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Just as there are many “Christianities,” there are many forms of “Christian Universalism.”

I seek to follow the faith and practice of the historical Jesus, regardless of how later belief systems and their enforcers may have reinterpreted his ministry to suit their own theological or political notions.

In addition, I just finished Stephen Finlan’s 2008 book, The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition, which describes how Paul’s ministry was also reinterpreted,1 first by his own disciples, and then by a second generation of church leaders, who borrowed his name to lend authority to their far more conservative agendas.

What follows is a brief meditation on Jesus, Paul and universalism.

[Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations, 5/1/2015.]

Jesus

Christ of the Desert, Icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFMI believe the core of Jesus’ faith and practice can be expressed in this way:

All human beings are born as sinless children of a loving God, one who suffers their hurts and failings like a parent and guides them toward as much maturity as they are willing to embrace.

However, human society does poorly at teaching us how to take conscious ownership of our animal instincts while choosing not to be ruled by them. Human society disguises some instincts as rational, moral justifications for actions and condemns others as irrational or evil. Human society teaches—primarily by osmosis—many distorted approaches to coping with the normal challenges of mortal life.

I believe that Jesus, being intimately in tune with God, did all he could to lift his neighbors above unnecessary personal failings and social constraints, helping them learn to trust this spiritual “inner parent” and to treat each other with unconditional compassion.

Jesus initially applied his version of universalism to those within the Judaic world of his time. He was from Galilee in northern Palestine, child of Aramaic-speaking peasants, not of the “proper” Hebrew-speaking Jews from Judea in the south. His concern was that his own Galilean people not feel excluded from God’s blessing because of their not being part of the Jerusalem-centered Temple cult.

Then he began to include the Samaritans,2 people whose land lay between Galilee and Judea. The Samaritans were mixed-race descendants of those scattered people who remained in Palestine when the Judean Hebrews were carried into exile in Babylon. They were scorned by Judeans, due both to their mixed heritage and to their revering of Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem as God’s chosen worship site.

Eventually Jesus also ministered to the Gentiles across the Sea of Galilee to the east, to a Canaanite woman to the west (Mark 7:24-30), and to a Roman centurion (Luke 7).

Perhaps more to the point, Jesus brought anyone who asked for it into his extended sacred family, regardless of gender, social standing, ethnicity, health or sanity.

Jesus’ universalism is founded in his affirmation that all people, without exception, are welcome members of God’s family—whether or not they recognize this or know how to live as if it were true.

Paul

paul-smallPaul of Tarsus had different challenges.

He was raised in the Pharisaic tradition of Judaism, which taught that Israel’s suffering under Roman occupation was punishment because the people had forgotten God’s Law (Torah), and that the people must revere and follow the Law in order to be freed from pagan occupation.3

Paul persecuted the early Jewish Jesus-followers on the grounds that they rejected the scrupulous legalism of the Pharisees in favor of Jesus’ practice of unconditional love. Eventually, though, Paul himself came became a follower of Jesus and embraced Jesus’ teaching.

Paul’s ministry was twofold: to help his fellow Jews replace the Law with Jesus’ gospel of a loving God, and to help non-Jewish people come into the same blessed fold. This also, of course, meant that he needed to teach Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) how to practice unconditional compassion toward each other.

Paul mixed together a range of Jewish and Gentile religious metaphors—not to create a system of theological doctrines, but to capture people’s attention with familiar poetic imagery, handholds for grasping the new faith and practice which Jesus offered.

So, for example, Paul did not advocate the doctrine of so-called substitutionary atonement,4 according to which all people are sinners and helpless to save themselves, unless they embrace the notion that Jesus died to “pay for” our sins.

Instead, Paul taught a sort of participatory atonement. He urged believers to participate in the life and death of Jesus in their own lives, to take on the same risks and suffering that Jesus did, for the sake of becoming able to practice that same unbounded embrace of their fellows.

