Quaker Universalist Conversations

Seeing beyond the Projections

Some recent conversations with Friends revealed that they considered Quaker Universalism to represent anything but Christianity. This is not surprising either psychologically or historically, yet it misses the core premise of universalism: inclusion.

Psychologically, our pattern-seeking brains prefer boundaries and distinctions, and their cognitive shortcut is to divide things into either/or categories. Historically, if I came to Quakerism from outside of the Christian community, or if I have laid down the belief system of that community, I may see Quaker Universalism as the “welcoming other,” something instead of Christianity.

There’s a trick here.

When I look at Christianity—either from the inside or from the outside—I tend to see it as it is usually presented to me by its human advocates: as a system of beliefs and practices, together with the institutions which advocate and defend them. In other words, I see what those advocates project as being “Christianity.” I also see what I project onto “Christianity,” my conscious and visceral reactions to whatever I have experienced in interaction with “Christian” people and institutions.

I’ve used those quotation marks above to signify my dilemma. I see “Christianity” and self-identified “Christian” people, but am I seeing the Truth that those people and I share and sometimes glimpse beyond our projections?


Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus (2015), by James G. Crossley In his new book, Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus, James G. Crossley speaks to the challenges of this dilemma, even within the scholarly tradition of “historical Jesus” research. Crossley writes:

One of the advantages of working with the general “earliest Palestinian tradition” [of the Jesus movement], rather than trying more precisely to reconstruct the historical Jesus, is that it potentially allows for more evidence to assess the ways in which people were part of the complexities and chaos of historical change….

Besides, we do not necessarily have direct access to the words or even deeds of the historical Jesus and working more generally eases some of those more practical problems” (163)

There was great social disruption in 1st century Galilee and Palestine. Family, household and agrarian village life were turned upside down by the socio-economic demands of Herod Antipas’ new Roman cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris. Whether or not Jesus himself spoke out of a sense of peasant revolutionary distress, enough of that sense is reflected in the earliest tradition to show up in the gospels of Mark and the later evangelists.

In particular, Crossley argues that in this tradition the “sinners” Jesus was criticized for sitting at table with were not the lowly outcasts, the riff-raff, but rather “rich people who are powerful, oppressive, abusing justice, and unjustly successful” (99). The Jesus of this tradition does not deny that such people are sinners, but he communes with them in order to bring them back to righteousness.

For Crossley, the great historical irony is that the remedies looked for in this tradition carried within them the seeds of an abusive historical church:

The earliest Palestinian tradition pitted the kingdom of God against Rome, attacked wealth and privilege, supported the poorest members of society, and saw Jesus as an agent of the kingdom in both present and future.

However, the…tradition simultaneously mimicked power and imperialism. It looked to the kingdom of God coming in power and establishing hierarchical rule on earth with Jesus and his followers playing highly elevated roles, including one of judge. Rich and poor would be reversed but the structure of reward was not radically altered….

This imperial theology was also taken up very early, not least by Paul, and, even if it probably would have horrified some of the people responsible for the earliest Palestinian tradition, imperialist theology is not as far removed from Constantine as is often thought. (162)


So many intermingled layers of projection. How to see beyond them?

My suggestion is that universalism is not a belief system but a faith testimony.

I begin with the testimony that all of us are one kindred, regardless of our traditions, our religions, our politics, our behaviors and beliefs.

If that is the case, I first find situations for fellowship with others: self-identified Christians, same-sex marriage opponents, racists, and so on.

