Friday, July 16, 2010

Universalism: What do you think?

I'm interested in response to the piece below by Max Carter that ran in the WaPost at addresses Steve Prothero ... (Hat Tip to Tom Smith for emailing me this link)

and to the two other pieces below (HT to Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog at Beliefnet).

The third is a response to Max. The one sandwiched in between is a statement of Christian Universalism that seems to me close to the traditional Quaker position. This is more than I usually put in one blog, but not all that long.

Religions are siblings but not twins
by Max Carter
Q: Are all religions the same? The Dalai Lama, who just celebrated his 75th birthday, often refers to the 'oneness' of all religions, the idea that all religions preach the same message of love, tolerance and compassion. Historians Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith agree that major faiths are more alike than not. But in his new book "God is not One," religion scholar and On Faith panelist Steve Prothero says views by the Dalai Lama, Armstrong and Smith that all religions "are different paths to the same God" is untrue, disrespectful and dangerous. Who's right? Why?
Are all religions the same? Of course not. Nor are my three biological children, even though they came from the same parents. While sharing many common characteristics, our two daughters and one son are as different as can be in many respects - religiously, politically, vocationally, temperamentally.
But my wife and I focus on our deep love of each, irrespective of those differences. We love no one of them more than the other; favor no one of them more than the other. We recognize the biological similarities, their common interests in living meaningful lives, their desire to be loving partners, and their devotion and love for us as parents. They have the same hopes and fears that any human beings have: anxiety about job security, health, their children's lives, the future....
I think of the world's religions in much the same way. Products of human beings who are biologically descended from the same "parents" yet subjected to different cultural forces and even the whims of those "parents" at any given time, religions develop differently in response to those differences.
Yes, there are many similarities in the world's religions. As I developed a curriculum on world religion for a Quaker school in Palestine recently, I was struck by how many common elements each of the eight major traditions I included have. All religions have to deal with life and death, hope and desire, fear and the need for acceptance. And each has come up with a system to offer meaning to humanity in a world that ultimately kills us. The elements of that system are very different in many respects. Codes of ethics are often very different.
But as brothers and sisters, offspring of the same "parent," we can find common cause, celebrate the richness of each other's discoveries of meaning, share in each other's quest for more Light. Will there be family fights? Of course. Can there be reconciliation and a fun time at the family picnic? Yes.

Read more:

Piece number two
I Am A Universalist
12 Comments Published July 14th, 2010 in Uncategorized.
Reading Gutierrez’ “A Theology of Liberation” last week I realised that the best word to describe my view of the Christian Gospel is universalist. I believe in the universality of salvation.

Now, before you swipe my “Bible believing evangelical” credentials (or leper bells depending on your view) from me, let me assure that I still think that Jesus was telling the truth when he said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” I think salvation only happens through faith in Christ.

But the quantitative universal question (who is in, who is out and how many people are saved which is typically how the word universalist is used) is not nearly as interesting to me as the qualitative universal question. I do not know if all will be saved and I am not certain that when 1 Peter says that Jesus went to preach to the captives in hell that this indicates that all humans ever conceived will be redeemed.

But I am certain that the whole testimony of the Bible proclaims that the restored union with God that is the “hope of the Gospel” goes far beyond simply gaining entry to heaven. I think it has universal consequences for the individual, for the community and well, for the universe. If it is true that through the forgiveness of sins the Christian has the primary relationship of their life restored to them, that is, union with God, then that must utterly transform how they approach every other relationship and interaction.

The way that I have understood this in the past is that the Gospel exerts a four-fold reconciliation. At the heart of my being I have been reconciled through Christ, in-dwelt by the Spirit and adopted by God.

This security is the basis for my second reconciliation, the internal one to myself. If the Creator of the Universe sees me as wholly holy and blameless then I must be willing to share grace with myself and accept and forgive myself.

Off the basis of this peace within myself over who I am, I am charged up for the third wave of reconciliation with the Other, the neighbour, any other human being I encounter. As someone at peace with myself and secure in God’s identity for me I ought to be able to embrace even the most tiring and draining of people, say rugby fans, with a new found ability to repent (healing old relationships) and embrace (building new relationships).

Then the fourth-fold reconciliation comes to bear as a community of people who have enjoyed the benefits of reconciliation with God, peace with themselves, renewed relationship with each other, take this new Creation energy and let it loose on the Cosmos. Whether in the ecclesial, political, economic, cultural or ecological environment, the reconciliation of God expresses itself here in regenerative action. As Tom Wright might say, we live in the now shaped by the sure and certain knowledge of God’s certain future. We join in with what God is about.

But the extent of that transformation was always limited for me. In each of those four quadrants I think that the Gospel extends universally, which may even mean infinitely. There is always more internal healing and peace-making to be done and the Gospel is always relevant. There is always more repenting with your neighbours to be done and the Gospel is the only way we can do that. There is always more re-creation to be enjoyed in the wider world and the Gospel sets us up for that in a way that transcends and perfects both hedonism and conservationism. Underwriting all this activity is of course our primary conversion – being captured more fully by the beauty of God.

So I may be warping Gutierrez entirely in this interpretation, warping or perhaps correcting (!) but there is much to dwell on in what he has to say:

Salvation – the communion of men with God and the communion of men among themselves – is something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ: “Thus the centre of God’s salvific design is Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection transforms the universe and makes it possible for man to reach fulfillment as a human being. This fulfillment embraces every aspect of humanity: body and spirit, individual and society, person and cosmos, time and eternity. Christ, the image of the Father and the perfect God-Man, takes on all the dimensions of human existence.”

