July 30, 2008

Relativism and Universalism

Two of the most common accusations directed these days at The Episcopal Church is that it tends towards a relativistic ethic and a universalist view of salvation. I'm concerned to clarify these terms a bit, for they seem rather vague. I tend, myself, towards absolute moral standards tempered by an ethic based on certain biblical principles elaborated by Jesus and Paul. And I hope for universal salvation, but hope is not belief.

That being said, some further clarity is warranted. As to what moral relativism might look like, would this qualify: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean." (Romans 14:14 )? I would call that "subjective" — and I suppose one might see subjectivism as a subset of relativism.

But I also think that the actors, situation, intent, and so forth have to figure in any moral or ethical judgment — there are very few acts that in and of themselves are always morally wrong regardless of these other factors.

To use the late Richard Norris' example, it is o.k. for a surgeon to stick a scalpel into someone, but not for an assassin. The act of "knife insertion" is only deemed moral or immoral on the basis of these other factors.

To take an example closer to home, you could not, if shown a photograph of a couple engaged in heavy necking (or more), be able to tell simply on the basis of the photograph if this was a moral or immoral act. You would need to know certain things concerning them and their relationship with each other, and possible others, to make such a determination. But once these other things are known, it is possible to make an absolute judgment, and to stand by it: for instance, assassination and adultery are always morally wrong. (Utilitarian, teleological, or consequentialist ethicists might fudge on these both, given the circumstances; I would rather stick, as Bonhoeffer himself did, with the notion that sometimes wrong acts have extenuating circumstances, but that they are still wrong, and those who commit them are responsible for them. Thank God, God forgave even those who crucified him, and they were about as wrong as wrong gets.)

Which brings me to universalism. Would this, also from Paul, qualify: "For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob." (Rom 11:25-26)?

Paul makes a compelling case for universal salvation (the healing of the wound of sin; not the same thing at all as "going to heaven" whatever that unbiblical phrase might mean), and he bases it on his understanding of the universality of sin itself. It is reciprocal: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Cor 15:22) Just as we did not fall under sin on our own account or by our own actions, so too we are not saved by our own efforts or actions. It is the faith of Christ (even unto death), not our personal faith in Christ, that saves us (from eternal death).* He is the savior, not we ourselves.

That's how it works, folks, and it is a great mystery.

* With due regard to the shades of meaning in pistis Christou.

Tobias Haller BSG


the Reverend boy said...

Thank you for this, as always. Not too many people articulate (as least in my experience) that universalism does not take away the unique claims of Christ as Saviour of the world and does not by any means allow licentiousness.

Hopefully this will cause some people to think.

That being said, I do have to admit that I myself stop short of taking a universalist outlook...how do we contend with all those bits about "weeping and gnashing of teeth" and being "cast into the outer darkness?"

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I'm still trying to come to an understanding of the concept of universal salvation, and am nowhere near ready to have an opinion on it. (Not that my opinion affects what God will decide to do.) Thank you for shedding some additional light on this very great mystery.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

(Oops, too many typos. Here it is again:)

Thank RB and Ruth.

RB, I tend to see those statements as incentives rather than predictions; threats rather than promises. God clearly wants us to act as righteously as we are capable of, but the idea that some people are intended by God for damnation, or that we can earn our way to salvation by our good behavior, seem both (at opposing ends of the spectrum) to represent a discord with the main thrust of the biblical revelation of the nature of God, and of salvation.

As with the imprecatory passages of the Psalms, the best spiritual exercise is not to picture one's foes, but oneself, as the object of the cursing; so in the case of being cast out, to see oneself with the outcasts.

It seems to me what Jesus wanted us to avoid was the view that "the only ones not saved are those worse than me" kind of judgment. We are all too ready to make exceptions for ourselves and not for others, to place burdens upon others we are not willing to carry ourselves... and, gee, these are the folks Jesus said wouldn't enter the Kingdom!

June Butler said...

As with the imprecatory passages of the Psalms, the best spiritual exercise is not to picture one's foes, but oneself, as the object of the cursing; so in the case of being cast out, to see oneself with the outcasts.

Yes! That's how I read the Psalms. Even if I don't actually commit the acts described in the Psalms, the desire to do so may, on occasion, lurk in my heart of hearts. In fact, I always read the teachings of the Bible as directed to me. I find it liberating.

June Butler said...

PS: I see someone else that I know in the group picture, the good James, and I did not recognize you at first in your new glasses.

The lantern lights in the retreat center chapel are very like those in my church.

Christopher said...

I think you capture the paradoxical truth that threads through the whole of Holy Writ: God saves, salvation as gift through faith... This christocentric point is key in my estimation:

It is the faith of Christ (even unto death), not our personal faith in Christ, that saves us (from eternal death).* He is the savior, not we ourselves.

I would add that these shades of meaning needn't be in tension. It's another way of recognizing the priority or foundation of God's initiative as ground for our response of faith at all. As our one Mediator, in other words, we have faith in Christ at all because the Holy Spirit first places in us the once-for-all faith of Christ who has faith for us. It's similar to Bonhoeffer's discussion on the Psalms in his short libelli.

