Wednesday, September 16, 2015

David Bentley Hart on Creation and Universalism

I was rather surprised to discover that David Bentley Hart is a universalist.  In a recent talk at Notre Dame, he laid out his case for universalism in his usual grand rhetorical style.  Universalism is, of course, the idea that eventually human being, and possibly even the demons, will eventually be redeemed and none left to eternal punishment.  It is a minority view to be sure, but it is a perennial question for theologians, not lacking in practical repercussions.  

In my experience, it is not only a minority view, but among traditionalist Christians who reject universalism, it is generally regarded as a pernicious heresy rather than a benign error.  It is frequently conflated with Pluralism (all religions lead to God), and seen as a blatant rejection of Biblical teaching.  Universalism is within the exclusive purview of liberal Protestants, bleeding hearts, left-wing Catholic nuns and other undesirables.  Consider for example, the furor that followed Rob Bell's publication of Love Wins in which he suggested that maybe, possibly, perhaps universalism might turn out to be true at the end of time... maybe.  It wasn't a very substantial book and Bell seems to have taken up free style shark jumping on Oprah's network since then, but at the time it hardly seemed to merit the opprobrium it received.  

Admittedly many, if not most, contemporary universalists are possessed of a merely tenuous relation to the Bible or anything approaching mainstream Christian tradition.  This is why Hart's position is so interesting.  He is emphatically not a bleeding heart, a pluralist or a Liberal Protestant.  He is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, acquainted with the Fathers and modern theologians as well, and an ardent defender of Classical Theism.  

The lecture is below.  I think it is a very important piece.  Hart lays out a profoundly Christ centered, even cross centered case for universalism, and whether one thinks he is right or wrong, his are the arguments that must be met.  

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14

As you may have noticed, Americans love elections. They are a chance to make our voice as free citizens heard. If we're honest, elections are also a chance to take part in one of our favorite national pastimes: complaining about politicians. Open season has already begun as we anticipate next year's presidential election. That's probably why I have been thinking about elections a lot lately. You can't go online without hearing that another person has thrown his or her hat in the ring and wants your vote. While there may be a famine of truly inspiring candidates, it is a feast for comedians and critics. I recommend any of the fine reporting at the Onion for good laugh.

Elections are about choice, our choice, and every candidate has to spend a vast amount of their energy proving that they deserve to be chosen. The burden of proof is on them to prove that they are more than what comedians and critics make them out to be. We weigh the merits and demerits of candidates mercilessly, and make our choice based on that measure.
Let me assuage any fears that may be growing by saying, this isn't a political sermon. My point is not about the particular candidates, but really, about the way that we make choices. We choose people to be our elected officials, because we believe they are good for that position... or in the case of presidential elections, at least not too bad. They are required to convince us that they are good enough.

God also makes choices. In our Epistle reading Paul names God's great choice: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” This is what theologians call the doctrine of Election: The biblical teaching that God chooses men and women, chooses us.

Throughout the Bible, God continually chooses individuals and nations. He chose Abraham, and promised to bless him and make him a blessing to all peoples. He chose the people of Israel. Above all, he choose his Son Jesus Christ, and in him God chose us. As Christians, we have been elected by God, and we are a chosen people.

Now that may sound like it's giving us an awful lot of credit, as if we were better than any other people. After all, when we elect someone, it is because they are exceptional, great, good – better than the other candidates. Are Christians somehow better people than others, that God should elect us? If anything, just the opposite.

This is where we go wrong. We think that God makes choices the way we make them. God does not choose us because we are great, or nice people. We choose a person because they are good. God's chooses us because he is good.

Here we are near the very heart of the gospel. God chooses weak people, little people, foolish people and bad people, because God is love. His chooses without regard to the good or evil we have done or will do. God chose you and me before we had even done anything, and even “before the foundation of the World.”

Again, God's choice is different from ours. We choose people to be our leaders or even our friends, because we believe they are good. In fact, anything we choose, we choose because it's good. God's choice makes things good. God has chosen us, not because we are holy and blameless, but so that we will be “holy and blameless before him in love.”

The great Scottish theologian George MacDonald said “love loves unto purity... where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love it's fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely... therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of Love's kind, must be destroyed.” God's love is unstoppable, implacable, irresistible. All that is wicked, broken, twisted in us, will be consumed in the fire of God's love. All that is good in us, will be nurtured, blessed, strengthened, until we stand before the Father in the likeness of his Son.

That is what it means to be holy and blameless: to be like Jesus Christ. God has chosen us to make us Christ like. God created us to be like Jesus Christ, to reflect the goodness of Jesus. This is getting beyond the scope of a sermon like this, but in fact, this is why God created the world. God's plan for the whole cosmos is to “to gather up all things in [Jesus Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” Jesus, as they say, is the answer. The whole world, each of our lives, only makes sense, or is good or beautiful to the degree that we have Christ, present and living in us. He is, so to speak, the model, the plan that God used when he created us, and he is still shaping us to conform us to Jesus Christ. This is what we have been chosen for.

God's choice sets us free forever. Many of us live in fear that if people knew what we were really like, they would not love us. God knows each of us, more perfectly than we know ourselves, including all the awful things we think, rightly or wrongly, make us unlovable. God chooses us anyway, in his love, and nothing we have done or can do can ultimately ever overcome that love.

God's love is stronger than our brokenness. For any of us who have struggled with deep sins, and been afraid that our sins would overwhelm us, we have hope. Not only sin, but no power in the world is greater than the love of God. Nothing , no sadness, no fear, not loss, can ultimately triumph in our hearts. No tyrant, no violence, no injustice can prevail; we have the promise of God. It is the promise that the same love that raised Jesus from the Dead will raise us from the deadly power of our own sins. The love that destroyed death on Good Friday and plundered hell on Holy Saturday will utterly destroy every hint of ugliness in our hearts and in the world, until all things are gathered together in Jesus Christ. This is what God's choice, the doctrine of election, means.

There is one more thing to be said about election, and that's this. If God has chosen us, it is not so that we can look down from a lofty height on the rest of humanity, all the un-chosen heathens. Again, it is the opposite. When God chooses people he chooses us to make them a blessing to this world not a curse. When God called Abraham, he said “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing”(Gen 12:12).  We are not chosen by God to enjoy a smug self-satisfaction, but to bless others. Above all we are chosen so that we can make God's love known to all the world, to each person we meet, so that they too can be set free by the irresistible love of the Father in Jesus Christ.