Category Archives: theology

Scandal and Universalism

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.

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I Ain’t Got No Body, Revisited: Rethinking Angels

Way back here we looked at the question of why humans are created as embodied beings.  In most Abrahamic religions, and in some other Western religious systems, as well (e.g. Platonism and Gnosticism), God is said to have created the bodiless intelligences–what we call “angels”, some of whom later become “demons”–before He made embodied intelligences–that is to say, us.  Since the angels are typically seen as far superior to us, the question arises as to why God bothered in making embodied creatures to begin with.  I came to no definite conclusion on this question, though I have some ideas banging about in my head.  What I want to do here is to put a different spin on the whole question by looking at the angels and speculating as to what, exactly, they are.  This will tie in with some other themes we’ve looked at.

In the Christian tradition*, beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and continuing through various Church Fathers and theologians throughout the centuries (not least of whom as St. Thomas Aquinas in the West), angels have always been understood to be bodiless spirits.  In our discussion of the soul a little while back, we described the human soul as the seat of personality and intelligence, which is immaterial and which can survive the death of the body.  An angel has a personality and intelligence, just like a human; but it has no body.  Thus, an angel could be viewed as a pure mind.  Angels, of course, are often described as being humanoid in appearance–and sometimes, spectacularly, non-humanoid (see Ezekiel 1:4-21, Isaiah 6:2, and Revelation 4:6-8, for example).  Despite this, though, they lack physical bodies–such appearances are for the benefit of humans.  The angels either take on a temporary body (to put it in modern terms, they manipulate matter into a body which they use like a puppet) or manipulate the viewer’s mind so that they see an apparition that isn’t physically there (something like this is implied in the Book of Tobit, when Raphael reveals himself to be an angel; see Tobit 12:15-19). Theologians have debated which of these scenarios is likelier; but they have agreed that angels have no bodies of their own.

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There Are Three Kinds of People….

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.

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Was It…SATAN??!!

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.

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(Body) and Soul

“Body” is a concept with which few of us have a problem.  We all have bodies after all.  No one doubts this, except perhaps for solipsists and those who’d argue that we are actually brains in vats (or for Wachowski fans, that we’re connected to the Matrix, which is essentially the same thing)*.  For the purposes here, at least, we’ll consider such viewpoints in light of the commonsense perspective–that is, that they’re cracked!  Thus, what I want to look at is the idea of the soul.  I’m doing so in order to develop the groundwork for some ideas I want to explore in my series on polygenism, specifically, and more generally in regard to my series on the Fall.  Since this post itself is a sort of stand-alone, though, I’ll put it in “Religious Miscellany“.

I should preface this discussion by stipulating that I do believe that the soul, as an entity distinct from the body actually does exist.  Obviously, not everyone believes this.  Many of the philosophically materialist persuasion would argue that what is commonly called a “soul” is merely the complex interaction of electrochemical processes in the human brain.  The more radical would argue that the mind itself is no different from the brain, except perhaps in an analytical sense.  Some, such as Daniel Dennett (if I understand him correctly) would even go so far as to deny the existence of sense of self and personal experience.  In this post, I’m not interested in arguing against a materialist view of the comos. For those interested in such a defense, I’d refer you to C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles.  For now, suffice it to say that I’m taking the existence of a discrete, immaterial soul that is distinct from the body for granted.

We use the word “soul” all the time, and we all have a vague agreement on what it means.  In general, “soul” means the center of identity that makes a person who he or she is, and which is distinct from the body.  That is, our memories, thoughts, emotions–that which we consider to be our “self”, our “identity”, including but not limited to the mind, is the soul.  The soul is in some sense “in” the body (though the spatial term “in” is really a metaphor) and interacts with and is affected by the body–for example, if the body becomes tired enough, we become unconscious, and things such as drugs can affect our minds.  Despite this, the soul is distinct from the body, and is usually held to be separable from it, and to survive the body’s death.

