If it’s All Quite the Same to You

“’If it’s quite all the same to you, I don’t want to be spanked any more.’

‘Come hither, Little One,’ said the Crocodile, ‘for I am the Crocodile,’ and he wept crocodile tears to show it was quite true.”

Rudyard Kipling, “The Elephant’s Child,” (1902)

Pope Francis is reported to have told a group of Italian school children that, “we are all children of God.” By “we” he seems to have meant human beings generally, and by “all,” every Tom, Dick and Harry among them. This notwithstanding that Tom is an infidel, Dick a pagan, and Harry a Jew.

So if those Italian school children gave the phrase “children of God” its biblical meaning, which is “possessed of sanctifying grace,” they might reasonably conclude that the Pope is a Universalist.

Universalism is the doctrine that children of Adam are not saved by faith, or even by works, but rather by the infinitely dignifying fact of having been born, or rather conceived; for from that auspicious moment, earthly existence is just a strange and superfluous antechamber to Heaven.

The superfluity of earthly existence has always seemed to me one of the strongest objections to Universalism. What is more, if it is enough to have been born (or conceived), the manifest discomforts and terrors of living in this antechamber to heaven suggest that God has cruel streak that is very hard to reconcile with his easy-going open-borders policy in Heaven.

I also find Universalism very hard to reconcile with submission to any sort of discipline. Indeed, when Universalism was all the go in the early United States, orthodox Calvinists took pleasure in observing that Universalist meetinghouses were often empty and closed, since many Universalists apparently found it more agreeable to remain sleeping in their beds, or tippling at the tavern, than to spend two hours fidgeting in a cold, un-cushioned pew.

And that was in an age when many non-believers went to church just to enjoy the music.

My answer to a Universalist therefore begins with the words, “If it’s all quite the same to you.”

“If it’s all quite the same to you, I will henceforth do as I please. I do not see why we are penned in this antechamber to Heaven, but I do see there are many ways by which our time here can be sweetened. Thus, I will make my way to Heaven by the rational hedonist road; and I’m sure you can raise no objections, since it’s all quite the same to you.”

Here are the last lines of a poem narrated by a universalist who has taken the rational hedonist road.  He is a white man in the tropics, and Piolani is his dusky, superstitious and comely maidservant.

“Piolani, I can hear
Your sweet voice rising strong and clear.
Is it god or goddess now
Whom you flatter with a vow?
Under deepest tropic skies
Let our two-fold prayers arise.
Question not but in the end
It will reach the self-same friend,
Who will judge us well indeed—
Each according to his meed.”

“Piolani, this is all.
Swing the hammock in the hall,
Roll your mat out at my feet,
Day is weary, night is sweet.
Day with toil and trouble teems,
Night is hallowéd with dreams.
Asleep already? at the start!
Piolani, bless your heart!
If peace of spirit rest insures
What a conscience must be yours.

So I swing and think of this;
Saying, as I shut my eyes,
This is ignorance and bliss.
If it isn’t, then what is,
And which of us is wise.”

Charles Warren Stoddard, “Utopia” (1869)

14 thoughts on “If it’s All Quite the Same to You

  1. You didn’t mention any names, but one comes to my mind immediately: David Bentley Hart, who in his recent book That All May Be Saved argues for universalism against what he terms “infernalism.” I have to confess that Hart has always been one of my favorite theologians, so I was rather taken aback by his stance in this recent book. He does raise some tough challenges (which he repeats ad nauseum), but one point he does not address convincingly is why, given an unqualified universalist doctrine, it should matter much how one lives his or her life here in mortality. He does not even accept a “qualified” universalism; i.e., one that argues that all will EVENTUALLY be saved, but only after they’ve done due penance (which, in the case of some, may take a very long time). Has anyone else here read Hart’s book? If so, I’d like to hear your reactions to his arguments.

    • I’ve read only short reviews of Hart’s new book, and like you was dismayed to see this argument made by a man I have long admired. In addition to rendering earthly existence a cruel joke for those who suffer in it, universalism would seem to charge Jesus with a great deal of empty bluster.

    • Roger, I came here to say the same. And it’s too bad, since his translation of the New Testament brings an immediacy and energy that I found powerful. Now I hesitate to even sell for a couple of dollars at Half Price Books.

