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Purgatorial Conformity

Gary Anderson (“Is Purgatory Biblical?” November) gives a capable defense of the doctrine of purgatory based on subtle themes in the Old Testament and the Acts of the Apostles, but he makes no reference to the gospels. A far more explicit biblical case for the doctrine of purgatory can be derived from the words of Jesus himself.

In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord warns that we will be held accountable “in court” for the act of calling our brother a fool but accountable in the fires of Gehenna for harsher insults (“impious fool”). Jesus then continues: “Settle with your opponent in good time while you are still on your way to court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you solemnly, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:22“26). He clearly seems to be describing a noneternal state of reparation for less serious sins.

Again, in warning us of his own unexpected return, Jesus says: “The servant who knows what his master wants, but has not even started to carry out those wishes, will receive very many strokes of the lash. The one who did not know, but deserves to be beaten for what he has done, will receive fewer strokes” (Luke 12:47“48). The flogging metaphor, again, implies a noneternal punishment measured to each individual’s sinfulness and need for transformation.

Finally, there are Jesus’ references to a cleansing fire: “Everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49) and “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already” (Luke 12:49). Those words seem to echo the passage in First Corinthians seen since ancient times as a description of purgatory: “That day will begin with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If his structure stands up to it, he will get his wages; if it is burnt down, he will be the loser, and though he is saved himself, it will be as one who has gone through fire” (1 Cor. 3:13“15).

St. Augustine, discussing the latter passage, remarked on the blithe tone taken by fourth-century Christians toward this cleansing fire: “Because it is said that he shall be saved, little is thought of that fire. Yet plainly, though we be saved by fire, that fire will be more severe than anything a man can suffer in this life” ( Enarrationes in Psalmos 37.3). Purgatory demonstrably is not a medieval fantasy but rather a well-attested biblical doctrine, recognized since ancient times.

John D. Hagen
Minneapolis, Minnesota

In a very interesting article, Gary Anderson argues for the idea of purgatory in both Christian and Jewish sources, adducing proof texts from the Old Testament and Talmud. His claims cohere with the Talmud’s approach on certain points but miss the mark on others.

The Hebrew Bible does not speak much about the afterlife, and, perhaps for that reason, Anderson’s arguments focus on the penance of the living. He points to the fact that, after David repents for his sin, he still is found deserving of punishment, implying that there is need, beyond acquittal, for the transformation of David’s person. This understanding coheres with the Talmud’s account of forgiveness (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86a), where, for most sins, repentance does not suffice. It must be combined with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), suffering, and/or death in order to merit full forgiveness. In other words, repentance must be accompanied by some serious changes to the person, whether by undergoing a day of forgiveness or by suffering torment, in order to complete the return to God.

However, a Talmudic discussion of sacrifice in the Temple, another devotional act that can grant penance, reveals one case where Anderson may have extended Judaism’s parallel to Christianity too far. Though he finds a few post-Talmudic sources that support the idea of one person atoning for his dead friend, this claim runs directly against an important Talmudic statement (BT Zevachim 9b) that “there is no penance for the dead.” Though certain kabbalistic approaches have suggested that Jews may try to assist their deceased relatives with prayer, the preponderant opinion, and definitely the rationalistic one, is that this will afford no significant penance to one already dead.

Similarly, Anderson finds himself in only partial agreement with the Talmud in his discussion of alms. The Talmud in three places (BT Rosh Hashana 16b, Bava Batra 10a, and Shabbat 156b) points to the same verse in Proverbs that Anderson does, “Almsgiving delivers from death.” In one place, noting the double appearance of the verse in Proverbs, it even exclaims that “alms deliver from both unusual deaths and from the punishment of Gehenna,” a source very much resembling Anderson’s purgatory. Alms, similar to and even more so than other good deeds, can improve one’s standing and help one avoid Gehenna if they are done while one is alive, but once a person dies, his religious state is presumed to be settled.

