Saturday, April 30, 2011

Misconceptions About Universalism Part 2: Absolute Inclusiveness

As I mentioned in the first post of this series a month ago (I apologize for the long delay), the theological concept of universalism has gained considerable attention in the media lately, due to the publication of Rob Bell's book "Love Wins". Unfortunately, universalism is consistently misunderstood, especially in the religious circles where it is considered a heresy, such as conservative Christianity. Personally, I think a majority of people who believe and transmit these misconceptions are just ignorant of the actual concepts behind universalism. However, there is a minority which deliberately propagates these misconceptions, despite knowing they are false, often in order to deceive and confuse that uninformed majority. This minority tends to contain the religiously educated, such as theologians and pastors, who possess hostility towards universalism. This intense hatred can have a multitude of bases, of which I discussed here.

The first misconception I will examine is that universalism is absolutely inclusive; that is, universalism advocates the theory that all life paths are equally good and that every single path leads to God.

The origin of this particular misconception probably arose from the fact that universalists are extremely inclusive in general. We believe God's love and redemption is all inclusive (i.e., everyone will eventually be saved). We attempt to be all inclusive in our love and respect of people. Universalists are frequently religiously inclusive, believing that there is not one religion or sect/denomination which contains absolute truth and is the sole path to salvation, redemption, enlightenment, or whatever else you happen to call it. Many of us are inclusive in that we do not reject people because of their race, gender, sexuality, or religion.

Since exclusivity is usually the rule in organized religion, all of this inclusiveness is shocking. As an example, fundamentalist Christians strongly believe that the only path to God is through their specific denomination of Christianity and that all others will be condemned to an eternity of torment in hell. It's an "us versus them" mentality. God is with them and against everyone else. With that type of world view the inclusiveness in universalism appears both extraordinarily radical and immensely heretical. Given that, it's honestly not surprising some would assume that this inclusiveness would apply to everything.

However, that is blatantly false. Although I believe that there are countless paths which lead to God, including paths in organized religion, individual spirituality, and even agnosticism and atheism, I do not believe that all paths do so. Unfortunately, there are people in this world who have dedicated their lives to certain goals and created paths to attain those goals which actually push them away from God. These negative paths include a penchant for violence, an obsession with amassing vast wealth and material goods, a desire for absolute power (over one person all the way up to a country or even the world), and unrestrained narcissism.

While universalists believe that God completely loves the people who are currently navigating those negative paths, that does not mean we believe those paths to be acceptable. Those paths guide the people on them to be hateful, judgmental, and selfish.  In short, those paths do not lead the people on them to God. This is because, in each of those paths, the individual is focused solely on him or herself. Those paths which do lead to God teach the people on them love, forgiveness, and selflessness. As I said earlier, there are countless paths leading to God. But these paths are not equal. Even though they are heading in roughly the same direction, some are longer and bumpier, while others are shorter and smooth. It is up to each individual person to discover the best path for him or herself. 

I believe this misconception is harmful because it encourages the idea of exclusivity. The underlying message of this misconception is that inclusiveness is evil because universalism is evil, and since inclusiveness is evil, exclusiveness must be good. I know that reasoning sounds rather simple, but I have witnessed it, and similar lines of reasoning, at several Southern Baptist churches. Exclusivity is exceptionally dangerous. Those who are "in" see themselves as righteous and superior, while seeing those who are "out" as depraved and immoral. Taken to its extreme, those who are "out" become perceived as sub-human.

The inclusivity of universalism, although not absolute, does endeavor to extinguish the "us versus them" thinking and believing.  Too frequently does the doctrine of an organized religion call for non-violence and peace, yet violence, which can be physical, mental, or emotional, is employed to settle tiny theological deviations. We spill human blood over matters that hardly matter. It's disgusting and pathetic.

Instead, by resisting our natural instinct to group together and fight those who are different from us, we can eliminate much of the suffering in the world today, making a better and happier world for every single person.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Case for Hell?

