Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Hell in the Gospels

Prefatory note: this post is not intended to deny or question any aspect of developed Catholic teaching on Hell; it is merely an attempt to put things in perspective.

When the Jacobean version of the New Testament was in process of evolution the pious and learned men engaged in the work insisted by a majority vote on translating the Greek word "Aides" as "Hell"; but a conscientious minority member secretly possessed himself of the record and struck out the objectional word wherever he could find it.  At the next meeting, the Bishop of Salisbury, looking over the work, suddenly sprang to his feet and said with considerable excitement:  "Gentlemen, somebody has been razing 'Hell' here!"
(Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, “Hades”)

It has been common in Catholic and Protestant circles alike to suppose that unbelievers would go to Hell. Both were convinced that Heaven was something one did not gain by one’s own efforts, but only through the mediation of Jesus, and that disbelieving in Jesus meant rejecting salvation. Preaching strongly on Hell served a double function: for unbelievers, to heighten the sense of urgency of conversion; for believers, to dissuade them from leaving the fold.

When in the last centuries an increasing number of people voiced doubts as to whether the existence of Hell was consistent with a merciful God, it was pointed out that most of the sayings on Hell came from the mouth of Jesus himself, to whom friend and foe ascribe great compassion. So, because Jesus himself threatened unbelievers with Hell, this cannot be so unmerciful as people suppose.

Whether or not the conclusion is true, the logic is flawed. It is flawed because the statement ‘Jesus spoke often about Hell’ cannot be substituted by ‘Jesus threatened unbelievers with Hell’. In fact, my cursory (and possibly deficient) examination of the Gospels revealed the following:

(1) The ones threatened with punishment are generally insiders, not outsiders.

(2) The vast majority of references to final punishment occur in the Gospel of Matthew, the most ‘Jewish’ of the Gospels, and therefore directed at those who shared Jesus’ religious presuppositions.

(3) The Gospel of John, which uses the starkest terms to describe the contrast between faith and unbelief, talks about judgment but not about Hell.

The first time that ‘Gehenna’ is mentioned, an ancient site of idolatry outside of Jerusalem where children were formerly sacrificed (used to indicate a place of final punishment), is in the Sermon of the Mount. Here Jesus intensifies the demands of the law with the formula ‘You have heard that it was said … but I say unto you …’ The first two sections aim at eradicating the roots of anger and lust, respectively. The person who openly insults his brother by denying his rightness of mind ‘shall be liable to fiery Gehenna’. And the person who looks at a woman lustfully is told that it is better to cut off wayward body parts than to be cast bodily into Gehenna.

This theme of self-mutilation must have made an impression, because it occurs a second time in Matthew with a parallel in Mark. In this case the warning is not against the lustful look, but against anything that causes sin, especially in the ‘little ones’. Someone who weakens the character of those still in need of protection and encouragement cannot count on God’s sympathy.

Mark is rather explicit in his description of Gehenna: it is a place where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’. This is a quote from the final vision of the prophet Isaiah, where the corpses (not souls) of the rebels against God will be eternally devoured outside of the city. However, this punishment is introduced by the consoling thought ‘All mankind shall come to worship before me’. (The ingathering of the Gentiles, i.e. the outsiders, is a major theme in Isaiah, as is the destruction of those who exhibit aggression towards the holy place.) Unquenchable fire, by the way, is a prophetic image for the ‘muscle power’ with which God reacts to evil.

Those sent on a mission by Jesus are exhorted to take God more seriously than outside pressure from others, because those can hurt our body, but God can destroy our soul in Gehenna. This warning occurs in two Gospels (Matthew and Luke) and is addressed to the closest insiders in Jesus’ circle.

So is there no threat of judgment for the ‘outsiders’ – in current terms, those to whom Jesus seems like a distant historical figure, difficult to see through the fog of Christian legend? Yes, there is, because the whole world will be judged at the end of history. However, the judgment is based not so much on belief as on the character of one’s heart. In the Gospels, Jesus teaches that everyone has to meet certain negative and positive expectations on God’s part. Negative: ‘all who cause others to sin and all evildoers’ will be thrown out. Positive: only those who have practised active mercifulness towards those in need will escape eternal punishment.

