Re: Sunday morning mail? Bueno!
- Matt -- This will probably be my last chance to respond this week, so here
goes! I wish I had more time ...
<< I think a little more biography and internal perspective is necessary
Brian, I would absolutely love to discover that damnation and hell are
exagerated, metaphoric, or altogether fictional. It would change my life and
lives of many of my secular friends who have never been able to reconcile
the problem of damnation with the promise of God's love.
--Matt, here are some random thoughts on this issue. I don't think anyone
has created a postmodern systematic theology yet, and maybe that is an
oxymoronic term, but here are some thoughts....
A. Have you noticed that there is no doctrine of heaven and hell, in any
well-developed sense, in the Old Testament? It was therefore possible to be
a person in a profound relationship with God without that theological
B. The doctrine developed in the intertestamental period, as I understand
it, from a number of sources, including a) the Greek concept of Hades, b)
maybe a Zoroastrian concept of heaven and hell, and c) the deep feeling that
Jewish heroes, like the Maccabees, who died would have to be resurrected by
God to be rewarded for their courage, martyrdom, etc. In other words, the
well developed sense of justice that the Jews developed demanded, for them,
that the books be balanced beyond the grave.
C. Jesus talks about hell more than anyone in the Bible, but I wonder if
we're not seeing what he says in its historical context. Everyone talked
about hell and judgment and apocalypse in those days ... it had to do with a
dream of seeing the Romans overthrown and given their just desserts. It also
had to do with the Pharisees and their anger at the sinners around them: "If
it weren't for these sinners, God would surely deliver Israel." What's so
interesting is that Jesus enters into all this rhetoric about hell and
totally turns it inside out and upside down. It's the Pharisees who are
turning their converts into "twice the sons of hell" they are themselves.
It's the prostitutes and tax collectors who will enter the kingdom of heaven
before the scribes and Pharisees, etc.
D. This taps into our situation in a rather interesting way. In 19th
century America, and through the religious right, well into 20th century
America, the posture of fundamentalists to "sinners" was about the same as
that of the Pharisees in Jesus' day: they are an embarrassment, they
threaten to bring us all down into judgment, they should know better, etc.
So, the religious community became angry, resentful, etc. I think if Jesus
were here today, he would again talk a lot about hell, and again, he would
surprise us with how he would do so. For example, did you hear about the
summit conference between Jerry Falwell and Mel White (homosexual Christian
advocate)? There was another guy there, whose name I've forgotten, who
always carries a sign that says, "God hates fags." He told the media that
now Jerry Falwell will burn in hell just like Mel White, etc. etc. I think
if Jesus were here, he'd talk about how that guy was the one in real danger
of hell-fire. That would be interesting to hear on the 7 oclock news, eh?
After all, he is a person in need of mercy (just like Jerry, Mel, and me) --
and his refusal to grant mercy to others puts him in the category of grave
spiritual danger, according to many of Jesus' parables (not to mention the
Lord's prayer ... forgive us as we forgive....).
Does that make any sense? One other thing: when I see things most clearly,
I think I see that love and justice and mercy and holiness and compassion and
righteousness are all facets of the same diamond. To me, the goodness of God
is this amazing mystery that is so big and beautiful, I simply release myself
into its grandeur. I feel free to opt out of saying who's out and who's in,
for example; if Jesus tells me anything, it's that it's not my place to
judge, that many of the last will be first, that God's judgments are far
above and beyond man's, that there is a wideness to God's mercy, etc.
I'm not interested in watering down or removing Jesus' teachings about hell,
judgment, etc., because I think they're good teachings, and beautiful,
rightly understood. But I think American fundamentalism has done to them
just what the Pharisees would do. In other words, if American
fundamentalism's teaching on hell makes you feel you can't be a Christian,
I'd just suggest that it means you can't be a Pharisee. Line up with Jesus
(who doesn't nail things down the way we do ...) and you'll be in good shape,
I think ... It reminds me of an ancient story about some disciples who went
to a spiritual leader and said, "Is there a heaven and hell?" He said, "If I
say yes or no, you will only argue with me, and that will be a waste of time
for all of us. So, instead of answering your question, I will just say this:
go, love God, and love your neighbors."
You said ....
I also think you
should know that my polemic involves a fundamentalist perspective, but
personally, I am pretty far afield. I don't consider myself an evangelical,
I don't believe in the sola scriptura doctrine, I too have grave doubts as
to the literal meanings ascribed to scriptural imagery and language (your
discussion of pronoun gender and God's true nature for instance I am very
much in agreeance with).
--Yes, I understand that you are moving away from fundamentalism, but
probably for all of us, more than we realize, what we think of Christianity
is our modern, western, American, and often fundamentalist version of
Post-modern perspectives developed for me very
early (probably Junior High) without me ever knowing a name for them or
their systematicity. I was very early introduced to the subjectivity of
truth and belief, and it probably did the most to mess me up before I
learned a constructive framework for these new realizations.
