Christian Anarchism and Universalism

I was a little peed off this morning as I set about deleting a draft project in which I had lost interest. In its place, I deleted my published article of yesterday on the Christian anarchist view and universalism which takes away the threat “Convert to the True Church otherwise you’ll be damned when you die”. It’s gone and I can’t get it back [a kind reader saved it and sent it back to me, for which I am grateful].

I need to disconnect from the previous article. This isn’t about knocking spots off people who tell us that we all have to be Roman Catholics or Orthodox and trash what we do belong to. The starting point for such a discussion can be a consideration of how authority has been abused in history, but that would only be a part of it. The real issue is what the historical Christ intended by the evidence of the canonical Gospels and the various other ancient manuscripts from Nag Hammadi and elsewhere.

The great patron of Christian anarchism was Tolstoy. It will be a challenge for me to read his work. In much of what is written about Christian anarchism, the themes are similar. Authority, political power and money are perceived as forms of violence. As Lord Acton said, Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In the Gospels, we read about Jesus portrayed as something like a mystic revolutionary, like John the Baptist, rejected from “respectable society”. He preached among the outcast and those who were condemned for bad morals. He rose up dramatically against hypocrisy, clericalism, intrigue and generally the abuse of power. We easily see the anarchist in Jesus of Nazareth. Another hallmark of this Gospel would be the refusal of war or revenge against another for wrongs committed. That is just about the hardest precept, as we can only imagine the consequences of allowing the Nazis, Daesh or other monsters in history to win and dominate. Would that not be a greater evil than fighting them? Was Christianity ever a “going concern” from the beginning?

There are groups of Christians which are particularly concerned for this kind of pacifism like the Quakers and the Mennonites, and they are admirable in their honesty and devotion. There are also the Franciscans and most orders of monks in Catholicism. People of this frame of mind are found in all denominations and traditions, generally the Churches in which they were brought up. We try to meditate on the spirit of Christ and make it our way of life. Dostoievsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor is fundamentally an account of how the institutional Church found that Christianity was not feasible and was irrelevant to the world. This is the very drama of the three temptations in the desert. What is the Church that is not Christian or of Christ? It is only a political organisation under false pretences.

Is Christianity meant to be a Church in the way we understand it? If not, the priesthood, liturgy, sacraments, any idea of the continuing presence of Christ – are gone and relegated to the collective memory, nothing more. Is it possible to separate the Church as communion from the political over-empire, the priesthood from clericalism and the corruption of power ad money? These are eternal questions betraying the cause of all disunity between Christians.

Another consideration from my accidentally deleted post was the notion of universalism. We no longer force conversion to a “true church” on pain of everlasting hell, but rather proclaim God as a loving Father, one who would transfigure even sin and sickness. We are Christians when we live according to the spirit of Christ, even if we happen to be outcasts, people of other religions and cultures, or unable to identify with any particular institution. Membership of a Church through Baptism should be the consequence and confirmation of our commitment to that essential message.

Universal salvation is not “cheap grace” for the evidence suggests justice for the wicked, yet hope and an eternally outstretched hand for when repentance is sincere. We all face justice and karma.

If political authority is all about violence, capitalism and allowing people to sink into alcoholism, drugs, degradation and prostitution, then that authority has to be resisted. How is that done without war and violence? That is the question that can only be answered when the situation is encountered. How far is righteous anger legitimate?

We continue down the slippery slope towards World War III, and I do not believe it to be the fault of Russia. If that happens, we will all die and our planet will be destroyed. We allowed it to happen. I have confidence that we will be spared as happened in 1962. If there remains enough of the spirit of Christ in humanity…

* * *

Here is the lost text a kind reader sent back to me:

A New Apologia

Conversations over the past couple of days have brought me back to a constantly recurring theme in my thought and work on this blog, that of Christian anarchism. It is my immediate reaction when someone recommends a regime like Franco to enforce Roman Catholicism and repress anything else, or at least its public expression. Even traditionalist Roman Catholics have had to refuse submission to current personalities in positions of authority by appealing to Tradition.

