By the Very Rev. W. Mark Richardson, PhD
The perspective of third century theologian Origen–all will be saved because everything comes from God—captures my attention in this time of pandemic.
I find Origen convincing on this point, but I also find his vision troubling as I wake up these mornings in home sheltering, fearing the next story in the paper, wondering if the next sneeze I hear on my walk is another ‘positive,’ and knowing that home sheltering for some means home tenting in crowded encampments below a highway overpass.
That everything comes from God seems incontestable in today’s theology, but it had rivals in the early years of Christianity. Hideous instances of natural and moral evil were evidence enough for Gnostics that one cannot attribute the origins of the material world to God’s making, but rather to some alternative source.
But this distancing of God from evil came at a price. God cannot be absolute, God cannot be infinite and inexhaustible, if there is a rival force, being, or reality presiding over the natural world every bit as powerfully as God presides over the soul. If the object of salvation is for souls to escape materiality by divine support, then such a God may be ‘big’ but not infinite or absolute.
The convincing part is the reasonableness of Origen’s conclusion (all will be saved) based on the premise that all is of God. This premise must be supported by two further assumptions of Christian faith: that (a) God is ‘almighty’ creator of all things (heaven and earth), and (b) what God creates out of God’s own goodness is itself ‘good.’
To accept as ultimate that certain diminished or broken or alienated aspects of created reality are as such ‘un-salvageable’ or intrinsically tainted by evil would be the defeat of the principle of God’s absoluteness, and a denial of created goodness. If things are created ‘good’, then no matter what distortions or alienations occur under conditions of death, extinction, suffering and other signs of finitude, these do not determine ultimate value, nor inform us about ultimate outcomes of natural existence.
The troubling part of Origen’s assertion is the implication that every minute detail of the vast material world has its being from God, and on this basis he and others who share his view affirm the intrinsic worth of all things. One must deal with the implications of this view in a treacherous time of plague and cultural blight.
What is salvageable, and what is ‘good,’ about COVID-19?
What is salvageable about cultural decay that ushers in underprepared COVID-19 national leadership, just to name our context?
Now stack up all the rest of the most hideous evils you can think of in the present, e.g., climate change destroying island cultures, entrenched racism, unparalleled acquisitiveness in corporate America and lack of regulative or moral authority to check it, children with cancer…and our Christian moral under-achievement with respect to all of these.
Put your hands on your hips in a posture of defiance and ask, “What could ‘all will be saved’ mean under conditions such as these?” This is what I mean by ‘troubling.’
We are called to action by the mandate of justice in the face of injustice, as if we were ‘lights of God’ in the encounter with our neighbor. This much is firm in our religious practice, unobjectionable, the things placed right in front of us now.
But we must make room also for what we do not know, and what depends on the mystery of ultimate things and leads us sometimes into faithful confusion. Here we simply conclude that we don’t know how to call COVID-19 ‘good’ or salvageable.
And we do not want to conjecture what role it might play in a larger scope of natural ecologies, because it can come eerily close to supposing some knowledge of divine causalities and intentions if we start down this road. That’s often a devious and self-serving undertaking.
We don’t know enough from a God’s-eye point of view to answer much of anything about this scale of empirical reality, let alone ultimacy, except to trust that nothing separates us from the love of God.
And if this trust is wrongly placed, it is spectacularly wrong. But I can find no other ground where our best but still inadequate guesses rest any more solidly. In the end, we all must simply say, ‘This is the ground where I turn my spade.’
Matters of ultimacy are matters of faith. Reasonableness applies to the details once we are convicted, swept off our feet by whatever or whomever captures our heart. For the Christian, this often begins with the experience of love that cannot be denied and extends to a vision of a still more robust love surpassing understanding.
The voice of columnist Roger Cohen echoes in my mind as he articulates moral realism regarding the things we do know. Cohen’s is a call for decency and basic goodness as our only defense and constructive option in the face of Camus-like ‘plague’ and at best a wobbly culture.
Do things differently at the other end of this scourge, some mystic voice murmurs, do them more equitably, more ecologically, or you will be smitten again. Next time the internet will collapse. The passage from real world to virtual world to no world will then be complete.
This dark thought, waiting on moral resolve after the plague, may certainly pass through our minds. But Cohen argues that we must go on doing now the acts of our vocation, from our respective places in life, remarkable and ordinary, because these actions matter. For Cohen, even when his words as a journalist seem pointless because unheeded in this hour of irrationality, still he must write.
Decency and faithfulness to our vocation redeem not just the individual but humanity, he states. We must trust this, or our moral aspirations as a species have come to an end.
But we must trust it also because believing in God as giver of life and source of salvation entails this decency at a minimum. How else can we choose to respond to a God who created so much good, and who despite our shortcomings refuses to be separated from us?
Mark Richardson is president and dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific.