Friday, July 2, 2010

God's friendship

Stephen Lovatt is a traditionalist English gay Catholic. Unlike myself, who was born and raised in the Roman communion, Stephen converted, I think from Methodism. He maintains a quite extensive website Pharsea's Home Page, which is certainly worth a look, especially if you are gay or lesbian and wrestling with a Roman Catholic outlook. A physicist, he's also a Platonist in philosophy and has published an exposition of "Plato's wisdom for the modern world", New Skins for Old Wine. Stephen's traditionalism is not strictly conservative as he argues for changes to Roman Catholic teaching on sexuality, especially homosexuality, and he also supports the ordination of women. I am not a traditionalist. Unlike Stephen I do remember the pre-Vatican 2 Church and I also remember the heady days post-Vatican 2 when it seemed that the Church was opening up and transforming itself in more inclusive ways, even revolutionary ways. Yes, there was such a time, long ago now. I also part company with Stephen on his views about Islam, which one would have to say are Islamophobic. I would probably stand more in the tradition of Louis Massignon when it comes to appreciating Islam as a religion (or more correctly, a continuum of religions) drawing from the same Middle Eastern spiritual traditions as Christianity and Judaism. The three along with Zoroastrianism, Bahai, and Mandaeism are integrally connected and are a close, though fractious, religious family. Geopolitically I recognise the awful fact of European and US imperialism in generating the Middle Eastern conflicts and the cycle of blowback that George Bush wanted to call the War on Terror.

Stephen maintains a MySpace blog which is on my blogroll. There you can find all manner of discussions, including ongoing dialogues presumably arising from private correspondence from his readers. Although at the same time, I wouldn't discount that he uses the Platonic dialogue form so perhaps his interlocutors are fictional characters by which he can elucidate an argument about theology, philosophy, sexuality. A post a couple of days ago, Pelagianism or Orthodoxy, caught my eye and I've been mulling over it ever since. It's only a short post so I'm going to reproduce most of it below

2. One can try to be just without calling on God's help.

3. God always helps those who try to be just; but is more able to do so if they ask to be helped; because it is partly the recognition of one's weakness and need of God's help and encouragement which makes it possible for God to help one.

4. Without God's help and encouragement it is impossible for any human being to become fully just.

5. With God's help and encouragement it is possible for any human being to become fully just.

6. No matter what one achieves by oneself one cannot ever earn God's respect or friendship. Friendship is a freely offered gift, but has to be asked for - explicitly or implicitly. Respect is due only to one who is worthy of it and we can only become worthy of God's respect as a result of His help and encouragement and friendship.

7. "God's help and encouragement" is generally called "grace" in theological circles.

Now I think that's a pretty good summary of what Christianity is all about and I want to reflect some more upon point 6 (and a little on point 3) in particular the notion of God's friendship. Somewhere along the way Christianity lost track of the friendship of God, replacing it instead, especially in the West, with the vindictive, judgmental God who's wrath must be appeased by the murder of his son and even then that appeasement is understood as partial. Following Augustine and particularly with the Reformation the comes the notion of the total depravity of humanity, derived from Augustine's notion of Original Sin. Luther was so haunted by it that he soared high on the ecstasy of justification by faith alone. Calvin on the other hand went down the darkest Augustinian path and taught predestination whereby the mass of depraved humanity are created for eternal damnation. Only a small number are saved by the will of God and from before time began. Predestination was also Augustine's idea (wisely rejected by the Western church after his death) and some have called the Reformation an attempted Augustinian renewal of the Church. My own thinking is that in the Reformation, mainly wrong answers were given to all the right questions that urgently needed to be asked, addressed.

But I want to return to the notion of God's friendship. Many years ago, I was surprised when reading Kallistos Timothy Ware's book on the Orthodox Church to read that one of the great post-Nicene Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, had declared that Christians may pray even for the redemption of Satan. It was many years later that I discovered that early Christianity was not necessarily the hellfire and damnation religion with which we are so familiar today. Famously, Origen, the real founder of Christian biblical studies, was posthumously condemned for a range of heresies some centuries after after his death, one of which seems to have been a form of universalism. By universalism I don't mean the notion that all religions are the same and all point to the one thing but rather the notion of a ultimate reconciliation, that no one is lost, that all will finally be saved. The term used is apokatastasis and it seems Origen and Gregory of Nyssa were not the only ones to accept it. It was pretty common among Christians although not all would necessarily include Satan and the demonic realm in that final reconciliation. Whether or not Satan was included, apokatastasis was understood either to be an automatic given, that no bounds could be put on God's love, or in other accounts, that the prayers of the saints would obtain salvation for all at the last judgment. As I wrote on one of the very early posts on this blog, the latter idea can be found in the 2nd century Epistle of the Apostles, a 2nd century Orthodox rebuttal of gnosticism, as well as in the Christian Sybillenes. It can also be found in the Apocalypse of Peter, a particularly gruesome text on the afterlife and its punishments/rewards that was widely popular amongst early Christians and regarded by many, including Clement of Alexandria, as scriptural. Clement himself is one of the many early Christian thinkers/teachers/saints who held to some notion of apokatastasis as integral to what Christianity was all about. Indeed, even though poor old Origen got condemned much later, in part, for believing it, it would seem he represented the early Christian norm.