(The text he quotes is from the 1968 declaration of the Latin American bishops at MedellĂ­n)

Piece number three

Nobody has religion totally right, but some errors are more serious than others.

People are all similar. Reality does not change from person to person, but the interpretation of reality can be different. Nobody should be so "nice" they end up insulting other faiths by refusing to admit they make truth claims that cannot be sustained.

If one religion says that it is good for people to be poor and another that it is evil, then both cannot be right. The law of non-contradiction does not stop at the church door.

Just because a religion, or religious person, gets something wrong does not mean it gets everything wrong. Old and tested ideas, like all the great world religions, must get more right than wrong in order to have survived the hardest test of all: time.

Most great religions are mostly right, but "mostly" is not good enough. Making an error in physics, even a small one, can be fatal to the body. Making a metaphysical error, even a tiny one, can be fatal to the soul.

Christianity proves to be the best explanation for the world as it is: both the metaphysical and the physical. Some religions downplay the importance of nature and others downplay the importance of the spiritual reality. Both are too simple to explain a cosmos full of matter, energy, and personality. Mind does not come from matter and matter does not come from mind.

Christianity, with Judaism and Islam, gets this balance right, but Christianity also has an explanation for the life of Jesus. Jesus, so great nobody can ignore Him, stands at the center of history. His empty tomb demands explanation and His wisdom compels respect. Who is Jesus? Only Christianity adequately explains His marvelous life.

Christianity also built marvelous cultures. It can inspire Bach to his great Mass in B Minor and Newton to his science. It has built great churches in Ethiopia, hospitals in India, and colleges in Idaho. Every inquisitor inspired a Dostoevsky, bad bishop a Saint Francis, fundamentalist a Thomas Aquinas.

Christianity, though not always Christians, has been good, true, and beautiful. To the extent that any religion does not acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus it has gotten something dramatically wrong. It is not explaining all the data.

Or so it seems to me.

Metaphysical reality is, however, not different from person to person, so mature faiths tend to agree on many "big ideas." Love just is greater than hate. Libertine sexual values have never built a culture, but have destroyed many. Judaism and Islam particularly deserve our respect. Christianity owes its existence to Judaism and has learned much from Muslims. Both can sustain both science and high culture.

I have gained great insight into my life from other religions and from people who disagree with me. Even if Christianity is true, it does not contain all truths and many Christians have misunderstood the truths it contains. Any reasonable believer would also admit that he might be totally wrong and open-minded to other possibilities.

Studying the works of other Christian traditions or other faiths is never a waste of time. I have always learned something or enriched my own faith in the process. For example, I spent a profitable year studying the Book of Mormon. At the end, I did not think the Book of Mormon was the Word of God, but I did think it a work of literary genius. It was often compatible with my beliefs, it got much right, but the differences were important and real. The claims of traditional Christianity and Mormonism could not both be true. Reading it stretched me mentally and, even though I came to reject the truth of its unique religious claims, the sheer act of carefully reading Mormon apologists was good for me.

Faith is wonderful, because it allows you to wonder! You commit yourself to your faith and then you see.

There is only one group that does not deserve our respect: the extremist wrapped in certainty. From the jihadist to the Dawkensian atheist, a certain personality type is sure about the big questions. Their opposites are all fools or cads and they can dismiss every different religious point of view as wrong, obviously wrong.

These people lack faith, because all they have is certainty. Certainty leads to a loss of wonder, because there comes to be nothing to wonder about. Those atheists, theists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, or any other philosophical tradition that commit themselves, but are still wondering about things, deserve our respect and attention.

The journey to see the Good is long, but even if it lasted a thousand years I am convinced that if we are motivated by love and pursue it, then we will see Him at last clearly. Lord how I want to be in that number!


Ron Krumpos said...

On Max Carter's review in the Washington Post I had made the following comment:

I consider the Society of Friends as the most mystical of all divisions of Christianity. All Friends (Quakers) should seek the Inner Light, follow divine leadings, and regard all of life as sacramental.

Their experience of the divine is communal and shared with others. It leads to an awareness of unity which is lived, not just contemplated. A true mystic has a transpersonal outlook on life.

My e-book at is dedicated to a mysticism which is lived here and now.

Jeremy Mott said...

We should remember that Isaac Newton was not a Christian in the
usual sense. He was a Unitarian,
at a time when a Unitarian was in
some sense a Christian, but did not
believe in Jesus as the Son of God.
This was discovered after he died
by studying his papers. If this had been known during his lifetime,
he would have lost his job as a
university professor. Quakers were
Trinitarians in those days, but could not be university professors because we would not take the
sacrament of communion.
Isn't it better to have a faith based on the power of the Light Within, or the Christ Within, or the Holy Spirit if you
prefer, rather than theological
Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

We should also remember that in the Koran, Muhammad spoke of Jesus
as a great prophet. Muhammad even
told the story of the Virgin Birth.
Of course, he did not accept the
Resurrection, but said that Jesus
ascended directly to heaven after he died. (This is said of Muhammad
as well.)
So, for the Abrahamic faiths, "all
religions are the same" has a different meaning. It may refer only to the Abrahamic faiths. For
there can be no doubt that Christianity is a child---though a
dreadful unloving child---of
Judaism, and that Islam is a sort
of reformed Judaism as well.
Jeremy Mott

Taya Pollard said...

Thanks for postiing this