Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Christian Universalism: An In-House Practice of Generous Orthodoxy

I am not a universalist. I am not an exclusivist. I am not an inclusivist. I am a Christian wrestling with an in-house debate [1] related to the implications of the vocation of Jesus, i.e. his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, on the history, present, and future of the whole world (versus the elected few). I am also a follower of Jesus who dares to hope that all of humanity can be redeemed. In other words, the ransom has been paid (Mat. 20:28; Mk. 10:45), Christ has died once for all (Rom. 6:10; 2 Cor. 5:14-15), death has lost its sting (1 Cor. 15:55), the gates of heaven will forever remain open (Rev. 21:25), as God desires not only the church, but also the whole world to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 1 Jn. 2:2). I am aware that a long list of competing biblical references could be compiled and a systematic, proof-texting debate could be pursued ad infinitum. Nonetheless, the dialectic remains. I wonder if that is the way that it is supposed to be?

Origen of Alexandria
While I do find myself leaning more towards universal redemption, potentially due to my eternal optimism and inability to believe that anyone is beyond redemption or without hope, I am also aware that the Scriptures are clear on this matter on one point: limited and universal redemption are possible. However, that is not my current gripe when it comes to this in-house debate. Instead, my frustration lay in the inability to relinquish the association between universalism and Unitarianism. [2] That is to say, there is a clear and significant distinction between Unitarian Universalism and Christian Universalism. The former is rooted in politically correct, cultural and religious pluralism that believes all religious faiths to be witnesses to redemptive truth and universal salvation. The latter is a Christocentric reading of Scripture and interpretation of the gospel that believes in and through Jesus alone the whole world and all of humanity are saved. [3] In language common to Evangelical theology, Jesus is the only way, truth, and life (John 14:6). This way was and is for the entire world and all of humanity.

I also struggle with how the mere mention of universalism leads to a complete dismissal of the viability of evangelism and missional vocation for a Christian universalist. This sort of assumption reduces the nature and purpose of Christian mission to an evangelism rooted in an escapist and fatalist theology. In that light, Christian universalism actually gains an edge in that it promotes Christian mission as present incarnations and inaugurations of the new creation that is already here and yet to come. Moreover, when one’s eschatology is shaped by universal salvation evangelism becomes an invitation to participate in this divine and everlasting life in anticipation of the eternal life to come. Thomas a Kempis once wrote, “Practice now what you’ll have to put into practice then.” This is the paradigmatic nature of Christian mission and evangelism within a universal hope for the world’s redemption.

I am aware that I develop these reflections from my context of freedom and luxury and within a nation that privileges people like me, i.e. white men. Furthermore, as a Protestant Christian, neither I nor my ancestors suffered through the holocaust, making hope for even Hitler’s postmortem redemption less personal and painful. I did not suffer through American segregation or African apartheid, making it far easier to relinquish resentment of those who promoted racism and oppression. I do not live in Western Sudan and the regions of Darfur, certainly alleviating a need to quench a thirst for vengeance against those who encourage mass genocide of the tribal peoples. Moreover, those who have endured these historical crimes against humanity, as well as many others like them, may find universalism not only improbable, but also offensive. Why would they want to hope for an eternity where their oppressors also have been granted access? I cannot answer that justifiable question. I cannot even relate to the context in which such question would be posed. I can only bear witness to the gospel that calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And for those who may feel unable to do so, I can only offer love and prayers for their enemies on their behalf. I am not saying that Christian universalism is the most effective reading or interpretation of biblical theology, for it may not be. I am suggesting, better said, longing for others to dare hope for it. [4]

Notes:

[1] I borrow this phrase from Gregory MacDonald, author of the blog, Evangelical Universalist. He writes on his blog, “Therefore disagreements about whether all will be saved should not be thought of as debates between ‘the orthodox’ and ‘heretics’ but rather as ‘in-house’ debates between Christians” (http://evangelicaluniversalist.blogspot.com/. 24 Sept. 2010).