    • I’ve read several reviews of the book. The impression they give is Hart displaying a severe lack of charity toward the traditional doctrine and its defenders. This is too bad. In his take-downs of postmodernism, he at least gives the impression of understanding how someone would take that seriously (something I probably couldn’t manage when talking about postmodernism).

      For what it’s worth, I’ve never liked the argument that we need hell to make morality, knowing the true faith, or one’s relationship with God important. These things are important for their own sakes. The big argument against universalism, as JMSmith mentions below, is that it’s incompatible with any natural reading of the words of Jesus Christ. Of course, anything in the Bible can be “reinterpreted” by sufficiently motivated reasoning, but I would not find reinterpretation of this sort credible. If we are to dismiss everything Jesus says about post-mortem punishment, what reason would we have to take anything else He says seriously? Just that some of the other stuff is more pleasant? That’s the other thing about universalism–not a theological argument but a psychological one: it makes the whole idea of an afterlife much more difficult to believe because the whole thing then sounds like wish-fulfillment. Men will only believe in an afterlife that they wish didn’t exist. I would prefer to believe in no afterlife at all than that most people suffer eternal torment, but at least I know Christianity wasn’t designed to please me.

  2. Pingback: If its All Quite the Same to You | Reaction Times

  3. We were all children of god when the Pakistani/Bangladeshi rape gangs preyed on 19000 young economically vulnerable British Born women over the last 30 years? May I suggested to the Universal-ists that they take a moment to read the individual women’s stories of violence, abuse and torture contained in this tail of indifference and suffering.
    The infernal-ist position becomes a lot more comprehensible in the face of such un-redeemable horrors. Who forgives the unrepentant mass rapists? Nay, who forgives the mass rapists who claims to do so in the name of God?

    Better to burn a for eternity than live with an unjust eternity. No?

    • I suppose a universalist — well, my inner universalist, which is a partisan among many in the debate hall of my soul — would say that these “saved” would be repentant . . . that they would have realized the error of their ways, having seen through clearer lenses. Even that inner universalist isn’t much moved by pity, though. Many of the seat-warmers in my psychic parliament are even more comfortable with the idea of hell than the idea of heaven, having gotten enough experience of mankind. Rather, my universalist stirrings mainly come from a consideration of God’s success. The damned, it seems to me, indicate a clear failure (though perhaps a necessary failure, which I don’t like one bit). Reality will, from all eternity, be less perfect, less beautiful, less good than it could be. I cannot find the arguments to the contrary at all convincing . . . e.g. where the tormented souls in the lake of fire fulfill their little role in divine justice. Nope — it’s a damned shame. For God to be truly and absolutely victorious, truly and absolutely successful, I think, something like universalism would have to come about in the fullness of time. I’m no half-hearted squish, either. I’m not simply talking about lost men. I mean all those rebellious legions . . . Abaddom included.

      As you note above, I don’t see how this could square with scripture or tradition. Origen appears to be the outlier among the Fathers (and probably self-consciously so), and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hart were a fan of Origen (I certainly am). So, we’re left with a fallen cosmos, forever marred, even if somewhat redeemed and renewed. The victory, such as it is, must be worth it. The grumpy old men in my inner council find this quite fitting, given what we know of the world. Of course, the tragic element persists unto the ages of ages. How else could it be when the climax of the plot line is the unjust and gruesome murder of God himself? That’s just the way it is, sad to say. My assembly is of one mind, though, that we should recognize such as such rather than pretend away evil, which is what traditional theologians tend to do.

