cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
After spending two posts in a discussion on orthodoxy and heresy inspired by an exchange between Roger Olson and Eric Reitan on the orthodoxy of universalism, it seems that it makes sense to say a little bit, however briefly, about that particular test case.

First off, no, universalism is not a heresy--at least not by any meaningful standard. (Which is to say, "doctrine that Roger Olson thinks is wrong" is excluded as a workable definition of heresy, for the reasons given in my post Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Truth and in Reitan's On Heresy and Universalism. Although Olson does gives a more comprehensive and coherent, if still not totally persuasive--is there really a consensus, even just among evangelicals, that universalism is heresy?--account of his position from which universalism counts as heresy in a more recent post, Some random thoughts about that awful but necessary word "heresy") Robin Parry does a good job of working through the question of whether universalism is heretical in a series of posts (1 2 3 4 5), and persuasively comes to what seems to be the unescapable conclusion that the Church Catholic has never denounced universalism as such, although it has denounced the teaching of some particular universalists, such as Origen, while praising others, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa.

For reasons about which I've posted before, I am not a universalist, or at least don't identify as such. Indeed, my reasons are more or less the same as Olson's (rooted in an account of human freedom), so it could be said that we share the same position: that universalism can be put forth as a "pious hope" but not a "confident belief." But Olson comes off as almost stridently anti-universalist, while I am deeply sympathetic to universalism.

Why the difference? It seems to be a disagreement over what, exactly, a "pious hope" looks like. For Olson, it almost seems to be little more than wishful thinking:
Of course, someone might argue that, in the end, every creature will freely offer love to God and be saved (e.g., Moltmann). I would just call that optimism. There’s no way to believe that true other than a leap of optimistic hope.

Whereas I would find that claim quite likely, given what we know about God's nature from scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, while at the same time agreeing with Olson that asserting as fact that everyone will be saved goes beyond our possible knowledge. But I'm a skeptic in general: asserting as fact that the sun will rise tomorrow goes beyond our possible knowledge. (For one thing, we might blow up the world in the meantime.) As the great author Robert Anton Wilson said, "I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions."

So the question becomes: how confident is overconfident?

Do I believe that, if there is a an afterlife, then everyone will experience salvation within it? At the end of the day, the answer to that question depends upon an epistemological dilemma: what separates a belief from a mere suspicion on the one hand and an overconfident assertion of knowledge on the other?

A Case for Hell?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011 09:19 pm
cjbanning: (Trinity)
I mostly agree with the argument that Ross Douthat puts forth in his New York Times editorial, A Case for Hell, with two major exceptions:

1. Douthat writes:
Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.
I'm not quite sure where this special license for atheists "to scoff at damnation" comes from. If there being a God but no hell denies "the reality of human choices" then how exactly does disbelieving in God solve the problem? It would seem that any account of the reality of human choices open to the atheist should also be open to the theist.

And demonstrably, there are accounts of the reality of human choices which are open to atheists (and, I would argue, to universalist theists). Atheists are not all--or even mostly, or even signficantly--the fatalistic nihilists that sometimes theists might paint them as. Even if they don't believe that the world has intrinsic meaning (and it's hardly automatic that they would so disbelieve), that doesn't mean that our lives as lived are meaningless. Douthat even makes a feint towards recognizing this en passant: "Hell means the Holocaust, the suffering in Haiti, and all the ordinary 'hellmouths' (in the novelist Norman Rush’s resonant phrase) that can open up beneath our feet." But he then retreats to the tired trope (particularly beloved of conservative Catholics) that meaning simply can't exist in the absence of a particular religious doctrine (here, hell).

As they say in Joss Whedon's television show Angel (in the episode "Epiphany"):
Angel: Well, I guess I kinda worked it out. If there's no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters... , then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it.
Kate Lockley: And now you do?
Angel: Not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don't think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there's no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
Kate Lockley: Yikes. It sounds like you've had an epiphany.
Angel: I keep saying that, but nobody's listening.
Or, to put it another way, just try telling the little children playing baseball that the fact that nobody's keeping score means their game doesn't matter.

2. Just because we are free to say no to paradise--and, assuming for the moment there is a paradise to say no to, I agree with Douthat that we are so free; grace is resistable--doesn't mean that anyone has actually chosen or will choose that option. It's a logical possibility, not a practical necessity. This is, as far as I can tell second-hand, the implicit argument behind Rob Bell's controversial Love Wins, and it's my position as well. To claim that Hell is empty is to step beyond our human knowledge and usurp the Judgment which is God's alone, but the same is true of saying that Hell isn't empty. No number of appeals to the depravity of a Hitler or--and this is Douthat's innovation--Tony Soprano is going to change that.
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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