Wednesday, January 25, 2006

John Shelby Spong on "Limbo"

As was reported some time ago, the Roman Catholic Church is dispensing with the notion of "limbo", a sort of place between heaven and hell where unbaptized infants and worthy non-Christians could be assigned to spend eternity.

John Shelby Spong is a former Bishop of the Episcopal Church who has written widely on the problems of Christian fundamentalism and the need for new Christian based thinking in a modern society.

I get Spong's weekly newletter/column and am reproducing his column on the subject of "limbo" here:

To Hell with Limbo
The Newest Act of an Irrelevant Christianity

Perhaps the second silliest thing that religious institutions and its leaders can do is to pretend that they know what will happen after one dies and then to be delusional enough to think that they can actually describe it. This ranks as number two on the silliness list only because the one thing sillier than that absurdity is to announce that perhaps you did not get it right the first time, so you offer an amendment to previous thinking. Yet that is exactly what we have witnessed from the Ratzinger Vatican in recent days. Limbo, as they say, is now in Limbo!

This teaching about Limbo, a top commission of Roman Catholic scholars now assures us, has never been an official part of the doctrine of the church. That will come as a great surprise, I will wager, to those parents who have over the centuries, been frightened out of their wits by the threats emanating from that church about what will befall their unbaptized children if they did not rush to baptism. The existence of a place called Limbo has had a very long history. Since at least the 4th Century of this Common Era it has been a part of the package of the afterlife doctrines of western Catholic Christianity. This package was not designed primarily to inform the faithful about what waited for them when they died but rather to aid in the task of controlling with the weapons of fear and guilt every aspect of life from birth to death. While Limbo never had real credibility among thinking people, it nonetheless possessed enormous power and was indelibly planted into the consciences of many.

Tracing the history of the concept of Limbo is itself a fascinating study. It appears to have emerged in Catholic teaching near the end of the 4th century through the work of Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, a man of enormous intellect but whose theology was significantly driven by the concept of original sin. So deeply was Augustine convinced that all human life had been permanently stained by the sin of Adam's disobedience, that for a child to die unbaptized was to be doomed to hell. Baptism, in Augustine's mind, was thus the necessary act that broke the power of that original sin and therefore was the essential step in the drama of salvation. Heaven was reserved only for the saved, for whom baptism was the visible symbol of their redemption. The unbaptized were inevitably, to put it bluntly, bound for hell. It was a harsh argument in which grieving parents, who gave birth to stillborn fetuses or whose babies had died in childbirth, were left without consolation. Sometimes, circumstances over which parents had no control would require the postponement of a baptism and, in a day of rampant infant mortality, it meant that some children died unbaptized. The specter of a burning hell for those regarded as not yet at the age of reason seemed harsh and unfeeling. Even Augustine felt this incongruity and he sought to address it by postulating that some regions of hell might contain a special room where the temperature was not as hot as it was in the other regions. It was an ingenious suggestion. In that 'special room,' we now believe, Limbo made its entry into Christian thinking.

In the 13th century, primarily under the influence of another brilliant theologian, Thomas Aquinas, this 'special room' got the name 'Limbus,' which means a boundary, as it took another step in doctrinal development. Aquinas also felt the need for a concept that was more palatable and sensitive and not quite as grotesque as the image advanced by Augustine. Children, innocent at least in the sense that they were too young to choose to do evil deeds, were nonetheless stained by that universal human corruption. He declared, however, if they died without baptism they were assigned forever to live in this bounded place, this Limbus, which Aquinas called, a state of 'natural happiness.' While not ultimately fulfilling like the 'Beatific vision," it was not unpleasant. A conscience-healing act of compromise thus brought modern Limbo into being.

In time, this Limbo of natural happiness was expanded from being simply the abode of unbaptized babies into a place where good pagans might also go. It was thought to house ancient people who had lived before the saving grace of Christ had become available to them. This meant that Limbo counted among its residents such people as Moses, Virgil and Socrates. Later, in the centuries that came after Christ, there were some other obviously holy lives who had died without becoming Christian and thus without being baptized, but exemplary in all other ways. One thinks of holy Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews and, most spectacularly, one thinks of Mahatma Gandhi. It just violated too much to consign these good people to the eternal punishment of hell. Limbo was once again a convenient compromise between Christian judgment and Christian sensitivity. The church could not, however, become so loose and sentimental that it lost its power to control people's lives. That required an ultimate threat to keep order in the ranks of believers. Limbo served both needs. It was unfulfilling enough to be punishment. It was kind enough to allow the church's judgment to be tolerated.

