Why Brother Rooney is right about some aspects of moral theology and spiritual formation (but still wrong about patristic universalism)
About this series
This article is part of a series on how the priest Brother James Dominic Rooney is wrong about things like freedom, Christian hope, Pelagianism, how to exegete the Akedah responsibly in the context of theology, and here in this article, moral and pastoral theology. In this case, he has some good insights into these areas, some terrible ideas in these areas, and an implausible understanding of how any of this relates to patristic universalism.
Still, in the spirit of this series, I want to appreciate everything I can about what he is bringing to this discussion. I think he really is providing us an opportunity to advance the conversation surrounding the theology of patristic universalism, in ways that its other recent assailants haven’t so far. Even though he is engaged in a lot of strawmanning, much of it rooted in his failure to interrogate dubious priors, he is still adding more to the conversation than various theologians who have tried to critique That All Shall Be Saved and other contemporary Christian universalist theology. It’s a low bar, but he manages to step over it.
Br. Rooney’s contributions have been especially helpful when it comes to what I will engage with here: the relationship between current debates about patristic universalism and important issues in spiritual formation, pastoral theology, and ecclesiology that relate directly to the life of the church. This is where he proves to be a fruitful conversation partner in a recent interview, and I’ll engage with it in depth here.
I think it is of central importance to build bridges between these sometimes abstruse theological discussions and the life of the Church throughout the world today. Patristic universalists have a lot of very coherent, compelling and beautiful theological arguments in their favor, but they need to do a lot more to develop their missiology, ecclesiology, spiritual formation and pastoral practices, and this means that they need to build and coordinate more thriving churches that draw on this theology. My own view is that impractical theology is ultimately an oxymoron, at least insofar as we’re talking about Christian theology: real theology must be a praxis that unites thought and life across social scales, including personal and group scales, in the imitation of Jesus.
Like chemical tracers introduced to a biological sample, Br. Rooney’s responses help us begin to map the relationship between eschatology and the life of the visible Church, by which I mean all the real churches throughout the world that you’ll find wherever Christians gather to worship God and engage in Communion and sacramental life more broadly. This is not to be confused, to be clear, with clericalist claims about their ideal church.
Br. Rooney’s basic attack this time
In this recent interview, Brother Rooney articulates his position in the current debate regarding patristic universalism more fully. He also goes into a lot of depth about his concerns with respect to spiritual formation and pastoral theology, which are particularly illuminating.
I’d like to start with those concerns, because I think that the pastoral implications of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved haven’t been explored much at all, but they need to be. As a pastor, I think this is important in its own right. I also think it is important because it is really quite clear at this point that people are being smacked clumsily over the head with bad theological arguments because others are often trying to say something about pastoral theology, spiritual formation, or ecclesiology, but not getting clear on that with themselves or with others. And so they end up offloading all of that work onto eschatology, which occludes the more immediately relevant and potentially productive conversations, and makes them almost impossible.
To be clear, I think the most powerful critique of David Bentley Hart’s work in general, and of That All Shall Be Saved in particular, is that the man doesn’t have a pastoral bone in his body. This is something that he and those who know him freely admit. I want to highlight how much this matters, even if Hart can’t get a fair reading from some for reasons beyond his control, because of the broader impacts it has. Is it fair that Hart’s arguments get short shrift because of this? No. But I still think it is fair to critique the omission of good ecclesial and pastoral application of the ideas in the book. If the field were mathematics, arguably this would be peripheral. (Although I suspect our various maths may be more deeply moral and pastoral than we realize, let’s set that aside for now.) However, the field is theology and the work of theology is about much more than intellectual analysis and synthesis. Theology certainly holds that work as well, but I don’t think a Christian theologian can ever be excused from the table of ecclesial and personal spiritual problems to just go and work on supposedly “pure theology” in the absence of these central matters of burning concern.
For example, I think that Cornell West is doing some great theology in this recent talk, and in part that’s because he makes it very clear that Christian theological work isn’t just some intellectual game. It’s about questions of life and death, about putting it all on the line. It’s about forming coalitions that powerfully resist and sometimes even overcome evil in our day, and through the generations, as part of a millennia-spanning tradition initiated by the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. It is about finding common ground with all people while maintaining Christian distinctives in the process. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So the only kind of theology I think anyone should be interested in is the sort that allows us to criticize theological writing, as a matter of first importance, for any ecclesial, pastoral and spiritual formational errors of commission or omission.
This is especially true, even maximally true, if someone wants to open up a can of worms as big as Ben-hinnom. One should be advised to be especially well-prepared to be expected (also unfairly) to be saintly in the face of the most grotesque evil, if they hope to lead any of the better angels onto such foolish ground. That is the task of the Christian disciple, one that is far more fundamental than the task of being a theological writer in the Christian tradition.
So let’s start with the end of Br. Rooney’s talk, where he expresses his heart on these issues of first importance. Here, I think we see Br. Rooney at his best and at his worst. At his best, because he raises extremely important issues. At his worst, because it results in exceptionally egregious strawmanning, and the construction of a ridiculous Feindbild (a propagandistic image of his enemies, a strategy that is especially associated with authoritarian propaganda). I’ll offer my comments along the way.