In Halakhic Man , Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik downplays the reward for good deeds in favor of the deeds themselves, and this can be seen as a response to Bornkamm’s reduction of religious merits to almost financial claims we have on God: “The ideal of halakhic man is the redemption of the world not via a higher world but via the world itself, via the adaptation of empirical reality to the ideal patterns of Halakhah. If a Jew lives in accordance with the Halakhah . . . he shall find redemption.”

Shlomo Zuckier
New York, New York

I appreciate the motivation behind Gary Anderson’s essay: to explore a somewhat fraught doctrine in terms of the scriptural and affective impulses that may have engendered it. The problem that this essay fails to address satisfactorily is the disconnect between the basic desire to change one’s own life and to help others whether alive or dead (something Anderson does very well) and a doctrine of a postmortem state or place of purgation and all that this would become, largely in the Christian West.

The examples from Scripture work best as stirring testimonies to our impulses to atone for our sins through almsgiving, and the change from David to Nebuchadnezzar in how the divine“human relationship is worked out for sin and repentance. But expressing Nebuchadnezzar’s almsgiving in terms of debt, as the Scriptures do, does not of itself necessitate a transactional understanding or practice of repentance. Augustine’s exegesis of these stories in terms of merits and grace”as Anderson compellingly and sympathetically illustrates it”is telling in this regard.

Orthodox theology, drawing on the same Scriptures and faced with the same questions about salvation and purgation, is not crystal clear on the state of the soul after death, or on the precise nature and timing of judgment. And this may be a good thing. The concept of purgation after death is found in St. Gregory of Nyssa, among others. But the various confessions of faith that circulated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been seen as neither helpful nor representative of Orthodox thinking on death and judgment.

Here even more than usual the Orthodox have operated apophatically, placing more stock in the refutation of harmful or incommensurate teachings than in a dogmatic precision. Among these refuted teachings is a doctrine of purgatory and of a material hellfire, as testified by St. Mark of Ephesus at the Council of Florence.

Orthodox Christians pray for the dead, just as they pray for the living, in the conviction that our communion in Christ is not sundered by death. Prayer is an expression of and participation in that communion and operates beyond chronological time. Hagiographical tales of the tangible effects of the actions and prayers of the living on the dead have never translated into dogma.

Anderson’s thought-provoking essay traces the fundamental impulse, spanning religious traditions, to amend one’s life in the face of death, but it is at a loss to explain how exactly this engendered a theological doctrine about the commerce of salvation. He suggests that the doctrine and resulting practice constitute “an institutional control over ineradicable folk beliefs,” but we know from history that this was accompanied by an at times perverse institutionalization of those beliefs. How the one developed into the other would be an important story to tell.

Peter C. Bouteneff
St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary,
Yonkers, New York

Gary A. Anderson replies:

John Hagen brings forward a number of texts that could shed further light on the doctrine of purgatory once it was accepted, but these texts won’t establish that doctrine in the first place. A brief survey of modern commentaries, even those by Catholic authors, will demonstrate this. The most often cited text of those he has put forward is 1 Corinthians 3:13“15. Joseph Fitzmyer’s recent Anchor Bible commentary shows that it won’t, on its own, do the work Mr. Hagen wants it to do.

The verses come in the midst of Paul’s correction of Christians who say “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” rather than Christ. Here he is not concerned with the works of each individual Christian, but with (in Fitzmyer’s words) “the apostolic value of various preachers as they build the superstructure” (the Church). While the image of fire does indeed draw on Old Testament sources that assign it significance as a final point of “eschatological testing,” Paul’s message seems to be that these competing pastors will see whether their message was ultimately in accordance with the gospel.

I would concede to Shlomo Zuckier the point that the Talmudic evidence for purgatory is weak. I said as much in my article. The point, however, is that the Talmud does give evidence of the journey the deceased must make to arrive before the throne of God. And post-Talmudic authorities take up the question of prayer and almsgiving as a means of assisting the dead, as do the stories that accompany the development of the Kaddish prayer and the practices of many Jews in Europe during the High Middle Ages.

