Tuesday, 20 May 2008

What is 'Universalism'?

posted by Rhiannon

Following my brief blog post from the Quaker Universalist Conference, I've been asked for more on that topic, and especially about what exactly 'universalism' is (particularly whether it is what I said it was!). The answer, as in so many of these matters, is 'different things to different people', but being a student of analytic philosophy, I'd like to take a few minutes to try and say what those things are, focusing on theological uses of the word.

The word 'universal' itself simply means 'applies to everyone/everything', and has no theological content. To make distinctions, I'm going to tack on some other words to clarify what is universal in each kind of universalism. These three are not mutally exclusive, but they can be separated and held as differentiated positions.

Firstly, there's the kind in which "every person who ever lived will ultimately be saved" (quote: Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry). I term this eschatological universalism (it has also been called universal reconciliation) and it has a long and respectable history in Christianity (I seem to remember learning at A-level that Irenaeus was a universalist in this sense).

Secondly, there's the kind of universalism which says that every religion can lead to God ("salvation" in Christian terminology). This has been called theological pluralism, though I think the term 'universal' would accurately support the position that every religion can lead to God.

Finally, there's the kind of universalism which claims that every person alive can have knowledge or experience of God here and now. I call this mystic universalism, and consider it the kind most distinctive to Quakerism. There is no demand that every individual does experience God, nor is there necessarily any eschatological or next-life belief involved.

The Quaker Universalist Group states that their understanding is that "spiritual awareness is accessible to everyone of any religion or none, and that no one faith can claim to have a final revelation or monopoly of truth." If this is an accurate reflection of the beliefs of their members, I would say that most Quaker Universalists (including myself) are concerned with mystic universalism (they also say, further down the page to which I linked, that "mystics of every religion tap the one universal consciousness"), and with a strongly stated theological pluralism. Of course, this does not mean that some are not also believers in the traditional eschatological universalism, but the position of the group does not focus on eschatology (which is in keeping with the general trends of today's Liberal Quakers, who in my twenty-two years of exposure have never shown any sign of an agreed eschatology).

I would be very glad to hear from other people on this topic. Are you a Quaker and/or a Universalist in any of the above senses (or in a sense I've missed)? Whatever your own position, how would you characterise 'universalists'?


Patricia Burns said...

Satan has his children. - Psalm 58:3, John 8:37-47, 1 John.3:8-10, 12, 1 Matthew 13:38, Revelation 2:9

Patricia - Bible Prophecy on the Web
Author of the self-study aid, The Book of Revelation Explained © 1982

bookgeek:rhiannon said...

Patricia, a quick Google reveals that you a) are a spammer--this exact comment appears on at least four message boards, and b) only accept the authority of the King James translation (see here). As a long time internet user, I consider you a minor annoyance, possibly well-meaning but using a very bad method. As a student in a theology department, I consider your commitment to a beautiful but inaccurate translation misguided.

Caddi said...

Thank you, Rhiannon, for the clear definitions.
Although I have been lurking on an universalist group for a while, after hearing that an elder was one, I wasn't sure that I understood clearly what universalism meant.

I find myself in sympathy with the second two definitions, so it would appear that I am in the right place.

Anonymous said...

Universalism is inherent in Christianity. Christ is the eternal Logos, or Word of God, i.e. the Wisdom of God brought to first century Jews through Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus says, 'I am the way and the truth and the life,' he is referring not to himself as Jesus of Nazareth but to himself as the manifestation of the Wisdom of God (or Cosmic Wisdom.) By knowing this Wisdom we know God and God knows us. As a Christian, one knows this Wisdom through Jesus of Nazareth, but this Wisdom is available to all. Zacharias' prophecy found in Luke tells us Christ's purpose on Earth: to enlighten those in darkness (thereby transcending death) and to guide us to the way of peace. This purpose is fulfilled, not necessarily by knowing Jesus of Nazareth, but by knowing the eternal Christ, the Wisdom of God.

Anonymous said...

Rhiannon enjoying your blog on universalisms.

I noted what you said of the Av Bible and would appreciate your advice on a better / accurate translation.

my thanks

Anonymous said...

I have come thru as anon as I couldnt get the glog to take my name-- I was the anon sking about Bible versions.

I was appalled by the ref to 'children of satan' --and glad you tackled it. PB's comment was Hardly Quakerly !


Pilgrim said...

Hi Rhiannon.

As a 'bookgeek' you're no doubt aware that even evangelicals — for whom universalism was once beyond the pale — are now beginning to discuss it sensibly. But in case you hadn't discovered this one yet:

The Evangelical Universalist: Author Interview

Anonymous said...

