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Universalism in Various Religions: The Abrahamic Faiths

This series on universalism has looked at the topic from the perspective of Christianity.  This is because, first of all, I myself am a Christian, of the Catholic variety.  Second, despite universalist themes that go back to the very beginning of the faith, Christianity has by and large been construed as non-universalist; thus, the necessity of making arguments in favor of universalism.  I thought, however, that it would be interesting–and perhaps instructive–to look at the other great religions and their teachings on the afterlife, especially as regards the notion of universalism.  In order to avoid an inordinately long post, I’m going to break this up by category.  This post will deal with the Abrahamic religions.

The Abrahamic faiths are, obviously, those closest to Christianity in worldview in general, and in views of the afterlife in particular.  Thus, we will look at them first.  Judaism and Islam are obvious candidates, of course.  However, I will also give a brief consideration to Gnosticism, Mormonism, and also to the Bahá’í Faith, for reasons I’ll elaborate below.  We will look at them in historical order, beginning with Judaism.

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So Why Did God Make the World, Anyway?

003_william_blake_theredlistTo which I can answer only, “Beats me.”  I do think that looking at the question in the title of this post is of relevance in our discussion of the Fall of Man, for reasons that we’ll soon see.  I want to do a bit more detailed followup to this, and to take an interlude before we go on to look at the fall and salvation of bodiless intelligences.

I’ll start by explicitly saying that when I say “the world” I mean the material cosmos.  I’ll also specify that the question of God’s motives is posed in the context of “little-o” orthodox Christianity.  In Gnosticism, after all, the question, “Why did God make the world” is meaningless, since in the Gnostic view He didn’t.  Rather, the material cosmos is a chop-job made by the ignorant and/or maleficent Demiurge.  In the system of Evagrius Ponticus, which we’ve also looked at, the question is meaningful, but it has a clear answer:  God made the world as a sort of rehabilitation clinic for the fallen spirits (angels, humans, and demons) through which they would eventually be re-integrated to the realm of God.

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I Ain’t Got No Body: Embodiment (or not)

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.

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Buffy, the Bible, and Not My Business


Update:  A Facebook friend has reported that I misremembered the Hitchhiker’s guide, writing “Not My Problem” field for “Somebody Else’s Problem” field.  Due corrections have been made!  I have left the title intact, though, for the sake of the alliteration….

In the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as fans well know, the setting is the fictional Southern California city of Sunnydale.  Sunnydale just happens to be located on top of the literal gates of Hell–the Hellmouth, as it’s called in the show.  Because of this, Sunnydale is chock full of vampires, demons, and monsters of various sorts.  The ongoing joke in the series is that everyone in the city is completely oblivious to all of this, attributing supernatural events, murders, and general mayhem to anything but their real causes.  The explanation given by Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, is that most people subconsciously block out anything that conflicts with their picture of ordinary reality.  They literally can’t see the weirdness.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (consisting actually of five volumes by Douglas Adams and one by Eoin Colfer), there is mention made (in Life, the Universe, and Everything, I believe) of the SEP field.  It is explained that invisibility is extremely difficult to produce.  Therefore, if someone wants to hide something (in the novel, an invading spaceship), it’s easier to use the Somebody Else’s Problem–SEP–field.  Humans have a natural propensity not to want to get involved with anything that is “somebody else’s problem”.  The SEP field amplifies this natural tendency, so that while the object to be hidden is perfectly visible and in the open, no one actually notices it.

My contention is that most people who read the Bible are much like the people of Sunnydale; or to change similes, they read the Bible as if under the influence of an SEP field.

