Hoping that Universalism Is / Will Be True
In the comments to my previous post, after coming to the defense of universalism, Kevin Corcoran closes a comment with these words:
btw: I am not myself committed to universalism. I hope it’s true, and even pray that it’s true. But I can’t say I believe it’s true.
And a couple of later commentators seemed attracted to that stance. And my sense is that it’s a fairly popular stance — and is becoming increasingly so.
K-Cor has a short piece in the May/June 2005 issue of BOOKS & CULTURE in which he discusses what leads him to this position. I recommend that to those interested in the stance. However, I think you’re going to have to go to an appropriate library, b/c it doesn’t seem to be on-line — or at least not freely available on-line. (B&C seems to provide only the first little bit of it as a teaser here.)
Beyond recommending that article, my purpose here is just to do a little clarrifying of different positions according to which one can be appropriately said to “hope that universalism is true” (or to “hope that universalism will be true” — the reason for this different formulation will be explained below).
Many who say they have such a hope take a non-universalist (though not an anti-universalist) stance. Like K-Cor, they don’t believe that universalism is (or will be) true — though they also don’t believe that it is (or will be) false. This may be b/c, like K-Cor, they think the scriptural evidence is unclear on the matter; to quote from K-Cor’s B&C piece (or at least the draft of it that he sent me):
I have come to think rather that the biblical evidence underdetermines the matter: there is a biblical case to be made for both separationism and universalism, but neither proves itself the clear winner.
Now I am a universalist — largely because I have a different understanding of the biblical evidence according to which universalism does win. (“Clearly?” Well, I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. But toward the beginning of my defense of universalism I do say that universalism strikes me as the fairly clear winner.)
But I think I too can be described as hoping that universalism is / will be true. For I want it to be true, and I’m not certain that it is. Though I read the evidence as supporting universalism, I recognize that the case can be doubted. And the fact that so many thoughtful Christians do doubt it of course gives me pause.
K-Cor writes not only that he hopes that universalism is true, but that he doesn’t believe that it is true. Now, often when we say “I don’t believe that p,” we are at least hinting that we believe that not-p. (This is what linguists call “neg-raising.”) But I don’t take K-Cor to be even hinting at this. He seems to be in a state in which he believes neither that universalism is true nor that it’s false. He doesn’t read the evidence as pushing strongly enough in either direction for him to have a belief about the matter.
So, do I believe that universalism is true? It would make things easy if I just said I do believe it — as I’m tempted to do.
But that’s actually a tough call for me; I’m far from comfortable saying that I do believe it.
“What?! He doesn’t believe it?! How can he call himself a ‘universalist’ then?!”
Well, I’d also be uncomfortable saying I don’t believe it. I have my doubts about how smoothly the notion of belief applies to areas like philosophy, religion, and politics (etc.) — areas where disagreement is not only very commonplace, but also doesn’t seem to be a good sign that anything is wrong. If we disagree about which team won the 1997-98 NBA championship, then something has gone wrong. (In this particular case, something has gone wrong on *your* end: I know!) But if we disagree over whether free will is compatible with determinism, nobody supposes that anyone is being irrational, or that anything particular has gone wrong — though if we are realists (as I am, and as I’ll hope you are), we’ll think that somebody has ended up with a false position about the matter. That’s just how it goes on such topics. Do we each believe our positions in such cases? Well, maybe, but, like I said, I’m not so sure. I’m much more comfortable saying that I accept the philosophical (political, religious, etc.) positions that I take on disputed matters. What’s involved in accepting a position is probably as murky as believing it, but it seems to be a different murky notion. One difference is that acceptance seems a bit more responsive to the will. I’ve looked at the evidence, and it seems to me to be pointing more in one direction than the other, though it’s certainly not a clear call. Now I decide: Shall I accept the position that I think the evidence is pointing toward? Is the evidence strong enough to do that? In accepting that p, I’m, as it were, signing up for the p “team”. Yes, that’s my position. I’m not certain that it’s true, but I think it is, and I’m ready to join the team. I take responsibility for defending the position, explaining why I hold it, etc.
