Monday, April 25, 2011

Can hope be wrong? On the new universalism

This ain't your Grandma's universalism (if your Grandma was, say, a Unitarian). The (relatively) old universalism was a liberal universalism of "many-roads-to-God-who-is-a-big-cuddly-Grandpa" (or, more recently, Grandma). Such a universalism was generally embarrassed by Christian particularity and any claims to the divinity of Christ. Instead, Jesus was a kindly teacher like so many others pointing us all to that great kumbaya-sing-along in the the "beyond."

In contrast, the "new" universalism is an evangelical universalism, a Christocentric universalism. If all will be saved, they will be saved in Christ, because of the work of Christ as the Incarnate God who has triumphed over the power of sin and death (the new universalist Christ is a victor, not a redeemer).

The question, then, is just what compels one to be an evangelical universalist? Some resort to prooftexting, operating with a naive, selective reading of Scripture. I'm going to do the evangelical universalist a favor and ignore such a strategy, only because I think it can be so easily refuted. (Many of these evangelical universalists would pounce on such selective prooftexting in other contexts.)

No, the motivation for evangelical universalism is not really a close reading of the Bible's claims about eternity. Instead, it seems that the macro-motivation for evangelical universalism is less a text and more a hermeneutic, a kind of "sensibility" about the very nature of God as "love" (which includes its own implicit sensibility about the nature of love). Two phrases you will often hear from evangelical universalists involve hope and our imagination. (For a sample combination of this constellation of concerns, see Lauren Winner's essay on Rob Bell in yesterday's New York Times Book Review.) The concern is often formulated something like this:
1) "I can't imagine" that a God of love would condemn Gandhi to hell. (Always Gandhi. Why Gandhi? As Ross Douthat asks, can you insert Tony Soprano here? Doesn't the evangelical universalist case of Gandhi imply a kind of salvation by works? But I digress...) Or, as Winner puts it, evangelical universalists "can't imagine their secular friends aren't going to heaven."

2) "I don't know if all will be saved but I hope this will be true." I'm firmly committed to the particularity of Christ, the evangelical universalist will emphasize. I just hope that God's salvation is not so particular that he only saves some. And it is precisely God's love and mercy that make me hope in this way.
The question then is: are these hopes and imaginings sufficiently warranted to overturn the received, orthodox doctrines concerning final judgment and eternal damnation? Are these sufficient to overturn the narrative thrust of Scripture and the clearer reading of biblical passages that suggest otherwise. (Let's stop making this just about passages that mention "hell;" at issue here are all passages that discuss judgment.) Are these hopes and imaginings sufficient for me to set aside centuries of the church's theological reflection on these matters? Is my chronological snobbery warranted? Just how do I think my hopes and imaginings are somehow more faithful and merciful and just than the generations upon generations of my forebears in the Christian faith? (I'll confess to being a kind of theological Burkean: it's very hard for me to imagine that I am smarter or better than Augustine or John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards. I'm not generally given to whiggish theology.)

Let's attend to these two specific sorts of claims. I would note that both of these intuitions are fundamentally anthropocentric strategies--outcomes of what Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age) calls "the anthropocentric turn" in modernity. A couple of thoughts:

1) The "I-can't-imagine" strategy is fundamentally Feuerbachian: it is a hermeneutic of projection which begins from what I can conceive and then projects "upwards," as it were, to a conception of God. While this "imagining" might have absorbed some biblical themes of love and mercy, this absorption seems selective. More importantly, the "I-can't-imagine" argument seems inattentive to how much my imagination is shaped and limited by all kinds of cultural factors and sensibilities--including how I "imagine" the nature of love, etc. The "I-can't-imagine" argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of "my" imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards' radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)

2) The "at-least-I-hope" strategy might seem less problematic. Doesn't it just name what all of us secretly desire? Indeed, wouldn't we be quite inhuman if we didn't hope in this way? (Then you get Winner's obnoxious suggestion that any of those who continue to affirm divine judgment are really trying to "guard heaven's gate," taking a certain delight in exclusion, as if they saw heaven as a country club. I won't dignify that with a response.)

But whence this hope? Can our hopes ever be wrong? Let's try an analogous example: I love my wife dearly. She is the best thing that ever happened to me, and our marriage has been an incredible means of grace in my life. I can't imagine life without her; indeed, I don't want to imagine life without her. And I want to hope that we will share this intimacy as a husband and wife forever.

But then I run into this claim from Jesus: "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven" (Matt. 22:30). Should I nonetheless hope that marriage endures in eternity? Should I profess that I can't know this (since Scripture seems to suggest otherwise), but nonetheless claim that somehow hoping it might be true is still faithful? Or should I submit even my hopes to discipline by the authority of Scripture?

The new universalism is not the old universalism. Fair enough. But those of us who reject even the new universalism aren't gleeful about it. We might even wish it were otherwise. But we also recognize that even our wishes, hopes, and desires need discipline.