Universalism, I Presume?

Update:  I have edited this post and the following posts in this series slightly to make the taxonomy of various forms of  universalism clearer.

Last time, I defined Hard Universalism (HU)–all will be saved; Soft Universalism (SU)–we may hope all will be saved, but ought not to inquire beyond that; and what I’ve called Optimistic Universalism (OU)–we hope all will be saved, and the likelihood is that they probably will be.  That is to say, OU, while having no metaphysical distinction from SU except degree, is functionally equivalent to HU.  I myself hold and advocate OU.  For reasons I discussed last time, it seems that OU is not heretical.  I said last time that there is only one reason I can think of that one might, from a traditionalist perspective, reject OU.  That’s the topic of this post.

Generally, one will hear that universalism is a form of the sin of presumption.  The definition, and some commentary, from the linked article, my emphasis:

[Presumption] may be defined as the condition of a soul which, because of a badly regulated reliance on God’s mercy and power, hopes for salvation without doing anything to deserve it, or for pardon of his sins without repenting of them. Presumption is said to offend against hope by excess, as despair by defect.

Suarez…enumerates five ways in which one may be guilty of presumption, as follows:

  1. by hoping to obtain by one’s natural powers, unaided, what is definitely supernatural… after grievous sin (this would involve a Pelagian frame of mind);
  2. a person might look to have his sins forgiven without adequate penance….
  3. a man might expect some special assistance from Almighty God for the perpetration of crime (this would be blasphemous as well as presumptuous);
  4. one might aspire to certain extraordinary supernatural excellencies, but without any conformity to the determinations of God’s providence. Thus one might aspire to equal in blessedness the Mother of God;
  5. finally, there is the transgression of those who, whilst they continue to lead a life of sin, are as confident of a happy issue as if they had not lost their baptismal innocence.

Theologians draw a sharp distinction between the attitude of one who goes on in a vicious career, precisely because he counts upon pardon, and one whose persistence in wrongdoing is accompanied, but not motivated, by the hope of forgiveness. The first they impeach as presumption of a very heinous kind; the other is not such specifically. In practice it happens for the most part that the expectation of ultimate reconciliation with God is not the cause, but only the occasion, of a person’s continuing in sinful indulgence. Thus the particular guilt of presumption is not contracted.

Let’s analyze this.

First, the concept of hoping “for salvation without doing anything to deserve it” is a can of worms I’m not going to open here.  The whole Catholic-Protestant debate on works vs. grace, manner of salvation, etc. could be encapsulated in such a statement, at least without further clarification.  The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (available in full here), agreed to and signed by representatives of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, nuances such matters more than past polemics tended to.   A significant excerpt, my emphasis:

We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God’s gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.

So to speak of “deserving” salvation is perhaps not the best mode of expression, in light of contemporary theology.

Nevertheless, let’s look at OU in light of the above, pre-Vatican II definitions.  As I define it, it does not assume that anyone “deserves” anything from God.  I do assert that God, as I understand Him, doesn’t actually give people what they deserve–mercy and all that–and that He doesn’t appear to be the type of deity who’d rest until all were reconciled.  That doesn’t have anything to do with desserts, just or otherwise.

Looking at the five points enumerated, OU seems to pass 1-4 with no problems.    It does not assume Pelagianism or that we don’t need God’s help.  It doesn’t mean one shouldn’t go to Confession or do penance (though I suspect the term “adequate penance” is problematic, since it veers perilously close to “earning” or “deserving” forgiveness).  It certainly doesn’t assume God will help one commit crimes!  And it certainly doesn’t assume, expect, or even postulate “extraordinary supernatural excellencies”.  As my mother says, if I can get a tarpaper shack as one of the “many mansions” in Heaven, I’ll be happy!  It would seem, then, that any problem would appear to be with point 5.

To reiterate 5, presumption is “the transgression of those who, whilst they continue to lead a life of sin, are as confident of a happy issue as if they had not lost their baptismal innocence.”  In short, those who thumb their nose at God with the attitude that, as Heinrich Heine supposedly said on his deathbed, “Of course [God] will forgive me–it’s His job!” (“Bien sûr, il me pardonnera; c’est son métier.”, courtesy of here).  So does this conflict with HU, as I’ve defined it?

Well, we all certainly “continue to live a life of sin”, despite our best efforts–no one, I think will dispute that.  Actually, that’s flip–we all continue to sin, but that’s not quite the same as “leading a life of sin”.  I certainly don’t advocate “living a life of sin” any more as hard universalist than I did as a soft universalist or before that as a non-universalist.  I am certainly not “confident of a happy issue” of anything, let alone an afterlife (be it of punishment or reward).

At this point, I guess I should admit to inconsistency in the name of full disclosure.  I think it is most likely that God will ultimately and eventually save all, myself included.  I think this is 99% + likely.  However:  I try to say an Act of Contrition every day, at least before I go to bed, and I use the traditional one, with “because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell” in it.  I wear the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel always, and though I do it non-superstitiously, there’s that little atavistic part at the back of my mind (which I think is true of more Catholics than will admit it) that says, “Just in case.”  Judging from the lines (or lack thereof), I apparently go to Confession more frequently than most of my fellow parishioners.  I am acutely aware of my sins and my unworthiness.  I need to work on my prayer life a lot, but I do try to pray in reparation for my sins and failings, and I make a Morning Offering every morning (or later in the day, if I forget).

