The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Monday, October 23, 2006

On Limbo


There are days when bloggers have to point to responses they make on other blogs to keep their readers happy. This is a response I made on the "Glory to God for All Things" Blog on limbo. Tell me what you think.

This is a good Orthodox blog with a nice aesthetic eye.

12 Comments:

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

I think that I should give Father Stephen the perogative to have the last word on his own blog about this subject, but I will still leave a small footnote on his response to my response:

He doesn't really address my main concern and it is this one: modern man wants an easy religion. This easy religion requires that God save people who are supposedly not at fault for being outside the Christian fold. It then tries to impose our modern concept of "innocent until proven" guilty onto the mind of God. I don't think this is the right attitude to have.

It is best in this that we follow the ways of the Scripture and the Fathers on this. Regardless to what extent we own the "forensic" approach of Anselm and Augustine to these questions, they did not pull them out of thin air. The weakest element in the chain of arguments of Romanides and even Florovsky is how incredibly vague the Eastern approach is, and how it can so easily dismiss the passages from St. Paul ("the children of wrath") and other parts of the Bible ("in sin I was conceived") in order to make everything fit into their hodge-podge of a theory.

The big-bad, Hell-fire-and-brimstone Westerners did not come up with their theories in a vacuum, and if the Orthodox think that their God is nicer than the Western God, they are not listening closely enough to the Triodion, Octoechos, or the funeral service of the Orthodox Church.

Bottom line: God is merciful, but He isn't a chump. We shouldn't hope that all be saved, we should rather WORK and PRAY that all be saved and save the speculations for the Last Judgement. And we need to realize that being Christians means being the light of the world, the leaven, and a holy race. This imposes on us more of a grave responsibility rather than a privilege, and this should make us humbly tremble.

 
At 10:55 AM, Blogger The Scrivener said...

I think I understand your concerns here, Arturo. It’s a complicated question, and to believe something to be true of God simply because we would like it to be true of God can certainly lead to error. At the same time, to deny something to be true of God simply because it sounds too good to be true can be an equally grave error. I think of my Calvinist in-laws who can’t bring themselves to believe that God can love the un-elect because it sounds too touchy-feely, too much like “easy religion.”

I don’t think the Orthodox in this case are out to promote “easy religion” or state something to be true of God simply because we’d like to believe it to be true. But I think Fr Stephen is right to point back to the question of ‘nature.’ That’s really the heart of the issue.

You wrote: Salvation is not the natural condition of man, otherwise grace would not be grace.

Isn’t that precisely the fault-line between typical Catholic/Protestant perspectives and typical Orthodox perspectives on this issue (yes, I’m speaking in generalities here)? Unless “nature” is defined by fall rather than creation, or unless our original nature is totally exchanged in the fall for an entirely different kind of nature, this just isn’t true. From the Orthodox perspective, if I may venture to say so, salvation (that is, to live in union with God and in accord with His love) is, in fact, the natural condition of man; to live in accordance with divine grace (God in His energies, if you will) is the natural condition of man. It is death and sin and life in alienation from our Creator that is unnatural to us.

If we are not born in guilt but only in the brokenness and mortality that is the universal post-lapsarian condition of our race – and if infants are free from personal sin and culpability and the concomitant necessity of repentence – and if Christ’s resurrected flesh (in St Gregory of Nyssa’s words) truly becomes a “pinciple of resurrection” that extends to all, healing the brokenness of our nature – then I don’t think it is at all a stretch or a vain hope that the unbaptised infant, free from personal sin, is taken up into salvation and the life in Christ.

You’re right, of course, to say that God owes us nothing. In the final analysis, all our lives and actions, wills and desires, are founded upon the freedom and grace of God. But grace is not alien to nature, or something superadded. Grace and salvation are utterly gratuitous in the same way that creation itself is utterly gratuitous.

Anyway, that’s my two cents.

 
At 11:27 AM, Blogger Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

I suppose the nature/supernature divide between the East and West is really a matter of terminology. I share the Greek vision in a sense, but I don't think that it has the implications that most Orthodox theologians put on it. Man may be "capax Dei juxta naturam" but this does not mean that the default condition of man is salvation. Just because man is essentially meant to be united to God does not mean that it happens normally. This is where grace comes in.

I suppose I wish that some people would just stay agnostic on the question and leave it at that. To try and read things into God's nature is unwise speculation, and the fact that unbaptized infants cannot have a church burial is the ancient practice of the catholic Church that most demonstrates that we should not presume anything in these matters, no matter how nice it might sound.

 
At 4:54 PM, Blogger The Scrivener said...

You really think it's just matter of terminology? It seems to me that there's more than terminological difference on this issue.

If the natural or "default" condition of man is salvation, this isn't so as a matter of course, but thanks to the Incarnation, the Cross and the Empty Tomb.

 
At 7:00 PM, Blogger The Ochlophobist said...

