I am not — just to state this upfront — returning to blogging. I’ve been posting occasional comments on other blogs, but I think my sabbatical was the right choice and I’m not done with it yet. But the other day I stopped by Jesus Creed, and discovered that Scot McKnight is blogging his way through Telford’s new book on the Lord’s Prayer. So far, he’s blogged chapters one, two, three and four. As you can see, the first chapter is of special interest to me because yours truly is in it. Reading Scot’s post reminded me that, yes, I’m a character now in a book being read by Christians all round the country, which is really weird but kind of thrilling. (Other, shorter reviews are here and here.)
I haven’t read the whole book. Telford kindly sent me the first chapter so I could see what he wrote about me before publishing it, but thanks to the glacial pace of book publishing, that was more than three years ago. So I don’t remember it in great detail, but I do remember being surprised by a few things in it. I didn’t realize at the time how much my own questions fit into what he was already thinking. He always seemed so sunny and self-assured, that even though he said that Sept. 11 shook his faith (and wrote an article about it, though it seems not to be on his site any more), I didn’t really see it.
The other surprising thing was the conclusion. From Scot’s description you can’t really tell, but a major point of debate between us was the doctrine of eternal damnation. After a long theological discourse, Telford writes:
Does Camassia really think universalism would be more honoring to God and more appropriate to his loving character? Then let her pray for universal salvation. Let her do what Abraham did for wayward Sodom, what Moses did for the idolatrous Hebrews, what the King of Ninevah did for his clueless city, what the Canaanite woman did for unclean Gentiles, what Jesus did for his petty disciples, and what we do every day for those we love and even those we hate. Let her intercede before our heavenly Father and plead in the name of Christ and the power of the Spirit that no one would be lost. Maybe her secular eyes have seen something our religious ones have missed. Let her make her case — not to me, for it is not mine to grant, let alone teach — but to the One with the power to hear and grant such an audacious request. Who knows? Maybe she is right.
The thing is, while Telford said something vaguely like that once or twice, the rest of the time that we talked about the afterlife he spent insisting that there will be separation of the sheep and the goats on the last day, and explaining why this was just and right. I get the feeling that his own view of the subject inclines toward Wittgenstein’s: “If what we do now is to make no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with.” And this went on after he wrote the chapter. So suffice to say, I got a pretty mixed message about this.
Telford is a disciple of Newbigin, so he’s not inclined to call something a heresy unless it’s explicitly refuted in the creeds. And he’d rather have me be a universalist Christian than a non-Christian. So I took heart from his advice and pressed on, considering universalism, like pacifism or anti-Constantinianism or some such, to be a respectable minority position in Christian tradition.
I’m not a disciple of Newbigin, however, and one reason is that certain positions are ultimately irreconcilable. I mean, if you think about it, somebody’s going to be in for a big disappointment on Judgment Day. A universalist might end up going, “Gee, God really is as monstrous as people have been saying.” A Wittgensteinian might end up going, “Wow, I guess my life really didn’t have any meaning.” There’s something deeper going on here than a difference of hermeneutical opinion. The problems we have with God mirror the problems we have with each other.
C.S. Lewis believed that everyone has a sort of inborn moral compass, which he called Moral Law, and that Christianity is in the most perfect accord with Moral Law. If only it were that simple. We all use our own moral compass in choosing our religion, all right, especially when it comes to filling a plate from the chaotic buffet that is American Protestantism. But it’s clear enough that people’s compasses point them in wildly different directions sometimes, and so they end up with wildly different images of God. And so, arguments about God’s character can’t help but be about our own characters.
To tell the truth, one reason I haven’t gone back to blogging is that I’ve been having a hard time of it. My boyfriend and I broke up, my small group broke up, my grandfather died and my grandmother will probably follow soon, I’m back in therapy (which I thought, after fifteen years out, would never happen), and, more to the point at hand, my relationship with Telford has deteriorated to practically nothing. The blog just doesn’t seem like the place to share all this suckage.
Reading about the friendship I used to have with Telford really brought me back to … well I wouldn’t say “happier” times, but definitely more exciting times, more expansive and filled with possibilities. Intellectual debate, the kind where you push each other to think harder and better, is a pleasure in itself. But it also reminded me of the fact that the last time we spoke, which was eight or ten months ago, we were arguing about the same damn thing that we were four years earlier. In my last post I said I felt my blog was retreading the same ground over and over, and boy, that problem didn’t end when I stopped blogging. And when you’re stuck in a place like that, intellectual debate just turns into nasty quarrelling.
And under the quarrelling, I think in this case, lies a fear that the argument signals more than an earthly disagreement. Will we end up in the same place at the end of days? Will we want to? What is this deep difference that brings forth such divergent ideas of goodness? It’s unbearable to think that this separation may be permanent; but however much you talk to the Father, he’s not offering reassurances.