Kimel and Hart on universalism

Universalism is a leitmotif of Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. In this post, he lists some writings that have been particularly influential in moving him toward the universalist position. As a bonus, Orthodox theologian David B. Hart pops up in the comments to offer his thoughts. Apparently DBH is also a convinced universalist!

I’m much less well-versed in the literature on this topic than Fr. Kimel and his commenters, and I don’t have a completely firm position on this. But as I wrote here, I think there is a trajectory toward universalism inherent in the Christian message. It’s also worth noting that hell, at least understood as “eternal, conscious torment,” has been rejected by many of the theological giants of recent history. In short, if God is a reality of unbounded, inexhaustible love, then it’s hard to see how the doctrine of hell–at least as it’s commonly expressed–can be maintained.

I’m pretty skeptical of human efforts to describe “the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell,” as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, but universalism (or at least hopeful universalism) has always struck me as more consonant with the spirit of the Christian gospel than preaching hellfire and damnation.

Abusus non tollit usum

Christians who are understandably disillusioned with the Christian Right’s approach to politics sometimes draw what is–I think–an improper lesson from it. That is, since the Christian Right wants to use political power to implement an intolerant or destructive agenda, they infer that the problem is political power as such. Christian blogger Benjamin Corey seems to head in this direction in this otherwise sensible post criticizing the Right’s language of “taking back” the country.

Corey says:

If there ever was a time to talk about “taking the country back” it was the time of Jesus– but that wasn’t anything he was concerned with. Jesus spent his time rejecting political power and instead, invested into building an other-worldly Kingdom where the power-rejectors are actually the greatest. Jesus saw his Kingdom, not political rule, as being the solution to all the ills of earth.

Changing the world via political power will always be a future invitation that never fully materializes. But changing the world through investing in God’s Kingdom? That’s an invitation you can accept and experience right now.

And this is why Christians on both sides of the political coin often get sidetracked: whether we realize it intellectually or not, we have grown to see government and political power as being the answer to the world’s problems– instead of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish.

The problem here, as I see it, is that some problems actually do require the use of government and political power. For example, Social Security has kept millions of senior citizens and disabled people from falling into poverty, minimum wage laws ensure that workers’ earnings don’t fall below a certain level, environmental laws set minimum standards for clean air and water, the Affordable Care Act has significantly reduced the number of people without health insurance, etc.

Now, I fully agree that none of these efforts, singly or collectively, has ushered in the Kingdom of God. But does that mean they aren’t important or were somehow not worth doing? That hardly follows, and it’s a weird sort of ethics, Christian or otherwise, that would be indifferent to such outcomes.

What seems to be driving a lot of this anti-political sentiment is a form of Christian pacifism wedded to what I consider to be a shallow analysis of political power. That is, people who have embraced a certain strain of Anabaptist-influenced pacifism sometimes conclude that all political power is inherently coercive in a bad sense and thus something that Christians should eschew. The problem is that social arrangements are always already structured by power (and thus “coercive” if you like).  So “opting out” of politics simply leaves those existing–and often unjust–power relations in place. The only way to change them, as Reinhold Niebuhr argued decades ago, is by an application of countervailing power. This doesn’t mean violence necessarily, but it does mean something more than sweet reason. (I’m not a pacifist myself, but there are meaningful distinctions to be drawn between “violence,” “power,” “coercion,” etc.)

Ironically, the progressive-pacifist analysis of government and power ends up looking a lot like that of right-wing libertarians, who regard any use of government to address social inequities as illegitimate “coercion.” This is probably a tip off that something’s gone wrong here. Political power is certainly prone to abuse. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a proper use.

Odds and ends for a Friday

I realize I’m exactly the type of person you’d expect to like a Sufjan Stevens album, but nonetheless–the new album is really good!

Evangelical Christian groups are working on a statement of theological concern regarding factory farming. I’m no longer a vegetarian (and feel vaguely guilty about it), but I’m all for any efforts to reform how we treat the animals we raise for food.

There’s been some good stuff published to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Some pieces I found of particular interest were this on why we should mark the surrender of the Confederacy with a national holiday, this one on how the issues that split the country still drive our politics and this one on the surprising divergence of Grant’s and Lee’s reputations after the war.

Yesterday was also the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer continues to inspire Christians of every stripe, who often jostle to claim him as one of their own. But Bonhoeffer was far from a plaster saint and clearly recognized his own complicity in evil. Which, if anything, makes him more relevant for us.

Ready for Hillary?

