It seems that the Christian world is all atwitter (literally, and elsewhere) about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Based on the information that’s available, he’s outed himself as a universalist, which frankly doesn’t sit well with me. In the meanwhile, it seemed that it was as good a time as any to post Antonia Tripolitis’ article Return to the Divine: Salvation in the Thought of Plotinus and Origen. Since Origen is Christianity’s most illustrious universalist (perhaps until the Modernist movement crowded the field in the last century plus) I felt that such a posting might be educational.
The first response I got back was from one Ron Krumpos, who made this comment, mostly a quote from a former President of India. There are a couple of positive things to be said about this.
The first is that it opens up a discussion of the whole relationship between Greek philosophy and Indian religion and mysticism. There was a good deal more interchange between the Roman Empire and India than most people are aware of, and before that Alexander the Great briefly unified the world from the Adriatic to the Indus. There’s a stronger connection between a philosopher like Plotinus and a devotee of Hindu spirituality like Krumpos than most people, content with an “East is East and West is West” mentality, care to admit. (Some of my previous thoughts on this subject can be found here.)
The second is that it has focused my attention on why spirituality such as this and a lot that has been going around in this country since the days of the lost chord has never resonated with me.
I did a little research on Mr. Krumpos. On his World Religions Parliament page, he tells us that he has no religion, but then he goes on to outline the people who have inspired him:
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel physicist, who invited me to the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory. He introduced me to mysticism and the universality of the Universe.
Swami Nikhilananda, founder of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York, who spent many hours privately teaching me that mystical awareness is beyond philosophy or religion.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, then V.P. of India and later President, who met with me in Lucknow and Delhi and taught that we can be active in this world without being of this world.
Also, a professor of philosophy in Kyoto, a Zen abbot and a Cistercian monk on Lantau, a Quaker missionary in Victoria, Hong Kong, a Therevada monk at Nakhon Pathom, a Hindu priest on Bali, a Vajrayana abbot in Kathmandu, a sadhu in Lucknow, a Sufi shaykh in Teheran, a professor of political science (and shaykh) in Cairo, a member of the Knesset, a professor of history and a Greek Orthodox monk in Jerusalem, a retired police inspector in Copenhagen, an Anglican bishop in Bath, and the chairman of an American global bank: true mystics who I have met and learned from.
He may not claim a religion, but religion has claimed him. And that’s more than I can claim for myself.
It will doubtless come as a shock to many readers of this blog (to say nothing of my friends and family,) but other than the fact that my relationship with God is at the core of my life, I don’t consider myself a religious person. I find myself sitting in church telling myself, “I’m the only person in this place who is here for the reason I am.” I find it hard to stomach when secularists tell us we must “believe in evolution” and yet insist be scientific at the same time. I don’t find the whole business of simply believing a satisfying business.
I come from a long line of people (on my father’s side at least) who, by and large, left little evidence that religion was a high priority. That made any spiritual quest something of an uphill battle. To inquiries along this line came the same question, verbalised or not: “What practical good is it?” The fact that they were financially successful shut off the promise of upward social mobility that large segments of American Protestantism have made part and parcel with being a Christian. Who needs a church to be (or show we are) successful when we’ve done it without one for so long?
But when you’re the recipient of direct divine revelation in Palm Beach—and I’ll stack that up against any of Mr. Krumpos’ mystical experiences—you have to do something. So a good deal of my journey with God has been geared towards answering that hard question of practicality. The following is an answer to that, and it’s appropriate that it comes from a heritage of involvement in transportation.
Since this is a journey, we have two key issues: a destination and a route to get there. No journey can end without a definite destination. Origen can be criticised for his universalism, but his whole cosmic view is simple: all souls were created at what I like to call “negative infinity,” they through free will make a journey away from God, they reconnect with their creator during the journey, and have God as their ultimate destination at what I call “positive infinity.” Origen was a product of a polytheistic world where having one God as the ultimate source and destination wasn’t a universally accepted given, and it still isn’t. So the destination was set.
Now we have the route. The whole concept of having many roads to God always struck me as a good way to get lost. It also made sense that, if you want a job done right, you would do it yourself. That’s exactly what Jesus Christ did: as God, he came to be one of us (a striking idea if you think about it for a while) so that he could both redeem and transform us. By doing both we are set on the path to God or, for those more nautically or aeronautically inclined, set on the course.
Now many think this is too restrictive. But because Jesus Christ is both human and divine, to say that he is the Way to God isn’t as narrow as some believe. As we found out in the Bahamas, if you want to avoid the reefs and shoals of life, you need a native guide, one who has been where you are going and will interact with you. As God, Jesus is the ultimate native guide, he was there at the start, he will be there at the end, he got past the obstacle of death, and he can lead us into eternal life. How this plays out can have a great deal of variety, depending upon where we start. But the means for the journey into the safe harbour are there.
