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.


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

    Amen to that.

    And I am pretty sure it wasn't about going around checking if people believe in the four spiritual laws or confess the right words in the right sequence. I have problems with both sides of the universalism question, but I am satisfied that the final word on the topic is beyond our pay grade.

  2. I tend to make a distinction between being "Christian" and being "in Christ". One of my favorite but unconfirmed stories about Mother Theresa (stop me if you've heard this... too late) was how she went to Calcutta and not only learned the local language but the proper Hindu rituals to give maximum comfort to her dying charges - when that seemed appropriate. I can't say at those times if she was acting "Christian" or "Hindu", but seems to me, she was acting in Christ.

  3. Thanks,skipj, that is a great Mother Theresa story! and I like the whole essay, David.

  4. I'm no expert in the history of theology but wasn't universalism the predominant belief of the theological schools of the early Christian Church? i.e. not an idea that arose 2-3 centuries ago.

  5. good point. This writer's theology and nuance is refreshing.

    In my experience so many good folks are so disenchanted with the orthodox notion of salvation for Christians alone (the upshot being that decent, loving people who happen to be non-Christians are beyond salvation and condemned to eternal damnation and torment) that they give up on Christianity all together.

    This is rather than do any research that looks beyond orthodoxy but within Christianity(either to Universalism, Restitutionalism, (which in effect regards hell as more of a purgatory) or annihilationism or conditional immortality...

    Many heterodox yet otherwise fairly conservative churches (Jehovah's Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, other Seventh Day churches, and Christadelphians) are annihilationists or conditional immortalitists.

    Yet progressive theologians don't look there, and they tend to become more and more "post Christian" all the time... not even interfaith, just "spiritual not religious" and claiming to have "outgrown Christianity." It's very depressing, and I find this writer's approach refreshing.

  6. It is so amazingly refreshing to see this attitude coming from pastorship. As a kid I was raised in a Presbyterian church, drifted away a bit in my later teens and pretty much never went back, much of which was due to so many attitudes from Christians that I'd meet that if you didn't worship exactly the right way, you were doomed to burn in hell - sometimes going as far as to have the attitude that if you didn't worship *Christ* in the right way, you'd still go to hell.
    I've been feeling a call back to the church for a little while now, which is much stronger now that my mother very recently passed away, and I've been researching which church would be the best for me to try out as the "best fit" for my beliefs. Good to see Presbyterian may still be the way to go.

  7. Hey, a word of thanks for your writings on your blog. Enjoy them all.

    I do disagree (quite strongly, actually) with your statement that Universalism isn't Christian, because I think you've straw manned the argument a bit so as to exclude all forms of universalism, and miss the biblical counterweight. I think I agree with Jodie above, who said that the answer is above our pay grade, but I differ in such a strong exclusion of at least some forms of universalism from Christian Orthodoxy. YMMV.

  8. Chad: Thanks!

    And there is a "biblical counterweight" to almost anything, eh? I just have a great deal of difficulty finding an affirmation of all things as ultimately equally blessed in the metanarrative of scripture.

    And yet, on the other hand, I think love is God's answer to everything. But our encounter with that love is defined by our willingness to embrace it and live it out.

    Care to say more about the counterweights you're referencing?

  9. There's substantial new testament record exploring divine intent for salvation for all, along with record suggesting the complex route those who will be judged and not atoned. I wish I could find my first edition of Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding. He had a great chapter on the relative arguments of the differences that got reworked and in many ways elided in the current edition.

    I guess my point is that you can hold to a position of the unique, vital, salvific role of Christ and still posit that, through Christ, all will ultimately be made right with God, while exploring all sorts of postulates about how God may do that. If the point is that you can't hold a universalist position and also hold to the unique salvific role of faith in Christ, I don't think those are logically or mutually exclusive.

  10. Hmm. Why not, Chad? The operating assumption of that statement has an inherent tension. On the one hand, universal salvation, which assumes a soteriology of radical, absolute inclusion. On the other, the "unique salvific role of faith in Christ," which posits a soteriology dependent on 1) the Kierkegaardian scandal of particularity and 2) "savedness" arising from a particular individual's radical commitment to Christ.

    There is, in those two statements, a self-evident logical tension. Complete openness to all peoples, on the one hand, and a very specific and narrow way on the other. One, a thesis, the other, antithesis. There may be legitimate synthesis to be found, to get all Hegelian about it, but not all efforts at synthesis actually work.

    Is there a particular approach you use to resolve that dialectic?