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On Christian Universalism
– posted to the defunct Tennyson blog, January 29, 2012

These thoughts were prompted by my being told of a speaker at a Unitarian Universalist church.

One of the key moments in Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ — both in plot and ideation — is the scene of the telling of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. (Short summary: rich man ends up in hell with unquenchable thirst.)

I'm not going to get into the cultural history of Last Temptation, especially as regards the film, however much the urge always pulls, because I would end up talking about people like the AFA and other likewise falsely-prophetic or self-blinded, and the only way to survive such a discussion without completely blowing a gasket is to include a sufficient amount of vulgarity to counterweight the overwhelming pious idiocy; so I’m moving on, with this sentence to suffice.

Except to add a point for you aspiring rhetoricians: you will learn and frequently find that a successful, a valuable, and often the only response to pious idiocy is, in fact, unrelenting vulgarity — the adjective there in terms of its imaginativeness and potency, not its quantity. And imaginativeness is important: you have to hit them square in the jaw and knock them off their soap box, you know, or you’re playing on their ball field, to mix metaphors.

And, really, I’ll be more than willing to admit that the vulgarity and the pious idiocy serve the same purpose: that of making the utterer feel good in a situation where emotion and ego is already in the pot and there’s really no chance of finding any means of successful communication. Though, there is the difference in that the pious idiot speaks to build walls to hide behind, while the vulgarizer acts to point out the presence of those walls, and to piss on them. So, go ye forth and read de Sade (start with Philosophy in the Boudoir, a translation with the essay in the middle), and prepare yourselves aptly.

(O.K., then. Where was I? Ah, Kazantzakis, and “with this sentence to suffice”:)

So, in Last Temptation the parable is extended beyond that in Luke. The servant looks down upon the master, and says to God (and I’m paraphrasing here), “He is suffering. Let me bring him water.” To which God replies “Of course. Better yet, go get him, and bring him to water.”

Incredibly important scene. And something that goes to the core of Christian Universalism.[FN]

[FN] I realize that may be read as a pitch for Unitarian Universal churches. It is not meant to be such. Though, to be transparent, the only religious institution I have attended in the last many decades was a U.U.)

Equally important to the novel (the scene is not in the film, much to my regret), is the action itself. The parable is spoken to Ananias, a wealthy man seeking Jesus to exorcise him of his nightmares. And Ananias is greatly unsettled by the parable as incompletely told. The reactions of those few disciples who were present are all important, but for here our concern is John:

     But Zebedee’s younger son leaned over to Jesus’ chest. “Rabbi,” he said softly, “your words have not unburdened my heart. How many times have you instructed us to forgive our enemies! You must love your enemy, you told us, and if he wrongs you seven and seventy-seven times, you must do good to him seven and seventy-seven times. This, you said, is the only way hatred can be discharged from the world. But now . . . Is God unable to forgive?
     Jesus put out his hand and stroked his beloved companion’s curly hair. “John,” he said, “all have ears, and heard; all have minds, and judged. God is just, they said,and they were unable to go beyond. But you have a heart as well, and you said, Yes, God is just, but this is not enough. He is also perfect goodness. The parable cannot stand as it is; it must have a different ending.”
     “Pardon me, Rabbi,” said the youth, “but that was exactly what my heart felt. Man forgives, I said to myself. Is it possible then that God does not? No, it is impossible. The parable is a great blasphemy and cannot stand as it is. It must have a different ending.”
     It does have a different ending, John beloved,” said Jesus, smiling. “Listen, Ananias, and you will be reassured; listen, you who are in the yard, and you, neighbors, who laugh in the street. God is not only just, he is good; and he is not only good, he is also the Father. When Lazarus heard Abraham’s words he sighed and addressed God in his mind: ‘God, how can anyone be happy in Paradise when he knows that there is a man — a soul — roasting for all eternity? Refresh him, Lord, that I may be refreshed. Deliver him, Lord, that I may be delivered. Otherwise I too shall begin to feel the flames.’ God heard his thought and was glad. ‘Lazarus, beloved,’ he said, ‘go down; take the thirster by the hand. My fountains are inexhaustible. Bring him here so that he may drink and refresh himself, and you refresh yourself with him.’ ... ‘For all eternity?’ asked Lazarus. ‘Yes, for all eternity,’ God replied.” (Trans. by P.A. Bien.)

