Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Anne Brontë on universal salvation

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is far less well known than Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, and Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, but in recent years Anne Brontë, the youngest of the famous sisters, has begun to command attention on her own. One reason for the critical neglect of Anne's work was Charlotte's disapproval of the realistic way in which Anne wrote about alcoholism, gambling, adultery, domestic violence, and marital cruelty. Today The Tenant of Wildfell Hall seems proto-feminist in its depiction of a woman's struggle to find her place in the world.

(Spoiler alert: if you are thinking of reading this book, perhaps you will want to return to this post at a later time.)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of a beautiful, intelligent, artistically gifted young woman who has come to live in a remote house on the moors of England under the assumed name of Helen Graham. She is secretive, her past is mysterious, and she has a young son—circumstances which cause tongues to wag. Her beauty and fascination, however, cause several men to pursue her, which creates all sorts of false leads and passionate conflicts. In the course of the story, the truth of her marriage to a glamorous but abusive husband, and her flight from him, gradually become known.

Helen is a deeply devout Christian, which would be an oddity in a literary novel today, but all the Brontë siblings, being the children of a clergyman, were to one degree or another biblically and doctrinally literate, and the King James Version was the very foundation of English speech until (alas) the last half of the twentieth century. Quotations from Scripture are found throughout the novel, but Helen's own faith and devotion play a vital role in the narrative, especially in her quest to save her husband from his demons. Running throughout the novel is a debate between Helen and her strict aunt, who is given to quoting biblical passages warning of damnation in order to persuade her niece of her husband's incorrigible wickedness. In arguing with her aunt (who, it must be said, is quite right about the husband), Helen says that she has searched the Bible and found thirty passages which tend to support her hope that God's purposes may ultimately embrace even the lost, and she quotes some of them. I have not been able to identify all of them, for Helen (or Anne) has sometimes conflated one or more passages with others, but this is done with biblical integrity:

The wicked man will not be thrown into hell "forever," insists Helen, but only "till he has paid the uttermost farthing" (Matthew 5:26)
"If any man's work abide not the fire, he shall suffer loss, yet himself shall be saved, but so as by fire" (I Corinthians 3:15)
"He that is able to subdue all things to himself will have all men to be saved" (Philippians 3:21, I Tim 2:4)
"He will in the fulness of time gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus, who tasted death for every man, and in whom God will reconcile all things to himself, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven" (Ephesians 1:10, Hebrews 2:9, Colossians 1:20)

(Some of Helen's thirty passages might include Paul in I Corinthians 5:4-5—"When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Also Romans 11:32—"For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.")

Helen then puts forward a sophisticated linguistic point that has been made by some scholars:

"In [the passages quoted by her aunt], the only difficulty is in the word which we translate 'everlasting' or 'eternal.' I don't know the Greek, but I believe it strictly means 'for ages,' and might signify either 'endless' or 'long-enduring.' And as for the danger of the belief [in eventual salvation even for the wicked], I would not publish it abroad, if I thought any poor wretch would be likely to presume upon it to his own destruction, but it is a glorious thought to cherish in one's heart, and I would not part with it for all the world can give!"

This declaration preserves a remarkable balance between the risk of belief in universal salvation when it encourages disregard of the Commandments and the godly life, on the one hand, and on the other, the buoyancy of faith in the all-conquering grace and mercy of God which gives hope to the world's end..

When this conversation with her aunt takes place, Helen is naïve and untested. She has not yet married her handsome husband and knows nothing of the misery he will inflict upon her. Her biblical views are therefore idealistic, whereas her aunt is quite right in urging her to think again before she undertakes the marriage. However, years later, when Helen has fled from the terrible trap she has fallen into, her faith in God's invincible grace is put to the test. Her husband falls seriously ill, and his death would mean her freedom; yet she returns to him to nurse him. For months at his bedside, she ministers not only to his body but to his soul, urging him to repent and yield himself to his Savior. She learns that he is no Don Giovanni, bellowing his defiance into the flames of hell—rather, he is a cynic and a coward, terrified of death, yet unwilling or unable to embrace faith. He dies in misery, unshriven and unreconciled. Here is what Helen writes to her brother that night:

"Oh, Frederick! None can imagine the miseries, bodily and mental, of that death-bed! How could I endure to think that poor trembling soul was hurried away to everlasting torment? It would drive me mad. But thank God I have hope—not only from a vague dependence on the possibility that penitence and pardon might have reached him at the last, but from the blessed confidence that, through whatever purging fires the erring spirit may be doomed to pass—whatever fate awaits, still, it is not lost, and God, who hateth nothing that he hath made [Book of Common Prayer], will bless it in the end!"

This is quite extraordinary. Note the intellectual rigor that refuses wishful thinking and "vague dependence," but relies solely on the power and mercy of God who "is able even to subdue all things to himself" (Philippians 3:21). I don't really know of a more striking example of the argument for the hope of universal salvation. The theologian George Hunsinger said to me once that, given the ambiguity of the biblical testimony, we cannot speak with certainty of the salvation of all, but like Helen in the story, "We are permitted to hope for it."

In this regard, I often think of what J. Christiaan Beker wrote in his classic Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought—"The final apocalyptic triumph of God does not permit a permanent pocket of evil or resistance to God [to remain] in his creation." (p.194)