For those who may be interested, Harvard Professor of Literature, Stephen Greenblatt wrote an absolutely magisterial book about the history of Western thought about purgatory entitled, “Hamlet in Purgatory.”
Those who know the story will remember that Hamlet’s dead father, who is residing in purgatory, returns at the beginning of Act 1 to implore Hamlet to avenge his death at the hands of his brother.)
To contemporary readers, this sounds like little more than a good yarn but it was quite a bit more than that when Shakespeare wrote his play. It is important to remember that Shakespeare lived and worked at a time when the results of the English Reformation were anything but clear. A Protestant, Elizabeth, I, had ascended the throne, replacing her Roman Catholic half sister and English Catholics and Protestants were fighting a low level (and sometimes not so low level) civil war. One of the major ecclesiastical disputes was over the existence of purgatory and the selling of indulgences. English Protestants never tired of pointing out that purgatory was mentioned no where in the Christian Bible.
Contemporary Protestants and Catholics view this difference of opinion as something that they can politely disagree about. During Elizabethan times, the dispute about the existence of purgatory was one that many people were willing to shed blood over.
What makes this interesting is that very much like the internet and social media today (a forum that the new Pope seems very anxious to embrace), theater was very much of a new media in Elizabethan times. Providing access to theater to the masses was a very new phenomenon. Greenblatt argues that by focusing on the ghost of Hamlet’s father and his rather unpleasant experiences in purgatory, Shakespeare was indirectly confronting the Protestant rejection of purgatory. For those who wonder why Shakespeare would take this chance, Greenblatt points out that there is considerable evidence that Shakespeare was a “secret” Catholic and that almost all of his family members were “secret” Catholics as well.
Greenblatt’s book also discusses Jewish and Islamic conceptions of Purgatory. Arguably both the Tanakh and the Koran allude to Purgatory although it is clearly not as important a concept as it is in Catholicism.
Personally I think that “Hamlet in Purgatory” is a brilliant book. It is available for the Kindle.
More information can be found here,
Common mistake re: Purgatory: “Days off” never referred to days in Purgatory. The passage of time in the afterlife, even during the purging of dross by the refiner’s fire, is something about which the Catholic church has never pronounced. There may be no time. There may be time, of a different kind than our own.
The “days off” referred to the ancient practice of imposing long penances on sinners in this world to allow them to express contrition for sins; e.g., “wear sackcloth and not receive at the altar for 300 days.”
An indulgence for someone in Purgatory, as taught by the Catholic church, has always been intended to set aside a required amount of purgation equivalent to so-and-so-many days of earthly penance. THOSE are the “days.” As to whether there are any “days” after death, nobody knows.
I know I don’t have a degree in sociology, but what seems to me thunderously implausible is that anyone would want to read this vapid drivel.
“I know I don’t have a degree in sociology”
Nor in basic courtesy, apparently.
I have a more detailed response here: http://eacafe.blogspot.com/2013/08/peter-berger-on-pope-francis-at.html
I hope the postmodern deconstructors
and liberal progressives at the head of the Episcopal Church if the USA doesn’t
get any wild ideas, but knowing that crowd, five or ten years from now we might
see an internet or television ad something like this:
“Tired after all those Saturday night
cocktail parties? Is your back broken after golf or yard work on Saturday? Just
can’t get away from the newspaper and coffee on Sunday mornings? Are these why
you just can’t make it to church??
“Well, have no fear, your church is here!
“Yes, the Episcopal Church has everything you need to let you to celebrate
Communion in your own home. Yes, that’s right! Celebrate Communion without
“While supplies last you can get a
three-month supply of bread and wine (or sherry if you prefer) for the amazing
price of only $19.99. That’s right, only $19.99. Every package comes with the
guarantee that an Episcopal priest blessed the bread and wine. Even the entire
warehouse was blessed by the Rt. Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schiori.
“But wait, there’s more!
“If you order now you’ll get a free two ounce bottle of Holy Water and free a
DVD of Bishop Schori conducting the Holy Eucharist in the National Cathedral
you can use anytime.
