Thursday, 19 February 2009

On Heaven and Hell

Several years ago my wife Ann counseled a dear Catholic friend (Mary (not her real name) about a particular crisis Mary was dealing with. At one point during the conversation Ann suggested that Mary present her problem directly to Jesus and wait for his response. “Oh, no I couldn’t do that!” Mary promptly responded” “For heavens sake", Ann replied “Why not?” “Because”, Mary sobbed, “ I couldn’t possible present Jesus with my silly little problem while he is hanging on the cross”.

For those who still hold a view of a punishing or impotent God and tremble with fear of hell , Saving Paradise will help them to recover an ancient world view that is life transforming and earth affirming. It reminds us of a biblical perspective that does not reserve paradise for the dead but invites the living to find grace, justice, peace and compassion – here and now- amid the jangling discord of violence and war. It may mark the beginning of a paradigm shift in contemporary Christian understanding and interfaith dialogue.
This remarkable book reveals that during their first millennium, Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ ... as a shepherd, a teacher, a healer, an enthroned god; he is an infant, a youth, and a bearded elder. But there were no images of a dead crucified Christ. Neither will you find any references to purgatory and hell as a place of eternal of pain and suffering.

Saving Paradise turns upside down the history of the church's view of Jesus' crucifixion and its stress on the importance of suffering. The authors attempt to show that for the first thousand years of its existence, the Christian church placed much more emphasis on the resurrection and paradise than the crucifixion. The Christian church of the first millennium never stressed that Jesus' suffering on the cross was necessary for the salvation of humanity.
What changed? How did the Christian churches, until this day, come to embrace such terrifying images as hell and purgatory? Why do they still exist today? One can still find booklets such as What Will Hell Be Like? filled with terrifying images of suffering and pain supposedly attributed to St. Alponsus Liguori (1696 –1787). At the same time many evangelical churches continue to spread the word of God under a similar threat of heaven and hell.

Many people today would be surprised to learn that these fearful images and theological ideas did not prevail in the Church until the ninth century beginning with the Carolingian campaign to subdue the Saxons.
The authors tackle what they consider the subversion of the Christian message -- exemplified by the ninth-century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who instituted the death penalty for conquered people who refused to convert. The Carolingians constructed a Christian piety that used violence to convert pagans and then taught its victims to regard their violation as justified and sanctified.
The Carolingian theology of the Eucharist drew humanity to the dead Christ and separated believers from the living Christ with his power to teach, heal, and give life to all. Christ no longer offered love and abundant life but judgment to be feared and suffering to be repeated by the faithful. Salvation, once a community of life in paradise, now meant escape from guilt and punishment.
The crucified Christ confronted communicants at every Eucharist, accusing them of killing him. To be an unrepentant, sinful Christian was to be judged a murderer by Christ the victim and judge. Those who knelt before the divine victim petitioned for mercy for their sins, hoping not to be condemned to hell.
The Carolingians cut the connections between great power and great responsibility, and denied divine power in humanity, forfeiting their ethical obligations to protect life on earth.