I might add that it is interesting that those who over-emphasize either our personal choice for salvation or for damnation tend to undermine the key thrust of this christocentric thrust--"God saves" or "You did not choose me, I chose you." I am reminded of Melanchthon's (who bears resemblance in thought to Hooker in many ways) careful teasing out of discussion on free will and works. With regard to salvation, the choice is not ours, but God's. (Which requires of us as Tanner suggests, to think of God not in our categories of opposition, but as wholly other and not in competition with us.) Our response to being chosen is, however, a different matter with regard to our sacrifice of praise/morals/care of neighbor/ethics. Reading Hooker, this can be framed in such a way as to be without an over-pessimistic focus on fallen anthropology by rather focusing on Trinitarian and christological reality as the direction of it all.

Nor, do we need to jump into speculation about predestination, about who and who is not chosen if the main thing is that in Christ we proclaim God at the heart of the world. Baptism is sure sign of God's promise to us, but that needn't lead us to get wrapped up in determining who is saved and who is damned. The point is to turn godward, and proclaim who God reveals himself to be for us.

Anonymous said...

Curious isn't it that if one pops back a few centuries, these same apparent contradictions about salvation were (temporarily) solved by the invention of Purgatory: only the really wicked got damned, the more mildly wicked got the purgatorial workhouse for a few days/years/centuries and then heaven. And the fully-saintly got heaven right off!

Here's my heretical take (and I don't remember it among the classical heresies, so I don't know if it has a name). It was/is God's gift of truly free will which defines a human being, and the moral implications of free will have validity only within time (i.e., the existence of free will means that as long as I am within time, I can change, and so I am morally responsible for my choices).

Eternity (heaven or whatever), however, is not just "a long time", but it is NO TIME AT ALL -- hence there can be no change once one is in eternity, outside of time (time being nothing more than the measurement of change)!

At the moment of one's passing from time into eternity, one's free will gets its last chance to operate: God offers the Christ-earned forgiveness of all one's sins and participation in the Holy Trinity (i.e., heaven) to ALL (i.e., "in Christ shall all be made alive"). What is offered is usually called "eternal life".

But there are those who don't/won't want it, wholly committed as they are to the things of the world. They will choose NOT to accept the forgiveness and the invitation to heaven.

[Note: if there is no time/change in eternity, as I postulate above, then can be no "suffering" in eternity either since it would require time to pass for a person to "suffer".]

So the choice is finally between the Reality of heaven (eternal life) vs. everything/anything else (eternal death?). The final choice is between Reality and non-reality, between Being and non-being, between living and non-living, between God and non-God -- and since non-reality, non-being, and non-God are all "states of Un-being" God will grant one's final free choice and simply de-create those who have chosen not to have eternal life. One's essence is simply snuffed out, as it were.

This is, of course, a kind of mechanistic or technological way of dealing with the implications of timelessness (which neither I nor anyone on earth can comprehend except perhaps in a split second of contemplative indescribable insight), so it is in fact only my personal exercise in semi-Scholastic logic, and has no relationship with the flames of fire and the tooth-gnashing of Scripture (which I am perfectly happy to comprehend as culture-specific) although I am fascinated with its possible relationship to "outer darkness" -- awesome metaphor!

And none of the above is meant even to suggest that i (or anyone) can actually comprehend the Mystery -- but it sure beats dropping Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, my devout Muslim friends, and the occasional Tanzanian animist into endless fire!

By the way, if anyone recognizes my heresy and can name it, I'd be glad to hear.

Erika Baker said...

For me, relativism means not looking at something as an absolute but in the context of what an individual is capable of.

I have this thought that “sin” is like physics. There is an absolute level where the laws of physics obviously apply to the universe and explain how much of it functions. But when you get to quantum mechanics all the laws are turned upside down and a different kind of state is observed that follows completely different rules.

We have to live as though we and everyone was responsible for their actions. All of Christianity is based on Freedom and Responsibility, and the 2 concepts are the only thing that can lead to personal growth and mature adults.

And yet, at a very deep level we have no idea to which extent we can be held responsible for anything. Is a mentally instable mother responsible for how she treats her child? What made her who she is and could she genuinely have responded differently to her life challenges?

To which extent is the child defined by his upbringing? He is so like his father, yet without the intelligence to become as successful. That hasn’t stopped him having an enormous sense of entitlement, and all the qualities that helped to make his father a success have contributed to making the son a comprehensive failure. Could he have been different? Was his brain development affected by having been a premature baby? By spending 2 months in an incubator, almost devoid of contact with his parents? Was he deeply affected by being released into the care of a mother who couldn’t love him? Common sense says yes.

And yet – others from tough backgrounds have made something of their lives, while others from privileged and loving backgrounds have failed.
Who is truly responsible for what part of their character? What kind of choices are genuine?

Why is the father stuck at the emotional level of a 6 year old? Why did that not stunt the daughter’s development, but if anything help her early on to see how complex people are, whereas it has had a major impact on her sister? Where is fault, where, even, is cause and effect? What impact do we truly have on others?

