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Universalism is Not about Hell: A New Vision of Religion Universalism is Not about Hell: A New Vision of Religion

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Universalism is Not about Hell: A New Vision of Religion

Posted by: admin on Fri, Jan 1, 2016

By Logan Geen

 

 



Logan Geen writes a blog about classical Christian Unitarian and Universalist spirituality. He is a master's degree student in healthcare administration.

Universalism is Not about Hell: A New Vision of Religion

 

By Logan Geen

Universalism, especially in its Christian form, has often been simplified down to the belief that there is no eternal hell, and that, eventually, every person is "saved". Yet, it has always seemed to me that Universalism is more, must be more, than simply the belief that everyone "goes to Heaven". That idea isn't wrong of course... it is arguably the core, the heart, of Universalism. But it likewise seems to me that Universalism is an entirely different worldview, an entirely different paradigm, even an entirely different religion of sorts than the traditional religion we know as orthodox Christianity. Christian Universalism is a faith bigger and broader, yet simpler and less confined, than Christianity (the orthodox kind). There are many Christian Universalists who are actually both of the above -- indeed some of the dominant Universalist groups (such as Tentmaker) consider themselves traditionally Christian in every way save for the salvation issue. Strange as it may seem there are many conservative, fundamentalist Christians who could pass for Jerry Falwell in terms of their theology, yet still believe in universal reconciliation. Within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church there are individuals who believe in universal reconciliation, and yet still believe in the supremacy of the Church and the authority of its teachings. Clearly universalism and orthodox Christianity are not mutually exclusive. Yet, at the same time, I share the belief of Philip Gulley and Jim Mulholland, who suggested in their book If Grace is True that believing in universal reconciliation is likely to alter the foundation of any belief system. They noted that after having accepted such a belief trying to put their new understandings back in the old wineskins proved to be impossible.

What makes many of the orthodox-Universalist believers nervous is what they see in many of the more liberal corners of Universalism. These include churches obsessed with liberal politics and consumed by the social Gospel, New Age/New Thought churches that adopt quasi-spiritualist practices and a touchy-feely spirituality that is selfish to the core, and the ever-present specter of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a secular humanist group that doesn't believe in God, let alone Jesus. Liberal religion too has it dangers, and there are plenty of examples in its ranks to make anyone shudder. I will note that my own perspective certainly comes from a more liberal angle. I consider myself a Unitarian, though of the ilk of the American Unitarian Conference, i.e. a religion based on belief in One God known in many ways, where freedom, responsibility, tolerance and humility are key, reason is prized, and religion is seen as evolving rather than stagnant. My views on Christianity fall into the broad Unitarian Christian category, in that I reject traditional views on the Trinity, Deity of Christ, the Bible, Atonement, and so forth. And it would be hard for me to deny that there isn't a streak of New Age-ish spirituality in me. But at the end of the day I believe that a true Universalist religion must embrace the common truths of all religions. Where Unitarianism is a head-centered religion, more intrapersonal and individually focused, Universalism is heart-centered, more about emotion and mysticism than reason, and is much more interpersonal. My heart leapt when I discovered the website of the CUA, which immediately balanced out my deep devotion to the AUC. I took one look at the 7 principles of the CUA, and realized I was "home" (well, in one of my homes at least).

 


"The 7 principles [of the CUA] established an entirely different vision of Christianity... a com-
plete, comprehensive, alternative vision of religion, a real progres-
sive Christianity that
was far more fulfilling"


 

After much consideration I realized that the 7 principles established an entirely different vision of Christianity, and essentially defined Universalism, similar to the 7 principles of the AUC had for Unitarianism. The Universalism expressed in these principles is Christian, yes, but I found it utterly compatible with Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, and (yes) the New Age movement as well. This was a complete, comprehensive, alternative vision of religion, a real progressive Christianity that was far more fulfilling than the progressive Christianity that was more focused on tackling liberal social issues. This, indeed, was a religion that I agreed with virtually everything. To further explain my point about Universalism being a distinct spirituality, and how Christian Universalism is different, I would like to a brief analysis of the 7 principles here within, and how they relate to one another. Without further comment:

