Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jane Eyre and the Confessions of a Closet Universalist

Lest I scandalize anyone, let me make it clear from the start that I fully accept the Church's teaching on the awful possibility of Hell as the result of human freedom. The struggle for holiness would not be noble at all if we could be lax and presumptuous, the choice to love God would be nothing valuable if we could not also choose the opposite, and salvation would be meaningless if we weren't being saved from eternal damnation, from never-ending self-enclosure.

Nevertheless, I must say that regardless of all that, on which my position is entirely orthodox...in spite of that awful and very real possibility, in spite of the awesome power of free will we have been given that even God Himself cannot compel (without it ceasing to be free)...something deep down inside me is absolutely committed to the hope beyond hope...that Love is more powerful still. That somehow, in the inscrutible Providence and ineffable mercy of God, all will be saved, and saved without coercion even.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not really a "Universalist" inasmuch as, for me, this is a question of HOPE, not Faith. I do not believe that it is a revealed article of Faith that all will be saved. That would be heresy or its equivalent. Even if it is destined to be true, God would never reveal it, lest what would be an incredible triumph of Mercy become a "right" that people may simply be presumptuous about, or else a compulsion that would eliminate free will.

Even if it is to happen, I'd think it is supposed to be a "surprise". The question is supposed to keep us in suspense until the Last Judgment, for only in the face of the possibility of damnation are any of our struggles or love meaningful. We must work out our salvation without that certainty, in trembling and fear. That reminds me of a passage in the glorious last chapter of the glorious work by GK Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, explaining the suffering in the world:

"I see everything," he cried, "everything that there is. Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, 'You lie!' No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, 'We also have suffered.'"

Nevertheless, though I do not believe we have been told with any sort of certainty that all will be saved...I still hope it will be true, and believe that nothing that was revealed to us that definitively says that hope is in vain.

Even the case of Judas, though seemingly the least likely human case...is not definitive. Pope John Paul II himself said in Crossing the Threshold of Hope:
"The silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, "It would be better for that man if he had never been born" (Mt 26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation."
Besides the fact that Jesus was known for His hyperbole, and besides the fact that sin is so bad that while we are in the state of mortal sin perhaps the same sentiment could be applied to any of us, I will also point out that not being born is not quite the same as never having been conceived. The Church does not consider it revealed or intrinsically connected to revelation that any person has been damned, in the same way that Saints are infallibly declared to be in Heaven by their canonizations.

Judas's betrayal of Christ was absolutely equivalent to all of ours, yet the self-righteous among trads are quick to condemn him with absolute certainty. Yet 20th century theologians have been rightly troubled by such a position. The Judas story in the Gospels is not a simple morality tale about a bad man getting his straightforward comeuppance, but rather a Tragedy. That the story of salvation of the world would depend upon the damnation of one man would seem unacceptable unless we admit hope for him too. It is a story of how Christ died for us, not of how Judas was damned for us, after all.

This site has numerous quotes by Pope John Paul II in a similar vein. It is a rad-trad site that is using the quotes to try to discredit the Venerable John Paul, but I think many of these quotes are extremely nuanced and profound.

This, of course, has all been discussed in a much more comprehensive way by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his now famous "Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?" A tract for which he is much maligned by many trads and even neocons, even while it is clear that the late pontiff was very sympathetic to his position.

Yet I myself was actually more inspired to my position by two passages in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, wherein the dying schoolmate of Jane's, Helen Burns, expresses her own "universalist" hope:
"We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain—the impalpable principle of life and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature: whence it came it will return; perhaps again to be communicated to some being higher than man—perhaps to pass through gradations of glory, from the pale human soul to brighten to the seraph! Surely it will never, on the contrary, be suffered to degenerate from man to fiend. No; I cannot believe that: I hold another creed, which no one ever taught me, and which I seldom mention; but in which I delight, and to which I cling; for it extends hope to all; it makes Eternity a rest—a mighty home, not a terror and an abyss. Besides, with this creed, I can so clearly distinguish between the criminal and his crime; I can so sincerely forgive the first while I abhor the last; with this creed revenge never worries my heart, degradation never too deeply disgusts me, injustice never crushes me too low: I live in calm, looking to the end.”
There is another passage later, just before she is about to die, taking the form of a dialogue with Jane, beautiful for the absolutely child-like simplicity in which it is expressed:

"Where is God? What is God?"

"My Maker and yours, who will never destroy what he created. I rely implicitly on his power, and confide wholly in his goodness: I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to him, reveal him to me."

"You are sure, then, Helen, that there is such a place as heaven; and that our souls can get to it when we die?"

"I am sure there is a future state; I believe God is good; I can resign my immortal part to him without any misgivings. God is my father; God is my friend: I love him; I believe he loves me."

Of course, this unrevealed private hope stands in contrast to the very publicly revealed truth of the possibility of Hell, and the long tradition of discussing it as if it is almost certain that some people are there. In some ways I think that contrast is the poetic point of the situation, as it is between the two, in that tension, where hope hangs suspended.

Nevertheless, it is clear that this spark of hope may indeed be maintained for all human beings, as revelation and the Church are silent on the question of whether or which humans will be damned, and that the late Venerable Pope and other theologians, personalists mainly, have been more bold recently about reminding Catholics that they may have this hope even while avoiding presumption. It is a much discussed topic since Vatican II.

