“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 6: James Relly

jamesrellyLast time, we talked about how universalism and Calvinism, seemingly opposites in their views of God, judgment and salvation, are actually two sides of the same coin, each believing in the sovereignty of a God saving whom he wants. Although Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White postulated their universalism in opposition to Calvinism, we now turn to James Relly, one of the most influential universalists ever to live, primarily because he converted John Murray, who is sometimes called the Father of Universalism. I guess that makes Relly the Grandfather of Universalism? Regardless, Relly came to universalism through Calvinism.

In his essay “Union with Christ: The Calvinist Universalism of James Relly (1722-1778),” Wayne K. Clymer says Relly’s “bizarre theology represents one of the most extreme modifications of Calvinism in either the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.”

Relly was a disciple of the famed British evangelist George Whitefield, and began working with him about 1741 in Wales as a preacher doing missionary work there. As a good Calvinist, Relly believed fully in the “inherent and ineradicable sinfulness of man.” In a particularly telling passage, Clymer describes what modifying Calvinism to become a universalist must have cost Relly:

His debt to Whitefield is great. To make the break must have caused him much concern, for universalism was a common foe of both the Calvinists and the Arminians – and religious hatred knows no mercy. That he took the step reveals his honesty and conviction. (121)

How much did people hate universalists in the 18th century? Murray, who was of course a friend and follower of Relly, recalled later in his life the first time he heard one of Relly’s preachers. Referring to Relly himself, he would have been “highly favored to have been an instrument of the hand of God, for the taking the life of a man whom I had never seen; and in destroying him I should have nothing doubted, that I had rendered an essential service both to the Creator and the created” (122). Yikes!

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“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 5: Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White

2012-03-28_22-41-12_2621At first blush, it’s hard to think of two more opposite approaches to God, sin and judgment than Calvinism and universalism. Calvinism is all wrathful, while universalism is all cuddly. In universalism, God saves everyone from hell; in Calvinism he predestines most people to it.

Yet modern universalism – that is, universalism as expressed in the modernist era, as opposed to the previous three examples of universalism expressed in the ancient and medieval era – actually grew out of Calvinism. In fact, as expressed by the 17th century ministers Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White, universalism is simply the other side of Calvinism’s coin.

In the previous chapters of “All Shall Be Well,” we saw how Greek philosophy, Christian mysticism and meditation on the nature of God combined to produce a “minority report” of universal salvation rather than the more widely assumed doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell.

With the dominance of Augustine and Aquinas, however, universalism all but disappeared from the conversation until the Protestant Reformation, which democratized scripture reading and interpretation. Not surprising, it didn’t take much more than a century for universal restoration to return as an alternative to the dominant eschatological assumptions of the church.

Louise Hickman, in her essay “Love Is All and God Is Love: Universalism in Peter Sterry (1613-1672) and Jeremiah White (1630-1707),” also points to England’s move toward less censorship and freer discourse in the mid 1600s as a contributing factor to the dissemination of “many unorthodox and sometimes eccentric theological views” and “an atmosphere of increasing tolerance and debate.” As a result, universalism was more popular than ever by 1700.

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“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 4: Julian of Norwich

julian-of-norwich-and-her-cat“We know very little about her,” Robert Sweetman writes about Julian of Norwich in his entry, but we know quite a bit about the revelations she received – or, as she called them, her “showings.”

Julian of Norwich is not even the woman’s name – it’s the name of the church where she lived, St. Julian’s in Norwich, England. But in his essay – “Sin Has Its Place, but All Shall Be Well: The Universalism of Hope in Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416),” Sweetman describes what we can discern from Julian’s thoughts about sin, soteriology and the nature of God. Although not ultimately a subscriber to universal salvation, Julian’s showings led her to get as close as she could to such a belief without crossing the consensus of the church she loved.

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That Business about Women Keeping Silent in Church – What if Someone Else Added It In?

0800637712hI’m reading through Eldon Jay Epp’s book Junia: The First Woman Apostle, which has succeeded in blowing my mind, and we haven’t even gotten to Junia yet.

Epp starts the book by talking about textual criticism, the means by which scholars look at the oldest texts we have and study their language and variations, and the problems such criticism poses for exegetical certainty. For example, everyone here is familiar with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.

