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.

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