Liberal Christians aren’t caving in to “society”

This article makes two assumptions, neither of which really stands up to scrutiny. The first is that Christians have held the same views on marriage, sex, and gender for the last 2,000 years. But I think you’d have a hard time making the case that marriage and gender have been understood the same way during this time. For example, improvements in women’s legal, social, and economic status over the last century or so have had a radical impact on the nature of marriage. From an arrangement in which the woman was (at best) the decidedly junior partner, marriage has shifted to a relationship of (relative) equals. Even conservative churches have accepted, if at times only implicitly, this more egalitarian understanding of marriage. The same goes for gender roles more generally. Experience, reason, and social context have always informed Christians’ appropriation of biblical moral imperatives and values.

Second, the author seems to assume that liberal Christians and others who have adopted “revisionist” positions on sexual ethics are simply caving in to “society.” But this ignores that vast amount of theological and biblical scholarship over the last several decades which has called the “traditional” view into question. It can no longer be taken for granted, for example, that the biblical passages traditionally appealed to in condemning same-sex relationships had faithful, long-term partnerships in view. Similarly, Christian theologians and scholars have long criticized the natural law ethic that provides much of the rationale for disapproving of same-sex relationships. And, perhaps most importantly, much of this rethinking has been carried out by and with faithful gay Christians, whose lives and relationships stand as a living rebuke to the idea that they are “intrinsically disordered.”

This is not to deny that the traditional view still has able defenders, but this is a proper theological and ecclesial dispute, not a matter of fidelity to tradition vs. selling out to the culture. Just as there isn’t a monolithic Christian view on war and peace or economics, Christians will continue to disagree–on theological and biblical grounds–over sexual ethics.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the author’s suggestion that, in the long run, a more traditional sexual ethic may win out among the majority of the planet’s Christians. It does seem that in many of the places where Christianity is growing fastest, it is a conservative (sometimes very conservative) version of the faith that is winning the day. That said, however, history is unpredictable, and recent events in the United States and other countries show that things can turn around pretty quickly. In any event, though, the faithful Christians I know who are working to make their churches more humane and accepting aren’t doing it to be on “the right side of history.” They’re doing it because they think it’s right, period.

Update: I’ve revised the first paragraph of this post to make the point clearer (hopefully!).

Recent reading

More #content partly repurposed from my Goodreads page…

The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, Rowan Williams

The former archbishop of Canterbury explores the theological underpinnings of Lewis’s beloved fantasy series with his customary erudition and pastoral heart. Williams also does a nice job responding to some recent critics of the series (e.g., Philip Pullman). The purpose of the Narnia books, Williams contends, is to be an intellectual and imaginative “mouthwash” that allows us to encounter the Christian message anew. Probably the best indicator of the book’s success is that it immediately made me want to re-read the Narnia books.

On Niebuhr: A Theological Study, Langdon Gilkey

A clear and engaging exposition of Niebuhr’s theology from a former student (and accomplished theologian in his own right). Gilkey argues that Niebuhr is a more coherent and compelling theologian than he’s often given credit for (as opposed to being a social critic who festooned a largely secular ethical system with pious language). The final chapter helpfully delves into some of Niebuhr’s presuppositions and shows that he remained very much a modernist, despite his strident criticisms of the liberal Protestantism of his day. I came away from this with a renewed appreciation of Niebuhr as a religious thinker.

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt

A comprehensive argument for the right to choose an abortion as essential for women’s full equality. It seems increasingly common for people to call for a “third way” on abortion beyond the extremes of “pro-life” and “pro-choice”; Pollitt, however, compels us to look closely at the concrete effects of various efforts to limit abortion and whether they are driven more by a desire to stigmatize or shame women who have abortions for the “wrong” reasons. She also notes repeatedly that many of the people who oppose legal abortion also oppose policies (e.g., widespread access to birth control, comprehensive sex education, and government support for families) that would do the most to reduce its prevalence. I probably still fall somewhat into the “mushy middle” this book is aimed at, but it definitely nudged me in a more steadfastly pro-choice direction.

Party spirit

The fact is that democracy requires not only the organization of political parties, but also a certain degree of mutual respect or at least tolerance. Whenever the followers of one political party persuade themselves that the future of the nation is not safe with the opposition in power, it becomes fairly certain that the nation’s future is not safe, no matter which party rules. For such political acrimony endangers the nation’s health more than any specific political policies.

