Thursday, February 07, 2008

I'm Gonna Wash Those Sins Right Outta My Life

It will come as blessed relief to many to discover that Fr. Al Kimel is still blogging, if sporadically. Most recently he has completed a series of meditations on the doctrine of Purgatory, and I recommend that everyone who has any interest in Christian theology have a look at them here. Amidst much there that I find congenial there are thoughts on topics that are connected to the doctrine of Purgatory only indirectly, though yet in an important way. One such is the conception of the human person as a temporal being. This is a notion that was already well worked-out in St. Augustine's day, and a complete theology of the temporal human person was already in place by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas. There are important issues connected to our temporality, not the least of which is the puzzle of how we are to relate ourselves to an atemporal deity, a God who is literally without limits in every conceivable sense, but most importantly so in the temporal dimension. Why so important? Because, of course, the great mystery of the Incarnation is precisely this: the mystery of the atemporal becoming temporal and the temporal becoming atemporal. When we celebrate the Mass, one part of the mystery is of course the fact that God himself is present among us; another part is, if possible, even more mysterious: we are present with God at the very moment of his Sacrifice--the One and Only Sacrifice. The Eucharist is no mere re-enacting, no mere remembrance of an act brought to completion 1970 years ago, nor is it a mere celebration of that act. It is that very act, and that is very mysterious.

Too mysterious, it seems, for some, sadly including some of our separated brethren, who ought to know better. I suspect that, were we to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation more fully and with greater imagination, such mysteries would come to seem, if not less mysterious at least less foreign. The Christian religion is a religion of tangents: if we understand a tangent as a point at which a straight line intersects a circle, then the Christian religion is a religion that holds that the atemporal meets the temporal at a point, the God-Man Jesus of Nazareth, in Whom God himself became Man and thereby made Mankind like God. Just as God dwelt among us and knew temporality, so, we believe, the Christian faithful will find themselves before God one day and know the atemporality of eternal life in him. Does this mean that we will cease to be temporal creatures? Who knows, but we will cease to be one thing that we are now: liable to sin. We believe that those who are chosen will sin no more with the necessity of atemporal eternality, while retaining their imperfect, human free will. Another mystery.

In his meditations on the doctrine of Purgatory Fr. Kimel discuses at some length the work of Jerry Walls, whose book, Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy, explores some of the Protestant objections to Purgatory. Fr. Kimel notes:
Walls finds unconvincing the Protestant claim that death itself effects an immediate movement into immaculate sanctity. Such a radical conversion would seem to violate our nature as temporal beings. Would we even recognize ourselves after such a dramatic change? If I were to wake up tomorrow perfectly and completely holy, would I in fact be the same person? No doubt friends and family would welcome the change, but might I not experience myself as a stranger, given the absence of historical and personal continuity? This does not mean that time after death must work in the same way as time in our world; yet it does seem appropriate that God would provide a way, transcending our present understanding, for the process of sanctification to continue in an intermediate state. Walls is particularly critical of the quasi-gnostic assertion that we are liberated from sin merely by being delivered from our present bodies and given new bodies. The most deadly sins are spiritual, and they are not cured by resurrection alone. Sanctification is never a purely passive affair. There are no short-cuts to holiness.
These are some pressing issues now that Lent is under way. If one thinks of Lent, as I do, as a time of renewed kenosis, there will be two aspects to it. On the one hand, there is all the usual self-denial and renewed application to spiritual exercises--the giving up of various treats, the extended time spent in prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, the sense of wonder and expectation--but on the other hand there is, or at least there ought to be, the trusting belief that God is on his way, not only at Easter but throughout Lent: he is coming to us, and we are not only making ourselves ready for him by our practices but we await what he is bringing us, whatever it is. We open our hearts to him at least in part so that we may receive his gifts, though we have no idea exactly what form they will take. That is part of what kenosis entails, after all, the petition "Thy will be done, whether it be the same as mine or not."

Purgatory is often discussed in ecumenical settings with a kind of sheepish grin: "Oh, that. Yeah, I suppose we believe in it, we just don't talk about it much." And yet it is supposed to be a comfort to us. I think that Fr. Kimel has prinpointed almost exactly why it is a comfort, and it is too bad that more folks--even alleged Catholics--don't seem to get it.

5 comments:

John Farrell said...

Great post, Scott. There's a great, science-fiction style work yet to be done, I think, that re-imagines, or challenges readers to think anew what exactly purgatory means, and how it could be played out.

Pontificator said...

Actually, I can think of one movie in the fantasy genre that has already done a pretty good job on purgatory: "Groundhog Day." ;-)

Scott Carson said...

"My Dinner with André."

Or possibly "Waterworld."

Apollodorus said...

Oh, c'mon, My Dinner with Andre may be a bizarre mishmash of Heidegger and New Age mysticism, but it's a whole lot better than anything Kevin Costner has ever been in. It's even more interesting than some philosophy classes I've had to sit through. ;-)

Actually, I'm a bit confused about this. The Pontificator seems to have been serious about Groundhog Day, which does in fact seem to be about something vaguely resembling a purgatorial state. But I can't believe that anybody would ever put forth Waterworld as a good example of anything, unless it were as an exemplary member of the class of terrible movies.

For what it's worth, I think purgatory makes a whole lot of sense, especially if one is at all troubled (as one ought to be, it seems to me) by the apparent incompatibility of the ways that some Christians talk about hell and divine punishment with the very idea of God as freely forgiving. I've often wondered if a failure to admit the possibility of something like purgatory is not what drives some Protestants to universalism. At the very least, it seems to me that the possibility of purgatory solves many of the problems that drive people in the direction of universalism without generating the new problems of universalism itself.

james said...

Benedict had some great reflections on purgatory as being necessary, evident and comforting in an off the cuff Q and A session with priests:

http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/189547?eng=y