I have maybe a book that’s going to come out about this eventually where I’m going to try to put together some of the things I’ve already written about grace and free will, about why God allows hell and moral evil. So that’s going to be called, my cute name for it is “Not a hope in hell.” My point there in the end is that our hope is in Jesus. Our hope is in God’s goodness. It’s not about hell, free will and grace. It’s not a worry. It shouldn’t torment us. It shouldn’t be something we’re anxious about. Perfect love casts out fear. So God doesn’t tell us whether we’re going to heaven or hell, he’s not doing that to scare us. It’s part of our growth into being mature Christian adults in the image of Jesus, is we love God for his own sake, not for particular benefits.
Was Saint Paul a mature Christian though? Were the other writers of Pauline literature? Was Jesus? Benefits and punishments seem to be an important part of Christian faith, and the theme is so ubiquitous and so intimately linked to discussions of heaven and hell that it is bizarre to claim this here.
Think about it: if we are to be completely, stoically indifferent to reward or punishment and this is the Christian hope, shouldn’t God avoid rewarding or punishing? What would be the purpose? Here we encounter, again, Br. Rooney’s substitution of a radically stoic fideism for Christian hope and Christian faith. I have already covered his profound deformations of Christian hope in this article and we can see that the error remains uncorrected here.
Contrast, for example, the much sounder approach offered in Spe Salvi. There’s a lot of richness in the encyclical. Still, you don’t need to go any farther than the introduction to realize that it is breathing an entirely different air than the stoic fideism of Br. Rooney. This is what Christian hope sounds like. Emphasis is my own. Note the fundamentally teleological character of authentic Christian hope, oriented as it is towards a goal that will be achieved because it is God’s own:
Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.
What is as present here as it is glaringly absent from Br. Rooney’s eschatology is a clear Christian hope. What he wants, instead, is radical ambiguity which then allows for the infinite elevation of a pure, stoically fideistic ego. What happens when someone tries to discuss the end of everything that God pursues in Creation without any clarity about the telos, the goal, or end? A spirituality that collapses into mere fideism: the demand for absolute and irrational loyalty without any meaningful grounds for the demand, no court of appeals in the face of clerical abuses or the failures of the Church, and only the pious demand that we should be stoic in face of the threat of maximal doom that hangs over all of humanity, every day of our lives, and especially over our deceased loved ones.
To be clear, Br. Rooney is right to emphasize Christian hope and the warranted faith it provides. And to be clear, he seems to sense that there is something missing from his view, when he baldly asserts that this shouldn’t torment us. But how could it not unless we are gods or monsters, rigid and supposedly impassible idols of our own making, unable to feel or notice or process even endless suffering in sin?
There is a delicate balance that must be achieved when discussing warranted hope. Br. Rooney might benefit from reading and mediating on Pope Benedict’s encyclical Spe Salvi, and he might consider if he should (in fact) seek the grace that is needed for correction and repentance in the confessional, for how he has misrepresented people. Better to do this than to just boast about confessing publicly.
That’s I think where the doctrine of hell with the pitchforks and all that, that’s where I think it comes from, is from people who are getting sort of the wrong idea about why we care about heaven and hell. It’s because we care about Jesus, it’s because we care about God and being united with him. Hell is the doctrine “I could have done otherwise.”
Here, Br. Rooney illustrates that in his own spiritual practice, endless torment in sin is fundamentally conflated with any capacity for remorse at all. But what if it were possible to conceive of remorse over real loss: loss that is meaningful, regrettable, horrible, a cost to be avoided even at the cost of our temporal lives, and also not endless? Wait, of course such a thing is conceivable. People give their lives for all kinds of things every day, including their families, their nations, their empires, all kinds of movements, and more. And people regret failures to do what matters most all the time.
What we can see is that Br. Rooney has been spiritually formed within some system that trained him to conflate things that aren’t fundamentally related at all. In fact, they collide. It is as if he is arguing that because 2 + 2 = 4, it must also be the case that 2 + 2 = 5. If Christian spiritual formation must take remorse and repentance seriously (this is basic spiritual formation, like 2 + 2 = 4), what is added to that by attempting to prove that the highest good could include a state of endless unrepentance (2 + 2 = 5)? It isn’t just that the conclusion utterly fails to follow the line of thought. It is that the conclusion fundamentally vitiates and arguably even contradicts the line of thought. How can the highest good include authentic repentance over lost opportunities, and also exclude some authentic repentance over lost opportunities? Or is remorse itself the good, while repentance and reconciliation are merely a secondary effect that just happens to attend the real goal? For Br. Rooney, remorse must itself somehow serve as a highest good, so that remorse can ultimately displace the end of reconciliation that the rest of us, apparently foolishly, imagine it serves.
So I think it’s right at the center of our theory of grace. I think I need help to be a good person. I need help from the people on the other side of this camera. Please say a prayer for me. It’s why I go to confession. It’s because I think I need help from God. I know, I trust God that if I trust him, things will be okay. I don’t worry about going to hell that way. I worry about, I pray every day that I maintain myself in God’s grace, I know I need help. That’s what the doctrine of hell teaches us. It’s just the inverse of our need for God’s grace.
Here we run into another of Br. Rooney’s constant conflations. This time, he is conflating logical argumentation with duty, as if a logical argument logically necessitates that something is a duty. This basic confusion about the role of logic in theology has been pointed out to him many, many, many times by various helpers and I have spelled out the problem in detail in this series. Why doesn’t he realize he could have done otherwise, instead of plowing ahead while ignoring this?