Peter Bouteneff, a fine scholar whom I know and greatly respect, seems to be disappointed that my article did not address the idea of purgatory in its full Dante-esque aspect. But that was not my point. What I had hoped to show is that most human beings will require time after death to be fully conformed to the person of Christ and so be ready to enjoy the beatific vision.

One privileged and deeply biblical means of doing so is that of giving alms to the poor. This strategy was an inheritance from late Second Temple Judaism. It became the shared patrimony of the Syriac East as well as the Greek- and Latin-speaking West. Catholics and Orthodox, on this point, are on the same page. It was this point of ecumenical agreement that my article tried to address.

Blind Scholars

In writing that “modern political thinking has trouble making sense of the intrusion of irrationality,” David Goldman is very generous to modern and postmodern historiography (“Messianic Restraint,” November). In fact, its “blind eye towards manifestly irrational social movements” is probably an intentional oversight.

Intellectuals do not easily come to terms with the uncontrollable yearnings that defy reason and sweep all rationality away from the public life. Yet, for decades, for example, social scientists have typically explained away political violence as an expected reaction to economic deprivation, exploitation, and social injustice, although research has shown that there is rarely a direct correlation between the intensity of oppression and the sufferers’ proclivity to rebel.

Landes accepts the irrational as an essential part of the human condition. His work accentuates the link between social stability and the routines of religious orthodoxy and spiritual drives, enhancing Robert Lifton’s idea of “historical dislocation.” The term refers to the traumatic breakdown of values, the disintegration of traditional ethical and aesthetic conventions and accepted meanings. Such collapse of psychosocial environment is known to occur periodically in various cultures.

The “dislocated personalities” substitute apocalyptic thinking and acting for the traditional religious behavior that sustains both the faith and the social level-headedness. Time and again we then witness a catastrophic result: the emergence of “millennial movements,” or organized attempts to refine the world instantaneously and drastically.

Richard Landes’ effort to employ theology to explain millennial passions, fanaticism, and acting out is a giant step in understanding social movements that have eluded intellectual scrutiny.

Anna Geifman
Bar-Ilan University
Ramat Gan, Israel

What Muhammad Said

Abdullah Saeed (“The Islamic Case for Religious Liberty,” November) does not offer a realistic depiction of Islamic religious tolerance. Saeed cites twelve verses dealing with tolerance from the Qur’an. Eight of them are from the Meccan period, in which Muhammad was trying to win over his family, his clan, and polytheists to his new religion.

But the other four are from the Medinan period, in which Muhammad became a warlord and seemed to have lost the virtue of tolerance. All four verses are followed by verses prescribing hellfire for the miscreants. Saeed does not deal at all with the Medinan verses enjoining Muslims never to take Christians or Jews as friends, or verses (he only briefly cites sura 9) offering unbelievers the choice of being killed or paying the jizyah tax and living in subordination.

There is also, for his argument, the exegetical problem that the later verses take precedence in interpretation by Muslim scholars and that every verse is taken to be a literal injunction from Allah, not subject to reinterpretation.

Howard P. Kainz
Marquette University
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Abdullah Saeed points to the heart of the issue: The primary threat to religious freedom in the Muslim world”the ban on apostasy and the corresponding capital punishment”is rooted not in the Qur’an but the hadiths. The latter, as he explains, probably reflect the political context of the early Muslim community, where apostasy implied political treason rather than a simple change of religion. Modern-day Muslims, therefore, can abolish the ban on apostasy, and thus embrace religious freedom.

Why Muslims should do this reform is a separate question, though. Here, I believe, it is helpful to make Muslims realize that the ban on apostasy does not honor Islam in any way; it rather dishonors it by depicting it as a coercive religion with free entry but no free exit. It also shows Muslims to be insecure believers who have inadequate trust in their faith.

