Sunday, January 03, 2010

Misunderstanding Universalism

This week I heard in multiple conversations a common misunderstanding of Christian Universalism. There is a sense among some that this teaching runs against the thought that God is Holy or that God is Just. I heard someone say, "If we all go to heaven, why does it matter what we do?"

I think a key element in this misunderstanding is due to a belief that God is vindictive. Even amongst Christians who would proclaim God's unconditional love, there is usually a follow up of some kind of conditional "but". Yes God loves you... but....

Christians get dizzy trying to balance a loving God with one that needs to vent wrath. I think this is often the case of people who truly have experienced the love of God, but were taught that he has this wrathful side that needs to be satiated. They know their experience to be real, yet they have a contrary belief about God that they have not been allowed to question.

This perception of God forces us back to a conditional love; and since that is what we see "God" modeling, that is the love we give as Christians. It is a hobbled love that is always looking to protect the interests of the self, and therefore can never begin to move toward the goal of truly loving your neighbor - let alone an enemy.

So then, what does one do with holiness and justice? First I have to ask: Is God in service to these attributes? or are these the attributes that are part and parcel of a God whose very nature is love?

Often, Christians will state these attributes as if they were conditions that God had to creatively satisfy.... so since someone has to be punished, God punished Jesus. This kind of theology binds the Creator of the universe and makes the loving attribute of forgiveness pointless. God does not forgive anyone, he just takes out his wrath on Jesus. It would be like if I forgave my wife but then slapped my kids -because someone has to pay for the offense against me.

I think the answer to all of this lies in the metaphor Jesus gives to God - Our Father in Heaven. God reacts as a Father. It is not that Univeralism abandons any thoughts of discipline and justice, rather it assumes that discipline and justice are redemptive rather than vindictive. As the book of Hebrews says "God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness." There is a point to discipline, it is for our betterment.... God is not balancing the scales to keep some part of himself from going postal.

My children need never fear me. I correct, train, and discipline them so they will grow up to be responsible and loving human beings. My desire for this is not driven by a need in me, but by a love for them. God's desire for right behavior and justice flows out of a love for his creation, not a frustration over imperfection. Universalism recognizes that God ALWAYS trusts, ALWAYS hopes, ALWAYS perseveres, and NEVER fails.

My Christian Universalism is not opposed to justice and holiness. I see them as the outgrowth of a loving Father who desires his children to grow into a loving people... and I believe God has the patience to see his will come to fruition.


Cassandra said...
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Cassandra said...


Perhaps, as most parents, at some point begin to understand, a child must choose what they would experience. The child's choice is his freewill. How the child perceives of his choices are his truth as so far as he has faith in his choices. His doubts regarding his choices create his anxieties. The doubts of others create the anxiety others would experience. When allowed, the doubts of others can aid in creating our anxieties.

I am learning that God has no time to bemuse such things. God is not a God of doubt, but certainty. Thus, it is up to us to understand the highest order of awareness that God is. There is no conflict in Him. So how then could we be in conflict? It is simple, we choose it. And our Father so loves us, that He will wait, until we all realize that their is only His Joy and nothing else. Until we choose our joy, as He created it within us, nothing else?

This is where He abides--in perfect peace. Peace is the condition to enter His presence, which is here and now and always eternal no matter the form one's "awareness" would take.

If there be such things as miracles, how could the material be real? The point of Jesus being risen, is that the material is not real. In knowing this we cease to be a body. Which is where all limitations arise, thus doubt and uncertainty.

Thank you for your post and the opportunity to share a perspective. God bless you.

Christopher V. Enger (aka fuegote) said...

the longer I have experienced fatherhood the more I understand God. It's been fun developing that understanding.

curmudgeon said...

How does that explain suffering inflicted on the masses or innocents? As a father you are free and just to punish your child in a loving manner that will enchourage their development. You however are not free to punish your neighbors children for something that they did not do. You assume the world, cosmos, universe is functional and that god is "Ward Clever"

How do you explain to the child who is abused and scarred that there is a just and loving god? What did the folks killed in the Tsunami 5 years ago do to deserver death and what did their survivors do to deserve the pain.

While the above are contemporary examples of injustice what about the countless examples of god ordering children to be slain and vigins to be taken by the victors of the battles. If these texts are not based in truth....then the basis for the our current understanding of god is born on a shakey foundation.

Don said...

I like your post. That said, I see it as one that shows a belief in the anthropomorphic, father-figure God. I am truly in distress in that I no longer see God in that way, yet find it very difficult to purge my mind of that belief. I find "Curmudgeon's questions to be very legitimate. And often, I find myself wondering how I truly perceive God. I still strongly believe that there is a God, but I have trouble with the concept. I tend to lean toward a pantheistic construction or perhaps toward panentheism. Thanks for your contribution to the conversation.

Christopher V. Enger (aka fuegote) said...


I am relating to me and my family. I can love my kids, help and guide them and when they leave my house, I have no say on what experiences my kids have. You are right, I cannot punish my neighbors children. I can punish mine.

My kids may have great experiences outside of the home and they may face harsh trials. The key: I cannot take away another man's agency and they may inflict harm on my kids. All I can do is be there to provide help, comfort and support. I will also instruct and punish if needed but that will only take place in the realm of my family and my kids.

We will all face different experiences, different trials that help us to grow.

