Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Critique of Universalism

This thought occurred to me one day last summer when I was working at camp, strolling through the woods carrying my guitar.  I jotted it down then but never came back to finish writing it.  Finally setting about that task...
The logic of this post is assuming a traditional “heaven-hell” schema of an afterlife (in which I would also include, for my Catholic brethren, a schema which included “purgatory”).  I take it as part of most such theologies that the afterlife is (at least theologically) considered more significant than this life because of its eternal nature (as opposed to the changing, temporal nature of this life).  Such assumptions may not hold in every version of universalism, so this critique is not meant to be definitive by any means.
The critique can be phrased in a question playing on an old saying:  If all roads lead to Rome, then what does it matter which road you take?  Now, to some extent this is exactly the point of universalism- it doesn’t matter which road we take!  But I want to press the logic of that a bit farther.  If it truly doesn’t matter which road we take, then we can attach no objective value to any particular road.  Which then leads to some particularly startling conclusions:  it is no better to be a child abuser than a devout monk, for instance, given this understanding of universalism.  At the end of the day, both will end up in the same place, sharing the same heavenly experience despite having lived radically different lives.
In one sense, this implies significant equality.  Death, which we must all experience, becomes the great equalizer, after which all of our experiences will become the same.  On the other hand, such great equality in effect negates the value of this life.  It turns into a weirdly fatalistic and potentially hedonistic kind of gnosticism which holds the “eternal” life as the most significant and this life as a mere stopping point whose meaning and significance is little to none (so we might as well get as much enjoyment out of it as we can in whatever way we see fit).
The resource to defend against this critique is to limit the scope of universalism, saying something like “all those who make an effort at moral living” or, slightly more narrowly, “all those who make an effort at religious faith” will end up in heaven.  This quasi-universalism (not truly universalism anymore, but something that might be considered an “inclusivism”) is no longer subject to the critique that I have raised, but it might be subject to other critiques.  In particular, it might be plagued by the problem of defining a “threshold”- what qualifies as a worthwhile effort at moral living?  What qualifies as an effort at religious faith?  Once we begin asking those questions we begin very quickly to end up back in the same kinds of arguments which motivated the movement to universalism to begin with- the desire to avoid seemingly arbitrary excluding boundaries.
All this to say, the issue of determining the bounds of salvation is a sticky one no matter what approach you take or position you hold.  

1 comment:

  1. Alex,
    I think that a universalist would argue that this critique only holds on the assumption that this life is merely a stepping stone to the next, where actions in this life only have meaning and significance insofar as they impact our eternal destination. A universalist could maintain that a life of faithful obedience and love is objectively superior to one of sin and evil even if both lives lead a person to heaven, because this world has intrinsic value. Jesus doesn't teach us to pray 'give us a ticket to heaven' but 'may your kingdom come on earth.' To use the road metaphor: the destination is the most important thing, but the route taken can still be significant.


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