Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Universalism: Gateway Drug?

I have really appreciated the lively discussion that has taken place in the comments on my last post, Is Universalism Heresy? I am wrestling with these questions along with you, and I don't pretend to have a clear-cut answer to offer. Questions about salvation lead to questions regarding the atonement, which in turn lead to questions about the nature of God. Deep, hard questions that have remained open talking points within the orthodox Christian Church for two thousand years.

To be sure, the Church has agreed on some basic facts, including that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God and that his atoning life, death and resurrection bring about a reconciliation between humanity and God. We affirm the lordship andChrist Carrying the Cross - El Greco majesty of Jesus, and we give thanks for the great things God has done through the faithfulness and self-sacrifice of Jesus. There are basic truths that we as Christ's Church have been able to agree on since the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Yet, while we affirm these truths, the "hows" and "whys" of these truths have continued to elude firm conclusions over the course of centuries. How - exactly - does Christ's atonement work? What - precisely - happens after we die? How does humanity's free will interact with God's sovereignty? Men and women of greater faith and intellect than me have not been able to come to final conclusions on these questions, and I do not pretend to offer authoritative answers where the great Doctors of the Church have been unable to reach a final verdict.

However, the fact that there are a variety of orthodox understandings of the faith does not mean that we do not have preferences. Even within the bounds of orthodoxy, we can observe that certain ideas - while not necessarily heretical - can have positive or negative effects on those who believe them. For example, the substitutionary atonement model for understanding Christ's sacrifice on the cross falls well within the orthodoxy of the Church. There is clear scriptural support for this perspective, and Christ Crucified - Diego Velázquezgenerations of Christians have understood God's grace through this lens. Despite the validity of this way of viewing the atonement, however, it also presents us with challenges.

One major problem is that some versions of the substitutionary atonement model understand Jesus as enduring God's wrath, taking the punishment that God the Father would have otherwise poured out on us. This is a very disturbing image, reminiscent of the domestic abuse that takes place in many families. If we are to take this model of the atonement seriously, we must wrestle with its shadow side, which, left unexamined, could validate an image of God as abusive Father and Husband.

On the other hand, there are many other orthodox perspectives of the atonement. One that is a favorite among liberal, orthodox Christians is the moral influence model. This model, which finds ample support in the early Church, understands Jesus' atoning work as being primarily about the example of love and self-sacrifice that he set for us. Just like the substitutionary model, there are attractive aspects to this theory. However, the moral influence theory also has its shadow side: If this is the only lens we bring to our understanding of the meaning of Christ's work, we are at risk
Sermon on the Mount - Carl Bloch of downplaying or ignoring the spiritual reality of his suffering and death on the cross. It is not enough to simply follow the teachings of Jesus - we must also be baptized into his suffering and death.

With all of the various orthodox models for understanding the atonement (and there are many), I would argue that we cannot choose just one. In fact, I would urge you to consider that it is the atonement itself that is the foundation of our faith as Christians, not theories about how it works. These theories are valuable as we seek greater understanding of the faith that we have received through Christ's life, death and resurrection; but theories cannot replace the wordless reality that is the living power and presence of the Holy Spirit. When we begin to battle over which theory of the atonement is the right one, we have already missed the point.

You might be wondering at this point why I am giving such a detailed treatment of atonement theory in a post that is ostensibly about Christian Universalism. My reason is this: I believe that Universalism is a model for understanding the purpose and effects of the atonement, and I suspect that Universalism falls within orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, it clearly has a rather sizable dark side that can be a threat to the integrity of our faith. Even if Universalism is not heretical per The Last Supper - Dalise, is it possible that it represents the edge of one slippery slope into beliefs that undermine the foundations of our faith?

Some folks I respect seem to think so. My good Friend, Scott Wells, who is himself a Universalist Christian minister, pointed out in a recent blog post that Universalism seems to often be a stepping stone into more troubling doctrines. He even referred to Christian Universalism as a "gateway doctrine," leading to, "more eccentric and esoteric forms of belief." Many of us are aware of church leaders who began to profess Christian Universalism, but soon drifted away from orthodox Christianity entirely. Is this an inevitable effect of accepting Christian Universalism? I do not believe so, since my friend Scott is still an orthodox Christian, despite having been a Universalist minister for many years.

As I continue to wrestle with these questions, I invite you to reflect along with me: Does Christian Universalism present an opening to truly heretical doctrines? If so, how can we guard against the tendency towards heresy while still affirming and embracing the universalist perspectives that have always been active within the orthodox Church?


Anonymous said...

I consider myself a "Universalist" if you wish a definition. I think what traditional Christian doctrine struggles with in regards to universalism is the concept of all humanity being saved, with no clarifier added. They (the church) seems to believe that the majority of us think that anyone can go to heaven no matter how bad they were in life. To coin a phrase "So you think Hitler will be in heaven?"

So they essentially believe that universalists think that we can believe whatever we want and it doesn't matter but this is not the case. Pluralists believe that it doesn't matter and this is a big difference between the ideas behind universalism.

The bible says that no one can come to the father except through Jesus. Right? Well then there you go theres the proof. It also says every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. So, we see that everyone WILL believe in Jesus! They have to and will want to because the verse goes on to say "to the glory and honor". How can it be glorious or honoring to God if people are reluctant to? Everyone will WANT to.

