I was not aware of Religion Dispatches until reading the linked-to article about the 'Descent into Hell' reposted on Salon. It's a religious studies site that comes out of USC's Annenberg School. I was going to respond on site, but I decided instead to write this post, since it connects to my last post about the Jesus's words from the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Reading this callow post on RD dramatizes the difference between Religious Studies and Theology. Religious Studies is mostly the attempt of outsiders to understand the experience of insiders, and theology is the attempt of insiders to understand their own experience in the light of revelation, i.e., the intuitions and insights of the great souls of their respective traditions. The interpretive frames could not be more different between the two, and as with anything there are strong and weak examples of both. The first, however, has a tendency to demythologize and reduce to terms acceptable within the modern rationalist frame; the second, at its best, to expand into the unfathomable. This piece from RD is religious studies think at its worst. At the very least you'd think the folks doing religious studies as they do it on RD would want to talk to a thoughtful insider before writing a silly article like this one.
I am familiar with the Death of God theologies of the 60s and 70s, and they are genuine theologies, i.e., the honest attempts of Christians to understand their experience in the contemporary world in the light of revelation. Theologians like Paul van Buren and Thomas Altizer are serious thinkers. Agree with them or not, they take the Christian tradition seriously and grapple with it intelligently and respectfully. Glib pieces like this one at RD bear no resemblance to that kind of seriousness. I'm not meaning to brand all those who do religious studies with this criticism of shallowness, but whoever wrote this needed an editor who knows more about the insider experience and the self-understanding of Christians than he does.
So here are some thoughts about the credal tenet concerning Christ's descent into hell between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. There are two idea clusters that I find interesting, although my own thinking is aligned more more with the second. The first is the traditional idea that in the imagination of the early Christians shaped by the social imaginary of classical antiquity, Hell was a lot like what the Greeks called Hades and the Hellenized Jews called Sheol. It was a place that everybody, the just and the unjust, went after death, a kind of Bardo state, to use the Buddhist term, where these souls were locked up in a kind of dreary, neither-here-nor-there half life. The early Christians thought of it as a kind of debtors' prison to which everybody was condemned because of Adam's sin. And so, as Paul put it, Christ's death effected a blood ransom, a very literal redeeming of the debt owed by the entire human race, so that those imprisoned could be set free. The descent into hell was Jesus Christ's mission to release these prisoners from Adam's debt. This isn't an esoteric idea or shameful Christian secret nobody wants to talk about; it's mainstream enough that I was taught it in Catholic elementary school.
I understand what the debtor/ransom metaphor is pointing to, and there is something to it, and it has St. Paul's authority backing it, but like all metaphors it has limitations, and I prefer the restoration of the shattered image metaphor that I wrote about in the preceding post, but more on that later.
I want first to talk about the second cluster of ideas that surround the belief about Christ's descent into hell. St. Paul tells us that all creation fell with the fall of man. If you can accept that as true, then Christ's descent into hell can be understood as a descent into the dark heart of creation, into a Hobbesian state of nature, if you will, ruled by the random, groping, cruel impersonal processes that shaped the universe after the big bang out there, and on our planet's life-world, the processes of biological evolution.
[Digression: In the Hobbesian state of nature, it's all about will to power and greed, and the need for humans to enter society grows out of the need to mitigate the human tendency to murder and steal from one another by entering into a social contract that protects us from the worst effects of our worst tendencies. Hobbes had a robust sense of the reality of human existence in the fallen world, but his politics were a politics of despair.]
So if we more or less accept that the Hobbesian description of the 'world program' is accurate (Moderns influenced by Rousseau would not accept it, of course), we can understand Christ's descent into hell as not just liberating the people there from debtors' prison, but in effect to plant a ‘virus’, that would over time reprogram the laws of evolution so that at some point in the distant future, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and swords will be beaten into plowshares, to use Isaiah’s eschatological imagery. The incarnation, death, and resurrection was, therefore, a kind of subversive cosmic hacking of the fallen system. And this hacking, makes available to humans who choose the download, so to speak, the possibility of not just their liberation from debtors' prison, but the restoration of their shattered souls. This, in my view, is a more existentially robust way to understand our situation and our profound need.
I think of the universe as multidimensional, and the story of the Fall is not about a literal expulsion from a garden, but the story about how our primordial ancestors, symbolized by Adam and Eve, existed in another dimension of the universe, and the story of the Fall is the story of their having been removed from one dimension into another. And in this dimension the laws of physics and evolution apply, and that’s all we know, except for what has been revealed to us by prophets and saints. We don't know what the prior conditions in the other dimension were or what happened to cause humans to have been expelled from it. We have only a story that gives us some clues. And we know from our experience the conditions that followed, and we accept them as 'normal' and natural. And the modern skeptical mind finds it hard to imagine that there could be anything but the world as science has come to describe it to us. Those descriptions are accurate, but incomplete.
