Justin Aptaker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee, earning a B.A. in psychology and a minor in religious studies.
“To the few who love me and whom I love—to those who feel rather than to those who think—to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities—I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone:—let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem.”
“What I here propound is true:—therefore it cannot die:—or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will ‘rise again to the Life Everlasting.'”
“Nevertheless it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.”
~ Edgar Allan Poe (Emphases added. Preface to Eureka, which expounded Poe’s mystical, and decisively not pessimistic, vision of reality. It was published one year prior to his death. See: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32037/32037-h/32037-h.htm)
In the course of writing these pages, I have come to adopt an ethical position very different from anything I was previously familiar with. I'd always felt uncomfortable with Kant's Categorical Imperative, and I'd always been drawn to Carol Gilligan's Ethics of Care. I hope that she would find my own newfound ethical stance to be well in line with her own thinking, albeit with a slightly different angle. My ethics today are, stated most simply, “Seek the Beautiful”.
Of course, “Beautiful”, by its very nature, is usually regarded as an entirely subjective affair, and would, without further definition, therefore open the door to the broadest sort of relativism possible. However, in my conception of it, The Beautiful is a real Form, in the Platonic sense, if not the only real Form, from the perspective of Ultimate Reality. It is defined entirely within itself. Within human interactions, it manifests essentially along the lines of the ethics of care. That is to say, what is Beautiful in our humanity and our interaction with one another is our genuine love and compassion for one another. Whatever else people may find beautiful (in the context of human interaction with other living beings) is, therefore, suspect, and may likely be deficient at best, or corrupted at worst.
I hope you'll get a better idea of what I mean as you continue to read the pages ahead.
Waking from my Dogmatic Slumber
I’ve recently started reading the 2018 tome on Christian universalism by Michael J. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption. One of his peers has predicted that it will be considered the “definitive treatment” of the topic for years to come.
It defends an anti-universalistic stance.
A brief review of the historical literature on the subject of Christian universalism is sufficient to show, rather convincingly, that universalism has deep roots in the earliest Christian antiquity, such that there was nothing close to an anti-universalistic consensus for the first five or six centuries of Christendom. A quick scan of The Devil's Redemption and its reviews would suggest that it works to undermine that historical foundation by associating universalism--very unsuccessfully, according to luminaries like David Bentley Hart--with Gnostic traditions, thereby removing its provenance from the world of "proto-orthodoxy", to borrow a term from Bart Ehrman. The book attacks the claim that universalism is Biblical, and it presents philosophical reasons that universalism is either untenable or undesirable.
I’ll provide an update on all that after I read through more of the book.
However, what I’ve read so far has prompted me to publish the following argument for universalism as quickly as possible, and I don’t believe that my argument will change drastically upon my further reading of the book. My argument is addressed to epistemological and ontological aspects of Christian soteriology/eschatology that I strongly suspect are largely unaddressed and/or unaddressable by The Devil’s Redemption.
I’m calling it the Argument from Beauty.
McClymond has framed Christian universalists as “metaphysical rebels”. In other words, they are people who refuse to accept reality “as it is”. As much as I like the moniker, and would love to adopt it to describe myself, I must refuse to accept its validity as defined by McClymond.
A “Digression” Into Bibliolatry
From a rational and empirical perspective alone, it is possible to surmise that, if there are intelligent designers of our universe, they are indifferent to human affairs, at best. One of the primary themes of the Gospel, however, is that the Creator of our universe is neither indifferent nor sadistic, but cares deeply about all living beings, desiring the best for each of them. This theme, I think, is one of the themes that sets the Gospel aside as relatively unique for its cultural milieu, and relatively unique in contrast to currents of human thought in general.
The Gospel is not something that could be deduced via rationalism and empiricism alone. It is, I think, for that reason, many people consider the Christian Bible to be a vital source of knowledge. It is for that reason, I think, that many people elevate that collection of texts to a lofty place that often approaches, if not entirely becomes, a sort of deification of the texts. That is what I call bibliolatry.
