By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
I had to lose faith in an exclusivist Christian religion to find faith in the universalist teachings of Jesus. His teachings promote religious compatibility but not conformity in a world of increasing religious diversity, where exclusivist religions cause division, hatred and violence. Universalism is about spiritual kinship in a family of God that has no religious boundaries.
I grew up in a Methodist church where the first priority of faith was to follow the teachings of Jesus as the word of God. That’s discipleship. Church doctrine has shifted emphasis from discipleship to exclusivist beliefs in Jesus as a surrogate Christian god. While I have rejected exclusivist Christian beliefs I have kept faith in discipleship, and have continued to grow in faith.
I’m not alone. An increasing number of “nones” have left traditional religions questioning the relevance of ancient mystical and exclusivist religious doctrines. They include many Jews, Christians and Muslims who have become spiritual but not religious people. They left religion but have kept faith in God as a universalist spiritual power that is bigger than any religion.
Jesus was a Jewish universalist who never promoted any religion, not even his own, and never condemned those of other religions. His teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves--and that’s a common word of faith of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
Early church leaders subordinated the moral teachings of Jesus to belief in Jesus Christ as the Trinitarian alter ego of God. They knew that the altruistic teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love would never be popular, but that exclusivist beliefs in the divinity of Jesus--with hell the alternative for unbelievers--could be the foundation of a popular and powerful religion.
Ancient Christian creeds emphasize exclusivist man-made Christian doctrines that were never taught by Jesus; and Martin Luther’s Reformation doctrine of sola fide (faith alone) affirmed the priority of faith over works. Even so, the teachings of Jesus remained moral imperatives of Christianity until displaced by Christian evangelicals in the 20th century.
A coalition of big business and Christian evangelicals gained prominence after World War II with popular evangelists like Billy Graham, and was politicized by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. It promoted distorted doctrines of ”family values” and a materialistic prosperity gospel, and in 2016 it elected a president whose morality is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.
What is the future of an exclusivist Christian religion that has lost its moral compass? With disillusioned “nones” leaving the church, American Christianity is now a declining religion of exclusivist beliefs bereft of the altruistic moral standards taught by Jesus. Without a moral reformation emphasizing altruistic universalist principles, the future of Christianity looks bleak.
Islam has similar problems with religious exclusivism and ambiguous morality. Radical Islamists promote violence in the name of God based on a perfect and immutable Qur’an and its Islamic Law (Shari’a), much as Christian fundamentalists believe in the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God and promote the radical right politics of evangelical Christianity.
Universalism is a via media (middle way) that can reconcile progressive Christians and Muslims. That’s essential to world peace since Christians and Muslims make up over half of the world’s population. While universalists are a minority among Christians and Muslims, they can be a reconciling voice promoting a common word of faith in those competing religions.
That common word of faith rejects religious exclusivism with universalist beliefs based on loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. While universalism rejects exclusivism, it respects the many differences in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and gives those religions a future in a globalized world that is not possible with exclusivist beliefs that condemn unbelievers.
On universalism, see Universalism: A theology for the 21st century, by Forrest Church, November 5, 2001, at http://www.uuworld.org/articles/universalism-theology-the-21st-century.
On the few remaining universalists, see https://christianuniversalist.org/.
On why an increasing number of American “nones” don’t identify with a religion, a Pew Research Center survey found that 60% question religious teachings, and 49% oppose positions taken by churches on social and political issues. See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/08/why-americas-nones-dont-identify-with-a-religion/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=a709783228-RELIGION_WEEKLY_2018_08_08&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-a709783228-399971105
On Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches, see https://www.thestate.com/news/local/article215014375.html#wgt=trending
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(3/22/15): The Power of Humility and the Arrogance of Power
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(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(10/4/15): Faith and Religion: The Same but Different
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(5/14/16): The Arrogance of Power, Humility and a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
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(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
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(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
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(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
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(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
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