Friday, July 24, 2015

Why "Hopeful Universalism" Isn't Hope

There's a standard line in the field that goes something like this: we may hope that God will save all people, but we may not confidently announce this or rely on it. It's very close to what George Hunsinger calls "holy silence," or "reverent agnosticism." It's even closer to something Wittgenstein is supposed to have said at the beginning of the Tractatus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." Except the real sentiment Wittgenstein means to express is more like this: "Let what can be said at all, be said clearly; we must [only] be silent on points about which nothing can be said."

I will be absolutely blunt with you: if the redemption of humanity, God's redemption of God's creature, cannot be proclaimed confidently as gospel, then we have no good reason to trust this "god" whose freedom we are so piously attempting to preserve. We want to leave room for God to do whatever God might feel necessary at the end of the world. Room for God to be absolutely inconsistent with Godself, if need be. Only one thing could persuade us to do this, though: the defense of a doctrine by which we have always asserted that bad people (not us, but really bad people) will get what they "deserve" in eternity, and will get it for all eternity—if, that is, they aren't simply destroyed outright with extreme prejudice. A doctrine we think of as perfectly and impartially just.

A doctrine that is as perfectly and impartially just as we are.

And so, to the extent that we are willing to cognize total salvation, total eschatological redemption, as a possibility, we attempt to make it a remote one. Ideally desirable, maybe, a product of an understandable idealism, a nice idea, ... it's just such a shame reality gets in the way. So go ahead, hope for that. But don't expect it. Don't think you have any reason to trust that it will happen, or that it's even likely to. And above all, don't talk to other people about it like they should have any confidence in your foolish hope.

Why? Because in the end, God's going to do what God wants. And God doesn't care what you want. God doesn't care about "nice."

But which "God" is this? Is this god really the one we know in YHWH and Jesus? The trustworthy father of the adopted people, whose adoption grows ever larger toward the world? Whose people are always bloodthirsty and vengeful and restrictive, hating their neighbors, cousins, and even sometimes their parents, brothers, and sisters? The god whose promise is that in the end this people, and all peoples, will be subject to true justice instead of their hatreds and violences against one another? The god whose justice is mercy, who loves peace and blesses those who make peace? The god who came here in flesh to die rather than to kill? That god is eternally faithful, and needs no protection for a freedom custom-designed to permit eschatological infidelity. So what "god" are we protecting with this irreverent pretense to ignorance? What are we saving by foreclosing on speculation built on the gospel rather than the law?

"Hopeful universalism" isn't a good Christian position. It isn't even genuinely hopeful. Hope is only truly hope if it is expectation of something trustworthy, something as yet unseen but promised. We may justifiably have hope in the extremely unlikely—if we have been given reason to expect that it will nonetheless happen. If I encourage you to hope for something that I have reason to expect won't happen, and no good reason beyond my own optimism to expect that it might, I am encouraging false hope and acting in bad faith. If I tell you you may hope for something that you may not proclaim as gospel, giant warning lights with sirens should be going off in your head. An unreliable object of hope is not an object of promise, or it is only the promise of an unreliable god.

What's the basic problem? That we see a dilemma when we see gospel and law, yes and no. When we see these together, however much we might want the yes, we have more use for the no. And we believe that they stand in conflict, a conflict that must be resolved from our side. Or, rather, from your side. Or, in the rarer instance, that God will resolve this dilemma by division, by assigning some to yes and others to no—which is just what we believed when we thought morality could effect change, and why positions that truly assert God's unalterable decision are rare in practice. Justice, after all, if it is not caprice, demands that we determine our own fates, and deserve them. We don't actually want, or trust, a cruel and arbitrary god. But there is nothing we would not accept from the hands of an arguably just, if disproportionate in response to demerit, deity. Such a god makes sense to us, and always has.

