Quaker Universalist Conversations

A typology of universalisms

“Quaker Universalism in a World Religious Setting,” by Paul Alan Laughlin, in Universalism & Religions: Quaker Universalist Reader Number 2 (2007)

Reprinted from Universalist Friends: The Journal of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, Number 42 Spring/Summer (2005)

Laughlin’s three-fold typology

Paul Alan Laughlin describes himself in this 2005 essay as “a Christian mystic long at odds with all types of orthodoxy.” (9) He writes to address what he sees as a frequent though unintentional ambiguity in Quaker use of the term universalism.

In the first half of this essay, he proposes that the word has three distinct senses in the context of world religions.

Type 1: A Doctrine About Salvation

Laughlin says the original meaning of the seventeenth-century English word universalism was a theological or doctrinal one. It “was framed in Christian terms and denoted the conviction that everyone will obtain salvation and redemption from sin and damnation eventually.” (10)

The idea behind this salvation-oriented doctrine is much older than that…. Indeed, some see this sort of universalism in the writings of Paul…. The same idea appears nearly two centuries later in the notion of apokatastasis (Greek, restitution) promoted by Egyptian Christian theologian Origen and others. That was their term for their doctrine…that eventually all sentient beings would be redeemed, including even lost souls and devils.

This was the sense upon which the Universalist movement was founded in England in the mid-eighteenth century, most of whose American followers merged some two centuries later with the Unitarians.

Universalism of this sort is found not only in Christianity, but also in many of the world’s religions, and it is always rooted in the idea of divine (or quasi-divine) grace, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Pure Land Buddhism, for example,…[counsels] its adherents to trust in an eternal, celestial Buddha named Amida, whose compassion will carry them when they die to paradise in the western sky where he abides…. [Unlike evangelical Christian universalism,] Pure Land Buddhists tend to believe that the compassion of Amida is infinite, and therefore all people—including non-Buddhists and even the non-religious—will eventually be received into his celestial abode. (11)

Type 2: A Belief About Spirituality

The distinction of this second type of universalism is the belief that everyone shares the same capability, though not the same certainty, of attaining the highest level of spiritual awareness.

Laughlin writes:

[This] sort of universalism is much more common in religions (mostly Eastern) that teach that all human beings have an innate, inherent, and indelible spiritual essence that serves as their true identity and that differs from the Christian soul in that it is non-personal and truly eternal (rather than merely immortal into the future).

In Hinduism, for example, everyone…has atman (a kind of spiritual energy-essence) as his or her most genuine inner identity or self…. This essential identity is one’s true self, concealed only by our ego-bound ignorance. Because atman is eternal, its return to the Source…is inevitable.

Buddhism complicated the picture with the philosophy of Nagarjuna in the second century C.E. and its identification of the human spiritual essence as anatman or the “no-self” (and Ultimate Reality as Shunyata, “Emptiness”)….

[Both] Hinduism and Buddhism assume reincarnation or spiritual transmigration as well as the importance of karma (deeds and their inevitable spiritual consequences) in that process. (12-13)

Type 3: An Attitude About Religions

Laughlin’s third approach to universalism is more a particular opinion about the various religions than a doctrine in its own right. He describes a spectrum ranging from exclusivism at one end to relativism at the other.

“At issue,” Laughlin writes, “is whether any religious Truth or truths exist, and if so, where and how It or they are to be found. The range of views could hardly be greater.”

  • Exclusivism, at one extreme, says, “There is only one religious truth, true religion, or truth about religion—mine…. The exclusivist attitude is typical of fundamentalists, both Christian and Islamic. And oddly enough, although it is typical of monotheistic faiths, doctrinaire atheists also fall into this extreme category because of their certainty that religion is groundless.”
  • Inclusivism is “the notion that while one (mine!) is the purest, truest, or only really effectual religion, others may contain some truth and perhaps even some useful tidbits of spiritual belief and practice.”
  • Pluralism says that “some, many, or even most religions contain religious truth and are vehicles to the ultimate spiritual reward.”
  • Universalism “as a religious attitude…declares all religions to be well-founded and valid.”
  • Relativism “holds that within or behind any religion is to be found not truth, but only opinion. This, of course, is the stance of skeptics and cynics.” (15)

World Religious Icons

Laughlin’s view of Universalism in Quakerism

Readers of this blog may wish to examine the second half of Laughlin’s essay in detail, to gauge the effectiveness of his respectful outsider’s description of Quaker universalism(s). He writes that

the clear impression one gets from reading Quaker universalists is that their understanding of universalism reflects primarily and sometimes exclusively the second. They are universalists because they believe all people everywhere can attain the most profound spiritual experience. (15)

Even so, Laughlin sees two interesting alternatives among Quakers. Both, he says, consider “the Light” to be a power for moral transformation.

One camp holds that people possess an Inner Light either as natural part of human nature (non-theistic view) or a supernatural addition to it (a theistic view). These—and especially the non-theists—are the Quakers inclined to equate their Light with [something like] the Hindu atman (inner spiritual energy-essence).

The other camp prefers to think about the Inner Light in a non-metaphysical and non-substantialist (and thus a more existentialist or Zen) way—not as a component that people have by nature or as a supernatural gift, but more as a capacity that everyone possesses…. (15)

Part of the question for folks of the latter sort is whether or not potential spiritual awareness will necessarily be fully realized by all people. How does one consider

the idea that the Hitlers, Stalins, bin Ladens, child molesters, and serial murderers of the world either did or inevitably will realize their spiritual potential in a single lifetime…. The possibility that such dim Lights might repeatedly return to work off their enormous karmic debt and realize the brightness of their divine Inner Luminescence would seem to be both just and palatable. (16)

Finally, Laughlin wonders whether Quakers would be comfortable with the third sense of the term universalism, that is, that all religions have at their core the experience of the Inner Light. This is a common claim in Quaker universalist literature, he says, though some “Quaker universalist writers…prove a bit more circumspect.” (17)

He also voices his own reservations as a scholar of the world’s religions.

Are Shinto, Baha’i, and Confucianism major world religions…? Is the Inner Light at their core, despite the fact that they have never exhibited any sense of a mystical dynamic…? Is the Inner Light the heart of Islam, a faith tradition that teaches no such thing? Its Qur’an, in fact, claims to have been dictated by an external angel rather than inspired by Muhammad’s Inner Light; and it aims to instill submission (the meaning of the Arabic word islam) to a profoundly other and outer God. On top of that, most Muslims treat the mystical Sufi minority of their faith, who come closer than any other adherents of Islam to experiencing and expressing an Inner Light, as deviants and heretics….

I truly doubt that many [Quaker universalists] would embrace universalism as an attitude toward religions, for they would find themselves having to reconcile the Inner Light with animal and human sacrifices, Satanic worship, necromancy, ritual prostitution, jihad, hara-kiri, and other religious beliefs and practices that seem to have no spiritual illumination behind them.

In the face of such phenomena, pluralism would seem closer to the genuinely universalist spirit of Quakerism: that is, the affirmation that some, many, or maybe even most (but not all) of the world’s religions are grounded in the Light, particularly those with a clear mystical inclination. (17-18)

What canst thou say?


A Friend offers the following email comment: “The Quaker attitude toward universalism is non-judgmental, I posit. We do not know what is beyond our experience and do not profess prophesy. The light is a metaphor for that part of us which shines through (the dark). It is not something of which we boast nor do we deny others’ experience. Quiet humility allows the light to shine through the noisy pride of the world.”
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