Then I find ways for us to sit together in expectant and compassionate waiting, perhaps sharing a meal, while we make ourselves tender and open to seeing what we all share as Truth.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,


Quaker Universalists pick and choose what religions to include in their Universalism – often leaving out Christianity in disgust of their hypocritical upbringing in some form of Christianity that they now reject, along with being allergic to any form of Christianity so labeled. A beautiful aspect of Quakerism is the way, in meeting for worship or inner retirement at any time, my heart-mind grows supple and expands its limits to the infinite, that I may imagine – universes inside, universes outside. Perhaps a purpose of Quakerism, of meeting for worship: to keep one’s heart-mind supple and expandable and inclusive – “to clean the window panes of one’s heart-mind of the grime that accumulates during the week so Godde’s light can shine in and out easier,” as a message sort of went that I shared in meeting for worship once. Perhaps religions are languages Godde speaks (as a message went that I gave in meeting for worship once) or “songs God sings,” as a rabbi friend suggested. I wonder if Quakers who reject Christianity, Christian concepts, Jesus and Christ and Godde language, etc., because of the reasons stated above are: (1) allowing other churches and other Christians to define “Christianity” for them instead of defining it for themselves; and/or, (2) refusing to entertain the idea that, perhaps, they need to do some healing of hurts within themselves. Richard Rohr’s daily e-mailed meditation recently stated that if we don’t “transform our pain, we are almost certain to transmit it.” When Mother Teresa was asked how to work for world peace, she replied, “Go home and love your family.” I wonder…We leave home as young adults and someday realize how wounded we are from our upbringings. Since we cannot seem to talk to or transform our family members who are racist or sexist or homophobic, we go about the world determined we are going to change other persons or people who are just as racist, etc., as our family members. The trick is to do this with love and from a place of peace and love and compassion: ways that Jesus taught and Christ-like persons taught through the centuries in understandable languages.
I see things differently. First, the view of early Christianity presented here is a very recent, modernist, and psychological-historical interpretation that does not have a lot of basis in actual documents or artifacts. It is a contemporary projection that universalists find congenial but, again, I find almost no evidence to support the basics of this view. It strikes me as wishful thinking and storytelling rather than history. And the way those who disagree with this presentation are psychologically analyzed as being in some way deficient strikes me as not really open to an exchange of views. The conflict that is felt in modern Quaker communities, and the reason Christians often feel marginalized (at best) can be comprehended with an analogy. Suppose you join the Rose Society, a group dedicated to the cultivation of roses. Then some people join who want a ‘broader’, ‘more encompassing’, more ‘universal’ view of gardening. After all, what’s wrong with geraniums? Others join with this ‘broader’ perspective. Soon the non-Rose people outnumber those who joined the Rose Society because it was the Rose Society. It becomes difficult to talk about roses. If you bring up roses others immediately brand you as narrow and limited in your understanding. They are actually irritated when you talk about roses or use ‘rose-talk’. I would suggest that something similar happens in some groups dominated by Universalists. It does not necessarily happen, but it can, and apparently does, happen in some instances. Thanks,Jim
There is a difference between open to everyone and suitable to everyone. One of the interesting observations is the substitution of meditation session for the meeting of worship. I think this is very attractive to other faiths in preserving their believes with a Christian identity.
And, recently, the Rose Society got even weirder. One of the central commitments of the Society is that God loves everyone, but now some of the Society are promoting TULIP as the only truth! In that poisonous growth, all humans except for a select few have been predestined to eternal damnation and all infants are born “in essence, evil.” So the Rose Society has come full circle back to the 1640’s when George Fox rejected TULIP (Calvinism). Now a new version of TULIP is being promoted within Friends Meetings. Can’t get much more ironical than that. Editor's Note: TULIP is an acronym for the "Five Points of Calvinism": Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin) Unconditional Election Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement) Irresistible Grace Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)
