Quaker Universalist Conversations

The universalisms

Readers of the What is ‘religion’? post will remember the citation of Donald K. Swearer’s Harvard Divinity Bulletin article about Wilfred Cantwell Smith. As Swearer writes, Smith’s controversial “personalism” approach to the study of religion upholds the view that

Religious truth does not lie in religious systems, but in persons….

It involves a knower—not simply the human context in which a person knows and an object is known. Knowing the truth… is not a question of subjective versus objective, internal states of mind versus external objects, but an organically whole “act of truth.” (23)

Among other things, Smith’s perspective helps to clarify the sometimes misleading word usage which equates the terms “faith” and “religion.” When someone says “people of other faiths,” we tend to hear “people of other religions,” and we tend to understand that as meaning “religious systems.” Yet Smith insists that real faith is not a belief system but a personal orientation.

For Smith, one’s faith is the heart-deep, experiential way by which one transcends boundaries between self and others. It moves one into a living community of faith whose lack of boundaries may seem suspicious or threatening to institutionalized religious systems.

People who share a faith share, not the outward structure of a religious system, but the inward assurance that a blessèd connection with each other is possible.

By distinguishing the concepts “faith” and “religious system” in this way, we may also begin to sort out the confusion among various uses of the term “universalism.”

Hands of Unity, by Sudeep Mehta

In 2004, Friends from the Nordic countries gathered for a conference on Quaker universalism in Oslo, Norway. Their Open Letter from the Religious Society of Friend, Quakers, in Norway (see Note) offers a critical insight:

Each person has their [sic] own way of understanding and describing universalism. This does not simply refer to abstract definitions, but is a feature of the individual narrative, such as when Friends tell about their ways into membership in the Society or about where they find inspiration.

We need to listen to the individual narratives with devotion and respect. They express the faith experiences of others and may form a common ground for dialogue.

Smith would welcome that phrase “individual narratives.” He would say that faith can only be manifested at the personal level. It is not an abstraction. Nor is it a doctrinal or institutional matter. It is the inward driver of our human interaction with the cosmos.

From this perspective, the most crucial questions to ask are not about definitions or theologies of universalism. They are about doing universalism.


How do you describe to yourself whatever it is that you identify as your personal universalist leadings? How do you describe those leadings to others?

How do you act out those leadings in your daily life? In worship? In witness to others?

What helps you to be true to those leadings? How can other Friends support you, even if they do not share the same understanding of what “universalism” means?

Note: Originally published in Universalist, February 2005, v.73, p.7, and reprinted in Universalism and Religions: Quaker Universalist Reader Number 2 (2007), edited by Patricia A. Williams (pp.44-47).

The latter is a Quaker Universalist Fellowship collection of essays which gives a broad introduction to the differing understandings of universalism. It is available through the QUF online bookstore.

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