Quaker Universalist Conversations

Is Universalism heresy?

A discussion of Quaker blogging and Universalism would not be complete without mentioning quakerquaker.org for its Universalist discussion group (see http://www.quakerquaker.org/group/universalism).  Quakerquaker.org deserves not only mention but commendation for being the nexus that connects the Quaker blogosphere in vitally important ways.  I also want to commend Micah Bales for reviewing this important new book by Evangelical leader Rob Bell.—Anthony Manousos

Is Universalism Heresy?

The internet is abuzz with news of Rob Bell‘s forthcoming book, Love Wins, in which it appears that Bell will refute traditional Calvinist teachings on heaven and hell. Based on a recently released Love Winspromotional video for the book, it seems fair to conclude that Bell probably doesn’t believe that God has preordained the damnation of billions of non-Christians. By Calvinist standards, this would make him a universalist – and many big names in neo-Calvinism are ready to cast him into outer darkness.(1)

But before we start talking about what it would mean for Rob Bell to be a universalist, we need to take a step back. Definitions. What is Christian Universalism? Among Quakers, “universalism” is often used to mean a belief in the transcendental equivalence of all religions: “All roads lead to the top of the mountain.” Radical universalism, as is sometimes found among the Liberal branch(2) of the Quaker denominational family, rests on the premise that all religious perspectives are simultaneously valid and yet incomplete. There is a general sense that human beings are innately good, and that all religions present legitimate paths to enlightenment and/or the Divine.


I think it probably is true that universalism is thought of by most Quakers as ". . . a belief in the transcendental equivalence of all religions". But I take a provocatively different position. As a universalist I believe all religions deserve respect and equal protection. But I also have a profound attachment to the scientific logic of cause-effect relationship, verifiability, etc., and I believe some religions are less compatible with rigorous, scientific logic than others. Thus I cannot accord all religions equal respect. The old fundamentalist Christianity that handled poisonous rattlesnakes, for example; the medical beliefs of Jehovah's Witness; the adherence of Roman Catholicism to sexism - - and many others - - make these religions less logical and more at odds with scientifically verified facts than many others, and therefore not quite as respectable. Everyone must be free to choose, and their choices must be protected, but let's face facts! Some religions cling to articles of faith that are sufficiently contradictory to fact that they simply aren't as "valid" as some others. So, in our liberality, let's not go overboard.
As a Buddhist new to Quakers (just four Meetings for Worship under my belt!), I accept that I am coming into a religious organisation that is ‘rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus.’ [A&Q4] However, my understanding is that ‘Quakerism’ (like ‘Buddhism’) is more a way of living rather than a set of beliefs. Moreover, an important part of the practice is to ‘work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals...’ [A&Q6] and to ‘respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern...’ [A&Q17]. Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of God comes not from observation… the Kingdom of God is within you.’ [Luke 17: 20-21] As a Buddhist I can relate to that. I see no reason why Quakers should abandon their Christian heritage, nor would I ever ask anyone to do so just to make non-Christians like me feel more welcome. However, speaking the language of Christ is one thing - it’s quite another to argue that Christianity is the one true religion, or that Jesus is somehow superior to the other historical figures who are revered by people of different faiths. If the RSoF requires me to believe that then I’ll just slope off quietly and never darken the door of my local Meeting House ever again... Whatever we imagine our God to be, It almost certainly isn't. The human experience of divinity is a continuum ranging from the mundane to miraculous and all are of equal importance – it’s only ego that judges these experiences as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘external’ or ‘internal’, ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’, ‘sacred’ or ‘profane’… etc. By walking the Buddha’s ‘Middle Way’ I hope to tread a fine line between asceticism and hedonism while avoiding the pitfalls of holding extreme views (atheist materialism or religious fundamentalism, for example). So what brings me to Quakers? Basically - a need for silence, to meet others along the spiritual road, to experience in different ways the Ultimate Reality of ‘Oneness’ (or God, if you prefer). In friendship, Paul :-)
Hi Paul, Welcome to QUF and to Friends. I became a Quaker in the late 60s and shortly thereafter began sitting zazen at the Zen Center on Mount Baldy. This eventually yielded to Theravadan practice with Rodney Smith and to Zen influenced Diamond Heart work with Jeff Collins. But home has always been Friends Meeting. Fox and many of the early Friends were startlingly awake. On the other hand, they didn't leave a deep contemplative practice tradition, which is what drew me to Buddhism. I don't think it matters whether you deepen Silence via the insight or non-dual practices or both, what matters is that interior silence and the outward action that follows without effort comes more and more to the fore. Some do this via Christ--I spent one year with the crucifixion as my primary meditation object, which lead me to a much deeper appreciation of holding everything pleasant and unpleasant as "empty" or "of God" in forgiveness. Some do it via other traditions--I know some wonderful Friends for whom Ramana Maharshi is their primary teacher--but all of us remain deeply rooted in the faith and practice of Friends. The Buddha said of the triple gem--the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha--the sangha (spiritual friends) was the most important to deepening awakeness. In essence, that's why my Meeting is so important to me. The three wisest people I've had the good fortune of knowing are Quakers and Meeting has been and remains my faith community. Just I can't imagine myself (true and otherwise) without Buddhist practice, so I can't imagine myself w/o Friends and Friends Meeting--deep gratitude for both. It is my experience that evangelical Friends (and/or those that are focused on Quaker renewal in Christ (as on QuakerQuaker)) are mostly centered at the level of personal stories whereas universalist Friends are more centered in the Silence. This is an old split in Friends between inward Silence and outward action and between doctrine and mysticism--Rufous Jones book on Quaker mysticism is a lovely look at this tension, which is itself the resolution. This should resonate with you as a Buddhist, where dropping below the personal story by opening the hand of thought is a familiar skillful means and leads to right view and right action. Still, we are all on the same path in the end and cannot be anywhere but where we are on this path or even know for certain where we are if truth be told--so deep respect to the various forms that speak to Friends. May each of us grow in the ways of the Lord. Kindly, John
In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from "the greatest achievement in life," my ebook on comparative mysticism: (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives. (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now. (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true. Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote "In God we all meet."
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