As is typical around Easter time, we can expect a spate of media stories fanning the flames of both religious and anti-religious passions. This year, Time Magazine took advantage of the new book by evangelical mega-church pastor Rob Bell and made its annual pilgrimage into religious controversy with this cover title: What if There’s No Hell? Predictably, Time found Southern Baptist Al Mohler available to answer this burning question: “"When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world," says Mohler, "then you don't need the church, and you don't need Christ, and you don't need the cross. This is the tragedy of nonjudgmental mainline liberalism, and it's Rob Bell's tragedy in this book too."
Not far behind Time, the New York Times followed suit this weekend with two editorials. The first, by David Brooks, used a review of the smash hit musical “The Book of Mormon” to lambast nonjudgmental mainline liberalism. Brooks writes, “Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor, and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions of what is True and False.” Lest anyone be confused as to where rigorous theology is to be found, he concludes his article: ‘It’s worth remembering that the religions that thrive in real-life Africa are not as nice as the religion in the play. The religions thriving in real-life Africa are often so doctrinaire and so socially conservative that they would make Pat Robertson’s hair stand on end…The vague humanism of the outside do-gooders didn’t do much to get people to alter their risky behavior. The blunt theological talk of the church ladies—right and wrong, salvation and damnation—seemed to have a better effect.” Again we find hell invoked—a most useful doctrine!
Finally, on Easter Sunday, the NY Times’ columnist Ross Douthat brought home the point with his column “A Case for Hell.” While tempering his enthusiasm for the holy torture chamber long enough to draw back from the idea that Gandhi might be in hell, Douthat nevertheless argues that it is only the overly compassionate (read: liberal) pastor who puts out the holy fires of wrath to make God more palatable. “But,’ Douthat insists, ‘to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.” And so, to avoid this horrifying vision (to Douthat at least!) of play for play’s sake, and not for some extrinsic reward and/or punishment, Douthat preaches hell-fire as the only way of preserving some semblance of moral order.
It is hard to know where to begin to intervene in all of this muddle of half-baked theological confusion. Andrew Sullivan and Mark Silk, two progressive religious voices, responded to Brooks' recent piece, but both responses are somewhat disappointing. Sullivan rightly suggests that lurking in Brooks’ piece (and it is clearly on display in Douthat’s) is a rather cynical mobilization of a doctrine one does not quite believe to be true for the sake of a moral-political end to which one is committed. And Silk uses the example of the Trappist monks murdered in Algeria and the subjects of the recent French film Of Gods and Men to refute the idea that for religion to thrive it must be rigid and doctrinaire.
Yet both, to my mind, fail to respond to the most troubling claim of Brooks and Douthat: that liberal/progressive religion is neither rigorous nor familiar with the ‘usefulness’ of preaching hell, and is therefore unable to respond compellingly to the greatest ethical and political crises of our day. Sullivan and Silk almost conceded the point!
My own view is that this charge of Douthat and Brooks has some merit to it. The religious left of late has, with a few notable exceptions, not been terribly interested in the topic of hell, often viewing it as an embarrassing vestige of its theological past. One notable exception is the American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, whose readings of Jonathan Edwards inspired greatly his own theological thinking. Though acknowledging that Edward’s theology of hell needed some ‘demythologizing’, Niebuhr nevertheless is the (unacknowledged) source of the Rev. Mohler’s thought quoted above. In his classic 1937 text, The Kingdom of God in America, Niebuhr wrote this about theological liberalism’s failures: ‘A God without wrath brought men without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
The great Episcopal theologian and lawyer William Stringfellow, whose own progressive theology is considered one of the most significant theological voices of our time by no less than the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, was also a preacher of hell. He wrote, in his classic text A Public and Private Faith, “The first place to look for Christ is in Hell.”
Of course what Stringfellow and Niebuhr meant by hell here is not at all what either Douthat or Brooks mean. For a progressive religious theology, my own view is that two things are needed for a genuine theological revival. The first is a rigorous deconstruction of the politically opportunistic, even cynical view of hell put forth by Douthat, Brooks, Mohler, and even Rob Bell. The second is a robust retrieval of a doctrine of hell by progressive religious voices. In my next post, I will take a step in this direction using some of the writers discussed above.
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