Pretty clear, right? But let’s zoom out a little and see what we find when we include it in context:

31 You can all prophesy one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets. 33 God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace.

(Like in all the churches of God’s people, 34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you?)

37 If anyone thinks that they are prophets or “spiritual people,” then let them recognize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone doesn’t recognize this, they aren’t recognized. 39 So then, brothers and sisters, use your ambition to try to get the gift of prophecy, but don’t prevent speaking in tongues. 40 Everything should be done with dignity and in proper order.

The parentheses, which Epp includes in his treatment of these paragraphs, kind of give it away: One of these paragraphs is not like the other two. You could read from verse 33a to verse 37 without any trouble, as if verses 33b-36 didn’t exist. That’s interesting enough, but by itself doesn’t prove that verses 33b-35 or 36 are later additions to the text.

But Epp goes on to point out that not every text of 1 Corinthians place verses 34-35 between 33 and 36; some place it after verse 40. So this text is a little more mobile than your typical Pauline text. Also, though every text of 1 Corinthians 14 we have includes this passage, at least two of our earliest versions (Codex Fuldensis, dated to 547, and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 300s) include scribal notations also found with such passages as John’s story of the woman caught in adultery, a well known case of textual variation. As Epp puts it:

This combination of literary analysis and text-critical assessment has moved a sizable group of scholars to view the passage on “silent women” as a later intrusion into 1 Corinthians and most likely one never written by Paul. (19)

So what does this mean? What do we do if one of the key passages governing gender roles in conservative and fundamentalist churches turns out to be a later, non-Pauline addition? After all, it’s still in our Bibles, and – at least theoretically – Paul is not of greater importance than any other biblical writer (though we Protestants certainly seem to prefer him to, say, James).

But the point is not to simply dismiss pieces of the Bible we don’t like; the point is to recognize that the Bible itself – not any particular passage but the very nature of the texts we have – rejects our attempts to flatten it into a cut-and-paste set of rules for 21st century life and worship.

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“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 2: Gregory of Nyssa

sample-5I’m a big fan of Gregory of Nyssa, the bishop from Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey, more or less) who lived in the middle fourth century. For my Patristic and Medieval Theology class, I wrote a paper about Gregory’s universalism, which led me to this book, and therefore this series.

Gregory’s universalism was complete and total – when Gregory said that all of God’s creation would eventually be restored to him, he meant it, Satan, demons and all. In my paper, which I’ll post once I get the grade back, I argue Gregory’s expansive view of the goodness of God, which Gregory believed was the overarching divine characteristic against which all of God’s actions must be judged,  required the belief in Satan’s salvation. Without it, either the evil to which Satan had turned was stronger than the inherent goodness Satan carried as part of God’s good creation – and therefore evil was stronger than God – or God’s deceit of Satan in the atonement was simply justice without mercy, and therefore not good. We’ll talk about that more when I post the paper later this summer.

Unfortunately, Steven R. Harmon touches very little on all of that in his chapter of “All Shall Be Well,” titled “The Subjection of All Things in Christ: The Christocentric Universalism of Gregory of Nyssa (331/340–c.395).”

Instead, as the title indicates, Harmon focuses on the role of Jesus in God’s plan to restore all things. He argues that such a role is somewhat hidden because Gregory talks so much about what God does in the reconciliation process.

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How a Little Deceit Could Rescue the Atonement from Christian Violence

WEST-WING-ZIEGLER_458In Season 4 of the West Wing, White House communication director Toby Ziegler is rehashing the circumstances that led to the defeat – and subsequent unconfirmability – of a Democratic ally in Congress, Karen Kroft. In his conversation with the former congresswoman, he admits he knew a gas-tax bill she championed was doomed to fail, making her unpopular both with her constituents and the Republicans who would block her potential nomination to a parks service position.

“It was a loser,” he tells Kroft, “and I pushed to have you introduce it anyway.”

Kroft smiles at him warmly and reassures him: “That doesn’t make any difference.”

“I came out for the gas tax because someone from Michigan had to,” she goes on to explain. “Gas prices are too low. It’s why the air is polluted. It’s why no one wants alternative fuels.”

