As the coronavirus pandemic that has raged across the world for the last eight months continues with no clear end in sight, massive changes have been wrought in our society. Not least among these has been the complete or partial closure of many churches. Some have suspended services altogether; others have shifted to services streamed over the Internet; and others have provided drive-in services. Many churches have been reopened for public services with restrictions (social distancing and use of masks) since the beginning of June; but many continue broadcasts of services for the benefit of those who prefer not to risk in-person attendance.
This unprecedented situation has been the source of much discussion, much of it political, but some theological. I’m not interested in the political aspects of the situation at all. On the other hand, in a discussion in the comments section of a blog I frequent, a very interesting theological issue came up. This was in the specific context of Catholic services, to wit, the Eucharist at Sunday Mass. The question was this: When the priest says the words of consecration of the bread and wine to make them the Body and Blood of Christ, why would it not be possible for those watching at home to have their own portions of bread and wine, and for the priest to include the bread and wine of all home-bound parishioners in his prayers? Could not everyone then receive Communion, even without having to come to Church?
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
–Robert Burns, “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”
This is famously misquoted in standard English (as opposed to Burns’s Scots dialect) as “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.” In any case, the sentiment is true enough. How often do we plan something only to have events seemingly conspire to screw it all up? How often does the most meticulous planning crash and burn before our eyes? It’s not for no reason that we have the American idiom “Plan B”. This is, of course, what you do–or attempt to do–when your original idea, Plan A, fails. Sometimes we seem to run through the whole alphabet of plans and still things “gang agley”. Then again, we’re not God.
The point I’m getting at here is something I’ve alluded to numerous time over the course of this and other series of posts at this blog. In this post, I want to address the matter in a more direct and explicit manner. The matter at hand relates to the interpretation of the Fall of Man, as described in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. My main purpose in “Legends of the Fall” has been to try to find a way to understand the aforementioned Fall given our current understanding of human origins and the impossibility of reconciling that understanding with the Genesis account. I’m still pretty far out from coming to such an understanding, admittedly. Nevertheless, I think it is useful to look at issues which, while partially tangential, nevertheless have implications for the course of the main argument.
Faith both in the Immaculate Conception and in the bodily Assumption of the Virgin was already present in the People of God, while theology had not yet found the key to interpreting it in the totality of the doctrine of the faith. The People of God therefore precede theologians and this is all thanks to that supernatural sensus fidei, namely, that capacity infused by the Holy Spirit that qualifies us to embrace the reality of the faith with humility of heart and mind. In this sense, the People of God is the ‘teacher that goes first’ and must then be more deeply examined and intellectually accepted by theology.
–Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience 7 July 2010 at the Vatican web site; courtesy of Wikiquote
Back here I discussed two forms of argument against universalism, both of which I considered to be red herrings–that is, arguments that don’t actually address the issue at hand. The first argument boiled down to saying, “Don’t worry about the fate of others–worry about yourself. Your main goal is to keep yourself from going to hell–God will take care of everyone else.” This altogether avoids the issue of whether eternal damnation is just, or congruent with God’s infinite goodness, so it’s certainly a red herring. I had this further to say about it, though:
In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally very, very allergic to the “worry about yourself, never mind about others” argument–or “pseudo-argument”, I should say–for personal reasons. I’ll elaborate those in a post soon to follow, since it would take up too much of the current post if I related them here. Keep tuned for that story.
Well, I want to relate that story now.
Way back here I looked at the distinction between embodied minds–that is to say, creatures like ourselves, which have both bodies and souls–on the one hand, and bodiless creatures–pure minds lacking any kind of body composed of either matter or energy, that is to say, the beings we have traditionally referred to as angels and demons. Later on, I reconsidered the matter, looking at the difficulties in the notion of completely disembodied minds, and speculating on the possibility that angels and demons might have bodies of a sort after all. Recently, I have come across an interesting essay by David Bentley Hart, one of my favorite theologians and men of letters, which throws further light on this subject.
In setting the scene for the essay, Hart very forcibly argues that the Hellenization of Christianity is a feature, not a bug, that it goes back to the very beginning of the faith, and that modern attempts to remove said Hellenization in order to recover a “pure” Christianity are both doomed and missing the point altogether:
Naturally, this [picture of early Christianity drawn by N. T. Wright] also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy—and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.
Wright’s anxiety is quite in keeping with a certain traditional Protestant picture of the pagan and Jewish worlds of late antiquity, one that involves an impermeable cultural partition between them—between, that is, the “philosophy” of the Greeks and the “pure” covenantal piety of the Jews.