Mostly, however, Jesus’ warnings involve a reversal of expectations for those who are in some sense ‘insiders’, but who have not lived up to this relationship. The first occurrence could serve as a textbook example: after preaching on what the people are like in the kingdom of heaven (which the nation of Israel is called to embody), Jesus meets a Roman centurion. In other words: a military leader of the occupying force in Israel, which often made it difficult for Jews to worship God freely and without compromises. At the moment, however, the centurion is on a mission of peace: he asks Jesus to heal his servant, with complete trust in Jesus’ ability to do so. Jesus is struck and says: ‘Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom [of Israel?] will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

This is quite a slap in the face of his Jewish hearers! Isaiah’s vision was that the Gentiles would come to worship with Israel, not that they would take Israel’s place. Since Israel was God’s people, every Israelite could be considered an ‘insider’, but now they are excluded while the ‘outsiders’ are allowed to approach Israel’s founding fathers!

Jesus’ provocations are not ended. Towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus pronounces a series of ‘woes’ on the outwardly religious Pharisees, including this one: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves.’ (The title ‘children of the kingdom’ is reversed.) And a little later: ‘You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?’

Lastly, the theme of final punishment occurs in several parables in which a servant or subject has failed to do what was expected of him: the guest who has not dressed properly for the royal wedding; the head servant who abuses his fellow servants and neglects his responsibilities; the servant who buried his talent. They all go to a place where there is ‘wailing and grinding of teeth’. They are punished for thinking and acting as if no effort were required of them; they are ‘insiders’ who do not meet the demands.

The Gospel of John, which has the strongest dichotomy between faith and unbelief, does not say much about final punishment. Rather, there is a sense that unbelievers exclude themselves from the greatest gift God offers, and consequently remain in darkness: ‘He who believes in [Jesus] is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God … He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.’

Faith and life are interlinked. The sort of unbelief that John has in mind is the kind that refuses to believe because it refuses to be well: ‘the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.’ So even in John, there is a judgment based not merely on religion but on one’s heart: ‘The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice [viz. of the Son of God] and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.’

All this does not really convey the idea that ‘outsiders’ go to Hell by definition. But it is a different thing to have become an ‘insider’ and to fail to act like one. This is attested by Jesus in the Gospels, and also by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews:

If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgment and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries. Anyone who rejects the law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that a much worse punishment is due [to] the one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant-blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace? We know the one who said: ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ and again: ‘The Lord will judge his people.’

I wish my fellow Christians (and everyone else, of course) a blessed Lent. A meditation on the above text should be a good start. It hides a secret, but I will leave that for Laetare Sunday (15 March). Stay tuned.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Sexy Heresy

All my life a ludicrous and portentous solemnisation of sex has been going on.
(C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, “Eros”, p. 97)

A while ago I heard a song on the radio of which I could only catch the words ‘Take me to church’ and ‘Amen, amen, amen’. I strongly suspected I was missing something, so I looked up the complete lyrics. The song was Take me to church by Hozier; it has been on the Top 100 list for 25 weeks now, peaking at #2 and currently still going strong at #3. Hozier’s church, contrasted with the sombre and misanthropic institutional church, turns out to be one that ‘worships in the bedroom’. Almost Augustinian is the line ‘I should’ve worshipped her sooner’. Sero te amavi!

The simile is so extended as to become almost Homeric. The lover is called a ‘mouthpiece of heaven’, a ‘Goddess’ that demands sacrifice, one that gives ‘deathless death’ (a stock metaphor) and to whom one’s life can be given. Imagery of Christmas and Corpus Christi is combined (with innuendo) in the lines ‘What you got in the stable? / We’ve a lot of starving faithful’. Sex becomes worship, a liturgical rite – but one without hierarchy:

No Masters or Kings
When the Ritual begins
There is no sweeter innocence
Than our gentle sin

Dammit, it sounded like such a good song.

In fact it reminded me of nothing so much as the Da Vinci Code (spoilers alert). In Dan Brown’s book, the murdered Louvre curator who opens the plot has had a falling-out with his favourite granddaughter ten years before. The granddaughter happens to become Langdon’s intelligent and docile sidekick. She is struggling with the event that led her to break off contact with her grandfather. This event is referred to in gradually increasing detail until you have an idea what it could be, and when it is ultimately revealed to be a sex rite, you’re not surprised.

