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Obstacles to Evangelization: No. 2

I suggested in my last post that Christianity not only offers an answer to a question, but it proposes a particular question as the right one to ask: What must I do to be saved--and being saved means participating in eternal life, life beyond death. Different religious traditions don't only propose different answers, they propose different questions. For Buddhism, the key is to free oneself of attachments, for example, in order to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.

For Christianity, the central problem is sin--actions that are in violation of God's law. We hold the idea of a personalized judgment, in which each person is assessed according to his or her deeds, and sent to heaven, a state of everlasting blessedness, or hell, a state of everlasting torment. I am well aware that there has been theological work done on the nature or meaning of hell. Nonetheless, I do think the traditional view creates a second problem for evangelization--because it creates a problem about God's nature.

I think it is very hard for people to believe that any thing they do on this earth could merit eternal damnation. This is even more the case when we take into account the fact that we don't know where the line is between actions for which people are morally responsible and those for which we are not. Some of the most heinous acts, objectively speaking, may have been committed by seriously mentaly disturbed people. In any case, the kind of torture we find, say, in Dante's Inferno seems more fitting for a petty dictator than for God. Ironically enough, I think the movement toward human rights--toward the dignity of each human being--has pressed against the notion of hell as a situation of everlasting torment. If it is wrong for human beings to treat one another in this way, isn't it wrong for God to do so as well?Can the imago dei--the dignity of the person--be so erased after death that everlasting punishment of the sort that is contemplated in some Christian texs really something that we can reconcile with the goodness and justice of God.

Another problem, of course, is grace. The very idea of predestination--some people predestined to salvation and others to damnation -- doesn't sit well with contemporary notions of the dignity of all persons. Even the Catholic tradition' s notion of grace can be problematic. Yes, Catholics believe that all morally upright persons can be with God in paradise. But we know now how much being morally upright is a function of nature (genetics) and nurture (family). So the arbitrary factor is there in the background too.

So, either the concepts of final judgment and hell need to be reconfigured to meet our deepest ideas of justice (and the mere assertion, which Calvin makes, that you can't question God's justice just wont do), or they need to be muted. And if they're muted, a major reason that people have clung to Christianity in general (to be saved from hell) won't be as powerful.

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I guess what I'm saying is that I agree there are societal factors that work against the virtue of humility. But our former priest did a good job trying to inculcate this sense in a very constructive way. Often, if you confessed something, he'd say, "That's great! Now you know and you can try to be better!" Isn't that a kind of continuing evangelization of the converted? Is there some way in which that kind of positive instilling of humility could work on the unconverted?

Catholicism has done a great deal to reconfigure its belief in hell or damnation and to reconfigure their place in an overall pattern of theology.Peter Steinfels,Please explain. Looking at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about hell, it appears close to identical to what I learned from the Baltimore Catechism in the early 1950s.

Can we actually imagine a human being who, with full knowledge and full consent, chooses eternal torment instead of eternal bliss?Milton had few problems describing such a person:"Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."It probably could be applied to a human being as well as an angel.Love respects and reinforces our choices, even while recognizing how bad it might be for us. So what is God to do when we choose the torment of ruling an unruly world?Those who choose to serve, choose Christ. Even if they have never heard of Jesus, they have chosen him. "When did we see you hungry or naked?" Those who choose to feed or clothe a child have chosen Christ. Those who live happily with a spouse have learned that serving someone can be a joy, even heavenly, while forcing people to do your will can be hellish. But we all know people who choose the hellish route of forcing others to do what we want. Most of us have probably even gone down that route ourselves at one time or another. God, in his love for us, supports our freedom even while seeing the error of our choices.

Those who choose to feed or clothe a child have chosen Christ. Jim McK,The New American Bible does not agree with your reading of Matthew:

[Mt 25:3146] The conclusion of the discourse, which is peculiar to Matthew, portrays the final judgment that will accompany the parousia. Although often called a parable, it is not really such, for the only parabolic elements are the depiction of the Son of Man as a shepherd and of the righteous and the wicked as sheep and goats respectively (Mt 25:3233). The criterion of judgment will be the deeds of mercy that have been done for the least of Jesus brothers (Mt 25:40). A difficult and important question is the identification of these least brothers. Are they all people who have suffered hunger, thirst, etc. (Mt 25:35, 36) or a particular group of such sufferers? Scholars are divided in their response and arguments can be made for either side. But leaving aside the problem of what the traditional material that Matthew edited may have meant, it seems that a stronger case can be made for the view that in the evangelists sense the sufferers are Christians, probably Christian missionaries whose sufferings were brought upon them by their preaching of the gospel. The criterion of judgment for all the nations is their treatment of those who have borne to the world the message of Jesus, and this means ultimately their acceptance or rejection of Jesus himself; cf. Mt 10:40, Whoever receives you, receives me.