Even more important is how we react to atheism or representatives of other religious traditions who persecute Christians. We are too used to defend Christianity, and even defend what is indefensible. What could possibly be wrong with us Christians? Good question. What does atheism claim to give mankind? Simply liberation, however illusory that might be. Man fights against alienation and discrimination. In doing so, religion is perceived as a part of the structures of oppression.

I risk coming over like Bishop Spong or any number of liberal thinkers, but what is liberalism? It has a point when it finds our representations of God and Christianity too human and too demystified. Perhaps instead of opposing atheism, Christianity has an examination of conscience to make.

We often complain about the hypocrisy and duplicity of our political leaders, their complicity with evil in the line of business. It is nothing new. The Church has not been exempt from such complicity, at least at the level of some local bishops and elements in the Roman curia. I think of some of the remarks of Bonhöffer in his letters and works concerning the impotence of the Church under the Hitler regime. Communism has failed and capitalism is going the same way. In the words of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely“. It is intrinsic to human nature. The obvious conclusion is that authority must be destroyed or at least subordinated to a higher principle.

We know precious little about Christ outside the Gospels, the Nag Hammadi texts and various other ancient manuscripts found here and there. The revelation of God as the Father was revolutionary. We are freed from the tyranny of the “demiurge”, an erroneous idea of God as a supreme and fickle dictator. Christ is manifest in a “straight” reading of the texts and a faculty of putting everything together to bring out a “big picture”. Which god are the atheists rejecting? Certainly not one who had made humanity his children and loves us. Frankly, when I hear or read the words of American fundamentalists and French Catholic fascists, I react like the atheist. That “god” does not exist or at least must be banished from our lives.

There is an image of Christ that is so different from the behaviour of men of power and ambition. I wanted at this point to quote something from Oscar Wilde in his famous letter from Reading Gaol, but there is too much. For someone who got in trouble with the law for homosexuality, his understanding of the Gospel message is amazing, coloured as it is through his suffering and Romantic outlook. Uppermost is the comparison between self-righteous Christians and the Pharisees of Christ’s day, and that the spirit trumps the flesh every time. We can see some comparisons between Christ and the anti-conformists of our own day, from Wilde to the Hippies, but he was much more universal and far above cultures and tastes.

In the Church, there has always been the notion of paternal authority, someone we revere and respect because of his love and goodness. At what point does it corrupt and become evil? Are some intrinsically good and others evil? Who is the judge of that? These are difficult questions. There has to be a Church, because we cannot each one of us go it alone. The trick is defining that Church and the mystical dimension before the material.

I very much believe in the idea of “anonymous” Christians, who have in some way assimilated the message of Christ, but who are repelled by the Church because of human evil and hypocrisy. In my experience of life, I have met people I would revere as saints even though they are not churchgoers. I understand the “liberal” or expressing it better, the “radical” reaction of the 1960’s. They had some measure and authenticity before they became “institutionalised” and imposed as a “new orthodoxy”.

I am very much convinced that the Christians of the future, like the folk in Africa right now, will be those who have embraced the Gospel through love and freedom whilst remaining in their own cultural expressions. The slum priests in the nineteenth century reached out to the people in very simple terms, and only then did they attend the elaborate liturgies in English in a church building that inspired awe and wonder. There is no reason to copy all those cultures in the liturgy, but rather to respect all people in the lives they lead as they reach out to God and Jesus Christ.

I have already touched on the subject of universal salvation, even if it is after a “stage” of purgation and healing of the dis-incarnate soul. I am inclined towards it because it situations the notion of Christian mission differently. We no longer tell people that they have to convert to our camp on pain of eternal damnation – but rather that they are loved by Christ. No one is excluded from God’s love. Universalism presents many problems, especially the notion of justice for evil. A few days ago, I wrote some speculations on the notion of hell in the light of “unorthodox” sources like mediums. The rejection of a “one true [institutional] church” and the offering of salvation to all by divine love is a more attractive idea than the Ecclesia as some kind of spiritual totalitarianism.

In the words of St Paul (I Timothy 4:10), we read: For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe. Certainly we can find other texts about fire and brimstone, certainly because justice awaits the wicked and those who refuse love. The whole question needs a lifetime’s study, and far holier and more erudite men than I have only cracked the surface.