Principle #1: We believe in a God who is Love, Light, Truth, and Spirit, the Creator of the universe, whom we are called to seek, know, and love; and whose nature was revealed to the world in the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

The first principle immediately established a distinction by issuing a new vision of God. This God is not the human-like supernatural creature consistently envisioned by religion (whether overtly or implicitly) but rather this God is the Truth, the Source of All Being (a unique parallel to the idea of Brahman in Hinduism, and faithful to the Christian vision of the Creator), who exists as a pervasive Spirit that transcends any and all categories known to this world -- including that of humanity. Yet as the CUA noted in their explanation God is "intelligent and benevolent", meaning that the Creator possesses intellect and emotion -- two distinct elements that are also existent in humanity. Everything in existence was brought forth, and sustained by, the Creator. By default the universe -- and our own lives -- have purpose. God is also identified as "Light" and "Love" -- the former expressing both goodness and God's role as the Spiritual Source of Life, the latter expressing how God is best known through humans as love. From that point the CUA notes that God is expressed in the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth -- identified as a Teacher (moral and spiritual) and historical person by the CUA, both of which are very important. Jesus reveals the best of human nature, which is what is expected of God: mercy, forgiveness, compassion, holiness, justice, etc. Finally Jesus also reveals that the Spiritual Source can be sought, known and loved -- a real relationship with God is possible, as God is in a sense the 'Father' of creation.

A few notes of my own on these points. First I believe this principle expresses a very Panentheist approach to God... not pantheist, which says that God simply is the sum of existence, but rather panENtheist, which views God not as an utterly distant Creator but rather as the Spirit who exists in, with, and through all of creation (this intimacy is expressed more in Principle #6). This view of God has much in common with Hinduism, Native American spirituality, and Taoism while still being faithful to the monotheistic tradition (Buddhism is agnostic on the God question). The reference to Jesus is important because of the fact that Jesus expresses what God looks like in human form. This avoids the Trinitarian issue altogether (a somewhat more metaphysical approach will appear later), and instead focuses on the simple fact that if divinity were to take human form, or if divinity on the inside took over on the outside, or if you simply wanted to see God in a body, you would look at Christ as that example. Finally I believe that the term "Father" as used by Jesus is more a metaphor of the intimacy of God in creation and the importance of a relationship with God than it is of a literal term about God's relationship with humanity (the parent metaphor is appropriate but is not the only model). The fact that God is both transcendent (the Creator) and immanent (Spirit) is also powerful: God is far beyond us, above us, with also with us and in us. The "Beyond" is in our midst, and that is an awesome thing.

Principle #2: We believe that the universal commandment is to love and serve one another as each loves oneself.

The "universal commandment" is the universal moral law of all faiths: The Golden Rule, which appears in virtually every major religion and philosophy. The CUA focuses on the somewhat expanded version of the Golden Rule as taught by Jesus: the second half of the Great Commandment, couple with other teachings that push beyond simply treating others as we wish to be treated. These include radical inclusivity for all people (especially outcasts and sinners), extolling of compassion, mercy and forgiveness as the greatest values in interpersonal relationships, and the heavy emphasis upon selfless service, giving and charity taught by Jesus. Finally it is noted that we must love our enemies, and love ourselves as God's children.

My takeaways from this principle include the fact that this law is universal. I once believed that Jesus alone taught that we love our enemies, but a quick study of Buddhism revealed this to be incorrect. I learned that Buddhism shares much with Christianity about the tremendous power of compassion in our lives. This principle also affirms the common value that ALL people (which is further explained in later principles), and touches on the subject of works. Rather than advising controversial social action the CUA (correctly, in my opinion) affirmed that humbling oneself to serve others is the greatest expression of love. Giving of ourselves (in time, money, talent, etc), serving others, and embodying selflessness is what God values above all else -- this is the truest form of expressing spirituality, according to Jesus himself. Loving and serving our neighbor is part of being a follower of Jesus -- and, indeed, is a most prized value of any religion (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism all make such demands). One thing is crystal clear: The essence of real religion is not about the prosperity Gospel, or achieving our own selfish ends. Not remotely. Nor is it about engaging in divisive or controversial social justice or conservative political activities (not usually at least -- sometimes such activities may be justified but I believe rarely and that they are not the heart of what religion is about). The real heart of faith in action is a quieter, more loving, form of fellowship and service to those who are in need. It is not something to be politicized, it is not something to call attention to, or to seek recognition for. It is just something that is done, period. This is REAL spirituality.