So based on this frequently cited passage from the Gospel, charitable treatment of other people does not amount to acceptance of Jesus. It is not any person in need who is a stand-in for Jesus. It is Christians bringing word of Jesus. Milton had few problems describing such a person:Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.Milton was one of the most creative individuals in Western civilization, and Satan is an extraordinary figure in Milton's work. Accepting the figure of Satan as in some sense real, he was one of the very few individuals in an actual position to make an "informed choice" between heaven and hell. It make no sense to compare the ordinary experience of human beings with the experience of Satan as depicted in Paradise Lost.

David Nichol, I too studied the Baltimore Catechism, actually beginning in the 1940s. I would have to do more research than I am willing to do right now to compare the text with the Catechism of the Catholic Church's treatment. I am convinced that in the actual life of the church, in intellectual articulation by homilists, higher authorities, and theologians, the literal emphasis on a place of unending torment comparable to being burnt alive (but not dying) is seriously muted, to say the least, and the place of avoiding such torment in the whole economy of choosing and following Christ has been vastly lessened. Mortal sin and the avoidance of that torment were pivotal in Catholic life in a way that they just are not now. Some people regret this. I guess Thorin is one. Some people think that it was a necessary, although still not completely resolved, "reconfiguration" to understand God in a way that is consistent, valid, and credible. (Here is where Cathy's concern about an obstacle to evangelization comes in.) When I attended Jesuit retreats in high school (late 1950s), if there was a session dealing with hell, it was already but a pale version of the one in James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. And I haven't met a young Catholic who was exposed to anything even like that, let alone like the Joyce version. Of course, one can assume that all the people, including several popes, who have restated both the nature of damnation and just made it less central are merely slackers or guilty of accommodating teaching to the times rather than people with good, faith-based reasons. I don't think so. I believe that they have been engaged, some more successfully than others, in the unavoidable task of rethinking our faith.

David,I stand by the vision expressed by the Vatican Council: All [] are called to be part of this catholic unity of the people of God which in promoting universal peace presages it. And there belong to or are related to it in various ways, the Catholic faithful, all who believe in Christ, and indeed the whole of mankind, for all [] are called by the grace of God to salvation. Any reading that limits this universal call to just those who explicitly believe in Christ falls short of this vision. Every human is a brother or sister of Jesus, and a child of our Father. That catholicity is part of Mt's portrayal of the Last Judgment IMO, at least until someone could explain why Mt would use the narrower vision of the note you cite. The "stronger case" seems pretty weak to me.If you are unable to imagine people who would choose the wrong path for themselves, despite the help provided by Milton and others, you are lucky. I wish I could share that innocence, but I have made enough bad decisions to know that it would be easy for others to make similar decisions, and even worse.

DavidI like Jim McKs/Milton response to your question. The Church teaches, and I accept, that the ability to understand right from wrong is written into every human heart. Whether we believe in hell or not, we know when we choose to do wrong. If those choices land us in hell, its cold comfort to cry foul because we didnt think hell would be the consequence of our choices.BTW, did you every think of changing your last name to Nichol. It seems a number of want to call you that.

Any reading that limits this universal call to just those who explicitly believe in Christ falls short of this visionJim McK,I am disagreeing with your interpretation of a specific passage in Matthew. And if you take a look at Matthew 10, we have:

Jesus sent out these twelve* after instructing them thus, Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . Whoever will not receive you or listen to your wordsgo outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

If Jesus is limiting missionary activity to Jews, and saying people who don't accept "Christian" missionaries are in serious trouble, it certainly doesn't seem implausible that "the least of my brethren" were followers of Jesus. In this context, pagans and Samaritans aren't even in the picture as intended objects of charitable acts.

Of course, one can assume that all the people, including several popes, who have restated both the nature of damnation and just made it less central are merely slackers or guilty of accommodating teaching to the times rather than people with good, faith-based reasons. I dont think so. I believe that they have been engaged, some more successfully than others, in the unavoidable task of rethinking our faith.Peter Steinfels,The problem, it seems to me, is that there is a distinction between "the official teachings of the Church" and "what people are talking about." The rather recent shift on the idea of Limbo, accompanied by the statement that the idea that unbaptized babies went to Limbo was never an official teaching of the Church no doubt caused many people to say, "You could-a fooled me!" It seems to me that there definitely have been attempts to deemphasize and "prettify" the teachings on hell, but then periodically there will be a clarification that hell is real and that people do go there.Plus, it seems to me it is not necessarily something that would draw people to Catholicism when a Church that claims infallibility rather dramatically shifts a position (for example, the relationship between the Church and the Jews) and maintains that there is really no change, just a "development" of doctrine. The Church can be a little bit like a politician, who claims to always have held the same position even when he makes a 180-degree turn. So although the way many in the Church talk about hell recently may make it seem a less troubling doctrine, I am not at all sure that makes the "official teachings" any more appealing.