In the video, he comments at one point that some particularly audacious patristic universalists claim that their arguments proceed from logic. No, logic isn’t particularly audacious. A logical model doesn’t even necessarily correspond to any reality directly: at this late date, we should be able to reflexively understand our logical models as models, although this doesn’t necessarily mean the model corresponds to the reality that it is meant to map. A logical model doesn’t bind God, but it can help see if we are thinking and writing and speaking intelligibly and coherently.
So to put this as simply as possible, consider this inference:
(L) If God is Love, in the sense that “love” and “God” are commonly understood, then it logically follows that God behaves graciously as an expression of God’s free will, not out of duty or compulsion or any force of any sort exterior to God. This is a definitional truth: it is simply an unpacking of what it means to say that God is Love in the context of Christian theology.
(For now, let’s set aside debates about precisely how voluntarist we ought to be.)
Now does (L) imply that God is duty-bound to love, or that God is unfree in God’s love? Do we presume on God by clarifying a shorter phrase by expanding on its implications? Not at all. Why not? Because logic is not duty, and logic is also not material compulsion. And the difference here is drawn as starkly as possible by the example: to be perfectly clear, (L) explicitly contradicts the notion that God is duty-bound or unfree. So it contradicts Br. Rooney’s style of conflation directly: it can logically follow that a true gift isn’t a duty (because it is grace) just as much as it logically follows that a duty is a responsibility that is owed. If logic implied duty, we could never speak coherently about grace. And if we can’t speak coherently about grace, then what business do we have discussing the theology of grace in any way at all?
How could anyone possibly be confused about this? Well let’s think about that, because I think it points to deeper problems in Br. Rooney’s approach. Imagine living in a world where 2 + 2 has a responsibility to make 4, and if it refuses maybe the Master of the Order will have to make it comply, or else force it out of the Dominicans. Maybe state legislators or the Magisterium should offer a doctrinal definition of pi? Ah, this is authoritarian epistemology laying bare its enduring habits of mind: there is a particularly deep confusion at work here. People thinking in this way confuse the organic authority that arises from doing good research with political power of the sort that mimics the mechanical forces of Newtonian physics: this confuses authority, as warranted trust with the capacity to compel compliance. This is imperial court theology, in the form of a fundamental conflation of meaning: it mistakes might for right.
While Br. Rooney’s persistent confusion has some intriguingly unique characteristics, the flailing irrationality in response to Hart isn’t unique to Br. Rooney. As we’ve discussed, it marks almost all of the negative responses to recent work on patristic universalism. This is, I think, an incredibly rich mine for reflection on the sociology of religion. After all, it was by coercion that Saint Nyssa’s views (and the views of quite a few other central figures in the early church) were marginalized, not by warranted arguments.
To be clear, I have critiques of That All Shall Be Saved and patristic universalism, and I wish there were more warranted critiques of the work. But what can explain the persistent strawmanning, misrepresentation, and construction of elaborate and implausible Feindbilder? It is all especially remarkable that the clumsy and egregious strawmanning persists among people who certainly could know better, if they were to engage in the work of reconciliation and use the thinking skills that they have been trained in. It can’t be mere intellectual ineptitude that explains the persistence of howlingly bad arguments. After all, when in the field of theology has so little been asked of so many by so few? (The arguments are routinely exceptionally simple, and are exceptionally bypassed.) I suspect the issue is, ultimately, a matter of spiritual formation, including an authoritarian epistemology that more generally confuses logic for duty, and the authority of good reasons for the domination of Empire. This is how we got to the condemnation of a position that was, rather plainly, far more prominent in the early church than it became in the wake of Augustine’s imperial court theology. And still we’re circling the intellectual cesspool that has been inflicted on the Church by our willingness to pretend that might can make right.
At any rate, in terms of spiritual formation, we should turn to God with a trust that is rooted in our understanding of our fundamental need for God and an understanding of God’s abounding grace and kindness. God’s kindness leads us to repentance. And far from contradicting this, (L) supports this because it is a claim about the logic that helps us articulate the coherence of our hope, rather than a claim about God’s duty to be gracious.
Also, Br. Rooney, I appreciate that you have asked for prayer. I have prayed for you. Please say a prayer for me. I really do hope you will.
Wait, was that even possible? I thought that people who find patristic universalistic logic compelling couldn’t do things like that because the logic of these arguments supposedly abolishes Christian hope.
I don’t mean to be overly cheeky here, but the extreme absurdity of the Feindbild that has been drawn urgently needs to be called out before it leads to more slander, deception, division and harm to the body of Christ.
This is part of why logic is helpful: it helps us see if someone is saying something that is incoherent or implausible on its face. While we can’t observe the final state of the cosmos, we can observe the effects of Br. Rooney’s theologizing on the body of Christ today, and the result is that he is leveling absurd attacks on his siblings in Christ and on a wide variety of important figures from the patristic period. Still, I wish him the best of luck finding any kind of performative contradiction in my profound desire to lean into God’s abounding and transformative grace, that grace that fills me with the hope of salvation, because I believe that God (as understood by Christians) is definitionally full of abounding grace. I doubt he’ll manage to find a way to prove that drawing logical implications about grace transforms grace to duty.
