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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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Simone Weil

This entry in my series “Your Own Personal Altar” is about Simone Weil.

Simone Weil was a French philosopher and writer of the mid-20th Century. A child prodigy, she learned classical Greek by the age of twelve, and Sanskrit later on.  She obtained a certificate in general philosophy and logic from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, and worked intermittently as a teacher.  From early in her life, she was drawn to left-wing politics (she even had an argument with Leon Trotsky to his face when he visited her parents in 1933, when she was twenty-four years old).  She wrote political pamphlets and was involved in activism and strikes on behalf of workers’ rights.  In her personal life, she was extremely–some might say quixotically–dedicated to solidarity with the oppressed.  Even as a child, during World War I, she refused to use sugar in her food because it was not available to the troops at the front. Later, she worked briefly in a Renault auto factory to experience what the workers experienced, donating her salary to various causes.  Though originally a pacifist, she tried to participate in the Spanish Civil War.  Being naturally clumsy and having very poor vision, though, she displayed no military competency at all, and no commander would actually assign her to an combat position.  Her brief stint in Spain ended ignominiously when she accidentally scalded herself after tripping over a pot of boiling liquid, and was burned so severely that she had to return to her parents’ home for recuperation.  Ironically, this was a blessing in disguise for Weil–not long after she left Spain, her unit was attacked and suffered massive casualties.  Every single woman in the unit died.

During World War II, she fled with her family to New York.  She wished to be active for the French cause, though, so she left America for England in 1943.  There she hoped to be able to train so that she could return to France as an allied agent.  She had contracted tuberculosis by this time, though.  In line with her idiosyncratic notions of solidarity, she not only refused special treatment, but she refused to eat more food than was available to her compatriots in the war zone.  Thus, while she didn’t cease eating altogether, her food intake was not nearly adequate for her fragile condition.  Despite the best attempts of  her frustrated doctors, she died that year at the age of 34.

Relatively unknown outside of left-wing political circles during her life, her writings have been posthumously collected and printed in the years since then.  Gradually, Weil has come to be considered a significant thinker, and there is increasing study of her thought.  Recently a biographical documentary about her has been made.  Given all this new prominence, it is interesting that much of the renewed interest in Simone Weil is not an interest in her politics–the thing for which she was most known during her life–but her religious views.  It is for these, in fact, that I am including her on my personal altar.

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The Second Most Evil Song of All Time!


Here we go again….  😉  As with the Most Evil Song of all time, it’s not about musicianship, or whether the song is a “good” pop song or not, or what your feelings about Justin Timberlake may be.  It’s not even about the conscious intentions of the songwriter(s).  It’s about the message contained within the song.  Let’s jump right in.  Here are the full lyrics (which can be found lots of other places, too); and I’ve quoted the part I want to look at below, my emphasis, as usual:

‘Cause I don’t wanna lose you now
I’m looking right at the other half of me
The vacancy that sat in my heart
Is a space that now you hold
Show me how to fight for now
And I’ll tell you, baby, it was easy
Coming back into you once I figured it out
You were right here all along
It’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me
And now it’s clear as this promise
That we’re making two reflections into one
‘Cause it’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me, staring back at me

Superficially, this is better than Savage Garden’s “I Knew I Loved You”, which implies that the lover is brought into very existence merely at the whim and pleasure of the narrator.  Here, the beloved has a separate existence, at least.  The first line of the song, not in the block above, says, “Aren’t you somethin’ to admire/’Cause your shine is somethin’ like a mirror” which at least acknowledges the lover as a “Thou“, a real Other, and compliments her.  However, in the very next line, the narrator says, “And I can’t help but notice/You reflect in this heart of mine.”  Well, it was good while it lasted.

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The Most Evil Song of All Time!

Now that I’ve got your attention…. 😉  First, let me tell you what I don’t mean.  I don’t mean it’s a poorly-crafted song–it’s quite well done.  I’m not saying I dislike Savage Garden–they were a very listenable pop group, and another song of theirs, “To the Moon and Back”, is quite a good song, which I like a lot.  I’m certainly not saying the song is evil in the sense that certain people over the decades have claimed that rock is “the Devil’s music”, or that hidden backward messages are planted in songs, or any of that claptrap.  So, you may then ask, what the heck do you mean?

In order to do that, I’ll have to quote some of the lyrics, my emphasis.  It’s easy enough to Google song lyrics, but if you’re too lazy to do so, they can be found here, among many, many other sites.  I provide the link so that you can see the entire context for the lyrics I’m going to quote here.  The parts I’m going to quote adequately make my case, I think; but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m cutting out stuff that contradicts my thesis.  In fact, I’m also going to quote part of the song that actually does indicate (slightly) the opposite of what I’m arguing for.

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Christ and Mythology

I was browsing though stuff on an external hard drive recently and found a few documents that I’d written that I thought might be worth making into blog posts.  The following essay was originally written as an email response to a friend with whom I was having a discussion.  It has been edited slightly, but still may sound a bit like an email.  I think it holds up, for all that, so I’m leaving it essentially as I found it with only very light editing.  Enjoy!

You said awhile back that I hadn’t told you my views of the dying-god myths of Classical antiquity (e.g., Venus and Adonis, and so on).  As I said, I’ve actually told you my opinion before, which is that such things aren’t really relevant, but I will elaborate.

Let me begin with an analogy.  We know that Leif Erikson discovered North America, a.k.a. Vinland, in the late 10th Century.  We also know that there are other accounts that have been interpreted as European trips to the New World, e.g. Madoc of Wales and St. Brendan the Navigator.  Some of these predate Leif Erikson.  So, suppose a skeptic said, “I don’t believe the Vikings ever came to America.  Erikson’s story is just one of many, probably copied from one of the other stories.”  How would one proceed?

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