I get the distinct impression that Mr. Krumpos’ course of spirituality is more about the journey than the destination. That’s not unusual; for many spiritual seekers that’s the case. While I was slowly but surely lurching towards the hilltop experience that was to set the course for the next quarter century and beyond, many of my contemporaries were astroplaning—or jet planing—towards India, the source of much of Krumpos’ inspiration. But given the eternity of the objective, I never felt (and still don’t) that “New Age” spirituality was an option. And the journey has been good, too.
I guess this is as good a time as any to consider Rob Bell and his universalism.
For those of us who have roamed the Anglican/Episcopal world for many years, we know all too well what this means. We know what it’s like when our church cuts loose from its proper anchor and drifts in the storm. There’s always damage, and that damage always shows up in the declining membership rolls. Our opponents always tell us that they’re doing it to make the church relevant in the modern (and I guess now the post-modern) world, but fewer and fewer people show up to validate that assertion.
There are two ways I’d like to look at this: the lesson of Origen and the dire peril to evangelicalism itself.
I’ve outlined in brief Origen’s case for universalism. I’ve never agreed with it, although I think that he, as a Christian thinker, is ahead of any Evangelical dead or alive. The weakness of his idea was most succinctly critiqued by G.W. Butterworth in the introduction of his translation of the Peri Archon:
The weakness of Origen’s system, considered as a whole, lies in the assumption that the entire cosmic process is a mistake, due to the misuse of free will. He regards it was axiomatic that the end must be like the beginning. Is there nothing, then, to be accomplished in these vast stretches of time? Can God do no more than restore things to the position they were in before the primeval fall? It we are to take Origen literally, it would appear that God cannot. History, however long drawn out, is but the mending of an original fault. We have it on good authority that in one passage he even said that perfected souls would be swallowed up in the divine essence from which they sprang. Such as system of thought is at heart pessimistic, and it was perhaps some instinctive apprehension of this fact which caused the church to turn away from it.
Origen’s emphasis on free will is also the greatest strength of his system of thought. It was one legacy that stuck with the Eastern churches, one that helped to prevent the infiltration of Augustinian fatalism. Allowing his creatures to make mistakes was the risk that God took in granting them free will. But in the end Origen lost his nerve on making those consequences stick eternally, which in positive infinity negates the effects of same free will.
In some respects Rob Bell, coming from a Reformed background, may have made the mirror image error to Origen. He looks at God’s irresistible grace, figures that God came to save everyone, and then comes to the conclusion that he will. Such reasoning has made Calvinism, in its own way, the autobahn to universalism, something that Finney combated in his day and which some Evangelicals will continue to do.
But Butterworth’s criticism of Origen’s universalism applies to Bell’s in that, irrespective of whether there is meaningful free will in the middle or not, universalism renders the whole cosmic process pointless. This is something that Bell probably does not see. As I’ve said before, Evangelicals are notorious for not seeing their thought processes to their logical conclusion, and although Bell will find himself outside of the fold now, it’s easier to take the boy out of Evangelicalism than Evangelicalism out of the boy.
That leads me to the second problem: universalism will corrode the integrity of Evangelicalism as it has that of the Main Line churches, only more quickly. Why more quickly? Because Evangelical churches have dispensed with so much Christian tradition and continuity in the name of winning souls, once the soul winning ceases with universalism, there isn’t anything else left. Consider these things:
- Evangelicals dispensed with “cultural Christianity” because they did not think that it was enough to get people to heaven. Only the Southerners—black and white—developed a culture within Evangelicalism that is really worthy of the name, which may explain in part why the South is the centre of the American Evangelical world.
- Evangelicals ditched the liturgy because it smacked of “formalism.”
- Evangelicals eschewed the episcopate because it looked too much like Rome.
- Evangelicals dropped the history of the church from the death of John to the birth of Martin because it was too “unbiblical” in course.
- Evangelicals pushed out arts such as sculpture and dancing because they were too worldly, or made them think of idolatry.
The result is a simple, straightforward church and Christian life structure that has worked remarkably well over the years.
But if we all face an undifferentiated eternity, what’s the point of all of this sacrifice? Churches such as the Episcopal delayed the inevitable collapse because they at least had enough aesthetic appeal to carry on even when, as Gregory the Great put it, “…in their hearts it had withered away.” Evangelical churches simply don’t have this resource. If Bell’s idea is adopted widely they will drop like a stone, and American Evangelicalism will cede its place to the Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans.
Which it will probably do anyway…