Category Archives: theology
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.
Awhile back I did several posts in which I tried to look at various arguments against universalism and to show why, in my view, those arguments were unsuccessful. The first post in that series looked at arguments that didn’t even address the issue to begin with, but which missed the point either through logical fallacy or misdirection. Recently I have been involved in discussions on universalism on a couple of other blogs and in an online course I’m taking. Some of the same hoary old anti-universalism arguments I’ve detailed before have been cropping up. There has also been a bit of missing the point. In light of this, I want to take a second look at two arguments which miss the point and which I didn’t directly discuss before. One did not actually come up in the discussions, but was jarred loose in my memory. The other is less an argument as such and more an approach, but I think in a sense it also misses the point. Onward, then!
The first argument is to say something like this to the universalist: “I understand your concerns, but they’re misplaced. Instead of worrying about the fate of others–which you can never know, anyway–you need to focus on yourself. Take every care that you can to lead your own life in such a way as to merit salvation, and leave others up to God. He’ll take care of things.” A more nuanced, complex, and sophisticated version of this argument is made by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles in this essay at First Things (my emphasis):
We are forbidden to seek our own salvation in a selfish and egotistical way. We are keepers of our brothers and sisters. The more we work for their salvation, the more of God’s favor we can expect for ourselves. Those of us who believe and make use of the means that God has provided for the forgiveness of sins and the reform of life have no reason to fear. We can be sure that Christ, who died on the Cross for us, will not fail to give us the grace we need. We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, and that if we persevere in that love, nothing whatever can separate us from Christ (cf. Romans 8:28-39). That is all the assurance we can have, and it should be enough.
Both of these versions of the argument boil down to this, to put it crudely: “The fate of others is none of your business! Work out your own dang salvation, and quit ragging on God!” Alas, this argument, however stated, is a red herring.
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. . . . Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
–C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 55-56
In my youth, I was in effect an Arian. That is to say, while I thought Jesus of Nazareth was just swell, and was even willing to posit that he might, just might, be more than an ordinary human, I did not believe him to be God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity. I held that view from the time I first began to think seriously about theology–in my early teens–until about the age of twenty-four. At that point I came to believe in the Trinity through what I only semi-facetiously describe as Divine intervention. That’s a long story, though, and for another day. The point is that I first encountered C. S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma“, stated in brief in the blockquote above, during my Arian days. At that time, I found it unconvincing, irritating, in fact. Now, as a Trinitarian, I’m still inclined to be skeptical of its ability to convince a non-Trinitarian. In short, for various reasons I don’t think it’s going to convince someone who disbelieves in the divinity of Christ to accept that notion–it didn’t convince me back my Arian phase, after all. However, I do agree with a deeper point it makes; and that is something that ties in to another post or two that I’m working on. Thus, I think it’s worth unpacking in a separate post, here.
Recently we looked at universalism in relationship to Scripture and Tradition, and we saw that neither of these sources of authority conclusively condemns the hope of universal salvation. In short, while we can’t argue that universalism is definitively true based on these sources, neither can we say it us ruled out, either. Universalism is therefore a possible and non-heretical option. Whether it is reasonable or likely is an issue for philosophical and theological discourse, which has been the overall approach of this series.
I have certainly posted plenty of things philosophical in this series on universalism, and I think I’ve dealt with all the most important issues. I would like to look at one somewhat ancillary issue, though. This is inspired by a recent blog discussion I had (which I also referenced in the last post). At one point, an interlocutor going by the handle seven sleepers, in taking issue with my stated opinion on universalism, said, “Side note: If you ditch hell, you lose heaven. Pretty obvious that to lose one is to lose the other.” My response there was, “No, it is not, in fact, obvious, nor is this assertion even logical. It is merely an assertion.” In this post I’d like–very briefly!–to unpack my thoughts on this.
On more than one occasion over the course of this series on universalism, I have mentioned the Beatific Vision. Despite this, I have never elaborated or discussed the concept at length. As I was working on a follow-up to the last post, though, it occurred to me that the subject of the Beatific Vision was becoming increasingly relevant. Rather than try to unpack the notion there, I decided to give it a post of its own.
The Beatific Vision is a term in Catholic theology which, simply put, means seeing God as He is. Of course, “seeing” is a metaphor here. It means, more precisely, the full experience of God in His full divinity. This is said to be the final goal of the saved. Those who are in heaven, human and angel, have this experience of God perpetually. In fact, to say that the saints and angels are “in” heaven is inaccurate. Heaven is not a place, but a state of being–and that state of being is exactly the one that ensues from the Beatific Vision.
