We should enjoy the diversity of opinion our situation has required, but take the challenge for more depth.
Published May 10, 2017
Whether we have big structures, ad-hoc systems or go it alone, Universalist Christians have a problem with theology that needs to be addressed. In short, we have many theologies and little working theology, and no clear way to communicate what we share and how we differ. This has been our condition since Universalist churches arose.
Out of necessity, we have historically made a virtue of diverse approaches to theology. There were too many opinions held by too many people, or rather, too few people, as the Universalist belief has had so much opposition. Any Universalist church, were it to survive, had to accept people without focusing on the specifics. And were there choices! Your Universalism could be “Calvinism improved” or esoteric mysticism or something else. Born from Romantic idealism, hardscrabble practicality or Patristic investigations. Hoping that angels and devils may be included, or not, or denying that they exist. And that punishment follows us after this life, or does not, even cannot. These categories go on and on, and I suspect all these options made Christianity itself optional for those who identify as Universalists but not Universalist Christians.
But because there were so many options and opinions, it was hard to dive deep and so Universalists, after the formative generations, tended to follow paths others laid down, particularly when it came to matters other than the compass of salvation. Focusing on self-defense and managing these differences stunted other matters of faith. Or was it that these other points of faith would only scuttle the implied truce? The Restorationist departure (and return) suggest so. Little wonder that the path to growth or stability meant some left Universalism for something else. New Thought? Swedenborgianism? Episcopalianism? Or perhaps just the church down the street that didn’t press too hard, but seemed to have its act together.
But there’s no reason we have we can’t change. After putting Hosea Ballou, II’s Ancient History of Universalism, (see the new project below) I started Henri Crouzel’s Origen: The Life and Thought of the First Great Theologian where suggests that Origen adopted a “research theology” where different philosophical approaches could be examined and contrasted. Indeed, so successfully and broadly that later examiners, living comfortably within a legalized Christian world looked back at Origin’s exercises and saw a dogmatic defense of error: multiple, conflicting errors no less. Origin’s purpose wasn’t to catalog a set of equally valid option but to make Christianity appealing to the philosophically astute influencers (as we might say today) around him.
The difference today is that there are few who would bother to oppose a Universalist (if they could find one) and theological difference can be refreshing, even if it is only to allow investigators to self-sort, or to try on new ideas without condemnation. I don’t have a suggestion about how we can do this; instead, I hope we can be open to sharing with other theological Universalists (and they do exist) wherever they may be found.
New project: Following on the kind reception of the web edition of Hosea Ballou, II’s Ancient History of Universalism, I am making my next publication project a chrestomathy from the works of his more famous great-uncle Hosea Ballou. I hope to compile a work of at least 5,000 words, in their original language from various sources (and if possible, genres, but his poetry is not his great legacy) to expose readers today to his thinking, and make it easier to draw from him for other works, like sermons.
Until next time,
Sincerely yours, (The Rev.) Scott Wells