Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hell, Hitchens and unconditional acceptance

I’ve been writing a lot this last year about Catholic eschatology, especially about the doctrine of Hell, and was hoping to move on to pastures new. But two things happened today that changed my mind.

First, I received an email from my cousin Greg, prompted by a post I wrote for Catholic Bandita. Then, while I was writing him back, I got the news that Christopher Hitchens, journalist and one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, had passed away from esophageal cancer.

Other writers and Catholic bloggers have written their own eulogies for this brilliant, incisive, angry penman; for pure, touching pathos, I recommend his brother Peter’s valedictory. For myself, I’m hesitant to add to or detract from Hitch’s public wake; I may post something on The Impractical Catholic later. For now, let’s read an excerpt from Greg’s e-mail:

So here’s my take on religion and guilt. I think they very much go hand in hand but I think it's more how it is taught and delivered to us than of the religion itself, regardless of what faith.  I mean, think about it.  How many times are we told, “If you do XYZ, God will punish you.” Part of my issue with organized religion is the mixed messages that are involved. God’s love is supposed to be unconditional providing … and then all of these conditions are laid out.  […]  That is when the “guilt” begins to come into play, in my opinion of course.  

For example look at the Ten Commandments — breaking any of these is supposed to result in an automatic sentence to hell [I didn’t think the Methodist communions taught that!]. So, a homeless person steals food because he’s hungry. Automatic sentence to hell for one, breaking one of the commandments and two, sinning for feeding himself, he gave in to “want”, he should have died (according to some). Yet, if God’s love is unconditional, he doesn’t care that the homeless stole or why he stole, just so long as he believes.
 See where I’m going with this? I don’t get it. If the Almighty accepts me unconditionally then why is there a book that spells out all of these conditions [bold font mine]?

Greg equates “unconditional love” with “unconditional acceptance”. There may be, and probably are, Protestant communions that teach this, at least indirectly. However, it’s not a part of Christian orthodoxy.

You can wholly accept without loving at all. In fact, when unskewed by politics, this is what we ordinarily mean by “tolerating” something or someone: you’re content to let it be, without taking action to either promote or repress it.

You can also love unconditionally without accepting. This is a condition many parents face, with children who are criminals, or who lead self-destructive lifestyles, or who otherwise show immoral or antisocial behavior. You chide, you plead, you punish, you do everything you can to get the child to change her life; at the extreme, you cut her off completely and throw her back on her own resources, in the hope that events will force her to “hug the cactus”. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and your child destroys himself, either literally or metaphorically; sometimes it works … and your child hates you for it. But you don’t do it to be mean; you do it for her sake, because you love her.

In the same way, God doesn’t give us rules because it pleases His malicious humor to be a party-pooper or because He’s a control freak. Rather, the Ten Commandments are the bedrock of a sane, healthy society in which people treat each other with justice. God does want our happiness. But to be truly happy, we must be whole; to become whole, we must become holy … not just “good enough”. And part of that reach for holiness means learning to treat each other with justice and mercy, because in God’s Love justice and mercy are inseparable.

But God has also given us free will, which means freedom to not accept His will. Despite claims that Hell was made up to manipulate the superstitious masses, the “superstitious masses” have been quite capable of intentional evil in the face of repeated threats of hellfire. Mere claim to faith in Christ has never been enough; if there’s just one objection to sola fide (there isn’t “just one”), it’s its severance of faith from practice.

You know the old saying, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”? In the same way, religion doesn’t “spoil everything”; people spoil everything, occasionally using religion — or some bastardized version of it — as the instrument of spoliation. “Religion” didn’t create the Spanish Inquisition, or Cromwell’s genocidal rampage through Ireland, or bombings at abortion clinics. Even lack of religiosity hasn’t kept people from bloody acts of terror; we don’t need to say atheism caused the Soviet purges and creation of the gulag system when it suffices to say that atheism, despite claims of moral superiority, didn’t stop them from happening either.

Hitch once said, about Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, “I wish I believed in Hell so I could hope she were there.” He later apologized for this gratuitous piece of nastiness, which marks the difference between him and other prominent atheists: I don’t think, for instance, that P. Z. Myers will ever apologize for nailing together consecrated hosts, unless (mirabile dictu) he were to have a conversion experience.

Now I do believe in Hell, and I hope that Hitch isn’t there. I hope his mind gave way — not to insanity, but to Hope that reaches beyond fear. I hope his pride and anger collapsed, that he let them go as part of the ephemerae of nature, the transience of life, and allowed himself to finally embrace God.

I hope this because before God can accept us, we must first accept Him. If Christianity fails, it does so because Christ’s disciples say with their lips, “Thy will be done,” when in their hearts they cry, “My will be done.”