Saturday, 26 November 2016

Hell in a Nutshell

In the first 30 years of my involvement in church, I would have heard the term 'Universalism' a handful of times.  Most of these were passing, dismissive references from the pulpit or by an established teacher.  I never heard or read a proper explanation of what the term meant.

If I had to depend on my church, nothing would have changed.  I have still never heard the concept explained in my church.  I still hear preachers refer to it dismissively from time to time and now that I know more I realise that they have very little understanding of the thing they are dismissing.

The difference is that now we have the Internet.  Literate, educated Christians are no longer dependent on their local church and the books their local bookshop is prepared to stock.  The full, fascinating and challenging diversity of the world is now at our fingertips.  We can find networks and forums of people interested in all sorts of things.  Our views can be challenged and questioned from all angles.  The "priesthood of all believers" preached by Protestants in particular has never been more real.

Which brings me to a little book called Hell in a Nutshell: The Mystery of His Will by American author Charles Watson Sr.  This is Watson's first book but I have previously "met" him online through a couple of different Universalist forums in which we are both active - he far more than me.

From what I can gather Watson is a layman and a largely self-taught apologist and polemicist.  He learnt his Christianity in a Southern Baptist church, a highly conservative denomination where Universalism never featured.  It was participating in an online forum that led to his more conventional views being challenged and he ended up adopting Christian (or Evangelical) Universalism as a result of the study this prompted.  Hell in a Nutshell is a result of this study.

It has to be said that Watson is not a confident writer.  He tends to beat about the bush, to talk around his points rather than present them clearly and concisely.  It's almost as if he fears premature dismissal.  Such fears are unnecessary because what he has to say makes perfect sense.

Two themes run through this book.  The first is an argument for Christian Universalism - and against the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment - based on the attributes of God.  God, as described in Christian faith, is gracious, merciful, loving and just.  These attributes are agreed by Calvinists, Arminians, Catholics, Orthodox and Universalists alike.  Watson's question is, are these attributes more consistent with the idea that God will condemn some people to eternal torment, or with the idea that he will eventually save everyone?

For Watson, not surprisingly, the answer is clear.  The notion that some people will be condemned to eternal torment places a definite limit on God's grace and mercy, and calls his love into question.  In Christian Universalism, on the other hand, his mercy and grace are unlimited and his love is seen clearly.

The fly in the ointment for this argument is the idea of God's justice.  The standard argument in favour of eternal condemnation is that this is a just punishment for sin and if God were to waive it he would be denying his own nature.

Watson's response to this argument is twofold.  The first is to question why God's offer of grace and mercy expires with our death.  Do we face a different God after we die to the one we learn about in this world?  Or is the offer open for all eternity, repeated over and over until we finally give in and accept it?

His second argument is about the meaning of the word "punishment".  In New Testament Greek there are two works that could be translated by this English word.  The first, timoria, means revenge or retribution.  Its purpose is to balance the ledger, to hurt someone who has hurt you.  The second kolasis, means correction or discipline.  It is administered in the interest of the person who receives it, to help them amend their ways and restore them to favour, as we would punish a child.  This second word is the one used for God's punishment and justice throughout the New Testament.

Hence the appearance of the word kolasis on the book's cover, portrayed in the flames of a crucible.  God's punishment, says Watson, is not implacable revenge but correction, setting us to rights so that we can take our place in his kingdom.  Punishment is ultimately redemptive, an expression of God's love to fallible humans.  After our punishment, and through it, we are restored.

Running alongside this argument for Christian Universalism is a wider appeal to Christians to consider and question what we are taught.  So many of us, says Watson, simply accept the positions preached from our pulpits or presented by approved authors.  Yet many of these positions don't stand up to scrutiny.  We shouldn't check our brains in at the church door.

Of course once you start doing this it is hard to stop.  In Hell in a Nutshell Charles Watson presents a view of Christian Universalism that largely leaves other areas of doctrine alone.  You can accept it without having to abandon cherished beliefs about the divinity of Christ, the necessity of the Cross, God's perfect sovereignty and so forth.  It leaves the Nicene Creed untouched.  Even the concept of biblical inerrancy need only come away with a few scratches.

Yet such boundary busting has a habit of repeating itself.  Once you have tested this boundary and found it wanting, what is to stop you testing another?  If you do, I suspect you will find many others wanting too.  This, I think, is why our church leaders are so strongly resistant to the idea of Christian Universalism.

I belong to a small group which has just finished studying Richard Rohr's Falling Upwards.  At one point he talks about how many of us, clergy and lay people alike, see the church as a security system.  It provides an institutional framework in which we feel safe and are able to avoid uncomfortable challenges to our identity.  We all need security systems as we are growing up, but if we want to become fully mature then at some point we need to step out of them and face the wider world, to allow ourselves to be challenged from a position of humble confidence in the core of who we are.

