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Dialogues on hope and hellfire: St. Isaac the Syrian in Alvin Kimel’s Eclectic Orthodoxy

Alvin Kimel (Father Aidan) is reluctant to call his writing theology, but his blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, elaborates the sort of theological writing that I most like to read. At base, it could be called sincere and thoughtful reflection about this life in Christ, grounded unavoidably in the particular Christian life of its author. His reflections are personal through and through but also everywhere marked with awareness of the shared dimension our pilgrimage. His writing is a kind of thinking out loud: sincere and open, sustained thinking by a believer in the company of other believers, in search of the truth. “My primary purpose here,” he says, “is to understand and learn from the men and women whose writings I will be discussing on this blog.”

Settling on the title for this little introductory note, I made my own best stab at characterizing Father Aidan’s ruminations. They are not dialogues in any formal sense but that is exactly what I would call them if I were a “later editor” passing them on to the future, or a contemporary reader passing them along to you.

Kimel’s eclecticism is richly ecumenical. He says he finds it impossible to be anything else. A well-traveled priest of thirty-odd years, his own Christian faith has taken him on a journey from the Episcopal Church to Roman Catholicism, and from there to Orthodoxy. His interlocutors include Eastern Orthodox theologians such as Bulgakov and Ware, but also C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the Fathers of the Church. Eschatology and the scope of salvation dominate his concerns in the blog, and his reading ranges widely and relentlessly, drawing in without apology contemporary Western theologians and philosophers, both catholic and evangelical. He is not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, wherever he happens to find it.

Probably no single Christian thinker cuts a bigger figure in Fr. Kimel’s conversations on eschatology than the seventh-century ascetic St. Isaac the Syrian. St. Isaac shows up in various threads and posts, but about two years ago, Fr. Kimel devoted a whole series of reflections to him and his unusual teaching on hell and salvation. He is perhaps the perfect saint for an ecumenically eclectic orthodoxy. A monk (and briefly, bishop) of the Assyrian Church, St. Isaac is venerated by not only his own but by all the other ancient churches of the Christian East — Orthodox, Catholic, and Oriental Orthodox. Insistently and unambiguously Universalist, St. Isaac believed that God’s love will conquer every rebel heart. Inexhaustible and untiring, God’s mercy will forgive every sin and overcome even hell’s wickedness. For him, the goodness and love of God requires us to believe in universal salvation. And St. Isaac’s universalism is more Universalist than the views of most Universalists. In the end, God’s love will empty hell completely; even the worst demons will be saved. St. Isaac’s unqualified confidence in the mercy of God led him to say some very unusual things. He is even willing to call God unjust — think of how he pays his workers or how he rewards his sons! So likewise, he goes on to insist, we are not called to be just but to imitate God’s mercy and prodigality. Strictly speaking, justice is not our concern.

St. Isaac’s faith in the total victory of God’s love disarms unfeeling hope, inured by stale and habitual opinion sifting. It is the centerpiece of Kimel’s eccentric and eclectic orthodoxy. Novel, eccentric, and extravagant, St. Isaac’s teachings have pressed their weight behind my own undecided leanings and made me lean a little more. The discussion in this series (and in others) is popular theological writing at its most engaging. Everywhere intelligent, but even more pervasively direct and honest, it should meet the interest of any sinner who hopes in God’s mercy, or anyone who prays for the salvation of the whole world.

The featured image is an icon of St. Isaac, uploaded by Flickr user Ted. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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