–Reinhold Niebuhr, “Democracy and the Party Spirit,” from Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr

These words were originally published in 1954, but it’s hardly much of a stretch to apply them today. Niebuhr thought that “party spirit” in 1954 was more of a problem on the Right than on the Left–as President Eisenhower was trying to manage his party’s radical right flank, who were busy looking for Communists under every bed. And similarly today, there’s no shortage of rhetoric coming from the Right about America’s imminent descent into a socialist hellscape (see Sen. Ted Cruz’s recent speech announcing his presidential campaign, to take just one pertinent example). The main difference now seems to be that the radical right flank accounts for the vast majority of the G.O.P.

But then, I’m a Democrat, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?

The survival of chaos after the victory of God

Jon D. Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence is one of the most stimulating theology books I’ve read in a long time. I was expecting something different–a theodicy of sorts; but what I got instead was more interesting. Levenson argues that key passages in the Tanakh/Jewish Bible present creation not as “creation out of nothing,” but as God’s “mastery” of the forces of chaos. These forces continually threaten to reemerge and will not be fully vanquished until God’s final victory at the end of time; hence the “persistence of evil.”

While Levenson recognizes that creatio ex nihilo has become the more-or-less orthodox view in Judaism (as well as in Christianity and Islam), he demonstrates–rather convincingly–that the Bible contains an only partially submerged motif of “creation from chaos.” That is, YHWH creates by defeating those forces that threaten to undo the divinely constituted order, stability, and peace that characterize creation. This victory, however, is precarious or incomplete: violence, disorder, and suffering are all-too-familiar parts of our experience, suggesting “the survival of chaos after the victory of God.” Contrary to many other interpreters, Levenson sees affinities with as much as differences from other Near Eastern creation myths–such as the Babylonian–that posit a primordial battle out of which the world order emerged. Through analysis of key texts, including of course the beginning of Genesis but also several Psalms, Job, and others, Levenson reveals traces of the creation from chaos motif.

A key implication of this view is that evil and suffering are not the result of an inscrutable divine will, but rather of the incomplete, tentative, and agonistic nature of YHWH’s mastery of the forces of chaos, which continually resist his benevolent ordering. Peace, justice, and stability continually threaten to lapse back into the chaos out of which they were brought. This is vividly brought home for long stretches of Israel’s history, and the biblical traditions of lament and apocalyptic can be seen as a cry for God to finally bring about the decisive victory over the elements that threaten God’s good creation.

Importantly, the Bible also attests to the role human beings are to play in this victory. When Israel keeps the commandments of God–including its cultic and ritual obedience–it is expanding the area over which the divine will holds sway in the world. (In this regard, Levenson allows himself some shots at certain Christian theologies that minimize the importance of human action.) The completion of creation only comes when the forces of evil and chaos are vanquished both in external history and in the human heart.

Creation from chaos can seem a bit mythological, and Levenson generally avoids trying to cash it out in more rationalistic or metaphysical terms. Process theology is the most obvious candidate for a compatible philosophical account, but Levenson seems to prefer to let the tension between divine omnipotence and the “groaning” of creation stand. The point is that God’s sovereignty, or omnipotence, is not a static fact, but a true dramatic achievement:

The operative dichotomy, thus, is not that between limitation and omnipotence, but that which lies between omnipotence as a static attribute and omnipotence as a dramatic enactment: the absolute power of God realizing itself in achievement and relationship. What this biblical theology of dramatic omnipotence shares with the theology of the limited God is a frank recognition of God’s setbacks, in contrast to the classical theodicies with their exaggerated commitment to divine impassibility and their tendency to ascribe imperfection solely to human free will, the recalcitrance of matter, or the like. . . . But whereas the theology of the limited God provides exoneration of a sort for God’s failures (for, in Kantian terms, how can we say God ought to do what he cannot?), the theology of omnipotence as dramatic enactment allows people to fault God for the persistence of evil (including, on occasion, human evil) and to goad him into reactivating his primal omnipotence, which is never relinquished but often agonizingly, catastrophically dormant. One might call this latter position a theology of omnipotence in potentia, omnipotence recollected from the cosmogonic past and expected in the eschatological future but only affirmed in faith in the disordered present.

In any event, metaphysical speculation seems less important here than fidelity to experience. Faith in the God who is the source of all good can’t help but stand in tension with our manifest experience of evil and suffering. In this light, Levenson’s conclusion to his discussion of Job could (and probably does) double as a conclusion to the book as a whole:

Though the persistence of evil seems to undermine the magisterial claims of the creator-God, it is through submission to exactly those claims that the good order that is creation comes into being. Like all other faith, creation-faith carries with it enormous risk. Only as the enormity of the risk is acknowledged can the grandeur of the faith be appreciated.

