Quaker Universalist Conversations

Can a Christian be a Universalist? Depends on what you mean by “Universalist”

by Adria Gulizia

Is it  possible for a Christian to be a Universalist? This question made me think about the common assumption that universalism is a monolith, or at least that all forms of universalism are somehow equivalent. However, while I believe that the historical dominance of universalism among Christians demonstrates that the belief that Christ came to save all humankind, even people who can’t or won’t acknowledge him as Lord, is consonant with Christianity, a non-theological universalism that is based on the idea that all religions are equally valid ways of understanding and approaching God is not merely incompatible with Christianity. Worse, it seems to spit in the face of religious experience.

 When I was fourteen, I took a course on Islam. My high school required taking a certain number of religion courses, and, in September 2001, Islam seemed to be an essential religion to be familiar with. As I studied Islam, I began to fall in love with the religion. When we took a field trip to a Muslim community center, I was enchanted with the way that people lived their faith in their modest dress, their dietary choices and daily behavior. What a far cry it was from the way that many of the self-proclaimed Christians I knew saw no conflict between grinding on a stranger on the dance floor on Saturday night and singing in the choir on Sunday morning! I began to contemplate converting to Islam, entranced by the idea of being united to a faith community that seemed so united in its desire to embody faith. I was attracted by a religion that followed a prophet who often proclaimed the importance of mercy and gentleness, who recognized the rightness of sexuality and who was a trailblazer in the Arab world in mandating inheritance rights for girls and forbidding marrying a woman against her will and giving that woman the right to demand a divorce.

 But in the end, I could not become a Muslim because the fact is that there are some elements of the faith that I simply don’t agree with. I don’t mean just that there are some “bad apples,” like violent extremists; I’m talking about universally recognized points of doctrine based in the Qur’an or the hadith. For example, in the face of religious violence, the exemplary Christian is called to martyrdom, while the exemplary Muslim is called to resistance and, if necessary, violence. [See, e.g., Surah 2 (The Cow), verses 190-193, calling on Muslims to fight and slay those who oppress them.] Things like this within Islam just don’t seem to be true reflections of God’s will for mankind.

 To read the rest of this post, go to http://www.quakerquaker.org/profiles/blogs/can-a-christian-be-a


I would like to ask just who it is that sees universalism as the idea that all religions are equally valid. There may be universalists here and there who actually subscribe to this, but overwhelmingly I hear this view of universalism trotted out not by universalists describing themselves, but by those who want to discredit universalism, or at least its most broadly tolerant forms, by making a caricature of it. Obviously there are religious beliefs and practices in the world (I'm not talking about entire religions here) that are false and harmful, others that are true and beneficial, and a great many that are matters of tradition without obvious connections to a deeper morality or truth. Anyone who believes otherwise is just not paying attention. One response to that obvious reality is to assert that one and only one of those religious traditions is perfectly and universally true and right for everyone, and it's just a matter of finding and choosing that one true religion. Those who respond that way, unsurprisingly, tend to come to the conclusion that the one universally true religion is in fact their own. Since we're talking about what's right for the entire human race, I suppose that is a sort of universalism, but it's not my sort. Another response to the reality that religious beliefs and practices are not all true and good, is to assume that all religions have been created by human beings over time and as such have human flaws as well as human virtues. Some may be better, some may be worse, but none are perfectly true or perfectly righteous. From that perspective, respecting and listening to others of different religious perspectives is not just a matter of being politely respectful, but of being humbly and gratefully open to new light. We can learn from one another, and we don't need to give up our hearts or minds to do so. There are a great many believers in the world who think they have found the one true religion, and who furthermore see it as their task to bring the rest of humanity around to their view. Universalism--at least the sort of universalism I can support--offers a different, humbler way.
First, I would have appreciated if whoever posted my piece here had asked for my permission before doing so. Since it's here, I'll respond to James's comments about it. I did not intend to caricature universalism, but to speak to a particular form of universalism that I have seen in Friends meetings and that, frankly, doesn’t make much sense. The fact of the matter is that Universalism is not a religion. It’s not a belief system. Like mysticism, it is an orientation. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say “Universalists believe this” or “Universalists don’t believe that” because there is no such things as a unified universalism. Knowing that, it would be ridiculous for me to make grand pronouncements about the defects, real or imagined, of universalism, and I didn't attempt to do so. It is impossible to generalize about universalism because “universalism” is a general descriptive term, not a religion or belief structure based on particular texts and precepts. There are Christian Universalists, Muslim Universalists, Deist Universalists, and Atheist Universalists who all believe different things. Quakers have historically espoused a form of universalism, informed by the first few verses of John, that I cherish and that led to my convincement. But not all forms of universalism are created equal. The purpose of my post was to say that, while some forms of universalism are compatible with Christianity (that is, one can be a Christian and a universalist at the same time), there is at least one form, more prevalent than you may realize, that is not even compatible with basic logic. That’s all I was saying. There are forms of universalism that are intellectually and emotionally compelling, but this isn’t one of them, as I think you’d agree. If you have clarifying questions or would like to have a real conversation about the relationship between univarsalism and cultural and religious relativism, feel free to email me. Since you’re someone who is interested in humbly receiving new light, you might consider asking the author (me) about her goals before assuming that she is “trotting out” a view of universalism designed to discredit it. It’s quite hurtful, frankly, and not likely to encourage the mutual understanding that universalism is supposed to promote.
Add a Comment