How does a religion survive when part of its morality is abhorrent to the culture around it?

The majority of orthodox, tradition-minded Christians believe that for two persons of the same sex to have sexual intercourse is a sin. They also believe, for a variety of scriptural, philosophical, and traditional reasons, that true Christian marriage is the union of one woman to one man to the exclusion of all others.

Based upon my own research, largely drawn from my Facebook feed and random news articles, a growing proportion of the population of ‘the West’* believes that such sex and such relationships are not sin and are even commendable.

The support, at least of clever, young, at times hip, and often socially-concerned young people, for gay marriage is a major roadblock for many people when they come face to face with traditional Christianity. This is not, of course, true of everyone. I know gay people in committed, monogamous relationships who are perfectly Chalcedonian and BCP in their orthodoxy — one in particular is very fond of St Augustine.

However, other people are not in such a position. Some people say that they could not believe in a God who would keep people from being involved in faithful, monogamous relationships with whom they love. Some people say that they find the traditional position on sexuality and marriage ‘morally abhorrent’. Other people probably say none of this, but sit there in the pew, week after week, uneasy as the Rev. G S gives us yet another sermon about homosexuality.

And those I think of are those raised in, reared by the Church. And some of them see those who choose to separate themselves from ecclesial bodies that approve of such actions as, in fact, ‘homophobic.’

The pastoral concern is evident. Often, these young people just stop going to church. Some switch churches. But for some, the cognitive dissonance is too much; they give up church and God and all. Because we live in a culture where there are lots of visible gay people, and a lot of them are fantastically brilliant people who are really nice (and so are their partners) who are good at their jobs and sometimes put orthodox heterosexuals to shame in their capacity for love, the insistence on the sinfulness of gay sex is jarring to many people’s ears. Rob Bell observes that this is the way the world is, and we should accept it. (That’s not his full argument; watch the video to do him justice.)

There is a competing pressure between preachers and pews, and often the preachers are disconnected from the pews. So why should the pews even care?

Beyond the pew, people dismiss the traditional marriage lobby. The best response of many is, at the end of it all, mockery. Very often, the arguments put forward by traditional Christians are ignored and slogans are put forward as something to counter them. Supporters of traditional marriage have even had invective directed at them from Wendell Berry, of all people.

So here we are. How on earth can we bring the drifting young back to our churches, be they Anglican or Lutheran, Baptist or Brethren, Orthodox or Roman Catholic, when they find the Church’s response to this issue, one so at the heart of public debate and consciousness right now, risible and abhorrent?

And what about those who have never heard the Gospel? For many people, this is one of the first questions they ask when they meet representatives of churches or Christian organisations. If they abhorr the traditional answer as unloving and immoral, what is to be done?

I ask this because this is not the usual situation. People inevitably find giving up alcohol and drugs difficult. Or reining in heterosexual passions. Or going to church on Sundays. They may find piety silly. But now they find this particular piece of traditional Christian piety abhorrent and morally defective.

How can the traditional churches win the hearts and minds of this generation?

*North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand …


Icon of the Last Judgement: note the bishops going to Hell (on the right)

Thanks to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, universalism is big news these days. Everyone and their dog is chiming in on universalism and Rob Bell. Including, it would seem, me.

Many of us seem to think that universalism is some sort of nineteenth-century liberal idea. In some of its manifestations it is, of course. In others, it is older, while in others it is newer. But the idea that everyone, somehow, gets saved in the end is old, and antiquity is no guarantee for whether an idea is mainstream or orthodox, as Kevin DeYoung points out in his review of Love Wins:

Universalism has been around a long time. But so has every other heresy. Arius rejected the full deity of Christ and many people followed him. This hardly makes Arianism part of the wide, diverse stream of Christian orthodoxy. Every point of Christian doctrine has been contested, but some have been deemed heterodox. Universalism, traditionally, was considered one of those points. True, many recent liberal theologians have argued for versions of universalism—and this is where Bell stands, not in the center of the historic Christian tradition.

My thoughts on the subject are primarily concerned with Origen at present.* Origen’s doctrine of ‘universalism’ is called apocatastasis. This is the belief that at the end of all things, all souls will be reunited with God. Origen does not rule out the possibility that among these souls we may find the Devil. No one is beyond the long arm of God’s great, saving grace for Origen.

David at Pious Fabrications points out that others whom we deem quite orthodox — Met. Kallistos and St. Gregory of Nyssa,** to take two big examples — believe in apocatastasis. It is not, then, this belief alone that gets one into a lot of hot, heretical water. In the blog post, David argues that the big difference between Origen and these others is the firmness of his belief on this point. Everyone is saved. Period. Kallistos et al, on the other hand, leave it open. Everyone is saved? It’s a question, a hope, but not stated as a dogma for all to believe. Thus, while the Church may condemn Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in apocatastasis, she will not condemn him.

I think there’s also the fact that Origen is one of the great Neoplatonists of the third century to consider. His system involves a type of salvation that the revelation does not present unto us — we are all restored to union with God as disembodied souls that do nothing but contemplate Him and have no distinctive individuality. Origen, then, is more than a case of damnation by punctuation. Origen has an entire system of cosmology, large portions of which are incompatible with Scripture. This is the ultimate cause of his anathematisation at the separate sessions led by Justinian and the bishops at the Second Council of Constantinople (Fifth Ecumenical) in 553.

Ultimately, the Church cannot affirm apocatastasis and other forms of universalism because either they  run counter to Scripture and are pieces of speculation or they involve bad hermeneutics. As DeYoung’s excessively long review, cited above, shows us, Love Wins involves bad hermeneutics.

Still, ought we not at least to hope for apocatastasis? Maybe, in the end, God will redeem everyone. No, it’s not in Scripture. What we find in Scripture regarding those who die outside of the Faith is varied and largely unpleasant. Nevertheless, to hope for the salvation of all is not an un-Christian hope, even if one finds the possibility unlikely, even if one thinks that it ought not to be preached loudly from pulpits or ensconced as dogma.

*George MacDonald will hopefully be the subject of a later post, if all goes according to plan.

**He lists all three Cappadocian Fathers, but I haven’t heard elsewhere of Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian believing this. Until I have corroborated it, I can’t print it.