For a long time I’ve thought of the Fall as the human experience of its core identity as 'image and likeness' having been shattered and of our salvation lying in its restoration. That's not a new idea for me, but in writing the Tre Ore piece, it occurred to me that that was what Jesus experienced on the cross--the shattering of his human soul as it shattered for Adam and Eve.
So I’m trafficking in metaphors here, and as I said above, metaphors always have their limitations in grappling with issues as weighty as these, but for me at least, this 'shattering of the image' metaphor has the salutary effect of answering the venerable question: Cur Deus homo (Why did God become man?) in a way that seems to work better than most explanations I’m aware of. God became man to restore the possibility for humans to become what they were created for. Without the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, who was the human stand-in for the uncreated creator, this restoration could not be effected. In other words, restoration was a possibility closed for humans until God himself became man.
This is why it is essential belief for orthodox Christians that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of the uncreated Godhead and not just an enlightened figure like the Buddha. The restoration required a new creation, a new before and a new after, a new creation that could only be effected by him who created it all in the first place. The task was so huge as to require the uncreated Godhead as the representative of all humanity to recapitulate within his own being, first, the shattering of the human soul, and then its restoration to wholeness. That's the crux idea. And it makes sense if you can stand outside of the secular framing of our reality shaped only by the laws of nature, a la Darwin and Newton. Recent developments in post-Einsteinian physics are more congenial to the ideas I’m talking about here. I have a post on that here, if anybody's interested.
The idea of 'before' and 'after' experienced by Adam was also a new idea for me, and so, of course, it follows that after the deed of the Second Adam we commemorate Easter weekend, there is a second 'before' and 'after'. Things are possible for humans after Easter that were not possible before. And so when St. Paul talks about his identity as 'not I but Christ in me', I think of the presence in human beings, all of us whether believing Christians or not, of this restorative, healing energy center that operates like a kind of magnetic force that grows stronger as we cultivate it in the practice of acts of conscience. And as this force grows stronger over time, it pulls all the shards of our shattered souls into alignment, and like a slow-motion movie of shattering glass in reverse mode, we see all the pieces flying back into their pre-shattered form.
But it's not just the individual soul that is the lost sheep spoken of in the gospels, it is, perhaps, this entire fallen dimension of the universe, which is out of alignment with the rest of the universe. So it’s not only we as individuals that get restored; it’s us as a people, the human race, and all creation as we know it, which is shattered into a million swirling fragments and babbling tribal groups all at war with one another in Hobbes's so-called state of nature. As the magnetic force works over time, as the pieces of our shattered souls are drawn together, so are we drawn to one another. The human race's normal state of being shattered into warring tribes becomes over time one people, the communion of saints. Our task now is not to immanentize the eschaton, a mistake Karl Marx and other secular and religious millennialists make, but to do what is there for us to do now in this moment in this much larger ages long developing drama to prepare for its eventual coming.
This is why Christianity when it is most deeply itself is not at all conservative and past oriented. It is instead future oriented and progressive. It looks forward in hope not to some pie-in-the-sky otherworldly heaven, but the restoration of all of our part of lost creation to that for which it was created. But this can be effected only by human agency in response to the ubiquity of grace released into the world after Easter and Pentecost.
This is where the death-of-god theologians have an insight that's worth thinking about: In their telling God died on Good Friday, but his death was his way of living into the human race and the whole of the fallen or lost part of creation we see around us, even unto its darkest depths in hell. God is not up there anymore, not in any way that we can experience him. He's down here, and he's gone underground and works now in the dark, shattered depths of every human soul. The question is not about whether God exists or not; it's about where you should look for Him. He's not up there, but down here.
This is not atheism; God exists, but we know nothing about Him except what he has chosen to reveal of himself to us. So like the Buddhists, it's better not to talk about God as he is in Himself because we can say nothing meaningful. But that doesn't mean that we can say nothing because his most decisive revelation of himself was his becoming human, becoming us, in the person of Jesus Christ, so that we in turn can become like Him. This is the great insight given to us in Genesis. That our having been created in the image and likeness of God is the human telos, a telos that was unrealizable until the events of Easter weekend. The new kingdom, the new code for a new operating system, is not out there in any way that is useful for us; it is useful only to the degree that it is activated within the human heart. It's there for believers and unbelievers alike. All that matters is that people download the new program, no matter what its local branding.
I believe the Christian story of salvation is the true story, and that it has enormous explanatory power and can provide one's life with a sense of meaning and practical purpose. I believe that it is a story that needs to be taken seriously even if you can't believe it, but I'm not interested in apologias--they are too much of a head trip. Either the story works for you or it doesn't. But whether or not you believe it's true does not matter so much as whether your will is disposed to respond to all the places where grace manifests in your life, and that one way or the other that you avail yourself of the upgrade that was released around two thousand years ago. To do so has costs, real costs. It is not an easy road if you choose it, and you can find that you are led to places you would rather not go. And for that reason Chesterton was right when he said, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."