Saturday, November 02, 2013

In Paradisum Deducant

Today, lest anyone forget, is the Feast of All Souls.  Dia de los Muertos.  Commemoration of the Faithful Departed.

It is the day on which we remember all the faithful who have died -- including especially those who were not, at the time of their death, distinguished by any particular holiness of life.  If yesterday we thanked God for those saints whose lives serve as a witness and inspiration to our faith, then today we thank God for the abundant grace which offers eternal life even to those whose time on earth was (ahem) less than inspirational.

At which point, some readers may respond, like Tonto to the Lone Ranger, "What you mean we, white man?"

Sad to say, we Evangelicals do not much observe All Souls.  One does not find it on our church calendars, nor indexed in our hymnals. (Hymn suggestions here, if you need some.)  Our tendency, so far as Fr. A. can tell, is to merge the two days, and remember all the Christian dead on All Saints (or, more usually, the Sunday following).  This is entirely sensible for people whose theology makes much of the simul iustus idea, and which grounds salvation in baptismal grace rather than works.  We are all saints and we are all sinners; dividing the two is redundant at best and actively misleading at worst.  Indeed, it requires us to make a judgment -- saint of sinner?  sheep or goat? -- which must properly be reserved for God alone.

At least that's the idea.  Personally, we at the Egg are not convinced.  The division of the two days may serve valuable purposes, both psychological and pedagogical.   We Christians know in our heads that God makes no distinction between Mother Teresa and, let us say, that nasty old Uncle Harry who died last week, the one who never had a kind word for anybody and cursed the nurses on his deathbed.  To God, both are equally sinful and equally beloved.  But in our hearts, we feel them to be quite different from each other.  Dividing the days allows us to acknowledge our own very different experience of the lives these two people have led -- while still proclaiming clearly, still teaching, that God has saved them both.

Frankly, it may be useful to some people -- those whose memories of Uncle Harry are tainted by a keen awareness of just how loathesome the old coot was in life -- if we set aside a day for saying, clearly, "It isn't just virgins and martyrs; loathesome old coots are God's people too."

This brings us, naturally, to the overweight gorilla in the room:  Purgatory.  The medieval piety surrounding All Souls was very much concerned with Purgatory, and specifically with figuring out how we on earth could move ourselves and others out of the place as fast as possible.  This led first to prayers for the dead, then to paying other people to pray, and thence by an ugly road to the traffic in indulgences, the sale of Masses, and all the other terrible things that prompted the 95 Theses.  The worst of this was superstition rather than formal doctrine, but still, there it was.  And no sane person, Protestant or Papist, wants to go back there.

Protestant theology deals with Purgatory much as it once dealt with the Canon of the Mass -- effectively saying "This thing is so messed up that we cannot fix it.  Therefore, let's throw it out altogether."  Never mind the old axiom that abusus non tollit usum.  We despise the bath-water more than we love the baby.

Luther provides a ready example.  Melanchthon, in the Apology, was careful not to throw out Purgatory, even amid his sustained and forceful attack on the abuses it had occasioned.  Luther, in the Smalcald Articles, is less careful.  He writes:
[P]urgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil. 
This seems amply clear.  But in context, Luther is really raging against the attempt to define doctrine solely upon human opinion -- in this case, St Augustine -- apart from the Scripture.  If the Papists were to stop making that particular error in theological method, he says, then we might discuss these things with them.  To this, theologians of a later and less controverisal era might well respond that negotiations are often freer when entered into without conditions.

And of course, we should remember that there is Purgatory and then there is Purgatory.  Jacque LeGoff has brilliantly traced the history of the idea, from its roots in antiquity to its blossoming in Scholastic Paris, and demonstrated that not all conceptions of Purgatory are identical.*  Simply put, one can believe that God has means to purify impure souls after death without necessarily signing on to the whole Dantean cosmography.  As Newman said in Tract 90, recognizing (with the 39 Articles) that the Popish Purgatory is "a fond thing vainly invented" does not prevent us recognizing some other, non-Popish, version.

Tertullian's casual reference to a "refrigerium interim," a place of temporary refreshment for those who are not yet prepared for the Beatific Vision, could be one starting place for an Evangelical account of Purgatory.  Call it Heaven's Narthex, or Confirmation Class for the Dead.

In a sense, one might even argue that simul iustus depends upon the assumption that God has some means to strip from the newly dead their sin and leave only the holiness of Christ.  That there are tools appointed on earth for this is clear:  baptism and absolution.  But it seems natural that there are also tools in heaven, to be used upon those who die impenitent, the nasty old Uncle Harrys of the world.  To believe otherwise is to weaken either God's omnipotence or, as the Calvinists sometimes do, God's mercy.

And "Purgatory" is simply the name that we give, as  a matter of convenience, to these tools.

At least it could be.  The Orthodox, so we are told, believe that God deals mercifully with the dead, but shy away from giving this merciful dealing a Latin name or attaching to it the trappings of either indulgences or "purgatorial fire."  We Evangelicals, being also Latins, might be able to take a middle position here, and call Purgatory by its customary name, while making clear at the same time that its inner workings are God's business, hidden deliberately from our eyes and certainly from our power to alter or affect.

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* For those who care, Father A. has explored some of the implications of LeGoff's research in the light of anthropological theory, in an article published in Pro Ecclesia (13:4, Fall 2004, pp. 494ff.)

2 comments:

Geoff said...

Someone was pointing out to me the oddity of All Souls appearing in the LCMS kalendar but not in ELW.

Father Anonymous said...

I didn't realize they had it. I'm mildly surprised, but by no means shocked. And rather pleased.