FOCUS on Universalism

When one talks about the scope of salvation, merely saying "universalism" isn't good enough. One gets complaints. "Universalism" has all these flaws, "universalism" is a heresy, "universalism" is generic and non-Christian, &c. All of which depends very much on what one means by "universalism."

I'd like to shift the focus. And, informally, that's also the acronym I'm using for what I'm after: FOCUS. A Functionally Orthodox Christian Universalism of Salvation. I think that puts a fine enough point on the concept. A while back, I put out feelers for what might be the criteria for such a thing, and I've got at least a fairly thick introductory list.

So, to start with, the criteria I have so far:
  1. Judgment: must uphold God's absolute and equitable judgment upon human life in terms of deeds as an article of faith
  2. Ethics: must deal with moral motivation and human action convincingly while denying involvement in the determination of eschatological fate
  3. Damnation: must account for the historic assertions of damnation in our sources
  4. Particularity: must maintain the particularity of the means of God's salvation (i.e. Christ)
  5. Necessity: must not imply that God is somehow constrained to save
  6. Faith: must uphold some relevance for human faith/trust in God
  7. S.D.G. (yes, I don't actually have a seventh criterion, but it's a nice number, isn't it?)
I've shuffled this list and shuffled it, and it goes together several different ways, but I can find no absolutely satisfying subdivision of these. I think, therefore, that the set up there is a reasonably tight grouping on target.

Now, these obviously aim to solve a problem. I would frame that problem in the following way: how can we have Christian salvation of non-Christians without making demands of the non-Christian? Rightly constructed, this is a byproduct of soteriology, but as such it's also a sign that we have a consistency in our soteriology—that the means by which one is saved is consistent regardless of who we are considering as an object of that salvation. The non-Christian ought to be saved by the same means we are. And that means is not "being Christian."

Prior solutions attempt generally to make Christian salvation something that non-Christians attain to whether or not they realize it. Rahner's "anonymous Christianity" is the image you'll usually find in your field guide. But this requires that salvation be something to which we attain. Once salvation is a goal, we can define various paths to it. The 2VC's declaration Nostra Aetate, section 2, even dances the soft-shoe in this general direction when it proclaims that church's respect for those non-Abrahamic ways of life that "nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth that shines upon all humanity/every human person." Never thought I'd hear myself say this, but at least that's a correspondence theory of truth!

When what one has is salvation as a goal, something to which human beings attain, the focus is inevitably on human action of one sort or another. Ethics and morality, even if the crucial moral act is merely faith. We can fudge that by making weak versions of the claim, but they are logically indistinguishable from the strong versions. Salvation if and only if right human action. Even if we say that whatever anyone has to do to be saved, everyone inevitably does, whether they know it or not, we have still made salvation dependent upon human action. Whether we set the bar low or high, the dependency itself is hard-coded into the program. Under such a regime, universal salvation can only be the result of every individual choosing the correct action. It can happen in life, it can happen at the moment of death, it can happen after death, it can happen in the resurrection, but whatever kind of space we allow for that required human action, the logical form is still the same.

This logical regime involves a particular linkage of my first three criteria. Ethics precedes judgment precedes consequent salvation or damnation. And where faith is a form of merit—where faith is a "work," in other words—and the content of that faith is what we mean by the particularity of the means of God's salvation, those two are subsumed into "ethics" as moral behavior. And yet, while we could hypothetically have a universal salvation resulting from this class of system, it is far from even being a likely option. The reason for this is that it fails my "ethics" criterion: human moral action determines eschatological fate.

There are related systems, generally adaptations of the class, in which God becomes the operator. Whether it is God who produces faith in the individual, or God who produces good works (even for the Lutheran these aren't really contradictory, as a good tree will produce good fruits), or even the substitution of Christ as the human operator, who acts in our stead, and the outcome of whose judgment extra nos is applied pro nobis, the system is the same. Ethics precedes judgment precedes consequent salvation or damnation. It's just no longer our moral action in play. (Except when it is, as we manage to turn God's action back into the penultimate thing, and insist that it's our possession of "saving faith," or our choice, or some other action that isn't ultimately up to God, and we revert to type.)

And before this moment, I'm not sure I had ever so thoroughly had grounds to reject substitutionary atonement. I mean, I'm a Lutheran. Substitution is what we do! An alien righteousness, the happy exchange, all that. Except that we also inevitably revert to type when it comes to our consideration of election. Because, when it comes down to it, the reformers were all quite busy enough with the changes they could see to make, and stepping entirely out of the ethics—judgment—fate paradigm was too far to go. There wasn't any land to be seen, out beyond that. The best they could do was push for human action to be relevant in the wake of the determination of fate, to make salvation independent of and prior to judgment as Paul does, and to speak of moral freedom because of salvation in Christ. You still had to be in Christ, you still had to be one of the elect, you still had to have faith, even if the possession of faith as a gift was simply a proof of your election.