[2] My frustration on the matter began when an article was published in Relevant Magazine by Jonathan Merritt, “The Rising Tide of Universalism.” Nov/Dec 2008. http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/deeper-walk/features/18208-is-jesus-the-only-way . I wrote a critical review of this limited and na├»ve article, of which a portion was published in the in the following month’s issue.

[3] This is not a new conversation in the Christian tradition.  Men and women alike have explored and suggested the viability of Christian universalim, most notably Origen.  While I am not interested in exploring the contributions of this faithful disciple at this time, although I hope to in the near future, I do suggest reading some of his works, e.g. Origen: An Exortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works .  Also, look for the release of All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann by Gregory MacDonald.

[4] A phrase borrowed from Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th century Swiss theologian and Catholic priest.

6 comments:

  1. Can i get some clarification on the evangelism aspect of your view in Christian Universalism...in christian universalism are there still the elect, which are currently on their way home while everyone who doesnt enter into a relationship with God will one day be redeemed? What is the difference between the elect in this view and the traditional reformed view? And in a more clear sense what is the elects mission in evangelizing? In this view if say everyone would one day be saved does that mean that it is possible for anyone to come to christ now and not just those he previously elected? Sorry for all the questions...

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  2. A great place to look would be Karl Barth. He suggests Jesus as the elected one for us and the whole world. Moreover, election in my mind is for mission and witness in this world (versus the mark of who is in and who is out); in other words, 1 Peter says we are "the priesthood of believers" in that Christians bear the marks of Christ, the cross of Christ, and proclaim the work of Christ that is not just for Christians who believe the right propositional truths, but also and especially for the whole world. That said, we invite, i.e. evangelize, others to live into the new creation even now, for that is what it means to be truly human. Revelation 21 even talks about how God will eventually make his home among "all peoples." Also, I do not believe, nor do most Presbyterians (in our wing, that is, from what I can tell) believe in Calvin's double predistination anymore. So, yes, I believe anyone can, and potentially all will, one day "come to Christ," or as it says in revelation, "every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord." And isn't that what Paul said was what led to salvation in Romans 10? Just a few of my thoughts...feel free to respond, or grab coffee and talk some more ;)

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  3. coffee sounds great but it will probably have to wait until after I hand in the first draft of this research paper:( which is april 1st so ill get in touch with you around then!

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  4. Greg so you just reposted this today and it caught my eye again...I read my post above and am so happy I have learned more since 2011. Anyway a lot of what this post is talking about is what I have been discussing in my Scots confession class where we are reading Barth's "The Knowledge of God and the service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation". Have you read this? If not I think you would really enjoy it. I also really liked what you said regarding evangelism and how this view gives even more credence to evangelism and even pastoral care of which lately I have found particularly interesting. My Scot's professor who is scottish by the way keeps talking about the phrase, "He became what I am so that I may become what He is" which reminds me of this post. What do you think about going so far as to say that Jesus offered us this invitation of eternal life by His dying on the cross but that it is Him who also accepts the invitation on our behalf. It is Jesus that stands in our place and says yes because we are too sinful and broken to say yes on our own. thoughts?

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    1. So glad you are engaging these conversations in seminary. Mehta a joy to see you be stretched. I have not read that piece by Barth but thanks to you I will do so shortly. Got anything you can send me?

      What you say above is related to Barths belief that Jesus is Gods YES to all the world. Jesus became what we never could not. My belief is that we are elected to mission not just salvation, living into Gods promised future in the here and now. While I lean more to universal deliverance, I don't think that's the point. The point is to embody the way of Jesus as long as we are alive confident that this way of living lasts for all eternity and resurrects beyond the grave. This is also connected to Paul's "in Christ" language and the faithfulness of Jesus discussion, I.e. New Paul perspective. In other words, Jesus became faith for us so that we could be joined to him through our faith. But our faith is not a guarantor of our salvation in contrast to others. Our faith is a mark that we have already decided to participate in the salvation in the here and now...at least that's my thinking and probably Barths too. Certainly not the Scots in their confession...

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  5. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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