  4. Since I’m the one who got the ball rolling on Hart’s book, in order to represent him more fairly I’d like to quote a few passages now that I have it in front of me.
    After citing some historical examples of descriptions of hell and the effect these had on him when he was young, he writes that he “learned at some point to take comfort from an idea that one finds liberally scattered throughout Eastern Christian contemplative tradition, from late antiquity to the present, and expressed with particular force by such saints of the East as Isaac of Nineveh … and Silouan of Athos …: that the fires of hell are nothing but the glory of God, which must at the last, when God brings about the final restoration of all things, pervade the whole of creation; for, although that glory will transfigure the whole cosmos, it will inevitably be experienced as torment by any soul that willfully seals itself against love of God and neighbor; to such a perverse and obstinate nature, the divine light that should enter the soul and transform it from within must seem instead like the flames of an exterior chastisement.” (p. 16)
    Hart turns his ammunition against the “infernalist” position where he writes that “the traditional doctrine of hell’s perpetuity renders other aspects of the tradition, such as orthodox Christology or the eschatological claims of the Apostle Paul, ultimately meaningless.” (p. 18) “As it happens, I do believe that the only hell that could possibly exist is the one of which those Christian contemplatives speak: the hatred within each of us that turns the love of others–of God and neighbor–into torment. It is entirely a state we impose upon ourselves.” (p. 27)
    It would seem, at this point, that Hart would perhaps concede that some obstinate or perverse souls would hold out against God’s saving grace eternally, thus not amounting to a complete universalism. But he claims later in the book that and rational soul that is God’s creation would eventually yield to that grace. That’s where I find his argument less than convincing. I believe that God allows us our freedom to believe or not believe, to accept His grace or reject it. How can Hart be so certain that there are not souls out there that are so thoroughly perverse (by their own choice) that they do hold out against grace? Will God force souls into salvation?
    Hart cites a raft of scriptures: Romans 5:18-19, 1 Cor. 15:22, 2 Cor. 5:14, Romans 11:32,
    1 Tim. 2:3-6, Titus 2:11, 2 Cor. 5:19, Eph. 1:9-10, Coll. 1:27-28, John 12:32 … along with at least a dozen others. He anticipates counter-arguments from the book of Revelation, but argues “I tend not to think of it as a book about eschatology as such. … it is so arcane a text that any absolute pronouncements on its nature or meaning are almost certainly misguided.” (p. 106)
    I must confess that my own views on the hereafter are perhaps not entirely orthodox, but in part that’s because I honestly don’t often think about what comes after death, and I tend to be a bit skeptical about dogmatic pronouncements on what it will be like. I guess I do have just a bit of sympathy for the universalist position, but only insofar as it allows for our agency (which I think Hart does not allow for). Perhaps (and I say only “perhaps” because this is just my own speculation) God does leave the door open to all, but I believe that some souls may be so distorted–so perverted–that they cannot bear His glory, and will not enter in. That is their hell, and it may in fact be perpetual. I don’t know. I’ve always imagined that, before we can enter in, we have to be reconciled to those we have hurt or offended, and that most of us will be surprised to find out how much damage we’ve actually done. Some spectacular sinners (Tambourlaine, Stalin, etc.), will be a very long time at such reconciliation, even if they are inclined to pursue it. Matt. 5:22-24 suggests that such reconciliation is essential in this life before our sacrifices are acceptable to God, and perhaps that’s true in the next life as well.

    • Thanks for this. I have another objection, which is really an objection to innovative doctrines and retroactive charges of innovative doctrines. I find it incredible that God would allow the whole Incarnation Project to go off the rails almost at once and for thousands of years. There are, for instance, people who claim that St. Paul polluted the pure water of Jesus’ teaching. This makes sense to me only if Jesus was just one rabbi and Paul another. Obviously God permits errors to survive, but to permit a what could only be described as a gross heresy to survive for two thousand years!

  5. Offtopic. I have a thought in which I would like to ask the opinion of the Orthos. Liberalism is often said to be a religion or at least sociologically working as a religion. The Moldbuggian version is calling it a mystery cult of power. I would like to deduct some predictions from that and would like to ask what you think about them.

    1) Government (also called society or the system) is omnipotent.
    2) Therefore the only reason we are not living in perfect utopia is that it is not omnibenevolent.
    3) If we were hit by a brutal plague, every fatality would be blamed on the healthcare system not wanting hard enough to save the poor / minorities / women / etc.

    What do you think?

    • If you are trying to fit the state into the place of god in the problem of evil, I think the first premise (from the liberal point of view) should be that the state is “omnibenevolent,” but that evil (absence of utopia) persists because its power is foiled or checked by “reactionaries.” Liberals traditionally explained reaction as a consequence of ignorance rather than malice, although this has changed with the new language of “hate.” But liberals never doubt the goodness of their own will, and would never fault themselves with not “wanting hard enough” to save x, y, and z.

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.