The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. While I believe that the Christian scriptures are, in fact, a vital and divinely inspired source of wisdom, my personal panentheism requires that other sacred texts, nature itself, the human conscience, intuition, and many other such abstractions are also divinely inspired sources of wisdom. The Christian Bible stands unique inasmuch as it tells the story of Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself was quoted as saying, “You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life.” Indeed, eternal life is a quality of life, not a duration of life. It is the quality of a life that is united with the Eternal. This is how Jesus is quoted as defining it: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
Many Christians elevate their scriptures to such a degree that they term themselves, “Bible-believing Christians”, and the assumption, I believe, is that there is really no such thing as a Christian who isn’t “Bible-believing”. By Bible-believing, people almost invariably seem to refer to the belief that the Bible is the literal, inerrant, infallible Word of God. They seem to believe that the voice of God can actually be contained in dead human symbols: in a human language.
But in fact, if one actually believes the Christian bible, they will tell you that only one thing is required to be a proper “Christian”: “. . . the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who trusts in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who trusts in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever trusts in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not has already been condemned, because he has not trusted in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Thus, while the Christian scriptures do point to Jesus Christ, it is completely unnecessary to believe that the sacred texts themselves must be considered the inerrant, literal, infallible words of God Himself. That is not listed as a requirement for one to gain eternal life.
In fact, the Christian Bible itself makes it clear that Christ himself is “the Word” (Logos). Elsewhere, it makes it clear that the Word of God is Spirit. Thus, the Christian Bible clarifies that God Himself is the Word of God. That is another reason, I believe, why even referring to the Bible as the Word of God is a form of idolatry.
But this is a subject I’ve discussed elsewhere, and that I will explore later in this series.
Kant, We Have a Problem
Again, I'll say that from a rational and empirical perspective alone, it is possible to surmise that, if there are intelligent designers of our universe, they are indifferent to human affairs. One of the most salient themes of the Gospel, however, is that the Creator of our universe is neither indifferent nor sadistic, but cares deeply about all living creatures, desiring only the best for each of them.
This brings me to what I privately like to dub, “The Fundamental Problem of Philosophy”. Western epistemology traditionally grants us two valid sources of knowledge: the rational and the empirical. However, those two sources contradict each other when we ponder the most basic question of metaphysics: Does anything exist and/or occur?
Empirically, it seems undeniable that something exists and/or occurs. Our sensory experiences tell us unequivocally that something must exist, or must be occurring, even if that "something" is nothing more than subjective experiences themselves. Rationally, however, nothing should exist. This is because our reason dictates that everything must have a cause. That is the foundation of the scientific method. We must admit, however, that existence itself must be either uncaused or somehow self-causing. Both scenarios completely defy our reason by defying the most fundamental grounds of that reason.
In short, reason tells us that there is no way anything can or should exist or occur. But experience tells us that something does exist and/or occur, and given that fact, absolute nothingness never was and never can be even within the domain of what is possible. Absolute nothingness cannot have ever been more than a mere abstraction generated within the imaginations of beings with our sort of cognitive capacities. What this fundamental and absolute contradiction (between what reason and experience say about existence itself) tells me is that reason and sensory experience alone are insufficient sources of knowledge when it comes to the most basic questions of metaphysics.
The Short & Sweet, the Beautiful and the True
In short, the Christian Universalist Argument from Beauty will go something like this:
Empiricism and reason alone are insufficient as sources of knowledge about some of the deepest, most enduring questions about our existence (see the prior section). The Christian Bible, furthermore, is limited as a source of knowledge for a life of faith, and an excess of dependence on or devotion to it tend towards idolatry.
Another source of “knowledge” about the big questions of life might be found in the non-rational, subconscious human faculties, such as intuition, emotion, and instinct. Nonhuman animals are known to possess instincts that are genetically inherited, and do not spring from the direct experience or rational processes of the individual members of the species, but represent the subconscious, embodied knowledge inherited from the collective wisdom of the species, as encoded in the individual’s genetics. Might we wonder whether such collective, unconscious knowledge also exists in humans?
From a philosophical standpoint, it has long been controversial to claim that beauty can be a source of knowledge. While early western philosophy often linked the Beautiful with the Good and the True, modern philosophy elevated reason and empirical experience to a lofty position of exclusivity. While there are certainly modern and contemporary philosophers who have attempted to reestablish a link between the Beautiful and the True, the idea hasn’t really been resurrected on a mass scale. That, however, shouldn’t minimize the import of these outliers’ contributions. I will spend a good deal of time looking at them in upcoming issues of this series.
