August 7, 2006
-- Martin E. Marty
One week after I explained why Sightings does not always pick the "topic of the week" for comment, I find myself commenting on the "topic of last week," Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic outburst. I'll pass the whole controversy by except to lift out a sub-theme. From the Chicago Sun-Times "wires," a short item, replicated many places, explaining Gibson's anti-Jewish remarks: "He follows the Catholic doctrine of 'Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus,' which contends that followers of all other religions will go to hell." That was supposed to be that.
A few decades ago, a Father Feeney of Boston was disciplined and kicked out of the priesthood for forming a kind of cult which gave this sort of Gibsonian spin to the "Extra Ecclesiam" formula, which is as old as Cyprian in the early church. It is likely that if Gibson were in the Roman Catholic Church today — as defined as being obedient to the Pope, etc., which Gibson's Catholic "sect" is not — someone would at least reprimand him. He said that his wife, though a "saint" who believes in God, knows Jesus, and all "that stuff," is hell-bound. Though "it's just not fair if she doesn't make it" to heaven, she won't, because "Extra Ecclesiam is a pronouncement from the chair," and on that subject Gibson "goes with it."
The "chair" can take care of his own affairs, and does not need me to defend him/it. Admittedly, the Extra Ecclesiam formula has been used ruthlessly, and many Gibsons through the years have either blithely or in torment kissed their loved ones off to burn in hell forever. Patient folk who consult the larger tradition and its present unfoldings find many "softenings": purgatory, baptism of desire, and countless others. Vatican documents like "Nostra Aetate" are generous in their interpretation of how God acts beyond the narrow channels the church has often cut.
What I want to pick up on is what the blitheness of the championing of the doctrine of hell and checking up on those who make too little of it must mean. Now and then I've been criticized, not for being a "universalist" or a sentimentalist about salvation, but as someone who points to the inhumaneness of most (= all?) people who are literalists about the flames of hell and how some get there, but who then go about their lives. Here's the simple Marty test. When someone wants to assess your orthodoxy by seeing how much you insist on and relish teachings about fiery hell, do this: Take him or her to dinner, where there is a candle on the table. Have the other pass a hand through the candle's flame. Now ask that it be held there two seconds. Now more. Now for all eternity. Now imagine this in all parts of the body. Then ask: Do you believe this will happen to every person who does not believe as you do, or does not belong to the right Christian group, or is not "born again"?
If that person says "yes," you are licensed to holler: "How in hell can you be sitting here having dinner instead of being out there passing tracts, giving away all your possessions, tripping people on the sidewalks, and hollering in their ears? — things which even the most ardent "pro-hell" advocates do not do. That person, otherwise humane, who would do anything to rescue someone from the burn of one candle on one finger on one evening, is blithe about people suffering that torment forever?
If my finger-in-the-flame test doesn't do it, try another. Such tests are not about religious orthodoxy, but about human imagination. Under God.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.