Thursday, June 6, 2013

Universalism Without Heaven? Second Post

In an earlier post I introduced the question of whether Christian Universalism can make sense together with a doctrine that remains at best agnostic about an afterlife.

Christianity without an afterlife may seem difficult to swallow. Indeed as Tom Talbott points out, without an afterlife, the Problem of Evil comes to seem insurmountable. But Universalism without an afterlife seems to be not just hard to swallow, but an outright contradiction. Universalism is, after all, the doctrine that everyone is or will be saved. If there is no afterlife, and if some people die in misery after leading miserable lives, what sense could it make to say everyone "is or will be" saved? The doctrine seems to become contentless at best.

Yet in my previous post I gave some reasons for thinking that we should be able to "naturalize" our Christian doctrines, in the sense that we should be able to say what they mean independently of any assumptions of the existence of supernatural entities. (That argument deserves a fuller treatment, and I'll return to it in a future post.) So then I have a challenge set before me: To make sense of my belief that "Everyone is or will be saved through the death and resurrection of Christ" in light of an agnosticism towards the existence of an afterlife. (Indeed, I'll need to articulate a way to make sense of it given an agnosticism towards a literal resurrection of Christ too! At this point everybody's asking "What kind of 'Christian' does this guy think he is?" I'll cop to that. Anyway the question of Christ's resurrection is beyond the scope of this blog post.)

So then. "Everyone is or will be saved." What does that mean, absent a concept of an afterlife? The procedure may turn out to be pretty simple. First "naturalize" the concept of salvation. Then assert that it applies to everyone. And try to make it plausible.

What does it mean to "naturalize" the concept of salvation? It means to ask what the practical, temporal implication of the concept is, without reference to supernatural realities. If this is to be a Christian project, then the idea isn't just to talk about a general concept of "salvation" as it is to be found among English speakers, but rather, the concept as discussed in the Christian scriptures, most especially the New Testament.

Here I'll focus on the question of what salvation is salvation from. In a future post I'll focus on the question of what the effects of salvation are supposed to be, or what one is supposed to expect by virtue of one's salvation. The latter is the more difficult question for this "naturalization" project so it's no wonder I'm staving it off for the moment.

I can find just three statements in the New Testament which describe what it is we're supposed to have been saved from. We're supposed to be saved from "our sins" (Matthew 1:21), we're supposed to be saved from "God's wrath," (Romans 5:9), and we're supposed to be saved from "this perverse generation" (Acts 2:40).

What does it mean to be saved "from our sins?" A phrase you often hear in Church Talk is "salvation from sin," and this is generally used to mean "not having to sin." That is most likely an aspect of salvation biblically speaking, though as it turns out the book doesn't actually contain this kind of phraseology. I'll deal with "salvation from sin" in the post dealing with the expectations that come from being saved. Being "saved from our sins" would seem to be more backward looking—we have sinned, those sins lead to consequences we'd prefer not to suffer, and in fact we will not suffer those consequences.

What about being saved from "God's wrath?" This would seem to indicate something very similar to being saved "from our sins." God is wrathful to bad people, i.e., sinners. We have been bad people, but the consequence of that badness—God's wrath—will not be visited on us. "God's wrath" here shouldn't be understood as a future judgment taking place in an afterlife, since we're engaged in a naturalization project here. Instead it should be understood as involving consequences taking place temporally, here within the actual lives we're living right now. By this do I mean some kind of "karma"—i.e. that bad things you do in this life are punished by future events taking place in this life? I don't think that can be acceptable under a naturalization of these concepts. Any principle joining future negative experiences to present sinful experiences would be a supernatural principle. We know as a matter of physical fact that there is no causal law governing any such relation. Some people get away with huge sins without any future event that could plausibly count as punishment. Others experience immensely negative situations without having committed any sin of any comparable seriousness. This is even a theme explored biblically in many places—see the entire book of Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as some sayings of Jesus, for example what he said about the tower that fell on the workers and killed them (CITE). But if God's wrath shouldn't be thought of in terms of such "karmic punishment," what can it be? As far as I can see, to naturalize this concept, we must take it to involve an evaluation of the quality of a person's life. I have to presuppose that a sinful life, even if very pleasurable, must at the same time be miserable in some sense, and meanwhile, a life lived free from sin, even if unpleasurable, must in some sense be characterized as being the opposite of miserable—let's call it "joyful." Misery and joy, then, are going to have to be conceptually separate from pleasure and pain. This doesn't seem implausible. To put it simplistically, I could get my kid addicted to some drug that guarantees physically pleasurable feelings, and so long as I continue to maintain his access to those drugs, I'm providing him with great amounts of pleasure and no pain. He may even "die happy" in this sense. But will I thereby have provided him with a joyful life, or a miserable one? Arguably a miserable one! God's wrath, which we're supposed to all be saved from under Universalist doctrine, must have more to do with the misery/joyfulness axis than the pain/pleasure axis. The claim has to be, not that everyone is guaranteed a pleasurable life, but that everyone is guaranteed a joyful life. Still not a clearly true claim! But it's the claim I have to make.