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Gnostic Thoughts

Starting this past Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve been reading The Gnostics by David Brakke, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity by Birger Pearson, and Voices of Gnosticism, an anthology of interviews with scholars of Gnosticism, edited by Miguel Connor.  For the last year, I’ve been periodically reading The Secret Revelation of John, Karen King’s study of the Sethian scripture The Apopcrypon of John.  Alongside this, I’ve been re-reading some of the so-called Gnostic Gospels and related scripture, such as the aforementioned Apocryphon of John, The Gospel of ThomasThe Thunder, Perfect Mind (the basis of the above short directed by Jordan and Ridley Scott), the Tripartite Tractate, and others.  I have been running an ongoing series, Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy, in which I’ve been comparing little-o orthodox Christian thought and Gnostic Christian thought, towards the purpose of seeing what insights can be derived from each, and to what extent the two can be harmonized.  Given this, and the relatively heavy reading in Gnosticism I’ve been doing of late, I thought it would be worthwhile to post a few thoughts I’ve had in this regard.  Nothing systematic; just some thoughts and impressions.

First, over here I said, “None of the schools that we call “Gnostic” ever, as far as we know, used the term of themselves.”  After reading Brakke’s book, I retract this.  He argues, persuasively, in my view, that the school known to modern scholars as Sethians did, in fact, use the term of themselves.  Briefly, he points out that “gnostic” (gnōstikos) was, in the first couple Christian centuries, a positive term, which some of those later considered orthodox (what Brakke calls the “proto-orthodox”) used of themselves.  Brakke argues that Irenaeus, the first to refer to his theological opponents as “gnostics”, would hardly have used a positive term for a group he so roundly condemned, unless they actually used it of themselves.  Irenaeus, in fact, rather snarkily calls their teaching “so-called gnosis”–recall, that though his famous work is usually referred to simply as Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies), it’s full title is On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis.  This seems to me a cogent argument.  Brakke goes on to note that of all the groups Irenaeus attacks, there is only one whom he describes as “Gnostic”, and that these, based on his description of their beliefs, is most likely those that we now call Sethians.  This is the group that produced, among other scriptures, The Apocryphon of John, The Trimorphic Protennoia, and the recently discovered Gospel of Judas.

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Lost and Confused Signpost

This is often what it’s like to write about Gnosticism.  I have a sporadic series about the interactions between Christian orthodoxy (of the little-o sort) and Gnosticism.  “Orthodox” isn’t that hard to define–simply put, it describes Christians who accept, explicitly or sometimes implicitly, the definitions of the historic Creeds:  Apostles’, Nicene, and (to a lesser extent) Athanasian.  Details beyond these may be debated, but the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and many Protestant churches would fit this criterion. Though the Coptic Church and those in communion with it (historically called “Monophysite” or sometimes “Miaphysite”) and the Assyrian Church of the East (historically called “Nestorian”) were originally considered heretical for other reasons (they all accepted the first Council of Nicea, but not the later Council of Chalcedon), negotiations with the Catholic (and to a lesser extent, Orthodox) Church have resolved the Christological issues between these and the Chalcedonian Churches.  Therefore, for the purposes here, I’m going to classify them as little-o “orthodox” too.  Thus, “orthodox” is not hard to define.

“Gnostic”, however, is a vexed term.  Ever since Eric Voegelin, there has been a bad tendency for people to use the term “Gnostic” as a term of opprobrium applied to whatever they don’t like (or in some cases, a term of praise for anything they like).  Thus, it turns into an alternate way of saying “bad!” or “good!”; which makes it pretty much useless.  If I’m going to write about Gnosticism, I’d better have an idea of what I mean by the term; which is what this post is about.

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The Apple and the Multiverse, Revisited: The Emanations of God


We left off last time with hints of fascinating implications of the idea of God making the universe by His emanations.  To refresh, we noted that “creation” implies making something ex nihilo–out of nothingness.  The thing so created is existentially separate from God, although, according to Thomist thought, at least, it requires His ongoing action to continue in existence.  By contrast, “emanation” implies a “flowing into”, whereby a “part” of God “flows into” what He makes, bringing it into existence.  In a sense, the things emanated are not existentially or ontologically separate from God.  Let’s look at this latter mode of making a universe in more detail.

First, it’s necessary to point out that no amount of emanation–no amount of “flowing out”–ever exhausts God’s essence.  A reservoir has a limited amount of water to flow out into irrigation channels, to households, and so on.  Let out too much and it will be left dry.  Likewise, if I keep pinching smaller lumps of clay off of a larger lump, sooner or later there will be no large lump left.  It doesn’t work that way with God, though–there’s no limit to the number of beings or entities (the technical theological term is “creature”–we use it to mean animals, but literally, “creature” means anything, animal, vegetable, or mineral, that has been created.  It is in this sense that I’ll use the term here) which He can emanate.  This is simply because God is infinite.

