Thursday, February 25, 2010

Presbyterian Universalism

We Jesus people are, as the Apostle Paul once said, supposed to pray without ceasing. Folks in my denomination aren't necessarily always the best at that. To make up for it, one of the things that we Presbyterians do without ceasing is research, research, research. We're constantly examining ourselves to see who we are, how many of us there are, and what we believe. Surveys from the Presbyterian Research Service arrive on my desk with impressive frequency. Sometimes this can be a tiny bit on the organizationally onanistic side. "It needs more research" is one of those things that folks in my home town say when they really and truly want to guarantee that nothing real gets done. But other times, as with so much constructive self-examination, it can surface interesting insights.

Which, of course, call for further research.

One of the more challenging findings of our recent collective self-exploration came from an ongoing survey of 5,000 Presbytypes. This particular polling of the group examined our religious preferences and theological predilections. In it, 36% of Presbyterians indicated that they did not believe that only Christians would be saved. It's a minority, true. But only three percentage points separate this minority from the plurality of Presbyterians (39%) who hold the more traditionally orthodox position. More interestingly, the numbers shifted as you polled Presbyterian pastors, with a significant plurality (45%) of Presbyterian pastors not limiting salvation to Christians.

I am, of course, part of that forty-five percent. With a Jewish wife and Jewish kids, that's not really much of a surprise. But I am also not a universalist. Let me endeavor to explain.

Universalism, meaning the theological movement within Christianity that arose in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the assertion that everyone is ultimately right with God. God is love, so the infinitely loving and gracious Creator's intent is that every creature will be reconciled to God. This theme in Christian thought goes way back to the third century, to such early Christians as Clement and Origen.

But while I know from faith that God is love, I also can't honestly look at what Jesus taught and see grounds for a universalistic faith. Our actions and what we believe mattered to Jesus...or else, quite frankly, there'd be no reason for Jesus to have been going on and on about repentance and the Kingdom of God. Jesus is not just one option in a great new age buffet of spirituality, in which whatever path you choose is fine so long as you're into it. I know Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He definitively establishes what it means to be in right relationship with God. Christ's Way is the only Way. Those who live and believe in ways that do not conform to the transcendent love of Other that He taught and enfleshed are ontologically SOL.

In that sense, I am theologically orthodox, up to and including having a rather more vigorous sense of the reality of hell than most of my progressive brethren.

But then things get...nuanced. Where Jesus teaches about what it means to follow him, it's clear that there's more to it than just swearing fealty to a monarch so he won't kick your butt. We don't just follow Jesus around and obey his commands like a puppy hoping to get tossed a salvation treat. What we're called to do is be inwardly transformed by God's grace, and in our actions be conformed to the love that underlies the purpose of all sentient life.

And while the boundaries of our purpose are clearly delineated by Jesus, anyone who pulls their head out of their presuppositions and actually looks at the human creatures around them will see that Way being lived out by folks who aren't formally Jesus people.

There are Muslims who welcome you into their home and treat you like family. There are Jews who care for you when you're sick. There are Hindus who'll feed you when you're hungry. There are atheist doctors who go into the deep back-country of the Sudan and save the lives of children. If you have a heart that discerns, you'll sense that many of these souls aren't doing this out of self-serving obligation, which is the essence of "salvation by works." They're doing it because love for the Other rises up from within.

They are doing it because the Way for which they were made moves in them, even if they don't grasp it as such. Seeing that familiar grace at work, I cannot believe for a moment that Christ would have anything other to say to those surprised souls than "Well done, good and faithful servant."

While universalism isn't Christian, what Jesus taught and lived and died for was radically universal.