Principle #3: We believe in the law of justice by which actions generate consequences, whether to be manifested in this life or the life to come.

This is the second universal law the CUA has affirmed... karma, the belief that actions generate consequences. Virtually every religion has affirmed this, the Eastern religions perhaps the most eloquently. Science has affirmed for actions there are equal and opposite reactions, and it would appear that God works the same way. Karma affirms a belief in true justice, but not in the form of a vengeful Deity... instead, it is simply a natural system whereby whatever we sow we shall ultimately reap. We get out of life what we put into it, in other words. This is a guiding principle for life: What we do will come back to us, one way or another. Obviously this has very real, very temporal implications in this life: Those who do evil often suffer for it themselves, and if we make foolish decisions we often pay for them. Christian Universalism affirms the existence of life beyond this life, however, and affirms that the law of karma continues to apply. There is room here for a spectrum of beliefs: Many different spiritual realms, and the possibility of reincarnation (whether that occurs on this planet or the transmigration occurs elsewhere is impossible to determine) are just a few options. The key part of this principle is the belief that Hell is self-made, not imposed from without, and that God's justice is proportional and remedial, however terrible it may manifest itself. My greatest takeaway from this principle is that we are a product of our choices, and we receive no more or less than that which we have incurred upon ourselves. If we choose to follow a path that leads to Hell than that is exactly what we shall receive -- yet we also have the hope of heaven, and Principle #2 shows clearly how would we need to proceed should that be our ultimate destination.

Principle #4: We believe in the ultimate triumph of divine mercy and grace: that no being ever created will be condemned or allowed to suffer forever, but God has arranged through a benevolent plan of learning and growth for all souls to attain salvation, reconciliation, restoration, and reunion with the Source of All Being, in the fullness of the ages.

The middle principle is the most important one: the belief in Universal Salvation itself. Yet it soon becomes clear that even this is more comprehensive, farther reaching, than simply saying "Everybody goes to Heaven". The CUA does clearly affirm Universal Salvation by rejecting the alternative destinations of eternal hell and annihilation, and the alternative options of God refusing or being unable to assist, and they also affirm that salvation is a matter that does not interfere with free will, but rather is the result of synergistic cooperation between God and the human. Spiritual advancement can occur post-death, and is attained through passing through purgatorial fires and challenges. Finally this principle also affirms the power of mercy, and grace, which have long been at the heart of the Christian message. This is a promise of "Good News" in the fullest expression of the words. It is a true message of hope.

At the same time this principle pushes the boundaries of what is normally called 'universalism'. For one it recognizes the belief in apokatastasis, the reconciliation of all things. Apokatastasis does not merely mean that all PEOPLE go to heaven, but rather refers to the eventual restoration of CREATION -- everything is restored and reconciled to God, not just people. Specifically the CUA notes that all sentient beings will be saved -- this would include every person of course, but also spiritual entities (angels, and also presumably demons and even Satan if they exist), other intelligent entities (extraterrestrials or other-dimensional beings if they exist) and possibly even animals, plants, and planets if these things possess some form of a soul (and it has been argued at various times that they do). Salvation is also seen much more broadly than escape from suffering, death and hell (which it is); it is also a form of healing (restoration), restored relationship (reconciliation) and reunion back with God. This is a much broader view of universalism, both in scope and in practice, than what we normally associate with universal salvation. This salvation truly is universal.