One of the perennial questions of religion is raised by the existence of evil. The world, as is apparent to anyone with eyes to see, is a rough-and-tumble place, a place where huge amounts of extremely nasty things occur. In and of itself, this obvious fact is, while unpleasant, also unremarkable. For a non-believer, the evil in the cosmos just is. There’s no particular reason for it, any more than there is for any other observed phenomenon. The universe is a quirk of random chance, and it is as it is, a mixture of good and bad. Much of the badness, in fact, is a function not of any cosmic principle, but of our perspective as humans. Disease, suffering, and death are very much meaningful–and unpleasant–to us, since they affect us in ways we don’t at all like. For the disease-causing pathogens that live on us, though, we’re a veritable smorgasbord, a means by which they prosper, albeit at our expense. Things like earthquakes, hurricanes, and such are impersonal phenomena that just happen with no motivations at all, either good or bad. They occur merely because of natural processes, and the fact that we are sometimes in their way is our problem, not theirs. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Even for believers of various stripes, not all religions give any particular answer to the “problem of evil”. Buddhism famously begins with the assertion that the cosmos is irremediably screwed up, to wit, the First Noble Truth, which declares that “all existence is suffering”. In short, the world is a cesspit of misery that will never be any better than it is. We may have better or worse experiences in the course of manifold reincarnations, but in the end, it all boils down to suffering, even if it’s deferred for a bit. Thus the goal of Buddhism is to leave the wheel of birth and rebirth–samsara–for good by attaining nirvana. At that point, one is no longer reborn into this universe of misery. Jainism takes a similar viewpoint, in which the ultimate goal is the cessation of rebirth through moksha (liberation) at which point one’s jīva (soul) leaves the phenomenal cosmos for the Siddhashila, a place of perfection in which the now-purified and omniscient jīva dwells eternally in perfect bliss. As with Buddhism, the idea is that evil, suffering, and nastiness are baked into the cake of the universe, so that the idea is to escape the universe.
This post from Reditus perfectly makes the point that I have discussed, but less effectively, in my series on dualism.
A haunting image that has been etched into my mind manifested itself to me in a Russian Orthodox church during the All-Night Vigil for the Feast of the Annunciation. At a certain point during Matins (I won’t bore you with the context too much), the bearded priest stood before the icon of the Annunciation and chanted one of those old leftover ancient Slavonic chants with censer in hand. I am not sure why this made such an impression on me: it was a good hour into the service, and I know little Old Slavonic (I can sort of muddle my way through understanding what is going on.) The priest wore a sky blue phelonion gilded in gold, the robust baritone voice echoed through the church, and the melismatic chant reached back into time and grabbed from it some hidden reality that gleamed like the clouds at dusk…
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In the process of looking at Apostolic Succession, we’ve looked at some of the (occasionally complex) terminology involved, and we’ve looked a bit at the major churches that claim Apostolic Succession. I want to look next at how the various churches recognize–or refuse to recognize–these claims. In order to do that, though, I’m going to have to talk a little bit about sacramental theology.
A sacrament, in the words of the Baltimore Catechism, is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace“. The churches claiming to have Apostolic Succession have (with a few nuances in one or two cases) retained the sacraments as part of their worship and practice. The number is traditionally set at seven: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (or Communion), Confession (or Reconciliation), Matrimony, Holy Orders (ordination of a man as deacon, priest, or bishop), and Anointing of the Sick (or Extreme Unction).
I shared my post about the Gospel of Thomas to a Facebook group, and one of the members suggested I do a post about Apostolic Succession. I’d never thought to do that, frankly; but it does tie in with some of the things I’ve written about here. Moreover, Apostolic Succession is something of which many non-Catholics and non-Orthodox may have never heard. Even many Catholics and Orthodox may have only fuzzy ideas of the concept, despite its extreme importance to their respective churches. Thus, since it’s a legitimate topic, I think I will indeed discuss it here.
In any church or religious organization–or any organization at all, for that matter–two of the most fundamental questions are “Who’s in charge” and “Why are they in charge?” No human organization can lack some type of leadership. Even among hunter-gatherer tribes that have little structure, there will almost always be one or two older men or women who are the informal leaders of any group endeavor. They may not “call the shots”, but they get things done, leading by example and by the respect in which they’re held. Heck, get a group of friends together for poker night or Superbowl Sunday or a road trip, and it’s easy to see that a few of them are actually organizing and getting things done with the others following their lead. True anarchy is impossible–someone is always in charge, however informally.