Do universalists want to make the Church into ISKCON?

28 09 2019

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I hate to keep writing things about a book I haven’t read, but as I listen to a lot of podcasts online, recently I listened to Pentecostal theologians discussing David Bentley Hart’s latest book on universal salvation. They were very positive about the book and Hart in general, and one of the theologians stated that the idea of people being tortured in Hell for all eternity was a heresy, full stop. In their view, the rejection of Hell is based on the idea of a loving God. The very meaning of who God is excludes the idea of souls being tortured for all eternity. Universalists are now coining the pejorative term “infernalists” to define those who hold the Christian orthodox position on Hell.

The one question addressed toward the end of the podcast was whether Christians would be motivated to proselytize and spread the Gospel if there was no threat of Hell over their heads. The participants dismissed this point stating that having a loving relationship with Jesus would lead people to want to share His message with the world regardless of any consequences to themselves. Plus, the tremendous misery in the world would drive people to seek solace in Jesus and the Cross. In their words, we all still have to “pass through the fire” and our task is to relieve the suffering caused by sin and the world it created.

In spite of their certainty to the contrary, I am not convinced that their swapping out Hell for universal salvation leaves the Christian ethos intact. That is not just because I heard too many stories growing up of old timers who were “scared straight” by Redemptorist priests during parish missions. There are far too many passages in the New Testament (which the universalists dismiss as being “secondary” to their preferred texts) which indicate the dire need for Jesus’ followers to go to the ends of the Earth to bring the Gospel to all men, as well as too many indications of what happens to those who do not hear or who reject the message. Why would the martyrs have endured all of those tortures, have gone through a “living Hell,” if the result would have been the same if they had not endured them? Why did the early Church despise the traitors too much, those who turned over the holy books and the sacred vessels to be defiled by the pagans? If these were not (eternal) life or death questions, a lot of people went through a lot of pain and suffering just to make a purely symbolic statement.

But let’s say we just accept these theologians’ (and perhaps Hart’s) idea that, from now on, this isn’t about saving people from Hell, but rather about sharing Jesus’ message of the Cross and Resurrection with the world, and thus relieving the sufferings of people in this age and the next. Is there an organization with a similar mission and ethos? I would argue that there is, and that would be the International Society for Krishna Consiousness, or ISKCON. Readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for the Hare Krishnas (ahem) but here I am not going to argue for or against Gaudiya Vaishnavism, but rather indicate that I see definite similarities between what the universalists want the Church to be and what ISKCON is currently doing. Would wider acceptance of universalism mean having to retool Christianity along the lines of what the Hare Krishnas have been doing for decades?

The part of the podcast that made this comparison jump into my mind was one person’s point about spreading the message of Jesus just because of who He is and not because of any punishments or rewards. That strikes me as something very similar to bhakti yoga or devotional service, to use the translation of the term popularized by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, ISKCON’s founder. For Prabhupada, one does not perform devotional service because one wants to gain paradise or avoid eternal torment, but one does it because of who Krsna is, and who you are in relation to Krsna. Whether you go to Heaven or Hell, or get reincarnated as a worm or return to the spiritual world, it doesn’t matter. One is always a servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. It’s not our pleasure or sense gratification that we seek, but the gratification of Krsna, and we serve Krsna because He is literally the “All-Attractive One”. You serve Krsna for who He is, and not what He can give you.

That being said, how one spreads the Hare Krishna gospel is also radically different from the Christian mentality. While ISKCON does seek converts (and very much so), unlike Christianity, it will take partial victories. Their musical processions through the streets are often accompanied by book distribution with the aim of having people buy Srila Prabhupada’s books. They also believe that random people just holding the book is a step forward for “going back to Godhead”. There are even gimmicks like having people scream “Gauranga!” (a name of Lord Chaintanya Mahaprabhu, the sixteenth century incarnation of Krsna) that they utilize to help others develop Krsna consciousness. Since everyone lives thousands if not millions of lifetimes before going back to the spiritual world, every little bit counts. Even encountering Hare Krishna devotees on the street means that you are fortunate, and did great sacrifices in your past lives to come to that point.

I have already written about the Hare Krishna concept of Hell, but I will bring up a few points again here. If a jiva is fallen enough, it may take an almost infinite number of lifetimes before she can return to the spiritual world, if she gets there at all. Vedic time is, of course, cyclical. At the end of millions of cycles of yugas, the universes fold back into Maha Vishnua lying on the Causal Ocean and everything begins again, with spirit souls seeking enjoyment in the material world only to be continuously frustrated by it. As I said previously, there is a Hell, and we are in it. But once you’re out, you’re out. Once you go back to Vaikuntha, you don’t come back. You never re-enter the womb of a woman again, or anywhere else in material world. The task of liberation is difficult, but you never run out of time to achieve it. Whether everyone eventually leaves the material world altogether is something I haven’t researched yet in Hare Krishna theology, but the answer to that question is perhaps not even in the purview of what we can know.