My current suggestion is that universalism is not a belief system or a faith testimony, but universalism is a recognition of the moral reality of the cosmos seen from within particular traditions. Universalism is expressed in our categories of beliefs and experience from within these traditions.  Depending on our roots, our perspectives differ. That recognition includes: The scope of our care is broad. We are rooted in a tradition of the American Quaker tradition of the British Quaker tradition of the Protestant tradition of the Catholic tradition of the Christian tradition of the Jewish tradition of the middle east tradition of the primordial human tradition.  We are Quakers, Protestants, Catholics, Jews and humans in our discernment of the cosmic reality of our experience. We are open to new understanding of reality. We are aware of the consequential value in all humans and life forms. We are stewards of the surroundings in the earth and beyond. The specific insights into the reality of the cosmos within the Quaker tradition coalesce around specific testimonies shared by many toward practical implementation of the understanding of reality. Those testimonies, in our current discernment and understanding, are: S: Simplicity P: Peace I: Integrity C: Community E: Equality T: Truth E: Environment A: Action S: Stillness Through our lives, we are discerning the practical practices in each of these testimony categories for our lives to reflect our understanding. This is the linkage between faith and practice. We leave home as young adults and someday realize how rooted we are in our rough upbringings, thought categories, and languages. It is in this context of roots and experience that we make our way. Universalism is the perspective within which we live and move within our traditions, pointing out to one another where the bread of life is to be found. Mine is Quaker and Christian and Jewish in a primordial mix contributing to discernment.
Thanks, Friend Jim, for your comment. You speak directly to my concern that some Friends consider “Quaker Universalism to represent anything but Christianity.” Let me say a bit more about my assertion that “universalism is not a belief system but a faith testimony.” I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a credal religion with an orthodox theological belief system. Nonetheless, Jesus has been my spiritual master since my earliest childhood. He is the human face of God for me, a “perfect type” of what God tells us we can ourselves become as human beings. I became a convinced Quaker in my adult years, because I understood that the first Friends had centered Quaker faith and practice in the witness of Jesus, indwelling as a teacher in our hearts. This primitive focus on the reality of Jesus, rather than on the theology about Jesus, speaks to my condition. What troubles me about modern Quakerism…modern religious trends in general…is that we all cling to the imaginary boundaries of “religious identity” which separate us, rather than opening to the horizon of God which embraces us all. Let me suggest an alternative reading of your garden analogy: In a time when the Western world knew only rose gardens, Friends came to understand that it is not the species of flower which makes a garden but the life which breathes within everything in the garden. Over centuries, many Friends discovered that same life breathing in other tended gardens. They struggled with the differences, fought over which was the right sort of garden, and challenged each other over boundaries and definitions of gardening. Yet there remains something true about God’s creation. Human gardens are designed and cultivated by human beings. God’s Garden, though, contains all of life, all of nature, all of humanity. Universalism at its truest is a practice of reverence towards the whole Garden, a sort of reverence which is not disturbed by the different ways that people cultivate their own plots, so long as they remember that their boundaries are merely markers for their individual experiments at gardening.
Reading “Seeing beyond the Projections,” it was nice to view the universalism including faith beyond particular rites and ceremonies involved in secular belief systems. Then, Mike, your comment ending with universalism being in reference to the whole Garden, reinforces personal understandings of our Universe. We each have an individual view of the world lived in. Many appear heavily influenced by those around them in reasons of/for their universe. Some individuals have provided deep comprehension of the interdependence of everything in our cosmos in writings, like Jan C. Smuts, Holism and Evolution, 1926. The Holism referred to is wholes in the universe, greater than the sum of the parts, not part of the theology he learned in Bible studies, early in life. By the way, Smuts was a South African Prime Minister and General, plus British Field Marshal and adversary/friend/admirer of Gandhi, who signed treaties ending WW I and WW II, with experience in creating League of Nations and United Nations. Yet, he was also known for comments made in comparing Europeans and native Africans. Each of us are different in our views. A willingness to listen to one-another and work together, as Imam Jamal Rahman, Pastor Don Mackenzie and Rabi Ted Falcon do in their Interfaith Amigos on stage routine, is a step in the right direction for mankind. Everyone’s own belief is of value in providing a larger view of God’s Whole Garden (or Holism). Your words are very good, Mike, “reverence which is not disturbed by the different ways” alternate individuals, and groups use in cultivating it.
It seems to me the human need to explain and our proclivity for seeing patterns where there are none has led humans to affirm the forms of religion, their rituals, creeds, doctrine, practices, testimonies, etc. to the exclusion of the essence. Universalism is not about having better explanations but discovering the essence that is beyond all the forms. Forms are at best aids. None of them are truth. Not even our own.
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