Hell in a Nutshell provides one pathway into this stepping out.  Ostensibly it is just a simple tweak to our theology, but its implications can be profound.  For instance, it forces us to confront our own vengefulness.  Can we really stand the idea that our enemies will join us in heaven?  It forces us to re-examine the default use of fear as an evangelistic tool.  Do we see value in the gospel besides its providing an escape hatch from eternal damnation?  It forces us to face our portrayal of God as a frightening vengeful deity.  Are we ready to accept a God who purposefully gives up his grandeur and allows himself to be laid in a bed of straw, under the care of a poor teenage girl?

Sooner or later we all have to face these questions.  Perhaps you are not ready to yet?  That's fine, but if you do start rest assured - it does indeed hurt, but not as much as you fear, and the reward is definitely worth it.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Cobbler and the Rich Man

Today as I was out walking at lunchtime I found myself thinking about one of the moral tales that formed part of our primary school reading.  It goes by various names including The Cobbler and the Rich Man, The Cobbler and the Financier or The Cobbler's Song.  This story was first made popular in Europe by Jean de la Fontaine, a seventeenth century French author, although it is much older than that and may originate on the Indian sub-continent.


In this story a poor cobbler works in his shop each day, and as he works he sings loudly and cheerfully.  This singing is intensely annoying to his neighbour, a wealthy financier who lies awake all night worrying about his money and then is unable to sleep during the day because of the cobbler's noise.  Eventually the rich man hits on a plan - he gives the cobbler a purse containing 100 gold pieces.

Immediately the cobbler's peace of mind is shattered and he ceases to sing.  Instead he lies awake at night worrying that someone will steal his gold, shifting it from hiding place to hiding place as he deems each one too unsafe.  He can barely eat for the stress, begins to waste away and spends his days in misery.  His neighbour, meanwhile, has the silence he needs to gain much-needed rest.

Eventually, the cobbler confides the whole story to his wife, who immediately solves the problem by advising him to return the gold to his neighbour.  He does so, and his happiness is immediately restored while the rich man, in the version I read as a child, is "forced to move to somewhere where cobblers do not sing so cheerfully".

The moral of the story, of course, is that money doesn't buy you happiness and that in fact it may do just the opposite.  Is this really true?  Well, it seems so, although the evidence is a little ambiguous. For instance, in 2010 Kahneman and Deaton surveyed 1,000 Americans and found that there was a correlation between income and happiness up to an annual income of about $75,000, after which average happiness plateaued.  However, in 2013 Stevenson and Wolfers conducted a similar survey with a different methodology and found that wellbeing continued to increase as income rose.

The relationship is not simple.  Much depends on what you do with the money.  Accumulating more and more possessions provides little or no extra happiness or wellbeing.  However, having good experiences (which money can facilitate) does make us happier.  These experiences can involve all sorts of things - it may be fun holidays or activities, but it is also spending time with people we love and doing good for others, including giving away part of our wealth to those who need it more than we do.  Wealth does not bring happiness, but it may make it easier for us to do happy things if we are wise enough to discern what these are.

Of course, we should not be fooled by the cobbler's tale into glorifying poverty.  The cobbler is a particular kind of poor person.  He has somewhere to live.  He is married to an intelligent and sensible woman.  He has meaningful work to do, which he clearly enjoys.  He has good health which enables him to do physical work all day.  He has friends who come to his shop to enjoy his singing.  All these things are the conditions of his happiness.  If he was homeless, unemployed, alone in the world, surrounded by enemies or in constant pain he would not sing so cheerfully.  He has achieved the happy medium which the wise man Agur prays for in Proverbs 30.

Give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.

This is a very important story for the situation we find ourselves in right now.  There is abundant evidence for anyone who is willing to look that our current way of life is unsustainable.  Our wealthy Western societies cannot go on amassing wealth and consuming resources at the rate we are now.  Oil is running out, we are on a path to climate disaster, the pressures of poverty and war are creating millions of displaced persons, and an unconscionable proportion of the world's population lives in absolute poverty.  Something has to give, and that something is us.  The only way out of this dilemma is for our societies to give up part of their wealth.

Of course the hero of The Cobbler and the Rich Man is neither the cobbler nor the rich man, but the cobbler's wife.  She is the only person in the story who diagnoses the problem correctly and is able to solve it.  Wealth is making both her husband and their neighbour unhappy.  The difference between the two men is that only her husband is able to accept the solution, which is to have less.  He instantly feels the weight lifted from his shoulders and recommences his singing.

Their rich neighbour, on the other hand, is unable to take this step and instead retreats from the situation into a privatised silence.  We don't know what he does there, but it seems unlikely that he is genuinely happy.  At best he will be able to snatch a little sleep during his daylight hours because he has found a place where his unhappiness is not constantly highlighted by the happiness of his neighbour.

He could serve as an analogue for our entire society.  Our politicians continually tell as that our problems will be solved by "jobs and growth", but they won't.  The message of Brexit, Trump's election, the fences barring refugees from travelling westward into Europe, Australia's fierce commitment to indefinite detention of asylum seekers and the resurgence of protectionism is that we will go to any lengths to hold onto the wealth we have.  The thought of a correction, of giving up some of our riches, makes us afraid.  It makes us feel physically ill.  It stops us from singing and makes us toss restlessly in our beds at night.

