What can the idea of “universal salvation” possibly mean in the context of everything we are learning about the age and the size and the make-up of the universe?
When Billy Graham suggested that “the celestial city” must be “up north somewhere”, he was merely exhibiting a natural tendency we all have, to put homo sapiens at the center of everything, as though the entire universe circled around this planet.
What we have learned is that all the circling taking place in the far-flung heavens is a small thing compared to the vast onrush of it all toward some as yet indiscernible location way out near the far edge of the expanding universe.
Consider this. It takes the earth just about 365 days to circle the sun, or about one degree each day. But it takes the sun, with the earth and all the rest of our solar system, about 225 million years to complete its orbit around the Milky Way galaxy!
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is itself travelingat a speed of about 1.3 million miles per hour toward “something” that evidently has an awful lot of material “stuff” already. There are some astronomers who call it “The Great Attractor.”
The idea of Universal Salvation was born of the conviction that the Creator of the universe is in the process of making everything new again, and that this means a new and glorious life for all human beings ever born on the earth. (Romans 8:22-23; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28; Colossians 1:20.)
But where do we put the emphasis? Is the whole creation being made new for the sake of a handful of organisms on a teeny rock orbiting a little star in the Milky Way? Or is the destiny of those organisms simply one side-effect of a total evolution of the universe toward harmony and perfection?
We have to say at least one thing about all the scientists and preachers who keep pushing the idea of “special creation,” “intelligent design”, and a brief 10,000 years or so as the age of the universe. They are putting us at the center of it all, as though God did, in fact, create this vast expansive cosmos just for our own benefit.
That, it seems to me, is really the key to shaping a universalist faith for the future. In all our thinking and debating, we need as much as possible to get out of this self-deifying anthropomorphism that puts us at the center of everything.
I have been reading again the wonderful writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Even that long ago, in the 1930s, this marvelous Jesuit paleontologist declared that it is absurd any more to think
that the earth is the only inhabitable planet in the universe, and we are the only living organisms that have risen to the top of the chart.
Universalism, then, is by its own inherent logic a highly monistic portrait of the nature and destiny of the universe, and we with it. It is all one piece, and every religious and philosophical dualism is a false picture of reality.
The traditional Christian premise is that when we die our bodies remain here as part of the matter that is the “stuff” the universe is made up of, while our souls “go to” another place called “heaven”. But when we try to locate “heaven” somewhere “beyond” the universe, not only do we run out of any words that make sense, but we also remove ourselves from this universe that itself is moving toward what Teilhard calls the Omega Point when everything there is becomes the “divine milieu”, i.e., a universe that has been fully and completely redeemed.
Any other portrait of the future that separates the destiny of human beings from the destiny of the cosmos is therefore a false portrait. Universal salvation can mean nothing less than the full and final evolution of the universe to a condition of material and spiritual perfection.
If the universe is not destined to become whole and perfect, then neither are we. And the “blessed assurance” of faith can only be true if the evolution of the universe gives evidence that we are all indeed going in the same direction.
Several years ago, when I had time to take part in the UUCF List Serve moderated by Julie Leonard, I posted these words about the source and authority of my universalist faith: Julie, et al.
My conviction about universalism is only fractionally from scripture, reason, and tradition.
And I even hesitate to use the phrase, religious experience, because that can so easily be understood to refer to my experience of scripture, tradition, and rational theology.
What strikes me is that all scripture and all tradition are distillations from human experience, and the paradigm that drives me is Emerson's maxim that my own experience is every bit as valuable and contributing as any other human's: "The sun shines today also!" (Essay on Nature)
I testify to a personal revelation from God to my mind that we all have a common destiny when our bodies die. I asked God for illumination about that question and I received it, and that epiphany is above and beyond all the scriptural interpretation, systematic theology, and rational philosophy.
That epiphany did not answer the question of what that destiny is, or what languages and what traditions might be explored to portray it.
And though I do have a lively hope in a transcendent community of all humanity continuing a journey of growth in a future soul-space, that belief rises from a more rational reflection of scripture, tradition, history, and logic. That is, God has not revealed that to me in the same way God has shown we all have a common destiny, whatever it may be.
I do argue for a universalist viewpoint on the basis of scripture, tradition, and logic, but none of those arguments are decisive for me personally.
My epiphany is.
The claim to personal revelation, I know, is fine fodder for skeptics. And yet, I amabsolutely convinced that Emerson is correct when he exhorts us to “trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
The filters by which we come to know what we know are the filters that have served us in the past.
Relativity cannot be wished away.
But when both mind and heart concur in theconvictions that are harvested from our lives, how can we continue in our self-doubt?
I say it was an epiphany - and now yes, you may suggest that then it might have been no more than a projection, the wish being father of the thought. Or perhaps the internal assurance of an external process of logic and deduction - an “aha” as it were? No need to declare a divine disclosure, a message from the Creator!
But no, my friends, I have had many “aha” moments that came purely from a process of rational reflection. This one, I say, this one - my certainty about universalism - is truly of a different order.
In fact, it came to me at a time when everything in my heart and mind and life was pushing me back toward the orthodox Christian doctrines.
And so I do trust myself. I trust my epiphany. My certainty of faith comes from God.
Raven is the pen name used by previous editor of the printed Universalist Herald, Rich Koster.