Liberalism and the Scourage of Evil

Some time ago I read the book Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, written by the ideologically ambidextrous (say that 5 times fast!) Bruce Bawer.  Bawer splits Christendom (by which he primarily means Protestantism as he explains early on) into what he calls the “Church of Law” and the “Church of Love.”  Obviously, the title gives away that Bawer has planted himself firmly on the side of the Church of Love; yet towards the end of the book (which, by the way, is admittedly over the top but still a good read) he notes that the Church of Love has yet to learn from the Church of Law on the matter of evil.  Too many members of the Church of Love, Bawer says, have yet to acknowledge the scope, even the existence, of evil.  My own experience having attended a liberal church for some time-and been immersed in the more liberal current of universalism-have confirmed what Bawer feared: The Achilles Hell (you’ll see the pun fleshed out momentarily) of liberal religion is its massive blindspot in the area of human nature.

I admit this indictment is rather delicate-plenty of iconoclasts have given some serious thought to the age-old problem of theodicy (see Kushner, Harold).  Nonetheless, these iconoclasms have, as far as I’m concerned, have not been able to zero in on human nature with the same attention they give to God’s on the question of suffering.  I’m nearly done with Fleming Rutledge’s Not Ashamed of the Gospel and one thing I love about this woman is how she minces no words on the reality of Sin, or the fact that the lines between sheep and goat cut through every person.  Rutledge is bold and unafraid to call out Sin where she sees it, unwilling to drink the toxic modernist attitude that there is no such thing as true wickedness.  To take the naive attitude that human nature is “basically good” is unbiblical, untrue and simply dangerous.

I’ve been watching American Horror Story: Asylum rather religiously the past few months.  A warning to the wise, the show is dark, racy, dirty, over the top and-yet extremely addicting. On the surface level the show consists of a number of overlapping science fiction and horror storylines; beneath the surface however the show continually offers glimpses into the minds of the sociopaths who seem at first glance to be the embodiment of pure evil.  As an aside, I’ve found many TV shows go much deeper than one would think-I’ve been arguing for years South Park, which seems like nothing more than a combination of George Carlin’s worst material and pure scatological humor, has some quite profound sociopolitical commentary-not to mention some theology!  Yeah, I said it.  Look for me to publish The Gospel According to South Park someday, and I’ll expand on it.

Anyway, I digress.  It has been intriguing to see the ‘psychology’ of various characters play out on American Horror Story.  This is no easy task, because the writers went out of their way early on to make Jessica Lange’s character an almost cartoonishly sadistic nun, which makes adding any moral complexity to the character an uphill battle.  Nonetheless, they’ve done it.  Similarly, we see glimpses into the past of two serial killers on the show, who both went through Hell before they were transformed into an agent of it.  Lest anyone think that this might trigger too much sympathy the most recent episode (and if this is a spoiler, I apologize) featured a priest who has hoodwinked by a seemingly repentant killer and ended up…well, let’s just, experiencing some of what Christ went through the hard way.

The brilliance of this show is that it manages to capture the basic truism that Rev. Rutledge has hit on (that the line between good and evil in fact runs through every person) AND that there is indeed true wickedness in human nature-and heaven help the naive who can’t see it for what it is.  We see the struggles of characters who seem diabolically evil wrestle with the darkness of their own past (a horrible childhood, a struggle with alcoholism), and yet even if we understand a bit we can still see the reality of evil here.  It may seem like both the liberal and conservative viewpoints on human nature have been validated here; in fact the show proves the point made by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans…ALL human beings are imprisoned by Sin, without exception.  Even when they desire-sincerely, truly-to do good they often end up doing bad.  The Apostle’s insight in Romans 7:19 is a nice summary of the pervasive power of Sin and Evil that liberal theology has never quite been able to reckon with (even as modern psychology becomes a bedfellow with Calvinism in arguing there is no free will).  The best of intentions cannot save one from Sin, that’s simply an empirical reality.

What St. Paul, and Rev. Rutledge in her commentaries on Romans, are getting at is the fact that Sin is a force that has imprisoned the human race.  To believe otherwise is dangerous.  In his book Evil and the Justice of God NT Wright takes the position that Evil (capitalized) is a power transcending individual human choices (it is essential in Wright’s reading of the Christ-Event that Jesus was challenging not Rome but the “Dark Power behind Rome”).  A similar point is made by John Polkinghorne, who notes that at times the weight of Evil in the world is so great (such as the Holocaust) that we sense the influence of some dark spiritual power at work, getting a glimpse into a cosmic struggle between good and evil transcending a merely human one (what Dr. Cutsinger would call the “second [angelic] fall”).  This too we get a glimpse of on American Horror Story, in the form of a demon that manipulate the already twisted and warped natures of the various characters on the show-something more than mere human evil is at work.