But I'm wondering whether apokatastasis by the prayers of the saints or as a natural result of the boundless love of God are necessarily two separate ideas or are really two sides of the one coin. And for that I need to return to atonement, deification/theosis, and kenosis/self-emptying. Probably from its very beginnings, Christianity has understood the execution of Jesus as key to a cosmic drama of Atonement. Now there have been various theologies of what Atonement means and what happened when Jesus was nailed to the cross. I wont bother going through them all now. But so important is Atonement in Christianity that one could be forgiven for thinking that Christians invented it all themselves. But of course they didn't. Atonement was key to the old Temple Judaism of the time (and remains so for Rabbinic Judaism too) such that what really happened was that Christians interpreted the execution of Jesus in light of the rituals and theology of the Day of Atonement as practised in the Temple (in 30CE at Jerusalem and one also at Leontopolis in Egypt). In these rituals the High Priest slaughters first a bull and then a goat and then takes the blood into the Holy of Holies. The blood is then sprinkled and smeared on various parts of the Temple. The Day of Atonement is part of the New Year festival at the autumnal equinox which celebrates the creation of the universe and the renewal of creation. Blood is life and the animal blood represents the blood/life of the High Priest who represents Yahweh, the LORD, who creates and renews creation by an outpouring of the divine life. In esoteric Judaism, this outpouring is understood as the Tree of Life of Kabbalah by which creation occurs through the outpouring of the divine light through the 10 Sefiroth or emanations that comprise the Tree and mapping the process of creation, of consciousness. In Christianity, Jesus on the cross pours out his blood/life as befits the Heavenly High Priest through whom all creation came to be. Jesus on the cross instantiates the divine processes of creation, atonement, renewal. More than anything else atonement is about healing creation, making it whole, restoring it to balance, which is why a key aspect of Jesus public career is healing the sick. Jesus also forgives sin; forgiveness and healing more often go hand in hand in the gospel accounts. Healing, renewal, liberation, and forgiveness are all part of the ancient Jewish theology of Atonement as expressed not only through the annual rituals of Yom Kippur but the associated sabbath and Jubilee years which were proclaimed on the Day of Atonement.

Atonement rituals were not unique to ancient Judaism but were part and parcel of ancient Middle Eastern religion. My own personal view is that such Atonement rituals were an attempt to approximate the maternal dimension of life, of the Godhead. This maternal dimension resurfaces, manifesting explicitly in the medieval West with the rich imagery of Jesus as Mother (and Mary as his Priest). I'm also inclined to think that the origins of this atonement model of understanding the crucifixion lie with Jesus himself who must at some stage have realised that his path had only one logical destination, given the realities of Roman rule in Palestine.

Nevertheless, while the Temple rituals of atonement were no doubt profound and awe-inspiring, death on the cross is not. It is brutal, disgusting, horrifying and shameful. Crucifixion was meant to debase and degrade as well as kill. So the sight of a person hanging bloodied and brutalised on a cross is not self-evidently an instantiation of the divine creative and healing process, far from it. I think it is this fact that lies behind the Christian stress on kenosis, self-emptying, that is understood from very early on as a hallmark of the divine, of the divine as manifested in Jesus. The god of Christianity is a god who submits to degradation and abandonment and death - eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani - this is a god who knows despair and brokenness. In other words this is a god who approaches humans on the same level, sharing human pain and desolation, who will submit to brutal death rather than summon legions of angels to lord it over humans.

God is friendship, says Aelred of Riveaulx; God is love, says John, and the language of friendship runs through John's gospel. That God becomes human so that humans can become divine is a key affirmation of early Christianity. After the crucifixion comes the resurrection. Divinisation, deification, theosis remains central to Eastern Christianity even though it has largely been forgotten in the Western churches. What does becoming divine mean? Again and again, the easterners say that it means becoming a friend of God, entering into friendship with God. God becomes human to invite humanity into friendship. By becoming friends with God one becomes more and more like God.

