Defining Terms and a Recap
Update: I have edited this post and the following posts in this series slightly to make the taxonomy of various forms of universalism clearer.
First, to be clear in the following, we’re going to have to define some things in a fairly consistent way, since there are some subtleties involved.
“Universalism”, at least in a Christian context, is the belief that all humans will eventually be saved. Details about how this happens and intermediate purification vary, but for what we’re doing here, the given definition is sufficient.
“Hard universalism” is really the source of the problem, since it’s ambiguous. In the strictest sense, it means the belief that all humans will definitely be saved. Alternately, a hard universalism could say he knows all will be saved. The probability of universal salvation is 1 (same as 100%, for non-math people). I’m going to call this strict definition of hard universalism–well, “hard universalism”, and abbreviate it HU.
“Soft universalism” (SU) is in fact a rather soft and squishy term. It means the hope that all will be saved while not maintaining that such universalism is certain or can be known. This is vague, however–does it mean one hopes with no opinion as to the hope’s likelihood of being realized? In short, does it mean one must remain agnostic? Or may one speculate on the odds? From some discussions I’ve had, it seems that many who hold SU think it’s theologically or even morally wrong to say anything beyond “I hope all will be saved,” without speculating beyond that. There’s really only one theological justification for such a view that I can think of, and I’ll deal with it in the next post. Meanwhile, I think one can say “I hope, rather than know, that all will be saved, and the likelihood of it is X.”
Now for reasons I’ve discussed in the earlier posts, I don’t think the salvation of all (or any, or none) can be known with 100% accuracy. Theology aside, there are simple epistemological reasons for this–who can claim to know what God does? Thus, any belief in universalism is a belief in a possibility, not a fact. However, people may differ over what they consider the possibility–or probability, statistically speaking–to be. It has to be above 0 (else there’d be no probability of it at all) and below 1 (otherwise it would be certain, which seems impossible to ascertain). Different people may set low odds–say, 0.01–or high odds–e.g. 0.99. Even if one sets odds at 0.99999999999, one is short of absolute certainty, and thus not HU properly so-called; however, at that level, one is pretty darn sure.
This “pretty sure” belief in universal salvation I’m going to call “optimistic universalism”, or OU. Obviously, it isn’t clearly distinct from SU. However, there is a difference in effect, if not in principle. It’s different to say, “A giant asteroid may hit the Earth tomorrow,” and “The sun will rise tomorrow.” Both statements are true, but they obviously differ enormously in likelihood, and they affect the beliefs we have about the cosmos and the way we order our lives in different ways.
Thus, while OU as I define it is not analytically different from SU, and both are distinct from HU, I think it is useful and defensible to speak of these options as three separate categories.
To be perfectly clear, when I said previously and less accurately that I embrace hard universalism, I meant what I’m now calling OU:
1. I hope (but cannot know with certainty) that all will be saved.
2. I think that beyond mere hope, it is permissible to entertain a likelihood of universal salvation.
3. I believe, based on my understanding of the Christian religion and the nature of God as I understand it, that this likelihood is high, 99% +, though I re-emphasize that I do not know this with certainty.
In short, my belief is <i>analytically</i> distinct from HU and is actually a form of SU; but <i>functionally</i> it is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from HU.
Now let’s look at these points from the perspective of Catholic theology (given that I’m Catholic myself, and this discussion, while not exclusively directed to Catholic teaching, presupposes a Catholic framework).
A. For anyone who accepts the validity of the Second Vatican Council and the Popes and bishops since then, point 1–that one may hope for the salvation of all–cannot be held to be heretical. If one insists on this, then at least one Pope, many bishops, and (arguably) much of the teaching of Vatican II is heretical; and this, from a Catholic perspective, is not possible. I’ll save specific discussions of infallibility for a future date and probably a different series.
B. There seems to me no good reason to reject point 2 above on doctrinal grounds, or to declare it heretical. The only argument I can think of (which, again, I’ll deal with next) is that it’s morally imprudent; but that’s very much different from saying it’s heretical or impermissible.
C. So, given that from a Vatican II perspective 1 can’t be heretical; and given that there seems no reason for arguing that 2 is heretical; then the permissiblity, and importantly, the non-heretical nature, of 3 seems unassailable.
Therefore, it seems that OU as I’ve defined it is not–and cannot be–heretical or disallowed by current Catholic teaching. So now, onward!
Part of the series Legends of the Fall.
Posted on 06/11/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged afterlife, Catholicism, Christianity, damnation, heaven, Hell, salvation, theodicy, theology, universalism. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.