The Church of the Middle Ages filled its rhetoric with such phrases as 'there is no salvation outside the Church' and 'baptism is necessary to salvation.' Later this stark religious division between the saved and the unsaved spurred the great missionary fervor of the 19th century that was historically the century of the fastest growth of the Christian faith in all of western history. Few people stopped to notice that it was also the century of the western empires and colonial domination of the third world. If a Christian nation's aggression against and conquest of primitive societies could be justified on the basis of 'bringing salvation to the heathen,' then it became a sacred duty, rather than religious imperialism, effectively perfuming the evil of war. If one was convinced that salvation for all people was accomplished only in Christ and that baptism was the only sure sign of that salvation, then the horror of a God who would condemn unbaptized children to an eternity of second-class citizenship was a small price to pay to keep the institutional power of the Church intact. The enhancement of the idea of Limbo continued in 1905, when Pope Pius 10th stated clearly, and I'm sure he thought pastorally, that "children, who die without baptism, go into Limbo where they do not enjoy God but they do not suffer either." One wonders why Pius 10th thought he was competent to know. However, that was where Limbo was in the teaching of the Catholic Church when the 20th century dawned.

In the 1960s at the II Vatican Council, the modern spirit of Pope John 23rd brought fresh air into this musty institution. That Council stated that "everyone, baptized Christian or not, could be eligible for salvation through the mystery of Christ's redemptive power." With that understanding beginning to emerge, Limbo began its slow but inevitable decline.

The final blow to this presumptuous teaching occurred when the Vatican raised the issue of abortion to a new level of intensity. In the abortion battle they desired to portray abortion as murder, so their assertion that life begins at conception was crucial to their argument. There had been a time when the Church taught that life began at the moment of "quickening" that occurs normally in the second trimester. With this new definition, necessary to keeping the debate emotional, the aborted fetuses began to be counted as unbaptized babies destined for an eternity in Limbo, however Limbo was defined. That was even more than the hierarchy itself could swallow. The justice of God collided with the tactics of control. The justice of God won and when it did Limbo was doomed. Now the Vatican Commission has begun the process of removing Limbo from the consciousness of believers. It will take a while, perhaps a century or two, but Limbo will finally disappear.

Two insights need to be understood here. One is that most of the church's talk about life after death is not about life after death at all. It is about controlling the behavior of human beings in the here and now. Fear, combined with the power of guilt, is the ultimate ecclesiastical weapon of control. If you are afraid that violating the Church's teaching or its practice will result in an eternity of punishment in the after life, you are likely to be motivated to be a good little boy or girl. If you are made to feel so guilty about your own shortcomings that you seek to expiate that guilt with confession and attendance at services of worship, you are more likely to be faithful. Salvation thus rests more on what you believe than it does on how you act. The quality of your life, living for others, serving the needs of the poor and dispossessed counts for little without proper believing and the act of being baptized is what separates you from Limbo and assures you of heaven. That is a great motivator.

The second observation is that whatever occurs after death is not something that any of us can know. We can dream or fantasize but there is no way that human knowledge can penetrate this ultimate mystery. Only religious arrogance, buttressed by claims to possess revealed truth, could suggest otherwise. What the Church has never understood is that if a person's primary motivation in life is to win an eternal reward of bliss, then each act of that person, including acts of kindness and generosity, is an act of egocentricity. If the ultimate task of the Christian Church is to help to create whole, non-self-centered lives then all control tactics, including heaven as a place of reward and hell as a place of punishment to say nothing of limbo and purgatory will have to be jettisoned. At that point the Church might finally be ready to talk about the meaning of our hope of life after death with integrity. That would be a welcome new point of departure.

— John Shelby Spong

I reproduced the entire article here because there is no place on the web where it is posted; I subscribe to his weekly columns, so it comes to me by email.

In any event, I think the kicker in this column is what I highlighted in the final paragraph: The problem of Christian morality and behavior is essentially that it is dialectic and self-defeating. It aims to produce better people of purer motivation and action, but because the necessity of this changed, improved thinking and behavior is to enjoy an eternal life of heavenly bliss, in which, we're told, there will be no more tears and no more sorrow, the Christian's unescapable motivation is selfish. This is especially true in the conservative corners of my denomination, Seventh Day Adventism, which contends that since 1844, Jesus Christ has been engaged in the work of judging Christians, pouring over the "record books" of heaven, making his list and checking it twice, to ensure we're worthy of entering the pearly gates. Now, many evangelical Christians, including many SDA's, would disagree with this conception of judgment (a fact that has generated a schism within the church between "historic" and evangelical SDA's). But the chasm between conservative SDAism and evangelical Christianity is not particularly deep on this matter, as both acknowledge an end-time judgment, separating the true believers from the nominal and admitted non-believers. Hense, the motivation for Christian service becomes strained by the view of one's own eternal destiny, rather than the lives of others. Additionally, judgment thinking tends to result in a certain "narrowing" of sin by many Christians, to "overt" acts of sin (like sexual immorality), rather than the underlying motives and the more covert acts of kindness Jesus and the Old Testament prophets tended to emphasize (for example, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, feeding the hungry, etc in Matthew 25).

Nonetheless, I suspect that due to the fragility of life, and the desire for justice amid oppression, kindness amid cruelty, human interest in eternity and utopia will continue to perpetuate a desire for heaven. I hope there is such a life, but wish that instead of using it to exclude those of unlike belief or culture, that as many as can be will be found there with me. If not, let us live to do good, because it is good. That was how Jesus lived and taught, with no eye towards a reward, either material or supernatural.

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