Universalism and the Constantinian Urge

In the wake of the “Christocentric universalism” controversy sparked off by Rob Bell, I am reminded of these comments from “Evangelism after Christendom” (Bryan Stone, 2007, 129-130):

“One of the persistant features of Constantinianism … is that, by deminishing the distinction between church and world, the church refuses to allow the world to disbelieve. One way of accomplishing this refusal, of course, is the crucade, the conquest, or the imperial edict. A second way is the perpetuation of a cultural Christianity into which one is born, baptized, and thereby a member for life. In neither case is it necessary to evangelize – or rather; evangelism is reduced to whatever mechanism will effectively transfer persons into the ‘in-group.’ In all its forms, Constantinianism refuses to allow that there could be any genuine obstacle to belief; and again, what is lost thereby is the possibility of witness.” 

“But rejection can never be construed as failure on the part of Christian evangelism in a post-Christendom context. In our world and given our times, it may be considered a success. In fact, with adequate clarification, one could well define evangelism in a post-Constantinian context as the practice of offering the gospel in such a way that it can be rejected responsibly.” 

I am reminded of these comments because I have a number of Pagan friends who, as far as I can ascertain, do understand the good news, understand it better than some Christians in fact, yet reject it nevertheless. What what would Rob Bell say to them? Would he grant them true freedom of religion? Or is this Christocentric universalism just the second Constaintinian way dressed up in postmodern garb?

9 Comments

  1. i don’t know for sure, but don’t you think he would say that they may be rejecting the Gospel at a certain level, but that ultimately the love of God will win out. that someway, somehow, even those whose hearts are hardened will be softened by love. does this diminish witness? not as i see it. it may diminish proselytizing (thanks be to God), but it doesn’t free me from my obligation to live as one who has been given abundant life. in my experience, those who are rejecting are actually desperately clinging to hope and life and mercy wherever they can, despite the outward appearance. i see a great deal of Gospel Truth in that.

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  2. Well, there’s more than one friend, so I’m cautious about generalizing here, but why can’t we entertain the possibility that their decisions were deep, and not superficial? That their decisions were responsible, at least in terms of their values and aspirations? Part of my problem with universalism, Christocentric and otherwise, is that it denies true diversity, that it lacks the capacity to acknowledge diversity at the depths, that it can only acknowledge diversity at the surface, lest it unravel itself as a worldview.
    You see, none of these friends of mine seem to have hearts “hardened” against love per se. They just define it in different terms, in reference to polytheism instead of monotheism. This is love defined differently at a deep level. And most would affirm their life is more abundant, at least in their terms, for not following Jesus as the living face of God. Are you suggesting we know them better than they know themselves? Why can’t we give them some credit?
    I know some of them would say (and have said) suggesting they’re “secret Christians” but just don’t know it yet disrespects their own understanding of their own path. Isn’t it kinda Borg-like then, for us to suggest that resistance to God is futile?
    I’m not suggesting it frees us from our obligations to live out the love Jesus. Quite the contrary, what I’m suggesting is we need to show that love more distinctively by listening more to non-Christians and granting the possibility that their decisions have depth.

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  3. Hey Matt,
    I was just reading Bell’s book today. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Bell is holding out Universalism more as a possibility than a certainty. What he does clearly affirm as a certainty is this: Love wins in the sense that Love gives us freedom to have what we want or choose; if we choose “Hell,” God will give that to us. Constantinianism (especially according to the Anabaptist critique) is inextricably linked to coercion. But Bell is very clearly against any kind of coercion.

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  4. Yeah, but what I’m suggesting is, in entertaining universalism he seems to be entertaining a subtle form of coercion nevertheless, however unwittingly. It’s not so obvious if we limit ourselves to Christian literature, hence my call in an earlier post to consider what’s happening beyond the world of evangelical in-house jousting. I think what’s needed here is a theology of world religions that actually engages directly with followers of other world religions.
    As for the inextricable links between Constantinianism and coercion. This is what is most curious for me. For whatever Bell’s intentions, in minimizing the church-world distinction he’s actually running counter to the counter-Constantianian critiques of the Anabaptists. In my experience, from walking alongside Pagans, Buddhists, spirituality shoppers, and more, making a strong distinction between Christianity and other religions is nothing to fear. Provided disagreement is not seen as an excuse for disrespect, we can disagree about an awful lot and still build relationship. Bell seems to fear disagreement to much.
    Here’s my synopsis of the Western church. In peripheral things we have been too distinctive. In core things we have not been distinctive enough. As we grow in Christ-likeness the love-style gap between us and non-followers should become more distinctive, more extraordinary, less easy to square with the world. I love Bell’s heart, I’m just not as endeared to his head.

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  5. So, am I officially the first non-Christian to contribute to this thread. That’s probably your first challenge to establishing “theology of world religions that actually engages directly with followers of other world religions,” Matt. You actually got to (1) get people talking to other world religions and (2) find a way to convince other world religions that there’s good reason for them to want to participate. It’s not a task I envy you and your fellow disciples for. 😉
    I appreciate your willingness to consider that our religious choices (bear in mind that framing the affirmation of another religion as a “rejection of the gospel” is a bit problematic in its own right *grin*)are not superficial, nor are they made lightly or quickly. My decision to become a witch was something that was “in the works” for at least two years before I officially “made the switch.” (And my understanding of what it means for me to be a witch has evolved over the twelve years that have passed since that moment.) It’s a process that took a lot of thinking and rethinking.
    Interestingly, one of the big things (I can think of three major factors off the top of my head) that contributed to that process was when I got thinking about the eternal fate of non-Christians. I knew some fantastic Wiccans, and I started to struggle with the idea of them “deserving” eternal torment (the understanding of hell I was raised with). In that sense, I can appreciate why universalism is such an appealing answer to that question. What do you do with people who do seem to care about love and caring for others and several other aspects of Jesus’s own message, but have a completely different understanding about the nature of the Divine, the nature of the universe, and even the nature of Jesus? What do you with people who don’t necessarily believe that people are “inherently good,” but don’t think they’re “inherently bad,” either? Personally, I tend to believe in the whole “two wolves” nature of humanity. I also tend to think that which way you go in a sense of being a loving, caring person is a matter of consistently “feeding the right wolf” rather than being sanctified by an external force. (And feel free to correct my presentation of Christian theology here if it’s needed.)
    I personally don’t think any of those are easy questions to deal with. And I agree that treating universalism as a rug they can all be swept under is probably a bad idea.