That’s why I say it doesn’t make any sense, it undermines the cross, to say that hell is impossible. It undermines the cross because it says, “I don’t need God’s help to lead a good life. Everything will be fine (laughs) all right?” Universalists get angry with me saying something like that, but I think the point is that there’s a deep reason that attitude looks like it’s caught up with universalism, which is that because if it is literally necessarily true that I’m going to love God in the end, it turns out that there’s something natural to me or to God that I don’t need his help at all.
There is something genuinely important that Br. Rooney is telling us here, but it isn’t generally true of patristic universalists. Christianity doesn’t make sense to him without endless torment, specifically a pointless (endless/goalless/unteleological) remorse in sin. I’m sure this is also authentically true for others who have been formed in the same way that he has. We all need to listen to what he is saying at this point generously, and pastorally, in spite of his own failures to respond in pastorally appropriate ways to others on this issue.
Above, I’ve articulated how very simple it is (conceptually) to cherish the sacrifice of Jesus, to ask for and depend on his grace in each moment, and to pursue holiness with ever-growing ardor, because one is motivated by a healthy fear of the dire effects of sin as well as a deep hope in the abounding power of God’s grace. This is part of the reason figures like Origen and St. Nyssa are so important to the conversation: although it is widely admitted that they represent a minority report in the tradition as it develops after the late 300's, they also exist as central founding figures of the faith. If Br. Rooney’s claims were true, how could Origen have worked so tirelessly for the faith and essentially founded the discipline of Christian Biblical Studies? How could Saint Nyssa have made the short list of people to be consulted about the Doctrine of the Trinity? If grace abounds from God as a matter of God’s nature, and we by our nature depend on that, how is that supposed to lead to the conclusion that we don’t need God exactly? Once again, Br. Rooney has decided that logic is something that it obviously isn’t, and that it simply can’t be. If it were this way, he couldn’t articulate the position that I just articulated, the one that supports what is good in what he has to say about how we relate to God.
The confusion here is therefore a compound one: Br. Rooney is overgeneralizing from his own personal experience to all spiritual formation, on both the doctrine of hell and the vocabulary of grace, and he is assigning a wide variety of implications to logic that logic has nothing to do with.
Analytically, the overgeneralization is demonstrably absurd on its face. Nonetheless, we should attend to his concerns here closely. He, and plenty of others, have a strangely formed faith, one that seems to treat endless futility as the only possible motivator for action, especially the action of turning to God for that grace that we need with each breath, especially and in a special way for each theological breath. This feels very real to him. But try to imagine a world where every turn toward grace depended on the threat of endless suffering in sin. One would need to make everything a mortal sin, down to failing to grade the papers or bathe yourself or eat breakfast, I suppose. Why eat breakfast if endless suffering in sin isn’t on the line? And more to the point, why say grace before breakfast unless failing to pray compromises the state of grace so that, if we choke on our pancakes, we will presumably find ourselves in an endless state of always choking on our pancakes and regretting that we failed to say grace? We can see that what we’re dealing with here, then, is spiritual malformation rooted in false overgeneralizations which lead individuals to fail to understand themselves and others. Trauma often leads to a visceral overgeneralization that then feeds into catastrophizing and other forms of overgeneralization, so it is psychologically predictable that a lot of wild overgeneralization happens in these discussions. Nonetheless, we should say grace, first and foremost, because we are grateful to God. In contrast, I’m not so sure it is commendable to demand that we stand before an endless horror, and then not care about it, so we can thank God for breakfast.
This situation calls for pastoral sensitivity, generosity, patience, open communication and clear thought. This is true even and especially when faced with a trained theologian who is ludicrously charging Notre Dame faculty with heresy based on the most flimsy misunderstandings, while constantly publishing, and all while refusing to pay attention to the counter-arguments offered. Contrary to Br. Rooney’s claims that Hart hasn’t responded to him, this basic clarification was one of the first things that Hart offered to him in their online discussions, and I have gone to great lengths to illustrate the persistence of the thread of error in his comments. Yet he continues to publish and give interviews which suggest that he has had no real engagement at all. The situation is, frankly, stunning. There is important psychological and sociological research to be done on this, to help inform our pastoral theologies on these issues. But there is precious little left to say on the theology, except that it represents a potentially endless fractal of similar errors unfolding, conceivably without end.
The situation calls for mountains of grace, flowing from God through us as theological thinkers, paired with a clarity about the severity of the problems. I know that I’m leaning on God’s grace constantly in this conversation, to avoid writing a string of witty insults and expletives which would only serve as a distraction from the seriousness of the topic. If I do slip I am of course open to correction, because of my firm and certain hope in the God whose kindness leads us to repentance.
But of course that’s the problem. I do need his help. I need to be conscious of…so I don’t know if people are going to be in heaven or hell or not, or how many people are going to be there. But I know that God loves me and loves you and loves the people listening to this. So here’s the attitude in the end that I want to insist on, is, is: We want to trust God. And part of trusting God, I think to be honest, is that I think universalism gets it all half-cocked. It gets all of Christianity mixed up.
And it’s not because they’re wrong about stuff all the time. You know they worry about all these complicated things about whether there are second chances after we die, or whether God is going to let anybody persist in hell, or what goods he’s going to achieve, or why he allows . This leads them to focus on things that lead them to miss the important part of the picture, which is that they’re proud.
I can imagine a good old Irish confessor raising an eyebrow. Ah, so they’re the proud ones here? The surest mark of humility is accusing others of pride.