Theodicy–in the sense of explaining why evil exists–is an inherently unsatisfying undertaking. Would you really be satisfied to learn that some tragedy that befell you or someone you loved was the inevitable outworking of the divine plan or the fundamental metaphysical principles of the universe? What Levenson’s biblical account evokes instead is a kind of holy impatience with evil and suffering and a faith–albeit one often sorely tested–in the One who laid the foundations of the world and who will “swallow up death for ever and . . . wipe away tears from all faces.”

Some recent reading

Shamelessly plagiarized from my Goodreads page:

Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin

A vivid, searing exploration of religious, racial, sexual, and individual identity. An American classic.

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A very different book from Go Tell It On the Mountain, but still occupied with the nature of the self, its desires, and its self-deceptions.

Looking through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book of 2014, Graham Tomlin

Nothing particularly ground-breaking, but a sound and edifying set of meditations on how Christians should approach power, suffering, ambition, failure, reconciliation, and other areas of life, informed by a Luther-esque “theology of the cross.”

Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement, Paul Fiddes

I’m not sure I’m fully convinced by Fiddes’ preference for “subjective” accounts of the atonement, but this is a helpful study of how the major models of how the cross saves (sacrifice, victory, love, etc.) can still speak to us.

I’ve just started reading, at the recommendation of Alastair Roberts, Moshe Halbertal’s On Sacrifice. I’m not very far into it, but it already promises to be quite good.

Read anything good lately?

Barack Obama and American henotheism

The response in some quarters to President Obama’s (frankly rather anodyne) remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast has been dispiriting, if sadly predictable. The right-wing outrage machine has (once again) deemed him an apologist for Islamist terrorism and an enemy of true Christianity and Western civilization. (How they square this with his actual record is beyond me.)

More sober commentators have made much of the “Niebuhrian” (as in Reinhold) spirit of the president’s comments. Obama recognizes that no religion has a monopoly on violence, and no society is beyond using faith to justify its crimes. As Niebuhr pointed out again and again, even our best efforts are tainted with self-interest. Humility and self-criticism are indispensable, even while they shouldn’t paralyze us in pursuing justice.

This has been a persistent theme of Obama’s public statements since the beginning of his presidency. He famously named Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers, and there has been no shortage of attempts to look at his policies through a Niebuhrian lens.

The reaction to Obama’s speech from some elements of the Right, however, puts me more in the mind of Reinhold’s brother Helmut Richard. In his justly famous analysis of “radical monotheism,” the younger Niebuhr brother distinguished monotheism in its highest form from what he called “henotheism.” As theologian Douglas Ottati has summarized Niebuhr’s analysis, henotheism “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends.” In a henotheistic scheme, God is used to prop up the values of the group, rather than calling people to a truly universal ethic.

When people can’t abide self-criticism or acknowledge that Christianity has been used to justify despicable evil (from the Crusades to pogroms against Jews to slavery and Jim Crow, and much besides), henotheism is at work. Christianity becomes the religion of our tribe, rather than a faith in the God who, as Obama’s favorite president put it, “has His own purposes.” The reaction to Obama’s rather mild comments says a lot more about the operative theology of much American Christianity than it does about him.

Should Jews view Christianity as a new revelation?

Over the past several decades Christians have been rethinking their relationship to Jews and Judaism. This has been prompted, most obviously, by the horrors of the Holocaust and the recognition that centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and persecution of Jews helped lay the groundwork for it. Most notably, both the Catholic Church and most mainline Protestant churches have issued official statements repenting of Christendom’s long, sordid history of anti-Judaism. They have also, albeit not always quite as clearly, affirmed the ongoing validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and largely renounced efforts to target Jews for conversion.

This sea change in Christian-Jewish relations has been accompanied by some provocative theological revisionism. Both in official documents and in the work of individual theologians, Christians have struggled to articulate a “non-supersessionist” version of their faith. This raises a host of thorny theological issues, particularly about what it means to affirm Jesus as savior while respecting the covenant Jews already have with God.

Jews have had far less reason to engage in this kind of theological soul-searching, most obviously because they were the ones on the receiving end of Christian hate and persecution. They don’t face the same obvious need to change their inherited theology or practice in light of improved Christian-Jewish relations. This is also in part because Judaism has, historically, been less inclined to make universalistic (some would say totalitarian) claims than Christianity since it has never taught that everyone has to convert to Judaism to be “saved.” Generally, the Jewish position seems to have been that the primary obligation of non-Jews is to follow the universal moral law.