Over the years, I have discussed this issue with my co-religionists, and have almost always encountered arguments about the integrity of the Muslim community”and not about the salvation of individuals. In Malaysia, for example, the Muslims who are in favor of banning conversion to Christianity often speak about the need to keep the Malay community intact. Similar arguments are common in the Arab world, where the ban on apostasy is often defended as a bulwark against “Western cultural imperialism.”

Quite notably, these arguments are all based on earthly concerns, not spiritual ones. They correspond to a form of nationalism, in other words, the nation being the Muslim umma . In Turkey, where I live, not just some Islamists but also many secular nationalists fanatically oppose Christian missionaries for they think that conversion into Christianity will weaken “Turkishness.” Conversion to atheism, on the other hand, would be just fine.

However, if the primary Islamic concern is the salvation of individuals”as the Qur’an seems to suggest”then the ban on apostasy looks ridiculous, for it can lead only to hypocrisy, not any genuine faith. Those who seek the latter often quickly realize that Islam should be proposed but not imposed, and freedom from Islam should be accepted for those who ask for it.

Mustafa Akyol
Istanbul, Turkey

Abdullah Saeed replies:

I thank Mustafa Akyol for his letter, which came too late for a response. It is true, as Howard Kainz writes, that there are some texts in the Qur’an, particularly from the last five years of the Prophet’s life, that appear to have adopted a hostile attitude toward non-Muslims. A closer reading of the texts, however, reveals that these harsher texts are not so much about imposing a belief system or a religion against the will of these non-Muslims. It was primarily about defense of the nascent “state” in Medina, which the Prophet was establishing.

The Qur’an demanded from the Muslim community and the Prophet that they subdue those active opponents of the state, a political issue. Those texts were not aimed against all non-Muslims, or all People of the Book. The target was those who did not abide by any peace treaties concluded with the Muslims and were ever ready to use any opportunity to attack and destroy the community.

The principles of freedom of belief and noncoercion remained operative throughout the Prophet’s career. The vast majority of Muslim theologians and jurists also adopted those principles. Even if there are problematic texts, my argument is that we should interpret or reinterpret them, taking into account the social and political contexts of the seventh and the twenty-first centuries.

An Unwearied Translator

I don’t mind criticism, but inaccuracy is hard to put up with. A. M. Juster’s snide suggestion (“Briefly Noted,” November) that I “wearied” of the translation of Orlando Furioso is wrong. As I make clear in the introduction to the Belknap edition, I have done the whole thing. The decision to publish only parts of it was made by the press. The book would have been more than half again as long, and production costs would have made the price of the volume prohibitive. I am trying to find a way through electronic publishing to make the rest of the work available.

He seems not to be able to count, either. The elegiac lines of alternatively six and five stresses would be clear to anyone who wasn’t reading banging on the table with a spoon at what he took to be an ictus. None of the Ovid is in what he took to be free verse.

David R. Slavitt
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sharp New Mass

Perhaps, as Anthony Esolen says (“Restoring the Words,” November), the new translation of the Mass has restored its beauty and splendor. But something else should be said about it.

I was an altar server and was quite comfortable with Latin, but I remember the first time I attended the new Mass, when the priest first faced the congregation and we heard the words of the Mass in English. It was overwhelming, and eventually I had trouble understanding why the Church took so long to allow us to use English. I felt like the people were now a part of the Mass and not just spectators.

I keep thinking of our young Catholics. Those of the Twitter world and texting and Facebook. Are they the target audience of the new Mass? Or has the Church resigned itself to pews filled with seniors? What about those under fifty, the only Mass they are familiar with being the current edition? Will the changes to the Mass give them one more reason to leave the pews?

Perhaps our bishops should consider offering an alternative Mass for young people, one with contemporary English that speaks to our young people who worship at the altars of Apple and BlackBerry.