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  6. Jesus was not in any sense a Christian – he was essentially a Jew. A renegade Spiritual Teacher or Master who appeared and taught within the tradition of Judaism as it was in his time and place.
    He taught and demonstrated a non-sectarian universal Spirit-Breathing Way of Life summarized in his great calling to love God absolutely, and then on that basis, to practice self-transcending love in all relationships and under all conditions.
    His universalism was further elaborated in the Sermon on the Mount. Plus Jesus had no worldly power nor did he in any sense advocate that anyone should exercise worldly power in his name.
    He certainly did not, and could not have created the dogma/doctrine about his presumed death-and-resurrection. Nor indeed any of what became the religion about him which was created by Paul and the church “fathers”.
    Corpses (which quickly rot) are incapable of creating religions.
    By contrast all of this nonsense about Constantine is very much about the urge or motive to gain power and control over every one and every thing.
    The exact opposite of what Jesus taught and demonstrated while he was alive.

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  7. Jarred
    Yes, you’re the first non-Christian to publically engage with this thread, though I suspect there’s a few lurkers if past experience is any guide. I agree with your challenges, however I suspect it’s the first one that’s the hardest. I’m sure there’s plenty of practitioners from other religions who’d be up for commenting on / critiquing a Christian theology of other religions should our leaders care to extend the offer. Philip Johnson’s article “Wiccans and Christians: Some Mutual Challenges” is a good example of that. It has attracted many comments over the years and was even scooped up by Fiona Horne for reference in one of her books when it first hit the web.
    No, the problem is getting Christians engaging, really engaging, with other religions in the first place. Writers love their books. Too many writers think they can engage with other religions just by reading. Worse, many Christian writers rely way too much on respected Christian commentaries, decending into a self referential mirror maze without ever reading the primary source texts. Oh for more genuine commitment to conversation!
    My own interaction with non-Christians convinces me that the “exclusivism / inclusivism / pluralism” conversation we find here raging again amongst evangelical and liberal Christians is way too myopic. Not only do these three categories fail to capture the full spectrum of evangelical soteriology (where, for instance, is there acknowledgement of the difference between bounded-set and centred-set understandings of exclusivism in the popular treatments) but the “fate of those who have not heard” is itself only a fraction of what we should be considering when we ask: “What should we be teaching about other religions?”
    Sadly, what writers have been teaching has largely been “soteriologies of other religions” and “demonologies of other religions”, not fully orbed “theologies of other religions” that address the full spectrum of theological issues that other religions raise. For instance, in this blog I have explored pneumatologies of other religions (see my artcles and comments relating to Chi, etc), the Christologies of other religions, the cosmologies of other religions and anthropologies of other religions.
    We need to consider providence. Why does God allow other religions? Could God’s purposes for non-Christian priests mirror in some way the purposes for non-Christian rulers? What does the story of Balaam suggest? And, dare I say it, might a centred-set understanding of soteriology lead us to the conclusion that we need to re-evangelise Pharisee-like evangelicals (and not just universalist liberals)? We also need to consider rival understandings of sin / karma / action and consequence. Many people have an image of scales in their mind when they think of justification and judgement. As long as there’s more good than bad, they consider themselves basically good people. But a more biblically-valid image would be that of a balloon. Whether your “bads” are big like a knife, or small like a pin, the balloon still pops. There’s a certain moral egalitarianism in this. We’re all equal in being imperfect, Christian and non-Christian alike. Yet why, understanding this, do so many evangelicals dump on homosexuals as more worthy of condemnation than anyone else, including us? It suggests a huge disconnect between soteriology and ethics in popular evangelical teaching.
    I would not expect that a “theology of world religions that actually engages directly with followers of other world religions” to be palatable to other religions in every respect. Indeed, our conviction that God is trinitarian and supremely revealed in and through Christ can be expected to continue to generate controversey (and rejection as blaspheme, either explicitly or implicitly) amongst other religions till the Christ comes again. But I would at least expect it to drill down to the deep differences (beyond the superficial ones) and expose violations of the commandment not to bear false witness.

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  8. John,
    I think you’re constructing a false dichotomy. Christianity is essentially messianic (that is, Jesus style) Judaism.
    And I think you’re confusing universals here too. We are called to universal love, I agree with Rob Bell here, but we cannot expect universal love will be universally welcomed. Indeed, universal love frequently invokes hostile opposition. Even crucifixion. This is where Universalists trip up I believe. Universal love is not irresistable.
    This brings us to the other side of the love equation. God’s love is often unrequited love. And where love is unrequited there is no genuine relationship. And where there is no relationship there is no reconciliation. If salvation is about relationship and reconciliation, how then can we speak of universal salvation?
    I don’t fault Universalists for affirming universal love. What I fault is their neglect of the dynamics of reconcilaition.
    As for Constaintine, I’m not sure what you’re getting at by that comment, for have I not said as such myself?

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