Friday, July 23, 2010

The Paradox of Truth

Christian thought often seems dysfunctionally extreme, so very false. On one side are the exclusivists, the theological determinists (who I have already dealt with in past blogs), ones who claim God only wills to save a limited number of humans, and the rest of us are preordained to Hell for his pleasure and glory. Pray tell me where the Good News is in that hopeless despair.

On the other side, are the inclusivists, the universalists who emphasize that all humans will be saved, that Hell will eventually be emptied. This sounds so good and has found strong support among great Christians of the past from Origen to the Greek scholar William Barclay. The position has recently been championed by the Quaker writers Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland. But there is a huge problem here as well. See below.

In the New Testament, Jesus, instead, speaks in paradoxes. Consider this statement:
Matthew 7:14 NASB For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Why does Jesus talk so exclusively at this point when elsewhere in the biblical text, he is the ultimate inclusivist/universalist? He emphasizes how God is not willing for anyone to perish in his or her wrong ways, that God is like a father who longs for the return of his wayward son, like a woman who rejoices when her precious possession that was lost is found.

Here’s the key:
As appealing as the universalism of the Good News is—For God so loved the world; God sent not his son into condemn the world John 3:16-17—of what use is it to tell everyone that all people are saved, if we don’t help each individual change? For in fact, at this very moment millions of particular individuals are living in minor or major hells on earth or ‘living like hell’ hurting others. Of what use are liberal religious platitudes, no matter how wonderful they sound theoretically, if in fact we aren’t seeking to help ourselves and others to change right now? Of what use is theology claiming truth when at present Christians and Muslims are killing each other allegedly for God? Of what use is universalism when at present millions of individuals are suffering loss, being selfish, living immorally, being discriminated against, drinking to excess, abusing others or being abused, making war, living in greed, lust, envy…?

The Truth, the Good News, is only universal in the here and now when it is accepted, when we turn from our wrong thoughts, deceitful choices, egocentric ways, bad actions.

God doesn’t cease being True, Good, and Loving, but when we as humans refuse to respond to the Truth, the Good, and the Loving, God incarnate is again crucified within us and others suffer.

This is Jesus’ point! For example, Jesus loves the rich young man, but he can’t help him when the young man refuses to personally accept the truth and change.

The way to Truth is narrow though the Truth of the way is as wide as infinity:-)

In the endless Love of God,

Daniel Wilcox


Pat said...

AMEN! As the old saying goes, God loves us too much to leave as we are and THAT is truly good news!

Karen said...

It's funny - I always assumed that this was the thing people were talking about when they talked about universalism:

That it's the willingness to do the work of transformation through the Spirit that is at the core of things, not the theology we hang on it. It's the doing-being of faith rather than the language used to describe it.

A friend of mine is a religious anthropologist. She once said to me, "It's fascinating to see what rituals are used, to know the history and understand the language of it. But if you want to see what's going on, look at how they DO."

Diane said...

For me, universalism means that God’s love will not fail to win everyone over and bring them to completion.

Matt 7:13 (NASB) states, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction [loss?], and there are many who enter through it.” That sounds like two gates into the same place. I Cor 3:12-15 (NASB) states, “Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” Are the two scriptures related? Is the wide gate the one where you take all your “baggage” in and it is immediately burned up and the narrow gate the one you go through when you aren’t encrusted with the things and values of the world?

Living with the knowledge that God’s love will never fail puts me in harmony with the Spirit of Christ Jesus where I am more able to partner with him as he ministers God’s redemptive love to my neighbors.

RichardM said...

I don't see any paradox. What was the paradox supposed to be.

Hystery said...

This is a lovely piece. I'll have to sit with it before I comment further. As always, you help me deepen my thinking in unexpected ways.

I think your definition may be in line with what I thought universalism was before I started hanging with Friends- I thought a universalist perspective was that everyone is saved --not that everyone is right. I think the current usage among liberal Friends may be evolving and acquiring more nuanced meaning as it includes non-Christian perspectives. My own personal definition is neither that everyone is right nor that everyone is "saved". But now I'm confusing myself! lol

forrest said...

Very much a lovely piece and lovely comments!