Patrick J. Sheahan
Hamilton, Ontario

As a convert from a fairly typical Southern California evangelical background, I have found myself increasingly drawn toward a deeper reverence and solemnity and appreciate that in the new missal the Church is helping us all to move toward this, and to grow, and be formed, together. But I dearly wish I could have discerned a sense of gratitude in Anthony Esolen’s piece. It was bad liturgy, bad music, and the Catholic left that drew me into the Church. It was nearly everything Esolen decries, indeed, disparages. It was the translations of words into their possibly simplest forms. It was the accessibility. It was praise music borrowed, misappropriated, from my tradition: evangelicalism. We authored it, in all of its inaccurate doctrine, in all of its culturally bound me-centeredness, narcissism, and The Therapeutic.

I feel relatively confident that those who are so deeply compelled by beautiful liturgy will respond with something to the effect of “ Good and lovely liturgy can be every bit as attractive to the young as that rubbish you heard .” Perhaps. But how condescending, how arrogant, how lacking in compassion for those who need stepping-stones into the Church, as I did. It is unimaginable to me that I could be a Catholic today if it had not been for the missteps after Vatican II.

I am eternally and perpetually grateful. Every day. Every time I go to the current ordinary form of the Mass, with guitars, with music from the 1970s and ’80s, the Calvary Chapelesque environs, the chattiness in the pews, the casual attire, the clapping”what joy! These are my people. This is my place. I am home. And you have the audacity to insult my home.

Today, these many, many years later, I am not only reading the Fathers, Pope Benedict XVI, and even Anthony Esolen, with gratitude for all of them and love for their gifts, but I am simultaneously and eternally indebted to the translators you deride, the musicians who wanted to sing their song to the Lord with their guitars, and the priests and youth leaders who could not possibly have met your doubleplus-gratitudeless criteria.

Gregory Herr
Brea, California

Anthony Esolen’s celebration of the language of the new translation of the missal makes perfect sense when he compares the new version to its 1973 predecessor. Yet why does he pass in silence over the fifteen years of labor by countless scholars and the episcopal conferences who had charged them with remedying the undoubted defects of what Esolen accurately calls the “gray” translation we have been using till now?

An honest appraisal of the new translation would involve its comparison not with the 1973 version but with the text the episcopal conferences of the English-speaking world approved and sent to Rome in 1998. The existence of this missal is conveniently ignored in all such discussions. To take one example from Esolen’s article, let us compare the 2010 and 1998 Postcommunion prayers for the first Sunday of Advent:

May these mysteries, O Lord,
in which we have participated,
profit us, we pray,
for even now, as we walk amid passing things,
you teach us by them to love the things of heaven
and hold fast to what endures. (2010)

Lord our God,
grant that in our journey
through this passing world
we may learn from these mysteries
to cherish even now the things of heaven
and to cling to the treasures that never pass away. (1998)

Is there something so deficient about the 1998 version that it needed to be trashed? A decade and a half of conscientious and collegial work scrapped. And thirteen more years to produce a replacement that has its own deficiencies. What, for example, is one to make of the “by them” in the 2010 version of this prayer? The antecedent seems because of its proximity to be “passing things,” yet we can tell from the Latin that it is actually “these mysteries” from four lines back in the English. This is just one small example, drawn from Esolen’s own celebration of the 2010 text. It is surprising he didn’t see the problem.

If we wish to celebrate the new translation, then honesty and justice require that we acknowledge the 1998 translation, and not continue to pretend that those who have reservations about the 2010 version would defend as adequate the 1973 translation.

Daniel A Madigan, S.J.
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

My tremendous respect for Anthony Esolen makes me reluctant to disagree with him. No doubt he is correct with respect to most of the translation, but as a writer, I find at least three parts very unsatisfactory. In English, one of the basic rules of writing is to avoid Latinisms as much as possible. Latin terminology is associated in English with the technical and the abstract. If we wish to touch reader’s hearts, we use strong, short, primarily Anglo-Saxon words.

That Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary” is a clear, human statement that immediately brings to mind the real birth of a baby. The new translation’s “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary” is awkward wording at best, and theological jargon at worst. Similarly, the poetically fluid and concrete image “one-in-being with the Father” has been replaced with the technical, abstract, and cold term “consubstantial with the Father.”

