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Faith and Reason in Limbo


It is coincidental that the Pope has received simultaneous media attention simultaneously for his views on faith and reason, and for his alleged plans to decommission Limbo. But the history of Limbo does illuminate troubling aspects of the relationship between faith and reason.

Limbo is less a place than a halt on the line of questions that enquiring minds have asked about faith. These questions are provoked by the New Testament conviction that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the whole world, and that the basis of salvation is our acceptance of Christ through faith and baptism. Early Christians were led periodically to ask about the salvation of virtuous Jews, like Abraham and Moses, who lived before Christ, and of babies who die before they can be baptised.

In the West, these questions became urgent when entangled with a wider debate about salvation. Theologians asked whether we are saved by Christ’s gift alone, or by living decent lives. St. Augustine said that salvation is by God’s gift alone, and that we depend on grace even for our good actions.

His opponents, mainly moral reformers, argued in response that if we rely entirely on God’s gift for our salvation, God becomes responsible for deciding who will receive this gift and who is to be saved. God must also be responsible for deciding who is to be damned. This seems unjust.

Augustine replied that God does decide who is to be saved, but that it is not unjust for God to save only some people from damnation. When Adam sinned, he was rightly condemned. All human beings inherited his guilt, and so are justly condemned with him. Salvation is a pure gift, to which issues of justice are irrelevant.

Augustine found confirmation for his position in the African practice of baptising babies. They were baptised because otherwise they would not be saved. But Augustine conceded that the punishment of unbaptised babies would be of the mildest kind.

This account was generally accepted, but provoked periodic unease because it seemed very harsh. Some suggested that babies would be spared the punishment of fire, and would suffer only the pain of the loss of God. Others saw this to be a purely verbal concession, like the recent distinction between torture and hard interrogation.

Later reflection on the relationship between faith and reason led to a less harsh theory. It distinguished between what we could say about human nature and human destiny on the basis of reflection, and what we learned through revelation. It argued that human beings were made for natural happiness. But through Christ, we were also given a gift beyond our natural capacity – to share in God’s life.

Unbaptised babies, then, could enjoy a natural happiness that would completely fulfil their human desires. But they would neither enjoy, nor miss, the added gift of seeing God. This theoretical construct became a place, Limbo. The theory later fell out of favour with the Reformers, who saw in it an inappropriate intrusion of speculative reason into faith.

This potted history shows Christian thinkers working systematically at the implications of faith. It also suggests that this conjunction of faith and reason does not always work happily. It now seems incredible that theories which demand that unbaptised babies are consigned to hell, and that God predestines some people to damnation, should ever have seemed consistent with either human or divine goodness.

What is missing in this theological use of reason is an imagination grounded in ordinary humanity and, in the case of Christians, in the humanity of Christ, the criterion for our knowledge of God. Once you imagine concretely infants tormented forever by fire or by the pain of loss, you cannot but reject as morally and theologically indecent any account of God’s gift that demands such a fate.

Yet, it is common for reason, even when joined to faith, to rest happily in such theories. No less than United States legislators who sanctioned the use of torture under other names, devout Christians, are liable to seduction by the logic of their arguments.

The conjunction of faith and reason may bless society. But a humane imagination, which measures theories about faith and about policy alike by their human implications, is as necessary a gift. And a humane imagination is sometimes joined to, sometimes separated from, religious faith.



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Existing comments

God became man, and therefore, it is my belief, that God is big enough to take all comers, unless they utterly reject Him.

Theo Dopheide | 24 October 2006  

Thankyou Andrew for alleviating my scepticism a little about he whole Christian project with your commentary on limbo. I will continue to not believe that Jesus Christ is "the saviour of the whole world" whilst clinging to the Catholic tradition of my ancestors. Human history is strewn with a mix of compassionate and violent episodes between peoples of many different faiths, including Christianity. Proclamation of the Creed in our liturgy gives those of us still fully immersed in the conviction that we have the only true path reaffirmation to keep going. But I can only consent to about half of what is there knowing the great strength and potential also of faiths other than Christian.

Mike Foale | 24 October 2006  

I think it is high time that the concept of limbo was done away with.The idea that an unborn, or unbaptised baby could possibly not go to heaven is abhorrent. I understand that we are all born with original sin, the sin of 'knowing', but a young baby does not 'know' sin, so how can it possibly, in the eyes of god, be seen to therefore be culpable for the sin's of the Adam.I think this is a flawed logic in catholic/christian theology. Where will these unborn and unbaptised babies go?

Jane Taylor | 24 October 2006  

When I first learned of Limbo as a third grader, 63 years ago, it didn't make sense with my concept of G*d. Sarah & Miriam & Zipporah would have known better. Now we need to spend time on acknowledging the Maya and others who for 1.75 million years have been our ancestors in faith through their spirituality and cosmology in seeking understanding long before Judaism, Christianity& Islam.

Mim | 25 October 2006  

Sorry, but I'm still not convinced. Is it unreasonable to think that, not having made the choice for God, they are not ready to appreciate him. And are we to think that abortionists, sending large numbers of souls painlessly(?) to heaven, are doing good and should be encouraged.

Gavan Breen | 25 October 2006  

Great article Andrew.I often go back to Isiah in the OT "...My ways are not your ways.." inref to God's way of doing things.Common sense tells us that their coud be no state of Limbo. Our God is a loving God and we were in his thoughts at the dawn of time.The notion of punishing innocent babies? According to Matthew 18 Jesus said: "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven." Perhaps the doctrine of original sin,which was never mentioned in the OT or by Jesus and like Limbo, makes little sense, could also be reviewed.

John Bourke | 25 October 2006  

Gavan, have I missed something? I thought salvation wasn't about us making a choice for God, but about God making a choice for us. And isn't it a bit of overkill for God to sacrifice thousands of years of babies just to stop twenty first century abortionists from feeling good?

Mungo McLeish | 26 October 2006  

OK, so should we campaign for compulsory abortion (or killing, if it's too late) of all children of parents judged (by us, the elite) to be incapable of bringing their children up to fear and love God. It would do wonders for the population of Heaven and Earth.

Gavan Breen | 26 October 2006  

It always worries me when there is talk of "time" :space" "place" and the like in eternity. "Time off" from Purgatory by way of indulgences; the "General Judgement" on the "last Day". Isnt the last day foer each of us the last moment of time prior to death? Where is Heaven? and so on it goes. A good explanation please jesuits!

peter beeson | 14 December 2006  

I don't know whether an appeal to humane values rescues us from the problem that has been so succinctly outlined. When you pull on this particular piece of string, you begin to unravel a set of deeper connections. When Jesus tells us that to love God means to feed the hungry etc. he appears to be setting a value on them and on the avoidance of suffering, a value that isn't evidenced so clearly in Augustine's view on the unbaptised question. On God's part, a good deal of what we are enjoined to do seems to smack of 'do as I say not as I do',that is, if Augustine is right. If the law and the prophets are summed up in the love of god and our neighbour, AND the two loves are not at odds, it seems difficult to accept not only Augustine's specific conclusions, but the whole fragmented legalistic style of reasoning that has characterised the debate and church thinking on this and similar issues for so many centuries. This is not to say that it is impossible to fail utterly in our existence, just that the more legalistic and exclusivist forms of reasoning about salvation and grace seem to belong to a quite different verbal universe to talk about caritas.

Robert Young | 30 October 2007  

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