Just as there are many “Christianities,” there are many forms of “Christian Universalism.”
I seek to follow the faith and practice of the historical Jesus, regardless of how later belief systems and their enforcers may have reinterpreted his ministry to suit their own theological or political notions.
In addition, I just finished Stephen Finlan’s 2008 book, The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition, which describes how Paul’s ministry was also reinterpreted,1 first by his own disciples, and then by a second generation of church leaders, who borrowed his name to lend authority to their far more conservative agendas.
What follows is a brief meditation on Jesus, Paul and universalism.
I believe the core of Jesus’ faith and practice can be expressed in this way:
However, human society does poorly at teaching us how to take conscious ownership of our animal instincts while choosing not to be ruled by them. Human society disguises some instincts as rational, moral justifications for actions and condemns others as irrational or evil. Human society teaches—primarily by osmosis—many distorted approaches to coping with the normal challenges of mortal life.
I believe that Jesus, being intimately in tune with God, did all he could to lift his neighbors above unnecessary personal failings and social constraints, helping them learn to trust this spiritual “inner parent” and to treat each other with unconditional compassion.
Jesus initially applied his version of universalism to those within the Judaic world of his time. He was from Galilee in northern Palestine, child of Aramaic-speaking peasants, not of the “proper” Hebrew-speaking Jews from Judea in the south. His concern was that his own Galilean people not feel excluded from God’s blessing because of their not being part of the Jerusalem-centered Temple cult.
Then he began to include the Samaritans,2 people whose land lay between Galilee and Judea. The Samaritans were mixed-race descendants of those who scattered people who remained in Palestine when the Judean Hebrews were carried into exile in Babylon. They were scorned by Judeans, due both to their mixed heritage and to their revering of Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem as God’s chosen worship site.
Perhaps more to the point, Jesus brought anyone who asked for it into his extended sacred family, regardless of gender, social standing, ethnicity, health or sanity.
Jesus’ universalism is founded in his affirmation that all people, without exception, are welcome members of God’s family—whether or not they recognize this or know how to live as if it were true.
He was raised in the Pharisaic tradition of Judaism, which taught that Israel’s suffering under Roman occupation was punishment because the people had forgotten God’s Law (Torah), and that the people must revere and follow the Law in order to be freed from pagan occupation.3
Paul persecuted the early Jewish Jesus-followers on the grounds that they rejected the scrupulous legalism of the Pharisees in favor of Jesus’ practice of unconditional love. Eventually, though, Paul himself came became a follower of Jesus and embraced Jesus’ teaching.
Paul’s ministry was twofold: to help his fellow Jews replace the Law with Jesus’ gospel of a loving God, and to help non-Jewish people come into the same blessed fold. This also, of course, meant that he needed to teach Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) how to practice unconditional compassion toward each other.
Paul mixed together a range of Jewish and Gentile religious metaphors—not to create a system of theological doctrines, but to capture people’s attention with familiar poetic imagery, handholds for grasping the new faith and practice which Jesus offered.
So, for example, Paul did not advocate the doctrine of so-called substitutionary atonement,4 according to which all people are sinners and helpless to save themselves, unless they embrace the notion that Jesus died to “pay for” our sins.
Instead, Paul taught a sort of participatory atonement. He urged believers to participate in the life and death of Jesus in their own lives, to take on the same risks and suffering that Jesus did, for the sake of becoming able to practice that same unbounded embrace of their fellows.
Unfortunately, church leaders in later generations, who struggled to protect their flocks from escalating persecution by the Roman empire, shifted away from the heart of Paul’s teaching and, in effect, reimposed the socially conservative, hierarchical, patriarchal Pharisaism from which Paul had sought to free people.
Whereas Jesus taught that all people were born children of God, Paul’s universalism is founded in his affirmation that believers become adopted children of God. In other words, Paul challenged the traditional Hebrew notion that the Israelites were hereditary children of God’s covenant with Abraham. Instead, Paul argued, Jews and Gentiles alike can become children of God by believing in and following Jesus the Christ.
Jesus and Paul were each teaching specific people at specific times in specific cultural situations. Whatever they each may have understood inwardly about the Truth, each used familiar religious and cultural imagery to capture the minds and spirits of his audience.
I believe it is always important to remember that we are using poetic metaphor when we seek to describe our experience of interaction with the Divine, the Real. Metaphors evoke conscious notions and subconscious associations, yet they are not objective descriptions of experience, let alone of that which is experienced.
Whether we borrow Jesus’ Galilean Jewish metaphors or Paul’s Greco-Roman mix of Jewish and Gentile metaphors, or else cast all of these aside and seek new poetry for expression, I believe that the core Truth is the same.
All human beings are born as unformed mortals in a social world which both teaches and misleads them.
Even so, there is a Reality which transcends human awareness, concepts and values, and which is always ready to guide us toward as much maturity as we are willing to embrace.
And so it is.
1Finlan describes the current scholarly consensus as follows:
- Pauline letters: 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, Philemon.
- Deutero-Pauline letters, written by Paul and/or his disciples: Colossians, Ephesians.
- Pseudo-Pauline letters, written by a second generation of teachers, who claimed Pauline authority to reestablish the social status quo (hierarchical patriarchy): 1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus.
- Hebrews is not of Pauline origin, but it came to be identified as such by the early church fathers.
3 This description of Pharisaic tradition is borrowed from Mitri Raheb’s excellent 2014 book, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes (76-77).
4 See Finlan’s Problems With Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine (2005).
“Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM. Brother Robert writes:
Out of the deserts of the Middle East comes an ancient Christian tradition. Although it has been overshadowed by the Greek and Latin traditions, it is their equal in dignity and theological importance. It is a Semitic tradition, belonging to those churches that use Syriac as their liturgical language. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ himself.
This icon celebrates the richness of Syriac Christianity. The inscriptions in the upper corners read “Jesus Christ,” and at the bottom, “Christ of the Desert.” The Syriac language has ties to the earth that are deep and rich. It is more inclusive than most European languages. The theological experience of Syriac Christians is different because they have encountered the Gospel in such a language. Theirs is an unhellenized expression — one that is neither Europeanized nor Westernized.
Semitic as it is, the Syriac tradition knows no dichotomy between the mind and heart. The heart is the center of the human person — center of intellect as well as feelings. The body and all of creation longs to be reunited with God.
A constant theme in Syriac literature is homesickness for Paradise, a desire to restore Paradise on earth. Christians pray facing east because Paradise was in the east. This longing was expressed in monastic terms in ancient times, but its implications today reach far beyond monastery walls. With earthy roots, this longing for Paradise involves concrete responses in the realms of politics, ecology, and economics.
“Apostle Paul (494-495 AD),” ceiling mosaic, Archiepiscopal Chapel of St. Andrew (oratory), Ravenna, Italy (from Artwork Depicting St. Paul the Apostle, collected by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson).