Hell, the Pope, and the Cross

Another week, another manufactured press story involving Pope Francis. Did he deny that there is a hell? Did the Vatican intervene to massage his words?

Well no, almost certainly not, on both counts. But the enthusiasm with which the non-story has been lapped up suggests a hold that the idea of hell, and its perceived function within Christian doctrine, has on the imagination. Isn’t hell a big part of the whole thing? Isn’t it, moreover, a big stick waved to scare the faithful into submission?

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Now, I take myself to be an orthodox Catholic: if anyone were finally to reject God’s love, then their soul, and ultimately they themself (after the resurrection) would live eternally in the absence of God’s fellowship. This is hell. It is misleading, I think, to put the issue (as did the BBC) in terms of whether hell exists. Hell is not a thing, such that it could exist, it is an absence (an absence of communion). All of this said, I am not bound as a Catholic to believe that anyone ever does finally decide against God. Indeed, I hope in God’s love and providence for universal salvation.

The point about hell, and Good Friday is the right day on which to make this point, is that its function within Christian doctrine is as that from which we are saved. Its power over us, the fear of it – these were defeated on the Cross, when God’s love showed itself as strong as death. Christianity does not think there are two equally balanced realities, good and evil, and two equally apt destinations for human beings, heaven and hell. Our attitude towards the world is the hard-won optimism of those who have spent hours at the Cross and seen there the victory of Love.

And yet, there is also a sense in which hell is seen day by day, not as an ultimate reality, but as a provisional one. Wherever God is rejected, wherever fellowship is broken, there is hell – in shop doorways, on battlefields, in lonely bedrooms and hospital wards. It is there, as it was on Calvary. Here, as there, may it not conquer.

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The consequence of Mary’s ‘yes’

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If today weren’t in Holy Week, it would be the feast of the Annunciation. The coming together of a celebration of the Incarnation with that of Christ’s Passion is rich matter for reflection.

You can’t have an Incarnation, a truly becoming human of God, without the death of God Incarnate, because to be human in this world is amongst other things to die. And you can’t have an Incarnation in a world damaged by domination, hatred, and envy without God Incarnate dying at our hands. The Cross is quite simply what our world does to a perfectly loving human being, which is the only kind of human being God could have become. In this sense, the Cross is a straightforward consequence of the Incarnation, of Mary’s ‘yes’.

But if the Incarnation cannot be understood properly apart from the Cross, nor can the Cross be understood apart from the Incarnation. There is a temptation to think that the Cross is redemptive because of the horrendous suffering it involves, that somehow God sees the suffering Jesus goes through and decides to spare us eternal torment because of it. A grotesque travesty often confused for orthodoxy, this view is a short distance from the view that the Cross is something God does. God demands that Jesus suffer, and brings it about. Whereas the Cross is something we do (it is something God does only in the trivial sense in that every event and action in the universe is created). It is redemptive because it is the culmination of the life of God Incarnate, the life which weds heaven to earth and offers our human family to the Father, joining us to the Father through that eternal love we call the Spirit (on the Cross, notice, Jesus ‘gives up the Spirit’). We cannot understand how the Cross saves without understanding both that death is the climax of a life, the point at which a life is offered up, and that the person who dies on the Cross is God. This is the point at which a divinely human life, and us in union with it, is offered to the Father.

God became human so that human beings might become divine – on the Cross we see God’s humanity consumated. So our divinity is born.

Dorothy Day

Continuing the faith and politics theme, the Catholic Worker page has a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings available. Well worth a look.

It is one of the strange paradoxes of the Christian life that we can say with St. Paul, “As dying, yet we behold we live.” We can suffer with others, we can see plainly the frightful chaos, the unbelievable misery of cold and hunger and bitter misery, yet all the time there is the knowledge “that the sufferings of this time are not to be compared to the joy that is to come.”

Often we comfort ourselves only with words, but if we pray enough, the conviction will come too, that Christ is our King, not Stalin, Bevins or Truman. That He has all things in His hands, that “all things work together for good to those that love Him.”

