Thursday, April 12, 2007

Universalism as a Spiritual Principle

12 April 2007

This entry is not intended as a philosophical treatise.

Historically, the Christian Church has regarded Universalism – the doctrine of universal salvation – as a heresy. It is a tricky issue, because as Christian practitioners, we acknowledge that we simply do not know who is and is not saved. Though we often refer to converts and adherents as “the saved” we are in fact making a presumption when we do so, as it is our Creator’s right alone to make this determination.

I was raised as a Unitarian-Universalist, and there is no mistaking how this movement’s founders were regarded by the Christian church. They were burned at the stake.

The majority of Unitarian-Universalists do not (presently) identify themselves as Christians, and this is not difficult to understand, given the history of the movement. Those who do refer to themselves as Christians continue to be regarded as outside the pale even by the liberal wing of the mainstream Christian denominations.

However, as I meditate upon my walk with Christ over my past 25 years or more as a Christian, I am finding that I must call upon my Unitarian Universalist roots in order to explain how I understand Christ – his person and his teachings – today.

I have not run a Google search on Universalist doctrine, so it is possible that I am repeating statements that have been better made by others. But I feel increasingly called to comment more openly on how I presently view my Christian faith.

I am not a believer in Universal salvation as I believe was the case with the original Universalists. I adhere to the classic Christian doctrine that it is up to our Creator alone to determine who will and will not share eternity with Him (or Her if you prefer), and also to determine how that sharing will take place.

I certainly expect that such personalities as Hitler, Stalin, Mugabe, bin Laden, and the leaders of the Janjaweed (as one example) and other genocidal movements – as they live or have lived in our present worldly sphere – are by no means fit (in my view) to spend an eternity with a loving and accepting – but also discriminating – Creator. But that is just me speculating, and I truly don't know how salvation will or will not work out, even for these most blatantly evil of human beings.

But where I perhaps differ with many mainstream Christians is in my belief in the universal availability of salvation (here I define salvation to mean the state of being in receipt of an invitation to participate in eternity in the shelter and company of our Creator).

It is one thing to espouse the classic Christian doctrine – that no one comes to the father except through Christ.

It is another thing entirely to make presumptions as to how or where any particular individual may come to encounter and form a relationship with Christ – or as to what such a relationship can or cannot look like.

I tend to agree with my wife Susan that the organized church is presumptive in its adherence to the inherently reflexive doctrine that the organized church – whether as an institution or in an alternative collective form – is the only vehicle through which a saving and healing meeting with our Creator can take place.

Because my own perspective is Christian, I do accept that there are certain very fundamental advantages to meeting Christ through the church – and these derive primarily from the availability of teaching and of fellowship.

However, there remains a critical flaw in the doctrinal expectation that Christ, as a universally available spiritual being of infinite power, can introduce himself to those with whom he chooses to commune only through this particular organizational structure.

Let us briefly reconsider the history of Christ’s church.

The church was clearly an important concern to the historical Jesus, and he spoke of it often. But I am unable to find the teaching or the text by which he limited his power to engage us in relationship with him to the mediation of this particular extension of His body.

In my personal experience, I have encountered many individuals over the years who adhere to a variety of both Christian and non-Christian spiritual traditions who quite evidently enjoy a personal relationship with the very same Christ whom I know. Many of these persons understand who He is differently than I, but in my experience, this disjuncture is as true of the diversity within the organized church as it is of the diversity without it.

Here is what I think is going on.

I believe that Christ is universally available to all humans – to every single one of us – and at all times and in all places.

This is what I mean by Universalism – not universal salvation, but universal availability.

We live in a culturally and spiritually diverse world within which many of us call Christ by different names, and also understand or emphasize quite different aspects of his personality.

However, I recognize these persons (outside the organized Christian church) to be engaged in a relationship with exactly the same spiritual person who has engaged me as a Christian.

Without belabouring my point, I believe that this is because the risen Christ – the spiritual expression of our Creator’s ability to relate to us (beyond life and death) as the harvest of His creation – has the ability to relate to any human being who by any means recognizes who He is (a spirit living both within them and among all of us) and is receptive to entering into a give-and-take rhythm of relationship with him. (Christians recognize that He gives more and takes less than we do, but it is still a give-and-take relationship that emerges.)

My own journey of the past 15 years has drawn me into extensive involvement in the personal, community and spiritual lives of the Ojibway people of Northwest Ontario.

Strikingly, hundreds of these individuals who have opened their lives to me through my work with them have been brutalized and abused to an unimaginable degree by representatives of the Christian church.

These encounters have certainly alerted me to the issue of self-regulation (or lack thereof) within the body of the organized Christian church. In order to seek salvation and healing, many of these survivors of institutionalized Christian abuse must step back from the church, and they are pursuing and finding restoration through recapturing their historical (pre-Christian) spirituality and traditions.

Despite having been a vicarious witness probably to thousands of acts of abuse perpetrated in the name of the church of Jesus Christ against aboriginal Canadians, I do not blame Jesus, or even his church, for these acts of callousness and cruelty. I understand fully that each of us individually is capable of spiritual hate crimes which take root easily in the infertile soil of distorted self love. Christians – and their church – are as capable of evil as anyone – and that is central to what Jesus has already taught us about who we are.