Now to the substance. The effort to dismiss legitimate concerns about hell and endless torment is, first and foremost, an egregious pastoral failing. It might suggest an enormous level of personal spiritual bypassing on the part of the good brother, which he is then at risk of passing on to his congregants as if it is holiness. I also want to be clear that I do believe God has grace for us, even in our pastoral failings. If only we will turn and repent so that we can receive it! I am certainly not immune to failings myself, and don’t bring this up as a “gotcha” or a rhetorical escalation, but simply as an expression of my sincere pastoral concern for Br. Rooney and for those under his care.
What needs to be said with utter clarity here, though, is that of course it is warranted to be concerned if one’s loved ones are being tormented forever in the afterlife. Who could help but live in constant mortal terror if they really were suspended over this pit of endless futility in sin? What sort of inhuman monster, devoid of charity for themselves or others, wouldn’t care about the possibility of even a single soul being subjected to this? It must be the thing that matters the most, not some complicated nonsense that doesn’t matter at all, if true. If even this, the most severe consequences imaginable, are somehow supposed to be a matter of indifference, then absolutely everything else must become a matter of indifference by comparison.
Still, Br. Rooney has asked for prayer and I really do think he’s right about its importance.
I mean this prayer with the utmost sincerity:
God, by your grace, please spare this man and his parishioners from this kind of spiritual bypassing! Help us to take the weight of sin seriously, measuring it appropriately. God, we need you urgently to stop the bleeding in the Church.
Saint Isaac of Syria, pray for us.
St. Anthony, pray for us.
St. Pamphilus Martyr, pray for us.
St. Macrina, pray for us.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, pray for us.
St. Evagrius Ponticus, pray for us.
St. John of Jerusalem, pray for us.
St. Jerome, pray for us.
St. Issac of Nineveh, pray for us.
St. John of Dalyatha, pray for us.
They’re not hoping in God. Practically speaking, if I can be a little bit frank, they’re whole viewpoint breathes being a cult and a sect and groupies. They get caught up these days around personalities and some of the people I’ve talked to who give these kind of moral intuitions, they’ll say things like, “Even if I found out that God allowed any people to go to hell. If I found out that real Christianity taught that. If I found out the Church taught that definitively. If I found out the scripture taught that definitively, I wouldn’t believe in God. I would tell God, ‘Go to hell.’” So you talk to people who believe this and they’ll go through this and they’ll say, “The Scripture allows universalism.” And then you’ll say, “No it doesn’t. There’s no good scriptural interpretation that allows universalism.” “The Fathers allow universalism.” No they don’t. You’re misinterpreting these people you’re reading. Gregory of Nyssa is just one guy. We don’t follow just one guy against the definitive teaching of the church.
Br. Rooney closes our selection here with a sort of fantasy about winning a debate about scripture and patristics, as if this has actually occurred. I would like to invite him to actually talk about how we read sacred scripture on this topic. After that, we might start to think about moving on to patristics.
You can’t really engage in truth-seeking discourse if you assume that your preferred conclusion is reached as hastily as Br. Rooney routinely does. This habit of cutting off the end of the discussion before it starts is reflected in a great deal of his approach, and it fits interestingly beside his more broadly stunted sense of teleology: there is a process oriented toward the end of reasoned consensus that we engage in, when we engage in discourse in good faith. I’m concerned that Br. Rooney may persist for a very long time in an unreconciled state, a world of little illusions and lies that is fostered by the comforting lie that he has reached the end of an exploration that he has never really begun. At this rate I worry that he’ll find himself in hell, calling it heaven, for untold eons.
At any rate, a variety of prominent Biblical scholars today (people such as Beverly Gaventa and Douglas Campbell) note the substantially universalist, or perhaps very hopeful universalist, perspective in Paul. And of course, Talbott has quite a lot to say on Biblical exegesis as well and much of it is far more compelling than the opposing arguments. See here, for a helpful lecture on it. Has Br. Rooney actually engaged with their work? If so, has he “defeated” their arguments as convincingly as he has “defeated” patristic universalism, perhaps with other brilliant insights such as “logical inference is duty”?
There is also a substantial body of scholarship on the language of time in the New Testament that warrants attention, when it comes to how we understand the crucial time language of aion and aionios. I summarize some of that work here, but would add that it shouldn’t take anywhere near that much to humble our reading of the text. After all, the Gospels are heavily concerned with the end of the aion, as we see in Matthew 24. If this were the language of endlessness, why would it be associated with things that end? This basic observation should evoke skepticism about claims to draw a meaning of “endless” from “aion”, which also greatly complicates efforts to derive endlessness from its adjective form. How, exactly, might an adjective come to mean the opposite of its noun form, especially when the pericope’s immediate context is discussing endings? This is far from a common occurrence in language, and our curiosity should at least be peaked by this very simple observation. I explore this topic in far more depth here, in terms of the primary prooftext for eternal conscious torment, Matthew 25:46. In that project I read Matthew as a whole in light of recent scholarship, and also engage with Matthew’s reception history in patristics. Will Br. Rooney actually engage in a discussion of Scripture, or will he simply continue to pretend that he has? I don’t know, but I really do hope that by the grace of God he turns back from his current ballistic tack.