But even if they couldn't go farther than that, the reformers at least built that using the foundations and materials they had. They separated ethics, and with it the equitable judgment of God upon the moral actions of every human being, from the matter of salvation achieved in Christ—and then they made the salvation achieved in Christ the primary thing, the motivating and enabling power behind moral action rather than its goal. That is the origin of my statement about ethics in the second criterion above. That is why we can talk about judgment and its outcomes without having to talk about damnation. That, more than anything else, is why universal salvation is possible as a functioning, orthodox doctrinal position in Christianity. That is why we can accept and await the perfect and equitable judgment of God without fear.

And, it is also why we can separate the judgment according to deeds, and faith. We must affirm that God's judgment according to deeds is perfect and equitable, affecting the presumed elect every inch as much as those outside. Faith in God, then, as scripture shows us time and again, is not an escape from judgment. Nor, I am obliged to say, is it a prerequisite for the forgiveness of sins, God's release of our misdeeds. God has mercy on those outside. Naaman the Syrian, commander of the armies of the enemy. The widow at Zarephath. The gentiles in uncountable numbers, in Christ. "We" have never been the exclusive domain of God's mercy—precisely the opposite is true: God's mercy is the exclusive domain of our lives. It is the cause of our faith, the ground of our trust in this God. Faith cannot be irrelevant—but it also cannot be a prerequisite. It is not faith that saves, even though God saves the faithful. God also saves others.

Now: if God saves the non-Christian, neither asking nor requiring consent, participation, acceptance, or anything else, the question is, how? And if salvation is not a goal, not in any way a product of human effort or action or trust, not in any way predicated on a condition that must be met from our side, then we are as free to say that the non-Christian is saved in Christ as we are to say that of the Christian. We are as free to say that that act of God suffices for them as we are to say that it suffices for us. And if the latter is true, certainly the former is.

This, of course, does not make them "anonymous Christians," or suggest that the Buddhist is in some way actually worshiping Yahweh counter to her entire pious desire and intent as a Buddhist. Or, in fact, that she is striving against God precisely in that pious desire and intent! It does not require us to appropriate the truth of the other and claim that it is actually our own, to the extent that it is true, nor does it require us to insist upon the genuine other as false. I need have no concern for the veracity or falsity of anyone's opinions on any matter in any way religious, as though salvation were at stake. Not for the Christian, the Jew, the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Hindu, or anyone else. Not as far as salvation is concerned.

The practice of my co-religionists, on the other hand, gives me significant cause for concern as to what we have right, and what we have not, and how to be more true, down where the rubber meets the road—but all of this is penultimate. My concern about these matters, my concern for my fellow creatures, my brothers and sisters, is enabled as part of the obligations of my moral freedom as one who has been saved in Christ. This is what we teach. If salvation is achieved in Christ, as a definite and accomplished fact of God's own making, then that is the ultimate truth of the matter. It is therefore causative of the freedom in which we enact our various forms of ethics, rather than being the result of a verdict upon any one of them. We shall let the ultimate judgment tell upon our actions and the reasonings behind them, without worrying for ourselves precisely because we have been saved in Christ—apart from any of our deeds, apart from any of our identities, and apart from all of our various forms of piety. We have been saved prior to all of that, and so it does not hinge upon us—though the well-being of our fellow creatures and the world we share certainly does!

If there is a necessary role for faith in all of this, that right there is it. Trust in God is that grabbing hold of what is true wholly apart from our existence, what is true in spite of the other facts of our existence, that seizing upon the accomplished fact and the fidelity of the God who does this sort of thing in all times and places, that enables us to begin to become what we in fact are. It enables us to refuse to live out the judgment economy that we impose on all things, the judgment economy that we even imposed upon Jesus Christ himself in order to condemn and execute him for his sins against God. It demands of us that we conceive of salvation as belonging to another economy altogether. And because of that ultimate reality, it frees us to be responsible for one another in love. And it frees us to be wrong in that mission, to attempt and fail over and over again, even for the span of our entire lives. But it frees us into responsibility so that we who trust will try, over and over again, to seek the good for our fellow creatures as we know the good in God who saves.

So: there's one thing I haven't solidly touched, and that's damnation. And for that, I leave you with a question: do we have revelation that leads us consistently to expect the damnation of human beings, specifically that leads us to expect a fate worse than death, a miserable and penal fate beyond death, for any cause? That tells us, unambiguously, that God promises to do this to individuals? That is what has to be accounted for. The precise shape of damnation, if in fact it has one, as an act of God—if in fact it is one.

(Of course, I also want to leave you with the question as to whether there are more criteria, things I've missed that might be essential for making a Christian soteriology with universal human scope that is also functionally orthodox. Let me put that a possibly more palatable way: what else is a defeater for versions of universal salvation? Obviously I can work with the set I've got, but I thought I could work with a smaller one, too, and I was wrong then.)