Everybody’s buzzing about the “new universalism” these days. For my part I’m rather surprised that its taken this long for this discussion to become such a trendy subject. The most rigorous, and in my opinion, most stringent evangelical proposals for universalism are not exactly new. Books like Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God and Gregory MacDonald’s (Robin Parry’s) The Evangelical Universalist have been in circulation for years (five years for MacDonald, over ten for Talbott). Such examples could be multiplied, and sadly it seems that with its newfound popularity, the discussions about universalism seem bound to lose theological depth and become yet another arena for various pop Christian figures to go about posturing in one direction or another. The upshot of all this the unfortunate amelioration of quality in so many of the ensuing discussions, which is partly why I’ve been so disinterested in them.
A recent example of this phenomenon is a post lambasting the “new universalists” by James K.A. Smith. While there’s certainly a lot in his post that deserves comment, I’ll just confine myself to three, one about the way he sets up his dismissal of the new universalists, and then two about his two critique-summaries of the alleged pathologies that drive people to be such universalists.
First, Jamie deems the paramount question to be “what compels one to be an evangelical universalist?” What sort of “motivation” must such people have that would possess them to want to be universalists? So the important question is decidedly not “What argument has the most merit theologically, biblically, etc.?” but rather, “What sort of emotional pathologies must people have that make them want to be universalists?”
This is an interesting mode of analysis indeed. What makes it so super awesome is that now we need not even bother about any arguments being made, now all that is required of us is to sit back and speculate about what sort of insipid motivations these new universalists might have. Why take the time to take on a theological argument when we can just as easily accuse the proponents of that argument of being a bunch of gushing sentimental liberals who just can’t bear the thought of Gandhi in hell? I suppose ad hominem has always been the easiest form of argument.
The two sub-questions that Jamie then raises, as he somehow accesses the inner motivations the new universalists, regard “imaginiation” and “hope.” The first question he clearly has the most fun with. It is, of course, the allegedly iconic statement of evangelical universalists “‘I can’t imagine’ that a God of love would condemn Gandhi to hell.” This sort of reasoning Jamie deems to be unforgivably anthropocentric, reducing God to whatever makes us comfortable and conforms with our liberal sensibilities.
Of course, it would be harder to deal with the arguments of folks like Talbott, Parry (MacDonald), and others who don’t in any way argue that it’s just so yicky and mean that I don’t want to imagine somebody as nice as Gandhi in hell. The argument, in fact, is not about how good Gandhi is, but about what Christ’s cross and resurrection means about the nature of salvation and the nature of God. But those questions — you know, the real ones — are the ones that Jamie seems decidedly not interested in engaging.
Ironically, though, even as he ignores the true theological questions in favor of casting his opponents as bleeding-hearted liberals, Jamie decides that the appropriate counter-argument is simply to affirm the inverse of the one he has just lambasted. Thus, borrowing from yet another rather ill-thought out column by Ross Douthat, Jamie asks us if we’re really comfortable with the idea of Tony Soprano in heaven. Are we really down with the idea that bad, mean, wicked people are just going to be forgiven and accepted by God? What should we say about that?
Well first of all, lets get one thing straight: Tony Soprano is fictional character for God’s sake. So I really don’t expect him to be turning up at the pearly gates. Please, if we’re just going for cheap shock value can we just go all the way with the super cool rhetoric and make it Hitler? That’s what we mean, right? So now that that’s out of the way, it seems that the counter-question Jamie wants to pose via Douthat is “If we’re uncomfortable with Gandhi in hell, why aren’t we uncomfortable with Hitler in heaven?” The real irony of this line of argument however is that is no less anthropocentric and Feuerbachian than the (imagined) argument it is designed to counter. “I can’t imagine a God who would dare to place Hitler at the banquet table alongside those he murdered!”
The argument is loaded with indignation that God might dare to unilaterally act to reconcile Nazis and their victims, Klansmen and the blacks they lynched, etc. Now who’s projecting? Are we really to believe that a vision animated by the overriding hermeneutic of retributive justice where the good guys (us) win and the bad guys get their just deserts is somehow countercultural Gospel truth, standing against the all-too-human tendency to want a God of our own designs and makings who . . . saves us along with our enemies? Seriously?
The second question Jamie lodges relates to “hope.” Namely whether or not its ok to “hope” for something that is contrary to Scripture. Of course this line of argumentation begs the rather gargantuan question of whether the hope for the salvation of all creation is really so obviously unbiblical. Of course such questions are not engaged by Jamie’s post (and really we couldn’t expect that from a post). However it bears mention that works like Talbott’s, Parry’s, and others have done serious work, both in terms of textual exegesis and theological hermeneutics on the very questions that, at the outset of his post Jamie claims such universalists don’t care about. If one is interested in really knowing what is going on in this debate, it will be necessary to go beyond the latest Rob Bell craze, and really read the substantial work that is being done in the field. That would certainly help mitigate the multiplication of posts like Jamie’s that do little more than make meta-critiques that, in reality, have no real target to find.
The real problem, I believe, that the whole buzz about “the new universalism” represents — and it is particularly typified in Jamie’s post — is the refusal to engage these questions theologically. Instead it is all a matter of figuring out who the sappy liberal is, and finding a clever way to make the accusation. If people are really interested in exploring the theological issues at work behind the current hubub, they will need to look beyond the temptation to simply attack people’s motivations, and they will have to do more than watch that one Rob Bell video on YouTube. A good place to start would be to read some the actual work that’s been being done on this topic over a long period of time, which I’ve made reference to above. Then perhaps we could see some posts on the topic that at least get the questions right.