Death, as we know it

The Persistence of Purgatory
March 22, 1996

Among the 610 pages of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church less than one is allocated to the doctrine of purgatory. Is this because there is not much which can confidently be said about life after death? Or is it a sign of embarrassment about a doctrine which filled the religious horizon in late medieval times and should be cut down to size? Certainly not the latter, if Richard Fenn is right. Purgatory, he claims, is still a powerful concept and a secularised version of it dominates United States social consciousness.

The professor of Christianity and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary tells a subtle, absorbing and mostly convincing story. All Christian traditions have to find some way of representing the belief that, although salvation is wholly dependent on the free gift of God's grace, nevertheless there remain things to be done by those who have received it. Sanctification, purification, purgation, pilgrimage, building, entering into one's inheritance, and many other metaphors, all testify to the need for a process in time if soul-making is to be complete. The further idea that this time can extend beyond the grave, and may include real commerce between the living and the dead, has meagre scriptural warrant, but meets a powerful psychological need and has major social implications.

The doctrine of purgatory was first defined in 14, just when the notion of public time was becoming widespread. It reinforced a growing sense of individuals as independent moral agents responsible for their own spiritual state. The idea that individuals might work their time, and enlist others to help them after death, also gave hope to those on the margins of Christian respectability; usurers, for instance, needed no longer to feel themselves excluded from salvation. It can even be argued that purgatory, with its emphasis on redeeming the time, gave a stimulus to capitalist enterprise.

Nor was the basic concept a Roman Catholic preserve. In a sharply focussed discussion of John Locke, Richard Baxter and a 19th-century American liberal divine, William Channing, Fenn demonstrates that Protestantism was equally vigorous in its obsession with time as the context in which salvation must be worked out. Locke, for example, envisaged a scenario in which Christians had to undergo lifelong penance for their misdeeds under a kind of suspended sentence. A Protestantised purgatory, in his hands, became a way of life, a daily discipline, a never-ending quest for perfection, in which the contemplation of heaven and the fear of loss were precariously balanced against one another. This had educational implications, and Fenn's exposition of Locke's educational policy as a preliminary form of purgatory, is worth reading for the light it throws on today's debates about teaching right and wrong.

Of course what was missing from the Protestant versions of purgatory, and their secularised counterparts, was the sense of mutual responsibility between the living and dead. The soul on endless trial became increasingly isolated as it was freed from the external spiritual distractions, which, in Locke's view, might impede the exercise of pure reason. But the more the process became secularised, the more the individual soul became burdened by "a chronic low-grade consciousness of sin" which knew neither its name nor its remedy. Time became a prison. Only the powerful and prosperous could have time of their own.

Fenn is particularly interesting on the way this secularised image of purgatory has shaped American character. Locke is a direct influence in that his theme of constant self-mastery and improvement fitted precisely the needs of a free, idealistic and developing society. American Catholicism was at first suspect because, by holding to an other-worldly doctrine of purgatory, overburdened with obligations to the past and hierarchically administered, it seemed to threaten the independence of moral judgement and openness to the future which true democracy required. But both Catholics and Protestants were, in their different ways, conscious of serious work to be done, in which no time should be wasted. Nor was this attitude by any means exclusively American. Readers of Gladstone will recall the description of his diary as "an account book with God of the most precious gift of time".

It could be argued that other social pressures besides secularised religion contributed even more to the "tyranny of time". A complex social order has to be synchronised if its different parts are to interlock. The concept of public time owed as much to travel as to communication with the dead. But Fenn is surely right in seeing the peculiar moral connotations of time and the masochistic urge to use it painfully, as having religious rather than utilitarian roots. He cites Dickens as an observer of American character. Dickens saw much to admire on his American travels. But he was disturbed by a seemingly destructive urge which he identified as "universal distrust", and which manifested itself under the guise of superior shrewdness and independence. To live with sadistic fantasies about distrust is to lay the groundwork for masochistic self-deprivation in a time-warp without redemptive possibilities.

The complex ways in which residues of belief continue to influence secular societies should not be underestimated. The Persistence of Purgatory belongs to a genre of interdisciplinary studies in which theology, sociology, psychology, philosophy and history rub shoulders with one another, and produce some surprising insights. Fenn points out, for instance, that by failing to provide for an established religion in the US constitution, the founding fathers placed all the burden for maintaining the moral fabric of the nation on the conscience of the individual. Under pressure to safeguard the existing order from mere individualism, each citizen thus found himself on constant probation in a kind of evangelical civic purgatory.

Another insight, and perhaps not a very popular one in today's climate of opinion, is that if old theological doctrines are still lying submerged in social consciousness in potentially destructive misrepresentations, it is worth trying to understand them, if only to discover whether they also contain any remedies.

The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Lord Habgood was formerly archbishop of York.

The Persistence of Purgatory

Author - Richard K. Fenn
ISBN - 0 521 55039 4 and 56855 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 209

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