I think such an approach has been tried especially by Pope John Paul II, frequently accused of heresy for this very reason. I would like to read and try to understand Wojtylian philosophy better. He combated the Communist ideology with love and a philosophical construct called existential personalism or Christian humanism. The idea is to defend Christianity from the accusation of being anti-human and anti-person. The theories derived from St Thomas Aquinas and German idealism are immensely complex, but they merit study and effort. It would appear that he had tendencies to believe and teach the idea of universal salvation, which also provoked the wrath of traditionalists.

There is much wisdom in many of the lights of the twentieth century, and not only those who were elected to the Papacy. We desperately need a new way to present the Christian message and way of life, but not what has been tried in the big Churches and their bureaucracies. I have never hidden my sympathy for the so-called Modernist George Tyrrell, even though many of his ideas would later be refuted by science. I seek and study, and reach out. I see it as a part of my duty as a priest and Christian believer.

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15 Responses to Christian Anarchism and Universalism

  1. I’ve got your deleted article and can send it to you if you need it (perhaps someone already has).

  2. Ian says:

    A slightly tangential thought, prompted by a small part of what you have written here: I was thinking recently (as one does) about the Church of England’s ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’. This seems to be an idea with some wisdom. Modern (postmodern?) society is not generally so geographically based. The idea of the parish seems to make less sense than it once did. Community can exist in all sorts of ways, and having ‘Church’ where people are: workplace, supermarket, hiking club, gay bar, you name it; seems to make a lot of sense. But can you have ‘Church’ without it being somehow Eucharistic? Otherwise it is Bible study group, prayer group, tea and biscuits with religious discussion group. All very good, but not Church.

    Is this something that a priest like you, in a non-traditional ministry, has any insights into?

    • It is rather obvious that if it to be a Church and not just a nice cup of tea together, there has to be an identifiable place of worship (which can be a converted shed) and a priest. The Church I belong to is the ACC, and we have a structure that is comparable with some of the smaller Orthodox Churches with a Metropolitan, a college of bishops and dioceses containing parishes, priests and lay people. I don’t want to get into arguments about “vagante” groups. Where is the line drawn? That question being asked, it is easy to see if it is just people dressing up and playing games!

      I think the community of the future would be something like the small monastic grange with three or four monks, and conceivably a married priest whose wife is favourable to such a way of life, welcoming those lay people who want to attend Mass and Office and receive the Sacraments. I know of very few such things working out.

      Parishes work well in America because people are used to driving huge distances. In England or Europe, the prospect is bleak. People will stick to the mainstream churches and the bureaucracy until they drop out of religious practice altogether.

  3. ed pacht says:

    “…there has to be an identifiable place of worship (which can be a converted shed) and a priest.”

    Well, maybe. Certainly for there to be the Eucharist and therefore a Eucharistic assembly (church) there needs to be a priest, ordained by a bishop, but is it his presence that defines a church? Are there not churches without a steady priest of their own who depend upon the time-to-time availability of a visiting priest? I know of several such, in my diocese and others, and, due to the present shortage, even in the RCC. True, such assemblies cannot offer the Eucharist without a priestly presence, but when such laity gather for such worship as they can offer are they not church?

    Yes, it is essential that there be a place where Eucharist may be offered, but is it necessarily even as identifiable as a converted shed? Are there no churches in places where such a readily identifiable place will attract and be destroyed by persecution, or in places where the faithful cannot afford to provide such a place? Were not the clandestine Masses offered in ever-changing places in Cromwellian Ireland expressions of the Church?

    We may be approaching a time wherein such hiddenness and apparent unpredictability may be the only way to be church, and we are already in the place where a substantial proportion of people are unlikely to be reached, much less to join themselves to the traditional and obvious forms.

    • I meant identifiable to those who go to it, from the inside. It can be pretty minimal with a makeshift altar, whatever the priest and his people can buy or make with his hands. If you Americans start talking about the catacombs, we in Europe – ….! My own chapel looks very nondescript from the outside, just the little “gothic” windows and a tiny statue of Our Lady. The rest is just a brick building with an asbestos roof.

