31 January, 2006

Unquestionably anti-universalist. So what?

The older I get, the more aware I become of my profound ignorance of so many matters, of how badly I misunderstand what people are saying, usually because I jump to conclusions before they have finished speaking, in the same way that I try to solve problems haphazardly. I often stray off topic and attack straw men. On some occasions I demolish them in a spectacularly brilliant way. So what? It is none the less a straw man argument, and hence invalid.

An example would be some comments I made last week on Verbum Ipsum. I very quickly spun off-topic into universalism, and my deep misgivings of the "soft" universalism common in popular religious discourse today. It was, by and large, completely irrelevant to what Lee was saying, or anyone else for that matter. Don't misunderstand; what I wrote was very important and I agree with it completely; I just wrote it in the wrong place, and I think I distracted from some very, very good questions and thoughts that Lee was addressing.


Here is a summary of the relevant irrelevancies:

I do know that I dislike the popular universalist tendencies. C.S. Lewis' analogy, for example, strikes me as profoundly wrong-headed. I haven't read it, so I may have the wrong understanding of it, but I have the same repugnance to what you describe, as I have to the notion that true believers in certain hateful ideologies (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, suicide bombers) are somehow serving God by commanding or orchestrating the deaths of others. — and lest someone exclaim disbeliefe, I have known Christians who are happy to say that (even if they hesitate at Hitler).

(Lee replies:) I think Lewis would say that offering service to the true God (even if unknowningly) is incompatible with behaving in a grossly immoral fasion. Since Lewis thinks that we all, deep down, have knowledge of the moral law, I think he would say that the Nazi or whoever was not simply making an innocent mistake! Which seems to go along with Jesus' answer to the rich young ruler. But, then, hasn't the Church consistently taught that we can't earn eternal life by following the commandments? Was Jesus a Pelagian?? ;-)

...Interestingly, more "objective" theories of the Atonement would seem to allow for more leeway as far as including non-believers. If Jesus made satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, might that not include everyone whether they're aware of it or not?

I am not a Pelagian, nor do I think salvation is determined by whether one keeps the commandments; after all, if one takes Original Sin seriously, then we understand that no one can keep the commandments without a special grace from God. But neither do I think that we can take lightly the link between one's disposition towards God and the concrete acts of one's behavior (and neither did Pope John Paul II, at least not in Veritatis Splendor).

The question we're considering isn't an objective one; it's subjective. (If I understand the terms "object" and "subject" correctly here.) None of the "Christians-only" types disputes what Jesus accomplished on the cross; they would all affirm that what Christ accomplished, he accomplished once and for all. A few of them might try to dispute that God wants to save everyone, but this can be fixed by pointing to a handful of verses in the Bible. In my experience, that has always dispelled the notion. (Unlike reasoning with a universalist.)

Rather, what they dispute is whether people can possess a gift that they haven't accepted. Even a "soft" universalism flies in the face of Christ's admonitions throughout the Gospel, but take chapter 7 of Matthew for example: "the gate is small and the road is narrow, and few are those who find it;" "not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven," etc. There is no way to read this verse (or many, many others like it) in a way that is both consonant with universalism and that does not distort Scripture into a plaything of our cultural biases.

...[I]n every conversation I've ever had with a universalist, if I bring up these verses, they have no alternate interpretation; they simply quote other verses that do not support the universalist position as clearly as these verse from Matthew support a non-universalist position.

If people are ignorant of the gift, and if their ignorance and miseducation compels them to act in certain ways, then their non-acceptance of the gift remains a fait accompli regardless of their intentions.

So the problem I (and many others) have with Lewis' argument is that it is clearly false on its face. Are we seriously going to say that Hitler, or a suicide bomber, looked into the moral law, saw it clearly, knew what it commanded and what its consequences were, then decided to disregard it? We have no more basis for such a conclusion than to say that Hitler is as surely in Hell as sugar is in cotton candy. Moreover, such reasoning suggests that Adam and Eve ought to be considered innocent victims of deception, and not sinners whom God rightly expelled from Paradise.

I have no reason to imagine that Hitler did not believe sincerely that he was doing God's will, and I have good reason to believe that he was sincere in his passion. (Here, of course, "God"="Aryan race".) I have read serious arguments that Stalin's, Pol Pot's, etc. atrocities were also carried out because they genuinely believed in what they were doing: exterminating the Old Man in order to hasten the advent of the New Man necessary for Communism to bloom. Similarly, I have no cause to believe that Christians who exclude homosexuals, prostitutes, or people of different ethnic backgrounds from the Church do not believe sincerely that they are doing the will of God — even though I am convinced that this is wrong, and based on a profoundly mistaken understanding of the purpose of the Church.