Further, as is popularly conceived, though not always clearly articulated, the soul is not only the locus of the true self, it is the self.  We speak of having a soul, like we have a car or a television.  However, as the term is usually understood, it’s more accurate to say that we are souls.  This follows the ideas of Plato, notably in his dialogue Phaedo.  In effect, the true person is the soul, which merely “wears” the body as one would wear clothing.  Thus, while we may identify with our body, there is still a sense in which we do not consider it equivalent to ourselves.  We speak of “my” hand or kidney or hair, as if these things are not actually part of us, any more than “my” book or computer is.  We say of a departed one that “he” went to Heaven (or perhaps Hell), or that “he” was reincarnated.  Since his body remains, it is evident that the “he” to which we refer is the soul.

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The Long Journey to the Trinity

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.

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The Disenchantment of the World, Part 4: The Enlightenment

voltaire

On this rather elliptical path towards looking at religion as role-playing, we’ve looked at the religious milieu of the ancient Greco-Roman world, the origins of monotheism, and why it replaced paganism.  Many aspects of pagan belief remained, of course, under a (sometimes extremely thin) Christian veneer, and sometimes more or less openly as various types of folk practice and superstition.  Still, Christianity was on the whole dominant for nearly a millennium and a half after it conquered pagan Rome.  What struck a blow from which Christianity has never completely recovered, and which began the disenchantment of the world in earnest, was the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment is the period beginning at about the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th Century in which a new focus on reason and secularism began to be manifested in Western and Central European society, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe.  It’s always hard to give a concise definition of a complex phenomenon such as the Enlightenment, but the following points can serve as a beginning.  The Enlightenment was characterized by

  1. An emphasis on human reason, as opposed to Divine revelation.
  2. A focus on science and the scientific method.
  3. A call for political and social equality:  that is, democracy over monarchy, the intrinsic equality of all classes and nationalities, and even the beginnings of equality between the genders.
  4. A call for political and religious liberty:  Established religions were to be opposed, freedom of religion and association were promoted, and people were to be free to change their governments if need be.
  5. A desire to put human reason and science to work in improving human society, especially by rationalistic and technocratic means.
  6. An emphasis on the individual over the collective.
  7. A suspicion of organized religion and a tendency towards Deism and anti-clericalism.
  8. Optimism and (to some extent) utopianism as to the prospects of improving society; and a tendency to view the past as primitive, superstitious, and obscurantist, and the future as the realm of glorious possibility.

I think those points are a fair outline of the Enlightenment worldview.  It’s very clear from points 1 ,2, 5, and 8 why the Enlightenment resulted in so much disenchanting of the world; but before I go on with that, I think we need to look at the context of the Enlightenment, lest we misunderstand what followed.

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Nulla Scriptura Revisited

One of the keystones of traditional Protestant theology is the concept of sola scriptura.  This means literally “by Scripture alone”.  That is, all doctrines and practices of Christianity must be derived from Scripture.  Tradition, commentary, and development are not necessarily bad, but they may never be normative for belief and practice.  My post from some time back, “Nulla Scriptura” was a deliberate pun on this, as it means, “by nothing [of] Scripture.”

Back here, I said the following:

Of course, I’d say that open theism, as well as many other flavors of Protestantism, has too high a view of Scripture, anyway. I don’t mean that in the sense of saying that Scripture isn’t inspired, or of encouraging a “low” view of it. Rather, I mean the tendency to take it more or less as is without looking at context or the philosophical implications. I’ve read essays by open theologians in which they’ve gone so far as to say that if the theology or philosophy says one thing, and Scripture says another, then Scripture must be preferred, even if it seems to paint God in peculiar ways (e.g. limited knowledge, changing His mind, etc.). By that logic we’d have to jettison the value of pi!

What I want to do here is to elaborate on that concept, both in a general, theoretical way, as it pertains to Christianity and Christian thought in general; and also in a concrete, specific way, as it pertains to my own church, the Catholic Church, particularly in 21st Century America.

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Quote for the Week

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

Picking and Choosing: Religious Affiliation

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.

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