Politics and faith: fragments

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Life at the moment is dominated by strike action I’m taking at work. Read about (and, if you can, support) our dispute here. This inevitably raises for me  the issue of conflict – how do those of us who sign up to a gospel full of the language of peace and unity reconcile this with the reality that, in a situation like this, someone like me is committed to fighting, and to winning, against a management that are, in respect of this at least, my enemies. At the risk of becoming a McCabe-distribution agent, his The Class Struggle and Christian Love remains the best thing written directly on this. I looked at similar issues from an intra-ecclesial perspective some time back.

Also on the subject of Christianity and politics, there’s a nice piece currently up on the Morning Star website on the Christian heritage and socialism. (Anyone familiar with the internal divisions of the left will realise that it takes a lot for me to recommend something from the Morning Star, but this really is worth a look!)

McCabe on Almsgiving and Justice

I am, honestly, reading authors other than Herbert McCabe this Lent. But this, from an Ash Wednesday sermon, struck me as succinctly getting right the purpose and dangers of Lenten almsgiving. Having already spoken about fasting, McCabe says:

The other side of fasting is almsgiving, helping those in need. But here, too, remember that we are engaged in a drama, a symbolic act. We do not give alms in Lent because we are under the illusion that almsgiving will solve the problem of world poverty; and by the same token we do not think it foolish to give alms just because we know it will not solve that problem. The point is again to dramatize for ourselves the reality of poverty and oppression and need, and of our responsibility in the face of it. Almsgiving is not a substitute for political action. Art is not a substitute for reality.

(God, Christ, and Us. p. 77)

McCabe on sin

Contemplata aliis tradere, to hand on to others that which is contemplated, is a central part of the Dominican charism, the Dominican way of being Christian. This, of course, implies that the person doing the handing on sometimes does some contemplating. With that in mind, Lent for me is going to be more about reading than about writing for this blog. I will try to share each week something that has struck me in my reading.

In one of McCabe’s sermons, in the collection published as God, Christ, and Us, he returns to an appropriately Lenten theme that he discusses in several other places: sin, and our tendency to confuse different senses of the word ‘sin’, ending up as a consequence with an understanding of sin which is too harsh on ourselves and our failings and damaging to our growth as Christian.

Sin proper, mortal sin, is the rejection of God’s friendship, into which we entered by our baptism. It is the rejection of the life of charity, hence the word, mortal. Ordinary everyday venial sin (which – he emphasises elsewhere – is what we work on in Lent) is a different thing altogether:

[Venial sins] do not destroy, or even diminish, the divine life of charity within us. Aquinas, most encouragingly, says that it is not possible for the life of charity to be diminished by any action of ours since the life of charity is the work of God. We can lose it altogether by real, serious, mortal sin. But that is all. Sin, in this [venial] sense, is simply failing to grow in charity, missing the opportunities of growth. And its remedy is simply trying to be a bit more caring towards those we live amongst.

Following the suffering Messiah

There is a sense in which the message of Mark’s gospel is about suffering. The Messiah must suffer and die, if you do not understand this you do  not understand what it is to be the Messiah. Indeed, whilst the readers of the gospel have been told that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ in the first verse, the title is not used within the narrative by a human being until Jesus is on the cross. We misunderstand who Jesus is if we do not grasp that it led him to a violent death, and no amount of using abstractly correct language about him will help us avoid this uncomfortable truth.

If the Son of God himself can expect nothing more than rejection and execution, the same is true of his disciples. Mark is like a worked example in discipleship: we watch the disciples misunderstand and come to terms with finally what it means to follow Jesus on the way. As they go with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, they hear him speak of his coming death and, more darkly still, hear him intimate that they can expect similar rejection as the price of their allegiance to him. It is a reasonable conclusion that Mark wrote for Christians suffering persecution; that his gospel is structured so as to show them that, far from being a sign of their being rejected by God, their experience was an assurance of their fidelity.

To follow Christ is to suffer. History offers ample confirmation of this, and so Mark stands vindicated. Yet there is a temptation to misread this aspect of his message, in a way that makes the gospel complicit in misery (at best) or abuse (at worse). All too often we can slip from the recognition that discipleship involves suffering to the kind of spiritual masochism for which suffering is in and of itself good. This cannot be right, at
least not from the perspective of those reading the gospel as communicating the revelation of a God who wills that we flourish as human beings, whose gentle grace does not abolish our fragile nature. What then is the point about suffering?

