Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Welcome Back to Camassia

In case you don't read all the Comments, Camassia is back from her sabbatical from the blogosphere.

I'm not a great techy, and I don't put very much stock in "virtual communities" -- I need all the flesh-and-blood community I can get. But Camassia has bridged those worlds for me. She inspired our mutual friend Kate to suggest that I begin blogging; her blog inspired and will inspire me in more ways that I can list. And without the blogging, I never would have met her and another friend whom we met in the 'sphere.

I am delighted to return a link to her blog to my list of links (which I have been neglecting horribly, but will try to clean up over the next millenium).

Why I am not a universalist, even though I want to be

Why I Am Not a Universalist

(Even though I want to be)

After Reading Matthew 10-11

The people of God need not worry about the “eternal destiny” of others; they/we do not need to speculate or pontificate about whether those who do not confess Jesus will “go to heaven” or end up in “hell.” And it takes most of my energy and tongue-biting to make that assertion. For I am a would-be universalist, in the train of Origen, Ephrem (I think: Edessa and Nisibis were hotbeds of universalism), Barth, von Balthasar, and others. But I find that a theoretical perspective that I cannot justify from Scripture.

Concern for the eternal well-being of those who have never known Jesus, or who have heard only a false gospel, or who reject Jesus has seemed a natural concern from the beginning of Christian consciousness. Preaching about the “harrowing of hell” goes back to almost the very beginning. And already in the mid-third century, Origen had been declared heretical for positing that God’s grace would embrace all universally – perhaps whether all wanted it or not. Logic, furthermore, probably blended with love and compassion, raises the question of the fates of those who lived and died before Jesus. As recently as the Second Vatican Council one theologian concluded that Scripture requires that we accept that Hell exists, but it does not require us to believe that anyone populates it. (Rahner, I think.)

But as he so often does, Hauerwas puts the emphasis where it belongs: As Christians, we are perpetually (despite our growth in grace) childlike before the purposes and works of God. We are dependents who have been lifted up from our lowly states to that of blessedness. It is our task to get on with living out our salvation and to leave salvation to God.

Of course, we don’t just sit back and let it happen. As the Gospel of Matthew sets it up, we join the ranks of the apostles, whose mission (co-mission with Jesus) was to make known that the reign of God has drawn near in Jesus. We are called in order to be sent to proclaim “Repent!” and “Be of good cheer!” We are also authorized to pray for all who do not meet Jesus (in person or through his apostles) and for all who reject him.

The mission to proclaim the Gospel (as Jesus makes crystal clear in his commissioning of The Twelve, this proclamation is by word and good work) is urgent precisely because it is the offer of salvation – the announcement that time to fend off God is past; he’s at the gate, ready to enter. Regardless of one’s “universalism” tendencies, this urgency cannot be denied. It is written through the entire Scriptures. And if we worry for the eternal well-being of others, and we might rightly do so, then the mission is all the more urgent to get the word out. We may not excuse our own reticence, sloth, shyness, languor, or whatever through easy reliance on the specious (specious on Scriptural grounds) belief that preaching doesn’t really matter, that acquaintance with Jesus is nice but not necessary for salvation, that God will pull everyone in to is realm – kicking and screaming, if need be.

So it is a direct denial of the scriptural witness to assume that Jesus is incidental to the salvation of the world – its people and all the rest. It is also nonsensical to make such an assumption. At the root of such a hope is that God will ultimately ignore the wishes, the free will of those whom he draws in to the kingdom. And at root that is the hope that God will work violence on those who reject him.

For it is violence to force one’s will on one who knowingly and voluntarily rejects it, wants nothing to do with it, prefers another. To reference something I recently read: It is violence for a 40-year-old sincere and pious Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint to force himself through “celestial marriage” on a 14-year-old, even believing that to do so is to save her soul. And it is no less violent for God to grab someone by the nape of the neck and force him into the kingdom of heaven. And if it’s one thing God has shown himself to be in regard of his people it is non-violent. Despite all the ill for the world that has resulted, God has not forced himself on his people – Israel, the 1st century Roman state, the Church. Anything undertaken in his name that is violent – one thinks of forced conversions in areas where the Christian Church enjoyed civil control, too – is the exact opposite of what it claims to be. And the perpetrators are no more at peace in heaven than are the 40-year-old and older jackasses who justify molestation and rape with the words of scripture.