Unfortunately, church leaders in later generations, who struggled to protect their flocks from escalating persecution by the Roman empire, shifted away from the heart of Paul’s teaching and, in effect, reimposed the socially conservative, hierarchical, patriarchal Pharisaism from which Paul had sought to free people.

Whereas Jesus taught that all people were born children of God, Paul’s universalism is founded in his affirmation that believers become adopted children of God. In other words, Paul challenged the traditional Hebrew notion that the Israelites were hereditary children of God’s covenant with Abraham. Instead, Paul argued, Jews and Gentiles alike can become children of God by believing in and following Jesus the Christ.

Vineline

Jesus and Paul were each teaching specific people at specific times in specific cultural situations. Whatever they each may have understood inwardly about the Truth, each used familiar religious and cultural imagery to capture the minds and spirits of his audience.

I believe it is always important to remember that we are using poetic metaphor when we seek to describe our experience of interaction with the Divine, the Real. Metaphors evoke conscious notions and subconscious associations, yet they are not objective descriptions of experience, let alone of that which is experienced.

Whether we borrow Jesus’ Galilean Jewish metaphors or Paul’s Greco-Roman mix of Jewish and Gentile metaphors, or else cast all of these aside and seek new poetry for expression, I believe that the core Truth is the same.

All human beings are born as unformed mortals in a social world which both teaches and misleads them.

Even so, there is a Reality which transcends human awareness, concepts and values, and which is always ready to guide us toward as much maturity as we are willing to embrace.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael


Notes

1 Finlan describes the current scholarly consensus as follows:

  • Finlan-PaulPauline letters: 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, Philemon.
  • Deutero-Pauline letters, written by Paul and/or his disciples: Colossians, Ephesians.
  • Pseudo-Pauline letters, written by a second generation of teachers, who claimed Pauline authority to reestablish the social status quo (hierarchical patriarchy): 1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus.
  • Hebrews is not of Pauline origin, but it came to be identified as such by the early church fathers.

2 Teaching examples are found in the stories of the “woman at the well” (John 4) and that of the “man who fell among thieves” (Luke 10:25-37).

3 This description of Pharisaic tradition is borrowed from Mitri Raheb’s excellent 2014 book, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes (76-77).

4 See Finlan’s Problems With Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine (2005).

Image Sources

Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM. Brother Robert writes:

Out of the deserts of the Middle East comes an ancient Christian tradition. Although it has been overshadowed by the Greek and Latin traditions, it is their equal in dignity and theological importance. It is a Semitic tradition, belonging to those churches that use Syriac as their liturgical language. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ himself.

This icon celebrates the richness of Syriac Christianity. The inscriptions in the upper corners read “Jesus Christ,” and at the bottom, “Christ of the Desert.” The Syriac language has ties to the earth that are deep and rich. It is more inclusive than most European languages. The theological experience of Syriac Christians is different because they have encountered the Gospel in such a language. Theirs is an unhellenized expression — one that is neither Europeanized nor Westernized.

Semitic as it is, the Syriac tradition knows no dichotomy between the mind and heart. The heart is the center of the human person — center of intellect as well as feelings. The body and all of creation longs to be reunited with God.

A constant theme in Syriac literature is homesickness for Paradise, a desire to restore Paradise on earth. Christians pray facing east because Paradise was in the east. This longing was expressed in monastic terms in ancient times, but its implications today reach far beyond monastery walls. With earthy roots, this longing for Paradise involves concrete responses in the realms of politics, ecology, and economics.

Read more about The Syriac Orthodox Church here.

“Apostle Paul (494-495 AD),” ceiling mosaic, Archiepiscopal Chapel of St. Andrew (oratory), Ravenna, Italy (from Artwork Depicting St. Paul the Apostle, collected by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson).


Comments from the Quaker Universalist Conversation blog post:

Friends,

On the Quaker Universalist Fellowship Facebook Group there is a thread of comments about this essay which I want to reproduce here (see https://www.facebook.com/groups/QuakerUniversalists/374513879406).

Q: How are you going to find the historic Jesus, amid all the words that have been written?