The lesson which interests me here is a different one – that those who have been brutalized by and through the church can quite clearly find authentic salvation and healing outside of it. In fact, many of these individuals must journey outside the church in order to obtain the gifts of restoration and renewal.

Is this doctrine of Christ's universal availability contrary to His teaching and instruction? I do not anywhere find Jesus to be limiting of himself in this way, though this is one of many issues which he does not in fact address directly.

This is the same Jesus who never stated that he wanted anyone even to write anything down about him.

On the one occasion where it is recorded that Jesus was questioned about how his words and teachings should be verified, it is indicated that he simply replied that he spoke in public places, so it is obvious that those who were there knew what he had to say (a seeming slight to those of us who were not yet born, and thus could not have known of his teachings by this method).

So, how might Jesus have replied, had we been able to ask him a question so central to church doctrine of the past two millennia: “Can you save and heal – can you enter into a life-changing relationship – with individuals who do not participate in your Christian church – perhaps individuals who have no knowledge of your church – or even individuals who have been harmed and abused by it?”

I cannot imagine that he would have said, “No, I can't do that.”

Jesus is recorded as saying (in the texts that the organized church has chosen to retain) that “No one comes to the Father except by me.”

But where did Jesus say, “No one comes to the Father except through joining and studying in my church”?

Let me say it here, and say it directly. The latter doctrinal statement is simply not Jesus’ teaching.

I have observed this: Christ knows, saves and heals people whom we do not know (through the church), and who do not know us (again through the church). Yet he knows each of these persons (outside the church) every bit as well as he knows his followers within the organized church.

What then is the use of the organized church (about which Jesus certainly spoke many times)?

There is no question that the organized church can be extremely difficult and trying, even for its most devoted participants. And at its worst, it can be bureaucratic, closed, oppressive, murderous and even genocidal.

Yet Christ certainly describes a church which will tell the people of all nations about him (or at least certain texts indicate that this was the case). And, because those who follow Christ are doing so in freedom, the church can certainly separate itself from Christ by turning away from Him.

What is going on here?

My present construction of this dilemma is that the fundamental point at issue is that each of us must determine if we wish to engage in (rather than to abstain from) a relationship with our Creator.

With our having made this decision, then our Creator – through Christ – has chosen to be available to each of us. The evidence of my experience is that our Creator has not limited the variety of paths available to those of us who have answered “yes” to this call to relationship.

Some of these paths will lead some of us to the organized Christian church, but other paths will lead others of us to Christ in much more diverse ways than perhaps the majority of Christians presently conceive – and I do not think that this is a problem for Christ – rather, it is a problem for Christians.

Many of these ways will not be called Christian, and it is obvious based on my experience that exactly the same saving spiritual relationship that Christians enjoy is also available to Buddhists, Hindus and explicit non-believers, to name only a few.

This diverse and pluralistic conception of spiritual reality undergirds universalist spiritual practice as I presently understand it, and I believe that I am giving full credit to Christ – as well as to practitioners of other spiritual and even anti-spiritual traditions – in making this statement.

How then are we as humans called to seek spiritual truth?

Let me be very direct.

If we consciously adopt an attitude of open-mindedness (a key principle in my own Unitarian Universalist upbringing), we will (1) know Christ (as the spiritual and accessible embodiment of the source of our being) when we meet him; (2) recognize others who know Christ – in whatever form and by whatever name they happen to call him; and (3) be recognized by those who share our own relationship with Him (the human and spiritual manifestation of our Creator within and among ourselves as human beings thrown into a world of mystery and wonder).

How then should we come together to share our relationship with our Creator with others whose understanding may in some cases be similar to and in other cases quite different than our own?

My own (universalist) answer is as follows: The decision to share our spiritual journey and practices with others may occur in response either to an acknowledged drive arising from within ourselves, or to a call experienced as arising from beyond ourselves – it is really the same thing in either case. Wait, listen, watch, be attentive, and respond to that which stirs most deeply within you, or in your relationships with others.

Let me acknowledge here that this prescription will certainly be discomfiting for some readers, whether Christian or non-Christian. Let me go so far as to speculate as to why this might be the case.

I suspect that many Christians will fear that the spiritual stirrings leading us into relationship will arise from sources other than Christ. In this case, let me counter that perhaps the faith of these persons is not strong enough – as I believe that Christ – and not His opponents – is in charge of this domain.

As for those who may be on guard due to perceptions of Christian coercion in my writings, let me acknowledge that I am using Christian language because I am a Christian, but the criterion I advocate is authenticity, not doctrinal rigour. The challenge is to pursue relationship (with our very Creator), not to master buzz words and socially sanctioned religious behaviours.

(P.S. Our language makes it very difficult to speak about God in gendered terms. Here we might take a lesson from the Ojibway, whose pronouns recognize no gender. S/he is one word in Ojibway. Perhaps one day we as English speakers will advance to this level of understanding of the human condition in our use of language.)


  1. I couldn't agree more. When Jesus performed his ministry on Earth much of his time was spent irritating and contradicting the established Jewish church, primarily by doing things the right way instead of their way. Hopefully we can all learn by that example.

  2. All the great teachers seem to use irritation as a stimulus for change. It is obviously an art to irritate in the correct way, though it remains dangerous for those who do the irritating!