How can the Society of Friends be both authentically Christian and meaningfully universalist? I am not sure of the answer, beyond the conviction that this is the right question to be grappling with.
—Chuck Fager, “Robert Barclay, Theologian of Quaker Universalism,”
Universalism and Religions: QU Reader # 2 (2007, pp. 91-94),
[reprinted from Universalist Friends, Fall 1985, v.5, p.10]
In my early 20s I struggled between the universalism my parents taught me as followers of Jesus and the exclusionary teachings of conventional Christianity. I had come to know too many Christ-like non-Christians in college to be able to hold to that orthodoxy.
Four decades later, I welcome Chuck Fager’s reminder to us of how early Friends—who knew themselves as Christians—understood their own universalism.
Fager takes us into the heart of Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678). He writes:
Barclay’s universalism shows up primarily in his discussion of what he calls “universal redemption” in Propositions five and Six of the Apology. In these he attempts to show how early Friends believed people can overcome their alienation from God; that is, how they can be saved or redeemed.
Barclay’s answer is a paradox. As a Christian, he believes firmly that it was only through the life and death of Jesus Christ that salvation has been made possible for all people; yet, as a universalist, he also insists that one need not know of or believe in Jesus in order to partake of this salvation. (92)
Barclay argues that, thanks to Christ, the Light is within all people.
This “Light” is not a pantheistic bit of God, but rather the effect in every person of this universal redemption, namely the capacity to respond to the grace of God working in the heart of the individual. (92)
The key is not outward profession of the name of Christ but inward experience of what it signifies. Barclay himself writes:
Those who merely know the name without any real experience of its meaning are not saved by it. But those who know the meaning and have experienced his power can be saved without knowing his name.
The universalism described by Barclay is Type 1 in Paul Alan Laughlin’s typology : 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.”
In my private faith and practice, I am reconciled to the historical reality that I am a Friend of Jesus and that the Judeo-Christian sacred story is my “native language.” I can embrace the wholeness of my own family’s sacred heritage without needing others to do the same…or fearing for them if they do not.
For me, though, this not literally Barclay’s “Type 1” salvation theology, still ultimately dependent upon the historical action of an “incarnated Christ.” It is, instead, an inward awareness which assures me of the action of what my native language calls the “indwelling Christ” in every person.
And so it is.