A: I hesitated to use the phrase “historical Jesus” for just that reason.

Closer to the truth for me personally is that I am a 1950s Lutheran preacher’s kid, both of whose parents taught and witnessed to the sort of Jesus I describe.

I’ve spent several post-seminary decades reading Jewish and Christian biblical scholarship about Jesus. However, all of that is human speculation.

There is no way for me to express my experience of Jesus in words except to use the traditional Quaker metaphors. Jesus is a real person to me, and the Light within guides me in testing all notions of Jesus against the spiritual truth of Jesus.

Q: Are you looking beyond “The Sermon On the Mount” and those commandments?

A: I am in many ways informed by the sacredness of storytelling. I read the Gospels, as I read other portions of the Bible, as stories told by people close to Jesus—at least in time and culture, if not as personal acquaintances—doing their best to portray for others their own experience of meeting Jesus and his life and teachings.

For me, it is his life, not only his death, which touches us. How did he treat other people? How did he embrace them? How did he seek to free them from their various religious “notions,” so that they could live in the immediacy of God’s presence?

One of the most tragic byproducts of the invention of writing was that humankind shifted from the ever-changing telling of stories to the ossifying process of writing down stories. Once stories are written down, the platform is there for people to argue over “who tells it correctly,” “who interprets it correctly,” “what does it mean (literalistically),” etc.

Jesus was a storyteller who told each story differently to each person, depending upon what spirit led him to know that person needed to be confronted or comforted by.

Jesus’ rendering of the Old Testament commandments into new stories was part of that healing effort.

Blessings,
Mike Shell

Six years ago on the Saturday of Holy Week, I wrote about what I call The Empty Day.

For many Christians, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are the key days of that week.  For me, as one who is constantly on the boundary between faith and doubt, it is that in-between Saturday which confronts me most vibrantly with the gut reality of Jesus in my life.

Christ of the Desert, Icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Yesterday, April 4th, I was already by choice shut down mentally and emotionally, merely as a way to recover from the intense week of library staff training I had just completed. However, that shutdown-ness resonated with the spiritual aloneness of the day.

Following the recent deaths of my mother and father, I can much more readily settle back into visceral emptiness of loss, that paradoxical awareness that, though biological death is empirically understandable, the vanishing of a person one knows is inexplicable.

Yesterday I felt that emptiness in relation to Jesus. Though never having met him physically, since my childhood Jesus has been as real to me as any other family member. To remind myself—to regain that visceral awareness of him in my inner life—I let myself feel the loss I felt following the deaths of my parents.

There was nothing particularly spiritual or metaphysical about the exercise. It was simply a form of attentiveness, of silent listening.

When eventually I remembered the sort of “resurrection” I perceive when my mother or father surface in memory, I also recognized that same potential for Jesus in my inner life.

And so it is,
Blessèd be.

Michael


Image:Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM. Brother Robert writes:

Out of the deserts of the Middle East comes an ancient Christian tradition. Although it has been overshadowed by the Greek and Latin traditions, it is their equal in dignity and theological importance. It is a Semetic tradition, belonging to those churches that use Syriac as their liturgical language. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ himself.

This icon celebrates the richness of Syriac Christianity. The inscriptions in the upper corners read “Jesus Christ,” and at the bottom, “Christ of the Desert.” The Syriac language has ties to the earth that are deep and rich. It is more inclusive than most European languages. The theological experience of Syriac Christians is different because they have encountered the Gospel in such a language. Theirs is an unhellenized expression — one that is neither Europeanized nor Westernized.

Semitic as it is, the Syriac tradition knows no dichotomy between the mind and heart. The heart is the center of the human person — center of intellect as well as feelings. The body and all of creation longs to be reunited with God.

A constant theme in Syriac literature is homesickness for Paradise, a desire to restore Paradise on earth. Christians pray facing east because Paradise was in the east. This longing was expressed in monastic terms in ancient times, but its implications today reach far beyond monastery walls. With earthy roots, this longing for Paradise involves concrete responses in the realms of politics, ecology, and economics.