His rhetorical move of pretending to have won an argument that he hasn’t really begun should be seen plainly for what it is: another form of rhetorical manipulation that effectively slanders his interlocutors, as if they are stupid, intransigent, and unwilling to have the conversation. Ah, so they’re the ones who won’t listen to reason or attend to scripture? Is that so, lad?
The proof is simply in the pudding. Will Br. Rooney engage with the Biblical scholarship on the topic, as well as rather plain and obvious features of the text? You engage in discourse by engaging in it, not by pretending you did and oh wow look you won the argument you’re so smart and amazing thank you for your brilliant contribution.
As to the point about Saint Nyssa here at the end, it only inspires me to pray again. Really, it takes lot of hope and a lot of grace and a lot of prayer to try to have these incredibly tiresome and frustrating conversations.
Father, please break the power of slander at work in your church.
Jesus, we urgently need your love to fill us and restore the communion and unity of the church throughout the world.
Holy Spirit, come and bring your light into this darkness.
Saint Nyssa, pray for us.
Saint Isaac of Syria, pray for us.
St. Anthony, pray for us.
St. Pamphilus Martyr, pray for us.
St. Macrina, pray for us.
St. Evagrius Ponticus, pray for us.
St. John of Jerusalem, pray for us.
St. Jerome, pray for us.
St. Issac of Nineveh, pray for us.
St. John of Dalyatha, pray for us.
The argument behind the slander
The absurdity of Br. Rooney’s Feindbild and slander, rooted in deep and stubborn and surprisingly simple confusions, should be utterly clear by this point. Is it possible for people who value these arguments for patristic universalism to hope and pray and follow Jesus and rely on God? Apparently not in Br. Rooney’s world, the false one he has built up here. The trouble is that his world is not the one in which this article exists, or the one in which his interlocutors exist, because the sorts of things I’m doing should be rendered impossible if his arguments hold.
If God being gracious and accessible to us in prayer logically implies that we can appeal to God’s grace in prayer, for example, this does not make it impossible to appeal to God’s grace (especially in prayer). Am I presuming on God to suggest that this is a logical implication of basic Christian doctrinal claims? Br. Rooney’s sustained attacks that depend on the conflation of logic and duty land him in a realm that is utterly surreal and transparently incoherent, and this is easily demonstrated in practice as well as in argumentation. The pastoral implications also involve an all-too-common experience I know people have had when talking to a priest: the priest gives an answer to some burning question that just doesn’t make any sense. Plenty of people go away confused in this situation, blaming themselves as they also become just a bit more estranged from the Church. Understandably, the sense settles in that Christian faith is fundamentally opposed to reason.
Is there any value in laying out logic when you’re engaged with someone who ignores counter-arguments and then repeatedly goes on to publicly publish false claims that none have been offered? Yes. Even if that person ignores us, others can still learn from their example, even their negative example. And hope can always spring eternal that eventually, maybe decades or millennia later, some deep shift in their soul will finally let them hear. I’ve had plenty of things that have taken me decades to internalize, so how could I fail to hope that others can learn in time, too?
So even that simple hope warranted by my own limited experiences is enough to warrant a detailed engagement with Br. Rooney’s arguments here.
Here is my presentation of his argument, drawing as precisely as possible from my transcription of it in the video. I’ll systematically lay out what he has explained regarding his argument, and then I’ll illustrate what he would actually need to argue.
Here it is, presented as clearly and fairly as I can:
Definition: Hell is just persisting in mortal sin forever (aka, without end). (I.E.: there is no external punishment in Br. Rooney’s doctrine of hell, and certainly no devils with pitchforks. There is presumably no physical pain. Rather, there is endless remorse over what could have been, and endless persistence in sin. Although plenty of the tradition contradicts this, he also has some traditional sources that he can appeal to, at least in part.)
Br. Rooney aims to provide a defense (in Alvin Plantinga’s sense) of claim (H), below. In essence, he aims to show that this is a logically coherent claim:
(H) God can be God, according to traditional Christian definitions, and there can be an endless hell.
He claims that a three part argument logically yields (H). He states the argument two ways, one written for a general audience, the second using the categories of Catholic theology. I’ll lay out his three claims here while adding my own more precise formulation of the claims that actually need to be made, to counter patristic universalism.
Hopefully this more precise formulation will help him address some lacunae in his thought, especially around the central matter in any debate with patristic universalists: the question of whether it is possible for this to be truly endless. On essentially everything else, there is agreement.
These are the arguments:
(R1G) General Audience (Rooney’s Claim 1, for his General Audience)
People can want things that don’t correspond to what they ought to want.
(R1C) Catholic claim (Rooney’s Claim 2, for an audience using Catholic Terminology)
You can sin mortally.
(A1) What the argument actually needs to be
At least one human has the capacity to sin mortally and also never repent of this mortal sin, either in this lifetime or the coming life, and the unforgiven punishment that is due must be truly endless (and not merely aionic), and God can achieve God’s good ends in Creation while allowing such a state to persist without end.
(R2G) General Audience
Learning new facts about the world or God or yourself may not change what you want.
(R2C) Catholic claim
Knowing facts about the world, God or yourself does not necessarily stop you from committing mortal sins.
(A2) What the argument actually needs to be
Knowledge (in all forms, including the full revelation of God’s being) does not necessarily stop at least one human from committing mortal sins without end, even in an endless state of the full knowledge of God. (Ie: Br. Rooney is trying to prove “You shall know the truth and the truth shall not set you free.”)
