Monday, December 13, 2010

Some Thoughts On Universalism

It is not that the Lord is slow in keeping his promise, as some suppose, but that he is patient with you. It is not his will that any should be lost, but that all should come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9 (REB)
It seems to be in the air. It started at John Meunier's blog (which I now link to). It was picked up by Joel Watts. Whenever these subjects are raised, I think of Augustine's bon mot (something for which he was not well known) concerning God's activity before creation, viz., that God was preparing a place in hell for people who asked such questions.

As a United Methodist, I value my Arminian/Wesleyan heritage a great deal. With the exception of predestination, Wesley always saw himself, as he said, as a hair's breadth from the Geneva Reformer. Yet, this is no small issue, but in many ways lies close to the heart of the Christian faith. While I sympathize with Wesley's view of predestination as robbing human beings of any final responsibility for the working out of their salvation in fear and trembling (St. Paul), I believe there is nothing scriptural about the notion that salvation is reduced to the pursuit of "heaven" or avoidance of "hell" in "the afterlife". While there is certainly Scriptural support for a view of salvation/damnation as eschatological categories, it seems pretty clear, at least in my own reading, that if this is, indeed, the case, then the worry relative to human responsibility is misplaced.

As Wesley himself, fully in line with the best of the Christian tradition, pointed out again and again, salvation and our individual awareness of it are the free, gratuitous gifts of God. Wesley himself recognized this in his reflections on his experience at the Aldersgate Street small group. Yet, Wesley was smart enough, and humble enough, and self-aware enough, to understand that this moment was only the beginning of God's work with and in him. His working out of his understanding of Christian perfection in love, sanctification, was always God's work done in and for and also with us.

In other words, I do not know, within Wesley's thought, that there is anything definitive to draw upon to attack a doctrine of universal salvation. Indeed, there is much evidence in Scripture, I think, that support both predestination as well as universalism. There is evidence to support all sorts of contradictory notions that have floated, more or less freely, throughout the history of Christian doctrine. No definitive answer lies this side of the end of all things, so I am not disputing with those who hold different views than I do. I am only offering up my own view, and it should be taken with as many grains of salt as you wish.

Salvation is, for me, an eschatological category. It has nothing at all to do with our disposition in this dispensation. I believe this because I believe that the central confession of the Christian faith - the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ - is God's work. If it is, indeed, a once-for-all Divine Act, an Event that stands at the heart of human history, defining and changing it, then whether or not we accept it as defining for our lives, or if we even hear of it has nothing at all to do with its efficacy. If either were the case, it wouldn't be God's work, and it wouldn't be salvation worth having, as far as I'm concerned.

The Christian faith, at the end of the day, is not about you, me, John Meunier, Joel Watts, or John Wesley ending up in hell or heaven. The Christian faith is about continuing the work of Jesus Christ on earth, bringing that Good News that God loves this broken creation in its brokenness, but also wants it to be no longer broken. Healing the wounds of time and history, bringing all sorts of people together not in intellectual agreement on certain words and phrases, but in lives of service to others and all creation - that is what we are called to do. It is called working to bring the Kingdom of God. This is our job. This is that to which we are called.

Does this make me a Universalist? I have no idea because, as a way of understanding what being a Christian is, that word quite literally has no meaning for me. After all, in the letter of St. Peter quoted above, and in the first such letter, there are discussions of Christ in hell during the period of his death preaching to those lost souls trapped there. This has long been a part, albeit mostly on the fringes and lost in the various Protestant controversies, of the Christian tradition. This vision, that Christ would give witness even to the dead and damned, it seems to me, puts all the controversies over predestination and universalism to one side precisely because it forces us to ask a whole different set of questions.

Virtual Tin Cup

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