Justice and the New Universalism


May 5, 2011

The universalism debate has been kicked up a bit again, at least in my corner of the ‘interweb’.  Responding to Lauren Winner’s essay on Rob Bell in the New York Times Book Review, Jamie Smith questions the “hope” and “imagination” of popular universalists (see also Paul Griffiths response to the same article).  Kicking the universalist nest in this way was sure to stir up a response, and it has been vigorous by Halden and David.

Points can be had on both sides.  Certainly Jamie has properly expressed the all too typical sentiment of pew filling evangelical universalists who “hope” against hope that their friends will be saved because they just can’t “imagine” God not letting people in, “God is a God of love, isn’t He?” (Just see any of the recent post on Hell at emergentvillage). But certainly there are more robust and and less sentimental arguments offered by theologians that can’t be so easily dismissed by a psychological analysis (although, as a pastor, and therefore charged with the care of souls, I don’t generally discount the need for psychoanalyzing).  So while Jamie, from my perspective, does properly unveil a popular universalist sentiment, properly academic arguments must still follow.

(And just as an aside, it would be good to understand the difference in genre between popular/pastoral analysis and academic/systematic analysis…what I might say in a specific pastoral context might sound the opposite of what I believe dogmatically…some my even say that I’ve failed to abide by this…).

Discipline of Love

But I would like to take the conversation a slightly different direction by noting that either alternative (universalist or not) argues from within a (personal/intellectual) discipline of God’s loving forgiveness.  The question between the two is really just how and to what extent this forgiveness is possible.  But this begs the question of the need or desirability of forgiveness at all.

I remember a recent conversation with a woman down the street.  Raise nominally Jewish, she was telling me that she had finally embraced her atheism.  She and I enjoyed poking fun at her husband, the agnostic, for not having the guts either to believe in something or believe in nothing.  But at one point in our conversation she flat out said, “I just couldn’t believe in a God who come forgive Hitler.  I don’t want to forgive Hitler, and I certainly don’t want God to either.”

The type of love, justice, and forgiveness offered in Christ dwells outside the city of normal life (to circle back to the name of this blog).  The typical laws of the city (of humanity) are an eye for an eye (note David’s previous post), so the possibility for utter forgiveness lives outside these walls.  And first and foremost we must remember this when we talk about universalism.  Many, even if they don’t believe in God, don’t want God to be a universalist.  They want judgment.

Which Love?

However, it is not enough just to state that this conversation is intramural to Christian orthodoxy, for, as David C. rightly notes, there are questions of the atonement and incarnation at stake.

So, to my point, what is the difference between coercion and persuasion in the atonement and regarding universalism?  Of course I don’t think the difference can be so easily distinguished, but I’m not writing a book here.

In George MacDonald’s wonderful Lilith we are presented with a fantastic (literally) tale of an encounter with and the redemption of evil.  I’ll not summarize the whole tale (please read it), but near the end we hear of Lilith, the embodiment of evil, seeking redemption, yet unable to give up that which is keeping her from sleeping (the sleep of death which brings life).  She is unable to open her hand and let go, and finally asks Adam (the Adam) to wield the sword given him from the angel who now no longer guards the gate to Eden, and slice off her hand.  He consents and before her severed hand hits the ground Lilith immediately falls to sleep (i.e. is redeemed).  The moral is that all will be saved, even if something needs to be severed (coerced?).

C. S. Lewis, in a somewhat obvious counter to his mentor’s universalism, writes The Great Divorce, the celebrated bus trip from hell/purgatory to the gates of heaven.  One man, coming up from the grey town below, holds the chain before himself of a collared tragedian who always speaks on the man’s behalf.  This is his ideal self projected to others.  His wife pleads with the man to let go of the projection, to stop playing a part other than himself.  But through various excuses and thinly disguised self-deceptions, the man demurs and returns to hell, choosing for himself purgatory.  This, I offer, is an image of persuasion (and it’s failure) as a means of redemption.  The choice is always the man’s, nothing is forced on him.

The questions before us, then, is, Which mode of redemption is more loving? Why? What model of atonement doe it presuppose?  What type of justice does this entail, letting one live with one’s decisions or forcing a change?  And most importantly what kind of politic (persuasion vs. coercion) is involved?  What kind of justice?

These are important questions that we must keep asking, knowing that they lead us farther and farther beyond the walls of the earthly city.

I’m not sure who ends up on which side, but this has makes me wonder if universalism isn’t the inversion of a strong calvinism (you are forced to be saved)?   Perhaps, then, Weslyans can’t truly be universalists.