I’ve never found a developed theology of the created order in Universalism. But that’s not to say that Universalism doesn’t hint at one, or that it’s not needed.
Indeed, we need one more than ever. This summer has been a scorcher, first figuratively and now looking at the Brazilian rain forest, literally. This most recent example culminates in apocalyptic tales from what might happen if a significant part of the Brazilian rain forest burns, in a bid to farm more forest land. I’m not normally prone to accept the apocalyptic, but when the risks for the natural world are so great, I’m willing to listen closely and consider bad news even if it’s frightening and demoralizing. Such bad news needs a theological context. The created world deserves a theological defense as much as a political or technological defense.
We have long had a cultural cues for greater care in the natural world, and these prepare us to put them in a theological context. For instance, I wonder how much of our cultural and theological regard for the world comes from the space program. I have thought about this more in the weeks since the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, not to mention the impact of the iconic Big Blue Marble photo taken of the Earth during the Apollo 17 mission. It’s one thing to think of your neighborhood or country, but from space the world is united and small and tender. So small, that when in 1990, as Voyager 1 was leaving the Solar System, Carl Sagan insisted on that the vessel turn its camera back towards Earth and take a parting picture. This, the lesser-known Pale Blue Dot, reduces our whole world into a speck, barely identifiable. The Earth is our home, and our only home in all the known universe. O Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me.
Even if it’s not explicitly in our tradition, we have ideas to reach towards. Universalism treats salvation as both an individual and collective act. Were salvation treated only a personal and individual act, the basic relationship between human beings is undermined. It would be as if we were created separately, as if each person were his or her own species of being. And so is an assault not only on human solidarity but also equality of our creation, dignity and salvation. When we treat salvation as only collective, it undermines our individual ability to respond to salvation by choosing the good and enjoying the blessings of God. Even as we shall all be saved, some of us appreciate the salvation deeply in our lifetimes: this is the central benefit and blessing of being a Universalist. From that balance of the particular and universal in God’s relation to humanity, it’s not a far step to seeing God’s relation to the non-human world. The difference being that, nature is unable to respond to God’s blessing when it pressed and stressed past the point which living systems can bear.
We affirm the final harmony of all souls with God. Even without going as far as identifying a world soul that imbues all things with life, it not plausible to see human beings as being divorced from the natural world. Even in the most built of human environments, we depend on the life on earth for air and nourishment. We rely on living systems to purify waste and decay. Truly, we are not removed from the world in which we live.
If we would live like saved people, the health and welfare of the world’s living creatures and living systems must be our concern.
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(The Rev.) Scott Wells