damned if you don't

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Mar 11, 2008

Several years ago already the Lutheran scholar Martin Marty gave a lecture entitled "Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed." His subject was the remarkably sudden and thorough elimination of a key doctrine from Christian discourse. It wasn't that hell had been formally repudiated by the mainstream denominations, but as if by tacit consent it ceased to have a place in religious thinking.

It must be admitted that, in the past, alongside a sane and proportionate concern with the subject, there was also an unwholesome interest in damnation exhibited by some Christians. These were always a minority, even among revivalists. But the fact is that making your audience's flesh crawl is all too easy to do -- even a meagerly talented speaker can succeed at this sport -- and many Christians were tormented for much of their lives by the nightmare images branded into their young minds by reckless and cruel preachers who took a sick pleasure in giving pain. The discourses on hell given by James Joyce's fictional Jesuit Father Arnall provide a classic example of the genre (if you wish, you can read the relevant chapter here).

Has the moralist's delight in cruelty disappeared? Not at all. It is still very much with us. The sickness has simply migrated into areas where it receives an ideologically enthusiastic reception, most notably among environmental activists. How often do we see news footage of an anti-nuke or anti-pollution rally without protesters costumed as mutants or monsters or corpses and threatening us with hideous torments for our sins of ecological neglect? As with the old-style Christians, such dementia subsists in a minority; most greens are motivated by a positive attraction to a picture of natural harmony, etc. Yet beside the wholesome folks we find the old disease -- operating under a new and progressivist flag, of course -- more concerned with spreading terror at the threatened doomsday than hope in the rewards of right action. The fear-mongers don't seem that interested in recycling or fuel disposal. Like their forerunners, they get their kicks from giving kids nightmares.

Yet the doctrinal point raised by Prof. Marty remains to be addressed. Granted that it was harmfully exploited by cruel preachers in the past, is the Church's teaching on hell intact or not? And if the doctrine is still intact, and if damnation is a real possibility really contingent on the choices we make, how is it that the persons the Church has set apart to minister to our spiritual destiny seem so nonchalant about the matter?

In his preface to The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis writes:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

As with devils, so with damnation. Past ages may have been so fascinated with the Inferno part of the Christian triptych that the Paradiso part became all but invisible. Our own age seems to have attached itself to the contrary delusion. Both are destructive. The Catechism (para 1035) reaffirms the reality of hell without extenuation or apology, yet most churchmen are embarrassed to mention it, as if they wished it could be quietly forgotten. I wonder if they've ever asked themselves about the entailments. If hell could "disappear" and damnation could be discarded as a myth, what purpose would a priest or bishop serve? Lacking a way to go wrong, what would the Church be FOR?

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