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Universalism – the Orthodoxy that Wasn’t

“It has been remarked that Christians, of whatever creed, have hope in the death of their children. However tenacious they may be of a narrow and rigid creed which consign an uncoverted child to the regions of hopeless despair, yet when that unconverted though dearly loved one, without leaving any evidence of a saving change, is snatched away by death, and the fond parent is called to follow his lifeless remains to the silent grave, he has in the midst of his grief a hope that ‘it is well with the child.’ What gives him consolation, and speaks peace to his troubled spirit? I answer, without the fear of contradiction, It is a confidence in the inherent, unchanging goodness and impartial mercy of the Lord our God.”

–Rev. George Bates (- source)

I am a Unitarian Universalist. But, I am not a Unitarian in any sense apart from the very trivial one that I do not believe in a divine Trinity. That much I share with believing Unitarians, but I do not share their belief in a Unitary deity. I am also not a Universalist in the same sense as Rev. Bates, quoted above. But I believe that what I hold in common with him, and I believe that what I share with him and with many others is deeper than it might appear at first glance.

I acknowledge that the world is not biased in favor of what humans experience as “good”. I acknowledge that there is much evil in it – resulting both from human choice, and from natural accident. But I do believe that there is a sense in which the world is “good” – that we can rejoice and enjoin one another to rejoice in being alive in it. And, that implies that whatever rule – be it natural or supernatural – that exerts itself over this world is not malicious.

Let me repeat myself. It is good to be alive in this world. And that means that there is no malice in nature or in God.

This is where put myself in line with Rev. Bates and with many, many others consciously or otherwise, viewed as heretical by the pridefully orthodox: It is incontrovertible and self-evident that this view of the world is incompatible with the doctrine of eternal damnation.

It is unfortunate in the extreme that Christian Scripture, faithfully adhered to, seems to render this question very difficult. I understand that the proof-texts upon which the doctrine of damnation rest are stronger, clearer, and more numerous than any explicitly universalist or annhilationist texts. It is not my job, nor is it within my ability to defend any doctrine Biblically. But let it be said that the puzzle is not an easy one. Certainly there are proof-texts even stronger and more numerous than those for damnation that show the character of God as good. And, difficult as it may be to reconcile the proof-texts for damnation with this notion, it is nevertheless impossible to construe God as good if you ascribe to him a plan that includes eternal damnation. To say that both are true is no more than to assert that it is both square and circular.

Apologists’ notions of a “just” and “infinitely holy” God who cannot tolerate sin do not explain or give space to accommodate eternal damnation with God’s goodness. These are poor efforts, only accepted even by their proponents out of desperate and unrealistic hope of preserving the orthodox exegesis of scripture that yields eternal damnation and the goodness of God together. It is a testament to the ability for the human mind to compartmentalize and to ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Eternal damnation cannot be explained or accepted apart from the imputation of malice to the almighty.

It is not because, as Albert Mohler suggests, of “superficial preaching in church pulpits” that most American Christians believe that Christianity isn’t the only way to heaven – it is because their belief in the goodness of God is more real to them than the details of doctrine. This is as it should be!

I feel for anyone whose commitment to scripture, or to a certain view of scripture, makes this a difficult issue for them. Although I don’t share that commitment, I am rooting for those folks to come to terms in a way that is consistent with an uplifting view of life and a healthy view of death. I’ll be glad to provide universalist or annihilationist proof texts to anyone who thinks those may help.

I plan to return to this subject now and again in the future. I specifically have a topic in mind that I hope to get to later this week that will reflect back on this important point.

In the meantime, all of this is to explain that I am not, technically, a Unitarian or Universalist, but I am in a very profound sense allied with Universalism. I think that, if the UU church is to have a witness in the world, it is the second ‘U’ which we must preach, and we must do it vocally. We must tell the cohabitants of this planet we share that life is good and worth living, and that there is no malice in any true God.

3 comments to Universalism – the Orthodoxy that Wasn’t

  • [...] left something out yesterday in the discussion of Universalism. When I said this, ‘It is not because, as Albert Mohler suggests, of “superficial preaching [...]

  • “I think that, if the UU church is to have a witness in the world, it is the second ‘U’ which we must preach, and we must do it vocally.”

    I agree with you, that universalism speaks to an intuition, a “common sense” within most people. I’ve also been thinking about this in terms of parents … I think that for many (most?) people, becoming a parent makes a belief in a vengeful Father God more problematic. We look at our children and yes, several times a day they may make us want to send them to Alcatraz … but ultimately we acknowledge that no matter what they do, we would still love them. So then, we ask ourselves, how could God be less loving than we?

    I think it a very instinctive thing to try to apply what we know about ourselves to our vision of God … and to not believe in universalism requires the greater, more difficult, leap of faith.

  • I tried to get cute by putting something in brackets, and it disappeared. Before “I agree,” insert “Standing Ovation.”

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