The Church teaches, and I accept, that the ability to understand right from wrong is written into every human heart. Whether we believe in hell or not, we know when we choose to do wrong. If those choices land us in hell, its cold comfort to cry foul because we didnt think hell would be the consequence of our choices.Mark Proska,How can you claim that people choose hell and then acknowledge that they actually didn't know that hell would be the consequence of their choices. As I said before, the Church emphasizes that to commit a mortal sin, one must have full knowledge and give full consent. Certainly the criteria for choosing eternal torment as opposed to eternal bliss would be no less than full knowledge and full consent?BTW, did you every think of changing your last name to Nichol. It seems a number of want to call you that.A good thought, except that people also misspell it Nichols and Nickols! In my mailbox in my apartment building, the people who sort the mail have put cards right inside the boxes with our last names to help them sort correctly, and the card they put in my mailbox says NIKOL.

Nichols, Nichols, Nikol, etc. Beats O'Liver.

ISTM we have to distinguish *choose*, *intend*, *consent*, *permit*, *abet* and *ignore*.When we choose grievous sin, we do not choose its evil, but its pleasure. We also consent thereby to go to Hell, or at least we ignore the fact (?) that Hell will also be a result. (When I smash my fist in your face because I intend to make you suffer, I also thereby either intend/choose/abet/consent to/... your broken nose and am responsible for it.) Unfortunately, these matters are extremely complex and are thoroughly abstract (of a spiritual nature) but nevertheless real.

Ann,I suppose someone might say that the people who are sent to prison choose to go there, but I doubt that many people in prison would say it was their choice! I was in a double room in the hospital once and the guy in the other bed was an alcoholic who was being treated for liver damage. The doctors spoke to him very bluntly and said things like, "If you keep drinking, you might as well drink poison, because it will kill you." I overheard a visitor asked him if he was going to stop drinking, and he said very quietly and matter-of-factly, "I don't know." I suppose, if he continued to drink himself to death, some might say he chose to die, or even that he committed suicide, but I wouldn't say that. I think it is terribly misleading to think that anyone making a fully informed choice would choose eternal suffering over eternal bliss. It's preposterous. And of course you can't make a fully informed choice between two alternatives if you don't know what they are. Jean was saying we needed fewer glib answers, and I think claiming that God doesn't send people to hell, people chose hell and God allows the choice, is basically a glib answer. It may make you pause a moment to reflect, but after you do, there are as many problems as there were before, and the issue still remains.

Henceforth, I will strive to be less glib.

"It make no sense to compare the ordinary experience of human beings with the experience of Satan as depicted in Paradise Lost."I will concede that that's not glib. It sounds like a most heartfelt plea.

David N. --You raise some important questions, but I don't think contemporary ethics is yet capable of answering them all very clearly, if at all. I don't think *any* ethical systme is capable of doing so.It seems to me that a lot of talk of "choosing" and "morality" by Catholics is limited by the classic moral theology and terminology of Aquinas who was splendid when analysing out relationships between different sorts of knowledge acts. They include sensory knowledges of various sorts, internal sensory acts like memory and imagination, etc., and the various acts of the intellect, including formation of concepts, inference, and judgment). He also did a lot with specific sorts of affective acts (sensory inclinations/desires/avoidances) as well as spiritual will acts such as spiritual desire, intention, choice of means, love of various sorts, causing the body to act for an end(s). But I don't think Thomas ever put it all together in one phenomenological frame including definitions and possible relationships between cognitions and affective acts and the varied sorts of sequences which are possible among them. Yes, he does consider some of the sequences, but I think there are more than he considers. And he can be murky. He says we "choose" a means to an end, but I'm not sure he ever talks about choosing among different ends -- and that, I think, is what a lot of what we've been trying to get at and understand -- the process of choosing among ends. The subject is vastly complex, and, after all, by profession he was neither a philosopher nor psychologist. But we're stuck with his limitations, and unfortunately too many Catholic philosophers think he's said the last word about everything.The Franciscans (Scotus, Ockham, etc.) were much more interested in will acts, but I don't think they completed the job that needs to be done. We need another first rate inventor of philosophical terms to invent some needed words, and we need some clear definitions that go with them. Anscombe did a classic short work on "Intention", but I think it's really just a beginning of the wider ethics we need. Even she doesn't fully see all the distinctions that Aquinas himself made.Anscombe's work is highly admired outside of scholastic circles and has even prompted a reconsideration of parts of Aristotle's ethics. These days they call it "virtue ethics". it's been very good for ethics, but as I see it it is only a start. Virtue ethics isn't even the whole of Aristotle's ethics. Sartre did some very good phenomenological work about will acts, but he too seems baffled by the subject sometimes. We really do need a new Aquinas.

"To Jean Raber: Have I missed something? Your comments are invariably wise, witty, and welcome. And the George Herbert poem overwhemed me. I report that a recent national poll conducted by the Pew Trusts shows a 95 percent approval rating for Raber comments. She is even favorably rated by the 20 percent who believe that she is a Muslim."But have we seen her birth certificate?Hey, Jean, please don't defer to me because I happen to be a deacon. I'd much rather have you just kick my ass when I'm wrong or rude.My apologies if my comment came across as too glib. My point of view on this is one of anxiety that so many people don't go to church anymore, don't get their children baptized or further initiated into sacramental life. So many are spiritual but no longer religious. Why don't people feel the need to work out their salvation with fear and trembling anymore?

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