In my theological circles, universalism is one small step removed from atheism. It is probably more feared than committing adultery, and to be labeled universalist ends one’s career. Decisively. So I again had to hide my shock that my little girl was not only asking questions: now she was flirting with a dangerous heresy. But I didn’t know what to say, so I made a joke about not answering theological questions before 9 A.M. on Sundays, and she let me off the hook.
That’s from the beginning (p. 7, to be exact) of Brian McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That. The narrator, Dan, is a preacher in an evangelical church, and his daughter, a freshman in college, has just expressed an interest in universalism; here’s what she says to him immediately before the above passage: “So since I couldn’t sleep, I went on the internet last night–well, really it was early this morning–and I was reading about universalism. It sounded pretty cool. What do you think about that?”
Note how quickly this preacher’s thoughts go to the career implications of being seen as a universalist. (I find this to be very realistic, as is to be expected, since the author, McLaren, has long been a preacher, and so probably finds it easy to understand a preacher’s reaction here.) And this is his own daughter–with whom he seems to have a close relationship–in his own home. Imagine him counseling a similarly interested college-aged person from his church that he’s not related to–one who might well be asked by her parents how her discussion with the preacher went.
I don’t have a very precise idea of just how much trouble one can get into for being a universalist in just which theological circles. But I have a suspicion that the situation McLaren’s Dan describes (in which being labeled a universalist is a career-ender) is true of a pretty broad section of the Christian church, and that there’s quite a bit more of the church where being a universalist may not be an automatic career ender, but will cause significant trouble for one. And I’d like to briefly discuss this situation.
And this isn’t only an issue for preachers, teachers in Christian schools and colleges, and others who work for Christian institutions. Regular members of churches and Christian communities are also subject to significant pressure here. At least in a lot of churches, if you’re “out of the closet” as a universalist, people aren’t going to want you teaching Sunday school, etc. In some churches, you’ll be viewed as “delinquent in doctrine,” and will be subject to whatever procedures are in place for such delinquents.
And I also don’t have a very precise idea of how many potential universalists are pushed “underground,” by such pressure, though I suspect that a significant amount of them are. (Because of my on-line defense of universalism, several have contacted me and told me as much about themselves.)
In my post of 6/6, I remarked that the stance of hoping that universalism is true while not accepting that it is true seems to be fairly popular, and seems to be gaining in popularity. I suspect that many who take such a stance would be universalists were it not for the various types of pressure of the type we’re discussing, and are adopting this stance at least to some extent because they feel it’s safer to adopt than identifying themselves as universalists. That “many” can be so described is just a suspicion–and a vague one at that!–but again here, quite a few people have told me as much about themselves. (And, in connection with my post of 5/27, I wonder whether some are motivated to accept the suggestion that the universalist is “asking the wrong question” because it is a question they are seeking to avoid due to the pressures in question.)
Now, I want to quickly add that many others adopt the “hopeful” stance for completely different reasons: Many just find the evidence both for and against universalism to be too inconclusive to justify taking a position either way. (See the discussion in my post of 6/6.) They are genuinely up-in-air in their own minds about the matter. And indeed some read the evidence even more differently from me, and find it to be pointing away from universalism, but still see a slight glimmer of hope that they’re wrong, and so are “hoping against hope” that universalism is true, though they honestly doubt (and perhaps strongly doubt) that it is.
And I don’t want to be pressing any individuals on just why they are adopting the hopeful stance. As far as I’m concerned, it’s before 9 A.M. on Sunday, and we should be letting folks off the hook here.
What’s more, I suspect that various individual cases are quite murky; even the individuals themselves may not know to what extent their position is the result of the kinds of pressure we’re discussing. One cause of this murkiness is this. One completely legitimate consideration one can bring to bear on the issue is the position of the church on the issue–both historically and currently, both the whole church and also some part of it that one is attached to. And it may be hard to differentiate the extent to which this consideration is affecting one’s thinking from the extent to which one is being influenced by the desire to avoid trouble. Many people in the situation who are honest with themselves will admit that it’s hard for them to tell how much influence each of these factors, as opposed to the other, is exerting on them.
Supposing a significant number of people are to at least some significant extent influenced by the fear of trouble here, I’m wondering what we should make of that. I don’t know if there’s anything to be done about it, but that situation does appear to be far from ideal.
And I wonder whether those who seek help on this issue from their clergy or teachers at Christian schools and colleges should be told about the pressures their advisors are subject to on this issue–and where it applies, that their advisors might actually lose their jobs if they espoused universalism and word got out. Once when I was attending a quite conservative church, an assistant pastor was assigned to talk to me about my universalism. I know that my perception of our discussion greatly changed when it occurred to me that in a fairly strong sense, he (and, yes, this was a conservative enough church that an assistant pastor had to be a “he”) had to take the anti-universalist stance he was taking. His livelihood and his ability to provide for his family really depended on it. I had been starting to get just a little annoyed by how dismissive he was of reasons I was giving him that he had no answer to. But when I realized the position he was in, I eased up a lot, and realized that he should be let off the hook.
Now, I don’t want to discourage people from discussing the matter with their pastors and their teachers. And I really don’t want to be undermining the credibility of those advisors. But, on the other hand, if such pressure really is present, honesty would seem to require that people be told of that situation, for it surely is relevant to their discussion.
I also wonder what would happen if the “lid” were taken off: If it became OK to be a universalist in the various churches under discussion. And I suspect that others are wondering the same thing, and are resolving to make sure the lid is screwed on tightly.
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» Keith DeRose Universalism Posts from The Prosblogion
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» Underground Universalism from Christian Universalism- The Beautiful Heresy
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