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.
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.
Last time I stated the postulates I’m starting with in order to move forward in considering the Fall. They seem reasonable to me, in light of what has been looked at and discussed in this series over the last nine months. However, I want to look at one alternative (which I reject) in order to elaborate on why I reject it and what I see as being problematic about it.
First, I need to correct something I omitted in my last post. I gave my “postulates” for this discussion, but left out the most obvious and important one, the zeroth postulate, if you will, without which there’s no point in even having written this series to begin with.
0. Science is correct in asserting the vast age of the Earth and universe, and the evolution of humans from lower animals.
Comment: As noted in my update to the previous post, this is not a postulate properly so-called; but it’s solid enough.
Corollary: Any theology which does not take 0. into account is to that extent erroneous, and thus can–and should–be dismissed out of hand. Therefore, for example, young Earth creationism, anti-evolutionism, and so-called Intelligent Design as presented, are non-starters.
Having set the stage, let’s move on to look at an account of the Fall that seems fairly popular in some circles and discuss its ramifications.
I alluded to the following in one of my earlier posts in the series “The Pretty Good Book”. I finally found my copy of C. S. Lewis’s Miracles, and located the quote, which is in a footnote in Chapter 15, “Miracles of the New Creation” (page 218 in the Harper San Francisco/Zondervan paperback edition I’ve got).
A consideration of the Old Testament miracles is beyond the scope of this book and would require many kinds of knowledge which I do not possess. My present view—which is tentative and liable to any amount of correction—would be that just as, on the factual side, a long preparation culminates in God’s becoming incarnate as Man, so, on the documentary side, the truth first appears in mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as History. This involves the belief that Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history (as Euhemerus thought) nor diabolical illusion (as some of the Fathers thought) nor priestly lying (as the philosophers of the Enlightenment thought) but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination. The Hebrews, like other people, had mythology; but as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology—the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truths, the first step of the process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical. Whether we can ever say with certainty where, in this process of crystallization, any particular Old Testament story falls, is another matter. I take it that the Memoirs of David’s court come at one end of the scale and are scarcely less historical than St. Mark or Acts; and that the Book of Jonah is at the opposite end. It should be noted that on this view (a) Just as God, in becoming Man, is ‘emptied’ of His glory, so the truth, when it comes down from the ‘heaven’ of myth to the ‘earth’ of history, undergoes a certain humiliation. Hence the New Testament is, and ought to be, more prosaic, in some ways less splendid, than the Old; just as the Old Testament is and ought to be less rich in many kinds of imaginative beauty than the Pagan mythologies. (b) Just as God is none the less God by being Man, so the Myth remains Myth even when it becomes Fact. The story of Christ demands from us, and repays, not only a religious and historical but also an imaginative response. It is directed to the child, the poet, and the savage in us as well as to the conscience and the intellect. One of its functions is to break down dividing walls.
The boldface is my added emphasis. It touches very felicitously on something I’ve noted (but not as effectively)–that is, that the Old Testament was revealed to a savage, barbarous people in a savage, barbarous time, and that this should always be remembered when we try to figure out what lessons to draw from it. Too many, not realizing this, try to justify atrocity, nastiness, and horrible behavior of every sort because they read the Old Testament literally, with no subtlety, nuance, or recognition of the issues Lewis describes here. I will return to this at a later point on a post I’m planning on a specific Old Testament story.
Back in my post on Marcion, I said the following, with added emphasis:
Reading [the Bible] at the age of forty-eight is very much a different experience. Things such as the plauges and destruction God sent against His own people (Numbers 11:33, Numbers 16:1-35, and Numbers 25:1-4), the (lauded) behavior of Phineas (Numbers 25:5-9) which causes God to stop the last-mentioned plague, the mandates to kill all the men, women, and children in various cities in Canaan when the Jews return from Egypt (Joshua 6:20-27, 8:24-26, and 11:10-15, among others)–and that’s just in the parts I’ve re-read so far. There’s plenty more nastiness to come, too–just for a couple of examples, check out 2 Samuel 24 and 2 Kings 2:23-25. Examples could be multiplied quite a bit.
The point is that I’ve decided that I do not like the Old Testament as a whole very much at all.
