Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Opiate of the Theologians (Universalism)

Not until the nineteenth century did any Christian body make universal salvation its official teaching. The first to do so, the Universalist Church, later merged with another to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. Within the mainstream churches, medieval and early-modern universalists led a subterranean, catacomb existence—isolated figures, often concealing their views—while Christendom in all its major branches preached hell no less than heaven. Following Origen’s lead, universalists preserved a covert gospel, withheld from the masses, who needed hellfire to scare them straight, while a tiny cadre of religious intellectuals saw themselves as the only ones fit to know the truth. Dogmatic universalism—the notion that God must save all human beings—was for centuries not a public tradition but an esoteric one.

During the first half of the twentieth century, overt expressions of universalism were rare among acknowledged church teachers, with the exception of certain Russian thinkers such as Sergius Bulgakov. In the 1940s, Jacques Maritain confided to a notebook his private thoughts regarding a larger hope of salvation, and Emil Brunner affirmed without fear of contradiction that apokatastasis (universal restoration) is “a doctrine which the Church as a whole has recognized as a heresy.” At mid-century, Catholic theology showed no sign of changing. Yet something shifted during the 1950s and 1960s: Karl Barth’s affirmation of universal election in Church Dogmatics allowed universalism to come out of the shadows. Hans Urs von Balthasar acknowledged Origen’s influence and that of “Barth’s doctrine of election, that brilliant overcoming of ­Calvin.” In the 1970s and 1980s, Catholics discussed “anonymous Christians” and “the unchurched,” while Evangelicals pondered “the ­unevangelized.” Yet the Catholic-Evangelical pivot to inclusivism would prove to be merely a stepping-stone. By century’s end, the earlier debates over inclusivism had become passé, and the new arena of controversy was universalism, either in a hopeful, Balthasarian vein, which seeks to affirm the possibility of universal salvation, or in an assertive, Moltmannian version, which makes it a divine imperative. Among today’s young Christian theologians, Balthasarian tentativeness is fast yielding to ever more strident affirmations of the necessity of salvation for all—as in David ­Bentley Hart’s recent book, That All Shall Be Saved.

Hart charges those who believe in an eternal hell with “moral imbecility.” The language of rude dismissal was something of a guilty pleasure when he deployed it against the “New Atheists” more than a decade ago. Now he is denouncing Dante and every­one else who sustains the age-old tradition of the Church. By his reckoning, their view of God should evoke in us “only a kind of remote, vacuous loathing.” So much for Augustine, Chrysostom, John of Damascus, Aquinas, Pascal, Newman, Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Pope Benedict XVI—not to mention innumerable canonized saints of the Church, the great majority of ancient Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac writers, and such Protestant luminaries as Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Calvin, Hooker, and Edwards. Oddly, Hart now sounds very much like Richard Dawkins. No less than the aging atheist, Hart finds the two-thousand-year Christian tradition not just unbelievable but repugnant and inhuman.

Read the rest here.

1 comment:

Greg Pavlik said...

McClymod is so far out of his element when it comes to early Chritianity, its painful.

In any case, Hart's book should be examined on the merits of his arguments, which are several and sound. Then again, for the most part he is just channeling Gregory of Nyssa. I suppose I will take seriously the weeping and gnashing of teeth of his "infernalist" adversaries when a general Council anathematizes St Gregory. Until then, I'll rest comfortably with the conviction that my patron is correct. We will see in the end.