily flourishing involves change, heavenly rest must be compatible with change. And plausibly some of the bodily activities we will engage in will involve a variation in the level of happiness at least in some respects. Thus, eating is an episodic joy, and music, I take it, involves much in the way of anticipation and change.


Dominik Kowalski said...

I don't know how you look at the issue of prime matter, but do you affirm something like spiritual prime matter that enables change even if disembodied? Of course if you affirm a substance dualism instead of the thomistic version, this problem ceases to be. But considerations such as yours push me more into the direction of either of the two options rather than the position associated with Thomas

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't buy prime matter, and I don't see why matter would be needed for change. After all, surely souls in purgatory improve over time.

Dominik Kowalski said...

I think that as well. Just wanted to be clear on whether you affirm the Thomistic line here. Is there a philosopher or tradition that represents your views, at least broadly on that matter? Because I don't think you have written on that issue much, did you?