In roughly that way that I take myself generally to accept the positions I take in disputed matters, and in that spirit, I also accept universalism. And K-Cor seems not to. When he writes that he is “not committed to universalism,” that seems to be coming very close to saying that he doesn’t accept the position in the way that I do — and the way I’ve been trying to explicate. I am committed to the position. That doesn’t mean I’m committed to never changing my mind — but it does express an at least somewhat stable position. K-Cor is not in that way committed to either the truth or the falsehood of universalism. As he reads the relevant considerations, they don’t justify taking a stance either way. Like K-Cor, to again quote the draft of his paper, “I’ve got to call ’em as I see ’em,” and I read the evidence differently. (Though I’m focussing here on the biblical evidence, which I do judge to favor universalism, philosophical grounds are also relevant to what I’ve ended up thinking. Since K-Cor is also a philosopher, this is no doubt true of him as well.) And that I see the evidence as being strong enough to make it appropriate to accept universalism seems to be the key difference between a somewhat uncertain universalist such as me, and an “undecided” like K-Cor.
There’s also another position — one that I’m at least open to — that’s interestingly different from the ones described so far, on which one hopes not that universalism is true, but that it will be true. But that gets a bit complicated, so I’ll put it below the fold….
(Here I borrow from the second Appendix to my on-line defense of universalism; see that for a bit more explanation.) Suppose that one is an “Aristotelian” about “future contingents” and as a result believes that there are no truth values to propositions about what someone will or won’t freely do in the future. (A much more thorough explanation of the position would be nice for various purposes, but for the current discussion, I hope that conveys the basic idea well enough.) And suppose that one is also what, in my on-line defense of universalism I call a “fervent exclusivist.” That is, going beyond “exclusivism” (the position that it is only through the saving work of Christ that any can be saved: a position I accept) and “strong exclusivism” (the position that in order to be saved, one must meet some condition to the effect that one personally accepts the salvation Christ makes possible: another position I accept), one holds that to be saved, one’s acceptance must be free (a position I don’t accept, but am attracted to). Now, one may find oneself holding that all humans will be saved is neither true nor false. Not even omniscient God knows whether all humans will be saved. (Omniscience is a matter of knowing all truths. If there is no truth here to be known, God’s “failure” to know here counts against God’s omniscience no more than does God’s “failure” to know that 2+2=86. One who holds the position being described denies what’s known as “comprehensive foreknowledge,” but not omniscience.) On this view, universalism is not now either true or false. What one hopes for is not that universalism is true (it isn’t), but that it will be true.
I think one can hold to some version of this position and still count in a good sense as a universalist. Suppose one holds the just-described position, and holds that, though there’s not now any fact of the matter whether all humans will be saved, it is OVERWHELMINGLY probable that all will be saved. The chances that any will resist God forever are VANISHINGLY small. Then I think one in a good sense can be counted as a universalist. After all, you believe it is overwhelmingly probable that all will be saved, and in contested theological matters, we can’t expect to reach beyond that level of certainty anyway. (Indeed, due to the usual causes — human fallibility on such tough questions — we’re not even going to get up to that level of certainty, nor even close to it, on this or any other tough matter, anyway.) But this does seem to compromise on universalism a bit, because one is not only admitting that one could (of course!) be wrong about the matter in question, but also that according to the position one holds (however firmly or tentatively), there is some (VANISHINGLY small, but still existent) objective chance that not all will be saved. Not even God knows for certain that all will be saved.
But other versions of the position just described can be held by one who hopes that universalism will be true, but who cannot in any good sense be counted as a “universalist.” Here I’m thinking of someone who doesn’t believe it’s highly probable that all will be saved — either because they have a different estimation of the chances, or because they are completely agnostic about what the chances are. I suspect many who are inclined to describe themselves as hoping for the salvation of all humans may well find themselves gravitating toward such a position.
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» Universalism and Gods delay from Recollections
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