Several days ago, conservative blogger Ross Douthat wrote a piece for the New York Times called A Case for Hell. According to Douthat, belief in hell is diminishing among religious Americans. This is evidenced by the enormous media attention recently received by Rob's Bell's new book, Love Wins", and its subsequent popularity. Douthat suggests there are two primary reasons for the waning influence of hell. First is escalating religious pluralism. In the United States, where Christianity claims the most adherents by far, more and more people are struggling with the condemnation of their non-Christian friends and neighbors to an eternal hell solely for "wrong belief". Second is that "our sense of outrage at human suffering...has grown sharper". With the recognition of how terrible suffering can be and how wide-spread it is in the world today, it becomes more problematic for people to believe in a God who subjects some of His own children to even more heinous suffering in hell.

For the most part, I agree with Douthat on why belief in the concept of hell is shrinking. Earlier in American history, Christianity was practically universal except in urban sectors. In rural areas of the country, it was possible to live your entire life with little or even no interaction with non-Christians. With the advent of globalization, Americans were increasingly exposed to people from various religious traditions outside Christianity. Today, new technology has allowed news to travel around the world in a matter of minutes. Wars, political strife, famines, and natural disasters we wouldn't have been aware of 200, or even 100, years ago are now available at the push of a button on our phones or computers.

Of course, I believe the rise in those who are rejecting hell is a fantastic development. Douthat, on the other hand, does not. He believes that:

Doing away with hell...threatens to make human life less fully human. [...] [T]o believe in God and not hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there is no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no's have any real meaning either. [...] In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real [...] The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.
Basically, Douthat thinks that, without a hell, our choices have no significance because there is neither punishment for our sins nor a way for an individual to truly reject God. While Douthat makes a valid point, I believe he has misunderstood the beliefs of universal salvation.

Yes, the doctrine universal salvation does affirm that all souls will eventually be reunited with God, and I am a staunch believer in that doctrine. But, it does not indicate that our negative choices have no consequences or that it is impossible to repudiate God. Universal salvation merely asserts that hell is not of an eternal duration, not that it does not exist not exist. Actually, I, and most advocates of universal salvation that I know, do believe in some form of hell where sins are punished, although the form this hell takes varies widely.

I do not believe in eternal punishment because there is no finite crime an individual can commit that is deserving of eternal punishment. Nor do I believe that God punishes a person out of wrath or a sense of revenge. Those are human weaknesses. But, as I said, I do believe in punishment. You cannot live a life of evil and selfishness without consequences. Instead, I believe God punishes in order to redeem a person, just as a loving parent must sometimes punish their child in order to help them mature into a good person. Our all-loving God uses rehabilitative, spiritual correction, not eternal, physical torture in order to help us become the people we were created to be.

Since I do believe in a form of hell, I also believe it is possible for a person to reject God. God does not coerce anyone to come to Him against their will. A forced relationship is beyond worthless; it is anathema. An individual is free to rebuff God for as long as they desire. Theoretically, they are free to reject God forever, if they so choose. However, as a believer in universal salvation, I believe that God will never give up and abandon anyone. He will never cease pursuing and attempting to guide and comfort those who have rejected Him. I am a universalist because I believe God's love will ultimately triumph and that He will eventually convince every soul to come home.

Personally, I think Douthat's belief in hell "makes us prisoners of God". How can there be any legitimate meaning behind your choices when you have the threat of everlasting damnation hanging over your head? If you honestly believe in the reality of endless, conscious, and physically agonizing torture for all those who believe or act "wrong", all of your "right" beliefs and "right" actions will be done out of fear, not free choice. How could any of your actions be considered "good" if you are only doing them to avoid eternal hell? Would you genuinely love God and desire a relationship with Him, or would you only be pretending so that you would not be thrown into the fiery pit of unending and relentless torment?

Such a dilemma reminds me of an image Bruce at Fallen from Grace (an awesome blog, by the way, and highly recommended) posted yesterday:

Universal salvation does not make us prisoners. On the contrary. By freeing us from the fear of unending hell, universal salvation frees us to choose our own path. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Does Thinking Make It So?

Regular readers of my blog will know that it was during my high school years that I broke away from the fundamentalist Christian beliefs which had defined much of my life since young childhood. This time in my life was challenging for a multitude of other reasons as well, including family problems and the fact that I had always been considered by my peers to be "weird" (i.e., I didn't really fit in).  However, I was extraordinarily fortunate to find an amazing mentor in my 11th grade English teacher. She, probably more than any other person, helped to mold me into the person I am today, and consider her to be one of my best friends.