Toby gives that little smirk of his and retorts: “And clearly that argument took the nation by storm.”

And here’s where the conversation gets interesting:

“In my religion,” Kroft says, “the whole symbol of the religion ended in crucifixion and condemnation. That wasn’t the measure of the experience. It’s just the way it ended.

“But I’m the Romans,” Toby remarks.

“It’s in the living, Kroft replies. “It’s in the campaigning that you make your mark.”

It’s a fascinating exchange, filled with deep theological meaning – perhaps deeper than even writer Aaron Sorkin intended. Setting aside the notion that the Jesus experience ended with the crucifixion and not the resurrection, what is perhaps most striking about this conversation is how Kroft, a Christian, de-emphasizes the cross in favor of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion is “just the way it ended,” she says. “It’s in the living … that you make your mark.”

deceiving-the-devilThe statement struck me because the night before I saw this episode I had just finished tearing through Darby Kathleen Ray’s amazing Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse and Ransom (1998). In it, Ray argues the crucifixion has been misrepresented, misappropriated and misused for too long. The violence-filled atonement theories accepted by the church as “traditional” have been used to perpetrate, justify and ignore abuse and exploitation of women, children, the poor and the environment; their fruits are so toxic, these theories must be jettisoned for Christianity to recover its mission in the world, and a new one must be formed if the cross is to retain any meaning not just for the holders of power but for the oppressed and powerless, as well.

In a way, Ray is addressing the same questions that have been circling in my mind for several months: If a given doctrine contributes substantially to a toxic view of God, don’t we as Christians have a duty to renounce and remove that doctrine? If so, how do we determine which of these doctrines should be eliminated and which should be reworked? And who determines whether a given view of God is toxic anyway?

I’m not sure there are any good answers to these questions. Nevertheless, Ray’s approach is a challenging one to this white male who is surely oblivious of many of the issues Ray raises in her book. Some of these atonement doctrines are entrenched, and many – including myself – see them as crucial to the notions of redemption and salvation. Yet, as Ray hammers home again and again, the point is not that those of us western white males do not find certain passages or theories abusive; the point is that the abusive fruit is there for women, children, minorities, the developing world, indigenous cultures and the nonhuman creation.

This doctrine is based on assumptions about the nature of sin, God and salvation that together actually create and sustain what many today recognize as evil. Ironically, the very doctrine whose job it is to attempt to understand and articulate God’s response to evil perpetuates evil in the lives of many women, men and children. … This revered discourse on evil has come to mirror its subject matter and hence should be rejected.

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“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 1: Origen of Alexandria

allshallbewell cover

This is Part 2 of a series working through “All Shall Be Well:” Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann. See the intro here.

The most famous proponent of universal reconciliation in the early church was Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254) – which isn’t really saying much because, at least in the Protestant traditions where I was raised, Origen himself, never mind his teaching, isn’t that famous.

Although not the earliest overt universalist – that title belongs to the second century’s Clement of Alexandria, who doesn’t get a chapter in MacDonald’s book, or (he says with a wink) perhaps these first-century guys named Paul of Tarsus and Jesus of Nazareth – Origen’s role as the most prominent has made him influential.

Origen’s notion of restoration was condemned in 553 because of its connection to the pre-existence of souls, although Tom Greggs (professor of systematic theology at the University of Chester in the U.K.) in his essay notes that condemnations of Origen were really condemnations of Origenism, which took Origen’s views to extremes. Further, Greggs argues Origen did not view universal reconciliation merely through his misguided views about the soul, but found christological support, as well.

Some have suggested that Origen was not really a universalist, given his ambiguous, if not contradictory, statements in some works, especially those written for more pastoral reasons. “Yet the mapping of Christian theology offered in his systemic theology, along with certain comments offered in his commentaries, clearly suggests that Origen imagined an ultimate end in which all would be welll, and God’s final victory would be triumphant” (31).

So how does universal restoration work, according to Origen? In two distinct ways.

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“All Shall Be Well”: Universal Salvation Through History, Part 1

allshallbewell coverWe’re starting a new series today. Last summer, I spent an inordinately long time going through the question of whether Mary was really a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus (links in the sidebar). I liked it so much that I wanted to do a series this summer on some other pressing theological issue, but kids and a summer class and the resulting paper have conspired to wipe out half the summer before I could even start.

