instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, April 13, 2014

In the land of the universalists

Pelagianism is, to summarize crudely, the doctrine that man can achieve salvation by his own actions, without God's grace and apart from Christ's sacrifice.

In a culture that assumes everyone and their pet goldfish goes to heaven, Pelagianism is an odd affectation. If salvation isn't a question of whether God, man, or goldfish acts, if it's not really a question but a fact of creation, then talk of man's actions being salvific don't make sense. To the universalist, it's not what he does that saves man, it's what he is.

Yet, though Pelagianism is in this way contrary to universalism, there is something with the spirit of Pelagianism that is a natural consequence of universalism. If I am saved because of what I am, then what I am must be good. If I am saved without reference to God, then I can live without reference to God, and in particular I can answer the question, "What am I?" without reference to God.

Some part of my answer may be, "I am an individual who does this, that, and the other." If I were to go on to ask, "Is doing this, that, and the other good?," how would I go about answering that question?

Right. Without reference to God.

Having concluded that everything I like to do is good to do, I am ready for the Church to try to sell me on what she has to say about God.

The Church had better not start with, "Doing this is good, but doing that and the other is evil." We have parted doctrinal company a long time before that point.

The Church is going to have to face down the ambient universalism before what she has to say about this or that sin -- that is, about this or that way we damage our relationship with God -- comes across as anything but old-fashioned jibber-jabber. For that matter, she has to face down the ambient universalism before what she has to say about Jesus makes any sense. If we're all saved anyway, what does it matter to me -- unless I'm a keener hoping for VIP seating -- whether we're saved through Jesus' death or through God saying, "Alakazam!" at the moment the universe winked into existence?

Ambiance, whether physical or spiritual, is determined a whole lot more by the local conditions than by anything that happens in Rome (exception: when in Rome). The prevalence of ambient universalism indicates that the local conditions generally accommodate it, which means the Church at the local level is going to have to change something if she has anything to say other than, "Carry on."