Fundamentally, there is no ground on which the Christian may sit in self-satisfaction that the word of God will proceed without her involvement. To be baptized is to be ordained to the mission of the Twelve – ordained, not to preach to the community of faith, but to bring the Good News in language and deeds to all those who need (and in many cases, have been waiting without knowing for) just that message.

Hauerwas contrasts (ala Matthew 11) the followers of Christ, who are infant-like in their dependence on Jesus and the other followers of Christ for their very survival, with the wise and intelligent, who hold power and blinding think they are strong and self-determining. And he says this about universalist concerns:

If followers of Christ … are those who are infants from the perspective of the wise and intelligent, that is, from the perspective of those in power, they will find that they do not need an account of the status of those who are not Christians. Rather, they need only to be a people whose lives are so captured by the Son that others may find that they are also captivated by the joy that animates the lives of those claimed by Jesus.
(Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 117)

As is so typical of Hauerwas, he doesn’t make it easy to feel that one has a grasp on this Christian faithfulness thing. It is tough to keep one’s focus on those one sees and knows, not worrying overly about the hordes elsewhere. But some of that is required. But we must also have the wider perspective and encourage those who know a call, a vocation to proclaim Christ where he is not known. We may rightly argue over the shape that ministry will take: Will it be a matter primarily of demanding that people “accept Jesus” or will it be a more subtle case of setting up schools and hospitals and waiting for them to ask the right questions? But we can no longer, if we ever could, ignore the urgency of calling and sending men and women to represent Jesus Himself in their proclaiming and salving and healing and exorcising and raising the dead. Their and our very lives depend on it.

This is not to say, of course, that our hopes must follow our logic. It is, I think, incumbent on every Christian to hope that what I have set forth above is not complete (which is easy to admit) and suffers from a narrowness of knowledge that will be corrected on the last day. It is my urgent hope that the Mighty ones – Origen, Barth, von Balthasar, perhaps Jenson – are correct in their conclusions that the grace of God is ultimately undefeatable. God has worked bigger surprises in the history of the universe.

And so we must live in the hope that God has it all in hand to save all this creation, with the loss of not even a sparrow. But we must also live as though the future of the world depends on us, the successors to the apostles. For when all is said and done, both perspectives recognize that it is only “in Christ” that salvation – “in this world and the next” – is possible.

Friday, September 19, 2008


In introducing their book on the Eucharist, Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff claim that the book "is about people who juxtapose in odd, sharp, and sometimes painful ways the texts of reality with the living traditions of the Christian faith that embody resurrection hope" (The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread & Resurrection, p. 3, emphasis added). I think they already fail to understand the Eucharist in a fundamental way. The "living traditions of the Christian faith that embody resurrection hope" are the texts of reality for the Eucharistic community. Tales, sagas, philosophies of death and sorrow are not the texts of reality for the Christian family. And it is precisely the point of Eucharist to act that basic assertion.

Now I suppose that the authors may not mean their statement in any ontologically or linguistically significant way. Perhaps they mean "texts of day-to-day experience" instead of "texts of reality." If so, one wishes that theology professors and their editors would practice the kind of precision in their writing and thinking that that they usually require of those who criticize their work! But to the point: It is the easy acceptance of alternative realities as "reality" that makes the Christian witness so ineffective, so incomprehensible to so many, so rejectable today.

My reading of Stringfellow, Bonhoeffer, Hauerwas, Hart, Cavanaugh (and recently Brueggemann) convinces me that we need to be more straightforward about a troubling truth about Christianity: Our theology implies a kind of temporary and incomplete dualism. Hart makes this point explicit in his The Doors of the Sea. And Stringfellow, I think, must assume it with his discussion (which inspired Walter Wink's) of the powers and principalities that battle against the intentions and works of God. There are powers, principalities, thought patterns, ways of living, problems, forces that work to thwart the creating-redeeming-sustaining work of God. They are called minions of Satan; they are "not of God"; they are death-dealing and -inducing. And they make life damned unpleasant. They exist in that they can work effects, but they have no ultimate existence and they have no power to win ultimate struggles. In fact, they have already been defeated. (Talk of "dualism" is not something with which I am very comfortable or very eloquent. But if one is to wrestle with "powers and principalities" language -- which I think is critical for Christians to do, with an eye to the widest possible scope of the topic -- then I think we have no choice but to do so.)

