by David W. Opderbeck, Ph.D.
Thanks to Fr. Kimel for inviting me to comment on David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved. I have been a “fan” of Hart’s for many years, and enjoyed hosting him as speaker in a “law and theology” series at my law school several years ago. Like all of Hart’s writing, this new book is magnificent, penetrating, and rich in its attention to scripture and the Christian intellectual tradition. There are some key places, however, where I see seams in Hart’s argument — important and contestable moves that I think are less smooth than Hart’s rhetoric suggests. I don’t think any of these seams mean Hart’s argument can easily be torn apart, but I do think they make his conclusions much less certain than he suggests. Before getting to the seams, however, I’d like to discuss the whole garment.
In my first draft of this post, I included a lengthy narrative about my traumatic experiences with hellfire preaching growing up in dispensationalist-fundamentalist churches. I use the word “trauma” here intentionally to invoke post-traumatic stress disorder and the like. I decided against including that longer narrative in the final draft for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that the people who were part of these churches, including my family, were on the whole good people who loved God, loved each other, and loved me. I learned an enormous amount from them, including a passion for the scriptures. Another is that I pretty early on began to receive a better education with some broader perspectives. But it did take me a long time to re-learn some things, and I suppose I’ll always be re-learning.
So let me just note a theological/sub-cultural milieu that I think will be familiar to many “fans” of Hart who find him refreshing: a very literal eternal Hell; the need for a specific kind of personal conversion experience; the belief that everyone who hasn’t had that very specific experience — including all Jews and people of other faiths, people who never heard of Jesus, and “deceived” psuedo-Christians such as Roman Catholics — that is, the 98% of humanity who don’t think just like us — will burn forever; the imminent destruction of most of the world during a seven-year Tribulation under the auspices of the anti-Christ; the “rapture” of the Church before that event so true Christians can avoid the Tribulation; the conflicting claims that world missions will speed the rapture and that a return to “Christian America,” in partnership with the state of Israel, will delay it; the nagging feeling that if all of this is true one shouldn’t be wasting time studying for school or pursuing a career or family; the disquieting fact that everyone listening to these sermons and consuming the related literature, videos, and televangelist programming is otherwise a regular person with an ordinary career and a family rather than a frantic mendicant missionary.
Hart’s book doesn’t cure my PTSD, or say anything that I haven’t heard said before. But there is something especially helpful about hearing someone like Hart say (I’m paraphrasing): “If an apologetic argument is dumb and a theological position is morally vile, you don’t have to believe them — and in fact, your commitments to Christian faith and to truth require you to reject them.” This isn’t, after all, just some hipster preacher like Rob Bell tossing off a few Zen-like aphorisms, or yet another confused and hurting megachurch pastor announcing on Twitter that he’s leaving the faith. Hart actually has the chops to expose bad theologians and bad apologists as the shills, hucksters, and ideologues they so often are, or at least to show they are just not as well informed as they claim to be. At this point in my life, I don’t, or shouldn’t, need Hart to do that for me, but it’s good to see I’m not alone, and indeed that someone far more accomplished than me can speak truth plainly to powerful forces in our religious landscape.
But — and if you’re like me, you know there’s always a “but” — Hart’s appeal to conscience is also one of the big “seams” in his argument. There is, of course, a long and complex history of debates about authority and conscience throughout Church history. Those debates have produced innumerable excommunications, breakings at the rack, stake-burnings and the like, two great eras of schism (between the Eastern and Western Churches in the 11th century and between the Roman Catholic church and what became the Protestant churches starting in the 16th century), devastating intra-Christian wars, and the multitude of conflicting confessions and denominations on offer today. It isn’t just as simple as deferring to conscience if scripture and traditional also carry weight.
Method and Authority
I’m a “method” guy. I think the method someone is using, whether as a legal scholar, theologian, scientist, or whatever, matters. And I think, except maybe for the method for solving certain kinds of math problems, there is no such thing as one indubitable method for doing anything. This is certainly true for theology.
For example, a Roman Catholic theologian is obligated to take certain propositions of the Church’s Magisterium as axiomatically true, or at least to explain why, within the assumptions of Roman Catholic theology, he or she feels one or more of those propositions should not be fully normative. Many Roman Catholic theologians speak of philosophy (reason) and conscience as a means of interrogating and clarifying Magisterial propositions. Some liberal Roman Catholic theologians have suggested that reason and conscience can supercede Magisterial propositions, but their moderate and conservative co-religionists respond that such a view is really Protestant and not Catholic.