So to return to apokatastasis, the image of the saints praying for the salvation of all at the Last Judgment and having their prayer granted demonstrates the activity of deification, theosis. The saints are those who have died in the friendship of God. Now deified they live the divine life by praying for the salvation of all, a prayer that is, of course, answered because the love of God has no bounds. These are not two different forms of apokatastasis but integrally linked and derived from Christian language of atonement, kenosis and theosis.

Returning to Stephen's post, I particularly like his observation that God's friendship can be asked for "explicitly or implicitly". I take that to mean that asking for God's friendship does not necessarily mean embracing a specific form of Christianity or even any specific form of religion. One of the recurring dilemmas in most forms of Christianity as a result of theologies of eternal damnation is that of the righteous unbeliever. In my school days, it was one of the stock items we would put to our teachers to try to catch them out, to discomfort them. As kids we realised something was amiss with the notion that one had to be a Christian, or even a Catholic, to be "saved". What about the righteous godfearing Hindu for example? Or the righteous atheist? These were the days of Vatican 2 and after, the days when the Roman communion began the move from an exclusivist eternal hell theology to the de facto universalism of today. One of the first things to go was the tenet that there is no salvation outside the Church, which did originally mean just the Roman communion. Bad luck you Protestants, Orthodox and everybody else.

Eastern Christianity never completely abandoned apokatastasis/universalism but the West did to its great detriment. But perhaps Purgatory is the older Christian hell revived, or maybe not even revived but renamed instead. Nowadays, not just the Roman communion but much of Western Christianity has likewise returned to a de facto, at least, universalist position. Only the fundamentalists want to hold on to it and they claim to base their position on the scriptures, taken at their literal meaning. Which raises the question, if someone like Clement of Alexandria, counted as a saint and a key early Christian theologian, not only read the same scriptures as contemporary Christians but counted even more hair-raising texts like the Apocalypse of Peter as scripture, and could still hold to a universalist position, how much does the interpretation of the text depend on the framework one brings to interpret the text? Obviously, quite a lot. And perhaps contemporary Christians need to spend some time in the schools of Clement, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa (and Dame Julian of Norwich, too, for a bit of medieval universalism).

You can find a really interesting article by Andreas Andreopoulos on apokatastasis here. And a very good article by Brendan Palphrey on theosis in Orthodox Christianity can be found here.


  1. Despite "all manner of thing shall be well", Dame Julian was not a universalist. She taught that the dammed are those who will no longer be mentioned before God and that they are those who have sinned in spirit rather than just soul like everyone else.

    Likewise the early Christians did teach and preach hell. The matter is mentioned with contempt by the pagan critic Celsus who compares them to a certain type of adherent to more traditional Roman religion who name I forget but who talk much about afterlife reward and punishment. It would surely be inevitable early Christians would have this emphasis as it is so strong in the gospels and the earliest atonement theology, which is a ransom one, is based on the need to be ransomed from devil and hell. Granted there wasn't the absolute and morbid streak that comes later with such as Augustine and includes unbaptized children, but the theme was present. Universalism emerges under Greek influence and frankly, someone like Gregory Nyssa who teaches that God is always unknowable or indescribable, a great darkness yet the devil is salvation material is surely a bit of a blind guide to all such subjects. He is virtually turning the received tradition upside down.

    Likewise but coming to the more modern re Massignon I think some scepticism is appropriate. Christians of the East, describing, discussing or dialoguing with Islam aren't on a level playing field. They mostly seek to compromise, adjust and not offend since short of being imprisoned, fined or martyred that's what the Christian situation basically is in most Muslim countries and under Sharia Law which positively requires non believers pay a tax and so be fined for their convictions. Christians of the Eastern churches (Syrian etc) are Christians who today don't preach openly, don't evangelize in any way because they are simply not permitted and dare not (assuming they retain any convictions in the matter which given theology post Nyssa they may not). Evangelical missionaries alone claim the rights and take the risks which all said and done are surely the kind Christians are supposed to take for the faith. Christians under Islam are otherwise tolerated as a tradition, harmless rituals only. There is shocking discrimination being practiced today in even relatively liberal Egypt where permission is no longer given for building of churches and churches are being torn down if built and believers attacked. It's not automatic "islamophobia" to question human rights and religious freedoms under Islam. Real threats to them exist and not just Christians but western liberals are now under a real threat they need to get more wise to. Only today the paper is talking about a visiting group declaring that Muslims are supposed to reject the idea and practice of democracy.
    Altogether we are faced with problems here that sweet reason will not necessarily solve and a rather tough love approach by Christians and liberals that speaks out is the only stance if freedoms are to remain or be increased.

