Out of the Closet
From the time I was able to articulate how I felt, I knew I was different. Even when I was young, I could tell that other people weren’t like me. The things they wanted, that they said they felt–none of it resonated with me. It was confusing. I never spoke about it with my parents, although by my demeanor and oblique hints I think they might have suspected. As I got older, I tried to socialize like everyone else, and never spoke about how I felt. Life went on–I went to college, got a job, married, had a daughter. Still, I knew I was different.
In conversations with others and from interactions I’ve had on the Internet, I’ve come to realize that I’m not alone. There are others, many others like me, and I have started to seek them out. I’m no longer willing to pretend in the face of those who oppose us. I’m tired of pretending, of smiling and saying nothing, of subterfuge, of making nice, as if it’s OK for them to act that way, as if it’s not OK for me to be who I am. No longer. I am what I am, and I’m going to admit it, loudly and proudly. If people don’t like it or disagree, I’m going to oppose them openly. I’m coming out of the closet.
I’m a universalist.
Yeah, it’s a different closet than the one you might have been thinking of, but there’s more analogy than you might think. To lay the groundwork for this discussion, let’s start with definitions. Universalism, in the Christian context, is the doctrine that all people will ultimately be “saved”–that is, reconciled to God in the afterlife. To put it more crudely, everyone will eventually make it to Heaven. To nuance it a bit, there is what might be called “hard” universalism–all certainly will be saved–and “soft” universalism, that is, all may be saved, with its attendant corollary that this is a speculation or hope, and that it may be wrong in its assumption.
Traditionally, Christianity has been understood as not being universalist in either of the above senses. It has generally been construed that Christianity teaches that at least some–the “unsaved” in Protestant parlance, or those who die in mortal sin, in Catholic terminology–will not be saved, and will therefore go to Hell, wherein they will suffer for all eternity. How many will be so damned is debated; but the default assumption has been “all non-Christians and a substantial number even of nominal Christians”–thus, the vast majority of humankind. Non-Christians tend to view such a notion as horrendous; and even Christians themselves have not always been at ease with it.
There is, in fact, fairly good evidence that many of the early Church Fathers were in fact universalist, or sympathetic to universalism. Origen–whom we’ve discussed before–is believed to have been one such. Others include St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Isaac of Syria. Other universalists appeared from time to time over the centuries (e.g. John Scotus Eriugena and Julian of Norwich), and after the Reformation, explicitly universalist churches were organized.
As for the so-called mainstream denominations, the teaching on Hell remained on the books, so to speak, but has gradually come to be de-emphasized over the course of the last century and the current one. In the post-World War II era, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote his controversial book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? in which he strongly advocated a form of soft universalism. It is worthwhile to note that despite the fact that many high-profile Catholic theologians have had run-ins with the Vatican since the 80’s (Hans Küng, Matthew Fox and Tissa Balasuriya being prominent examples), neither von Balthasar nor this book have been so condemned. Furthermore, von Balthasar was one of the late Pope John Paul II’s favorite theologians, and John Paul intended to make him a cardinal (he died before this was possible). He has also been cited approvingly by the current pope, Benedict XVI. To me this indicates that while the traditional views are not being officially changed at this time, there is an increased openness to universalistic thought in the Church.
The concept of eternal damnation has always been a problem for me. Interestingly, my father tells me that his grandfather–thus my great-grandfather–was a Primitive Baptist preacher who did not believe in Hell. Thus, it must run in the family. In any case, that was probably one factor among others that made me hesitate to join any church through my teens and early twenties. At the time I finally made the decision to enter the Catholic Church, my understanding of the teaching there was a sort of soft universalism (though as I later learned, there are plenty of Catholics who are firmly opposed to any flavor of universalism). If I had felt that not to have been even an option, I don’t think I’d have joined.
Generally, I’ve tended to adopt a soft-universalist perspective–that is, Hell is real and exists and is a real possibility; but God will offer people multiple chances in this life, and perhaps at the moment of death, so that we may hope (but not know) that “all men be saved”. I think, in retrospect this has been partly for the consumption of others–I didn’t want to sound like a heretic–and partly for myself, to convince myself that I wasn’t bucking official theology. As I’ve grown older, I’ve had less problem in bucking the official doctrine in a more explicit way; and I’ve also thought more about soft universalism.
It’s really a cop-out to say, “I can’t know that all will be saved, but I hope they will.” That’s true enough; but I can’t know that any will be saved; I can’t know that there’s life after death at all; I can’t even know that there’s a God. There’s a reason that in referring to such things we speak of faith. The question is, what is my faith? Is it in a God who maybe or hopefully saves all; or that probably or definitely saves all? A discussion thread over at Vox Nova really made me think about his matter.
Consider what is actually entailed by the concept of Hell in general. No matter how you parse it, ultimately the idea is that a place or state of eternal and infinite punishment for the sins of the damned–which, since the damned are finite humans, must themselves be finite. Now consider soft universalism. In saying that hopefully everyone will be saved from Hell, it is important to note something that almost always gets elided in these discussions: soft universalism does not take issue with the justice or appropriateness of agonizing eternal punishment for finite human sins! Rather, it more or less takes a posture of, “Well, God is so nice that He’ll take every possible step to avoid anyone actually going there!”
If you think about it, this reasoning is illogical, depraved, insane, or (most likely) ill-thought out. It’s like that the state will build a penitentiary system, set up a judiciary, and hire police but hope that none of them will ever be needed. Alternately, it would be like a parent taking a metal-studded belt, hanging it on the doorknob, and telling his child that if the child does wrong, he or she deserves to be beaten with the belt until blood is drawn–but then saying, “Well, Sweetie, I hope I’ll never have to use it–but even if you earn such punishment, I might be merciful and not beat you even though you deserve it!” What would we think of such a state? What would we think of such a parent?
Therefore, I’ve decided to just “out” myself and say that I’m a full-bore, hard universalist. The specific theological details of that I’ll save for the future; right now I’m just stating where I’m coming from. Sure, I still don’t know that I’m right; but I don’t know that I’m right about the afterlife or religion in general. Certainly, being universalist doesn’t make me any less aware of my sins; and the belief in ultimate reconciliation to God doesn’t mean I don’t hold the possibility–in fact, the likelihood–of some kind of post-mortem suffering or purification. Such a Purgatory–because that’s basically what it is–though not infinite or permanent, might still be very long and unpleasant. In any case, I hope to have as little of it as possible, but I don’t doubt that I’ll get what is needed for my purification.
Finally, in returning to the first paragraph, I’d point out that in many churches and religious circles there is tragically still much opposition–even fierce opposition–to the very possibility of universal salvation. Many think such an idea immoral or even evil. Thus those who want to be members in good standing and who nevertheless hold universalist views often do not say what they really think. It can be a theological closet, and coming out of it can be difficult, painful, or in some cases dangerous to one’s career, if one works in a church. Hopefully as time continues and we come to a greater grasp of the mercy and love of God, such a theological closet will gradually recede into the past and we will no longer be spreading the sadistic tales of what awaits sinners, rather than tales of the grace and lovingkindness of God.
Part of the series Legends of the Fall.
Posted on 28/10/2012, in Christianity, religion, theology and tagged afterlife, atonement, Christianity, coming out, coming out of the closet, heaven, Hell, religion, salvation, theology, universalism. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.