Category Archives: theology
The title of this post may seem to be an odd juxtaposition, but there is method in my madness. Bear with me as I explain. Over the last month I have been following the news of the removal from ministry of retired Archbishop of Washington, D. C. Theodore Cardinal McCarrick in the light of allegations of sexual misconduct. During this time, I have also been engaged in discussion of this issue on some blogs that I frequent. One theme that I hear coming up more than once is the loss of faith of many Catholics. The abuse scandal that broke in 2002 was bad enough, and its repercussions have perhaps not completely played out yet. Still, many had hoped that the worst was over. With the revelations about McCarrick, and the repeated mantra that everyone knew about his behavior for decades, and that nevertheless no one came forth publicly even after the revelations of 2002, many have considered this to be the last straw. “That’s it–I’m out,” is something I’ve heard more than once.
So what does that have to do with universalism? Well, in order to make the connection, I’ll need to take a look at ecclesiology. This is the branch of theology that deals with the nature of the Church. Most simply, in the Catholic tradition, the Church is defined as the Body of Christ. That is, all baptized persons–practicing or inactive, good or bad, living or dead–are joined together through that sacrament into the Mystical Body of Christ. For any of my readers who are Catholics, if you’ve ever wondered why the deacon incenses the congregation, this is why. Incense is a sign of worship, and liturgically indicates the presence of Christ. Christ is present at the Mass in four ways–in the Scriptures, in the priest (who acts in persona Christi–“in the person of Christ”), most fully in the Eucharist (which is Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity), but also in the congregants, who are the Mystical Body of Christ. Thus, the Gospel, the priest, the gifts to be consecrated, and the people are incensed.
There are two kinds of people–those who divide people into groups and those who don’t.
There are three kinds of people–those who can count and those who can’t.
Okay, enough with the rimshot-level bad jokes…. I do want to look at a particular way of dividing people into groups, though–three groups, to be precise. I will explain why a little later. The model I’m going to discuss is of Gnostic origin. As regular readers know, I have a certain amount of sympathy for many Gnostic concepts, while remaining (mostly) orthodox myself. I have, in fact, written a series about Gnosticism, to which this post belongs. Many aspects of the Gnostic mythos have passed into contemporary pop culture, with some themes practically becoming tropes; e.g. the dichotomy between the illusory world of appearances and the true world as it is, the control of the world by sinister demiurgic or archontic powers, and the necessity of special knowledge (gnosis) to see the world as it is. The theme I want to look at here is much less frequently discussed in the culture at large, although well-known, if perhaps not widely spoken of, in Gnostic circles.
To set the stage, let us rehearse, in supremely condensed style, the overall thrust of the Gnostic worldview. Generally the Gnostic worldview sees the cosmos in strongly dualistic terms, divided between spirit, which is held to be holy and pure, and matter, which is held to be evil and tainted. The True God–sometimes called the “Alien God”–is purely spiritual, and neither made the material world nor had anything to do with it. His realm consists of the lower beings, pure minds, which the True God emanated from His own essence. The combination of all these beings–usually referred to in Gnostic contexts as “Aeons”, but equivalent to what we’d call “angels”–along with God is the Pleroma–the Fullness.
The title, of course, refers to the catchphrase of Dana Carvey’s iconic 90’s Saturday Night Live character the Church Lady. This post, however, is a little more serious than that.
I went to the vigil Mass yesterday, and the first reading, from Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24, struck me (my emphasis, of course):
God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.
That got me to thinking about some of the themes I’ve discussed in this series, and indicated to me an actual Scriptural warrant, slim though it may be, for them.
The title of this post is a slight alteration of the title of this excellent book, a translation of the Ad Monachos of Evagrius Ponticus. I am not here applying it to Evagrius or his works, but to myself. I mentioned back here that I was an Arian–or perhaps, better, “quasi-Arian” or “little-u unitarian”–in my younger days. I said that a detailed unpacking of my beliefs and how they developed was for another time. That time is now.
I grew up in a small town in Appalachia, part of the Bible Belt and hotbed of Fundamentalism, and (paradoxically) one of the most unchurched regions of the country. I was raised in a sort of generic, culturally Protestant way, without anyone in the family formally belonging to any church. Both my parents had been baptized before I was born, though I don’t know the details. During my life, though, neither was a formal member of any church, nor a regular attender. I was sent to Sunday school at a Methodist church from about the age of four until about seven; and at a Baptist church between the ages of about eight or nine and thirteen. During this latter period, I was usually sent to vacation Bible school in the summers, at the Baptist church (and once or twice, I think, at a second Methodist church). Every once in awhile, my mother would go to church services (this was at the Methodist church–she never attended the Baptist one, as far as I remember) and drag me with her. “Drag” was the operative word.
I was always extremely reluctant to go to church, and never did so voluntarily. I don’t know exactly why. I do remember I that I associated church with fear. I don’t clearly remember any hellfire and damnation sermons, though there may have been some. Mom and Dad certainly never used threats of hell, as some parents did. I remember thinking that being in an actual church involved a commitment I was unwilling to make. I recall one time Mom dragged me to church, and the hymn being sung was, “I have decided to follow Jesus/ No turning back, no turning back.” I mouthed the second line without singing it. I wasn’t going to sign up for that! I remember another time in Sunday school at the Baptist church, there was a visiting preacher, a black Baptist (there were very few black people where I grew up, so for us this was exotic). The one thing I remember about him is that at one point he said, “When you say I’m going to follow God and get my life together tomorrow, that old devil just laughs and laughs!” Those words haunted me for years.
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.
–C. S. Lewis, from the Preface to the Paperback Edition of The Screwtape Letters
I am continuing with my use of older essays, written in a different context, as new blog posts. Longtime readers know I’m Catholic, but that I became so only after an extended period of studying the various world religions. This was originally written to a friend to give a brief explanation of my thinking on why, for me, at any rate, Catholicism was the right choice. I might not phrase everything quite the same way if I wrote this today; and the format is of an explanation to another person; but I am editing it but lightly, leaving it substantially as originally written. I should also point out that this is strictly personal–others of other faiths will have their own reasons for why they joined the traditions to which they adhere. This post is intended to be descriptive of myself, not evangelistic of others.