Christian Universality

We do not know if everyone followed Christ when he rose from hell, nor do we know if everyone will follow him to the eschatological heavenly kingdom when he will become “all in all.” We do know that, since Christ’s descent, the way to resurrection has been opened for “all flesh,” salvation has been granted to every human being, and the gates of paradise have been opened for all who wish to enter through them. This is the faith of the early church, inherited from the first generation of Christians and cherished by Orthodox tradition. This is the never-extinguished hope of all those who believe in Christ, who once and for all conquered death, destroyed hell, and granted resurrection to the entire human race.

-Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell

One of Bp. Hilarion’s closing thoughts in this book is the impact the above mentioned theological understanding of Christ’s decent into Hell has upon theodicy. If we are to look at suffering, death, etc., even to the point of divinely mandated mass death, through a lens absent of any sort of finality, where movement from one mode of existence to another does not impact one’s ability to escape hell and so forth, we can come to an understanding of God as benevolent parent, rather than manevolent judge. I think there is a lot of weight to the argument, and I hope at some point he choses to delve into the matter a little more deeply. Theodicy is generally my greatest religious obsession and “stumbling block.”

Yet, another aspect of this soteriological concept is its impact upon the very universality of Christianity. A thought that came about whilst reading the following:

This is how one should answer the standard critique of Christian universalism: what this all-inclusive attitude (recall Saint Paul’s famous “There is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek”) involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not agree to be included into the Christian community. In other “particularistic” religions (and even in Islam, despite its global expansionism) there is a place for others, they are tolerated, even if they are looked upon condescendingly. The Christian motto “All men are brothers,” however, also means that “Those who are not my brothers are not (even) men.” Christians usually praise themselves for overcoming the Jewish exclusivist notion of the Chosen People, and encompassing the whole of humanity—the catch here is that, in their very insistence that they are the Chosen People with a privileged direct link to God, the Jews accept the humanity of other people who celebrate their false gods, while the Christian universalism tendentially excludes nonbelievers from the very universality of humankind…
But Christian universality is not the all-encompassing global medium where there is a place for all and everyone—it is, rather, a struggling universality, the site of a constant battle. Which battle, which division? To follow Saint Paul: not the division between Law and sin, but between, on one side, the totality of Law and sin as its supplement, and, on the other, the way of Love. Christian universality is the universality which emerges at the symptomal point of those who are “part of no-part” of the global order—this is where the accusation of exclusion gets it wrong: Christian universality, far from excluding some subjects, is formulated from the position of those excluded, of those for whom there is no specific place within the existing order, although they belong to it; universality is strictly codependent with this lack of specific place/determination.
Or, to put it in a different way: the accusation against Saint Paul’s universalism misses the true site of universality: the universal dimension he opened up is not the “neither Greek nor Jew but all Christians,” which implicitly excludes non-Christians; it is, rather, the difference Christians/non-Christians itself which, as a difference, is universal, that is to say, cuts across the entire social body, splitting, dividing from within every substantial ethnic, etc., identity—Greeks are divided into Christians and non-Christians, as well as Jews. The standard accusation thus, in a way, knocks on a open door: the whole point of the Pauline notion of struggling universality is that true universality and partiality do not exclude each other, but universal Truth is accessible only from a partial engaged subjective position.

-Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View

If we are to absolutize hell, damnation, then there is some weight to Zizek’s argument. There is the a “universalism” which is defined against the Other, the justly damned unbelievers and sinners, who never become truly human. The righteous elect, chosen by God, and the evil sinners, less than human. There cannot be a way in which we can concieve of hell and redemtion that is not openended, and yet claim that Christ redeemed human nature as such. There is then no weight to such statements as, “neither Jew nor Greek,” the concept of theosis and so forth. If human nature is redeemed, yet men are eternally damned, then the obvious conclusion is that either only part of human nature has been redeemed, only part of the world is “made new,” or that these beings are less than human – less than being, even.

So, no, the concept is not “neither Greek nor Jew but all Christians,” even if this is the view of many – esp. among Western Christianity – but rather, the concept is precisely “in Christ.” The universality of Christ is exactly that it has opened the way regardless of one’s “partial engaged subjective position.” Zizek is part of the Christian universal redeemed human nature. There is no exclusion in Orthodoxy.

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One response to “Christian Universality

  1. I struggled for a long time with the notion of Christ “redeeming human nature” and how that could NOT be tacitly universalism. I’m still not completely settled on it, but one of the concepts that seems to have a LOT to do with this is “personhood”. Human nature is not a “thing in itself”, ie,, a pool of stuff that is injected into a human being (either at birth nor at baptism). “Nature”, has no existence apart from “person” either in the Trinity nor in humanity, nor pre-lasparian, post-lapsarian or post-Ascension. So when Christ “redeemed human nature” He did it in His person. He had a human nature because well, He was human. OUR human nature is redeemed when we unite our person to His person. Asceticism is the process of realizing that union fully through the overcoming of the flesh and passions. Our “nature” does not control our behavior absolutely since part of our nature is to have a will (otherwise we’d be sinless if we defined “nature” as “will”). Anyway, I’m not sure even how that completely intersects with the quotes above, but it seems pertinent at this hour. 🙂

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