Then, as I was researching and writing for my paper on Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in the salvation of Satan, I ran across “All Shall Be Well:” Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann. There have been shorter titles in the history of books. Nevertheless, this collection of essays on prominent universalists over the past 1,800 years or so promises to provide some theological and historical background to the notion of universal salvation that I think might be helpful for those of you who, like me, are rethinking traditional ideas about everything, including heaven, hell, salvation and judgment. Also, it’s not likely to run you any less than $35, which is a little steep, so this is a way to get the gist without laying out the cash, if you’re as poor as I am (I’m checking this out from the university library).

The book is edited by “Gregory MacDonald,” the pseudepigraphal identity of Robin Parry, who just did some video responses on Rachel Held Evans’ blog as part of her “Ask a …” series. It’s worth checking out those comments, which make clear that Parry is a very nice guy, and smart, to boot.

Parry writes the introduction, which we’ll go through today. I hope to do no fewer than one installment in this series each week. I can’t promise that I won’t combine chapters or give up if I get too busy to keep reading, but my hope is to devote a post to each of the 18 chapters in the book, mostly because I think this topic is interesting, and hey, it’s my blog.

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‘I’m Tired of Being Alone’

9780891123590A couple of weeks ago, I described my support for same-sex relationships in terms of intimacy – that God has hard-wired people to need to be intimate, so much so that our physical health depends on it, and that to argue he both creates the conditions that lead some to be same-sex attracted and requires denial of the intimacy they need because of that very attraction requires us to conceive of God as a monster.

In the end, however, I’m just a straight guy. I know and love a few gay people, but when it comes right down to it, I’m just talking about what I think they’re going through – or at least what science tells me they’re going through. I’d much rather let them say it, which is why I heartily recommend a book called Loves God, Likes Girls by a friend of mine, Sally Gary.

Sally blew everyone away about 10 years ago, when I was an undergrad, by standing up in our daily Chapel service and describing her struggle with same-sex attraction. A lot has changed in the past decade – for her, for me, for all of us. Homosexuality is a much more openly discussed topic, and its acceptance as a natural part of the lives of even those who choose celibacy has grown enormously.

Sally’s book is a memoir, nothing more – not a book that advocates for a particular side, just a good story well told that along the way has some valuable lessons to teach. And it’s a valuable resource because it provides a different perspective from the story told by, say, a Justin Lee in his book Torn.

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It’s OK to Be Gay – How Science, the Bible and the Love of God Convinced Me To Affirm Same-Sex Relationships

20130614-012013.jpgIn the end, it just hit me.

A single sentence, in an article not even about homosexuality or theology, not about Leviticus 18 or Romans 1, not about the Boy Scouts or the Southern Baptists.

In the end, what got me was a New Republic article by the magazine’s science editor, Judith Shulevitz.

“The Lethality of Loneliness” describes how psychobiologists “have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.” Loneliness is defined as “want of intimacy.”

The story is fascinating and well worth reading. Shulevitz reports that scientists rank emotional isolation as highly as smoking among risk factors for mortality, and those most likely to feel emotionally isolated are those who are most rejected – as Shulevitz puts it, “The outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different” (emphasis hers). The lonely experience higher levels of stress, which injects the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, the chronic overdosing of which leads to numerous maladies, the most serious being heart disease.

Since those who are rejected feel lonely more often, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the biggest studies into loneliness have occurred among those who are gay. Scientists studying HIV-infected gay men in the 1980s discovered this incredible fact: “The social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man would die quickly … was whether or not he was in the closet.”

Closeted men were more sensitive to rejection, more fearful of being outed, and therefore less intimate with those around them. Their lives were more stressful, and stress hormones feed the AIDS virus. And then came the sentence that stopped me cold:

[Researcher Steven] Cole mulled these results over for a long time, but couldn’t understand why we would have been built in such a way that loneliness would interfere with our ability to fend off disease: “Did God want us to die when we got stressed?”

The answer is no. What He wanted is for us not to be alone.

And there it is. Is it really that simple?

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