Principle #5: We believe every person is the divine offspring of God, created in the image of the Heavenly Parent of all; and that every person is destined to be raised up from imperfection to maturity according to the pattern of the archetypal Christ, the Son of God, the Perfect Human in whose image all humanity shall be transformed.

 

 


"Jesus was not unique -- while he was God's son he was not God's ONLY son, and if he was 'true God from true God' so then are we all."


Principle #5 is a major defining principle of Christian Universalism, secondary to Principle #4. Here the CUA takes the stance that true divinity and true humanity are like two sides of a coin. There are a few key lessons expressed here: First is that all human beings share a common source in God, who is the "parent" of all. As several leaders in the CUA have expressed we believe that every human being is literally a son or daughter of God on the spiritual level -- we share "Divine DNA". In this sense all people come from God, and have an essentially divine nature within. This is the reason behind why are other people are to be treated the way they are as expressed in Principle #2, and is a reference to the "God within", expressed more in Principle #7. The fact that all people share a common source in God, and a common inherently divine nature, makes clear how sins that oppress people are terrible -- racism, sexism, etc. At the same time however it is important to note that this teaching is a "one and all" proposition -- there are billions of individual human beings, and only ONE people, only one God. There are no subgroups, no distinctions to be made. While the Christology here may be too high for some (Jesus is seen as the perfect embodiment of the Divine-Man) it is worth noting that the concept has parallels elsewhere (such as the avatars of Hinduism and similar ideas expressed about the Buddha), and that the principle stresses that Jesus was not unique -- while he was God's son he was not God's ONLY son, and if he was "true God from true God" so then are we all. The idea of Jesus being perfect human puts him amongst us, not on a separate level of existence. He IS seen as having attained a state that most people have not yet attained (at the very least to a higher degree), but not fundamentally different at the core.

 

The second part of this principle is the idea of theosis, meaning divinization or becoming one with God. This idea goes beyond simple salvation to one of total transformation into conformity with the divine image, as it was expressed in Christ. In other words the idea is for everyone to become another Christ, or, translated another way, to grow up into divinity. To awaken this divine potential, however, and to achieve a state which is described as essentially "god-like" ('Have I not said that ye are gods?') a total transformation is required. This goes even farther than the restoration proposed in Principle #4. Specifically how this process looks at the end is uncertain of course, but the idea draws strongly from the concept of God becoming "all-in-all" -- where every being awakens the God within completely. Selfishness must be utterly purged, and the idea of becoming one with God suggests (to some degree) the extinguishment of the Self. While this idea may seem un-Christian at first blush it makes a great deal of sense considering the statement "Not my will but yours be done" as Jesus said -- we need to cut ourselves loose from the self. This shares a great deal with the Hindu/Buddhist ideas of Nirvana and the purging of the self, even though it doesn't suggest the destruction of individuality on quite the same level -- but it does make clear that the end result will be more about unity than individuality, as it calls for every person to unify with God and reconcile with the rest of the human family.

One last note on this subject is the fact that theosis is not merely an idea about metaphysics and transformation eons out, but also about "striving and advancing" to attain greater levels of divine manifestation throughout this life as well. As other members of the CUA have noted there is a social aspect to this process, a communal aspect, and a prayer/spiritual life dimension, all of which are centered on drawing closer to other people, submitting to God's will, and living within God. This is the heart of the spiritual journey -- a process of transformation, in all ways. Theosis has appeared (in varying forms and under different names) in Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, in Mormonism, and in the New Age movement.

Principle #6: We believe in miracles and mysterious spiritual phenomena, such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which transcend materialistic views of reality.

This principle initially struck me as a strange addition to, and sort of an oddball in, the CUA 7, but after carefully reflecting on it, and reading more deeply into the CUA's article, it became clear that this principle reflects a number of very important ideas into the Christian Universalist worldview. First of all it places a very heavy emphasis on that which we call "Holy Mystery" and encourages a sense of reverence, awe and open-mindedness toward that which we do not understand, something which is often lost in modern religion. As the CUA noted in their explanation mystery is an essential element in any religious faith, and Universalism must account for this mystery, and rather than fear it, should openly and warmly embrace it. There is a need for us to constantly transcend our present understanding and our limitations, and this (a very progressive idea) certainly belongs as part of the Christian Universalist's understanding of their faith.

