I used to joke with people that you had to be careful attending churches that had a ‘U’ in them. United, Universal, Unitarian, Unity, etc. They seemed to believe in almost everything or in not much of anything.
It was much funnier before I was a UMC pastor… but to be honest, there is something to it.
Theological words are much the same. ‘U’ words tend to be big and sweeping in their scope. Much like the ‘I’ words seem to embody a certain period and concern, the ‘U’ words are large and consequential.
We will tackle Universalism first and then look at Ultimate Concern.
Our Pocket Dictionary defines it this way – but pay attention to how it does so:
“Universalism. Known historically as apokatastasis, the belief that all persons will be saved. Hence universalism involves the affirmation of universal *salvation and the denial of eternal punishment. Universalists believe that ultimately all humans are somehow in union with Christ and that in the fullness of time they will gain release from the penalty of sin and be restored to God. Twentieth-century universalism often rejects the deity of Jesus and explores the “universal” bases of all religions.”
- Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1325-1327).
Did you see it? By presenting the concept as a historical concept with some biblical precedent, it is put forward with some credibility. Then modern versions are handled in one sentence and in a way that rejects the deity of Jesus.
This is not a mistake, nor is it an accident.
Universalism is an old idea. The version that emerged in the 20th century is a different animal. In a globalized context where religions, traditions, and world-views bump up against each other everyday, the conversation changes immensely.
There are really 2 distinct universalisms:
- Classic Christian universalism relates to the belief that salvation is for everyone. A couple of years ago Rob Bell’s Love Wins was accused of being universalist. Karl Rahner’s notion of ‘anonymous christians’ is another expression of this impulse.
If you think that the christian God loves everyone and that ultimately (another U word) God’s work is for everyone and that basically everyone will end up with God, that would be a type of universalism.
- Contemporary universalism is more about world religions. It is a type of pluralism. Contemporary universalism is concerned with the validity of any – or all – approaches to religion. Many look to figures like John Hick or use the ‘many paths up the same mountain’ analogy.
Contemporary universalism is as different from classic universalism as lighting is from a lighting bug.
Classic universalism is concerned with the work of Christ for every-one [thus the concern for Jesus’ divinity]. Contemporary universalism is not about Christ’s effectiveness so much as the inherent validity of traditions and religions.
Both of these notions are beautiful attempts at something grand but are warped deeply by the legacy of colonialism.
The globalized world of the 21st century means that religious conversations and convictions are perhaps the most important conversation happening in our lifetime. Unless Jesus’ return is soon, we are going to have to learn to live on this planet together.
Which leads us to another important U word.
Ultimate Concern: The idea arising from Paul Tillich that everyone has something that is of highest importance to him or her. Tillich suggested that persons’ ultimate concern, or “what concerns ultimately,” is their God. In this sense, everyone is inherently religious.
Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1318-1320).
Tillich presented several innovative concepts* that reframe the whole theological enterprise. This notion of Ultimate Concern is the perfect addition to the Classic/Contemporary address of Universalism and Pluralism.
I prefer ‘comparative’ approaches that allow each tradition to speak in their own language and to utilize their own categories – and then find similarities and difference.
I also really like Heim’s approach that religions are not all paths up the same mountain but are different paths up different mountains – that are all a part of the same mountain range.
Thoughts? Concerns? Questions?
Below is a short bibliography of resources I find helpful.
- McLaren’s christian take
- Prothero’s innovative non-academic take
- famous John Hick
- Knitter’s Theologies of Religion
- a christian take on multiple versions of ‘salvations’
- Catherine Cornille on the impossibility of this whole thing
- the best new work on the subject
- classic work on Pluralism
- the invention of world religions (a must read)
November 25, 2020 at 10:20 pm
Too few Christians think critically about the original tenets of Universalism; they also tend to avoid multi-faith contexts. A result: it makes it easier to denounce Universalism and other religions and avoid critiquing their own faith structure. I agree that a Christ-centered Universalism is key, and that this posture can allow for respectful postures towards other religions without denouncing them or flattening all the differences. I admit that Rob Bell was very helpful in making space for a thoughtful Christ-centered Universalism. Jacques Elul and Paul Tournier have been helpful voices too, along with Tillich. It seems to me that most Christians are practicing Universalist, though they are pressured to denounce it. If they really believed their friends and family were going to hell in everlasting torment, they’d act on it. Since beliefs are reflected by our actions, not our statements, it would seem that we are counting on God’s mercy to prevail. I am.