Is Pope Francis a Universalist?

The-Pope_2514251bMy Facebook feed has been lighting up the past 24 hours with links to this Huffington Post article capturing excerpts from Pope Francis’  Wednesday homily. The key quote, as translated by Vatican Radio:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! … We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

It’s unclear what exactly Francis means here, although one explanation certainly is that Francis is advocating universalism “Do good because in the end we will all meet one another there.” Another is inclusivism, a la the end to C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, in which Francis essentially adopts Aslan’s statement that all good deeds are rendered in the name of Christ, regardless of whether the doer is a Christian. A final possibility, borne out by Reuters’ translation of the comments – “Just do good, and we’ll find a meeting point.” – is more traditional, that Francis is discussing the universal availability of the atonement, which not everyone ultimately will accept.

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Moore, Oklahoma

Oklahoma_Moore_TornadoI was thinking a lot last night about this most recent tragedy to befall the innocent. We had Sandy Hook, and Boston, and West, and now Moore. And those of us “winter Christians,” who tend to struggle with the problems we see in the world around us – this is our time. The summer Christians who perhaps tend to downplay suffering and tragedy must sit up and take notice, and for once, everyone is on the same page. Our page.

But I’m also a person who in the past year has learned that not only do I love the physical world around me, but that it’s OK for me to love it. And not only that, God loves it, too. He loved it so much, he took on flesh and allowed himself to experience the physical world for himself – or at least as much as he could. He even suffered and died so that he could restore it to himself. For whatever reason, God loves the world and the people in it that much.

So I recoiled a bit as I heard some of the same old reactions to the Moore tornado that we hear after every tragedy – reactions that sound uncomfortably close to the lyrics from some classic hymns: “Just a few more weary days, and then I’ll fly away.” Or, “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.”

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Class Day 2 – Athanasius and Gregory: God Is Not a Monster

AthanasiusMy wife has subscribed to Facebook updates from Nancy Leigh DeMoss, and while most of them are perfectly fine, every so often DeMoss posts something like this:

Did you notice who killed the firstborns? The Lord (Ex. 12:29). And years later, God Himself put to death His own beloved Son so we might be set free from slavery.

Back away slowly.

It’s worth remembering that even as the early church fathers explicitly focused on the notion of theoprepes, what is fitting for the divine, we do this, too. Everyone puts God in a box. Can God sin? If your answer is no, then you have decided it is not fitting for God to sin. Can we describe God with feminine pronouns? If your answer is no, again you have used theoprepes. 

For Origen and his successors, theoprepes was important because it was a significant criticism from the Greek pagans, who largely agreed with Plato’s conception that the soul had sinned and fallen into the body. Therefore, the body was something like a contaminant, and unfitting to house God. The incarnation thus was a major stumbling block, and the early fathers needed to explain why theoprepes  allowed for God to take on flesh.

Athanasius of Alexandria followed Origen in this vein with his work On the Incarnation of the Word. In answering the question of the fittingness of the incarnation, he argued it was not only for the liberation of humanity from sin and death, but to restore humanity its dignity. Further, it was not the annulment of creation, but its culmination. The world was renewed by the same Word who created it.

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Class, Day 1 – Origen: Your God Is Absurd

origenFollowing is a summary of a lecture given yesterday by my professor in Patristic and Medieval Theology.

To understand Origen of Alexandria – or Gregory of Nyssa or almost any other Greek-speaking early church father – you have to understand the concept of theoprepes. Plato introduced the concept of theoprepes when he went after Homer’s depictions of the gods. Because the gods/god are/is the ultimate Good, Plato has a big problem with the way Homer makes them act, but because Homer’s poetry is foundational for Greek culture, Plato can’t just dismiss it outright.

So he metaphorizes it. He maintains the truth of the moral lessons but rejects the historicity of the depiction, which he considered blasphemous because the gods did not act in a fitting manner. And that is theoprepes, the concept of what is fitting for the divine.

Origen is faced with a similar dilemma.

He believes in the inspiration of Scripture, which for him writing about 200 C.E. is still just the Old Testament, but he recoils at the anthropomorphism of God found there. And with good reason, from his perspective. When Celsus writes the criticism of Christianity to which Origen responds in Against Celsus, one of his prime concerns is the anthropomorphism of God – it’s just not fitting, in Greek thought, for God to act this way, and a literal reading of Scripture was a huge stumbling block to those educated Greeks to whom Origen was reaching out.

Not only that, he finds numerous places where the text contradicts itself or describes absurdities. So he argues for a metaphorical-allegorical reading of those pieces of scripture where theopedes is violated. Continue reading