It seems to me an obvious necessity for the parable to be extended if it is to fit the greater field of Jesus's teachings. More importantly, an obvious necessity that the spiritual individual have the concern of John as to the first ending. And even more of a necessity that the core of Jesus' teachings lies not in being just, but in being good. (Notice how Abraham — the law — is being trumped through an appeal to something higher.)

Luke 6:27: “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.” And all that follows. (I prefer Luke to Matthew. It seems the writer of Luke recognized the asceticism in Matthew — which to me, if the Golden Rule is to be taken to its fullest, must be ironized — wasn't, shall we say, going to carry very far.) It is undoubtedly the most overlooked and ignored idea in Christendom, however much it is touted in word. Just as, ironically — and yet it is an absolutely logical extension of the fundy, revisionist history of the U.S. as founded as an (evangelistic) Christian nation —, the phrase “serve the general welfare” is very possibly the most overlooked and ignored phrase in the U.S. Constitution. I mean, really, though, why should we let such a phrase get in the way of the ability to extort, make money off of, persecute, punish, imprison, subjugate, or otherwise diminish the citizenship of people we don’t like, generally don’t want to care about, have things we want, or find to be upsetting our perfectly positioned place-settings at our perfect Christian American family’s perfect American Christmas meal? (Pinkies up, you aboriginal heathen! How many times do I have to tell you! Don’t you realize souls are at stake?!!)

But, then, it is so very much more fun to create justifications to hate homosexuals than to question — dare we say question!! — the rules of our holy Golden Chain of being.

Notice the ordering of events: the justification follows the will-to-belief. The speaker at at the U.U. talked of — or I should say it was related to me that he talked of — how the dogma of Christianity functions to create certain results within Christianity. Specifically, the example she gave was how Christian dogma creates the idea that dogma, in itself, is above the understanding of the individual (except for those chosen to lead, of course), and thus the individual should simply accept that which is given to them by church leaders without question. (Of course, you Victorianists, Cardinal Newman had something to say about that.) The point being made is in part true; it falls short where it is only talking about the surface events of a deeper psycho-social system. As it might be said, the superstructure serves and serves as a function of the base. Or, in religious terms, dogma justifies, supports, defends and propagates the belief system; it does not create it.

(OK, we have the issue of indoctrination, which functions to quash, from the start, the will-to-oppose dogma. And that does point out that it really is something of a circle, with the justification of belief existing in coordination with the belief, each continually responding to and tweaking the other. Though, in the end, if the justification clashes with belief, it’s the justification that will go, not the belief. You literary types can see Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending for more on that. And you others can look to nineteenth-century Christian justifications for slavery as matter for tutorial. Ever hear the one about the descendents of the three sons of Noah each going in a different direction: one to Europe, one to Asia, and one to Africa? Catch that one in Sunday School? Wellup, now you know where that came from, and what it continues to justify, support, defend, and propagate.)

In order to maintain the surety, the steadiness, the factuality of Christian belief — or of any belief, let’s not create the false idea that this applies only to religion, it is merely that in religion we find the most apparent examples — there has to be mechanisms functioning within the system of belief by which that system of belief protects itself from attack, either from the outside (through the creation of us/them or godly/heathen mentality) or from the inside (through the functioning of clerical and societal blasphemy, and its granting of permission to extort, make money off of, persecute, punish, imprison, subjugate, or otherwise diminish the citizenship of people who are not playing by the rules as they are desired to be).

(Here a pointer to the wonderful use of the term blasphemy by Kazantzakis: one that points that it is exclusion that is blasphemous to the teachings of Jesus, not inclusiveness. Complete inversion of the term. Love it.)

And so we get back to the great, ignored, fundamental rule of Christianity: that of the Golden one. In sense, to tie back in to the bit above about the Constitution, it is the ultimate check and balance: if your action is not following the rule, it is the action that is wrong, not the rule. Here’s your check into the boards. There goes your balance. Now stand up and try to get the biscuit in the basket this time.

And so we get to the question of Christian Universalism, and how Christianity could, really, hold otherwise? Well, the answer is by publicly and vehemently chastising Scorcese, of course.

And so also so much for evangelical U.S. originalism, when the Constitution itself holds within it that supreme check and balancing in the name of general welfare.

(And if only Jesus had used more hockey parables. Oh, the confusions that it would have eliminated.)