Quaker Universalist Conversations

Response to the question: “Are all religions equally valid?”

by James Riemermann

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.

For more by this author/Friend, see http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/author/james-riemermann/


I agree! I can't imagine a universalist arguing that all religions are equally valid. As Riemermann correctly notes, one must compare individual beliefs and elements. I would add that it is also important to attempt to assess the logic and effectiveness of a belief system, hard as this is to do objectively. Some religions help their followers survive and cope with conditions, some don't. Terrorism, for example, may appear to accomplish short-term objectives, but in the long run murdering innocents is wrong and will be so judged by history. Similarly, worshiping a mountain or handling poisonous snakes may seem logical to primitive believers, but such practices must eventually die out as their illogic becomes plainer.
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. It is impossible to generalize about universalism because "universalism" is a general descriptive term, not a 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 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.
This has been a fascinating and needed discussion. Thanks to Adria Guzman, James Riemermann, and all of the contributors to this thread. Through this thread, we are seeing vividly how diverse universalism can be among Friends. As a Christian Universalist, I do hearken back to Robert Barclay's distinction between (1) the conscience, as an important, indeed indispensable, yet fallible human organ, and (2) the Light of Christ, which is divine and eternal. I want to affirm Barclay's distinction here between apprehension of relative truths through the conscience and apprehension of absolute truth through the Light of Christ. The two may be closely related -- a common formulation of 17th century Friends was "the Light in the conscience" -- but they are not the same. As a 21st century Friend, I am more cautious than Friend Barclay in asserting when the absolute truth has been attained. Some of Barclay's own examples -- for example, he implied that Muslims espoused a relative truth when they advocated abstention from alcoholic beverages, whereas the absolute truth would be that moderate consumption of alcohol is acceptable -- are matters that Quakers ourselves have gone back and forth on during our more than three-and-a-half centuries of existence. As Friends, we have to be exceedingly diligent and careful (even playful!) in our use of discernment on our "leadings", individually and corporately, before we can have any thought of claiming any sense of absolute truth. But as wonderfully or irritatingly fractious and diverse as we are as 21st century Friends, let us not give up on the possibility of our uniting on the ground of truth. It is a core Quaker conviction.
Well I'm certainly confused about the whole topic - I guess I need to go away and read more of this blog to understand what it is all about. I guess my problem is that if one is a universalist - which presumably implies that 'all are saved' in the end - I can't really understand how that does not also imply that all religions are of equal validity. Moreover, I can't really understand what the point would be of believing something difficult when you could just as well spend the rest of your life sitting on a beach drinking cocktails. Which probably underlines my lack of understanding about the whole subject.
Joe, your response assumes the sole and overriding purpose of religion is salvation, when in fact many religions don't even assume there is such a thing, much less encourage followers to emphasize personal salvation above all other goals. The conventional, orthodox Christian idea of salvation--going to heaven--plays no role in most religions outside Christianity and Islam, nor is it central for a fair number of liberal Christians. To my mind, and that of a lot of universalists, traditional Christian ideas of salvation are far less important than things like community, compassion, kindness, fulfillment, working toward a better world for people living here and now. Then there's the question of whether the teachings of a religion are actually true or not, in a simple factual sense. Many religions provide wisdom and guidance around these non-salvation-related matters, but it doesn't follow that all do so with equal validity.
Joe, another response occurred to me after I posted my comment. I'm not quite sure what you mean by "believing something difficult"--I don't believe things based on how easy or difficult they are, but based on whether they seem to be true or at least likely. If I don't see a convincing case for a belief, I tend not to adopt it. But perhaps you're speaking of *doing* things that are kind and loving despite the fact that some of them might be difficult. It is true that I am tempted to avoid hard but worthwhile tasks because it's easier to "sit on the beach drinking cocktails." But it has also been my direct experience that I tend to feel much better when I put my energy into building positive connections with the people around me, than when I feel when I act only for my selfish short-term interests. Selfishness is part of how we're put together, true, but so is love and kindness. The more we focus on the latter, the more obvious it becomes that, in a world where we're all connected to one another, selfishness just doesn't make us happy in the long run. There's also something to be said for setting aside some time for sitting on the beach. We ought to enjoy this world we live in.
"Exceptionalism" in religion, that is, the particular construction of the world, its origins and its meanings by particular personalities as well as the assertion of the superiority of one's own construction, is a powerful toxin that has been dripping into the spiritual life of humans since--forever. There is a way to escape this spiritual cul de sac, I suggest. Every personality, although unique in its individuality, is built upon a set of common basic structures and tendencies. This means we will all construct a world that reflects the our uniqueness while binding us in a virtual community of "human beings" built from the same basic building blocks. Perhaps it is and always has been our destiny to grasp that the great reality emerging in Creation is that each creature bears the responsibility and the capacity to construct a relationship with our Divine Source not mediated through a sectarian form. In short, there are just as many valid religious perspectives as there are human souls! It remains for each person to learn how to accept this awful and thrilling invitation. I believe that in the teachings of Jesus as recorded in all the accounts of his ministry this invitation is given to men and women. Humans have always insisted that a particular construction of life and the world (theirs) is the preferred, indeed the sanctioned, construction. This parochial "team spirit", even in Quakerism, seems to me to be a psychological defense against unconscious tendencies to resist such narrow formulation, which are then projected on competing constructions so they can be condemned and even exterminated. Someone (Quaker) asked me recently, "Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?" I thought for a moment about this patch of theological quicksand and then replied, "Yes, I do. And, so am I. And, so are you." It becomes an individual and urgent matter to discover through diligent attention to matters of spiritual life, as you and I conceive it, to learn how to become sons and daughters of God (however you understand this term). This is a kind of universalism that I find meaningful. Alden Josey Centre MM, Delaware
Alden, I like your universalism. It is not quite my own, except in a metaphorical sense where being a child of God means being precious and worthy of love, compassion and respect despite, or perhaps even because of, our flaws. Beyond that, my own sense of universalism also requires a humble and critical element, never forgetting that we and all our institutions need to be fearlessly examined and, where found wanting, reformed. Tradition is no replacement for feeling and thinking. Most importantly, we must question the validity of any religious perspective--especially our own, but also that of others--that inflicts suffering or belittles the diversity of humanity.
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