I seem to remember a man named Saul who said "I was the worst of sinners" and he was converted instantaneously! The Lord BLINDED HIM and STRUCK HIM TO THE GROUND! He probably peed himself. Thats all it took to make "the worst sinner" to be converted. So how can God not do the same for some wimpy sinner like Hitler after he is resurrected?

So the truth is that we believe everyone must believe in Christ to be saved and everyone will. Those who are dead will be resurrected and judged according their works but that judgment is not permanent, the bible does not support it. The Bible speaks in ages. There is a process to become that which God wants us to be. and we can not become like him unless we go through this process. He loves all his children and he will have all to be saved.

- Matt Fox

Julian said...

There are plenty of pitfalls to universalism. Most of them apply when people decide that they, the universalists, are right (ironically) and others are wrong. When you start thinking that your way is really better than the way of an established church group with thousands+ of followers, you stop being someone who listens & stop being someone who loves her neighbor as herself.

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed your posts. I do have opinions about atonement and whether reconciliation to God is limited or universal, but responding to a different post earlier today with respect to how ugly some of the discussions have become brought to mind something John Wesley wrote in 1765:

“How dreadful and how innumerable are the contests which have arisen about religion. And not only among the children of this world…but even among the children of God….How many of these, in all ages, instead of turning against the common enemy, have turned their weapons against each other, and so not only wasted their precious time, but hurt one another’s spirits, weakened each other’s hands, and so hindered the work of their common Master! How many of the weak have hereby been offended! How many sinners confirmed in their disregard of religion, and their contempt of those who profess it….

Men may differ from us in their opinions, as well as their expressions, and nevertheless be partakers with us of the same precious faith….Why should you condemn all who do not speak just as you do?…Where is our religion if we cannot think and let think?”

I really appreciated this comment in your last post: "I pray that the Holy Spirit will tender the teachers and theologians of the Church to hear clearly the voice of Christ in our midst, and to respond with humility, patience and love."


Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, Micah. I have to think a lot on Universalism, and try to discern whether or not it makes sense for me. Please, write more posts on this subject. Thank you for your insightful thoughts.

briank said...

I seem to come to the same conclusions (or lack of conclusions) that you come to.

- I have a "hope" for the reconcilation of the world & all that has been a part of it. but I don't know. NOONE knows but God.

-we can not judge - Only God can. that goes for those who want to judge (easily) who is "saved" & who is not.

-hell is real (absense of God, if we choose so - not literal fire) I believe. hell will last to "the end of ages". is that eternity? what is eternity? Only God knows.

-can Jesus be called on & accepted after one is dead , before judgement, or even in hell? I don't know. I hope so. I don't see why not. But again, Only God knows.

To me these are God questions that humans can't answer. We can have ideas & hopes but we will never be sure. It is those that are dogmatic on both sides that bother me.
as long as Jesus is seen as the way, the truth, & the life (& light) I'm happy & at peace.

Anonymous said...

Julian, you said:

"There are plenty of pitfalls to universalism. Most of them apply when people decide that they, the universalists, are right (ironically) and others are wrong. When you start thinking that your way is really better than the way of an established church group with thousands+ of followers, you stop being someone who listens & stop being someone who loves her neighbor as herself."

Actually Universalist believe just the opposite. We don't believe we are better than anyone. We believe what we think is right but how is that different than other Christians?

The truth is I have yet to find one Universalist who condemns people but I have been condemned many times by people. They can't use scripture to back up many of the things they believe so they resort to saying things like "you're going to see that hell is real", "repent for you evil doctrine" "I pray God has mercy on you for you heretical beliefs" These are all things said to me by "avid Christians" that are active in the common church. I however never condemn these people. I expose those who contradict but I never condemn.

No tell me who is unloving here? Those who say ALL will be saved or those who say BILLIONS will burn, in real fire, for millions upon millions of years...can you even fathom that a loving God would allow that? I can not.

Ganeida said...

Quite frankly, I don't know. It reminds me of Lewis Carroll:sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast....

Christianity is full of paradox & the tension of opposing ideas. This is the heart of Christianity, a mystery, & I'm not sure it's resolvable through logic.

R. Guy Pharris said...

H.R. Neibuhr defined liberal Christianity (not to imply that all liberals are universalists, nor visa versa) as "a God, without wrath, bringing men, without sin, into a Kingdom, without judgement, through the ministrations of a Christ, without a cross." This, perhaps, shows the ultimate result of persuing "theological gateway drugs"--the deconstruction of orthodoxy.
I appreciate the discussion on theories of the atonement. To me, it is one of the more exciting areas of theology, due to the fact there is no "orthodox" formula--unless you are a part of American fundamentalism. Is the essential effect of the atonement subjective or objective? Does it primarily impact God or humans? I'm currently operating in the areas of "Christus Victor" and moral influence.

ML1959 said...

We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows.

-Robert Frost

ML1959 said...

Orthodoxy is best drug of all my F/friends. There is no bigger buzz than knowing you are right! This is why groups that demand allegiance to a certain set of beliefs tend to thrive. And Quakers who are (or at a least should be) open to more diversity tend to be smaller. It's more work not having all the answers. Most people will take the quick fix every time.

leftistquaker said...

Micah, don't know if you've run across this article, but it covers two options to Universalism that have found supporters within Evangelical circles, annihilationist and "paradoxical" views.


Peace & Love! Charley