Can I actually influence what kind of people my children become, or can I merely gently guide and try to encourage what they already are?

For every day life we have to live as though Responsibility was a genuine concept. Our whole society is based on it and it is clearly, demonstrably true.

On a micro-level, however, in the deeply personal, we are faced with the reality of an actual human being, and we become aware that we cannot ever truly comprehend why they are who they are. We cannot, must not judge. And so words like “sin” become completely irrelevant when dealing with others.

And so relativism abounds!

Universal salvation?
What else! It is my firm belief that faced with the Glory of God we will all become aware of what we were and what we could have been. And that awareness, that judgement, will only be bearable because it is held in God’s saving love for everyone.

Anonymous said...

As to relativism, go back and read K. E. Kirk, Moral Theology, for the classic Anglican take -- situations alter cases.

As for universalism, it is interesting to investigate Easter Orthodox/Greek patristic thought on these issues. All are saved. Period! All the Western stuff about who is or is not, whether we have a choice or are predestined, and so forth seem to be a Western Christian distortion to the Orthodox of the East. At least that's the way I read their teaching.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Michael M, well observed on both counts.

Marshall Scott said...

Well, Father John Julian, I take a somewhat different take. I appreciate that "eternity" is "no time;" however, I can't interpret that to preclude God's action with us, nor our capacity to be changed, if not exactly to respond. After all, Saul's calling of Samuel suggests something beyond "being or non-being."

So, I speak of universal salvation as "single predestination," much like Tobias' understanding. God is love; and God's love is every bit as ultimate, pervasive, and eternal of other aspects of God. I don't think our time horizon - death - limits God's capacity to continue to call or to express love. We may or may not be able to respond before the resurrection, but I can't envision that limiting God's capacity to call, and to change us. And, after all, eternity must give God the ultimate opportunity.

How shall we resist God's persuasion? As you note, our free will is within creation; but surely God's is not. If it is God's will that all should be saved in Christ, to consider human refusal as ultimate is to make it more powerful than God's will and power for all that is. As one of my educators once said, "Power is the ability to persuade. Nothing is more presuasive than love." Thus, as God is ultimate love, our capacity to refuse cannot be greater than God's capacity to persuade.

Anonymous said...

I found your remarks and citation regarding relativism most helpful. As one contemplating the move from Catholicism to Anglicanism, I get my fair share of this complaint. I tend to think it a term bandied about when the speaker has little in terms of real argument to make against your position. Indeed, Jesus does set out a very personal test for what is sinful in that context it seems to me. Thanks for helping me think a bit more deeply on this subject.

Anonymous said...

That's Catholicism (Roman) to Catholicism (Anglican) in my book, feather. ;-)


I agree w/ Erika (as w/ several others here, I dare say).

I have a problem w/ fetishizing "free will", as w/ those who say "God damns no one! Those who go to hell freely choose it."

While I see a marginal difference between Father J-J's "annihilationism", and "eternal conscious suffering in the Lake of Fire" (as a "bible college" I'm aware of proudly insists upon as your likely destination, if you don't ascribe to the OTHER 27 points in their faith-statement *g*), they both seem to miss the point, when it comes to "free will."

There's a widely known joke in psycho-babble: "Go to a happy place" (like a meditation touchstone, if you're having a Bad Day).

But the point is, by definition it's our greatest desire, to go to that Happy Place, whatever it is for each of us.

And that's what God offers each one of us: our own personal Happiest of Places. Forever. In Eternal Love.

Now, what does it MEAN, to say "Well, you still have a 'free will' to reject God's offer"?

To (potentially) reject our personal Happy Place is, to put it bluntly, INSANE!

...and insanity just doesn't sound very "free" to me. :-X

I don't pretend to know HOW it will happen, but I firmly believe we will each freely (truly, sanely, freely) CHOOSE God, and God's invitation to (our own personal) Paradise.

Or, to paraphrase MLKJr, "the arc is long, but the universe bends towards universal salvation"! :-)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I have long reflected on the possibility that in the life of the world to come, we will behold all we did in this life, for good or ill, through the eyes of God --- all our good done with an endlessly deep humility, and all the wrong done with an equally gracious forgiveness. This is, I think, part of what it means to "know as we are known" -- and to love and be loved in spite of it.

June Butler said...

This is, I think, part of what it means to "know as we are known" -- and to love and be loved in spite of it.

Hear! Hear! Or should that be "Amen!"? Whatever. I like it.

don said...


You said, "Just as we did not fall under sin on our own account or by our own actions, so too we are not saved by our own efforts or actions. It is the faith of Christ (even unto death), not our personal faith in Christ, that saves us (from eternal death).* He is the savior, not we ourselves."

I agree, and more importantly, I believe the Word agrees with you that it is the faith of Jesus Christ that saves us and would like to add the following related reference for consideration.

Gal 2:16, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (KJV)

Our faith in Christ does not justify us, rather our faith allows us to be justified by the faith of Jesus Christ.

I am one of your brothers in the family of God who chooses to serve outside of any organized religion, but I appreciate what you are doing within your faith.

I see that you have a hope of universal salvation. I believe it.

Your brother,
Don Hicks