"Hopeful universalism," with its sham "hope," is merely a way of wedging the door open for this damnation. A "third way" like all others, wanting the look of a nicer outcome but with all the ceremony of cruel judgment intact under the surface. If we truly cannot speak of eschatology, let us erase all of our eschatologies and leave the field. Otherwise, let us have this contest over what God is truly like, and what such a God will truly do. There is evidence from which we may obediently work, and positive things may be said without falling into nonsense. So believe in damnation, or salvation, and defend yourself in good faith, but do not come to me with appeals for "holy silence" on the subject. If you are impartial about injustice, you belong to the injustice as surely as if you believed it to be just.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Who Do You Trust?

I was having a conversation on Twitter, and Marcus Borg came up, and I said that I basically agreed with his Pauline chronology, even if I don't agree with many of his conclusions in interpretive work. And that was interpreted as a statement of how far I trust him. Which is an interesting twist—because the more I get to know Borg's work, the more thoroughly I trust him. I just don't agree at many points farther down the road. And I said as much, and explained that there are many scholars I trust, with whom I will disagree profoundly; and on the other hand, many I distrust who, nonetheless, make valid points that I will not deny.

Of course, that wasn't what the initial question meant by asking to what extent I trust Marcus Borg. In a more basic sense, we use the question of trust to imply reliance, even to the extent of not questioning conclusions. And I could say, to twist that point the other way, that I trust even people with bad intent—to do bad things. There's something honest about an unpretentious crook, who knows what and why they do what they choose freely to do. But that isn't what I mean, either, when I say I trust many people with whom I often disagree.

So, a counterexample. What causes my distrust? The short answer is, epistemological shortcuts. And the biggest of those is authoritarian traditionalism, regardless of its specific form. Why do I trust Marcus Borg? Skepticism, and thorough engagement with the field as it has taken its science seriously. Of course, others don't trust me for exactly the opposite reason: I refuse to compromise my epistemology for traditionalism. (Which is ignoring the real reason I shouldn't be trusted, as an unreliable narrator.)

So, after all that, it occurs to me: I don't trust the tradition. Period. There are authors within the tradition that I trust, whether or not I agree with them entirely, but the tradition itself gets no faith from me. Well, what about the Bible? I'm pretty sure the answer is that I also don't trust the Bible. Which depends greatly on what we mean by "trust." I trust God, to whom the various scriptures we have give testimony, but the authors of those scriptures are frequently unreliable as witnesses. And as a canon, this set of writings is the bearer of agendas I am not wholly willing to cosign. But let's break those writings out, even just for the New Testament:

I trust Paul, in his seven original letters, because he is being profoundly honest about what he does and why and how, and what he will not do, and why not. He is good, and his editors are clumsy. I trust the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, in spite of their unreliability as witnesses, because I understand what they are each attempting to do with the same material. I don't trust the author of Acts, who at least had the good sense to leave most of Luke intact in his editing of the earlier composition. I know exactly what Acts aims to do, and its self-justifying retelling of history is terrible. (This is eroding my trust in the gospels, but slowly, since I work mostly on Pauline canon pieces. But none of them are witnesses, and all of them are stories well after the fact, so the gospels don't have so far to fall as they might for someone else.) I trust Hebrews, and the Apocalypse, and James, and even 1 Peter, because what they are doing makes sense, and they seem to be honest about it—even if we have not been honest about where they come from in doing it. (Again, agreement is not implied here!) I trust Colossians, but not Ephesians, because only one of those authors had a good-faith reason to write their Pauline pastiche. 2 Thessalonians, Jude, and 2 Peter get no love from me—which may be odd considering the Apocalypse does. And I feel like I'm in an odd place with the Pastorals, because they are the absolute worst forgeries in the canon, but their naked ambition is profoundly honest in its abuse of apostolic authority.

Who do you trust? Why do you trust them? Clearly, I am my authority. People have told me that as though it were a bad thing, but they usually mean that in contrast to trusting the tradition, in a kind of hyper-selective majority-rule authoritarianism sense, to know better than anyone else. Because obviously I'm not smart enough, and they all were brilliant and unquestionable, and worked on problems that were truly general and could be solved for all time.