I’m relatively agnostic on the question of whether demon possession is “real” (I readily do admit I believe in Evil with a capital ‘E’), but I do agree with Rev. Rutledge that it is through the action of God in Jesus Christ and imparted to us through the Holy Spirit that we see the best true hope of treating the disease of Sin that has infected human nature so deeply.  The born again experience is not just an illusion, it is feeling the presence of the One who liberates us from bondage to Sin.  I do of course believe the Holy Spirit is working through other religious traditions as well, but as far as I’m concerned salvation-defined as our liberation from Sin-was accomplished in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

I’ve read more of Schuon’s work and he-along with the Orthodox-share the views that Christ’s victory was cosmic in the sense that it transcends the historical events.  The events are true and exceedingly important, but as the “Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world” the Christ-Event has a “retroactive effect” as it were.  We see this in the Eastern interpretation of the Harrowing of Hell, the belief that Christ preaches to every soul in Hades, not merely the Old Testament patriarchs (oddly, this same point is made by CS Lewis in The Great Divorce).  In other words, every person will hear what they need to hear, no one is beyond the reach of justification (and thank God for that).  What does this mean, then, in the context of the Hell question?

Ralph Martin’s recent book Will Many Be Saved? has reawakened the question, prompting a number of reflections online, including-I am delighted to say-pushback from Robert Barron.  It continually irks me how simplistically the doctrine of Hell is taken by traditionalists.  We hear “Jesus talked about Hell more than anybody else!” as if that settled the matter.  Well, that’s true, Jesus used the word Gehenna more than anyone else, but the context isn’t as if Christ were reciting the Baltimore Catechism-consider it was usually directed against the Pharisees, look up “preterism” and then get back to me.  And the overly simplistic doctrine of Hell has been challenged by minds as great as John Stott and Polkinghorne, who reject the monstrous images of damnationism taught in the Church for so long in favor of annihilationism.  The point is simply that the question is not so clear cut as traditionalists like to make it out to be.

But-and here’s the big but-its nowhere near as clear cut as liberal universalists insist either.  Even Rev. Rutledge who obviously rejects any doctrine resembling purgatory-emphasizes that justification is not “cheap grace” but the difficult process of making things right (as an aside, though she refuses to answer the question I find a few of her sermons graze universalism).  As NT Wright stresses, there is a consistent theme of justice in the Scriptures-not punitive damnation but the sense of God “putting the world to rights.”  Nowhere is there an indication that this process is painless or that the wicked shall not be brought to account one way or the other; to argue that is a frightful misreading of the Bible.  I don’t particularly care for the writings of Father Dwight Longenecker (he’s a bit of a Catholic triumphalist and I’m weary of former Anglicans waxing remorse on the “moral laxness” towards matters sexual) but nonetheless his recent post on Hell does strike a nerve in a good way with me.  One needs to take seriously the matter of Evil AND the question of how human nature as a whole, the state of individual souls, and the world we’ve messed up will be set right.

I conclude my meditation by asserting that the notion that eternal damnation is NOT necessary for justice to be done-that’s a canard.  And I find it perfectly Christian to hope for universal redemption.  Nonetheless, I think we cannot forget it is equally Christian to believe that people can-in Wright’s words-collude with their own ‘dehumanization’ by choosing Death over Life.  People can refuse to accept the liberation from Sin offered to us by Christ if they so choose-I’m not sure what happens then, but I’ve always liked the Eastern imagery of Hell as simply the presence of God for those who refuse the offer of Divine Life.  Speaking of the East, I’ll end with one final thought: Orthodoxy teaches that there are two arches to the Incarnation: The lesser arch of Fall-Redemption and the greater arch of Creation-Deification.  To understand what it is people are giving up when they refuse the offer of Divine Life this greater context must always be kept in mind.

Here endeth the post.UPDATE: It makes me ill to see mere hours after I posted this the carnage in CT.  Evil is still with us.  God help those who are living this nightmare.