Salvation for Everyone?  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

One of my cyber-companions is Canon Bryan Owen of St Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson, Mississippi. In a recent post on his blog Creedal Christian Bryan addresses the issue of universalism, the notion that God will save absolutely everybody with little if any regard to how they live during their time on earth. A corollary to this is that hell does not exist, or if it does it does not last forever.

Despite the Episcopal Church's reputation--well-deserved, to a large extent--as a haven for spiritually and intellectually vacuous liberals who would uncritically accept universalism as an article of faith, Bryan shows that the current Book of Common Prayer actually contains numerous references to hell and the extreme desirability of being saved therefrom. Check out the post with a BCP close at hand, if you dare.

This got me interested in seeing what other Christian traditions say about universalism. The short answer is that I cannot find any major Christian church affirming this as a dogma--but please correct me if you know otherwise. The idea was first postulated by Origen in the third century but he was condemned by a church council held a couple of centuries later during the reign of Justinian. Of course, a good number of individual Christians have adhered to universalism as a personal belief or at least have flirted with the notion.

A thornier problem is whether non-Christians--even very upright non-Christians--can be saved under any circumstances. We all know what many of our born-again brothers and sisters say about this issue. What about Roman Catholics and the Orthodox?

Roman Catholic teaching has actually shifted over the centuries. For most of its history, the motto "outside the Church there is no salvation", with "Church" understood to refer only to the Church of Rome, was a fair assessment of official RC teaching. A typical expression comes from Pope Eugene IV in a bull issued in 1441: "...Those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life..."

Things changed rather drastically with Vatican II. A comment on the conciliar document Lumen Gentium says: "...The Church now solemnly acknowledges that the Holy Ghost is truly active in the churches and communities separated from itself...The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible Church." (Click here for more information on Roman Catholic teaching on this matter).

An Orthodox view is presented by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev in his article "Eschatology", which appears in the highly recommended The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology (2008, p 113):

Regarding those who are outside the Church, St Paul writes that they will be judged in accordance with the law of conscience written in their hearts (Rom 2:14-15). Virtuous pagans, says Chrysostom, are astonishing because 'they had no need of the law but fulfilled everything contained in it, having inscribed in their minds not the letter, but deeds.' And he draws a radical conclusion: 'If a pagan fulfills the law, nothing else will be necessary for his salvation.' When acts committed during one's life are evaluated, moral criteria will be applied to all people without exception, the only difference being that Jews will be judged according to the Law of Moses, Christians by the gospel, and pagans according to the law of conscience written in their hearts.

Heschel on Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

My commitment to Christian spirituality of a traditional cast does not preclude forays into other traditions, especially those within the Abrahamic family. The Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) combined academic rigor with a deep grounding in Kabbalah and Hasidism. A native of Warsaw, he attended an Orthodox yeshiva (religious school) and received Orthodox rabbinical ordination. He then studied at the University of Berlin and the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums where he received both a doctorate and a Liberal (= Reform) ordination. He escaped the Holocaust (many of his relatives did not) and ended up at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Besides writing a number of books, he was active in civil rights and Jewish-Christian dialogue. He met with Thomas Merton several times.

Man's Quest for God contains a number of insights into prayer that are worth mulling over. I am grateful to Michael K Marsh, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas, whose blog Interrupting the Silence has a recent post citing several quotes that I reproduce below. I've also included the site in my own blogroll.

Of all the things we do, prayer is the least expedient, the least worldly, the least practical. This is why prayer is an act of self-purification. This is why prayer is an ontological necessity.

To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.

In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.

Prayer is no panacea, no substitute for action. It is, rather, like a beam thrown from a flashlight before us into the darkness. It is in this light that we who grope, stumble, and climb, discover where we stand, what surrounds us, and what course we should choose. Prayer makes visible the right and reveals what is hampering and false...Sometimes prayer is more than a light before us; it is a light within us.

To avoid prayer constantly is to force a gap between man and God which can widen into an abyss.

The purpose of prayer is not the same as the purpose of speech. The purpose of speech is to inform; the purpose of prayer is to partake.

The privilege of praying is man's greatest distinction.

To live without prayer is to live without God, to live without a soul.

He who has never prayed is not fully human.

The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God.

Sympathy for the Devil?  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Isaac of Nineveh (or Isaac of Syria) was a 7th-century monk, a native of Qatar on the Persian Gulf. He belonged to the Nestorian church (they actually call themselves the Church of the East or the Assyrian Church of the East). His writings in Syriac--translated into Greek and other languages--became very popular outside the Nestorian world and he is venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church, even though the Nestorians rejected the council of Chalcedon.

The notion that "God is love" underpins all of Isaac's theology and leads to some strongly-worded insights into the generosity of God's concern for all--and I do mean all--of creation. This is brought out in a lecture ( by Russian Orthodox bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, parts of which (containing quotes of Isaac) are reproduced below:

Divine love was the main reason for the creation of the universe and is the main driving force behind the whole of creation. In the creation of the world divine love revealed itself in all its fullness. "...Let us consider, then, how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation, and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient, and how He loves creation, and how He carries it gently, enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men."

Divine love is a continuing realization of the creative potential of God, an endless revelation of the Divinity in His creative act. Divine love lies at the foundation of the universe. It governs the world, and it will lead the world to that glorious outcome when the latter will be entirely "consumed" by the Godhead. "What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God's!...In love did He bring the world into existence, in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised."

"What is purity, briefly? It is a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature...And what is a compassionate heart? He tells us: It is a heart that burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion...that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and suffering of the humblest creatures. That is why he prays with tears every moment...for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. He prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in his heart after God's likeness."