Of a slightly different nature is the change from “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” to I am not worthy for you to “enter under my roof.” This is closer to the biblical original, but it does not nearly so well fit the situation in which we are receiving the Eucharist.

The language used by the congregation is very meaningful to us, the people. We memorize it, savor it, live with it during the week. I probably say “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” to myself twenty times a week”as do others I know. The language used by the congregation should only be changed where there is a clear benefit in doing so.

Arthur Powers
Raleigh, North Carolina

Anthony Esolen replies:

I thank the gentlemen for their considerate responses, and pray that God continues to bless them in their pilgrimages.

Patrick Sheahan recalls the awe he felt when first he heard the English words of the Mass. I understand his feelings; I recall being overwhelmed with gratitude the first time I heard St. Thomas’ great Eucharistic hymn, the “Pange Lingua,” sung in English by a class of small children proceeding behind the priest during Benediction on Holy Thursday. What Mr. Sheahan may have forgotten is that those words he heard were quite close to the Latin text. For several years we all did utter the complete and not the truncated Gloria, and the precise and powerful words of the centurion. In many ways the current translation merely returns us to the words he heard and spoke then. Gregory Herr supposes that if it weren’t for the vague and diluted translation, he never would have made his way into the Catholic Church. I don’t know how he can be certain of that. In my article I didn’t discuss guitar music and the loss of the sense of a sacred dwelling. Indeed I recall a Mass I attended last year, visiting a maximum-security prison, where the men belted out a guitar-accompanied “Glory to God in the highest” that lifted up my heart as high as ever Bach could.

I know that in every Mass, Jesus deigns to be present on the altar, and if it’s good enough for Jesus, it had better be good enough for me too. Still, that doesn’t excuse the translators. There was no reason for them to translate “sancte Pater” as “Father,” or to muffle, at almost every opportunity, echoes of the word of God.

Daniel Madigan suggests that the 1998 translation corrected all of the problems of the 1973 text, and accuses me of dishonesty or disingenuousness for not mentioning it. The article compares (as the editors requested) the two normative texts with one another and with the Latin, but in response to comments from others I did read the 1998 text, and what I found makes me glad Rome did not accept it. Indeed, the Collects and the Prefaces were superior to those non-translations of 1973. A man with a broken leg is better off than an amputee. They were still not as accurate as those we will have now.

But the ordinary of the Mass was left almost entirely as is. The truncated Gloria remained. The truncated Confiteor remained. The muffling of the centurion’s words remained. The freeze-dried Eucharistic prayers remained. “And also with you” remained. The inaccuracies in the Creed remained.

New stupidities were introduced, via the childish allergy to the masculine, so that we would say, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth,” and we would drop the word “men” entirely from the Creed, suggesting that Christ came to earth “for us and for our salvation.” The rubric salvatio hominis per hominem, “the salvation of man by a man,” with its precise Pauline theology, its unifying of all men as it were in one man, Adam, and then in the new man, Christ, became “a human being saves the human family.” That is a great loss, and just one reason to be grateful for the new translation.

I thank Arthur Powers for his gracious words. I happen not to believe that the new translation is overly Latinate, and I find it “technical and abstract” only so far as it needs to be. If, for example, “born” meant the same thing as “incarnate,” I would prefer “born,” but it does not. The point is not that Jesus was “born” of the Virgin Mary, but that he “took flesh of” the Virgin Mary, an event that happened not at his Nativity, but nine months before, when Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.” That marks the great irruption of the power of God into our ruined world. So the translators had to choose between “took flesh of” and “was incarnate,” and they chose the path of less confusion.

If, however, we look at all the translation as a whole, we will see, over and over, that vague, abstract, and general language has been replaced with the sharp, concrete, and specific. Why, the very specificity has been a source of grouching, as when the priest asks the Spirit to come down upon the gifts like the dewfall, or as when he prays that a perfect offering may be made to God “from the rising of the sun to its setting.”