We should think about who needs Universalist Churches the most before pretending we can reach all.
Published January 10, 2017
Who exactly is the Universalist Church for? I don’t mean what good is universalism, meaning the promises and actions of God to reconcile all beings to the divine nature. By our hope and claim, that is necessarily everybody. But there are people who believe that hope outside the Universalist Church and in no church, and this has not caused a crisis of faith. A better question may be, for whom is the Universalist Church best suited? After all, one way of interpreting the diversity of expressions within Christianity is to think of the churches each having a particular mission to certain persons or certain times. If an overtly Universalist Church has a guiding mission, then who is it for? I would hope it is for more than the small remnant of Universalist Christians self-identified today.
I ask because in recent readings from those Christians who believe in God’s complete salvation, I see a lot of anxiety coming from a Evangelical past. This shouldn’t be too surprising for those of us who are not from an Evangelical past, myself included. When we look at the lives of Universalist pioneers like John Murray and Hosea Ballou, you see in their childhoods the rigorous and oppressive hands of an Evangelical, even extremist, upbringing. Later generations of Universalists benefited from a kinder view of God, but it seems to have closed the door for those people on the outside who were still terrorized by what they were taught God was, but no longer could believe intellectually. Cradle Universalists of the later nineteenth century and beyond didn’t seem to understand this, preferring the cosmopolitan and esoteric fruits of Universalist faith to the radical break in the divine order their ancestors were preaching.
And so it’s possible that the future of the Universalist Church, if it is to continue, is to be a mission for those who are the most hurt by what should be the glorious gifts of the Gospel. Or rather, this is one mission that can stand among others.
What this means for those of us who are not so hurt, or who come from expressions of Christianity which are harmful but in other ways remains to be seen? For some reason, not altogether clear to me, Universalists have been able to express the faith in many ways simultaneously. though not without conflict. This is the legacy that we can reach back and hold on to, meaning, perhaps in practice there cannot be one or two “remnant” Universalist Churches, but several – ideally cooperating and communicating – to work in their particular ways, testifying that God shall be All in All.
Bless you as you grow towards that day, and Happy New Year.
Update: welcome to the two people who joined in the last week.
(The Rev.) Scott Wells