Read more about The Syriac Orthodox Church here.

Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations, 6/13/2014.

Stephan Finlan is pastor of Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, Providence, Rhode Island. He has taught theology at Fordham, Drew, Seton Hall, and Durham Universities. He is author of The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition (2008), Options on Atonement (2007), and Problems with Atonement (2005).

The follow is an excerpt from The Family Metaphor in Jesus’ Teaching (2009; 2nd ed., 2013).

Why is it that religions seem to evolve so slowly, and to perpetuate so much superstition and hostility to other religions? It is partly the fact that religion is always deeply involved in the values and traditions of particular groups, and so with the defining of social boundaries and the rejection of out-groups and out-group characteristics, as a function of group survival. But there is more, having to do with the boundaries of human consciousness, which makes religion the arena for the deep, the delusional, the imaginary, and the uncertain.

Religion often explores the marginal, the outrageous, the horrifying, the unbearable, and the unreachable. But these explorations are not always healthy. They express everything that is in the religious heart: fear, imagination, desire for prestige, the quest for meaning, the impulse to escape, truth-hunger, moral insight, spiritual hope, intimations of immortality.

Religion is a storehouse of good and evil, of maturation and of failure to mature, of vision and of obsession. But the religious life of Jesus shows an instinct for moral unification and love, based on trust in the watchcare of the heavenly Father.

Carl Heinrich Bloch - Suffer the ChildrenWe see the sanity of Jesus in all his interactions with people, his impatience with pompous and unloving teachers, his outrage with hypocrites, and his gentleness with people who had been wounded by life, even if they were not ideal models of family life—the woman at the well (John 4:7-27), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), the blind beggar (Mark 10:46-52), the woman who anointed his feet (Luke 7:37-48).

Jesus’ revelation is not just his teachings, but his life of trust and familiarity with God, which led to a life with others that was devoid of fear and coercion. “Do not be afraid” was virtually the watchword of his religious life—a religion without psychopathology. (92-93)

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

Géza Vermès was a prolific Hungarian Jewish “historical Jesus” scholar and translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls who died on May 8th (see this 1994 interview, Escape and Rescue—An Interview with Géza Vermès, and this eulogy by Hershel Shanks). Vermès’ 1973 Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels was powerfully influential in reintroducing us to Jesus as the greatest in a tradition of charismatic Galilean holy men. The following is quoted from the epilogue of Vermès’ 2000 book, The Changing Faces of Jesus (New York, NY: Penguin Compass, 2002 paperback edition, pp. 287-88).

In this dream the real Jesus staged a return shortly after the onset of the third millennium. He appeared as a middle-sized, middle-aged, dark-haired Jewish man, with strong arms, and the deep suntan of a Galilean from Ginossar or Kfar Nahum….

The Changing Faces of Jesus, by Géza VermèsAfter two thousand years he came to explain himself and successively addressed Jews, Christians, religious dropouts from synagogue and church, and men and women belonging to other faiths and none.

Shalom,” he saluted the Jews.

Forget the lies about me. I’m one of yours. Look, my religion is that of Moses and the prophets. I only lay extra emphasis on seeking the Lord our God who is one in and through all that we do to our fellow men in every single humble and love-filled deed of all our todays.”

He seemed surprised when he saw the many assembled Christians….

I’m amazed to see so many of you calling yourselves my followers despite some of the unkind words I let out about non-Jews. I’m all the same delighted and grateful….

But I feel I must exhort you to rely more on yourselves, on your own insights—you may call it the voice of the Holy Spirit—on your strength and goodness. You’ve been told to expect everything from me. I say, you must save yourselves. Don’t forget that the Kingdom of God is always at hand. Get on with it at once. You can do it, on your own, as you are children of our heavenly Father who alone is God, blessed forever. You may carry on with your rites, customs, and prayers, but be careful not to take the symbol for the reality….

