Saturday, May 07, 2011

Once (and only once) more on the "new universalism"

[I will no doubt regret this, but a 5-hour layover in Atlanta will make one do all kinds of regrettable things.]

So, I guess there's been a little buzz about my earlier post on the so-called "new universalism." Some people clearly have a lot of time on their hands. Otherwise, why on earth would someone take the time to respond to some blog post that is so clearly malicious, stupid, arrogant, misguided, and irresponsible? Wouldn't the thing to do in such a situation be to just ignore it? Nonetheless, my off-the-cuff remarks have solicited first a 1200 word response; and then, from the master of overkill, a 3200 word response (Dude: don't you have a dissertation to write?); and now a first installment of 1600 words in what promises to be a two-part response. I'm flattered?

A. So, against my better judgment, let me make a few observations:

1. Um, it's a blog post people. I wrote it in 20 minutes one morning after reading another piece of dreck by Lauren Winner. If it's stupid, why comment on it? (There is a huge laughable irony about charges of ressentiment in the ballpark here--you can work that out for yourself.)

2. I really don't have a dog in this fight. "Universalism"--or any sort of crusade against universalism--is simply not on my radar. This ain't my issue. So I'm sure as hell not going to spend much time carrying on some ongoing conversation about it. I made a comment about an essay in the NYT which was itself describing a "zeitgeist" in evangelicalism--and repeated phrases and positions I've heard from real, live people. I made some comments about that zeitgeist. If you think I'm wrong, you're welcome to make that case. I am not obligated to respond to you, and so you're even free to tell yourself that my non-response means that I've been proven wrong. Go crazy. Just note that there are other interpretations of such silence that might be different than what you're telling yourself. I can live with people thinking I'm wrong, so the dynamics of shame that functions in the blogosphere doesn't really bother me. I've got other fish to fry.

3. I must have missed the memo about the requirements for writing a blog post. Apparently, according to the self-appointed police force of the theological blogosphere, one is not allowed to comment on a topic unless one has first completed a dissertation in the field. Who decided only specialists could speak? Is there a reading list everyone's supposed to have mastered before they can comment on an issue? Is it hidden in the catacombs at Multnomah?

4. It was not a blog post on Rob Bell, or universalism in general, or universalism across the spectrum of Christian history. It was a riff on an essay by Lauren Winner from which the phrases "I can't imagine" and "I can hope" are lifted. I do think these are common refrains from folks who extol something like this position but also haven't read all of the books that I'm at fault for not having mastered.

B. So what was I on about in that original post? I'm afraid none of the responses have really given me pause about my concerns. And as I said, I'm not going to engage in some point-by-point refutation. If you think that means I don't have an argument or a defense, go crazy: you're welcome to do that. However, let me make just a couple of clarifications:

1. I'm afraid I still think the motivation question is a legitimate one (though obviously not the only one--do I seriously have to state that? Apparently.). In this regard, I just take myself to be following some of Charles Taylor's methodology in A Secular Age. Indeed, for those who really care about this issue, I think A Secular Age, pp. 650ff. is important reading: there Taylor examines the shift in plausibility conditions that engendered the "decline in Hell." I take my point to be a sort of off-handed cousin of that analysis.

The question would just be something like this: if there is such a "clear" "biblical" logic that impels us toward universalism, why did the majority of Christendom seem to miss this for 1500-1800 years? There are multiple accounts of that. Taylor's account is one of motivations: as he argues, something changes in "modern Christian consciousness" that makes us want something else to be the case, thus priming us to "see" it there all along. That might not be an adequate account, but it is certainly a legitimate aspect of an account. And if you don't think this is really what's at work for all sorts of folks who don't read theology, well...then you haven't read Lauren Winner's essay.

But actually the better parallel from Taylor is found elsewhere in A Secular Age, where Taylor considers "conversions" to unbelief (pp. 362-366). I've summarized this chapter here, but let me reproduce one snippet:

This section is a fascinating little psychoanalysis of a convert—but of one (or a culture) that has converted from belief to unbelief. The upshot is a hermeneutics of suspicion: if someone tells you that they’ve converted to unbelief because of science, don’t believe them. Because what’s usually captured them is not scientific evidence per se, but the formof science: “Even where the conclusions of science seem to be doing the work of conversion, it is very often not the detailed findings so much as the form” (362). Indeed, “the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findngs as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality” (365). But you can also understand how, on the retelling, the convert to unbelief will want to give the impression that it was the scientific evidence that was doing the work (365b). Converts to unbelief always tell subtraction stories.

And the belief that they’ve converted from has usually been an immature, Sunday-Schoolish faith that could be easily toppled. So while such converts to unbelief tell themselves stories about “growing up” and “facing reality”—and thus paint belief as essentially immature and childish—what it betrays is the simplistic shape of the faith they’ve abandoned. “[I]f our faith has remained at the stage of the immature images, then the story that materialism equals maturity can seem plausible” (365). But in fact their conversion to unbelief was also a conversion to a new faith: “faith in science’s ability” (366).

The point is that people "convert" to positions not on the basis of reasons but on the basis of a certain moral stance associated with the position. It seems to me there's something similar at work in what I'll call "zeitgeist-universalism."

2. What I was probably also reacting to in my original blog post was the general tenor of moral superiority that so often (not always) accompanies evangelical universalists. I'm really tired of all the construals of universalism that basically make it seem that only moral monsters could not be universalists. So was Augustine stupid? Or malicious? Or both?

3. Finally, with respect to my basic claim that hope can be wrong: Surely no one would suggest that hope gets some kind of free pass--as if a hope couldn't be "wrong" in the sense of being mis-directed or mis-ordered. So I take it that, in principle, as a virtue, hope is subject to discipline, one might say. So hope doesn't traffic in some neutral domain where you can hope whatever you want. Therefore, in principle, hopes could be subject to "chastisement" (isn't this half the critique of the prosperity gospel?).

So I take it to be formally true that a hope can be wrong. Then we'd have to discuss on what grounds a hope for universalism could be right or wrong. Just because it's a "nice" hope doesn't give it a free pass; just because it seems to be a "logical" hope doesn't suffice. Indeed, I think Jonathan Edwards would argue that what I hope for is quite besides the point; in other words, there might be a more theocentric way to frame this whole conversation.

C. So I wish I had more retractions to make. You can chalk this up to either my stubbornness or my stupidity, or both. Just a few minor points:

1. Yes, the "new" universalism is not "new"--there are ancient streams of this. Yep, OK.

2. There are people who offer rigorous arguments, biblical cases for universalism, etc., etc. Turns out people have written lots of books on this. (Gee, really? Well, gooolllly...if only uh'd known...) Yep, got it. [See B.2 above]

3. I would say, in response to DeRose, and following from a conversation with my colleague Kevin Corcoran, that perhaps there's a different taxonomy or set of labels that could be used to clarify the positions here. So, for example, on something like Keith's register, I think, one could be an "exclusivist" [only through Jesus] and a "hopeful universalist" [all will be saved]. So what I call "exclusivism" might be better described as "separationism." Fair enough. If I was more invested in this conversation, I might try to master the lingo.

C'est fini (pour moi).