So yeah: I trust me. I don't expect you to trust me, though. I expect skepticism, and I expect you to verify my work. Or falsify it, if I'm wrong. I need that. And so I also trust you, to the extent that you're willing to step up and do that. But I expect much from you, just as from myself.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Relief of Being Able to Take the Bible Seriously—and Not Conservatively

Not that long ago I read a Bonhoeffer quote about the relief Bultmann provided, and the renewed faith he enabled, basically by allowing Moderns to be critical of scripture without calling them unfaithful for it. And this morning over at Women in Theology, Maria McDowell provides a must-read reflection on Marcus Borg with similar effect:
I cannot possibly count the number of times I have heard someone in this parish say, “Marcus allowed me to be a Christian again,” or “Marcus’s work was such a relief to me,” or “Marcus helped me find my faith.”


I wanted to understand what was so appealing about his work. More than understand his work, I wanted to understand the love for him and by him that is so tangible among those who heard him speak, who attended his classes. When someone says, “this person helped me reclaim my faith,” I think we should pay attention. The fruits of the Spirit are precious and beautiful, and in my experience, sometimes too easy to ignore when they are not accompanied by the ‘right’ liturgy, the ‘right’ practice, the ‘right’ theology, the ‘right’ body, the ‘right’ belief. This man and his work was clearly, evidently, and abundantly fruitful.
This is a profoundly important thing to realize about critical scholarship, and one that is so rarely spoken: it serves the faith, and it does good for the faithful!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Being Fairer to Bultmann, and the People

When one is a Barthian, and especially when one also studies exegesis heavily, one tends to give Bultmann a hard time. And unlike David Congdon, whose early magnum opus on Bultmann will be coming out soon (with a smaller handbook to follow), I haven't put in anything like the time on Bultmann that I have on Barth. I'm not likely to, anytime soon, either. But I appreciate David's thorough and scrupulous effort to advocate for Bultmann's project; work like this and the Hammann biography makes it much easier to do the hard work necessary to being fair to the man while I continue to disagree with aspects of his approach.

Bultmann is, in many ways, the exegetical counterpart to Schleiermacher—and misunderstood for the same reasons. Both have been taken to be privileging the "cultured despisers" in an apologetic mode that gives away too much of the store to Modernity. But it is far better to see them taking the opposite approach to Gaunilo's complaints from Anselm and Barth. Gaunilo of Marmoutiers is not an outsider, but an incredulous insider, one who sees the archaisms of scripture and the intricacies of dogmatic history as detrimental to a faith that must be sustained in the everyday world of experience. How can we preach the gospel to such a person, when in its native forms it relies on things contrary to experience?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Races I Don't Have a Horse In: Peri-Mortem Salvation

There are many races I don't have a horse in, to put it colloquially: arguments in which I couldn't care less who wins, because they're arguments I'm not interested in having. And then there are the special cases in which I don't have a horse in the race, but I run against the race itself, because the race is for the wrong goal. This is one of those.

I make no secret of the fact that I am a universalist, and a very particular one. I believe that the whole creation is in fact redeemed in Christ, without concern for moral change, ontological change, or "regeneration." Christian ethics can only therefore be a matter of one's conscious relation to others on the basis of one's own relation to the God by whom this reality has already been achieved. (This in no way replaces the demand for an ethics appropriate to our common life in society, in which moral action must respect the wellbeing of all together, especially those on the margins, without prejudice among the competing and arbitrary systems that we call ways of life. In neither case is religion the fount of morality!)

This makes me a hit at parties, let me tell you. But it also makes me disappointed in much of what passes for "universalism" in the wider world of arguments on the basis of Medieval scholastic principles. The key to so many of those arguments is that salvation is understood as a peri-mortem event, in addition to being a product of judgment at the final eschaton. A future concern, to put it simply. For which reason it is often presumed that universalism involves the irrelevance of all realities prior to salvation—human freedom, right action, wrong action, suffering, patience, evil, etc.—because they a) have been foreseen, b) will be replaced by a new final reality, or c) are simply gratuitous. Side effects, as it were.