"A narrow gate" but not a crack in the wall! This narrowness needs to be seen via the perspective that human vision is typically impaired, that we can mistake narrowness itself for the required gate, confuse constricted ways with a way that is straight and wide open, imagine crookedness in what is truly straight and open.

Everyone "saved" right now in the sense of living consciously in God's world, no. But "saved" in the sense that we can't mislay ourselves so badly as to escape God's intention of turning us around.

No mistake not included in the music. And some oriental notes fitting better than some Christian ears can recognize. But we're still tuning up!

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Pat,
Thanks for stopping by and sharing.


Hello Karen,

I much agree with your vital point: "It's the doing-being of faith rather than the language used to describe it."
Tragically, however, in my limited experience, I seldom have seen very many "universalists" practicing the Good News. Those individuals who do share holistically have inspired me greatly.


Good morning Diane,

I agree with your definition and that is where my ultimate hope is.

The difficulty is that so few humans are turning to God and being transformed now.

And so many current religious leaders are strangely denying that God's love is universal. Instead, theological fatalism is the rising star in Christian churches and in Islamic mosques. And most strange of all, nontheism (denying there is any God who loves us) is on the ascendancy in the Society of Friends:-(

And there are the difficult scriptural passages...

Your last paragraph spoke to me very deeply.



Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Richard,
Sorry that I wasn’t clear enough.
The paradox is that in many places in Scripture, the text speaks of how God is not willing for any to perish, that God loves every human, contrasted with some texts which emphasize how few will turn to Truth, how most humans choose instead the way of darkness, how few are “chosen.”

Hope that helps:-)

Hello Hystery,

Thanks for the encouraging comment.

I value your different perspective, so look forward to more of thoughts on this difficult issue.

My problem is I am such a pessimist. Nearly everywhere at present I see individuals going away from God, not closer to God.


Good morning Forrest,

Thanks for sharing.

I especially like the metaphor of music. Maybe that is what the cosmos is—the tuning up before a fantastic concert, of a jazz sort where everyone contributes and there is freedom within the major theme, where even the discordant notes get worked up by the leader into a wondrous experience:-)


RichardM said...

I think I see. The paradox is within scripture. We have passages that seem exclusivist and passages that seem universalist, so we have a problem of scriptural interpretation.

I thought you were saying that there was a paradox within the universalist reading of Jesus' message. You aren't saying that.

The language used here is potentially confusing. "Universalist" can refer to universal salvation (this seems to be how you mean it in the post.) But other people often use universalism to name the idea that all the major religious traditions are equally true or equally effective in achieving salvation for their followers.

I think one thing you may be reacting to is a tendency among those with a liberal theology to say that everyone is already good and not in need of any transformation. I agree that this does not seem realistic. A big part of Jesus' message is that people need to change. People are not OK just as they are. Universalism in Jesus message isn't the message that everyone is already OK, it is that the power to transform our lives is within everyone's immediate grasp. Just listen to the voice of the Father and obey. The spiritual food or drink is right there inside you but you must accept it to be transformed.

Are we on the same page?

Hystery said...

I think when discussing salvation and universalism, we are probably also discussing eschatology. Friends seem to have had a kind of "already now" eschatology that recognizes the Parousia as a lived reality- known experimentally. The immediacy of that Presence might lend itself to efforts to conform in the here and now to what is necessary and right within the Kingdom of God. No pie in the sky when you die for Progressive Friends. The table must be ready now. If the bridegroom has already arrived, there is no more time for wedding planners. It is time to get to bear witness to the union. There seems very little concern about who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. Those are future-oriented concepts that don't seem to fit in well with the eschatology one finds in the writings and speeches of Progressive Friends such as L. Mott.

But I speak mainly from what I know regarding Progressive and Hicksite Friends in my region. Others may have quite different takes on it.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Richard,
Yes, I should have more clearly defined all the terms first.
From what you said, I think we are on the same page in the Good News:-)

Though I am a liberal in many ways, I do doubt that “everyone is already good and not in need of transformation.”

I definitely think that every baby is born natural and innocent, but when we humans reach self-consciousness we enter a new stage of development. We encounter ethical choice and constantly must struggle amongst many alternatives. Life is a test, a journey toward perfection.

Some humans make wiser choices than others, but we all are in need of redemption from our bad choices. God loves us and seeks to redeem us.

Jesus says, only one is Good, God. God’s Spirit woos us toward the Truth.