These more traditional Catholic voices argue that any individual’s conscience or reasoning processes can be misdirected and malformed — an observation that is impossible to dispute — and that individual judgments therefore must always be submitted to the fuller community of the Church. A person may indeed be obligated to believe, or at least try to believe, or at least externally acknowledge and abide by, propositions that twinge his or her sense of conscience or reason, if in the end the collective body of judgment tells that individual he or she is misguided.
I am not a Roman Catholic theologian, so I have no interest in entering into the intramural debate of what role conscience should play in Catholic life and thought, but this example shows that neither conscience nor any individual person’s reason can self-evidently supplant tradition as a source of authority. In fact, the requirement that sometimes an individual must set aside his or her own judgment for a decision reached by the broader group is a necessary component of any kind of human society. If everyone only does “what is right in his own eyes,” to use a Biblical phrase (Judges 17:6), the result inevitably is violence and chaos.
The same is true for Protestants who hold scripture — however they might specifically define the meaning of its “inspiration” and truthfulness — to be the final norm. Roman Catholic polemicists can score points by noting that when Protestants say scripture is the norma normans non normata, in practice this means that each person’s individual interpretation of scripture governs. That might be true in practice, but at least the ideal remains: individual conscience and reason are supposed to serve the reading and interpretation of scripture, not supplant it, and the reading of scripture is supposed to involve a communal dimension, informed by the expertise of those called and equipped for deeper study, led by those called and equipped to proclaim it through preaching, and tested within the broader community of faith.
And, the same is true in Eastern Orthodoxy. It’s true that neither “tradition” nor “scripture” usually are viewed in Orthodoxy as “final” norms or even as co-equal norms. I personally appreciate the sense within Orthodoxy that “scripture” is really a part of “tradition” just as “tradition” is a part of “scripture.” And I also appreciate the sense in Orthodoxy that, even in our fallenness, there is more left of our original human created goodness than usually seems to be the case in Western theologies influenced by Augustinian versions of “original sin.” But the spiritual tradition of Orthodoxy — one of the elements of that tradition that, again, I deeply appreciate — emphasizes the need to overcome our human “passions” in order to become free for union with God.
Authority doesn’t disappear in the context of an ascetical theology informed by the Eastern Church. It might be that my strong sense about a teaching’s moral ugliness or unreasonableness stems from ascetical practice and a clearer vision of God. Or, it might be that my impressions reflect an inability to tame my passions and to take solace in God’s utter otherness. Since I’m not a saint, I should at least suspect that the latter might be part of how I think and feel. Again, I’m not looking to enter into any intramural Orthodox theological debate, much less to question the bona fides of Hart’s commitment to capital-O Orthodoxy. The point is that, no matter how you slice it, Christian theology and practice are never grounded on personal conscience or individual reason alone.
Sapere aude is the motto of the Enlightenment. The Church’s motto is fides quaerens intellectum. Contrary to fundamentalisms of all sorts, I don’t think the charge to dare to know, to think for one’s self, is a bad thing. But even that charge, as a charge, cannot be taken literally: if I refuse to think for myself, I’m disobeying the charge, and thumbing my nose at Kant and everyone else who says I ought to be enlightened. There is always first some kind of fides before the intellectum.
The fact is that humans cannot escape some kind of appeal to authority. As I mentioned in my introduction, I think Hart’s invocation of conscience and reason in relation to how we think about eschatology is vitally important. But to make the theological case that universalism must be accepted as a dogmatic claim requires more attention to the ambiguous, and often contrary, strains of scripture and tradition. That ambiguity of authority — and not, as Hart suggests, some kind of morally culpable timidness — is why I can’t accept the claim that universalism must be true.
Scripture, as Hart ably points out, contains many eschatological images and metaphors, which are not always consistent, and which in places seem to suggest both a dual outcome and universal salvation. The tradition as a whole, as Hart acknowledges, has always included universal salvation as a minority voice, but only as a minority voice. Maybe, according to the typical Orthodox trope Hart alludes to, the Western church has terribly misunderstood scripture and the tradition since Augustine. I think it’s fair, though, to treat this kind of sweeping, polemical historical decline narrative with more than a bit of suspicion. The presence of so many important voices over such a long period of time, and their persistence in the dogmatic formulations of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, inclines me against excessive confidence in my personal conclusions.
This post on “authority” might suggest that I think Hart’s appeals to conscience and reason are seamless. I don’t. I think those appeals are often compelling, but that they depend too much on overstatements — even, at times straw men — and highly particular and endlessly debateable metaphysical presuppositions. These thoughts will be the subject of my next post.
* * *
David Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Law School. In addition to his legal training, he earned an M.A.T. from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology from the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Law and Theology, forthcoming with Fortress Press this November.