The question of Satan and the fallen angels is much less discussed; it is revealed with certainty that they are currently in hell, and that in the ordinary course of things, their choice is irrevocable and hell is eternal. And yet, Catholic Encyclopedia, from 1917, even admits, in its article on Hell: "In itself, it is no rejection of Catholic dogma to suppose that God might at times, by way of exception, liberate a soul from hell."

Now, I don't know if it is incompatible with the nature of Personhood and Free Will to think that God might "re-set" a Will, allowing it to freely make a choice again that it had already fully made. I don't know if that would somehow destroy the continuity of the individual as defined by his choices*, or if it would simply be inevitable in such a case that the same outcome would occur. But if such an extraordinary "second chance" by the Omnipotence of God is possible, (and Catholic Encyclopedia seems to indicate that it is no contradiction of dogma, at least, to believe that God could and might make such exceptions) well, then perhaps even for the demons and Satan himself...I cling to a sliver of hope, more valuable than everything in the world, but so tiny, so rash, so improbable, and so secret that I'd better not discuss it...


*This idea of the possible nature of free will and personal individuality was first brought to my attention by a line in the movie AI where the future creatures explain to David that they can only resurrect a human consciousness from the past for one day before it fades because "once an individual space-time pathway had been used, it could not be re-used," a concept vaguely based on quantum theories regarding consciousness, whereby consciousness causes a wave-function to collapse and so "chooses" which of the several probable outcomes becomes reality, thus defining identity and continuity of consciousness by a self-directed entanglement of quantum outcomes. Analogously, on the spiritual plane, if consciousness were irrevocably entangled with its own past choices...could God ever allow a choice to be "re-chosen", or would that destroy the identity of the being? Personally, I tend to trust that Omnipotence could find a way nonetheless...

8 comments:

Michael Desnick said...

One of my favorite Chesterton quotes: "Only a Calvinist could believe that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

A Sinner said...

I'd never heard that one before! But it is a good quote.

The problem with the cliche in question (ie, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions") is that its theology is, indeed, faulty. One has to know one is doing wrong to do wrong. Full knowledge and consent of an acts sinfulness is required for mortal sin, etc.

And yet, the "hell" in question might be better rendered "disaster"...as it is really applicable to temporal situations. Good unselfish intentions may never be sinful...but that doesnt mean they'll be practical or successful.

So I'm always torn about using that cliche (besides the fact that its a cliche) because I disagree with it taken literally, but when applied to non-eschatological situations...it is quite true.

The Novus Ordo and the papacy of John Paul are a perfect examples of that. Unlike "conspiracy theorist" trads...I absolutely refuse to attribute malice or any sort of impure intention to John Paul or the architects of the Novus Ordo. I think things were benignly intended, and so I cannot understand the way that paranoid, angry trads vilify them personally. But, that nevertheless doesnt mean they were good decisions or worked out well.

Naivitee is by nature innocent, but can still be disastrous.

Anonymous said...

FYI: romancatholicism.org is a Protestant troll site.

Read the Council of Florence and tell me how any Catholic can believe in universal salvation.

A Sinner said...

Ah, I thought it was sedevacantist, but I admitted right in the post that it was trying to discredit JPII with those quotes. But they are real quotes (I've seen many of them from legitimate sources), and I do not think they discredit him. Quite the contrary, I agree with him.

As I said, I don't think any Catholic can "believe in" universal salvation. I believe a Catholic can "hope for" universal salvation. Anyone who treats it as an article of Faith is a heretic, as I explain right off the bat in this post.

That's different than Hope. Very different.

Stanford Espedal said...

I think you should not shrink from the name Universalist. The belief that ultimately all will be saved has two distinct forms: Soft Universalism is a pure hope in God-who-is-Love triumphantly bringing about the salvation of all without violating human freedom. This is held as a theologically grounded hope, not a doctrine of faith in itself. This position is safe from attack as heterodox, and is held by many serious and thoughtful Catholics, including the present pope. It is also held by many Eastern Orthodox (See Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom).

On the other hand there is a Hard Universalism which regards the very possibility of eternal damnation as an impossibility and a doctrinal error. Those who espouse this make some excellent points, but their position as a whole cannot be reconciled with the Tradition of the Church.

The problem with both Hard Universalism and the pessimistic certainty that many will be damned, held by too many Catholics through the ages, is that both rest on a human presumption to know the judgement of God in advance.

Anonymous said...

Worth noting that among certain of the Eastern Fathers, there was found the doctrine of apocatastasis, which taught the eschatological reconciliation of all rational creatures to God, and their restoration to a pristine state. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa taught it, I believe Isaac the Syrian did as well, and there are rumors that a few of the other Fathers taught the idea secretly to their most enlightened students. Von Balthasar held this as a hope. I have heard that Fr. Thomas Hopko, the well-known contemporary Orthodox thinker, said, "We do not dare to teach the idea, but we secretly pray for it."

A Sinner said...

"We do not dare to teach the idea, but we secretly pray for it."

That's how I feel. We can't presume it as certain, but we can hope. And if hope can be had...why NOT have it?

Carpe Diem said...

"...something deep down inside me is absolutely committed to the hope beyond hope...that Love is more powerful still. That somehow, in the inscrutible Providence and ineffable mercy of God, all will be saved, and saved without coercion even."

Really? [Pretentious, self-affirming scoff implied]. I am of the opinion that the only person who will be saved is me.