St. Maximus, along with other significant Greek fathers, taught that mankind was in need of salvation even prior to the fall. Pre-lapsarian human life is not the same as the human life of those who are in Christ after the eschaton. Indeed, this is one area where the East differs from much of the West. Furthermore, grace is, in eastern thought, uncreated, thus an Orthodox must be careful when thinking about a grace that is "natural" to man. All grace is supernatural. There is no created grace. Furthermore, salvation is not a necessary part of man's nature - we needed God to act to save mankind even before the pre-lapsarian state. Obviously, to be "saved" in any meaningful sense is to be in a condition wherein one will not and therefore cannot fall. Adam and Eve were clearly not in such a condition or state. Thus while we can say that death is not natural to man, salvation, or even resurrection from the dead, is only natural to man because Christ has revealed in Himself and through Himself man's real nature. Apart from Christ these things are not a necessary part of man's nature. All of this leads Maximus and others to believe that the Incarnation would have been hypothetically necessary even without the fall. All human beings will share in the resurrection of Christ, including all unbaptized infants. But whether or not a human being partakes of the kingdom of heaven is a matter which will only be determined by the free response of each human to God's grace. In my opinion it is woefully premature to assume the salvation of unbaptized infants. The Church requires that we pray for the salvation of all the departed, except those who are already declared saints, anyone else is assumed to be (or to possibly be) in a state wherein they need the Church's prayers. The prayers that we pray for the dead are not a game; they are not something we do only for our own edification. Liturgical realism demands that we believe that those prayers actually serve a purpose with regard to those for whom we pray. There are several passages in scripture and in the fathers which suggest that those who did not fully embrace or fully reject Christ in this life will be given the opportunity to do so in the next. It could be that the unbaptized infants of faithful Christians experience something akin to those faithful who died in hope of the coming messiah. Since time in hell does not correspond to time on earth, it could be that Christ preached to all the infants in hell as well. Surely when Christ saves an infant, He saves that infant out of the depths of Sheol. I follow St. Maximus in my belief that salvation requires the consent of all human beings, thus even an infant who dies must assent to God's grace and participate in the life of Christ. I am certain that this opportunity is afforded to every infant who dies. I am certain that those infants who died and who are prayed for by their families and churches are in the best position of all (though we also pray for all those who have no one to pray for them). But in the end I believe that even an infant who has died must freely choose to accept Christ. Thus I reject limbo, but I also agree with Arturo that it is best that we remain agnostic about the salvation of infants who have died. What is required of us is that we pray for them, and that we have faith in a God who seeks the salvation of every human being. My wife had a miscarriage at 14 weeks about 5 years ago and we pray for the baby that we lost every day, and part of what drives me to pray for that child is the belief that God saves all persons in essentially the same manner, and that this little one who died in the womb will have to consent to God's terrifying mercy just like all the rest of us.

 
At 7:18 PM, Blogger Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

From the 1928 Prayer Book:

"And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom. Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen."

Well put, Owen. You said it much better than I could. I suppose I was a little too polemical. Sometimes I want to play the prophet but end up being a stodgy old grouch.

Bottom line: do not presume, ASK!

 
At 5:57 PM, Blogger Visibilium said...

I think I tend to go along with Och on this issue. I think both Lossky and Pomazansky both say that after the fall and before Christ, grace could act only externally on man. Accordingly, one could say that because of the fall man was no longer able to acquire grace internally until Christ came.

Moreover, Adam and Eve probably weren't in a state of theosis since they were able to choose their destinies. Therefore, man (except the Theotokos, I suppose) has never achieved his final end, which includes both bodily resurrection and theosis. Indeed, one of the Fathers, St. Basil I think, spoke of man's life in the Garden as consisting in an evolution.

What does this have to do with unbaptized infants? It's likely that they're in the same boat as the OT saints, on whom grace could act only externally and who needed Christ to pull them out of their predicament. It seems that our praying for them would serve a legitimate purpose and that such children are capable of attaining salvation.

Would children need to consent to salvation? That may be a stretch for me, since children don't confess their sins until attaining a particular age.

 
At 8:26 PM, Anonymous Fr. Stephen Freeman said...

Good thread - don't know that I offered a final word on my blog. I would readily agree that our consent is part of our salvation. Of course, there is the interesting case of the Holy Innocents - saints of the Church. Which of those babies consented to their martyrdom? There are great mysteries here - but that God is good and that He is merciful are simply true. I pray for my departed child (died in utero at 5 months) each day as well and am confident of God's mercy and that he is with God.

In our culture, where so many distortions have been offered of the Christian faith - particularly distortions regarding heaven, hell, the wrath of God, etc., I am always cautious in this area. Of course, I live in the South, and most of our distortions down here have been of the brimstone variety. Though, when I was an Anglican, most of the distortions were of the other sort.