“If you don’t love you will die”, wrote Herbert McCabe, “if you do love they will kill you”. It is the result of the world not being all it was created to be that discipleship and suffering go hand in hand. We have built a world of injustice and fear, for which the message of Jesus cannot be encountered as the euangelion, the good news, Mark takes it to be. Our call is not to suffer, but to do the works of the Kingdom and  proclaim the good news that it has come. It is just that, because of the kind of world we live in, we can expect this not to be welcomed. If you want a recent example of what faithful discipleship leading to suffering looks like, the life and death of Oscar Romero is a good place to look.

Even here there’s a danger of going wrong, of thinking that if people don’t like the way we live out our faith we must be doing something right. A more subtle masochism takes a suspicious amount of delight in being thought beyond the modern Pale. There’s a kind of joyful indignance that characterises a fogeyish Catholicism, for which every disagreement with secular modernity (and these are nearly always about sex, in some way or other) is a sign of divine favour. Mature following in the way of the Cross requires of us self-knowledge and honesty about our motives; it demands that we fearlessly proclaim the Kingdom, opposing those demonic forces which bind human beings today (poverty, exploitation, racism…), not seeking out persecution but simply proclaiming the joyful truth that the Strong Man has been bound and the Kingdom is upon us. If we’re faithful to that call, opposition will come without us having to seek it out.

Mark’s demons

Sunday’s gospel introduces a new, but to the modern reader, troubling, theme in Mark’s gospel. Jesus has already been baptised, and has gone into the wilderness to be tempted. He has called the first disciples and commenced his public ministry, preaching, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near”. Now he shows, in action rather than words, that the Kingdom is near by casting an “unclean spirit” out of a man.

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Unclean spirits, spirits that are somehow outside of the dominion of God – or “demons” to give them the more familiar, and altogether more Buffy the Vampire Slayer, name – are major cast members in Mark, as they are in Matthew and Luke who draw on him. As we’ll see, their being “cast out” of people is one of the ways that the gospel shows us the nature of Jesus’ mission. More than that, they seem to know who Jesus is  (in this passage, “the Holy One of God”). This is striking, since in Mark Jesus gives the impression of wanting to keep anything unique about his identity to himself. It is only on the cross that he is declared “Son of God” by the centurion.

Be that as it way, demons surely present modern readers with a problem. What are we to make of them? Aren’t they simply too alien to our ways of understanding the world for us to be able to get anything from the passages in which they occur? Don’t appeals to the demonic represent a more primitive way of understanding what we would now understand in terms of physical or mental illness, to be given a scientific explanation or remedy?

The temptation to dismiss this theme in the gospel as a relic from a pre-modern age is not only understandable, but often motivated by concern for the abuse that it continues to licence: demons and exorcism feature as concerns for a growing fringe of Christianity which does real damage to people, not least to those of us with mental illnesses. The idea that someone’s suffering is caused by, explained by, a non-natural being (possession of which might well be the result of personal sin) compounds the already difficult experience of illness. For those of us who rightly retreat from this view, this forces the question of how Christians can better understand mental illness.

Too often, though, the fundamentalist view that sees demons as a correct explanation of everyday suffering gets replaced by a liberal view that sees demons as simply an incorrect explanation of everyday suffering. The baby of Mark’s narrative gets thrown out with the bathwater of demonology and we lose a key theme of the gospel.

To get things right, we need to grasp how demons feature in Mark’s story.  For Mark the world is a kind of battleground between God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who longs to set his people free – and the forces of chaos, tamed at the moment of creation. Jesus comes to decisively announce and make present the victory of God over those forces, to bring in the Kingdom of God. Like many of the prophets before him, his proclamation of the Kingdom is not simply a matter of words, but of actions, his great signs of power, or miracles. Amongst these, his exorcisms stand out as a practical demonstration that he has, as he will later put it, “bound the strong man”, that the Kingdom of God is triumphant over Satan. A cosmic battle is given expression in the relief of individual suffering.

