Friday, March 25, 2011

Bell, Bashir and Bird

It's a fierce interview, but no ruder than say the Australian political talk show, Q and A.  At one level there are debates about the place of universalism in the church, does it have a valid interpretative tradition and should it have a place in contemporary orthodox theology?  Then there are discussions about a whole swag of Scriptures, both those that seem to support the idea of Universalism and those that seem to leave no room at all for Universalism.  But beyond both those lines of thought are the two most important questions, the first one big and philosophical, the second one practical.

The first is about the ultimate nature of God and evil, 'is evil ultimately part of God', but I'll unpack that one more fully in a later blogpost! The second is asked by Martin Bashir, the host in the clip above; "does my response to Jesus in this life matter?"  An acquaintance from my old church said to Dad recently that his newfound universalism meant he no longer cared about evangelism.  But God's organization of the cosmos means that both our destination and what we do along the way matters.  Thankfully Christ's sacrificial death and obedient life are counted as ours, otherwise they'd be slim pickings on the tree when it came time to harvest.  This in turn made me think of what Michael Bird pointed out a little while ago:
"we should avoid ragging on these with the charge of "synergism" because any soteriology that includes a human response is in some sense synergistic. A better way to evaluate soteriologies (ancient or modern) is to look at the type of divine action, its efficacy, and the human response that makes it effective in a particular scheme."
Bird explains it better than I but basically God's made it so our response is significant, it's not that he's trying to cope with our choices or guess them but that they matter because he made it so they'd matter. 


Andrew Bowles said...

The thing is that Bell actually answered that question, in the affirmative, about four times. He can't really be faulted for Bashir presenting him with leading questions.

Luke Isham said...

Hi Andrew,

Do you mean this section of the Interview:

Bashir: So is it irrelevant and is it immaterial about how one responds to Christ in this life in terms of determining one’s eternal destiny? Is that immaterial?

Bell: I think it’s extraordinarily important.

Bashir: In your book you said, 'God wins regardless in the end.'

Bell: Love wins for me, as a way of understanding that God is love, and love demands freedom.

Bashir: I’m asking you (for the second time), is it irrelevant, as to how you respond to Christ in your life now to determine your eternal destiny? That is irrelevant? Is it immaterial?

Bell: It is terribly relevant, and terribly important.

Bashir: I'm not talking about what happens when you die. I'm asking you how you respond here and now?...What I'm asking is, is it irrelevant and immaterial about how you respond to Christ now to determine your eternal destiny? Is that relevant or irrelevant? Does it have a bearing or does it have no bearing?

Bell: I think it has tremendous bearing.

I'm not convinced, but that could be because Bell annoys me.

Andrew Bowles said...

I think Bell's using the phrase 'eternal destiny' in a different way to Bashir, so just repeating the question was never going to get a proper answer. I think Bell means by his answer that if you respond to Jesus in this life you receive the blessings of eternal life now as well as, in your 'eternal destiny' (i.e. your experience of coming before the presence of God), avoiding a painful purgative experience. That is why it is 'extraordinarily important'. But there's no way for Bashir to get at that explanation by just hammering away at the same question. You could see Bell trying not to laugh at how cartoonish the questions were, and I sympathised with him, even though he could have been clearer himself. A plague on both their houses!

Arthur said...

Someone pointed out that one further question from Bashir would have clarified things substantially: How then does your response to Christ now still have a bearing on your eternal destiny?

Robin Parry talks about what Bashir was angling at as a pretty tough question for a universalist.

Luke Isham said...

Thanks, I hadn't realised Parry had blogged on that! And yes perhaps the nuance of "how" would have helped. Although as even Parry points out, Bell wanted it both ways and may have answered even that form of the question in the same way!


BTW I'm not condoning this format of theological discussion although I think it's exciting to see it as part of the mainstream media discourse, albeit briefly. Again I'm not convinced Bell was making every effort to provide clear answers, however I agree it would have been great to know if he thought what you suggested, why go through more pain than you necessarily have to.

Andrew Bowles said...

Yes, I think Parry has analysed the problem that Bell was facing correctly. In that kind of interview, saying 'Yes, but...' is always seen as evasive, but there was no other way for him to answer. So Bashir scored a rhetorical victory. Bell probably was being evasive because he wanted to say certain things (eg. about his pastoral concerns) rather than being pinned down about universalism. But if you want to be understood in a nuanced way, don't go on TV.

On another tack, I think that particular question, framed in the way Bashir did, can recoil against proponents of eternal torment in a different way. If the main issue is to avoid hell, then surely a deathbed repentance is equally satisfactory as a life of authentic discipleship. One can have a life of sinful pleasures and ease, enjoy themselves to the hilt, and then turn and reap the reward of eternal life as well. Is there any safeguard to such a response? For Bashir, the question might be 'Does our response to Christ in this life before the hour of our death really matter?'

Luke Isham said...

Sure, I agree about the short comings of TV, and this post isn't meant to a criticism of Bell per say. Instead I think the interview and Bashir, bring out the key practical issue of Universalism.

One can have a life of sinful pleasures and ease, enjoy themselves to the hilt, and then turn and reap the reward of eternal life as well. Is there any safeguard to such a response?

That's what I was trying to get at with my comments about both the journey and the destination being important and why I think Bird makes a good point about synergism.

Jon said...

@ Andrew, "surely a deathbed repentance is equally satisfactory as a life of authentic discipleship". This is not a new problem. "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" An implied assumption in the interview seems to be that of a radical break between this life and the next. What if that is not the case?

Andrew Bowles said...

Yes Jon, I don't think the question about our response to Christ in this life and our 'eternal destiny' shows up the weakness of universalism particularly, it actually shows up the propensity of all groups in this debate to shift our attention away from present repentance to speculations about future judgement. Believing in eternal torment doesn't necessarily mean that you will repent truly now, more often it has meant that you will do whatever religious things you think will ward off that terror (eg. the entire medieval penitential system, or going forward at a revival meeting, or having your baby baptised). It was precisely the calculation about the desirability of avoiding hell vs their desire to live in an unChristian way that led to so many people such as Constantine being baptised on their deathbed. No doctrine of hell seems to guarantee that people won't draw the most sinful conclusion from it.

Alex Smith said...

Luke you would be interested in Robin's post on "does my response to Jesus in this life matter?": Martin Bashir's Excellent Question and we talked a bit about it here too. I'll admit I don't think it was a very good interview for Bell.

It's disappointing that some theological positions, including some forms of universalism, undermine evangelism. I'm glad Evangelical Unversalism doesn't, I've discussed this before, but most recently in If Everyone is Saved, Why Preach?. Sorry I have to be brief, lots going on atm :)

jereth said...

Deathbed repentance is a red herring.

See Matthew 24:36-51

The way people live in this life does determine their eternal destiny.