The problem, of course, is a linear progressive view of history, from creation to final eschaton, during which eschatological matters are determined. This is, for that matter, the trap into which many predestinarian systems fall in accounting for the assertion that ethics must still matter. This is why the Arminians exist. The old Reformation trap: if it doesn't matter for salvation, does it matter? If it matters, doesn't it in some way relate to salvation? This is how faith becomes a work: not because it isn't in fact something we do, but because it adopts the same functions in the system, and the system never changed.

The only solution, as far as I can tell, is to change the system by removing salvation from the calculus of death and judgment. Until this happens, the system within which salvation is a peri-mortem (including post-mortem) concern will continue to make us the arbiters of our own salvation, even to the point of requiring God to override our self-arbitration in order to save.

This is absurd.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Apocatastasis: A Twitter Essay, Extended

I wrote this as a Twitter storm of sorts, and one piece out of the middle struck a pious note that has been repeated. But that note seems to me no less than a death knell, the annihilation of the old for the sake of the new, and so I'm putting it together here to show why.

"This question belongs to eschatology, but two delimitations may be apposite in this [i.e. non-eschatological] context." CD IV.3.1, 477.

So much of our discussion of Barth on universalism presumes that the answer that follows, on reconciliation and its end, is eschatological. This requires that we simply ignore that reconciliation is explicitly not eschatological, and does not lead to eschatology, in Barth!

When Barth speaks to apocatastasis, the question is whether, short of the eschaton, the kingdom will be actualized in mercy upon the earth. The question is whether human actors, in their impossible and absurdly self-ordered worlds, will not actually reap what they have sown.

Because we assume that judgment is the gateway to eschatology, we misunderstand Barth's insistence on giving just the immanent answer here. And the immanent answer to how the world will look when it ends is, "I don't know, and we have insufficient data to say." This is not leaving open the possibility of eternal damnation. This is refusing to assert that accounts will be settled "fairly" at last. Barth's openness to grace here is the possibility, in other words, of universal reconciliation, without making a statement on redemption.

This is what it means when we pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This is the grace we request. "Undo our worlds, O Lord, and restore creation to your order as though ours had never been."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

RFC: Researching the Kuyperians and "Common Grace"

The blog has been pretty inactive for about a year, while I've been working on projects that it's not easy or necessarily desirable to blog. But as I gear up for field exams (really, this time) I expect to be increasing my output as a way to keep thoughts associated on topic.

The first of those topics was going to be orders of creation in the Reformation strands, but I realized that there's just no way to do that justice at the level of detail I need. So—quite opposed to my initial Lutheran instincts—I found that if I had to focus on one strand, it was going to be the Kuyper–Bavinck-rooted strand of Dutch Calvinism. These folks are a key antithesis to Barth's doctrine of creation, and they have practically all of the features I could possibly want, including the political implications of believing that culture is in any way providential or natural. I'll be focusing particularly on "common grace," which as I understand it will require a bit of digging into "sphere sovereignty" and possible connections to the reaction against Modernist revolutionary tendencies (i.e. the French Revolution of 1792).

So far, I have Kuyper and Bavinck as contemporaries and roots of the tree, Berkouwer as a necessary point of interaction with Barth constructively, and Van Til as a necessary point of refusal of Barth through modification of this "common grace" tradition. Mouw appears to be useful as a present-day exemplar. I'm not learning Dutch for this; English resources will have to do. Fortunately, the Kuyper translation project has the first volume of Common Grace published, even though I'll have to do without the rest of it and Pro Rege.

This will contribute to my dissertation, to the extent that exponents and students of this tradition are practically the only ones who have reliably seen what I'm looking for in Barth—even if they see it and recoil. But I need to have a solid grasp of where they're coming from, because I need to oppose them fairly and well. They are possibly the best and most thorough exponent of what Barth rejects, and their theology works, even if in diametrically opposed fashion to Barth's own.

I know I have readers who will at the very least be more well-acquainted with this strand as members of the Reformed tradition and students or graduates of Reformed institutions. Suggestions and advice are welcome, especially on what constitutes good secondary literature. Please, help keep me accountable.