  2. Dear Michael,
    I enjoyed reading this and largely agree with you. Thanks for the plug too :-)

    Your readers may care to take a look at my WebPage on Friendship:

    Yes, I am "Islamophobic" in the sense that I am very much afraid of Islam and its influence. For my reasons, take a look at:

    I think you capture my Traditionalism well enough. I agree with you that the Church was in need of a renewal in the Twentieth Century. However I do not think that this is at all what happened. The evidence of the collapse of practice in Western Europe should be enough to convince any-one that my view is, sadly, correct.

    For my take on Liturgy, see:

    Fond Regards,


  3. There's only one sort of 'tough love' for a christian. It's summed up in the beatitudes. It means returning good for evil, praying for those who abuse you and forgiving not just 7 times but 70 times 7. It's unconditional love and it's the toughest around because it's godlike and it's tough on the self, which is the only form of toughness worth anything.

    It's quite possible to believe in Hell and at the same time to believe it will eventually be empty. Not only believe it but pray for it too.

    I guess one of the clear signs that the Roman communion was in such desperate need of renewal was by just how easy it was then to find yourself consigned to Hell. Not just all the sexual stuff - and there was heaps of that, but even eating a ham sandwich on a Friday could get you landed in Hell if you had the misfortune of dying afterwards. And I've been reading Anne Rice and realise that I missed out on facing hellfire for reading banned books placed on the Index.

    An awful lot of people lived and died in misery because of silly ideas like that. I've sat with gay men dying from HIV terrified because of all the hellfire teachings Protestant and Catholic. One can only rebel and reject, actually condemn such cruel nonsense.

    When I came back to the Rosary about 8 years ago I rediscovered the Fatima prayer which goes:

    "Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell and bring all souls to heaven ESPECIALLY those in most need of your mercy"

    It's usually said after each decade. At first I didn't say it associating it with that Blue Army piety of the past but when I reflected on the words I realised just what a profound prayer it really was. Very much in the spirit of that old Christianity of the Sybillenes and Epistle of the Apostles.

    I think it's John Donne who says any one's death diminishes me. I would have to go on and say anyone eternally damned, cut off forever, diminishes me, diminishes us. It's a loss to big to bear. And a Catholic view of humanity, whether Roman or Orthodox stresses that we are not random individuals but of part of a broader collectivity. So I pray the Fatima prayer wholeheartedly.

  4. There's only one form of tough love for a Christian. That's the one spelt out in the beatitudes. It involves returning good for evil, praying for those who abuse you, turning the other cheek and forgiving the other not just 7 times but 70 times 7. It's unconditional love and it's the toughest form of love there is because it's godlike and very hard to achieve.

    One of the clear signs the Roman communion was in need of renewal was by just how easy it was to find yourself consigned to Hell. All manner of rules the infringement of which was considered a mortal sin. A vast number of people lived in misery because of that.

    When I returned to the Rosary about 8 years ago I rediscovered the Fatima prayer:

    "Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins save us from the fires of Hell; bring all souls to heaven ESPECIALLY those in most need of your mercy"

    At first I wasn't going to say it thinking it belonged to an outdated piety but then I reflected on the words and realsied just how profound they were. I realise now it's in the spirit of that older Christianity glimpsed in the Sybillenes and the Epistle of the Apostles. And maybe its regular repetition has helped to move the church away from that cruel and vengeful, indeed, arrogant hell and damnation theology.

    I pray that prayer wholeheartedly and I know as did, it seems, plenty of early Christians, but you can still hope and pray and believe and even expect that it will be empty, that we will all one day be together.

  5. Oh dear I'm having problems with the comments tonight. The first time I tried to post it got lost and the second time the final paragraph seems to be missing some so here goes again:

    I pray that prayer wholeheartedly and I know as did, it seems, plenty of early Christians, that you can accept the existence of hell but you can still hope and pray and believe and even expect that it will be empty, that we will all one day be together.

  6. And it appears that nothing was lost after all. Google was just playing games with me. How appropriate!

  7. Thanks for this piece, Michael. I've been interested in the concept of friendship with God since reading Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel's "Rediscovering Friendship" and hearing Terence Fretheim speak about relationship with God a few years ago.

  8. Hi michael,
    Thoroughly enjoyed this post... thank you...

  9. I was reading an interesting book not too long ago - I think actually a study of Shin Buddhism, but it got into the apokatastasis in the context of the Amida's "Universal Vow" - which suggested an orthodox interpretation of the apokatastasis as the "restoration of all things to God". This is not necessarily exclusive of Hell; Hell restores to God by bringing the sinner back into what Martin Buber called the "pre-biographical unity" of God, a diminution of being (which does not entail their annihiliation, any more than our union and unity with God - a la Catherine of Genoa and Al-Hallaj - entails our annihilation). Theologians and mystics are in agreement on stating that the "fires" of Hell consist in God's unrequited love for the sinner, so this suggestion may indeed be of some use for the Christian theologian.