I would ask whether, at the very least, systematic theology should consider beauty as a potential source of knowledge. Christian theology, in particular, is fond of claiming that “faith” (itself neither strictly rational or empirical) is an essential component of the life of the spirit. Could one have faith that God’s plans are beautiful? I believe that is central to the “good news” of the Gospel. Or does faith have a place in theology anymore, now that we prefer our theology to be “systematic”?
A universe in which the majority of people suffered for eternity, or even a universe in which some people suffered for eternity, would not be beautiful. I base that statement on my own perceptions of what is or is not “beautiful”, but as we will later see, such conceptions may sometimes correspond to certain objective realities.
So, I say again: a universe in which anyone spends an eternity in torment is not beautiful. And if, by faith, I believe that God’s plans are beautiful, then I reject such a conception of the universe.
There is, in fact, scientific and mathematical support for the idea that our conceptions of beauty may sometimes correspond to the truth-value of the thing that we see as beautiful or not beautiful. I will discuss all of this, and much more, as I continue to describe the Argument from Beauty. In beginning to do my research for this project, I ended up finding that the subject of beauty is incredibly rich and vast and complex. My next issue in this series will outline some of those many subtleties and nuances that I intend to discuss in this series. It turns out that, in everything from our theologies to our pop culture, we mostly overlook the incredible depths of the subject of “Beauty”. True, our society is obsessed with beauty, but only with beauty that is “skin-deep”, so to speak.
I propose that Beauty is sometimes a source of knowledge; not necessarily knowledge with certainty, as we seek in empiricism and rationalism, but knowledge nonetheless. This is an inner wisdom: a direct personal experience of a deeper reality. Sometimes, it may even take a bit of faith to attain such knowledge. But then again, so did the idea that people might one day be able to fly.
Two Kinds of Faith
The last section ended by stating that it may “take a bit of faith” to believe the message of universal salvation. However, I’ll argue now that is also takes faith–more faith, in fact–to believe that God will not eventually save all people. To see what I mean by this, begin by looking at the following quote from a different article I wrote:
“If God is Love, then surely he wants the best for every person. Many scriptures support this. 1 Timothy 2:4 says ‘God … wants all people to be saved’. I also believe God is powerful enough to accomplish whatever He wants. Isaiah 46:10 says ‘I (God) will accomplish all that I please’. When Christ’s disciples once asked him ‘Who can be saved?’, part of his response was, ‘With God, all things are possible’, by which we can infer: God can save anyone! If God desires that every person be saved, and he is able to bring about all that he desires, how can anyone not be saved? The doctrine of eternal damnation suggests that either God’s love or God’s power is deficient.”
In fact, there are many passages from the Christian Bible that indicate that God will save all people. Here are more examples.
Now, if you believe that the Christian scriptures were, in fact, inspired by God, all these scriptures should present you with a major problem if you also believe in an eternal hell. Setting aside, for the moment (I will return to the topic), the idea of free will, consider the faith now required to believe in eternal torment. You must now take it on faith that the statements from these scriptures, although inspired by God, are in some way not quite true.
Consider that the passage from Isaiah, quoted above, is not merely stating that God can accomplish whatever He desires, but that He will accomplish everything He desires. Then the other scriptures, quoted and linked to above, unequivocally state that He desires that no person “perish”, but that all people be saved. Therefore, from a scriptural standpoint, all people will be saved. To believe otherwise now requires a great deal of faith.
I’ll have more to say about “free will” later, but if one believes the passages quoted and linked to above, then one must conclude that no person will eternally and freely choose to not be saved, for God earnestly desires that all people be saved, and God will accomplish all He desires.
So, if one believes that these scriptures were inspired by God, it should now take less faith to believe that God will save all people than it takes to believe that He will not. To believe that He will not save all people requires one to somehow believe that God’s nature is not what scripture says it is. One must believe that either He will not, in fact, accomplish all that He wishes to accomplish, or that He will accomplish all He wants, but He simply does not want to save everyone. If you believe the scriptures, you must now contradict logic, the scriptures, and the revealed nature of God to assert that some people will not be saved. And that, I imagine, would take a lot of faith.
So, you must now choose between two beliefs. They both require faith. One of these beliefs, however, requires faith that contradicts scripture, contradicts logic, and maligns the very nature of God. The other belief requires faith that agrees with scripture, does not contradict logic, and ascribes only the best attributes to the nature of God.