If I didnt already believe, as you so well have written, that all things, all religions ultimately lead to the One, to God; and that He is all Love and the Source and Vitality of all Life- if I didnt already so firmly believe in this I'd become a Quaker.

Anonymous said...

wonderful discussion

I guesss I am all three identified forms of universalist, though mainly focussed on mystic universalism

My only faith-based belief is that all humans are spiritual and part of an interconnected universe

I see religions as positive albeit man-made, both supported by and serving this ultimately uniting spirituality. I also see and deeply regret their ability to divide us

For me the how and why of this spirituality is the major part of what could be called divine mystery

I see recognition and use of this spirituality as our hope

please note I am only "anonyous" due to technological inabilities, not desire

My name is Barry, I am a Unitarian and Spiritual Humanist. I found this site through being a member of QUG

cath said...

There is always a problem when a word can refer to one concept but is used widely without much attention to its various meanings.

Many false assumptions can come into the discussion and lead to people talking at cross purposes.

I am not a Christian, so I'm not on board with the "being saved" concept, but I do believe in the idea that all people will be reconciled with God eventually--either here on earth or afterwards (whatever comes afterwards....I have no clear belief about an afterlife).

A good book on this topic is "If Grace Be True" by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland.


bookgeek:rhiannon said...

My word, so many responses! Thank you all.

Caddi, it's a term commonly used and rarely defined in Quaker Meetings in my experience. It does indeed sound like you're in the right place--welcome! :)

Anonymous 1, yes, Christianity can be read in a universalistic way which is in line with one or more of the definitions I gave. What worries me is those who claim to be 'universalist' whose idea of that is that everyone will embrace Jesus; that belief can (doesn't always, but can) lead to less tolerance than is desirable.

Laurence, I'm no great expert on Bible translations (I don't read Greek or Hebrew so am poorly placed to judge accuracy; ah, the trials of being joint honours--if I didn't study philosophy, I would be so much better at this). That said, my department recommends the New Standard Revised Version, and my personal approach is to compare as many versions as possible, taking into account the background and theology of the translators. At the very least, I usually take a Catholic version as well as a Protestant one--and try and find a Jewish translation for Old Testament passages.

Pilgrim, I haven't read that book (yet; and it may be some while, as it isn't in my university library and I've spent my book allowance for the semester long ago), but I was interested by the author interview you linked to. It sounds to me like MacDonald is a Christian universalist in the first sense I described: everyone will come to Go, but they're going to have to do that via Christ. It's that second part which is a problem for me personally--even if the path through Christ is right for some or many, why should it suit everyone?

Anonymous comment, err, 4: I'm pleased to hear that you have a strong belief. I'm not in the business of converting people to Quakerism (one of the joys of mystic universalism: no need to!), so I wish you the very best of luck in the path you've chosen. I'd be interested to know what it is, and more about which kind of universalism you accept.

Barry, pleased to hear from you. I'd love to know which part of religion you consider 'man-made': the rituals, argument, artwork, and so forth, or the actual experience of divine presence. (Can you tell I've spent weeks and weeks this term studying Marx, Freud, and Durkheim? As Westphal observes (in his Lent reading book on them), such atheists have a lot to teach believers.) I too believe that all humans are spiritual (I often use the Quaker term which refers to the 'light of God in everyone' to express this), and that the universe is deeply interconnected (though I try not to sound like a Jedi, as some of my friends say I do).

Cath, I think a lot of confusion, even harm, is caused by carelessly used words. I personally find 'being saved' easier to take when translated into 'achieving enlightenment', but Buddhism isn't for everyone any more than Christianity is. As I said to Pilgrim earlier, I've spent my book money, but I will certainly look out for that title when I can afford it!

Once again, thank you all for your comments.

cath said...

You can preview the book "If Grace is True" at this web site:


(sorry about the long link--maybe just googling would be easier. There is section on the web site that allows a reader to see the introduction)


bookgeek:rhiannon said...

Cath, thanks for the link, I'll certainly have a look.

Career History said...

We are all expressions of one universal consciousness. It is the aim of all religions to realise this truth. If a devotee of any religion or no religion fails to realise this it is because they value their difference or they fear their will loose their identity. We can only know the unity of all creation when we drop what we value most dearly – our egos, our individual indentities. Having realized the one consciousness, the Self, God then we are told that this is the end of all fears. One Consciousness is found in total surrender. We are One. We can then appreciate the beauty of this world as manifestations of the one Self – my Self.

bookgeek:rhiannon said...

career history, thank you. That's a beautiful statement of a mystic universalism--do I detect a hint of pantheism (God and the universe as one substance) as well? It sounds very like the Hindu concept of Atman (individual soul) and Brahman (universal consciousness) as identical, and also close the idea of being absorbed in Allah which is found in the work of some Sufi mystics. I'd love to know which sources you have in mind.