Please note that I myself am probably more of a universalist than I am letting on, and I worry I might have said something heretical here. But this issue bothers me, and I haven't resolved it.

I worry most that the popular universalism is the primary explanation for the lack of evangelization and the degeneration of Christian morals, especially in the West. I know for a fact that I cannot be universalist without giving up on Christian virtue (of all sorts, not merely sexual). Nor does it surprise me that people who divorce their "salvation" from their behavior tend to behave in a manner that does not reflect salvation, and thus drive people away from Christ. So if you can be universalist and still live in Christian virtue, then God bless you! You are a better man (or woman) than I.

In my opinion, this is some of the clearest, most unassailable reasoning I have ever done. It may be because I am not actually so anti-universalist as I let on, and also because I probably misunderstand Lewis' position, and am conflating it with ideas of actual universalists.

Brilliant thought it may be, it's also irrelevant to the point of Lee's topic, as he rather patiently explains to me, with an air of perplexity:
Just to clarify: I wasn't making a universalist argument (actually I wasn't really arguing for any particular view of the matter). My question isn't necessarily "Will everyone be saved?" (though that's a perfectly legitimate question), but rather "Can people who have never heard of the historical Jesus and/or don't accept the Church's claims about him be saved, and, if so, what does that say about the nature of salvation that was wrought by Christ?"
Someone else comments on Lewis, BTW:
And I don't think C.S. Lewis was even a "soft" universalist. He used the analogy of a new king, the news of whose reign has not yet reached the people in the provinces. Since those subjects do not know of him by name and are unaware of his claim to the throne, they cannot be said to have personal allegiance to him. But they can still be divided into loyal and disloyal subjects, in a sense, based on whether (given a knowledge of his identity) they *would* declare fealty.
This may not perhaps be a "soft" universalism, but it's at the very least a "moderate" universalism. There are people in provinces who have heard the proclamation of the new king, but they look about and see no reason to believe it's true. It's not as if very many of the subjects who openly declare fealty act in a way that suggests he is their king. They act as if the old king is still in charge, and they are obeying him, not the newly-proclaimed king — which suggests that the newly-proclaimed king is merely a pretender to the throne.

In case the analogy is unclear, I mean that most atheists and agnostics are unimpressed with how the so-called "followers of Christ" comport themselves. Why should they believe? The subjects themselves must not believe; they only say they believe.

I'm sure Lewis has an answer for this, or others as well. I don't reject Lewis' idea out of hand; rather, I find it profoundly unconvincing.

But I am not so much troubled by Lewis' argument as by my own habits of running off and saying things at the keyboard that perhaps should not have been said in that place and time, and by the question of whether it reflects loyalty to my king — or, as I would prefer to say it, whether it reflects intimacy with my beloved God. I am not surprised that Jesus warns his listeners in the Gospel, "Prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the kingdom of heaven before you." Or the path is narrow, and requires strength. Were Jesus to say such things to me, I would not be very much surprised. I would recall what I wrote above, and other occasions like it. Perhaps I should take a vow of silence for Lent. :-)


Lee said...

I actually think there is a connection between what I was talking about and universalism in that if universal salvation is even a possibility, then there needs to be some account about how non-Christians can be saved.

For what it's worth, my two cents on universalism is that I think that it would be highly presumptuous (to say the least) for us to assert that God will in fact save everyone. There's simply too much in the NT that points the other direction. (Incidentally, I find it to be amusing that the same people who usually pit sweet, compassionate Jesus against mean, authoritarian Paul are forced, when discussing universalism, to flee from Jesus' hellfire and brimstone preaching and take refuge under Paul's more unversalistic utterances.)

That said, I like what the Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde wrote: "We have no stake in hell's being populated."

jack perry said...


What you say is true. I just think I got carried away.

I've never actually heard anyone take refuge in Paul from Jesus' fire and brimstone. Or, if I have, I've forgotten. :-)

I agree with you & Gerhard Forde. There's a Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote a book that had that theme (I think), Dare we hope that all men be saved? (may not be the precise title).

jack perry said...

I wrote:

In my opinion, this is some of the clearest, most unassailable reasoning I have ever done.

In retrospect, that is one of the stupidest things I have ever said. It is certainly not very clear, let alone unassailable.

Sigh. :-)