Hieros Gamos, Langdon calls it, the Sacred Marriage. Practised in temple prostitution in many ancient cults, including the Jewish Temple before the patriarchal system took over. (Perhaps he is thinking of Eli’s sons, but they were priests at the Shiloh sanctuary before the Temple was even dreamed of.) Still practised secretly in cultural centres like Manhattan and Paris. It is a festive celebration of fertility, a happy natural religion in contrast with the gloomy, restrictive, sin-obsessed Judeo-Catholic power structures.

Sophie voices the obvious objection: ‘What I saw was neither holy nor a marriage.’

Now Dan Brown lets this hang in the air, but ultimately answers it with an almost Chestertonian twist: the woman who was with the curator was actually his wife. They had separated to avert danger from their two grandchildren, but still they came together annually because some rites just had to be performed.

It is very interesting to note the devilish cleverness by which our author has painted sex rites with a veneer of bourgeois conventionality. All of the reviews I read back in the day took pot-shots at the historical wrongness of Dan Brown’s opus, but none addressed the core idea. What precisely is wrong with having ritual sex with your wife?

Well, aside from wrongness, there are two inner contradictions in this picture. The most obvious one is this: if the rite is an annual celebration of fertility, why on earth did the curator have only one child? Apparently most of the fertility rites failed to deliver. The Christian way of celebrating fertility (liturgically at Christmas and more informally after the birth of any child) would seem to make more sense.

The other element has to do with the anti-patriarchal pretence that Langdon/Dan Brown puts up. This gets a little more complicated. His contention is that the Catholic Church established their power status by elevating Jesus to divinity at the Council of Nicea (325), making the Church the only bringer of salvation on earth. (Try telling the Donatists that. Or the Assyrians, or the Copts.) The Church obscured the ‘fact’ that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus in order to create the hierarchical Petrine church we all know and love.

In reality, Dan Brown claims, Mary Magdalene was the hero of the story of Christianity. She was the ‘Holy Grail’ because she was the chosen vessel of Jesus to perpetuate his bloodline: the line of King David, later of the Frankish kings. The Da Vinci Code ends with Langdon’s realization of the pilgrimage we are called to make: to ‘pray at the feet of the outcast one’, at the relics of Mary Magdalene in Paris. She was ousted from her powerful position in the early Church because they feared the power of the ‘sacred feminine’.

But what was her merit? Apparently nothing more than being married to Jesus, as his favourite disciple, and being the mother of his children. And Jesus was only a human prophet. How this makes Mary Magdalene an embodiment of the ‘sacred feminine’, I have no idea.

So this is the second inner contradiction: in Dan Brown’s world, women receive their importance and insight from men. As Mary Magdalene was taught and wedded by Jesus, Sophie with her ‘virginal’ (i.e. uninitiated, receptive) mind is taught by Langdon and Teabing, who draw an explicit analogy between teaching and sexual intercourse (planting the seed, that sort of thing). In the Priory of Sion, it is the Grand Master who holds the strings, also of its ritual aspects. No Masters or Kings / When the Ritual begins?

Say what you like about the Judeo-Catholic tradition, I am not convinced that the cult of the sacred feminine offers a better alternative. Somehow it always seems to end in temple prostitution, half-orphaned children, empty celebrations and failed promises, enshrined lies – and no forgiveness:

I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife

Well, Saturday is almost over. Anyone available to take me to church tomorrow?

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Reports from the Fringe II

The word ‘Reformed’ in this post refers to a subset of Dutch Reformed Christianity, not the orthodox Calvinist tradition in general.

Recently a Reformed school class went to a mosque, as an educational activity. A pastor was scandalized and reacted to this in the newspaper. In his own congregation, a similar extracurricular activity had been suggested, but had been cancelled due to protests from parents and from the kids themselves. The pastor was afraid, not so much of conversions to Islam, but of relativism: people going home with the idea that Muslims were sympathetic people after all, with admirable religious fervour and veneration for their holy book. It’s difficult to combine that with a visceral horror of unbelief in Christ.