In short, my spirituality is more or less that of a non-universalist, while my theological belief is universalist.  This would appear to be a contradiction–so I’ll quote Walt Whitman:  “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.”  More philosophically, I don’t think most of us ever have the gut, the heart, and the head all aligned, especially when it comes to deep and powerful things like love, religion, death, and such.  I would actually tend to distrust someone who didn’t contradict himself a little in such areas, who had it too nicely and systematically together.  As long as one is aware, and struggles, rather than being a pawn of he knows not what psychological forces, that is something I can respect.  To put it another way, my belief–which I’m quite sincere about–is in universalism; but my praxis is like the man in the old story who said, “All are saved, I alone am damned.”  Simply put, unlike Heine, I make no assumptions about what is or isn’t God’s métier.  Thus, I think where I’m coming from, which is a sort of eschatological preparing for the worst while hoping for the best is not, in fact, the sin of presumption.

I think much (not necessarily all) of the issue some have with hard universalism is what they perceive to be the attitude involved.  They feel that the universalist is adopting an “eat, drink, and be merry” attitude, damn any worries since God won’t damn me; while they (the critics) are laboriously Living at the Foot of the Cross, watching these blackguards mock God Almighty.  “But God is not mocked!” they scream.  “You’ll get yours, whether you believe it or not!”  In short, they are much like the Elder Brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Some things that are important to point out about the parable (which I won’t rehearse in detail).  First, it’s not clear that the Prodigal Son is really repentant. Recall that in the context of that culture, asking for his share of the inheritance while the father is still alive was tantamount to saying, “Drop dead, old man, and show me the money!”  Second, he “comes to his senses” not because of any regret about his behavior towards his father or the riotous life he’s lead, but only because the cash runs out and he’s stuck herding swine while starving, to boot.  Second, as he starts homeward, he rehearses his lines:  “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you”, etc.  One could argue that he’s banking on his father saying, “No, son, I’m not going to make you a servant.  Maybe you’ll be grounded for awhile, but at least you’ll be back  home.”  In short, one could argue that the Prodigal is not assuming “just punishments” from his father.

Now, please note–before the Prodigal says anything, the father, seeing him from a distance, takes the initiative by running to the son and embracing him.  The son begins his canned speech, but not even listening, the father calls for the robe, the ring, and the sandals, and orders a feast.  The father isn’t, in fact, interested in whether or not the son is being presumptuous (one can make a strong argument that the son is, in fact, presumptuous), nor does he put him on probation by treating him “as a hired servant”, not having even waited to hear the son’s possibly insincere offer.  The father basically takes the son back unconditionally, sight unseen, while in effect calling out “Party hearty!”

The Elder Brother, having never disobeyed the father, having worked for him all his life, having never even had a “goat to share with my friends”, self-righteously and enviously refuses to go in to the feast, remonstrating with his father outside the house.  Really, the Elder Son makes a perfectly good, solid, ethical argument:  the Prodigal has basically told the whole family to kiss off, has gone and partied all the money away, then returned home only after falling on hard times, with no real indication that he’s reformed, and despite all this the father has taken him back, no questions asked, no punishment, and to add insult to injury, throwing him a party such as he’s never done for any of the other kids.  Totally unjust to take back such an obnoxious, presumptuous little jerk, right?

Of course, we know what the father says:  “My boy, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  How could we help celebrating this happy day?  Your brother here was dead and has come back to life, was lost and is found.” (NEB)

I think this is a big part of the issue with universalism when all is said and done. We are all too ready, willing, and able to be the Elder Brother and resent tax collectors, prostitutes, gluttons, and universalists getting into the Kingdom of Heaven without being properly repentant, or at least having a (preferably long and agonizing!) probation period in which they must Get Their Lives Together and get Back on the Straight and Narrow.  Universalism seems to make the whole human race (except, of course, for the righteous few) a mass of Prodigal Sons, partying and sinning their lives away, only to get into heaven even ahead of the Elder Brothers who have doing All the Right Things.

Now once more in the interest of full disclosure, I do believe in some kind of purification that the sinful–read pretty much all of us–will have to undergo before the final consummation of everything in the World to Come.  For many, perhaps most, that purification might be very long and quite painful.  Hellish, in fact.  I’m not saying that universalism–at least the kind I hold to–is a walk in the eschatological park, or that it should inspire anyone to be lax.  It’s actually a great irony that Christians such as Calvinists and Jansenists who have espoused a doctrine according to which very, very few are saved have traditionally been the most morally rigorous.  If the chances are highly against your being saved, and if the choice (at least per TULIP Calvinism) is pretty much out of your hands, why bother?  On the other hand, most of the historical proponents of universalism have by no means been libertines.  Thus, I don’t think there is a necessary correlation between the moral rigor and probity of one’s life and one’s theology for or against unviversalism.

Thus, in conclusion, I think we can argue that not only is hard determinism not only not heretical, but it is not motivated in principle by sinful presumption.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 06/11/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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