      • ed pacht says:

        But what if it’s not “a place”, but rather the use of whatever place is suitable at the moment, with necessary paraphernalia packed in a portable container. Mass on the kitchen table is surely still Mass, and thus still church, even if it’s not the same kitchen table as last week. To have a stable location is good and desirable, but even that doesn’t define church.

      • I agree, but it helps to have a dedicated place.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I don’t know much of their history, but there are portable altars – and all those photos from the Second World War of jeep bonnet celebrations, celebrations in landing craft – and the painting you posted of a celebration in a boat avoiding the Terror. Hooker quotes Tertullian approvingly, “Where but three are, and they of the laity also […] yet there is a Church” (LEP III.i.14) – and I would be surprised if he were being ‘controversial’ in any sense, in that. And then there’s St. Daniel the Stylite, whose feast is coming up this week – not secret celebrations, but unusual and in some ways ‘minimalistic’, I suppose, atop his pillars’s platform.

  5. J.D. says:

    Interesting thoughts here Father. I’m definitely not a universalist and have many problems intellectually with the idea but I’ve no interest in mudslinging with you or your readers over the idea. What intrigues me most about your post is the part about Africa and slum priests of older eras.

    There was a fascinating book I read recently about the garbage slums of the Phillipines ( my woman is a Filipina) called “The Christology of the Inarticulate” which tries to show how Filipino ideas about everything from the nature of time to who Christ is can be very bound up with culture. This is, I’m sure, probably the case almost anywhere, including in modern secular cities here in the USA and Europe. How much inculturation is too much? How far must one go before it is no longer sacramental Christianity at all but something else? Is the risk of a bit of messiness in terms of theology and praxis worth the risk, or should everyone basically become traditionalist Roman Catholics, High Church Anglicans or Orthodox? These are all things I’ve got no answers to!

    At any rate, check of that book I mentioned about the Filipino experience of Catholicism, it’s fascinating.

    Personally I prefer people to be a bit more superstitious and messy than overly rigid but maybe it’s just me. Popular piety and folk expressions of our shared Faith fascinate me more than trying to get everyone to a dour faced trad chapel where they can have heated discussions about Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma over coffee.

    • Personally I prefer people to be a bit more superstitious and messy than overly rigid but maybe it’s just me.

      No, it isn’t just you. There are only two ways of getting monotheism accepted by people: diluting it with popular religion and superstition, or – totalitarianism Inquisition or Daesh style. Sorry to sound simplistic, but seems to be just about the bottom line.

  6. J.D. says:

    Give me plaster statues, brown scapulars and playing dress up with dolls that look like the Divine Infant anyday over the dour rad trad stuff! I get the impression that if some traditionalist Catholics got their way their society would be pretty much a Christian version of the Islamic State complete with executions for heresy, morality police checking to see if ladies had their shoulders bare or not and priests being shamed or perhaps beaten for not following the rubrical minutae of whatever liturgy was current.

    Honestly I’m more a liturgical traditionalist than a modern and I like my piety a bit old fashioned but other than that I shudder at the creation of a Catholic City State in the modern world. Nothing good could come of it.

    • Dale says:

      The Papal States before the its occupation by invading Italian armies in 1870 does not sound like it was happy place. The Syllabus of Errors is troublesome as well.

      • Hans Bernard Hasler, author of How the Pope became Infallible, had many things to say about the Papal States before 1870. There was a Jewish child brought up in the Vatican and made to be a Catholic, perhaps nothing wrong with that. A couple of anarchists were beheaded on a kind of guillotine at the Piazza di Spagna on the order of Pius IX. I don’t know what crime they committed. It was probably like Franco’s Spain.

  7. Stephen K says:

    I very much believe in the idea of “anonymous” Christians, who have in some way assimilated the message of Christ, but who are repelled by the Church because of human evil and hypocrisy. In my experience of life, I have met people I would revere as saints even though they are not churchgoers.

    Yes, so have I. That is why I think that all talk of “the Church” in connection with moral authority is revealed to be something of a crock. At root there are…..just people. It often seems to us that the Spirit of God moves in some but not others, and though each of us may be mistaken in this or that case as to where it moves, I don’t think it has anything to do with titles and places in institutions.

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