Binding the Strong Man is the title of an excellent book by Chad Meyers which reads Mark’s gospel through a political lens. The political dimension of the Kingdom, the redemption of human community, sheds light on the need for speaking of the demonic in telling the story of the Kingdom’s coming. Like the demonic, the political ties in the global to the personal: the worldwide struggle against, say, racism, is played out in individual lives and suffering. It reminds us that we are caught up in things beyond our capacity to control, which pre-exist us, and from which we need redemption.

And that is as true today as it was in the first century.

 

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I have a curious liking for Ordinary Time, which I suppose has some relationship to the reasons I find Luke’s “the angel left her” speaks to me. Most of our lives are lived in ordinary time, liturgically and figuratively.

My last attempt at a blog series, on Marxism and Christianity, was a conspicuous failure, falling as it did at the hurdle of my health. Still, I want to try again, this time with a series of posts on Mark’s gospel throughout the Ordinary Time of this coming year. It will be a good discipline for me to think about this gospel, which we read on (most of) the Sundays of this year. In many ways it is foundational to our understanding of the Christian story, being used – as most scholars think – by Matthew and Luke to compose their own gospels, and inspiring a good number of critical and imaginative studies. Sometimes the series will look at passages, sometimes at themes, and sometimes at works about Mark. I will find it useful writing it; I hope somebody at least finds it useful reading it!

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Keeping faith with reason

Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi is ripe for reflection: the topic of art and poetry, it can help to communicate central themes of the Christian gospel. Matthew himself almost certainly intended that the story speak of the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s covenant and of the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s people.

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Myself, I am struck by an aspect of the account which speaks to a contemporary need. The Magi (Greek magoi – the sense is of something intermediate between a priest, a magician and a scientist) are led by the sight of a star. I imagine these wise ones (the plural magoi doesn’t force an image of an all male group, even if that is what was intended in context) pondering maps, charts and books of lore in order to interpret the appearance of the heavenly body.

Unlike Luke’s shepherds, the Magi do not get a vision of angels. There is nothing obviously revelatory about anything that happens to them. Instead, their natural reason, their human capacity to reflect on the world around them leads them to Jerusalem.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Catholic tradition for me, and especially of the Dominican strand within it, is our high view of human reason. Even without access to God’s self-revelation as communicated in the Bible, our Church thinks, human beings can come to know things about God. Nor does possession of that self-revelation render human reason irrelevant. Rather, through our reasoning about and grappling with the content of revelation we come to appreciate it better. It is though we were both the shepherds and the magi at the same time. Needless to say, for me, the combination is most clearly seen in the Summa Theologiae.

I think that at the present moment there’s a tendency to retreat from our high view of reason. Partly that’s for understandable reasons – contemporary culture can have too narrow a view of reason, as something cold, bloodless, and discarnate, whereas we want to affirm that our religion is the stuff of emotion, ritual, and raw, animal, self-giving love. Rather than ditch reason as the sole preserve of Mr Spock types, though, we could reclaim a more generous understanding of reason. More challenging is the modern world’s relegation of religion to the sphere of the non-rational, or even the irrational. For many friends and foes of religion alike, faith is a matter of blind acceptance, where it starts reason stops. Upon passing the church door, one ceases to be a thinker. Whether or not one considers that to be a good thing is very much a secondary matter.

This is disastrous for all sorts of reasons. It effectively involves the abandonment of any claim that the Christian faith is saying anything true (the notion of a truth with which we cannot reason is nonsensical), so if it is intended as a maneuver to protect faith from criticism it is self-defeating. That aside, it is both dangerous and beneath our dignity as human beings to put our ability to reason to one side. The use of religion to further bigotry and violence ought to persuade us of this if more abstract considerations do not. Crucially though, and seasonally, in the Incarnation God has assumed and redeemed everything it is to be human – including our reason – the thoughtfulness of our engagement with our faith is not a pretension, or simply a pass-time, but a witness to that redemption, to the fullness of our redeemed humanity. It is therefore a matter of faith that we continue to reason.