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Stories Like Ours

Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure? Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched madness? For a man is more affected by these actions the more he is spuriously involved in these affections. Now, if he should suffer them in his own person, it is the custom to call this “misery.” But when he suffers with another, then it is called “compassion.” But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters —whether historical or entirely imaginary— are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy.

–St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 3, Chapter II; courtesy of here; my emphasis.

Does anyone else pray for fictional characters?

Or perhaps we’re fictional characters?

Last time we established that we’re at least like fictional characters, whether we actually are or not.  We are, as it were, characters in God’s novel.  Thus, the relationship of a human author to fictional characters in his writings is at least a useful (if imperfect) metaphor for God’s relationship to us.  We don’t want to take it too far, but it’s a useful heuristic.

Well, using this heuristic, the world can look an awful lot like Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  I think it is possible to make an argument justifying the evil and nastiness in the word, as I’ve summed up here.  That’s not quite what I’m interested in looking at right now.  Rather I’m interested in this question:  What obligations (if any) does an author have to his (or His) characters?

One simple answer is given in Jeremiah 18:1-10 and in several other passages referencing it:  God is the potter, we are the pots, and He can do any damn thing He wants to the pots, who have no right to complain, period.  In our analogy, He owes the characters in the story nothing, and can write them as He pleases, and they have no right to complain.  I have to be honest here and say that I have a deep loathing for these passages, but they tend to be the go-to quotes used to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it.  In the strict sense, this is true–God is omnipotent and sovereign–but I reject this in the crudely literal and simplistic sense in which it’s generally used, that is, that we should accept whatever God dishes out passively and not even think about getting upset about it or questioning God’s goodness.  The problem I have with this is that I like happy endings.

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How to Make a Universe


It occurs to me that during the course of the various religious and philosophical musings I’ve posted here, there are some concepts which I have used very frequently, but which I haven’t really elaborated.  In short, I’ve just tossed them out with a link, if that, and plowed on.  One such example in particular is the concept of emanation.  Emanation is a highly important concept in both Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, in which they both differ from orthodox Christianity.  The mode in which the universe came into existence has implications for one’s theology, cosmology, and philosophy, so I think it’s worth revisiting these different views on the origin of the cosmos and looking at them in greater depth.

First, it’s important to look more generally at how the universe came into being.  First, one might maintain that the universe did not come into being at all, since it has existed and will exist eternally.  Both some atheists and some theistic systems assume this model.  The universe may change or go through cycles (which may or may not repeat), but it has no discrete origin.  It’s worth pointing out that even this perspective doesn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility of creation.  As Mortimer Adler pointed out in his book How to Think About God, one can still think of God “exnihilating”–holding in existence–a cosmos without linear beginning or end.  As I’ve explained in more detail here, God, properly understood, is completely outside of time and space in the sense in which we use those terms.  A linear infinity of time–going infinitely into the past and likewise into the future–is still far “smaller” or “less” than the true atemporal eternity of God.  To re-use the image I used in the earlier post consider:


Eternity, in this depiction, really shouldn’t be a separate sphere, but the entire plane–or better, the entire space–within which the comparatively tiny line of time lies and by which it is supported.  Thus, God can easily be thought of as creating spacetime in all its linear infinity as a mere drop in the higher-order infinity proper to Him.

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I’m not putting this officially in the “Legends of the Fall” series, because it’s a bit tangential. Nevertheless, I’ve been writing about Hell of late, and I’ve written about reincarnation quite a bit around here, so I thought this might be of interest. I don’t necessarily endorse every specific aspect of this; but there are large parts I’d tend to agree with, too.  Note particularly the concept that reincarnation can work backwards in time as well as forwards (remember, our time is meaningless from a Pleromic viewpoint); and that we all ultimately live as everyone else, and so just desserts are automatically taken care of.