Second, this principle leaves room for spiritual activity in our world -- the Higher Power acting in our lives, in both miraculous and non-miraculous ways. This (for me at least) further reinforces observations made under Principle #1 in God being actively involved (and immediately present) in our world, rather than being distant and utterly removed from our lives. The idea of an influencing, unseen spiritual aspect in our world further reinforces the panentheistic idea of God being very present, despite being detached in many ways from the universe.

Third, this principle reaffirms the value of the Scientific Method and rational investigation, validating these ways of understanding the universe, even as it also affirms that there is more above and beyond what we can see in a test tube or under a microscope. The CUA's article also suggests the value of Post-Newtonian science. The importance of this section is that Christian Universalism is not opposed to science or a proper understanding of creation at all -- it merely says that there is more beyond what science can tell us.

Fourth, finally, and most importantly, the reference to the Resurrection affirms the importance of the Resurrection event. There are many dimensions to the Resurrection: the symbolic, the spiritual, and the physical-historical. The symbolic is a reference to the "born again" experience which is a key of so many faiths, our own included, and reinforcing the idea of dying to self and being reborn, as well as the idea of surviving death, the triumph of Good over Evil, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, etc. There are parallels of these stories in other ancient religions, and many find the value of the Resurrection paralleled in our own lives. The spiritual dimension of course refers to whatever form the Resurrection may take in our own lives, life after death, and in whatever our final transformation may be. Finally of course there is the actual historical event of the Resurrection... whatever physically happened that first Easter Sunday over 2,000 years ago will probably never be known for certain, but it is clear something did and this principle strongly affirms the possibilities of what happened that day, drawing from the regenerated faith of Jesus' disciples, and it is equally important that there is a mystery as to how the Resurrection happened. What is important, however, as this principle clearly reinforces, is that one way or another the Resurrection did happen. This is overall a very, very important principle.

Principle # 7: We believe that God's Holy Spirit has inspired numerous prophets, saints, philosophers, and mystics throughout history, in a variety of cultures and traditions; and that by reading the Bible and other great texts of spiritual and moral wisdom with a discerning mind, and meditating to connect to the Spirit within, we may all gain a greater understanding of truth, which should be applied for the betterment of ourselves and our world.

Maybe not surprisingly the last principle is my favorite of the bunch. This principle makes clear that God's Spirit has been with people in many places: In the Bible, and other saints, mystics, church fathers within Christianity; in nature and in rational discourse (mentioned in the CUA explanation but not the principle); and throughout the human journey, expressed through prophets, saints, philosophers and mystics in various spiritual, cultural and philosophical traditions (read religions). The CUA advises reading the Bible properly with a discerning mind, and also teaches that the Holy Spirit abides within every individual, inherently. Through a wide variety of methods (prayer, meditation, worship) people may connect to the Spirit and know God intimately. Our hearts and minds are as good of guides as is the past, and that we have a massive opportunity and responsibility in seeking truth, which, when found, must be put to good use in bettering ourselves and our world.

 

 


"There is no fear in studying the Vedas, or
the Koran, learning from the Buddha, Confucius, Moses or Muhammad. Notice that the [CUA] does NOT say that all religions are identical or that there is an infinite number of paths. Rather it grants freedom to seek truth anywhere, and it becomes clear that truth is not confined."


I love this principle because its view of the Bible reinforces my own (a combination of prayerful reflection and scholarly study rather than rigid literalism), and it acknowledges the many pathways to God, such as those who find God in nature or through the use of reason. When it comes to religions the identification of holy truth is found within the traditions themselves, but more fully from the holy/prophetic figures in each faith and their great spiritual writings. There is no fear in studying the Vedas, or the Koran, learning from the Buddha, Confucius, Moses or Muhammad. Notice that the principle does NOT say that all religions are identical or that there is an infinite number of paths. Rather it grants freedom to seek truth anywhere, and it becomes clear that truth is not confined. Patterns emerge. And from this a new picture can be drawn. I especially liked the breakdown of philosophers (who love God with their mind), saints (who love God with their hearts), prophets (who love God with their strength, proclaiming the truth) and mystics (who love God with their souls). There is a great value to be found in approaching holy people of any stripe, for they are all part of the "Body of Christ".