I am not a Marcionite. I do, however, find his view more viscerally and emotionally appealing as I read the Bible again after all these years. I’m not quite sure why–perhaps I’ve grown more cynical. Maybe suffering and the general messiness of life have become more real to me and I have thus become less able to blithely tolerate a supposedly loving God who seems not only to be OK with this but who seems actively to perpetrate it with distressing frequency. In many ways it would be very easy for me to just jettison the Old Testament altogether (whether that would entail leaving the Church would be another and even more complex matter) and cast my lot with that of Marcion and the other teachers (mostly, but not exclusively Gnostic) who held similar ideas.
I cannot do that, though. That would be the easy solution.
Having discussed the ultimate basis of my beliefs, I want to go on to see how they concretely affect my understanding of the Bible, of Christian doctrine, and of the teachings of the Church. We’ll start with a look at the New Testament.
Christ, in his Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection, is, as I’ve said, the center, the axis mundi. His life and teaching is most systematically described in the Gospels, so I put them first among all the documents of the Bible. I am aware that they are among the latest parts of the New Testament to be written. I am also aware that they are the culmination of a long process of oral transmission, theological reflection, debate, writing, translating, and editing, over many decades. I am aware that they are not straightforward narratives of the facts as they occurred, and that some of the incidents may have been duplicated (e.g. the miracle of the loaves and fishes or the cleansing of the Temple) or may even have been partially (or completely) theologically motivated fiction (e.g. the Infancy narratives). Finally, I’m aware that not every saying attributed to Jesus may be authentic; and that some non-canonical sources, such as The Gospel of Thomas, may possibly contain authentic sayings. Read the rest of this entry
Addenda: The preceding posts complete, to my satisfaction, the basic arc of what I originally wanted to say about the Bible. Unlike the case with “Legends of the Fall”, I don’t have any issues that need to expand or modify the original series. Rather, I will post essays I write about the Bible or Biblical themes as they occur to me, since this is logically where they should be indexed. In some cases, such posts may refine or nuance earlier posts; in others, they will be “stand-alones” that just happen to be about the Bible.
As a slight break and diversion from my ongoing discussion about the Fall and the Bible, some general and informal thoughts about English translations of the Bible.
Pre-eminent, of course, is the King James Version (KJV). It is one of the fonts of English as we know it, the beloved Bible of the English-speaking peoples for four centuries, the epitome of beauty and poetry in our language, the standard for what “religious language” is supposed to sound like–one could continue indefinitely. I firmly believe that every English-speaker of all churches, and for that matter, of all religions (and of none) should read the KJV at least once in his or her life. No matter what one’s belief system, there will be something to be learnt, something of value; and one certainly cannot understand English literature without it. Read the rest of this entry
This series–believe it or not–has been about the Bible. There is method in the madness of my seeming diversion into dualism. The thing that launched this is my re-reading of the Bible and my realization of how repulsive I found much of the Old Testament to be. As a more or less orthodox Catholic, I can’t be a Marcionite and jettison the OT altogether. On the other hand, I’m acutely aware that when one starts trying to distance oneself from the nasty bits of the OT that one opens oneself up to the accusation that one is just cherry picking the nice parts and leaving out the bad–in short, of being intellectually dishonest and inconsistent. I have been thinking about this for at least the last three years, and much of this blog has been a way of working out my views in writing. Thus, the excursus through dualism has been a roundabout way of backing into the question of how we should relate to the Old Testament.
The specific relevance of dualism I’ll save for the next post or the one after. Meanwhile, the whole question can be boiled down to this: What is the “correct” version of Christianity, really? This is a much more difficult question than it seems at first.
The orthodox narrative–of any religion, really–is that the Real, True, Self-Evidently Obvious Right Way was revealed from the start, and that any deviations are Evil Heresies. Conversely, the narrative usually adopted by the “heretics” is that the Real, True, Self-Evidently Obvious Right Way was revealed to them from the start, but then was crushed and marginalized by the Evil Oppressive Forces of Nasty So-Called “Orthodoxy” (In Scare Quotes!). Both of these narratives are simplistic, tendentious, and partisan, and both can be shown from historical studies of the religions for which we have sufficient documentation to be erroneous. Read the rest of this entry