In the course of the conversation, the pastor mentioned that he would not enter a Roman Catholic church if he would be obliged to make the sign of the cross or ‘do something with holy water’. He was asked how he felt about going into a synagogue with a yarmulke. That, he said, was different. The Jews based themselves on books that were also in his own Bible, even if they read them with a veil on their hearts. Which means, apparently, that a yarmulke is more acceptable than the sign of the cross.

I posted this on Facebook, because I was amused by the ‘rather Jewish than Romish’ sentiment. A few Protestants chimed in to make clear that the pastor was not speaking on their behalf.

A former Protestant, now atheist, was more general in his condemnation: every time he opened the Reformed newspaper, he was unpleasantly struck by the ‘medieval ideology’ to which they adhered. If there was concern about radicalizing Muslims, the radicalizing Reformed should also be addressed, to avoid a double standard. I pointed out that there were no Reformed Christians in the Middle Ages, and that it betokened confusion to (1) label the default pre-1960s mindset as ‘medieval’, and (2) describe the disappearance of societal approval of a group’s view as the ‘radicalization’ of that group.

In fact I got confused myself, thinking that he was just talking about this article and not about the Reformed mindset in general. Anyhow, I was surprised by the fact that I suddenly found myself speaking on behalf of an old-fashioned pastor whom even the Protestants did not bother to defend. Suddenly my sympathies were all on the other side.

But before I had filled out all the registration forms to enlist in the Reformed crusade, my warm feelings were severely dampened. The occasion was, of course, a baptismal service; nothing like a Baptism to divide Christians!

Last Sunday I attended the Baptism of my cousin’s child, with full readiness to join my separated brothers and sisters in heart and spirit for this occasion. I smiled when I remarked to my mother that the opening Psalm verse (a rhyming arrangement of ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me’) might have been beautifully and aptly complemented by the subsequent verse (‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow’). I listened with interest and generally with assent to the liturgical formula explaining the meaning of Baptism. And I was grateful that three infant children received the Sacrament.

Then came the homily.

The pastor had chosen the text of Titus 3, which contains a beautiful baptismal passage: ‘He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.’

The pastor started his homily by drawing a portrait of a rather Bunyanesque flat character, which, if actually from Bunyan, would have been called ‘Mr. Righteous-by-Works’. He lived an outwardly decent life, paid tithes (I don’t think anyone in the Reformed church pays tithes), and was praised in the community. He was satisfied with himself until he discovered that, for all his good appearance, he was ‘an abomination unto God.’

Just like that.

The pastor came back to this theme multiple times, saying that God has a ‘disgust of man’. It would be wrong to say that it was the main thought, but I do not recall there being much of a counterweight anywhere to soften this rather distressing thought. At least it was distressing to me; presumably it was received by the general audience as a truism, a simple fact of divine life. Presumably I have received similar thoughts similarly. This was the first time it really bothered me. I saw many familiar faces in church who awakened affection in me; I rather doubted that Love Himself would get from them the urgent desire to vomit.

The pastor described the inner life of someone truly converted, who apparently wondered things like ‘Would He still show regard for a dead dog such as I?’ That did not seem a particularly Dutch thought, so I looked it up. It occurs in 2 Samuel 9, after the death of King Saul and his sons. David has risen to power and summoned Saul’s crippled grandson, Mephibosheth. The grandson has good reason to be scared; dynastic changes are messy affairs and tend to end badly for the dispossessed. So he humbly introduces himself to David as ‘your servant’. He only calls himself a ‘dead dog’ after David has told him, ‘Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always.’ So he abases himself (in colourful oriental fashion) with intense grateful relief.

The intense relief was rather lacking in the sermon. Even the text from Titus, ‘But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us … through the washing of regeneration’ was telescoped as follows (and I quote): ‘But … He … there is a possibility, brethren!’ Towards the end of the homily the pastor explicitly claimed, contrary to all patristic testimony, that the ‘washing of regeneration’ was not the water of Baptism. And he made a small excursion into Titus 2, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’, but only to point out that the classical Reformed annotations taught that this meant ‘all kinds of people’, not ‘all’, not at all.

So I left the service with a simmering indignation at the irresponsible use of Scripture and (for the first time) the nagging doubt if the pastor’s disgusted God was the same as mine. And a glance at the thermometer hanging there, which indicated that the inside temperature was 23.8°C, or 74.8°F.