Saturday, November 22, 2014

Are all saved regardless?: Thoughts on universalism

Once in awhile I am tremendously provoked by my experience of reality. Questions of meaning have been part of my consciousness for as long as I can remember. I am not unique in this regard, questions of meaning are not only part and parcel of being human, these questions, in a very real sense, constitute our humanity. These questions begin with the word "Why."

I remember in the wake of the Haitian earthquake several years ago Msgr Lorenzo Albacete, insisting that our Christian faith does not and, moreover, should not give us easy answers to reality's vicissitudes, saying something to the effect, "Asking 'Why?' in the face of a devastating natural disaster is the most human response imaginable." It is just as human to ask "Why?" when we are confronted with the evil committed by human beings. The result of my provocation yesterday was posting this on Facebook: "If we're universalists, then screw it, I'll do whatever I want and conform my life accordingly. Take your theology with you when you leave lest I beat you with it." Ham-fisted? Certainly. Provocative? I hope so, but probably not.

One question in which I am interested is, Does universalism amount to consequence-free living, at least in the ultimate sense? In other words, do I only have to endure the natural and temporal consequences of my bad choices without fear of an eternal consequence? If so, why should I keep going to confession, one of the key features of which is to take away the eternal punishment due to me as the just response to my sins. More to the point, What about the effects my sinful behaviors have on others? How is justice achieved for them? At least as it concerns me, as a Christian, I relinquish my just claim against others, which is what it means to truly forgive, but what about those who do not relinquish their just claim? Yes, they will be liable to those who, in turn, have a just claim against them, but even so... is such a refusal to relinquish just claims itself a damnable offense?

This reflection strikes me as a very good one as we approach tomorrow's Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, which is all about the end of time and the Lord's return in glory to judge the living (i.e., "the quick"- better to be quick than dead) and the dead.

As a Catholic I believe in what the Church calls "mortal sin." According to the Church's teaching eternal punishment is due these sins, namely hell. If my understanding is correct, if I recognize the evil I have done, realizing I have been the cause of evil effects that I can never correct, and refuse to repent of it, I stand in danger of damnation, which is eternal, not merely temporary.

One friend very usefully asked me to list the names of people I hope are not saved. It was a brilliant provocation. I suppose the most honest answer would be, Anyone and everyone who has ever done me wrong, treated me poorly, slandered me, unjustly impugned me, etc. But such an answer points right back at me and puts me on the list of anyone and everyone I have ever wronged. Jesus came to put an end to the infinite regress of retribution in a fallen world. So, I answered, "Me, after that I am at a loss." Truth be told, like St Paul, I desperately want to be saved, not just as a function of wanting the best for myself, but a deep desire to experience that for which I was made and redeemed.

Last Judgment, by Stefan Lochner, ca 1435


Another thoughtful response asked the question, "is our reason for following Jesus Christ and his Church our love for him, or is it utilitarian: a quid pro quo? I'll be nice if you give me eternal life. And if I'm not, you'll kick my ass. Eternally." These questions are posed rhetorically to demonstrate a point I find frustrating because I find it so difficult to truly love. In terms of the practice of our faith, it's that way with everything- Do I attend Mass because I am obligated or because I love God and want to do what I am made and redeemed to do, namely worship Him, which is my sanctification?

I think it's important not to short-circuit my own concern, reduce it to a cliché and say, "See, problem solved!" I truly believe that there are questions of meaning and significance that do not arise from an utilitarian calculus, even while accounting for the fact that nobody will be saved because s/he deserves it, least of all me. Even now, as defective as I am in love of God and neighbor, I want what God wants- that everyone be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). Did I not want this I would be wholly unsuited for ministry. Even so, in this regard the question remains- Do I or do I not have reason for concern in this regard, for myself or anyone else? In other words, does my ministry serve God's purpose over and above any palliative and temporal effects my service might have on those I serve.

Earlier this week I was browsing through a pamphlet of prayers published and distributed by the now defunct magazine 30 Days In the Church and in the World. The English title of the booklet is "Who Prays Is Saved" (you can view it here). It features an introduction by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. It's basically a little Basic Book of Catholic Prayers.

"Who Prays Is Saved" also contains some catechetical material. Listed number one under the "Six Sins Against the Holy Spirit" is "Presumption of God's mercy." I suppose the relevant issue, stated with considerably more care than my initial provocation, is, What is the source of the tension between the two poles of trying to save one's self by being "good" (Having been raised in a religion that taught not only the possibility, but the necessity, of self-perfection, I have enough experience of this to know that, at least for me, this is not possible) and being presumptive of God's mercy, which seems, at least at first glance, to remove a great deal of significance and meaning from human existence?

In his encyclical letter Spe salvi, on the theological virtue of hope, Pope Benedict XVI addressed some of this in a most useful way:
To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love [here he cited Tractatus super Psalmos, Ps 127, 1-3]. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened
Fred, who is perhaps my best friend that I have yet to meet in person, in a comment noted something I found very useful and provocative: "Universalism is an abstract solution to an existential problem, but this problem has itself been castrated, rendered abstract, by having been removed from the present to the afterlife. What can save me, who can save me, is the question of daily life. Tax collectors and prostitutes know this, and this is why they enter heaven ahead of the Pharisees, who smug in their daily life, feel a kind of anxiety as to whether the ultimate bookkeeper will approve of their accounting."

My critical response to this would be that the existential is the beginning of my question. The question I pose here is not, "Is it possible to live this way," but, "Is it desirable to live this way?" If it is, how so? These concerns do not seem to me abstract, but rather concrete. Again, speaking only for myself, there is way for me to live that comes quite easily, too easily.

I suppose the existential answer would go something like, "Don't go back to Rockville and waste another year."

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