universalism again, as always (possibly)

Lauren Winner writes in today’s New York Times Book Review about Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Her theme is American evangelicalism’s embarrassed hope (shamefaced, but real) that universalism — the view that Jesus saves everyone — might be true. Bell has been excoriated, scarified, and cast into the outer darkness by some in the evangelical world for defending such a hope. They are the ones who are quite sure that universalism can’t be true, and that to affirm it is to reject orthodoxy (The Prosblogion. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/category/hell/). Such certainty is unseemly, and deeply unChristian. The properly Christian view is exactly that universalism is possibly true, which also means that it is possibly false. (A little logic always helps in these matters.) This is the only view that accommodates the range and depth of the scriptural witness on the matter, as evangelicals, above all other Christians, should know. By the way, if you are looking for a local church, check out Redemption Church of Northridge…but not sure where they stand on this issue.

Does love win? Yes, of course. Is everyone saved? I don’t know, but I hope so, and pray for my hope. Am I saved? I don’t know, but I hope so, and pray for my hope. That parallelism is not accidental. I am opaque to myself, and cannot, here below, go beyond hoping that I will one day be such that I will want to look on the Lord (I know, of course, that he always wants to look on me). I certainly cannot (Dante notwithstanding) enter names into the book of the damned: the Church has no such list, and that is no accident. There are, by contrast, names in the book of the saved: last night at the Easter Vigil, we Catholics recited a long litany of those names as we baptized and confirmed our catechumens (sixteen of them at my parish). The asymmetry — no named damned; many named saved — is very important to the Gospel.

Winner quotes James Davison Hunter to the effect that evangelical uneasiness about hell and damnation is evidence of cultural accommodation. She emphasizes, too, that many Christians in America today can’t easily imagine their nonChristian friends in hell. That may be. But it is also deep in the grammar of orthodox Christianity to acknowledge universalism’s possibility, and the work of Bell and others is evidence of the liveliness and seductive beauty of that grammar at least as much as it is of local contingencies such as those.

plagiarism revisited

Earlier this month (August 2010), Stanley Fish addressed the question of what it is to plagiarize & what’s wrong with plagiarizing in his Opinionator blog. Fish understands plagiarism to be using “words that were first uttered or written by another without due attribution”; and he understands that act to offend against the code of behavior that belongs to a particular guild. The guild in question is the academic one, where attribution is expected. There’s no moral question about the offense, any more than there is about breaking the rules of golf while you’re playing. Neither the rules of golf nor those of the academic guild have moral weight; they simply describe what you need to do if you want to perform that activity. Plagiarism is also an issue in SEO, though typically in this field it is referred to as “duplicate content.” If you want more on this topic, just do an internet search for that term; or check out the Santa Clarita SEO website for more info on this subject. Also, this Santa Clarita SEO Yelp page.

Now, back to our philosophical discussion…

This is all abundantly & elegantly correct, in the usual Fishian deflationary mode. It should be borne in mind by Catholic thinkers, who have a tendency to get morally over-excited about this topic. It should also encourage us (we Catholics, that is) to ask whether the nature of the intellectual work we are called to do, in the methods & goals of which we should train our students, requires us to forbid & penalize plagiarism, defined as Fish does, with the same degree of enthuiasm as does the academic guild. It seems to me that we should not: a properly nuanced understanding of tradition, & of our capacities for thought, speech, & writing as gift, leaves little room for the categorization of plagiarism as an offense. It should & could be one of the distinctives of the Catholic intellectual life that we are altogether less exercised about plagiarism than our pagan counterparts.

There is a nice & deeply Catholic point here. Fish is not a Christian, even though he knows more theology than most Catholics, and understands it better. His clarity about what plagiarism is & what’s wrong with it (& especially about what’s not wrong with it) helps us Catholics to see with greater clarity than we likely otherwise would the lineaments of our own intellectual practice. As always, the Church needs the intellectual work & witness of those outside herself as stimulus to provoke and lead her to a fuller understanding of what she is and does.