However, heres what I don't understand. I believe that to a certain extent
scripture is relative...and absolutely that it is not infalible or without
its contradictions. This acknowledgement has been very liberating for me,
but it is a two-edged sword. Where do you then draw the line of subjective
and objective data in scripture, and who draws it? If Hell can be a
metaphor, than divinity can be too. Christ didn't have to really BE God as
man (or rise from the dead), it could simply be a metaphor for the
indwelling of God's energy within all mankind as a sort of Eastern
perspective on enlightened non-dual bliss. Once subjectivity becomes the
rule, interpretive freedom allows the displacement of a lot of things which
make our faith problematic, but also make the faith...the faith. I don't
know if its possible to mix a little post-modern relativism into the picture
without ultimately undercutting all but the subjective opinion on who, what,
or why God is. Like I said, to me its the A-bomb of rational thinking.
I honestly would like to hear how you've found reconciliation between some
sort of interpretive integrity and post-modernism, if it gels thats the best
news I've heard in years. For me the ethic has been more to nuke rationalism
into the ground, and then force yourself to be dependent on mystical
revelation and interaction...the relationship with God. The problem I've
found with this is that all right to appeal to logic or truth or authority
from an earthly perspective is then compromised. I have a hard time seeing
that bear out with the sense of Christ and the apostiles that I get from
scripture. Really, please explain this more fully to me...I really want to
accept it as possible.
--Actually, this is what my third book attempts to do, which is being
considered by a publisher now (I hope!). A quick comment now though ... I
think Hegel was right, historically speaking, when he talked about how
history seems to progress through thesis/antithesis/synthesis -- although I
agree with Francis Schaeffer that just because history seems to go that way
doesn't mean that some things should simply have an antithesis, with no
synthesis allowed. Anyway -- I think modernity has always swung between two
poles ... rationalist/objective and romantic/subjective. I think the way
ahead is not by choosing one or the other, but by creating a new synthesis.
I have an article coming out in Mars Hill Review in 2000 sometime (I think)
on this ... the term I like for the new synthesis is "intersubjectivity." It
means not pretending to an abstracted privileged-position obectivity on the
one hand, and not surrendering to a rather narcissistic subjectivity on the
other ... but rather using my rationality to acknowledge that every one of us
comes from a subjective position of bias, interest, limitation, etc. AND
intersubjectivity realizes that this subjectivity is not only a disadvantage,
but also an advantage ... IF we can learn to listen to and acknowledge and
validate one another's subjectivities. It seems to me that Christians should
be in a tremendous place to forge this new synthesis ... because we believe
that the Ultimate Reality is a personal being who is the only being in the
universe truly suited to be truly objective, but who is never only objective,
because God is also personal (in the fullest sense of the word). In other
words, if God has feelings (subjectivity) ... then God's feelings mean that
there is nothing "purely" (or better put, "merely") objective in the
universe; it all has a subjective value placed upon it by God. Whoa ... I'm
probably losing you and everybody else at this point. But let me throw out
one other idea, brain-dump-style....
--Conservative evangelicals are so zealous to defend "absolute truth" or
"propositional truth." I think this betrays to what a great degree they have
married modernity (after all, the Bible doesn't really even have such
categories ... so this isn't just a matter of being Biblical). It also
displays their common sense, because they have a feeling for where total
subjectivity will lead in the world of morals ... a real swamp and chaos.
But I wonder ... what if what they really want to call "objective absolute
truth" would be better described as the subjective feelings of God about
things, actions, etc? Well, maybe that's too far out in the ozone to make
any sense, but for what it's worth....
One more quick thing...I mentioned in an earlier letter that I have been
really thinking about Orthodoxy...some close friends have converted and I've
had a lot of time and opportunity to scrutinize the Orthodox way (not to
pimp Timothy Ware's title). I've actually found their approach (their blend
of mysticism and holistic theology)to be the most immediately suggestive of
a solution...I am not advocating mass conversion to Orthodoxy, or trying to
cast dispersions on other denominations, I just like their principles and
love their worship. Obviously though, aligning with a particular church
needs to come after I can reconcile with God, lest I form yet another
relationship with the institutions which represent God rather than the
Author of Life personally. Regardless, I was really thrilled to see Anthony
Bloom's book mentioned in "Finding Faith". "Beginning to Pray" is one of
the handful of books I brought with me to Argentina, and I have never found
its like inspirationaly (purely subjective opinion). Thank you again for
your letter and I hope you will outline your vision of the faith and
post-modernity for me soon.
>>--I have mixed feelings about the return to Orthodoxy. Part of it makes
perfect sense to me: the orthodox remain largely premodern ... and so for
people sick unto death about modernity, they offer a refreshing "non-modern"
solution. On the other hand, to the degree that they resort to a human
institution as a source of absolute and bombproof authority, I find the
solution has "bad faith" elements in it. I certainly think, though, that the
premodern spirituality of both orthodox and catholic writers will be of huge
help to us ... because after 500 years of modernity, we protestants don't
have much of a spirituality that is not shot through with rationalism, modern
western individualism, etc., etc.
I hope this is helpful ... it's not very organized, and has been written in
more of a hurry than it should have been. You active and perceptive mind, I
think, will be able to fill in a lot of the gaps, at least I hope so! -- Brian