Thanks for sharing.

Hello Hystery,
Yes, I am aware of “realized eschatology.” Besides among Friends, there is some of the concept also in the Gospel of John. As I recall Howard Brinton spoke of this in his book on John, The Religious Philosophy of Quakerism (I think that was the title; I would have to check in the garage in the stacks:-)

This view of Heaven/Hell also seems expressed in Aldous Huxley’s book The Perennial Philosophy.

I don’t remember reading about Mott’s eschatological beliefs in the short biography I read about her. Thanks for increasing my knowledge.

I’m more of an eschatological kind of individual. While, I think Heaven/Hell begin now, I am a confirmed panentheist in the sense that I do think that God is dynamic and is guiding us across eternity toward perfection, toward Heaven, what Telliard de Chardin called the Omega Point.

I suppose the view is, “Turn away from the garbage now, taste this smidgen of pie-in-the-sky now, and seek the future pie to end all pies ;-)

Diane said...


I think early Quakers used universalism in opposition to predestination. God didn’t create some for salvation and some for destruction, he created all for salvation. I would venture to guess that the Quakers didn’t expect that all would necessarily respond and be saved but that wasn’t their focus. They were intent on proclaiming the immediate presence of Jesus Christ in all his offices.

Hystery said...

Daniel, I love your eschatology. :-)
I wish Mott's complete sermons and speeches was not quite so expensive and more widely available. I think she is an important influence in the development of feminist theology and theAlogy. She had great, though much overlooked, influence on younger female theorists in religion like Stanton who called herself a Quaker and later became interested in Theosophy.

Diane, I thought that was probably what was going on with early Friends too. Thanks for that. I know much more about mid-19th century Friends and the folks I study seemed to be moving from a universalist position that counters predestination toward a universalism that embraces the idea that there are multiple appropriate approaches to relationship with the Divine. They often mention and praise non-Christian religions and spiritual strategies.

RichardM said...


I'd agree that everyone is born innocent--after all, unless reincarnation is true we didn't have the opportunity to do anything wrong. Like most modern people I find the idea that we could inherit guilt from Adam and Eve to be absurd. But the Garden of Eden story can be understood in a slightly different way. I see it as a myth which seeks to explain an obvious but puzzling fact about the world and us: we and the world we live in are not what we were meant to be.

I agree with you that somehow free choice is a part of all this but exactly how it fits in is hard to say. I wouldn't put the emphasis on how wise choices are. I'd prefer words like "faithful" or "loving." In a sense the problem is often too much reliance on our wisdom.

Katya said...

Hello, Daniel,
Long time, no see! Glad to see you are posting again.
For me, the "narrow gate" verse has struck a cord. In my understanding, each and every individual has the potential to find that "gate," but for every one the path to the gate is different - because of different ideas, choices, beliefs, life experiences etc. And it's not that some powerful angry God is going to deny any one of us access to... Heaven? Afterlife? Reincarnation? (choose your word here) - it's just that it is not up to him to let us in, it's up to us to find it and let ourselves in...It is very natural. Just like a child learns to talk and starts talking at a certain age, no matter how much his parents want the child to start talking earlier, it simply is not going to happen, because the child is not ready. No matter how much God (Goddess, Powers that Be, etc) may wish us to reach that "gate", if we are not naturally ready, it won't happen...
I am rambling again. Thank you for your post.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Richard,
Glad you see how right I am;-)
Seriously, it’s “amazing” that two Friends actually mostly agree on a few key points of faith in God and the nature of Reality ( to quote Hewll Houser, the TV travel show host who is always saying “amazing.”) Most Friends currently seem to have nothing in common except the term and a few forms into which are posited contradictory values and philosophical perspectives. Gone not only are shared values but the very experience of God, now that nontheism is on the ascendency in the Society.

I’m currently AWOL—AWIL…absent with intentional leave from the Society of Friends because I came to realize my spiritual experiences and view of Life are extremely different from most modern Quakers.

Thanks for the dialogue,

Hi Katya,
Thanks for stopping by and sharing.
We’ve been up in the Redwoods so I am running late in responding. Your comments bring a lot to the table.

I think I will save all my thoughts until Joseph and you, and I get out to a Starbucks in the near future:-)
In the Light,

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