The lure of universalism

I was talking with a pastor colleague not long ago when he recounted a story about an unpopular funeral sermon. The gist of the story is that the funeral was for a man who was not a believer or member of a church and in the sermon he raised just a bit of doubt about than man’s eternal destiny.

As you might imagine, that did not go over well.

If you’ve been a pastor for any time at all, I expect you’ve met someone who is anxious about the salvation of someone they love. The question comes up as something like this: “My (cousin, brother, daughter, mother, etc.) does not believe in God or go to church. I’m afraid what will happen to them if they never come to faith. What do you think, pastor?”

Here is the answer I sense people want. “I’m sure they will be with you in heaven.”

There is great pressure for pastors — and other Christians — to go along with the comfortable universalism that pervades our culture. No one wants to tell a fried that Aunt Maude is bound for hell. Few church people want to contemplate a kingdom of God without the people they love.

And while I would never presume to declare the eternal destiny of any particular person — that is Jesus’ job not mine — I do find the pressure to adopt a de facto universalism serves to undermine most of the rest of my ministry. It reduces the point of what we do in the church to a kind of do-gooder society with covered dish meals. You can get a lot of praise and a fairly comfortable life leading a do-gooder society — and the covered dishes are often quite tasty — but it can be an uneasy life if you read the Bible much at all.

Do you ever sense this tension? How can pastors and lay members better resist the pressure toward universalism in the church?

Where our story begins

Christianity starts with the assertion that there is something deeply wrong with the world. It starts with the observation that the world is not as it should be and the conviction that what is wrong is not some minor flaw that can be easily removed by just a bit more human effort. Christianity tells the story of the world as the Bible does: It is a good creation that is fallen.

If you do not accept that story, then there is little in Christianity that makes sense. If you think the world is basically good and getting better all the time, then it does not need a savior and we do not need Jesus. If you think that the only problem in the world is that we have not yet tried hard enough or discovered the right tools, then you will not believe that the solution to every problem has already been given to us.

Christians tell the story this way. God created all that is and gave us dominion within his good creation. And God gave us the free choice to live in harmony with and obedience to his just, perfect, and loving commands. We rejected these gifts. We broke the world. We ushered in death and all the evils that follow in its train. And as the world shattered, we were shattered down to the very deepest depths of our heart and soul.

Salvation is nothing less than a restoration — a recreation — in the life of a person and the entire world of the joy, peace, harmony, and love that God first instilled in us. It is a gift and work of God, but one we must both accept and nurture within ourselves, for the old impulses die hard.

A preacher named John Wesley believed this and taught it to anyone who would receive it. As United Methodists — but I would argue as Christians — this is what we teach as well.

Was 2004 a lost opportunity?

My Indiana Conference colleague Darren Cushman Wood has written a progressive reading of what he sees as the lost opportunity in 2004 to move the denomination in an incremental way toward a revision of its teaching on human sexuality.

Cushman Wood argues that the failure of the moderates to support a progressive proposal to formally recognize the divisions within the church led to radicalizing of progressives toward disruptive actions and open disobedience.

After the main vote had been taken on the amendment to the Social Principles the conference adjourned for lunch. The progressive coalition, led by MFSA, used Smithfield United Church as a gathering place for the break. They packed the sanctuary to hear Bishop Leontine Kelly speak. Her message galvanized the despondent crowd to see their struggle in light of the last General Conference that had taken place in Pittsburgh in 1964. That was the last General Conference of the former Methodist Church during which liberals had protested the Central Jurisdiction, which had seemed undefeatable at that time.

The analogy between 1964 and 2004 became the lens through which these liberal delegates interpreted their defeat and the way forward. A martyrdom mentality was birthed and the idea of an incremental or practical approach to changing the denomination lost credibility. If moderate delegates could not support an amendment that was as timid as the one offered, so went the rationale, then the only course of future action would be more protesting and ecclesial disobedience.

I was not following these events in those days and still remain only a distant observer of these high-level movements in the church. I am curious how my more informed readers respond to his analysis and argument.