(R3G) General Audience
God doesn’t necessarily need to prevent you from sinning mortally.
You don’t deserve God’s grace to prevent you from persisting in sin. That would be Pelagianism.
(3) What the argument needs to be
The definition of God that corresponds to the reality of God does not logically require that God freely provides grace that will eventually free you from the bonds of sin at some point in an endless sequence of time. Grace is, definitionally, an unwarranted gift, so to be clear the only necessity in view here is not a matter of God’s duty, or of human desert, or of a fundamental claim that Creation lays on God from before time, or of some external or mechanical force that compels God to provide grace, but is instead a claim about the logical implications of the claim that God is gracious in a Godly way.
I’ll leave aside the plausibility of (1), (2) and (3). My point here is, simply, that Br. Rooney’s arguments dramatically strawman the patristic universalist position. When the strawmanning stops, we can see how much more he actually needs to argue. In this sense, his arguments are primarily of value because of how beautifully they trace the enormous gap between what he thinks he is proving, and what he would need to prove if he hopes to actually be in conversation with patristic universalism.
Br. Rooney vs. Scripture and His Holiness Benedict XVI
Another helpful aspect of this interview comes when Br. Rooney articulates clearly, precisely, and evocatively his vision of hell. I think he should be commended for grabbing this bull by the horns, and for making an honest contribution to the discussion by laying this out so clearly. I would add that I’m genuinely and deeply grateful for his pastor’s heart, and for what he has shared of his experience doing chaplain work and how it has formed him.
This is the most important material to engage here. There is a deep humanity and kindness at work in his efforts to reconcile the idea of an endless hell with a deep respect for the human person.
Beyond this, I also appreciate that he has taken on the hard task of integrating the perspective of Maximus the Confessor and Br. Sophrony here, one which takes 1 Cor 15:22 very seriously when it says, “Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.” I’ve discussed the difficulties of this passage for his view here at the start of my engagements with his work, which I have shared with him from the start. He should be praised for aiming high, and for intellectual courage (foolish, wise, or hopefully even both).
Nonetheless, for all of the decency and good insight that he brings to the table, I think that hell still overcomes his capacity to redeem it. His goodness helps us more starkly illuminate the evil and futility of this view of an ultimately ineffective God who suffers not only temporally and for the joy that is set before him (Hebrews 12:2–3), but truly without end. Here is what he has to say. (Bolding is mine, for emphasis. I’ll also offer some commentary along the way.)
You can think that Jesus became man, that’s good, great by itself. But I think that misses part of the point. Part of the point is this: Jesus’s death and resurrection is the beginning of our resurrection. So I said, Jesus in this world becoming incarnate is winning for us goods that defeat evil for everybody.
I mentioned earlier, I think hell is actually, the hell in this world is even better than if God had just let people be on their own after death. People sin and just let them go. I think in this way, hell is even better than annihilationism: [which is] if God just poofed people out of existence.
I think there’s something beautiful, and that’s why I used the analogy of the suicidal loved one. Somebody thinks they don’t matter. They’re going to kill themselves. I used this analogy: in heaven, on Mt Zion, people want to jump off the cliff and eliminate themselves. And I said what loving person would try to save them. I think you get a picture of what it is that God’s going to do at the end of time through Christ.
This is what I … to preview a little bit, Maximus the Confessor says, is “In Christ all of us are going to be transformed by him into his body.” And one of the things that’s beautiful about that is, in that world where God holds onto people they’re confused and pained by that kind of love for them. They don’t understand it. But I think that love is still good for them and I think anybody can see it: that letting go of that person and saying that you don’t matter is to buy into the delusion.
And I think that’s exactly the Christian attitude toward hell. There’s a good story that I have in my paper that I wrote on this, which is Mother Teresa said, “I had this dream and I went up to heaven and St. Peter was there and he said, oh you can’t come in here Mr. Teresa, there are no slums in hell. Sorry, I mean slums in heaven, you can’t come in here. And she got angry. And she walked away. I’ll tell you what, Saint Peter, I’m going to go and get those slum people and bring them up here. I’ll tell you what.”
This is my vision of hell. This is why, from the perspective of God and from the perspective of the blessed in heaven, the damned matter. They’re their loved ones. They’re not going to let them go. I think of hell as a place where you might say the antechamber of heaven, the nursing home, people who are confused about why they are being taken care of, but you can think of God and the people in heaven as taking care of those people. They’re impaired in how they’re seeing God, but it is better for them. It’s a sign of God’s love and mercy that he’s taking care of them. He’s doing things that are good for them, even though they don’t like it.
I worked in a hospice and a nursing home and we had people that were crazy and got mad at us. I had somebody thrown an oxygen cylinder at my head once. And I had to sort of take them out, calm them down and sit with them, and I think there’s a beautiful image there at the end that they’re going to be pained, and broken, but that is part of what keeps us together and is part of what’s good for me, that I love and am concerned about people like that.
Notice that even here, Br. Rooney emphasizes a restorative telos that manifests, but which is hardly compatible with traditional views of hell. Will those in hell be soothed? And if this kind of hopeful telos emerges even temporally in his efforts to articulate this, how much more must it manifest in Christ himself?
As much as its good for them, they don’t understand it, but it’s still good for them, they’re just broken the way they’re seeing the world. So of course they’re pained by what’s good for them in hell.