Jewish theologian Michael Kogan thinks, however, that Jews should revisit their inherited views of Christianity and embrace a more positive evaluation. In his book Opening the Covenant he argues that Jews should view Christianity as, in effect, a new revelation from the God of Israel, one by which God has acted to establish a covenant with gentiles.

Kogan argues that Jews should acknowledge that, through Jesus and his interpreters (preeminently St. Paul), billions of non-Jews have been brought into a saving relationship with the God of Israel. This can be seen as a partial fulfillment of the promise that through the family of Abraham “all nations of the earth will be blessed.” Kogan thus wants to push beyond the traditional position that gentiles are saved by following the moral law (or the Noahide Laws) and affirm Christianity as a new revelation of Israel’s God.

In line with this, he contends that Jews can regard Jesus as not only a great Jewish teacher or prophet, but as the means by which God has acted to incorporate gentiles into God’s covenant. This doesn’t mean that Jews should be come Christians–on the contrary, Jews are already in a saving relationship with God and have no need to do anything more than live by the light they have already received. Christianity, he says, is a revelation specifically for gentiles.

Implied by Kogan’s argument is that Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah as Christians have long claimed. He spends a chapter summarizing various ideas about what the Messiah would be like that were circulating in the late BCE/early CE period. Contrary to what Christians sometimes argue, there was no single Jewish understanding of the Messiah that Jesus could be shown to have fulfilled (or overturned, as is sometimes maintained). The Messiah was variously portrayed as a Davidic king, a supernatural agent of God, or an Aaronic priest. In some cases, it was held that the messianic age would be brought about through God’s direct intervention, without the need for a “Messiah” per se. Early Christianity can be seen as one form of messianic Judaism, jostling for recognition and legitimacy alongside others, but there are no agreed-upon criteria for “messiahhood,” so to speak, which Jesus can be shown to have met.

Jesus has not brought redemption to Israel, Kogan says. The messianic age has not arrived. What Jesus has done, however, is “brought the salvific word of Israel’s God to the gentiles . . . helping Israel to fulfill its calling to be a blessing to all peoples” (p. 68). Kogan thinks that Jews can affirm this without abandoning their identity as Jews.

Underlying much of Kogan’s argument is a pluralistic theology of religions, but one that differs from some popular forms of pluralism. Often pluralists say that the various religions are humanly constructed attempts to reach the divine. But Kogan insists that revelation is a non-negotiable element of Jewish (and Christian) faith. It’s true that revelation is conditioned by human response; it is filtered and refracted through human language and concepts. But it is still God reaching out to humanity to reveal the divine self and will.

What makes Kogan’s view pluralistic is that he takes both Judaism and Christianity to constitute true–although partial–revelations from God. Both Jews and Christians can enter into a saving relationship with the God of Israel through their respective faiths. (He suggests that this applies to other traditions too–at least the “higher” religions–though developing a full-blown pluralistic theory of religion is outside the scope of this book.)

Kogan even goes so far as to suggest, drawing on Paul’s metaphor of the olive tree, that Christians and Jews are both branches of one Israel. They can, and should, be co-witnesses to God and work together toward realizing God’s reign of peace and justice. They have no need to try to convert each other, but Jews and Christians can have their faith mutually enriched and their understanding of God and what God requires deepened through dialogue. (Here Kogan echoes Christian theologians like Paul van Buren, Roy Eckhardt, and Clark Williamson.)

It’s not my place to say what Judaism’s theological self-understanding should be, but as a Christian I welcome Kogan’s positive assessment of Christianity as something other than a heretical mash-up of Judaism and paganism. I still think Christians have work to do in understanding their faith in a way that can truly affirm the ongoing validity of Judaism. Many Christians are uneasy with a full-blown religious pluralism and often take refuge in an “inclusivist” view that, while well intentioned, can be condescending toward other faiths (e.g., Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christians”). For what it’s worth, my hunch is that a suitably modified inclusivism will probably end up looking a lot like one of the more plausible versions of pluralism (such as Kogan’s).

Christians may also balk at Kogan’s claim that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah, but can we really continue to maintain this while affirming God’ ongoing covenant with Jews? Perhaps one viable approach to this is the one suggested by Tyron Inbody. He says that both Christians and Jews, if they’re being honest, must recognize that God’s kingdom has not arrived in its fullness. Both are awaiting the same Kingdom–God’s universal reign of shalom. But whether or not Jesus is the one who will reign as Messiah in that kingdom is ultimately an eschatological question that we can’t definitively settle now.

All these questions notwithstanding, I greatly enjoyed Kogan’s book, which provides (for Christians at least) a much-needed perspective on the Christian-Jewish dialogue.