But I do not think Limbo to be true for the same reasons that I do not think double-edged predestination to be true. God has not so rigged the universe as to trick or trap us into condemnation. "This is condemnation, that Light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the Light." I thus worry little, other than to beseech God of his mercies, when it comes to innocent children, whatever the metaphysics of salvation.

It is wicked men such as myself who too often prefer darkness to the light that worry me. I pray for my unbaptized infant - though I suspect it is I who benefit more from his prayers.

The great comfort to me as an Orthodox Christian is the rhythm of Memorial Services (Panikhidas). There are a good number of "Soul Saturdays" in the year in which we offer prayers for the departed. We have many other occasions to pray for them as well (always on the anniversary of their falling asleep, etc.). And at the Kneeling Vespers of Pentecost, we pray even for "those in hell". It's a bold prayer. I started weeping the first year of my priesthood when I uttered this prayer. It surprised me somehow and I was overwhelmed at the mercy of God. I was also starkly reminded of the cycle of memorial services that start on the Saturday of Meatfare and continue on through most of the Saturdays of Lent - with Pascha as its crowning victory. Only to be followed on Pentecost weekend with another memorial service, this one like an echo of the victory of Pascha, finding completion in the kneeling prayers of Sunday Vespers with their frighteningly bold requests.

God alone knows who will be saved. We cannot presume. By I cannot doubt His mercy - only our willingness to come to the light. God save us all.

 
At 11:25 AM, Blogger The Scrivener said...

Thanks all. I find this very helpful. Just to clarify, in my statements above I didn’t intend to suggest that Adam and Eve -that is man in our “natural,” created state- existed in a state of perfection or theosis (much less that unbaptized infants do). I think I let my choice of words confuse the issue somewhat, but I simply meant that prior to the fall it was natural for us to live in an infinitely progressive union with God, to be on that path of theosis. That is still what is “natural” to us, though we live against our nature now. If we do not share in the guilt of that initial departure prior to the point of making our own personal departures in sin, we nonetheless share the consequences. Our nature has not been changed, simply the conditions under which that nature may be realized. Certainly, with all that we have in Christ, we have every reason to hope –strongly hope- that unbaptized infants, in the resurrection if not ‘before,’ will find themselves, too, on that path of progressive union with God.

 
At 4:21 PM, Blogger The Ochlophobist said...

Fr. Stephen,
Good points. I think that in some sense the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents might be seen as a baptism by blood. Their particular relationship to Christ and their place in salvation history do not negate their need to consent to the love of God, but their lack of consent in martyrdom is not dissimilar to the lack of consent on the part of an infant who is baptized. I think that all RCs and Orthodox believe that baptized infants are certain of salvation.
I think that in many respects the unbaptized child of an Orthodox mother is nourished by the faith of his or her mother. Certainly the child in the womb is blessed when his or her mother partakes of the sacraments, and the grace that is given to the mother passes in some sense to the child. I don't mean to sound crass in a materialistic sense, but a breastfeeding infant who has a mother who is Orthodox is not entirely deprived of communion prior to baptism. The mother consumes of Christ in the Chalice, the child consumes of his or her mother. The question at hand is of the infant whose mother and/or father do not know God or even hate God. Of course God is not going to "hold against" such a little one the lack of faith of his or her parents, and I frankly think that, in the end, these children will likely be saved. But I also think that children such as these are in dire need of our prayers. Children who die in such circumstances may not have as smooth a path to theosis as those children whose parents love God and pray for their lost children. This is not because of some legal formula (quite the contrary), but because such children have simply had less exposure to the grace of God via prayer or the active faith of their mother (and/or father). If we state a necessary universalism with regard to all of those who die before the age of accountability (and I know that you do not believe this) then we might be advocating a forensic or economic view of salvation of a different sort. I have been in Orthodox churches where the priest at the Great Entrance prays for "all those who died in the womb" and for those "who hate us, those who love us, and those who have no one to pray for them." I think that aborted children and the dead children of those who do not yet have faith in Christ are in great need of our prayers. All that said, it would seem that because unborn children and infants have not had as much time or exposure in which to learn the patterns of death and sin that are seen everywhere in our post-lapsarian world, there is far less that would hinder them from consent to God's love. Young children seem to accept love pretty easily. And since our God is a God Who is wont to pursue most fervently the smallest and weakest, it goes without saying that He will stop at nothing to pour out His love on little ones who die. I do not think that there is a substantial disagreement on the substance of the matter here, there are just different ways of talking about the mystery of God's work of saving little ones who have died.

Douglas,
I thought that you meant what you just stated you meant. I did not mean to state the "nature" bit so strongly. I agree with everything in your comment. We have every reason to hope. But I also know that you know that hope is sometimes a painful thing, and I think that both you and I share Arturo's concern that we be careful not to let hope become a "happy-clappy" saccharine thing.

 
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