Were the people he served always pained by Br. Rooney’s presence? If they were, he probably should have worked on his skills in palliative care and pastoral care. But it sounds like they weren’t. He is apparently reimagining his own experience of service as if it were vastly more nightmarish than it must have been, in his efforts to redeem hell.
But that doesn’t mean that I lose my duty, lose my obligation. I love to be with those people. So that’s how I see it, is in the end our relationship with the people in hell is not going to be a painful one. It’s going to be like Mother Teresa in heaven. She used to call the people in this world who were in mortal sin, they were the spiritually poorest of the poor, even worse than the materially poorest.
So I think maybe Jesus’ claim that you’ll have the poor always with you is in fact literal truth about the afterlife. Is maybe that’s why God allows it, is because it is part of our unity with other people and with Jesus. So, that’s something we see with natural evil too in our life. Moral evil, even among the saints, because when Jesus rose from the dead he rose with wounds in his hands and his side and they didn’t go away. When people, the martyrs will arise, many of the church father think they’re going to have wounds too, but they’re going to be transformed and glorious and beautiful. I think that’s how I envision the damned as it were. They become, through Christ’s union with them in the afterlife, they become like that wound in his heart that stays there and it’s painful but it’s something beautiful and glorious and good because God is holding them close to himself even though they don’t, even though they’re pained by it, I think there’s really something good and beautiful about it, that would be different than if God just allowed them to go them their own way. It’d be a worse world if God just allowed them to do evil and get even worse and just fade into nothingness from their evil. I think God holding them into his heart would be a much greater good.
For all of Br. Rooney’s posturing around defending the tradition, my initial points about this from my very first piece in this series are, I think, deeply vindicated. He is, in fact, developing a novel and disturbing new doctrine, one which certainly doesn’t comport well with the Church’s traditions on hell. Hell is the gloriously transformed wounds of the saints. The crucifixion of Jesus is the very crucifixion of the Divine Nature itself such that it is not a contingent result of Creation’s fall and sin, but is instead an aidios (supratemporal) reality that persists without end. Imagine thinking that the cross itself is an endless good. Imagine, if you can, the resurrected Jesus in that very same, conscious, agony of the cross. This is, I think, at least easier to imagine than a saint or God being endlessly happy about their futile efforts to cope with the ateleological (lacking an end, perfection, or goal) suffering of others, because it shows how very, very, very saintly they are.
What we have here is a kind of devious narcissism that slips into compassionate ministries regularly: a “compassion” that is really only about the heroism of the “white savior” and that manifests no real concern for helping improve the situation, especially the situation of the victims of the ‘savior’-narcissist. I don’t mean to accuse Br. Rooney himself of narcissism: rather, it seems to me that he is pretending to be a figure like this because of his efforts to redeem hell itself, instead of working to redeem us from hell. His authentic compassion slips through when he describes his actual sacred work with the sick. I think that’s who he really is in Christ, and who he is really made to be. But this person, glimmering with something of authentic sainthood, ends up being effaced and covered up as soon as he works to cram his skull into the vice that he thinks imperial court theology requires of him. This is the most profound indictment of his doctrine I can imagine: it seems to be impeding and occluding the work of Christ in him.
At any rate, I’m grateful that he shared his narrative, which soulfully counters his theology more than anything I could have written.
Nonetheless, let’s take this theology and try to set it within sacred scripture, to help illustrate that he really is breathing an altogether different air than the texts. His cosmos is a cosmos where it is forever Good Friday and never Easter, a world that has been remade in the image of an indomitable stoic fideism in service to its own “compassion” but without any real concern for overcoming evil. Evil is too useful for the preservation of false ego to ever be let go. I don’t begrudge anyone this theology as a theology of coping. But there should come a time when any follower of Jesus sets it aside and embraces the firm hope of the resurrection of Jesus.
And now, some ‘scripture’ for your meditations:
1 Cor 15:22–29 (FJDR: The Father James Dominic Rooney Bible)
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has defeated every ruler and every authority and power and every sinner. 25 For he must reign without end even after he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death, so that suffering may be eternal. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him: the Sinner and father of all sinners, whose perfect and indomitable will persists for all time. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to endless torment in hell himself, carrying the very pain of the cross in anguished suffering for the unrepentant sinners forever. Only when those who dwell in sin remain there forever, without the cold and shallow mercy of death but only the much deeper mercy of endless suffering in sin, will God be all in the endlessly crucified one.
We might also meditate on this beautiful resurrection appearance, presumably to great spiritual profit.
John 21:1–19 (FJDR)
21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. They ate the fish, which they could feel had not died within them, being tormented in their own bodies in their sin. 14 At first they were in anguish, but then Jesus said to them, “Your endurance of this anguish for all time is your glory in me.” The disciples then looked and saw that his wounds were continuing to gush blood, just as they had on the cross, and though his visage was wracked with anguish they knew that his spirit within him had transcended the pain. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs these same fish.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep, and ensure they are received into me in my endless suffering with sin.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. This is how it will be forever” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of numb and endless torment in hell by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
We would do well to close with something altogether more orthodox. Here is a beautiful selection from Spe Salvi. (Hat-tip Brad Jersak for highlighting this passage in his Facebook feed.)
47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning — it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice — the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together — judgement and grace — that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).