December 05, 2007

Hope and Hell

Camassia has returned, albeit only briefly, with a poignant post after a long blog absence, a sabbatical of over a year. Personal and spiritual difficulties prompt a desire to pray for her. I write this post primarily out of empathy since I assume she's likely read far more than I have about this subject.

I can well emphasize with her struggle over the doctrine of Hell, as I think most Christians would. In fact, Peter Kreeft in his book The Handbook of Christian Apologetics refers to it as the most difficult doctrine for Christians to accept.

Camassia sums it up as: "somebody’s going to be in for a big disappointment on Judgment Day. A universalist might end up going, 'Gee, God really is as monstrous as people have been saying.' A Wittgensteinian might end up going, 'Wow, I guess my life really didn’t have any meaning.'"

Of course, in Heaven everyone will be wrong and no one will be disappointed. Everyone will be wrong about something, that is. Here I will reduce it to the absurd - Aquinas presumably now realizes he was not accurate about the Immaculate Conception (my hands always want to type that last word as "Concepcion", even after all these many years that David Concepcion, the great Cincinnati Reds shortstop, has been retired) but is no less blissful for being wrong.

I realize there are degrees of 'wrongness' and being wrong about who God is of a difference in kind than a technical point concerning the Immaculate Conception. But to use a grossly carnage image, being disappointed in Heaven is like being disappointed during an orgasm. Speaking as a guy at least, that's impossible. One universal sentiment among mystics, including a mystic named St. Paul, is that Heaven makes you forget the worst pains and agonies of earth. Something we can only take on faith obviously.

This discussion seems mostly a proxy for the long-running controversy over free will and God's grace, which is impenetrable and will likely remain so. As a Catholic, I could never see life as not having meaning in the Wittgensteinian sense since we believe in Purgatory. But even for those who don't accept Purgatory, one might believe a person's potential to love in Heaven is somehow linked by what he or she does on earth (ala the St. Theresa analogy of every one's glass will be full in Heaven but some will be taller). Although I recognize for those of us lacking ambition that may not be entirely motivating.

As far as God being monstrous, that is disproven by the Incarnation. It seems the Christian faith is one of extremes isn't it? The same religion (from the Latin word religare, to bind, as Christ bound himself on the Cross and to us) that proposes the repugnant doctrine of Hell also proposes the exquisite doctrine that God Himself cares so much He became man for us. The two are linked, for as Tom of Disputations recently said, it wasn't just a thoughtful gesture on the part of God. It's said that "Without God, anything is permissible" it can also be said, "If God cares, anything is endurable." There is no way for me to hold the opposite notions in my mind that God is love, as demonstrated by the actual fact that He died for us, and that God is monstrous, as demonstrated by the hypothetical of Hell being populated (assuming, for the sake of argument, that a populated Hell demonstrates that).

So far I've only read about a third of the new papal encyclical on hope, but it seems tailor made for Camassia and me. While meditating on some recent Mass readings I came to the sudden inspiration that God so hates injustice and is so interested in reversing the earthly lack of justice that Hell is some sort of byproduct of that. Perhaps my hatred of Hell is linked to a weak sense of outrage over earthly injustice? This is unfortunately an easy trap to fall into for someone in the wealthy part of the world. (I doubt that's Camassia's issue, by the way, who strikes me as one very attuned to injustice.) I see the thought received an imprimatur of sorts, it being reflected in the latter part of the encyclical as reported by Amy Welborn:
Final Judgment. This is a powerful and important section in which Benedict acknowledges that while the spectre of a Final Judgment might prompt fear in some, it is actually a reason for hope. Why? Because in the reality of Christ’s judgment, we will find the justice that seems so terribly absent from this world.
Things get reduced, as they always do, to a radical trust in God, especially where there is a lack of understanding. I've recently become interested in St. Faustina, a mystic and "apostle of mercy". How did she reconcile justice and mercy (i.e. free will and grace)? I'd happened across a pamphlet with excerpts from her diary concerning Heaven/Hell/Purgatory. Even if someone doesn't accept her visions, she seems an exemplar of someone who loves God and man and who "gets" both God's mercy and His justice. I think part of God's relentless sense of justice is his insistence on our humility, given our creatureliness and His example. He says to St. Faustina: "I have wanted to exalt this Congregation many times, but I am unable to do so because of its pride. Know, my daughter, that I do not grant My graces to proud souls...Bring to me the meek and humble souls and the souls of little children, and immerse them in My mercy. These souls mostly closely resemble My Heart...I pour out whole torrents of grace upon them. Only the humble soul is able to receive My grace."

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