He then turned to the company of those who no longer practiced their religion, but who were seekers filled with remorse.

I know you well and love you. You remind me of the publicans who were longing for a kind word from me…. I recognize you, too, ostracized sinners…. Recognize your weakness and do the right thing. Repent and be confident. You are close to the Kingdom of God. Now as in my lifetime the father welcomes with greater joy the returning prodigal son than the son who has been conventionally (and boringly) good all the time.”

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael


This post has also been published on Quaker Universalist Conversations.

Earlier this week, I started excerpting Frederick Buechner’s challenging book, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by Frederick Buechner (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007, pp.28-31).

My mother Lois gave me the book for my birthday in 2006, and I read through it slowly and thoughtfully over the next two years as a morning devotion. Knowing her so well, I can only imagine that she had found Buechner to be a helpful spiritual advisor in her own faithful struggles with doubt, and that she intuited my need for his gentleness.

I returned to this book a few weeks ago once I recognized that I have been in a long period of spiritual dryness. This is not the same as doubt or disbelief but, rather, a vaguely distressing, fallow sort of time, when I feel nothing of that curiously visceral connectedness which obtains when I am consciously “in the Spirit.”

Let me quote more excerpts from Buechner and see what arises.

A man drives along the highway…[and sees on] a concrete abutment of a bridge, written out in large, clumsy letters,…the message JESUS SAVES…. And if that man is like most of the people I know, including myself much of the time and in many ways, he will wince at the message; and that is really a very strange and interesting thing, both the message and the wincing….

Jesussaves.jpg

[In] our strange times, among people more or less like us, the effect at least of the words is clear enough: Jesus saves…. [We] wince because we are embarrassed, and embarrassed for all kinds of reasons…. [There] is something in the name “Jesus” itself that embarrasses us when it stands naked and alone like that, just Jesus with no title to soften the blow.

It seems to me that the words “Christ Saves” would not bother us half so much because they have a kind of objective, theological ring to them, whereas “Jesus Saves” seems cringingly, painfully personal—somebody named Jesus, of all names, saving somebody named whatever your name happens to be. It is something very personal written up in a place that is very public, like the names of lovers carved into the back of a park bench or on an outhouse wall.

And that is the key for me. I’m not concerned about anyone—including myself—embracing the orthodox Christian theology of Jesus as the “only begotten Son of God.” Theology is not my visceral concern. Connection with the personal, with life, is my concern.

Jesus Saves is embarrassing because if you can hear it at all through your wincing,…what it says to everybody who passes by, and most importantly and unforgivably of all of course what it says to you, is that you need to be saved.

I’m not concerned about being saved from “original sin.” This is my concern:

[The word “saved”] is in its way an offense to…all of us, because what it says in effect to all of us is, “You have no peace inside your skin. You are not happy, not whole.”

That, of course, is the human condition. It is not a consequence of a “fall.” It is simply the reality of being conscious—which means being limited to the few sensory and conceptual glimpses of reality which our organic brains are able to contain within consciousness. We cannot know all that is. We cannot even know all that we are.

To have peace “inside our skin,” we need to connect personally with Something which we can trust to hold in Itself that whole knowledge which it is impossible for us to obtain as human beings.

If [the man who painted the JESUS SAVES sign] had said God, at least that would be an idea, and if you reject it, it is only an idea that you are rejecting on some kind of intellectual grounds. But by saying “Jesus” he puts it on a level where what you accept or reject is not an idea at all but a person; where what you accept or reject, however dim and disfigured by time, is still just barely recognizable as a human face.

And that is the crux of the matter.

When I encounter spiritual dryness, that sensation warns me that I have in some sense stopped being a breathing human being and have become, in some weird sense, just an idea of myself. I need to reconnect with a Person.

Reconnecting with the Person Jesus does this for me.

I don’t say that others need to connect with Jesus. What they need is to connect with the divine Personhood of reality.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

Stephen Jay Gould

Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or even often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor—not because the new guideline will be truer to nature...but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent for conceptual transition. (264)

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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