Whenever I was experiencing one of my frequent bad days, she would rattle of a short quote from some great work of literature, which would encourage me to contemplate my situation from a different perspective. The most frequent of these snippets was a little gem from Shakespeare's Hamlet, as the eponymous protagonist speaks with two of his courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

"For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Act II, Scene II)

This quote has stuck with me and flickers through my mind often. Of course, I believe it makes a significant point about how we perceive good and bad: much of that perception is not based on external events, but on our internal thoughts concerning those external events. My mentor's purpose in reciting this quote was to remind me that, despite the upsetting and frustrating circumstances of my life at that moment, I could feel better about my situation simply by altering my thoughts. I found this suggestion beneficial. As I said, it continues to flicker through my mind often. Sometimes, humans have a tendency to overreact to our problems. We take small issues and blow them up into larger ones. We become deeply emotionally invested in things that do not truly matter. We let small negative experiences disproportionately impact ourselves and those around us. The way in which we choose to think about a situation, especially a negative one, can greatly modify our discernment of it, hopefully transforming it into something more positive.

However, Hamlet's quote is absolute. He uses the word "nothing". For Hamlet, our perceptions of the "goodness" and "badness" of absolutely everything is determined by our thoughts. Absolutely nothing contains any inherent "goodness" or "badness". It is all a product of our minds.

But is this true? I'm not so sure.

Yes, I am willing to stipulate that our thoughts can, and do, greatly color our moral opinions. We formulate judgments based on mental criteria we have created over time, and these criteria are dependent on our genes, our upbringing, our memories, our knowledge, our beliefs, and our current circumstances, to name but a few. We do this precisely because we are conscious. Precisely because we are human. Our ability to conceive and theorize about morality is, in my opinion, one of the most essential qualities which separates us from other animals.

But does that mean "goodness" and "badness" are only arbitrary definitions existing in the human mind, not actual qualities which exist in their own right? Again, I'm not so sure.

Of course, I am sure that this debate has been held, in slightly different variations, since the dawn of civilization, if not earlier. A Google search will probably take you to hundreds, if not thousands of different answers, each with their own justification(s). In these types of profound enigmas, where no wide consensus exists, I must follow my gut instinct, which is that there is some intrinsic "goodness" or "badness" in particular actions. Case in point, I believe that the murder of a human being is intrinsically wrong. Even if someone twists their thoughts to somehow legitimize this action, to give it "goodness" in their own mind, it does not change the fact that the murder of a human being is intrinsically wrong.

That is my conclusion, anyway, for the time being. However, in all honestly, I must say that I am not entirely certain. It is a question I have been pondering for a while now, and while I lean towards the hypothesis I presented above, my mind is by no means permanently made up. This is a topic I plan to continue researching extensively, in the hope that I might be able to better understand this puzzle our species has been discussing for thousands of years.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with Hamlet, that good and bad are only illusions of our minds? Or do you believe they are inherent properties, existing beyond the human mind? Or do you conceive a totally different answer? Please, I would love to hear everybody's thoughts on this issue, whether you have a strong position, a hesitant idea (like me), several different theories, absolutely no freaking clue, or just want to comment on the issue itself.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Update 3

I'm sorry I haven't posted in the past couple of weeks. I'm pretty far into my second round of chemo. Unfortunately, the drugs have a cumulative effect. I do not just feel crappy after one dose and then start to feel better until the next dose. Each subsequent dose makes me feel even crappier and weaker, so I don't have much energy right now, and what little I do have has been needed for other projects. My best friend is about to submit her undergraduate thesis and I am her editor. I don't know if any of my readers have submitted a thesis of any kind, but they require quite a bit of tedious editing. I am also a writer for my university's undergraduate science journal and am currently putting the finishing touches on a new article. If everything goes as planned, I should be able to return to regular posting in 1.5-2 weeks, although I might find time for a post this weekend. I am still reading everyone's blog and commenting when I feel like I have something to say, so I haven't totally disappeared. Thank you for your patience, and for those who have sent e-mails of concern. :)