Julian of Norwich is not even the woman’s name – it’s the name of the church where she lived, St. Julian’s in Norwich, England. But in his essay – “Sin Has Its Place, but All Shall Be Well: The Universalism of Hope in Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416),” Sweetman describes what we can discern from Julian’s thoughts about sin, soteriology and the nature of God. Although not ultimately a subscriber to universal salvation, Julian’s showings led her to get as close as she could to such a belief without crossing the consensus of the church she loved.
We all know St. Augustine of Hippo, the theological genius of the fourth and fifth centuries who influenced the medieval church more than any other bishop and continues to have significant influence today – particularly thanks to what I would say is the toxic doctrine of original sin, which has warped our view of human nature and sexuality so that we think of these things negatively rather than positively.
We don’t know as much about the people who opposed Augustine’s beliefs, those ill-fated objectors who raised objections to the doctrines he formulated. One of those was Julian of Eclanum, a southern Italian bishop who was deposed and excommunicated because he refused to sign Pope Zosimus’ edict against Pelagius. Julian was a second-generation Pelagian, the group against whom Augustine fought often in his career. Pelagians held an exalted view of human nature and held strongly to the notion of free will, contra Augustine’s leanings toward predestination, but did so to such an extent that they thought humans capable of achieving perfection in this life.
So of course these battles, as they often do, came down to two sides advocating the extremes of an issue, the one with a decidedly pessimistic view of humanity and its sexual proclivities, the other a decidedly optimistic, if not naive, view of the same.
Yet when we look at what Julian wrote – such as we know it, mostly through Augustine’s rebuttals – it’s hard not to get the sense that he was quite well ahead of his time, by about 1,500 years or so.
Epp starts the book by talking about textual criticism, the means by which scholars look at the oldest texts we have and study their language and variations, and the problems such criticism poses for exegetical certainty. For example, everyone here is familiar with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:
34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.
Pretty clear, right? But let’s zoom out a little and see what we find when we include it in context:
31 You can all prophesy one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets. 33 God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace.
(Like in all the churches of God’s people, 34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you?)
37 If anyone thinks that they are prophets or “spiritual people,” then let them recognize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone doesn’t recognize this, they aren’t recognized. 39 So then, brothers and sisters, use your ambition to try to get the gift of prophecy, but don’t prevent speaking in tongues. 40 Everything should be done with dignity and in proper order.
The parentheses, which Epp includes in his treatment of these paragraphs, kind of give it away: One of these paragraphs is not like the other two. You could read from verse 33a to verse 37 without any trouble, as if verses 33b-36 didn’t exist. That’s interesting enough, but by itself doesn’t prove that verses 33b-35 or 36 are later additions to the text.
But Epp goes on to point out that not every text of 1 Corinthians place verses 34-35 between 33 and 36; some place it after verse 40. So this text is a little more mobile than your typical Pauline text. Also, though every text of 1 Corinthians 14 we have includes this passage, at least two of our earliest versions (Codex Fuldensis, dated to 547, and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 300s) include scribal notations also found with such passages as John’s story of the woman caught in adultery, a well known case of textual variation. As Epp puts it:
This combination of literary analysis and text-critical assessment has moved a sizable group of scholars to view the passage on “silent women” as a later intrusion into 1 Corinthians and most likely one never written by Paul. (19)
So what does this mean? What do we do if one of the key passages governing gender roles in conservative and fundamentalist churches turns out to be a later, non-Pauline addition? After all, it’s still in our Bibles, and – at least theoretically – Paul is not of greater importance than any other biblical writer (though we Protestants certainly seem to prefer him to, say, James).
But the point is not to simply dismiss pieces of the Bible we don’t like; the point is to recognize that the Bible itself – not any particular passage but the very nature of the texts we have – rejects our attempts to flatten it into a cut-and-paste set of rules for 21st century life and worship.
I’m a big fan of Gregory of Nyssa, the bishop from Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey, more or less) who lived in the middle fourth century. For my Patristic and Medieval Theology class, I wrote a paper about Gregory’s universalism, which led me to this book, and therefore this series.
Gregory’s universalism was complete and total – when Gregory said that all of God’s creation would eventually be restored to him, he meant it, Satan, demons and all. In my paper, which I’ll post once I get the grade back, I argue Gregory’s expansive view of the goodness of God, which Gregory believed was the overarching divine characteristic against which all of God’s actions must be judged, required the belief in Satan’s salvation. Without it, either the evil to which Satan had turned was stronger than the inherent goodness Satan carried as part of God’s good creation – and therefore evil was stronger than God – or God’s deceit of Satan in the atonement was simply justice without mercy, and therefore not good. We’ll talk about that more when I post the paper later this summer.
Unfortunately, Steven R. Harmon touches very little on all of that in his chapter of “All Shall Be Well,” titled “The Subjection of All Things in Christ: The Christocentric Universalism of Gregory of Nyssa (331/340–c.395).”
Instead, as the title indicates, Harmon focuses on the role of Jesus in God’s plan to restore all things. He argues that such a role is somewhat hidden because Gregory talks so much about what God does in the reconciliation process.
In Season 4 of the West Wing, White House communication director Toby Ziegler is rehashing the circumstances that led to the defeat – and subsequent unconfirmability – of a Democratic ally in Congress, Karen Kroft. In his conversation with the former congresswoman, he admits he knew a gas-tax bill she championed was doomed to fail, making her unpopular both with her constituents and the Republicans who would block her potential nomination to a parks service position.
“It was a loser,” he tells Kroft, “and I pushed to have you introduce it anyway.”