Our wealth is not making us happier or healthier.  Levels of depression and anxiety continue to climb upwards.  Obesity - surely the clearest possible sign that we have too much - is on the rise and public health measures are making little difference.  Our public life is disintegrating into a shambles of competing factions without the skill or willingness to forge any kind of consensus.  We are beset by anxieties at every turn, not least the anxiety that someone will steal our hard-earned (or hard-inherited, or ill-gotten) wealth.

We should listen more carefully to the wisdom of the cobbler's wife.  It is not merely that we can get by with less - although this is clearly true - but that we will be a lot better off if we do.  The danger of our current predicament is that as we reach the limits of our current trajectory it will be the poorest people of the globe who are asked, or forced, to give up more.  This will lead to untold suffering.

This would of course be a shocking and unforgivable outcome for them, but it would also be a very bad one for us.  Not only their wellbeing, but ours also, requires us to give up some of our wealth.  Only if we do this can more people around the globe (both in the developed and the majority world) achieve the cobbler's happy medium and be able to return to singing cheerful songs as we work.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

A Public Faith

I've been reading some books on Christian engagement in politics (with a small "p") and I thought I'd review them to give you some highlights.  A great place to start is with Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.

Volf is a Croatian-born theologian who studied in Germany under Juergen Moltmann and is now a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School in the USA.  Among other things, he is Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, an institute dedicated to the study of the intersection between faith and wider culture.  He is learned and erudite but also a very accessible author.  He is also open to a wide set of influences, drawing on Islamic and Jewish thinkers as well as Christian ones.  His book has a very simple, elegant construction around a set of pairs through which he drives a rather Aristotelian "golden mean".

Volf conceives of Christianity, along with Islam and Judaism, as a prophetic faith.  Such faiths, he says, are characterised by a two-fold movement - ascent to God to receive his message, followed by return to deliver this message to the world.  This ascent and return could be understood literally, as in Moses ascending Mt Sinai and returning with the tablets of the Law, but also metaphorically depicting our ordinary encounters with God and efforts to discern how we should act as his people.

Prophetic religion is subject to various problems which Volf characterises in four ways - two "ascent malfunctions" and two "return malfunctions".  Ascent malfunctions come from our failure understand or remain faithful to the prophetic revelation.  Volf identifies the first of these as "functional reduction", in which the rich content of the faith is reduced to worldly or practical formulae.  Faith is replaced by pop psychology or social analysis.  The second he calls "idolatric substitution", in which a living and complex faith in a living God is replaced by an idol of our making, whether spiritual, political or social.  What both these types of malfunction have in common is a failure to understand the prophetic revelation.

Volf deals with these very briefly.  He devotes much more space to his two "return malfunctions" - idleness and coercion.  Idleness is the practice of withdrawing from engagement with the world, of focusing exclusively on our mystical union with God, the act of making converts or the future hope of heaven.  We have the message of the prophets but we keep it to ourselves, perhaps lacking confidence in its effectiveness.

Coercion is, of course, the practice of trying to forcibly impose our prophetic vision on the wider society.  We convert our religion into a political movement dedicated to suppressing alternative viewpoints and ways of life while enforcing our own.  This is most graphically illustrated in our time by Islamic extremism but also has a long history in Christianity both before and after the Reformation.

If these extremes are to be avoided, what is the golden mean Volf would like us to follow?  He takes us into this by exploring different ideas of human flourishing.  For Augustine, humans ultimately find their wellbeing in the love of God and in loving what God defines as good.  Christians seek this not just for themselves but for those around them, whether Christian or not.  The recent history of Western civilisation has seen this view of flourishing progressively reduced, firstly through the enlightenment view of universal brotherhood and love of humanity without God, and more recently through an atomised focus on individual, experiential satisfaction.

The role of prophetic religion, then, is to call humanity back to this full, divinely centred view of human flourishing.  He sees our current focus on experiential satisfaction as self-defeating - our society's shallow, self-centred view of what satisfaction entails means that if we get what we seek we will still be discontented.  Our mission is to share and enact a deeper, more complete view of what it means to be human.

We are to build and promote things which allow and encourage this full form of flourishing, and to resist those which interfere with it.  This social engagement need not be exclusively Christian - many things which promote this kind of flourishing may be initiated or supported by those of other faiths or none, and Volf sees Christians as collaborating with whoever will support such initiatives, without abandoning or compromising our distinctive faith.

Volf is very confident of the value of the Christian message and sees it is having a unique contribution to make to society.  Hence, he is outwardly focused, wanting to share the particular wisdom of Christianity with the wider world and use it to promote the wellbeing of all.  He sees this as part of Christ's call to love our neighbours and even our enemies.  His is an open, engaged faith, neither defensively closed nor belligerently assertive.  He also seems to be quite optimistic - it is possible to really improve human life, to make our societies more just and humane.

If this book has a limitation it is that it is short on specifics.  If you are looking for guidance on how to respond to specific situations, for a political or activist program, you will have to look elsewhere. This book could be cited by conservatives and progressives, capitalists and socialists with equal confidence. However, what he does provide is a jumping off point - Christians should be seeking the flourishing of those around them.  And there are plenty of others who can supply what he lacks, as we will see.