The last seven posts in my series on universalism (beginning here and going to here) were intended more or less as a coda to the series. My idea was that they would in summary fashion deal with all the major objections to universalism–both those that in my judgement missed the point and those that at least legitimately took on the issues at hand–and show why they were unworkable or problematic. So I thought, anyway. Alas, nothing ever ends–nor, in a sense, would I expect it to. Strong partisans of what I have called the traditional view of hell (or TVOH, as I abbreviate it) are not likely to be moved by any arguments. Conversely, strong universalists will likely also remain unmoved.
This week I have participated in a combox discussion at Rod Dreher’s blog, and as sometimes happens, the issue of universalism arose. There was a bit of back-and-forth between me and some supporters of the TVOH. For those who are interested, the exchange is over here. It’s actually much shorter and less detailed than previous blog discussions I’ve had on the issue, both there and at other blogs. It does induce me to make more explicit some points that I have not, perhaps, elaborated on enough here. Mostly, I’ve been looking at the philosophical underpinnings of the arguments for the TVOH, and trying to show why those underpinnings are problematic, as well as trying to make a philosophical argument in favor of universalism. As often happens in combox discussions, though, the discussion in question brought back the issue of authority. I have never really explicitly dealt with that issue in this series, though I’ve touched on it several times. Therefore, I decided it would be a good idea to dedicate a post specifically to just those issues, which I will now deal with.
Here we talked about the creation of the material world and embodied intelligences (us) by God. Over here we looked at how truly free creatures must be created at a certain “distance” from God’s perfection, with the (probably inevitable) corollary that at least some, if not most, of them will fall away to one degree or another. Let us now start connecting these two threads and see where this leads us.
First, it is worth pointing out a slight nuance in the concept of the Fall. To the orthodox, the Fall of mankind came after embodiment. That is, humans were originally created as embodied souls. Since humans were, in this narrative, primordially innocent, there was thus nothing “wrong” with embodiment. Had the Fall not occurred, humans would have lived embodied lives in innocent perfection. Embodiment is a feature, not a bug, so to speak. The Fall distorted the relationship of body and soul; but that relationship in and of itself is fundamentally good. It is also important to point out that in this model, we don’t have a body; that is, we are not actually a spirit that just inhabits a corporeal form. Rather, we are a body; or better, we are a holistic combination of body and soul making up one single hypostasis (person).
C. S. Lewis puts it in somewhat mystical language in Chapter 14 of The Great Divorce:
I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking up on it. And on the table were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that. And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet of some one of the great presences that stood by. And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimickry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master. And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in the world. And the silver table is Time. And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.
Thus the body and the soul are in a sense different manifestations of the same thing, merely seeming different (puppet vs. giant) because of our perception of time.
In the Gnostic mythos, the body, along with the rest of the material cosmos, is created by the evil and/or ignorant Demiurge, who makes it as a sort of imperfect, Bizarro-world copy of the dimly perceived Pleroma (the perfect spiritual world of the Aeons, the angelic intelligences created by God). Thus, embodiment is a bad thing, as the material world itself is a bad thing, at best a pale reflection of the true Good, at worst a cesspit of suffering and limitation. Some versions of the Gnostic mythos posit embodiment as a theft of the Light–the spiritual essence that comes from the Pleroma–by the Demiurge and his Archons; in some versions, Sophia (the Aeon whose sin led to the existence of the Demiurge in the first place) deliberately “seeds” the human body with the Light, as a long-term “time bomb” that will defeat the Demiurge and ultimately bring about the end of the material cosmos. In this reading, embodiment is a good thing for the goal it will ultimately achieve; but it is still bad for us at the present. Our goal is to escape embodiment and return to the Pleroma.
Thus, the Gnostic perspective holds embodiment to happen after the Fall, or perhaps to be a sort of Fall itself; and the antagonism of the spirit and the body is not an accident, but it is baked into the cake, so to speak. We are not a body-soul amalgam, as in orthodoxy, but a soul–our true self–which is unfortunately connected to a body (or possibly many bodies–some forms of Gnosticism posit reincarnation) as a result of the entrapment of the Light in matter.
Last time, I said I wanted to look at the following three questions:
- Could God have made beings incapable of sin?
- If not 1, could He have made beings capable of sin but who would never sin in actuality?
- Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?
Here I want to look at 1 and 2.