God has given men agency and some use that agency to harm others whether they are religious zealots (like the suicide bombers in your video you posted) or atheists like Stalin and Mao.

Redlefty said...

The initial Christian response to universalism, in my limited experience, is very consistent and strong. They are appalled, offended and angered by the idea.

My wife and I were the same way.

But I'm still not sure we misunderstood it. I think we understood it perfectly, at least at an intellectual level, and our reaction was natural for where our faith was.

The deeper understanding came later and was a heart thing, and sure, I found plenty of biblical and logical support for it too. But the hermeneutics were following my heart, and if my heart was still bent on justice and judgment then I would quote those verses instead!

curmudgeon said...
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curmudgeon said...

Chris, I understand the nurturing your child thing. However my point is not centered on that nor is it centered on those who think they are acting for god and misusing "agency" . My point in specifically in the religious texts that account that god has ordered some heinous retribution and has as a result offered the lives and well being of innocents to exact his pound of flesh. The bible and the Book of Mormon are full of these accounts. It is not agency when god has ordered it. There are very few deeds in either texts that god has personally soiled his hands he usually uses men for that purpose.

Additionally there is not agency in natural disasters. The misguided ocean does not raise 100 foot waves and take the lives of a 100,000. If this is indeed gods planet and he is involved in the lives of humans by way of guiding, judging and punishing how can the case be made that he does it justly.

OneSmallStep said...

Exactly. Vindictive justice isn't a sort of justice to look forward to. If anything, it comes across as using the word "justice" to mask what's really going on: vengeance.

Yet justice is a great thing. Would you rather live in a just society or an unjust one? There are a lot of Bible passages about the anticipation of justice, because the poor will have help, the afflicted will be comforted, and so forth. But there's no room for that picture of justice in the Penal Substation Atonement Theory. It's all about God getting His pound of flesh.

**I heard someone say, "If we all go to heaven, why does it matter what we do?"**

This response always troubles me, because the person comes across as not pursuing God in an effort to become a better person, or for help in doing the right thing. Rather, the person has turned it into a prize, and salvation becomes all about a 'get out of jail free' card.

Andrew said...

Cassandra - Welcome! That is an interesting take and I am going to need to think about that some more.

Chris - I agree. Fatherhood had upended my theology in many ways.

Curmudgeon - Theodicy (How does a good God allow bad things) is a huge issue and its acceptance or not is one of the reasons I think atheism is a completely reasonable response to the Universe. I tend to believe that God is not all that much of an interventionist. If he were, it would make much of life pretty pointless. The trouble is, there seems to be an inexplicable link between triumph and tragedy. When I look back over the pain of my life, I realize that it is there that I have learned my deepest lessons. Not that I want to volunteer for hardship, but I also realize I wouldn't take any of them back. I saw this played out in an episode of Star Trek TNG. Q is regular antagonist in the show. Riker cannot understand how the omnipotent Q can sit by and let bad things happen when he has the power to stop them. So Q gives Riker omnipotence and lets him do what he will. For every problem Riker fixes, unintended bad consequences multiply. When I consider our growth as a species, I can think of a million reasons why an omnipotent God preventing every bad thing from happening would be a problem. Of course, as individuals, we tend to not care overly much about species maturity when we are dealing with the tragedy. I would probably just as likely flip the bird heavenward if something tragic happened in my family. However, there is a part of me that realizes that God fixing everything would fix nothing. In any event, I hold my beliefs loosely.... I am trying things on for size.

Don - To be honest, depending on the day, I lean toward panentheism myself. I vacillate between Marcus Borg and NT Wright. I think the metaphor of God as a parental figure can work, but I also realize that it could be completely off the mark. This can be a bit like grabbing smoke. However, what I do reject out of hand is the vision of a God who can torture a being for ever in a clear conscience. I think this creates for a very harsh and judgmental religion.

Red- Yep, which is why I believe that the scriptures we chose to quote say a lot more about us then they do about God.

OSS- It is interesting to dig into the motivations of our theology. As you seem to indicate, there is almost a resistance to the idea of universal reconciliation based on a desire to simply have an out group. I remember a Peanuts cartoon where Lucy and Violet are deciding who to invite and who not to invite to the party. Lucy realizes that "It is more fun not inviting people than it is inviting them."

Steve H. said...

Andy: I agree with most of what you express in the post except your response to Don where you suggest you could lean toward Pantheism. My only response is "humor him Lord, he knows not what he does" :)

Christopher V. Enger (aka fuegote) said...

Star Trek TNG! I LOVE IT!

Andrew said...

Steve - Just to clarify, I stated a lean toward panentheism, not pantheism. Panentheism is a position held by theologians such as Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. It also crosses over into Judaism under the Hasidic tradition. A pantheist (as I understand it) would proclaim that everything is God, but that God in no way exists separately as a unique consciousness. Panentheism proclaims God to be a part of everything (If I descend into are there), yet he is also a unique consciousness.

Don said...

Andrew- Congratulations on placing 716th out of nearly 4000 religious blogs on Technorati !!

Steve H. said...

Thanks for the clarrification Andy...I want to ask you more but work calls. New job!!!!

Cody Stauffer said...

Panentheism and process thought- those are my current areas of intrigue.

Andrew said...

process theology has a strong appeal to me. One of my favorite speakers in that regard is Walter Brueggemann. There probably isn't any view of God that would bother popular Christianity more though. :)

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