Gospel & Universe

Selective Grace

This page suggests that while the Christian system of Grace is very hopeful, it's hard to apply universally

Universal Judgment - Dante's Difficult Grace

Universal Judgment

Universal justice operates most clearly in abstract principles of law, in religious systems such as the karma-samsara doctrine in Hinduism and Buddhism, and in the judgment scenarios in Egyptian, Zoroastrian, and late Hebrew thought.

Systems of universal justice are less ambitious, less complicated, yet more uncompromising, than doctrines of Grace. Those who believe in universal justice hope that the universe contains a fundamental morality that applies to human behaviour. If you're good, you'll be rewarded — whether in a better next life or in a heavenly afterlife. If you're bad, you'll get punished — whether with a worse life or a hellish afterlife.

The details of universal judgment are of course seen in historical and cultural terms. Each group conceptualizes the judgment scenario according to their location, time period, culture, values, power structures, stories, and symbols. A key question -- which cannot be answered, as far as I can see -- is whether or not there's a transcendent form of Universal Justice. Is there a transcendent code that lies beneath the diversity of human cultures, laws, and religious interpretations? Most religious codes and traditions claim that they have this über, universal code, yet when we try to verify this claim by comparison with other codes, we come back back to a variety of codes, most of which claim to have the unique and ultimate code. None of course can prove that their code is the true one.

In the universal judgment system of hope, a group defines what's good or bad according to its geographical location and historical moment, and also according to its specific formulations of law, wisdom, morality, literature, and religion. The Nile-dwelling Egyptians imagined a boat journey through a complex and dangerous realm (the Duat) to a location where the heart could be weighed or judged. The mountain-dwelling Zoroastrians imagined judgement on a bridge -- after which good people went to a garden, while bad people went to a temporary realm where they could purge themselves of their faults. The Zoroastrian system is perhaps the most optimistic, for not only does Good triumph over Evil in general, but also everyone is eventually redeemed.

Some of this type of optimism can be found in the early Church father Origen of Alexandria (2nd-3rd C. AD). Like Plato, Origen seems to have believed in the notion that eventually everybody would be redeemed, perhaps even Satan. Unfortunately Origen's ideas were declared heretical: he was condemned by the Alexandrian pope in the 3rd century, and he was anathematized by the Second Council of Constantinople in the 6th century.

From an ecumenical or agnostic point of view, anathematizing theologians is like banishing Supreme Court judges who offer differing opinions. As I observed in Agora Phobia, the early Church turned quickly from persecuted to persecuting. While we tend to see this intolerance as religious in nature, it seems more an issue of intolerance than religion per se. Christianity could accommodate different visions of divine mercy. Some day the serious men with the crimson robes and swaying censors my change their minds. Perhaps some day they will un-anathematize theologians who, like Origen, dared to offer an infinitely merciful view of a religion which (as paradoxical as it may seem at times) defines itself largely in terms of grace and mercy.


Dante's Difficult Grace

In Virgil's Aeneid, written in Roman times between 29 and 19 BC, afterlife topography is much more specific than in Homer. In Dante's Divine Comedy (1308-1320), it becomes even more meticulously delineated. While the smooth linkage in the epic tradition -- from Homer to Virgil to Dante -- suggests a continuity, the shift to Dante is in fact a type of rupture. Hell and the Gardens of bliss may be similar, yet the criteria of judgment changes: for the early Egyptians and for the Classical Greeks and Romans there was only one universal system of judgment, based on merit. In Dante's Medieval Christian world, this system becomes complicated by Grace. The universal system is based on two hopes -- that there is an afterlife and that the judgment of the soul will be fair -- while the system of Grace is based on an additional hope -- that despite one's shortcomings one will still be allowed a positive afterlife. 

                                Hope    Universal Justice   Grace

Mesopotamian           N                   N                N

Greek & Roman    N --> Y        (N) --> (Y)        N

Christian                    Y                   (Y)               Y           

Dante's take on the afterlife of Odysseus illustrates some of the difficulties that occur when systems of hope collide. Take, for instance the case of Odysseus, who is a hero to the Classical Greeks yet a villain to the Medieval Italians -- and to Dante, who places him in Hell. The problem with Dante's judgment of Odysseus (a legendary figure who is a late Ancient Mycenaean who becomes a hero to the early Classical Greeks) is that Dante applies the moral standard of one place and time (monotheistic Italy in the Middle Ages) to another place and time (polytheistic Greece in the Classical Age). The types of amoral things Odysseus does (tricks the Trojans, slaughters the suitors) were less egregious to early Greeks than to Medieval Christians.

Odysseus and Virgil lived their lives in their own times yet they are being judged by a universal system (which includes them) yet which has different standards of expectation and judgment (which excludes them). Even if Odysseus lived like a model Christian Greek or Italian, he could never believe in Jesus during his lifetime because Jesus hadn't been born yet. To be judged lacking in a belief that didn't yet exist is ridiculous. Yet it gets worse: Dante doesn't even bring up the possibility that Odysseus could get a retrial after hearing the more recent news of the gospel.

paris judge 2.jpeg

Notwithstanding the above complication inherent in the idea of a Universal Judgment, there's still a clear distinction between theistic hopeful systems which judge individuals according to their actions (as in Hindu, Buddhist, and Ancient Egyptian religions) and systems which judge individuals according to both their actions and their beliefs (as in Christianity). This latter belief system is optimistic in the sense that even wicked people have the chance to become good. Yet it's also pessimistic in that those who don't share the belief are condemned to eternal damnation. 



Next: Aquinas & Dante

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