Was the Eucharist the crucified body or the resurrection of life? The Carolingian Eucharist placed ritual murder at its center and a dead body on the altar of life. This new theology of the Eucharist took away the life-giving love of Christ and made him a victim. His corpse’s power to judge sin alienated Christians from communion with Christ and from the love and support of the community of the saints. It isolated individuals and left them terrified.
Now the Christian trembled in the presence of the crucified Savior, guilty and overcome, begging for mercy
Penalties and punishments proliferated for the faithful and unfaithful alike. The torments of the martyrs, like that of the good thief became standard in devotional images.
The ninth century’s new focus on the crucified Christ coincided with a shift in the Christian prohibition against the shedding of human blood. For centuries, the church had taught that participation in warfare was evil, that killing broke the fifth commandment, and that soldiers were to perform penance to cleanse their soul from the stain of blood. At the dawn of the Holy Roman Empire, Christianity began to lose its grip on the sinfulness of killing. A new age began – one in which the execution of Jesus would become a sacrifice to be repeated, first on the Eucharistic altar and then in the ravages of a full-blown holy war (crusades).
To this day the most recognized symbol of the Roman Catholic Church remains the figure of the crucified Christ. The theology that supports that symbol is largely based on the ideas first put forward by St. Anselm (c.1033 - 1109). He stated that the work of Jesus was "salvation" - saving those who believed in him from the impossible abyss that separated God from humanity, bridging it with his own body. Thus many people today accept the idea that Jesus offered up his body to satisfy a vengeful God.
James Carroll, 'Constantine's Sword', (2000) writes "The first result of Anselm's theology of salvation was, as we saw, to solder the faith to the cross, and to make the death of Jesus more important than anything he had said, despite his clear statement that "the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life". His death counted for more than his having been born, having lived as a Jew, having preached a gospel of love in the context of Israel's covenant with a loving God, having opposed the imperium of Rome, even having been brought to the new life of Resurrection. The death obsession of the flagellants was deemed holy, and the blood lust of the crusaders was sanctified . God, too, had blood lust. Christ's agony on the cross would now become the black flower of the Western imagination - on armour, in Passion Plays, in paintings, in altar carvings, in rituals like the Stations of the Cross, and ultimately in the cross at Auschwitz."
St. Anselm's influence or theology were to have severe consequences in the following centuries. Furthermore it fully supports the claims made by Brock and Parker in their story SAVING PARADISE.
In 1231, Pope Gregory IX made the torments awaiting the bad thief vividly real. He launched the Inquisition and licensed the church to use torture to discipline heretics and protect the faith.
Frightful images of martyrs being boiled or burned alive, disemboweled, speared, beheaded, stoned, devoured by beast, tortured on a rack and taunted by demons began the appear in religious art and literature.
In the thirteenth century, postmortem paradise began to morph into purgatory. The Second Council of Lyons in 1274 established that “purgatorial and purifying penalties” would take place after death for sinners who had failed to render full satisfaction for their sins before they died. Once Christians died, they still had to be purged of every trace of sin before they could enter the heavenly paradise.
The living could pray for the dead, perform masses for them, or buy indulgences to lighten their purgatorial load. As purgatory heated up, the distance between heaven and earth stretched ever wider. In the Divine Comedy, Dante (1265-1321) detailed his visionary pilgrimage through hell and up the steep mountain of purgatory. By the fourteenth century, to die in an agony of torture had become a spiritual ideal. Public spectacles of torture and execution became popular, which the faithful could find repeated in Passion images and again today with Mel Gibson’s The Passion’.
More recently, fundamentalist factions such as The Society of St Pius X., previously excommunicated by Pope John Paul II, are now being invited back into the fold despite denials of the Jewish Holocaust and stating that the Inquisition, which resulted in the deaths and torture of thousands, merely reflected an “attitude toward heretics comparable to that of our Lord.”
At this point I can only think of what Jesus might say, forgive them Father, for they do not know what they do or say!
Rita Brock & Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise – How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Beacon Press, Boston, MA., 2008.

A review by Fr. Diarmuid O'Murchu
Brock, Rita Nakashima & Rebecca Ann Parker (2008), SAVING PARADISE. Probably the single most inspiring book I have read in the past ten years! After an extensive study on how Christian art depicts the death and resurrection of Jesus throughout the first millennium, the authors highlight that the image of the suffering Jesus on the Cross is an invention of the 900s and only became widespread with the Crusades in the 1100s. The dominant imagery of the first 1,000 years envisaged "paradise" as happening within the living creation itself, and salvation required the Christian to engage seriously and justly with creation in the here and now (paradise), rather than seeking to escape into the salvation hereafter made possible by the the suffering of the cross. A revolutionary and inspiring read!

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