One other correction, where readers of Mr. Berger’s piece might be misled:
The arguments for the non-authenticity of the Matthew 16 “Kepha = the Rock” quote from Matthew were first accepted by scholars. But they were later deconstructed. Then the deconstructions were deconstructed, then the text was criticized, then the criticisms were criticized.
Scholarly opinion is all over the map on this one, but certainly does not form any kind of consensus of it being “thunderously improbable” that Jesus ever spoke those words.
Au contraire, on this contentious issue, one pretty confident conclusion that is most regularly drawn these days (but in sharp contrast to the consensus of merely 40 years ago, which is probably when Mr. Berger formed his “thunderously improbable” view) is that this passage was NOT originally in Greek but has an Aramaic/Hebrew original behind it, in accord with the earliest traditions that Matthew’s Gospel was originally composed “in the language of the Jews.”
The Hebrew-style parallelism is there, for example, with Peter’s lineage and title mirror-imaged against the lineage and title of his master: Son-of-the-Living-God vs. Son-of-Jonah , The Messiah (or Christ) vs. The Kepha (or Rock). This kind of concept-mirroring is mother’s milk for anyone raised on daily readings of the Psalms and the Wisdom literature; in other words, for a Jew.
And I think all scholars agree that if any Old Testament passage/institution serves as the background or context for this passage in Matthew’s gospel, it is Isaiah 22 (where Eliakim replaces Shebna) and the institution of the stewards (with the chief steward or “head-of-house” as their leader).
As such it represents a relatively obscure allusion to how things were done in the Davidic dynasty (“the House of David”) which was only of interest to Jews looking for a latter-day scion of David to restore the monarchy. An Aramaic-speaking and Hebrew-reading Jesus follower might bother to make such references when arguing Jesus’ Messiah-hood to a Jewish audience; a Greek-speaking Gentile interested in the Divine Logos probably wouldn’t bother.
Or such, at least, is the current view: The one spot of (relative) consensus about a passage where scholars are, as I stated previously, all over the map.
Anyway, scholars have gone back and forth on this for a few centuries now; Mr. Berger’s a bit out-of-date but in another 50 years he may be perfectly in tune with the scholarly consensus again. Who can say?
But if anyone didn’t know about this shifting history, and their only knowledge came from Mr. Berger’s “thunderously improbable” assertion, they’d wind up with the impression that this was some kind of harrumphing consensus of all intelligent persons. And that was what I wanted to correct in the minds of all interested parties: It is simply not so; or, at least, it is thunderously out-of-date.
Berger notes that the Reformation was inspired partly by the “extreme misuse of indulgences.” But if Jesus did not give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, any use of indulgences is a misuse. “No purchase required” doesn’t help. Adjustments to the calendar in purgatory won’t help. The problem comes down to this: “The Pope’s ‘power of the keys’ is intrinsic to the Catholic understanding of his office”—and it is thunderously improbable. I don’t hear Berger claiming that all intelligent people agree with
him. I do hear him saying that Catholicism is intrinsically authoritarian. Gestures at aggiornamento (new, improved electronic indulgences) cannot remedy that incorrigibility. Indeed, it seems to me that such gestures are likely to backfire: Electronic indulgences? What do you take us for?
Lay Catholics—including Charles Taylor, author of “A Secular Age”– are another matter. They, too, can practice Berger’s theological method of comparing tradition to “what fits” in their own experience (including, perhaps, reincarnation). And Protestantism is not without its problems.
In 1900, Auguste Sabatier, Dean of the Protestant Faculty of Theology in the University of Paris, published “Religions of Authority and the Religion of the Spirit.” Catholicism, of course, was
a religion of authority, but Protestantism, too, could miss the spirit by relying too heavily on the authority of scripture. So, our problem is not that of finding the “right” religion but of becoming our own theologians and gratefully assimilating what
we can from the traditions.
Fascinating and well-written piece. But I doubt the division between the virtual world and the nonvirtual (?) world is as sharp as all that. Nor does it seem to me that an acknowlegment of the reach of the internet amounts to some sort of embrace of postmodernism. It’s all good food for thought though.