The powers and principalities are only partially real; they are not "reality," and their effects or their stories are not "texts of reality." They exist at all only in the absence of God (that seems to be a kind of Augustinian notion, I think, that I'm amazed I find convincing -- given my general suspicion of the man). They are real only in the effects they produce -- death, destruction, sin, alienation, and the like. And we must not discount that reality! After all, those powers and principalities took Jesus to the cross. And that was real enough, thank you.

But the story of death (which is Stringfellow's general term for those powers and principalities and all their minions) which names them and narrates the execution of Jesus is not the "text[] of reality"; the Gospel is the text of reality. Reality is that "death shall have no dominion"; reality is that Easter trumps Good Friday, Resurrection triumphed over execution, God wins out over not-God. If you want a text of reality, read the liturgy of the Eucharist.

"Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." That is reality, not the incomplete (albeit at times horrible) minor coups of the contrary.

I would expect women who have been teaching graduate courses in eucharistic liturgy, and who emphasize in their book the eschatological dimensions of the Eucharist, to get that right.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


First a note: I have not been working on this blog much lately. I have any number of excuses -- Matthew class, work, hectic family life. I am also having a bitter time fighting off partisan-political complaints about the current era. (And while I don't apologize for my political decisions, I buy that Jesus doesn't support either candidate. Consequently, I am in tension between my knee-jerk reactions and my feelings of responsibility to be fair -- which usually means being unfair to my candidates.) But the bottom line is that I have been feeling less and less pontifical (I still envy Al Kimel's calling dibs on the title "Pontificator," but he at least has some substantial claim to it); I feel less and less confident that I have anything to say. And I think I'm in a thinking-burn-out zone.

So I'm going to fall back a bit and simply note good things I'm reading, along with any questions that may arise for me. And I'll continue to hope that I get meaty replies from the two or three of you who check in.

Today's tidbit comes thanks to Walt Brueggemann. I think he's a good writer -- and one with a lot to say (and most of which I agree with). I hope he stays healthy and productive for a long time.

In the current issue of Theology Today (a fine journal -- even if not of the quality of Pro Ecclesia), he writes a most timely article, "Prophetic Ministry in the National Security State." It's good reading (his styling is wonderful to read; it must have been honey to hear at the 2007 Festival of Homiletics). But I pick up on one little point.

He cites to Abraham Heschel (who will be in heaven -- that's all there's to that), who has written (in Who Is Man?) that "the loss of embarrassment is the quintessential loss of human capability" (Brueggemann's characterization of Heschel's point). In context, Brueggemann is exegeting Jeremiah 6, where Jeremiah castigates his society which has so perverted language that they hide the effects of their greed behind the claim that "all is well" -- i.e., "shalom." Bruggemann shows that Jeremiah says, as his great indictment -- a kind of coup de grace --, that the society has so deteriorated that "They do not know how to blush." Then he (Brueggemann, not Jeremiah) cites to Heschel.

That observation is ripe with connections for me. I remember that what brought Joe McCarthy down was the attorney's rhetorical question of him, "Have you no shame." And I wonder is this: Does this relate to the Genesis narrative? When the man and woman in the Garden, in Genesis, cover themselves with leaves, they explain to God that they knew they were naked and were ashamed. Does the Genesis author signal that, as depraved as the human condition was as a result of the Fall, the durability of the imago dei remained intact -- so that the ability of humanity to feel shame, embarrassment, acknowledgment of its/their less-than-should-be held out hope for humans?

With all the Bible's talk of pride, arrogance, self-importance -- the very opposites of embarrassment or shame -- are we called to shame, to embarrassment at our sin?

I know that linguists among us will want to make fine and broad distinctions between embarrassment and shame. But do they not root in the same emotional state? So can we not take them together.

Robert Jenson taught me that a quality of being alive is the ability to surprise. Here we have another fundamental human capability -- the ability to feel the need to hide one's face.