I think linear time is where the Christian universalist position runs into the most problems. Unless the end of the world is set to be millions if not billions of years from now, would not the end of the world sort of be a hard limit concerning the purification needed by a soul to be ready for union with God? The consensus in Catholic theology is that there is no Purgatory after the end of the world. Once there is a New Heaven and New Earth, everyone ends up where they are supposed to be for the rest of eternity (the Final Judgment vs. the Particular Judgment that all experience after they die). Those still alive who require purification will experience it by living in the (really awful) end times, and the rest will just be let out of Purgatory or any post-death realm of purification. So in the Christian view of things, time is supposed to cease after a certain point. Unless Hell is just Purgatory, there is no reason to call it eternal, even through hyperbole. Thus, in the universalist belief it seems, the Antichrist and all his followers in the Apocalypse immediately enter the Kingdom of God once the world ends. Otherwise you have to bring into the equation a more Vedic sense of time, where various timelines overlap and fold into each other. For me, this smacks of Gnosticism (an accusation I don’t really like to throw around, but there it is).

So here universalist theology is getting in the way of the Biblical script. The other oddity is having Protestants and Orthodox talking about “purification” at all. If we have to be completely pure to enter into eternal life, and even a human lifetime is not enough time for this (and perhaps not even the span conceived of by Catholic purgatory), how far do our faith and good deeds get us here? What if we believed just a little bit, did this or that right but a lot wrong, etc.? Do we get partial credit? I may be sinking into caricature here, or perhaps I am being unfair. There may be no parallel to the Hare Krishnas’ idea that even holding a book for a photo-op is a significant leap in one’s spiritual progress.

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Honestly I am not trying to take a side here. I just don’t think the universalists have thought this through. Maybe Jesus is enough to get people fired up about the Gospel without the threat of hellfire and brimstone. In spite of not being driven by the idea of souls being lost in an eternal Hell, Hare Krishnas still endured great difficulties and persecution in places like the Soviet Union to bring Krsna’s name to the whole world. Maybe Christians will behave themselves and continue to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth out of pure love of God and neighbor. But even the Hare Krishnas don’t think this is easy, and for them it takes many lifetimes of devotional practice under the guidance of a spiritual master to achieve . Selfless love, without desire for reward or fear of punishment, is a lovely idea in theory but often is a poor idea in execution. It hasn’t really worked so far, and even the Hare Krishnas have had their difficulties with their much less punitive ethos. As all movements find out, people are a lot less pure than their ideals would have them be, and sometimes they will only do the right thing when given no other choice. Good luck to all, I suppose.


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2 responses

28 09 2019
cal

I knew very little about Hare Krishnas before finding your blog. But one thing I noticed, watching the videos you link, is the particular kind of infectious happiness among Hare Krishna spreading their message. It comes with dancing and musical accompaniment that, through a probably well-worn tradition of Indian music, is attractive through form. Some of the people in the linked video above say the magic name because they can sense the palpable excitement, like when you’re about to pop the jack-in-the-box.

Christian preaching, even in its most exuberant forms, never included this mode of excitement. The most honest preacher may not be armed with hellfire and Chick tracts, but judgement is quite fittingly on his lips. Perhaps this gets to a kind of inherent radicalism within the Gospel preaching, which announces a radical novum and a meaning to time, not simply a conservative approach of an endless wheel where everyone has a place, slowly climbing up the rungs. There’s a pregnant urgency in Christian preaching that eludes the Hare Krishna. Not to say they don’t care, or that they don’t think their task is important, but it lacks the “crisis” that the Christian message. There was nothing infectious or happy about the Prophets, but something full of awe, if not dread.

While the average westerner of liberal sentiments might sneer at the soapbox preaching Christian, and clap along with the Hare Krishna, it’s only the Christian faith that, when secularized and radically reformulated, can give the urgency to produce a philosophy like Marxism, an awareness that things are not well and the future must be a looming shadow of both hope and terror. Despite many efforts, the Christian faith can’t ever fit with “this” age.

As someone who has become more and more convinced about the importance of form for content, I think you’re absolutely right. Universalism is half-baked: either become a Hare Krishna evangelist, or a sober practitioner of Vedanta (I can’t image DB Hart evangelizing, but instead sitting in repose like his master Ramunuja), or abandon this foolish novelty.

That’s my 2 cents,
cal

28 09 2019
duanemiller

It was often those saints who were most aware of God’s love that were most vocal in asserting the reality of hell.

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