 

The principle also stresses mysticism and the belief that God is within everyone (noted in Principle #5). Here the belief is akin to the notion of the Quaker's "Inner Light", the idea that God is directly within every individual and that there is no absolute need for external revelation of any kind. Prayer, worship and meditation, whether in the ancient liturgies of the Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox, or in the modern Pentecostal and Evangelical forms, or in Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Native American or Sufi rituals, can all be means of accessing the Divine. This is a powerful teaching and gives a lot of credit to the tremendous role that mysticism has played in the history of Universalism.

The final parts of the principle are also very important -- there is a great opportunity, and lots of freedom, in seeking truth, but with it comes great responsibility. To really obtain truth our hearts and minds must be balanced with taking a wide look at the past, and truth needs to have a practical application in bettering ourselves and aiding in our transformation (Principle #5) and in changing the world, helping to make God's kingdom come -- specifically, of course, through the methods expressed by Jesus and by the CUA in Principle #2. Yet this is not a burden at all, but simply what God expects of us. We are to help ourselves and others around us with what we have learned. There are many philosophers, saints, mystics, prophets and others poised to help -- Gandhi, Mother Teresa, St. John of the Cross, the Buddha, and an endless list of others, who are waiting to help and who represent a variety of steps along the way of the human journey. Some members may not be well-known either... the world is full of saints never recognized, full of aspiring mystics and those who have (even if only once) touched the heart of God, filled with philosophers in various roles, and people who fit the description of prophets can include dissident preachers, comedians, and perhaps even politicians once in awhile.

This principle is so valuable to me because of the fact that the Christian Universalism I believe in (and espoused in the 7 Principles of the CUA) is one which is partially based on, influenced by, compatible with, and in brotherhood to many other faiths and understandings from the human journey. It has more in common with some of these other faiths than with Christianity as most of us know it. To me at least that is a beautiful thing. The Christian Universalist Association sees the power of these other faiths, and how when synthesized with Christianity many distinctions and supposed contradictions fade away, leaving common truths that build up the powerful faith that is Christian Universalism. This principle reinforces that God is making himself known in a lot of places and we should not be afraid to look. We can know that we can learn in a temple or a mosque, from New Age and Sufi, from a walk in the woods or through praying intensely, looking within and without; God is never far away and is always prepared to reach us no matter what.

CONCLUSION

In summation I find that the 7 Principles of the Statement of Faith of the Christian Universalist Association present a strong, clear and coherent vision of Christian Universalism, a refreshing new version of Christian spirituality. It is a very, very beautiful thing. I feel at home here, spiritually refreshed and nurtured in this place. I am proud, and very excited, to be a part of this group, a place where I can share my passion for my Christian Universalist faith. I believe strongly in a God of love, that morality is loving one another as ourselves, that there is justice now and beyond, that everything is returned back to God, that we are all equally from God and have a great destiny, that there is a deep mystery in a world where God is present but just out of reach, and that truth is far-reaching. Universalism is very comprehensive -- it is NOT simply a matter of everyone getting to Heaven eventually (you may notice that of all the sections of my article the one on Principle #4, Universal Salvation, was nearly the shortest).

How comprehensive? This is a mystical faith, a God-intoxicated belief system with a strong spiritual base, affirming of reason and intellectualism without being dominated by them, standing firm for many things, and is a faith of action as much as it is about belief, as much of works as it is about faith. Is it perfect? No, for it is human -- but in my most humble opinion it is the closet thing there is to perfect available. It is my faith, the faith of Christ, and the faith of many from many perspectives. God Bless the CUA, and all of its members in the great work that we have to do.

Logan Geen is a member of the Board of Directors of the Christian Universalist Association.




 

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