So where are we at so far? Universalism Naturalized must hold that no one will ultimately suffer the consequence of sin, and that everyone will ultimately live a joyful life. "Ultimately" here must not be taken to refer to an afterlife, but still, it seems we have to be talking about something we'd call "the final resolution." In the final analysis, in other words, each person's life is going to be free from the consequence of sin, and is to be joyful. These are two of the claims I'd have to defend. And there's a third one. I still haven't gotten to salvation from "this perverse generation."

What can it mean to be saved from "this perverse generation?" The exact meaning of the phrase is not clear to me. But it would seem clear that at least the basic idea is this. We're products of our culture in many ways. And there are some implications of this that are not good. If my culture makes me a slave, for example, then my being a product of my culture is in many ways very bad for me. If my culture makes me an unthinking consumer of resources, or a victim of bullying, or a bully, or someone who doesn't know how to relate to others honestly, or whatever, then my being a product of my culture is very much a way in which I am trapped by forces inimical to my own interests. It would make sense to think of this as something people could be rescued from. How to rescue a person from her very culture? One way would be to create a new culture, or even just a subculture, intended to undo the bonds of the former culture. This idea seems to be right in keeping with what seems to be going on in very early Christian history. Those guys seemed to be all about figuring out a way to live with each other ("in the world but not of it") characterized by a setting aside of the bonds of the old culture, and instead living by the principles of a new culture which does not place those kinds of burdens on people. The new culture is characterized by forgiveness, undoing of hierarchies, sharing of burdens, a focus on love as opposed to authoritarianism, and so on. All of this makes naturalized sense out of the idea of being saved "from this perverse generation."

So now I have three claims to defend:

  1. In the final analysis, each person's life is or is going to be free from the consequence of sin.
  2. In the final analysis, each person's life is or is going to be joyful rather than miserable.
  3. In the final analysis, the adversarial burdens placed on people by their cultures are or will be of no effect.

Some things need to be clarified: What is meant by "In the final analysis," what is meant by "sin?"

As for sin, I'll just put it real briefly here. It seems like biblical talk of sin is basically talk of either the tendency to act non-ideally, or else the non-ideal acts themselves. It gets used as both a mass noun and a count noun (LINK). When used as a mass noun, it seems to refer to the tendency to act non-ideally. When used as a count noun, it seems to refer to the non-ideal acts themselves. Well, what's "ideal"? That's a huge question of course, and it would be silly to think it could be answered here. But here's a way to gesture at it. Most people are generally trying to do the best they can. What they're aiming at is the ideal. And when they do something else instead, or when the "best they can" is different from "the best," that is what sin is.

What about "in the final analysis?" I have to be careful with that because I can already feel the temptation to make it mean whatever I want it to mean. But here's the basic idea, which I think is forced by all the presuppositions that go into this "naturalization project." Obviously each of the three claims appears to be false at the very least at a first glance, and probably at a second and third glance as well. So then, the claim is that there is some consistent and plausible but also not obvious way of evaluating a person's life such that, contrary to appearances, the three claims above turn out to be true. And this way of evaluating a person's life must have some compelling force such that it strikes one plausibly as the "final" way of evaluating their life. In other words, it must appear that appearances to the contrary, the judgments of this evaluative scheme turn out to be the correct judgments.

A tall order. It would appear that I'm building up to an illusion theory of evil, one shared by disparate thinkers from many traditions mostly outside Christianity but some within (for example Augustine). But illusion theories of evil suffer from the obvious weakness that they tell the victims of horrific disasters and terrible evils that nothing is actually wrong with their lives. How can this claim be made palatable without an accompanying doctrine of the afterlife?

Two thousand words and I'm talking myself into a corner, so I think further thought about this will need to be put off for a future post. Hopefully in this post I've made it clear what it is I will need to defend as I discuss what salvation is "from." We'll see if I can make this work. Meanwhile, what do you think?

Also, I am certain that I am skating across ground that's been chipped at and dug into by more accomplished thinkers in the past. I feel the old currents of Existentialist Theology arising from their slumbers deep within my theological past, for example, but can hardly remember any actual texts or authors. And I know there are connections to be made between what I'm starting to say here and various more "mystical" religious traditions from around the world. Do you see such connections? What do I need to be reading or re-reading?

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