Kroft smiles at him warmly and reassures him: “That doesn’t make any difference.”
“I came out for the gas tax because someone from Michigan had to,” she goes on to explain. “Gas prices are too low. It’s why the air is polluted. It’s why no one wants alternative fuels.”
Toby gives that little smirk of his and retorts: “And clearly that argument took the nation by storm.”
And here’s where the conversation gets interesting:
“In my religion,” Kroft says, “the whole symbol of the religion ended in crucifixion and condemnation. That wasn’t the measure of the experience. It’s just the way it ended.”
“But I’m the Romans,” Toby remarks.
“It’s in the living, Kroft replies. “It’s in the campaigning that you make your mark.”
It’s a fascinating exchange, filled with deep theological meaning – perhaps deeper than even writer Aaron Sorkin intended. Setting aside the notion that the Jesus experience ended with the crucifixion and not the resurrection, what is perhaps most striking about this conversation is how Kroft, a Christian, de-emphasizes the cross in favor of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion is “just the way it ended,” she says. “It’s in the living … that you make your mark.”
The statement struck me because the night before I saw this episode I had just finished tearing through Darby Kathleen Ray’s amazing Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse and Ransom (1998). In it, Ray argues the crucifixion has been misrepresented, misappropriated and misused for too long. The violence-filled atonement theories accepted by the church as “traditional” have been used to perpetrate, justify and ignore abuse and exploitation of women, children, the poor and the environment; their fruits are so toxic, these theories must be jettisoned for Christianity to recover its mission in the world, and a new one must be formed if the cross is to retain any meaning not just for the holders of power but for the oppressed and powerless, as well.
In a way, Ray is addressing the same questions that have been circling in my mind for several months: If a given doctrine contributes substantially to a toxic view of God, don’t we as Christians have a duty to renounce and remove that doctrine? If so, how do we determine which of these doctrines should be eliminated and which should be reworked? And who determines whether a given view of God is toxic anyway?
I’m not sure there are any good answers to these questions. Nevertheless, Ray’s approach is a challenging one to this white male who is surely oblivious of many of the issues Ray raises in her book. Some of these atonement doctrines are entrenched, and many – including myself – see them as crucial to the notions of redemption and salvation. Yet, as Ray hammers home again and again, the point is not that those of us western white males do not find certain passages or theories abusive; the point is that the abusive fruit is there for women, children, minorities, the developing world, indigenous cultures and the nonhuman creation.
This doctrine is based on assumptions about the nature of sin, God and salvation that together actually create and sustain what many today recognize as evil. Ironically, the very doctrine whose job it is to attempt to understand and articulate God’s response to evil perpetuates evil in the lives of many women, men and children. … This revered discourse on evil has come to mirror its subject matter and hence should be rejected.
This is Part 2 of a series working through “All Shall Be Well:” Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann. See the intro here.
The most famous proponent of universal reconciliation in the early church was Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254) – which isn’t really saying much because, at least in the Protestant traditions where I was raised, Origen himself, never mind his teaching, isn’t that famous.
Although not the earliest overt universalist – that title belongs to the second century’s Clement of Alexandria, who doesn’t get a chapter in MacDonald’s book, or (he says with a wink) perhaps these first-century guys named Paul of Tarsus and Jesus of Nazareth – Origen’s role as the most prominent has made him influential.
Origen’s notion of restoration was condemned in 553 because of its connection to the pre-existence of souls, although Tom Greggs (professor of systematic theology at the University of Chester in the U.K.) in his essay notes that condemnations of Origen were really condemnations of Origenism, which took Origen’s views to extremes. Further, Greggs argues Origen did not view universal reconciliation merely through his misguided views about the soul, but found christological support, as well.
Some have suggested that Origen was not really a universalist, given his ambiguous, if not contradictory, statements in some works, especially those written for more pastoral reasons. “Yet the mapping of Christian theology offered in his systemic theology, along with certain comments offered in his commentaries, clearly suggests that Origen imagined an ultimate end in which all would be welll, and God’s final victory would be triumphant” (31).
So how does universal restoration work, according to Origen? In two distinct ways.
We’re starting a new series today. Last summer, I spent an inordinately long time going through the question of whether Mary was really a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus (links in the sidebar). I liked it so much that I wanted to do a series this summer on some other pressing theological issue, but kids and a summer class and the resulting paper have conspired to wipe out half the summer before I could even start.
Then, as I was researching and writing for my paper on Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in the salvation of Satan, I ran across “All Shall Be Well:” Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann. There have been shorter titles in the history of books. Nevertheless, this collection of essays on prominent universalists over the past 1,800 years or so promises to provide some theological and historical background to the notion of universal salvation that I think might be helpful for those of you who, like me, are rethinking traditional ideas about everything, including heaven, hell, salvation and judgment. Also, it’s not likely to run you any less than $35, which is a little steep, so this is a way to get the gist without laying out the cash, if you’re as poor as I am (I’m checking this out from the university library).
The book is edited by “Gregory MacDonald,” the pseudepigraphal identity of Robin Parry, who just did some video responses on Rachel Held Evans’ blog as part of her “Ask a …” series. It’s worth checking out those comments, which make clear that Parry is a very nice guy, and smart, to boot.
Parry writes the introduction, which we’ll go through today. I hope to do no fewer than one installment in this series each week. I can’t promise that I won’t combine chapters or give up if I get too busy to keep reading, but my hope is to devote a post to each of the 18 chapters in the book, mostly because I think this topic is interesting, and hey, it’s my blog.