One of these beliefs is the belief that Being/Reality is beautiful. The other belief amounts to a perception of a Reality that is ultimately not beautiful at all.
If you must, by faith, choose between one idea that life is beautiful, and another idea that life is not beautiful, wouldn’t you rather believe in that which is beautiful?
Beauty is a Big Deal
As I began doing my research for this series, I became acutely aware that, until now, I had not given the concept of “Beauty” nearly the amount of thought that it merits. I further realized that I was not alone in this.
It turns out that Beauty is a central concept in sacred literature from all religious traditions. Moreover, it is a pervasive concept in science, mathematics, metaphysics, and mysticism. Indeed, for how central the concept is to the grander domains of human thought, it is given shockingly little popular attention. Or rather, the popular attention is directed mostly towards cheap social ideas of beauty, such as those that the magazine covers urge us to strive for. However, beauty, as a concept, is far more than skin-deep.
Here are just a few examples:
- In the Genesis account of the creation, when God proclaims everything “good” over and over again, the word translated as “good” is the Hebrew word טוֹב, which also means “beautiful”.
- In Jewish, Christian, and mystical traditions, the idea of “completion” is central. In Genesis, for example, God declares His work “finished”, and then rests on the seventh day due to that fact. Thus, the number seven is associated with completion. Also, just before Jesus died on the cross, He is said to have proclaimed, “It is finished”. This theme of completion is closely connected in religious and linguistic ways to both the concept of “perfection” and the concept of “beauty”.
- Beauty has long been, and continues to be, a guiding principle in mathematics and science. This is related to the mathematical/scientific concept of “symmetry”, which has long been thought indicative of a theory’s likelihood to express something true. This emphasis on symmetry has come under attack in the last few years, but the likely result will not be that we jettison the idea of symmetry entirely, but rather, that we balance it more appropriately with other principles. This, I believe, will not amount to a rejection of beauty as a guiding principle. As explained below, it will more likely result in a more subtle definition of mathematical/scientific beauty.
- While mathematics and science have long sought beauty in symmetry, Heraclitus proclaimed millenia ago that “the most beautiful arrangement is a pile of things poured out at random”. The word used for “arrangement”, naturally, is the Greek word “κόσμος”, that is, “Kosmos”, from which we get the English word “Cosmos”.
- If Heraclitus was correct, and if the contemporary scientific consensus about the general randomness of the universe is correct, then perhaps Leibniz, though ridiculed for supposing that we inhabit “the best of all possible worlds”, was also correct. I digress. However, my point is also that there are infinite such digressions, and so it turns out that “Beauty” will lead us on a very deep and wide journey.
- Consider the common fact that the human perception of beauty in another human face is directly related to the symmetry of that face. However, upon second thought, this is only partly true, as the symmetry in question is entirely that of symmetry across the vertical axis. Were a human face to be also symmetrical across the horizontal axis, it would not look beautiful. It would look grotesque.
- Perhaps then, beauty is actually a balanced juxtaposition of symmetry and non-symmetry. That is, perhaps it is equal parts Heraclitus and contemporary mathematics/science. After all, isn’t the beauty of life, in all its diversity, on planet earth, in some way the beauty of the juxtaposition of all that order against the background of apparent cosmic randomness and chaos?
I’ll conclude this line of thought for now, as I think I’ve sufficiently illustrated just how far the contemplation of Beauty can take us. This illustration doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, as we will later see.
Shame is Also a Big Deal
What is shame?
May I propose that shame is nothing other than our perception of ourselves as being ugly in a deeper-than-cosmetic sense. We often feel shame when we commit deeds that we perceive as ugly deeds.
Note: this chapter on shame will not end here. It is presently unfinished but will be completed shortly.
Much more to come soon...
The author lovingly dedicates this article on November 6th, 2018, to the memory of two dear friends: Gary Amirault, who passed from this world on November 3rd, 2018, and his wife, Michelle Amirault, who preceded him in death on July 31st, 2018. Gary and Michelle lived their lives passionately in love with Love, and on behalf of Love. Indeed, this article would likely have never come to be, were it not for Gary and Michelle's love. Gary and Michelle tirelessly promoted what they called the "Victorious Gospel", otherwise known as Christian Universalism or Universal Reconciliation. In short, they proclaimed to the world that "Love Wins". Tentmaker Ministries is one of their most enduring legacies, and can still be found easily online.
© 2019 Justin Aptaker