Career History said...

The source of my comments is that Universal Truth which is contained within us all. To label it is to invite limitations and rejection. To name it is to categorise it to be added to "my collection" - that which "I know" when the challenge is to "unknow" all that keeps me from Unity.

It may be better to ask how the Universal Truth effects the way one lives rather than what one reads.

"A man who sees all creatures in himself and himself in all creatures knows no fear"

Pilgrim said...

career history said...
"A man who sees all creatures in himself and himself in all creatures knows no fear"

... which leaves me wondering, what then of the women amongst us?

Sorry, but I have an intense aversion to male-dominated language... all the more so in this particular setting!

bookgeek:rhiannon said...

Career History, I can respect that standpoint. Sorry--after a long semester of philosophy and theology, and with another year to go, I'm in a very book-orientated place at the moment but there's no reason that others should be. (And here I go again; I'm on the verge of quoting Marx to the effect that philosophers only talk about the world when the point is to change it.)

The question about how Universal Truth affects my life is a good one, and at the moment the answer is probably 'not enough'. The manifestations which I've chosen to bring about (I'm not ruling out the chance that there are some or many I've not chosen or even noticed) might include my choice to apply for membership of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain (not an easy choice and a slow process but it would seem dishonest to be this involved with Quakerism and not stand up and be counted as one); the voluntary work I do; and the small protests I make against social injustice, ranging from attending a protest against terrorism laws, to signing petitions supporting women's right to abortion, to opening discussions about racism with my friends when they make certain jokes, to joining Pilgrim in protesting male-centric language. And, perhaps, it affects what I choose to read: I doubt I would be reading this much about universalism, feminism, or religion if I didn't have some concept of God/dess, Universal Truth, or at least a spiritual side to life.

Whether any of those actually bring me or anyone else closer to Universal Truth I don't claim to judge. I do feel, however, that my motivation for them springs, more or less directly, from the contact I have with Truth during times of silent worship and meditation.

Career History said...

This came to me from Brahma Kumaris a day or two ago. I found it very helpful. What do others think"

Go Deep
Most of us think too much, especially about events and people, local and global, famous and not so famous. When we are always thinking about what is happening on the surface of life, the visible, then it is as if we are living a superficial life. And when two people who both live on the surface meet, the exchange, the conversation, is superficial, sometimes totally bereft of meaning. Often it leaves us totally unsatisfied. And as we share news of our surface observations, we come to know our own superficiality, but we are not strong enough to resist it. Deep down inside there is a voice, a longing, a calling to depth. It's our heart, reminding us to visit, explore and express the depths of our ourselves. Everyone has depth but we confuse the heart with emotion, and forget that emotion is the result of getting too close to events on the surface. So one of our deepest needs, which is to go in deep, is seldom satisfied. Going deep and being deep requires time spent in solitude, some periods of introversion and a conversation with ourselves. We only know what is at the bottom of the ocean by going there, diving deep and switching on a light and looking through the lens of a camera. The results are images of depth. How on earth will we ever see what is in our heart unless we dive deep inside, switch on the light and look. Those who do will tell you it changes everything. What do they see? Simple, only beauty and truth. They are always there, waiting for us to return. Waiting to welcome us and to introduce ourselves to ourself.

Jeff said...

I came to the conclusion some time ago that millions of people around the world of assorted different faiths and sub-divisions of faith, can't all be wrong or barking up the wrong tree. We are often born into a faith upbringing of one kind or another depending on the beliefs of our forbears. The fact is , as far as I can see, that organised faith and it's attendant rituals and scriptures are simply ways that we have established to make sense of the universal truth. Some people find that ritual and scriptual learning focus their mind on this and give needed structure to their faith.I prefer a simple approach but, in essence, believe that everyone is right as long as they seek with an honest heart and truly search for the God within. Atheists too carry within them the light of God though they wouldn't describe it as that. Simple acts of sound humanity can iluminate this in them for those who look to see.Simply showing love and kindness and making the most of the gifts and talents we have is doing God's work and the love and fulfillment you receive in return is His thanks. For me:that's all I need to know.

Anonymous said...

Well written! I would like to add a verse to Paricia Burns' comment, even if she might be a spammer. "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy(Satan) seed and her(Eve) seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel"(Genesis 3:15). This is the King James Version but I checked some other versions and they are similar. I am interested in what your, and other people's, thoughts are on this verse.

rodgertutt said...

Calvinism, Arminianism, or Christian Biblical Universalism

Which view of salvation is true?

Two good expositions specifically answering that question!